Wulfstan served as Bishop of Worcester from 1062 until his death in 1095. He lived during an extraordinary time in English history. In 1066, the Duke of Normandy led an army into England and seized the throne by force, becoming known in history as William the Conqueror (the same King William mentioned below). William the Conqueror changed England in many ways, including the practice of slavery. He restricted the slave trade by banning the sale of slaves outside of England and discontinuing the English practice of taking slaves following victories in war.

The English had long practiced slavery. However, soon after Wulfstan became bishop, slavery quickly began to go out of style for various reasons. Wulfstan would play a part in bringing about the decline of this institution. As described by his hagiographer,[1] William of Malmesbury, Wulfstan ended the slave trade in Bristol, England. The inhabitants of Bristol engaged in a lucrative slave trade with Ireland. Through Wulfstan’s preaching over the course of many trips to Bristol, he convinced the slave traders to stop. Indeed, the inhabitants of Bristol had become so convinced of Wulfstan’s teachings against slavery that they even violently attacked someone who continued to engage in the practice.

Notably, Wulfstan ended the slave trade between Bristol before William the Conqueror officially issued a law prohibiting the sale of slaves outside of England. By the year 1200, slavery was virtually non-existent in England and would not be practiced by the English again until the early modern period. William of Malmesbury’s account of Wulfstan ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland, written sometime between 1126 and 1143, shows us some aspects of slavery in eleventh-century England and how Wulfstan convinced those living in Bristol to abandon the practice of slavery.

[1] Someone who writes about the life of a saint.

Translated from the Latin by Cody Osguthorpe. William of Malmesbury, The Vita Wulfstani of William of Malmesbury, ed. Reginald R. Darlington (London: The Royal Historical Society, 1928), 43-44. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Truly, this miracle[1] prevailed among the villagers so much that nothing more remained for them in their minds than what he commanded them. Thereupon from those people he abolished the oldest custom [slavery], which in this way had become callous in their souls so that neither the love of God, nor the fear of King William[2] thus far had been able to destroy it. For they dragged people from all over England to Ireland in hope of a great profit. They displayed slave women for sale, those held earlier for wantonness in bed and who were now pregnant. You would have observed and bemoaned rows of wretched people bound together with ropes, and youth of both sexes, who with dignified beauty, with healthy age, are prostituted daily and are put up for sale daily, which might even move a barbarian to pity. A detestable, evil deed; a deplorable, shameful act; not even bestial men, mindful of affection, betray their own relatives to servitude, following their own blood. So Wulfstan, just as I declared, gradually destroyed this long-standing custom, handed down from remote ancestors to their descendants. For knowing their stubbornness [would not be] swayed easily he stayed near them often for two or three months, approaching them every Sunday, and scattering the seeds of divine preaching. And truly he grew strong among them over time so that they not only rejected the error, but set an example for others throughout England to do the same. Indeed, one of their number, who stubbornly resisted the commands of the bishop, was soon expelled from the village and deprived of his eyes. In that affair I praise their zeal, but condemn the act, although once the spirits of wild men have been encouraged, no one is able to oppose them with the force of reason.

[1] Hagiographies, or writings about saints, were made to document miracles. It is noteworthy that William of Malmesbury calls this a miracle.

[2] William the Conqueror.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does William of Malmesbury characterize the extent of the Bristol slave-trade? What might have been some of the social and economic consequences following its  abolition?
  2. How does religion play into this source? Think about the reasons why William of Malmesbury authored this source and the portrayal of religion in the source itself.
  3. William of Malmesbury mentions the fear of King William. Why do you think he mentions King William? Is it significant that this is juxtaposed to Wulfstan successfully abolishing slavery?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Pelteret, David. Slavery in Early Medieval England: From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 1995.
  • Rio, Alice. Slavery After Rome, 500-1100. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Wyatt, David. Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain and Ireland, 800-1200. Leiden: Brill, 2009.


Religion, Sexual Slavery, Trade, Women