Brixton’s Unknown Slaves
The Domesday Book of 1086 reveals that around one-tenth of the people of England were counted as slaves, effectively the chattels of manorial lords. Although their treatment and conditions were more humane than those on later slave ships and plantations, they were nevertheless unfree. This note examines the evidence for slaves in the parishes of north-east Surrey which comprised Brixton Hundred.
Slavery had been a feature of society from prehistory and the Roman period to Anglo-Saxon times. The causes of enslavement were many and included capture in war, takeover by a new ruling elite, and even voluntary action to avoid famine. Domesday Book (hereafter DB) captures the institution of slavery in England in its last days. Manumission (freeing) of slaves had long been common, again for a variety of reasons, economic, altruistic or religious. By 1086, however, slaves were rapidly moving form a condition of unfreedom to one of semi-freedom, joined the lower ranks of the peasantry, but still owing quite onerous labour services to their manorial lords. Latin servus ‘slave’, as employed in DB subtly changed its meaning, so that the later medieval serf was no longer property of another man, but whose life was still heavily circumscribed.
Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence for slavery in this part of Surrey before 1086 or of when it was finally abandoned in the early twelfth century. Equally, these individual men and women remain anonymous. Most estates probably had small groups of slaves, in contrast to the hundreds working on Caribbean plantations in the 17th-19th centuries. The only reference to slavery in north-east Surrey prior to 1086 is in the will of Theodred, bishop of London (942-951). This refers to the manumission of slaves on estates in Essex and London, and also at Wunemannedune (possibly Wimbledon) and Sheen in Surrey. By 1066, the latter were part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s very large manor of Mortlake, which still had a substantial number of slaves.
Brixton Hundred in 1086
Surrey was divided into administrative units known as Hundreds from the tenth century, of which Brixton Hundred occupied almost 32,000 acres in the north-east. Its sixteen parishes ran from Wimbledon in the west to Camberwell in the east. Although notionally containing one hundred hides (originally the land required to support one extended household, by the eleventh century this was an arbitrary unit of taxation with no fixed area), the assessments of estates in Brixton Hundred totalled 284¼ hides. By the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, there was a complex pattern of estates or manors in the area. Some, like Mortlake, contained several parishes. Elsewhere, there were several estates within one parish, for example Lambeth and Wandsworth. Occasionally, manor and parish coincided, as at Merton and Tooting Graveney.
DB records twenty-two manors in Brixton Hundred. Only six had any slaves, three of them located in the ancient parish of Lambeth. Almost all of the population noted in DB comprises three groups of agricultural workers known as villeins, bordars and slaves. Broadly speaking, the first two were tenants, distinguished by the amount of land they held, and by the services and renders they owed the lord of the manor. Villein holdings generally fell between fifteen and sixty acres. Bordars or cottars held much less land, typically five to ten acres. Former slaves were absorbed into this group, or into the many landless labourers not recorded in DB.
In Surrey villeins, bordars/cottars and slaves accounted for 58%, 30% and 12% of the recorded population, respectively. The equivalent proportions in Brixton Hundred were 60%, 34% and 6%. With only half as many slaves as the county as a whole, their transformation into semi-free tenants had obviously further here. Whether this reflects the commercial attitudes or altruism of local manorial lords is impossible to tell. All the local slaves had probably gone by the early twelfth century.
In 1086, Brixton Hundred had thirty slaves on six manors. Mortlake (sixteen slaves) and Battersea (eight slaves) were major holdings of the archbishop of Canterbury and Westminster Abbey.Despite its five-hide assessment, Balham only had one villein, one bordar and one slave. The remaining five slaves were all in the ancient parish of Lambeth. Three were on the manor of St. Mary’s church (also known as North Lambeth), with one each at South Lambeth (including Vauxhall) and Kennington. The ecclesiastical prohibition on keeping slaves was clearly not observed at Mortlake. Battersea and St. Mary Lambeth had been lay estates before 1066, the former in royal hands, the latter held by Goda, Edward the Confessor’s sister. It soon passed to the bishop of Rochester, and ultimately to the archbishop of Canterbury. South Lambeth was given to Waltham abbey by its founder, Earl Harold in the early-1060s. It had passed to the count of Mortain by 1086. (The fragmentation of these early estates in Lambeth began well after the disappearance of slaves.)
Lambeth, like its neighbour Camberwell was a large parish, stretching from the Thames south as far as the great forest of Norwood on the slopes up to what is now Crystal Palace. It covered almost 4,000 acres. In 1086, the three named estate were assessed at the very low figure of 21½ hides, with a total population of 21 villeins (31%), 42 bordars (62%) and five slaves (7%). In addition, the Lambeth church estate had nineteen burgesses in London. Why the proportions of villeins and bordars were reversed from those in Surrey and Brixton Hundred as a whole is a complex problem requiring further research. The Lambeth manors had land for thirteen ploughs, each customarily assumed to be equivalent to one hundred acres of arable. This represents one-third of the parish total. One of the tasks that many historians consider to have been performed by slaves is the operation of demesne ploughs (i.e. those on the land assigned to the manorial lord, which may have been intermixed with those of the tenants or farmed separately). Since it needed a ploughman and a “boy” to manoeuvre the unwieldy eight-ox ploughs of the time, one would expect to find groups of two slaves. There were four demesne ploughs in Lambeth, but only five slaves, a shortfall of one on each manor. Bearing in mind that this was a period of change in the composition of the local population, the shortfall could have been made up by bordars. Equally, the slaves may have been engaged in other work round the lord’s household, for example, as domestic servants, cowherds, dairymaids, or working in the extensive woodland.
At Mortlake, the sixteen slaves were more than sufficient to work the five demesne ploughs and to perform other work for their lord the archbishop. The same is true at Battersea, with eight slaves and three demesne ploughs. On this manor, however, there were no fewer than eight watermills, valued at more than £42 per annum, the most of any in DB. Most were probably located on the river Wandle. The slaves, along with some of the large number of bordars recorded at Battersea and neighbouring Wandsworth, may have worked at milling.
It is pure chance that we know from DB of the existence of slaves in late eleventh-century Brixton Hundred, including Lambeth. Had the survey been conducted a generation later, they would have been counted in the ranks of bordars, or overlooked as landless labourers. As such they represent some of the last examples of unfree individuals, whose presence had been a notable feature of life in Britain for centuries. It is a pity that the heavily-edited information of Domesday Book means that we can never know their names, or the precise conditions of their lives.
David Pelteret, Slavery in Early Medieval England (Woodbridge, 1995)
Keith Bailey, ‘Slavery in the London Area in 1086’, Transactions London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, No. 57 (2006), pp 69-82.
London & Middlesex Archaeological Society
Domesday Book: A Complete Translation (Penguin, 2002)
Domesday Book Online