Statute of Labourers Act

The Black Death lasted for three years in England. Historians estimate that between 30% and 50% of the English population died from the disease. This dramatic loss in population led to great changes taking place. Fields were left unsown and unreaped. Those who had not died of the plague were in danger of dying from starvation.

Food shortages also resulted in much higher prices. The peasants, needing extra money to feed their families, demanded higher wages. The landowners, desperately short of labour, often agreed to these wage demands. The landowners were worried that if they refused, their workers would run away and find an employer who was willing to pay these higher wages.

In 1348, Ralph, Earl of Stafford, and John Giffard were paying their farm labourers one pence a day. By 1350 they were forced to increase it to two pence a day. Other local landowners were paying three pence a day. John Giffard warned the Earl of Stafford that there was a danger that the serfs would leave Yalding in an effort to obtain higher wages.

Landowners like the Earl of Stafford complained to Edward III about having to pay these higher wages. The landowners were also worried about the peasants roaming the country searching for better job opportunities. In 1351, Parliament decided to pass the Statute of Labourers Act. This law made it illegal for employers to pay wages above the level offered in 1346.

Some employers, who were desperately short of workers tended to ignore the law. This was especially true of those employers living in towns. Some freemen who had skills in great demand, such as carpenters and masons, began to leave their villages. Serfs became angry when they heard of the wages that people were earning in towns. Some serfs even ran away to towns in an effort to obtain higher wages. Large numbers of serfs went to London. Most of these serfs could only find unskilled manual work. By 1360 over 40,000 people were living in London.

If the serfs were caught they were taken back to their village and punished. It was difficult for the lords of the manor to punish them too harshly. Execution, imprisonment and mutilation only made the labour shortage worse, therefore the courts were more likely to punish the serfs by a fine. Sometimes runaway serfs were branded on the forehead. The rest of the serfs' tithing group were also fined for not stopping him or her from running away.

Primary Sources

(A) The Statute of Labourers Act (1351)

That every man and woman of our kingdom of England... who is able bodied and below the age of sixty years, not living by trade nor carrying on a fixed craft or land of his own... shall be bound to take only the wages... that were paid in the twentieth year of our reign of King Edward III (1346).

(B) John Gower, owned a large farm in Kent (c. 1360)

The shepherd and the cowman demand more wages now than the bailiff They work little, dress and feed like their betters, and ruin stares us in the face.

(C) Henry Knighton, Chronicle (c. 1355)

The king sent notice into counties of the realm that labourers should not receive more than they had in the past... But the labourers paid no notice to the king's orders... If anyone wanted to hire them he was obliged to give them whatever they asked, and so he had a choice, either to lose his crops or satisfy their greed.

(D) William Langland, Piers Ploughman (c. 1365)

Working men curse the king and all his parliament... that makes such laws to keep the labourer down.

(E) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984)

If a serf dwelt unclaimed for a year and a day in a town, and was received into the community or guild of that town as a citizen, he was thereby made free.

1. Give as many reasons as you can why labourers demanded higher wages in 1350.

2. Give as many reasons as you can why landowners paid higher wages in 1350.

3. Read paragraphs 3 and 4 and source A. (a) What was the Statute of Labourers Act? (b) Why did Parliament pass the Statute of Labourers Act?

4. Read paragraph 5 and source E. Why did towns grow in size after 1350?

5. Read sources B, C and D. Did these men agree or disagree with the Statute of Labourers' Act?

6. Write a debate between John Gower and William Langland on the Statute of Labourers' Act.