Serfdom or Slavery?

It has been well publicised in recent years how the fortunes of many places and people were built on the trade in enslaved people.  What is not covered so widely is that from the Early Medieval period through to at least the late fourteenth century, many great lords and landowners throughout the country, including the Priory at Worcester, maintained a workforce of what was effectively slave labour.

A doodle of a peasant digging. Manuscript F100 f.173r. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The inhabitants of Bristol engaged in a profitable slave trade with Ireland, even though the Council (Synod) of Westminster in 1102 endeavoured to bring an end to the trade. This Council only determined Canon Law with no legislative powers. For there to be real change it had to become Common Law, signed by the monarch which in this case didn’t happen. 

Our own Wulfstan when Bishop of Worcester campaigned tirelessly against slavery and William of Malmesbury who wrote his life story in about 1130 described how Wulfstan over the course of many trips to Bristol convinced the slave traders there to stop. However on English manors a form of slavery persisted much as it was in the early medieval/Anglo-Saxon period.  Even the Magna Carta, first issued in 1215, only refers to freemen and didn’t even consider any person who did not come under this designation.   

The start of a 14th century copy of Magna Carta. Manuscript Q36. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The line between serf and slave is blurred in Worcester Priory’s records, not least because of the proliferation of titles used to describe people’s position on the manors.  From the over 140[1] mentions of ‘nativi’, ‘servi’ and ‘ancillae’ in the earliest register of the Priory[2] [C13th- early C14th] there continued to be what were essentially slaves in some form. This was the group of subjects of the medieval Priory who were not free but tied to the land and not allowed to leave. These were the serfs, who, although differing from slaves in that they could not be bought and sold individually, were not ‘freemen’ but belonged to a manor and could be sold along with it, so serfdom in practice. This was not quite the same as traditional slavery but was equally oppressive. 

Manumissions from the Liber Albus volume 1, register A5 f.89v. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Serfs could though be ‘freed’ by a process called manumission and the Liber Albus[3], which covers the years 1301-1450, includes over 120 manumissions that were granted to people on the Priory’s manors. Although this no doubt underestimates the true number of serfs as it only covers those who sought manumission and leaves uncounted those who either didn’t or were denied the chance to do so.

The case of Nicholas Salewy set out in a document of 1370 (B436). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester (UK)

As with life though, nothing is black and white on the Monastery’s manors and one manuscript in the archive raises the question as to whether slavery had died out completely.  Dating to 1370[4] is the case of Nicholas Salewy of Grimhulle, a ‘nativo’ to Giles and Margeret le Braban who is being ‘gifted’ to Sir William de Asteley, chaplain, John de Wellesborgh, butler of Prior of Worcester, and Roger Hulle, chamberlain of the Prior.  You may say a gift is not the same as selling but a corresponding document held at the National Archives[5] gives a fuller version and this is a ‘Final Concord’, better described as the medieval version of a sales document. In this, William, John and Roger are paying Giles and Margaret le Braban 20 marks for Nicolas, so a slave not a serf.

The name Salewy/Salway/Salwey proliferated around the Parish of Hallow and Grimley in our medieval records.  Prior More [Prior from 1518 to 1536] has always been my favourite Prior, not least because he liked a good party,  and in one of those quirks of fate that turn up when researching, one Richard Salwey was the person who dug the grave for Prior More’s mother in 1521,  for which he was paid 4d.  One can’t help but wonder if he was one of Nicolas’s descendants.

Vanda Bartoszuk


Bailey, Mark. The English manor c. 1200 – c. 1500. Manchester University Press, 2013.

Coulton, G. G. Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation, Cambridge University Press, 1918 pp 338/339

Ethel Fegan (ed.), The Journal of Prior William More, Worcestershire Historical Society 1914

Hilton R H,   A Medieval Society: The West Midlands at the End of the Thirteenth Century, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966

William de Malmesbury, The Vita Wulfstani, Ed. R. R. Darlington, Royal Historic Society, 1928.

Hale, William Hale, ed. Registrum Sive, Liber Irrotularius et Consuetudinarius Prioratus Beatae Mariae Wigorniensis. Camden Soc, 1865.

[1] WCM/A2 p.xiii

[2] WCM/A2 C13th-C14th

[3] WCM/A5 1301-1450

[4] WCM/B436[22]

[5] CP 25/1/260/24/9


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