The Statute of Labourers, 1351

Statutes of Realm. 1 311-13: 25 Edward ill. Stat. 2. cc. 1-7


... Edward III and his council took drastic steps to restrain the dramatic rise in wages while plague was still devastating the country. The royal ordinance of 18 June 1349 (recapitulated below in the preamble to the later statute) was designed to compel the able-bodied to work and to maintain wage-rates at their level in 1346. In February 1351, during the first parliament held after the Black Death, the notorious Statute of Labourers made the labour laws more precise and elaborated in detail upon the methods by which they were to be enforced. During the thirty years which followed, the statute, later revised and re-issued, came to be (in Trevelyan's phrase) 'the favourite child' of the parliamentary Commons. At a time of acute labour shortage, a policy of wage restraint served the interests of the comparatively small county landlord at the expense of the great magnate with reserves of capital and, more obviously, of the agricultural worker.



Against the malice of servants who were idle and unwilling to serve after the pestilence without taking outrageous wages it was recently ordained by our lord the king, with the assent of the prelates, nobles and others of his council, that such servants, both men and women, should be obliged to serve in return for the salaries and wages which were customary (in those places where they ought to serve) during the twentieth year of the present king’s reign (1346-7) or five or six years previously. It was also ordained that such servants who refused to serve in this way should be punished by imprisonment, as is more fully stated in the said ordinance. Accordingly commissions were made out to various people in every county to investigate and punish all those who offended against the ordinance. But now our lord king has been informed in this present parliament, by the petition of the commons, that such servants completely disregard the said ordinance in the interests of their own ease and greed and that they withhold their service to great men and others unless they have liveries and wages twice or three times as great as those they used to take in the said twentieth year of Edward III and earlier, to the serious damage of the great men and impoverishment of all members of the said commons. Therefore the commons ask for a remedy. Wherefore, in the said parliament and by the assent of the prelates, earls, barons and other magnates as well as that of the commons there assembled, the following things were ordained and established to prevent the malice of the said servants.


1. First, that carters, ploughmen, leaders of the plough, shepherds, swineherds, domestic and all other servants shall receive the liveries and wages accustomed in the said twentieth year and four years previously; so that in areas where wheat used to be given, they shall take 10d[1] for the bushel, or wheat at the will of the giver, until it is ordained otherwise. These servants shall be hired to serve by the entire year, or by the other usual terms, and not by the day. No one is to receive more than 1d a day at the time of weeding or hay-making. Mowers of meadows are not to be paid more than 5d an acre or 5d a day; and reapers of corn are to be limited to 2d in the first week of August, 3d in the second week and so on to the end of August. Less is to be given in those areas where less used to be given and neither food nor any other favour is to be demanded, given or taken. All such workers are to bring their tools openly in their hands to the market towns; and there they are to be hired in a public and not in a secret place.


2. Item, that no one is to receive more than 2˝d for threshing a quarter of wheat or rye, and more than 1˝d for threshing a quarter of barley, beans, peas or oats, if so much used to be given. In those areas where reaping was paid by means of certain sheaves and threshing by certain bushels, the servants shall take no more and in no other way than was usual in the said twentieth year and previously. These same servants are to be sworn twice every year before the lords, stewards, bailiffs and constables of every vill to keep and observe these ordinances. These servants are not to depart from the vills in which they live during the winter to serve elsewhere in the summer if they can find work in their own vills at the wages mentioned above; saving that the people of the counties of Stafford, Lancaster and Derby and those of Craven, the Marches of Wales and Scotland and elsewhere may come and work in other counties during August and then return safely, as they have been accustomed to do before this time. Those who refuse to take such an oath, or to fulfil what they have sworn or undertaken shall be put in the stocks for three days or more by the said lords, stewards, bailiffs and constables of the vills or sent to the nearest gaol, there to remain until they are willing to submit to justice. For this purpose stocks are to be

constructed in every vill between now and Whitsunday.


3. Item, that carpenters, masons, tilers and other roofers of houses shall not take more for their day's work than the accustomed amount; that is to say, a master carpenter 3d and other [carpenters] 2d; a master mason of free-stone 4d and other masons 3d; and their servants 1˝d. Tilers are to receive 3d and their boys 1˝d; thatchers of roofs in fern and straw 3d and their boys 1˝d. Plasterers and other workers on mud walls, as well as their boys, are to receive payment in the same manner, without food or drink. These rates are to apply from Easter to Michaelmas: outside that period less should be paid according to the assessment and discretion of the justices assigned for the purpose. Those who perform carriage by land or water shall receive no more for such carriage than they used to do in the said twentieth year and four years before.


4. Item, that cordwainers and shoemakers shall not sell boots, shoes or anything else connected with their mystery otherwise than they did in the said twentieth year. Goldsmiths, saddlers, horse-smiths, spurriers, tanners, curriers, pelterers, tailors and all other workmen, artificers and labourers, as well as all other servants not specified here, shall be sworn before the said justices to conduct and employ their crafts and offices in the way they did in the said twentieth year and earlier, without refusing because of this ordinance. If any of the said servants, labourers, workmen or artificers infringe this ordinance after taking such an oath, they shall be punished by fine, ransom or imprisonment, according to the discretion of the said justices.


5. Item, that the said stewards, bailiffs and constables of the vills shall be sworn before the same justices to inquire diligently, by all the good ways they can, concerning all those who infringe this ordinance. They are to certify the names of all these offenders to the justices whenever they arrive in a district to hold their sessions. And so the justices, having been notified of the names of such rebels by the stewards, bailiffs and constables, shall have them arrested, to appear before themselves to answer for such contempts; so that the offenders shall pay fine and ransom to the king if they are convicted. Moreover, the offenders shall be ordered to prison, where they shall remain until they have found surety to serve, receive their payments, perform the work and sell their saleable goods in the manner prescribed above. And if any of the offenders breaks his oath, and is convicted of it, he shall be imprisoned for forty days. And if he is convicted another time, he shall be imprisoned for a quarter of a year, so that each time he offends and is convicted, he shall receive a double penalty. Each time the justices come to a certain district, they shall enquire of the said stewards, bailiffs and constables if they have made a good and lawful certificate, or have concealed anything because of gifts, procurement or affinity; and the justices

shall punish them by fine and ransom if they be found blameworthy. And the same justices shall have power to enquire and make due punishment of the said officials, workmen, labourers and other servants whatsoever; and also of hostelers, harbergers and those who sell victuals by retail or other things not specified here. This may be done either at the suit of a party or by presentment. The justices may hear, determine and execute the case (by means of an Exigend after the first Capias, if need be[2]); and they may depute others, as many and of the sort they think best, to see to the keeping of the same ordinance. And those who wish to sue such servants, workmen and labourers for any excess from which they suffer, shall have this excess returned to them if the servants are attainted of the offence as a result of their suit. And if it happens that some men will not sue to recover their excess, then it shall be levied from the said servants, labourers, workmen and artificers and delivered to the collectors of the fifteenth in alleviation of the vills where such excesses have been taken.


6. Item, that no sheriffs, constables, bailiffs, gaolers, clerks of  justices or sheriffs or any other officials whatsoever shall receive anything for the sake of their offices from the said servants, either for fees, suit of prison or anything else. If they have taken any thing from this source, they shall deliver it (for the past and the future) to the collectors of tenths and fifteenths to help the commons when these subsidies are being levied. The justices shall enquire in their sessions if these officials have taken anything from the said servants; and the justices shall cause to be levied from such officials what they find (by means of such inquests) they have received; and these sums, together with the excesses, fines, ransoms and amercements of all those amerced before the justices, shall be delivered to the said collectors in alleviation of the vills. And in a case when the excess fund in a vill exceeds the amount of the fifteenth for that vill, the remainder shall be levied and paid by the collectors to the nearest poor vills, on the advice of the justices, to relieve their fifteenths. Fines, ransoms, excesses and amercements from the said labourers and servants at the time when future fifteenths are being levied shall be delivered to the collectors by means of indentures completed between the collectors and the justices. In this way, the collectors can be charged on their account by means of the indentures, in the event that the said fines, ransoms, amercements and excesses are not paid in aid of the said fifteenth. When the fifteenth ceases, this income shall be levied to the king's use and answered for to him by the sheriff of the county.


7. Item, that the said justices should hold their sessions in all the counties of England at least four times a year, namely at the feasts of the Annunciation [25 March], of St Margaret [20 July], St Michael [29 September] and St Nicholas [6 December]; and also at all times that the justices shall think necessary. Those who speak in the presence of the justices, or do anything else in their presence or absence to encourage or maintain the said servants and labourers against this ordinance, shall be severely punished according to the discretion of the justices. If any of the said labourers, servants or artificers flee from one county to another because of this ordinance, the sheriffs of the county where such fugitives are found shall have them apprehended, at the order of the justices of the counties from which they have fled, and bring them to the chief gaol of the said counties. There they are to remain until the next session of the justices; and the sheriffs are to return the orders they have received before the justices at their next sessions. And this ordinance is to be held and kept within the city of London as in other cities, boroughs and elsewhere throughout the land, both within franchises and without.




The Enforcement of the Statute of Labourers


According to nearly all contemporary comments, the statutes of labourers failed completely in their purpose of safeguarding the supply of labour and restricting wages to their pre-Black Death level. In the definitive work on the subject, The Enforcement of the Statute of Labourers,1349-1359, Miss Bertha Putnam did however make out a strong case for the view that in the 1350s at least prosecutions under the terms of  the statutes were undertaken with considerable efficiency and some success. It therefore seems only just to set Knighton's contemptuous dismissal of the statute by the side of some actual presentments which resulted from its operation....




Chronicon Henrici Knighton II 74


In the same year the statute concerning servants was published and from that time they served their masters worse from day to day than they had done previously. But through the agency of the justices and other officials the profits of the king always went on increasing, as did his power over the people.



Some Sessions of the Peace in Lincolnshire, 1360-75, Lincoln Record Society, xxx (1937) 24, 25, 57, 63


Item they present that John of Redemyld, late servant of John West of Carleton and retained in his service at Carleton, departed from that service without reasonable cause and the licence of the said John West before the end of the term agreed between them; he left on the feast of the Translation of St Thomas [7 July] in the forty-seventh year [1373], whereas he should have remained until the following feast of St Martin [II November].


Item it is presented that John Julian of Neunton, William Smyth of Laughton and Robert Joy of the same received from Hugh of Clifton and others at Neuton on Trent in the forty-seventh year [1373] 8d an acre for every acre mowed by them; whereas by the statute they should have taken 5d and no more. And so each of them received 3s 4d in excess [wages] that year, against the form of the ordinance.


Item they present that Alice, wife of John Redhed of East Ravendale, was retained to serve Robert of Bokenale during the autumn of the forty-eighth year [1374] in return for receiving wages and salary according to the form of the ordinance of labourers; but she renounced this service and worked outside the town in order to get higher wages--to the harm of the said Robert and against the form of the said ordinance.


The jurors of the said wapentake declare that John Gale, dwelling with Thomas of Talous, on the Thursday after Whitsuntide in the forty-eighth year [25 May 1374] enticed John Donney, servant of Walter Hardegray of Edlyngton away from Walter's service; and he admitted and retained him in his own service at Edlyngton, giving him for his yearly wage one mark and his food as well as other goods, against the form of the ordinance of labourers, etc.


from R.B. Dobson, ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (St. Martin’s Press, 1970), pp. 63-70


from R.B. Dobson, ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (St. Martin’s Press, 1970), pp. 65-68


[1] d = denarius, Latin for “penny”

[2] A writ of Capias instructed the royal official to 'take' the body of the defendant, i.e. to arrest him; while the Exigend ordered the sheriff to 'exact' the presence of the culprit in court upon pain of outlawry. [Dobson’s note]