Pots, Pans and Heriots

Image taken in the Malvern Hills by M. Muller 

Sometimes it is difficult to distance oneself from the material of one’s research. The Abbot of St Albans was hardly popular with his tenants. He treated the towns people of St Albans like unfree tenants, villeins, and even called them thus. I have previously written about his continued arguments with his tenants across various manors, which caused them to rise up in rebellion in 1381, and how even after the revolt was crushed, he continued to actively try to subjugate and humiliate his tenants. In various episodic clashes between the Abbot and his tenants, the latter kept pushing against seigniorial authority and the former striking back, occasionally with the backing of the king. When the townspeople buried their dead hanging from gibbets after the 1381 revolt secretly at night time, he ordered that their bodies be dug up again and replaced in the gibbets. Repeated arson attacks at various of the Abbot’s estates in, what seems to be revenge attacks after the suppression of the rising, show that even years after the revolt feelings ran high on the St Albans estates

One rarely commented upon fact of life in rural English society of the later Medieval period were the payments of heriots, or death duties to the lord, which fell due upon the death of a tenant, a head of a household, man or woman, holding the tenement from the lord in villeinage. The type of heriot exacted varied significantly according to locality and lordship. In some places only the best animal of the tenant who had died was collected from their heirs, and those without ‘beasts’ paid none. Some lords took cash payments instead of animals, and some do not seemed to have minded as long as something was given. If a family was impoverished, occasionally lords waived the heriot payment altogether, though admittedly this was fairly rare.

So this is where our favourite medieval Abbot comes in. At St Albans the lord took almost anything. He preferred the best animal, an oxen or horse, valuable animals and beasts of burden, we can also find him taken pigs and sheep. Things become troubling in the year the Black Death arrived in the various manors of the Abbey. Many holdings went through more than one heir in a single year as the plague took its terrible toll. The Court Books of the St Albans Manor of Winslow have been edited and translated by David Noy, and been published by the Buckinghamshire Record Society. Spanning much of teh 14th century, including the plague year of 1349, they tell a story of a ravaged population, struggling with the terrible effect of the epidemic, meanwhile the Abbot of St Albns was collecting heriot after heriot. When Ralph Kyng died holding a virgate of land a heriot of a bullock was collected. teh holdinmg went to Walter, Ralph’s brother, who died, and from whom a brass pot was collected worth 12d. The holding then went to Agnes, Walter’s sister, but she died as well and now the lord collected a heriot from her which was a mere plate which was worth a mere 6d. The next heir in line was Agnes’ uncle, John, who was finally excused from paying an entry fine to take up the holding as he was considered too poor. Or look at Henry who held nothing but a cottage from the lord and whose heriot was a dish worth a mere 1 penny and a half. While many tenants had a cow or horse when they died, their heirs often had far less valuable things left in their possessions. Joan had died holding a cottage  and her heriot payment was a cheap tunic. It makes me rather worried about the implications behind comments that individual tenants had ‘no heriot’ at all..