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Statute of Labourers 1351

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Poor Law through the Ages
This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Reform
This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series Reformers and Radicals
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Reforming Women

Statute of Labourers 1351 : Fixed wages and forced to work or risk of imprisonment

This statute was enacted in response to the escalating price of labour following decimation of the population due to the plague. Basic economics with shortage of supply had pushed prices upwards and hence the ruling elite conspired to put a stop to the reduction of their profits by this restraint of free labour.

“It was lately ordained by our lord king, with the assent of the prelates, nobles and others of his council against the malice of employees, who were idle and were not willing to take employment after the pestilence unless for outrageous wages, that such employees, both men and women, should be obliged to take employment for the salary and wages accustomed to be paid in the place where they were working in the 20th year of the king’s reign (1346), or five or six years earlier; and that if the same employees refused to accept employment in such a manner they should be punished by imprisonment, as is more clearly contained in the said ordinance.” see full text below from links.

This was initially  a royal ordinance of 1349 converted to statute in 1351 by Parliament. In the long run it was unenforceable but for 30 years some JPs worked hard to enforce and this was a pressure-point that contributed to the Peasants Revolt.

The Peasants Revolt was an early sign that however draconian and overwhelming the odds were, the people were still capable of taking-up their cause in direct action long before Trade Unions came to be. In terms of social change this is a pivotal moment and although overcome by the deceptions of the monarch this was arguably the start of organised labour in England. Workers would face further harsh oppression by the rulers but eventually many centuries later the balance would be redressed.

The organisation of labour is a major influence from here to the industrial revolution and beyond alongside Education, Health and Social Welfare it is also mirrored in the way the poor were treated in the Old Poor Law. If you would like to follow our Social Reform Change theme then take a browse here. Whether your interests are in family, local social, British or Global History you will find many threads here that illustrate the impact of change throughout our history.

Additional Resources

The text of the statute can be found here with thanks to Yale Law School’s Internet Library.

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