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14: The Rise of the Peasant

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I have told you much about princes and soldiers, but very little about the lowly life of peasants, and the trade of towns.

The conquest of Wales, by Norman baron and English king, tended to raise the serf to the level of the freeman. The chief causes of the rise of the serf were the following:

1 The ignorance of the English officials. The Norman baron very often paid close attention to the privileges of the classes he ruled, and the Welsh freeman retained his superiority. But the English officials—and Edward II. found that they were far too numerous in Wales—often refused to distinguish between a Welshman who was an innate freeman and a Welshman who lived on a serf maenol. Their aim was to make them all pay the same tax.

2. The fall in the value of money. At the time of the Norman Conquest, silver coins were rare, and their value high. But, in exchange for cloth and wool, of arrows and spears, of mountain ponies and cattle, coins came in great numbers, and it was easier for the serf to earn them. That is the value of coins became less.

This was a great boon to all who were bound to pay fixed sums—the freeman who paid to the king the dues he used to pay to his prince, the serf who paid to his lord a sum of money instead of service. All ancient servitude, political and economic, was commuted for money; as the money became easier to get, the serf became the more free.

3. The rise of towns and the growth of commerce. We must not, however, think of commerce as if it had been first brought by the Normans. There had been roads and coins in Roman times. The Danes had been traders, probably, before they became pirates and invaders. Timber, millstones, cattle, coarse cloth, and arrow-heads crossed the Severn eastwards before the Normans saw it; and corn was carried westward. There were close relations, political and commercial, between Wales and Ireland from very early times.

But the Norman and English Conquests revived and quickened trade. Towns rose, regular markets were established, and the barons who took tolls protected the merchants who paid them. Every baron had a castle, every castle needed a walled town, and a town cannot live except by trade. In the town the baron did not ask a Welshman whether he had been free or serf; the townsmen were strangers, and they welcomed the serf who came to work.

4. The monk and the friar. The bard was a freeman born, a skilled weaver of courteous phrases, not a churlish taeog. The monk or friar might be a serf. They worked like serfs, and ennobled labour. The Church condemned serfdom, and we find chapters giving their serfs freedom.

5. The Scotch and French wars of the English kings gave employment to hosts of bowmen and of men-at-arms, and to the numerous attendants required to look after the horses by means of which the army moved. The greater use of infantry after the reign of Edward I. caused a greater demand for the peasant; and the use of the cheap long-bow gave him a value in war. There were five thousand Welsh archers and spearmen on the field of Cressy. In these and other ways the serf was becoming free.

You would expect a gradual, almost unconscious struggle, between the serf and his lord for political power. The struggle came, but it was conscious and very fierce. It was brought about by a terrible pestilence, known as the Black Death. This plague came slowly and steadily from the East; in 1348 it reached Bristol, and it probably swept away one half of the people of the towns of Wales. It was not the towns alone that it visited; it came to the mountain glens as well. It was a most deadly disease. It killed, for one thing, because people believed that they would die. They saw the dark spots on the skin before they became feverish; they recognised the black mark of the Death and they gave themselves up for lost.

Labourers became very scarce. They claimed higher wages. The lords tried to drag them back into serfdom; they tried to force them by law to take the old wage. On both sides of the Severn the labourers took arms, and waged war against their lords. The peasant war in England is called the Peasant Revolt; the peasant war in Wales is sometimes called the revolt of Owen Glendower.

A change came over the rebellions in Wales. At first, the rebellions were those of Llywelyn's country; the allies who had deserted him, and then turned against Edward, like Rees ap Meredith; or his own followers, like Madoc, who said he was his son; or men he had protected, like Maelgwn Vychan in Pembroke. Later on, under Edward II. and Edward III., the rebellions were against the march lords, and the king was looked upon as a protector—such as the rebellion of Llywelyn Bren against the Clares and Mortimers in Glamorgan in 1316. But the wilder spirits went to the French wars, and fought for both sides. With the assassination of Owen of Wales in 1378, the last of Llywelyn's near relatives to dream of restoring the independence of Wales, the rebellions against the King of England came to an end.

When they broke out again, it was not in Snowdon or Ceredigion; the old dominions of Llywelyn were almost unwilling to rise. The new revolts were in the march lands, and especially in the towns.

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