The End of Serfdom in Britain

Henry Marsh describes how England and Scotland became the first European countries to begin freeing their serfs, towards the close of the twelfth century.

England and Scotland were the first countries in which all serfs were freed. Before this came about, there was unrest and revolt, the invoking of religious argument and an awakening of the social conscience. But the final causes for the emancipation of all the serfs of the kingdoms were constitutional change and economic pressures. The changes arose in England from the continuous efforts of the Kings to establish a strong central government and to make the Crown the supreme and unquestioned authority throughout the realm. This made the slow destruction of the feudal system inevitable.

During the latter half of the twelfth century, Henry II set out to limit the powers of the barons and so took the first step towards the setting up of a new social structure to replace feudalism. He extended the authority of the King’s courts at the expense of the manorial courts. Next, he destroyed many of the castles, which were the strongholds not merely of the barons but of the feudal system itself. Most significantly, he substituted a money payment for the military service due from the smaller tenants.

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