The word slave comes from medieval Latin, originally it was just a word for the Slavic people. Although the first textual mention of slavery goes back to the very first written law (the Code of Hammurabi, ~1760 BC), the archaeological evidence goes back much further, at least as far back as Sumer which came into being some 8,000 years ago.
But before we settle into the more local aspects of slavery, there are a few shocking (and one good) things to know: the number of slaves in the world today is unknown – but 2.5 million is considered a conservative minimum. Between 40 & 80% of ancient Greek society, and 30% of the Roman world, was enslaved – Roman civilization alone was responsible for about 100 million slaves. The Atlantic slave trade took some 2 million Africans, the Arab slave trade around 18 million and another 1.25 million slaves were people captured by Barbary Pirates from white Western Europe – including those they took during raids on both UK and Irish ports!
In Doomsday England, around 10% of people were slaves – but, and here is the good bit, in Marlow there were just five out of a population of 107. Well done Marlow!
There are two known original records of local slavery from the period – the Domesday Book and Ælfgifu’s last Will and Testiment – she was the separated wife of King Eadwig who ruled England until 959 AD. Ælfgifu seems to have asked for all of her penally enslaved men to be released on her death, though this may have only referred to her estate at Princes Risborough.
In 1086 Buckinghamshire’s population was as low as 5103 – of which 845 were slaves (or Servi). Buckinghamshire actually had the single highest percentage of slaves across entire the south of the country.
Slavery seems to have been on the decline since the time of King Alfred nearly 200 years before, possibly because of the higher proportion of freemen under Danelaw. Most of them were owned by laymen, with the Church owning somewhat fewer, with just 10% of the people on their lands being slaves. Surprisingly, William the Conqueror and the other Royals, owned an even smaller percentage of slaves, but this may have been due to the distribution of slave-holding manors to his nobles during the first 20 years of his reign.
Most slaves seem to have worked in agriculture, often as ploughmen, although women and children were also in slavery at the time, normally as household slaves or dairymaids.
When did slavery finally end in the UK? (there was a slave market in Turkey right up to 1909!). Not as most people believe with William Wilberforce’s Law of 1807. Actually slavery has been made illegal several times in England. It was declared illegal to export slaves in 922 and again in 1102. Slavery itself was made illegal in 1569 and 1705, then legal again in 1729. In 1773 slavery was ended again – by declaring that as “soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free.” But it wasn’t until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution of Slavery was abolished for good in England. And why was it finally abolished? – well the technical legal reason was that, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth it had been declared “that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in!” It almost makes you proud.