The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the emancipation of slaves across the British Empire in 1833 remain two of the proudest moments in the nation’s history. They brought to an end a practice that had shamed these islands since Roman times, but sadly continues in many dark places of the world today.
SLAVERY was part of everyday life in Britain both under the Romans and among the Celts, and following the Romans’ withdrawal in 410 the Anglo-Saxon newcomers continued to own and trade in slaves.
The sight of English children in the slave markets of Rome prompted Pope Gregory to vow that he would send missionaries to England, and Christians such as Adamnán in the 7th century and Wulfstan in the 11th campaigned vigorously against the practice.* Even so, one Englishman in ten was kept as a slave when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086.
Forty percent of the population were listed as ‘villeins’, tenant farmers treated more or less as free men. In the 13th century, the terms of tenancy became almost slave-like, but the Black Death of 1348 left so few labourers that landowners could no longer drive such a hard bargain. By the end of the Tudor Age, villeinage was a dead letter, though still technically the legal alternative to being free.
* Adamnán, Abbot of Iona from 679 to 704, is best known today for The Law of the Innocents, an attempt to civilise Celtic society. Wulfstan was Bishop of Worcester from 1061 to 1092, and the last of the pre-Norman bishops: see Wulfstan and the Seal of Approval. For Pope Gregory’s mission in 597, see Gregory and the Slave Children.