The Medieval Countryside

The Medieval Countryside

Agriculture has for long been the staple industry of Hampshire and its development, from the time of the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade onwards, has been largely determined by the varying physical characteristics of differing parts of the county. A very large area is covered by downland, with much thin, poor chalky soil, land eminently suitable for sheep-grazing. The valleys of the many Hampshire rivers are more fertile and can be very productive when water meadows are properly irrigated. Much of the soil of the New Forest area is poor and gravelly and quite unsuitable for grain-growing. According to William Cobbett some of the best and earliest corn grown in England had long been raised at the foot of Portsdown Hill, but in medieval Hampshire there was little initiative to produce a high-quality agricultural crop of any kind; some of the best products probably came from a kind of model farm run by the Priory of St. Swithun at Silkstead.

The method by which medieval Hampshire was farmed can con­viently be called the `manorial system’, but it must again be said that there was no real system and no real measure of uniformity; a `manor’ was sometimes a single house, large or small, sometimes a small village or hamlet, sometimes a very large area of land like the manors of Chilcomb, or Crondall. The amount of land in a manor varied considerably. The divisions of the county into `manors’ is convenient, and it is followed by the Victoria County History, which describes Hampshire in terms of Hundreds, each Hundred being made up by many manors. Though it is dangerous to generalise, it can be said that the chief characteristics of medieval farming were the very large fields, large and unenclosed, in which every man had a holding the size of which depended on his status in the community. All the land belonged to the manorial overlord, and the lord’s own holding, worked on his behalf by his tenants, and for his benefit, was said to be `in demesne’. There is some evidence that about half of Hampshire retained a primitive two-field system of crop rotation until the 13th century when three open fields became more usual. Open fields were not so frequently found on either side of Southampton Water where there was much marsh and forest land, but even marsh and forest land was often subject to the same proportional use by peasants living near by. The varieties of soil and elevation did not make for uniformity in farming methods, but there is no doubt that much of Hampshire was not suitable for the primitive arable farming methods of the Middle Ages, and it has been suggested that real arable strip farming was only to be found in very limited areas in the county.

Villages were small and had few permanent buildings, for there was no easily-worked local stone. Considerable use was also made of another traditional and local building material, chalk, which could be easily quarried out of the sides of hills and downs, and was used for walls, for making coffins, and occasionally, as at Selborne Priory, for substantial medieval building. When stone was used, it was nearly always brought via Southampton from Binstead in the Isle of Wight, from Beer in Devon, or from Caen in Normandy. Certain important buildings were roofed in large tiles made of slate from the West Country, and slate also formed an important part of Southamp­ton’s coastal trade. Encaustic (decorated) tiles were often used to cover the floors of many churches and monastic buildings, and much use was made of Hampshire’s cheapest building material, the flint which could be so easily gathered from fields by cheap and hard labour. Large private houses in the county, whether manors, castles or farms, were usually built of a mixture of stone and flint, but in contrast to great dwellings, the average Hampshire peasant lived in a modest cottage-hut of wattle and daub, with a roof of straw or reed thatch which often caught fire. Amongst larger medieval county houses which survive in part today, much of the walling of the episcopal palace at Bishop’s Waltham is of flint; the Courthouse at East Meon (which has windows and a roof which appears to date from the 14th century) has a stone fireplace and a stone-corbelled head said to be a portrait of King John. Some Hampshire manor houses have been the subject of recent archaeological excavations, including Micheldever, Marwell, once a country house of the bishops of Winchester, where the mewes have been identified, and the great house at Wickham, once belonging to Hugh de Port. It has the inevitable moat and a cobbled courtyard dating from a later building of c. 1300, when the estate belonged to the de Scures family.

Map 6 Some Estates of the Bishop of Winchester and those of his monks
Map 6 Some Estates of the Bishop of Winchester and those of his monks

A general survey of Hampshire agriculture in the Middle Ages before the Black Death is not possible, but surviving records do give a clear picture of certain rural communities. At Highclere, in the north of the county, the bishop’s manor house has a great mansion with many outbuildings, including granges for wood and logs, a dovecot and a brewery. The house was the caput, that is the centre of a large area including Burghclere and Eccbinswell. The farm grew many kinds of crops, barley, oats, peas and vetches, but its chief product was wool from the many sheep grazing in the valley between Beacon Hill and Sidown Range. Italian merchants bought this wool, and Englishmen, including the famous Simon the Draper of Winchester. Farther south, at Crawley, there is much to be learnt of how the open field system worked in Hampshire. In both north and south Crawley there were three great open fields, each used for a rotation of crops which seems to have been first fallow when the beasts were turned on to the land, then winter grain followed by spring grain. Most of the hard work of Hampshire farming was done by villeins who had to work the demesne land for their lord as well as look after their own strip-plots. In many areas, the proportion of free tenants to villeins was small. At Compton, an estate belonging to the Priory of St. Swithun, there were only four free tenants in 1287: one of them was the reeve of the village, who paid a rent including a measure of strawberries to be delivered each year to the Infirmary of the Priory. At Morestead the most prominent free tenant was Bernard le Moyne, who had to provide the Priory with 550 eggs at Christmas and two-thirds of a bushel of strawberries on St. John’s Day. His holding can be identified with the present Old Down Farm. At Silkstead the Priory kept a model farm served by a permanent resident staff, and here the priors often spent a summer holiday. Grapes were grown regularly in the vineyards at Silkstead, peafowl bred for the table, and a great pigeon house built in 1307 provided a welcome addition to plain winter fare.

Just as the manors varied in acreage, so, too, the holdings held by individual tenants differed enormously in size and in productivity. In the village of Yateley, a number of Priory tenants held virgates of land but the virgate varied in size from 121/2 acres upwards; all over Hampshire holdings passed from father to son, or from a tenant to his widow’ simply by the immemorial custom of each manor, declared in the manor court, and made valid by the payment of fine (a fee usually paid in goods or services) to the lord. Manorial lords thus had several sources of revenue, and potential capital resources, rents, profits from sale of surplus product, and the fines of their courts.

The life of every village was regulated by the custom of the manor to which it belonged, and ‘this regulation was carried out by the manorial court which met regularly, to punish infringements of the custom, and to accept new tenants for vacant holdings, a profitable procedure since every new holder of land had to pay his lord a heriot, a fine to succeed as heir, usually his best animal, or its equivalent in money. All the normal farming processes necessary to work the land were divided out amongst the lord’s unfree tenants, according to the custom of the manor. The most important surviving group of these customs is contained in the custumal of St. Swithun’s Priory, written down to the end of the 13th century and providing much information about the customs of the Priory manors all over Hampshire. Men and women were required to work the lord’s land at harvest time, or to send a substitute, to plough, to carry the seed from the lord’s court to where it had to be sown, to help with threshing, and with the making of manure heaps. Unfree tenants, like Walter de la Lane at Swansdrop in Crondall, could neither sell a house nor an ox, nor marry off their daughters without payment of fine to the lord. At Yateley, near by, a comparatively large holding of over 100 acres, held by Juliana de Aula, was rented by a wide variety of payments in money and in kind, four stoups of honey, two hens at Christmas, and 20 eggs at Easter, as well as services of ploughing, reaping and weeding the lord’s land. Commuta­tion, the substitution of money rents for services, only came in very slowly towards the end of the 13th century, and Hampshire villages were largely self-supporting, and the only essentials which had to be brought from a distance were salt and iron. There was little market gardening of fruit or vegetables for re-sale, and the chief and essential aim of medieval farming was the production of a food and drink grain crop to provide bread and beer for the farming community itself and ‘for the manorial overlord, though obviously some supplies were grown deliberately for certain market towns. Stock raising was very hazardous indeed, animals were small, frequently ravaged by disease, and there was no incentive to careful or selective breeding, for most animals were grazed or pastured together on open or common land. The many references to fencing or enclosure often prove to be temporary arrange­ments, made for example at lambing time. For the average Hampshire peasant life was often harsh, short, and wearying, an existence only lightened by the holy days of the church.

One of the most interesting of all controversies affecting the economy of the medieval countryside concerns the New Forest. It used to be said that the making of the Forest was William the Conqueror’s great Hampshire crime. Yet even the most detailed study of Domesday Book fails to produce evidence other than the indubitable fact that a number of holdings had been taken into the Forest by 1086 either completely or in part. There is no evidence at all from any source to suggest that the Conqueror/Crusader obliterated vast numbers of towns and villages or demolished 60 churches. Much of the area has very poor soil, and it could never have sustained a large population. In prehistoric times the Forest afforded shelter, but there are only slight traces of early habitation—Beaker folk at Fordingbridge, Minstead, Lymington, and Hum; the population may have increased in the late Bronze Age, for a number of cemeteries survive from this period, and Bronze Age man and his successors all used Hengistbury Head with its many natural advantages as a Hampshire landing-place. In the Roman period the timber and brushwood of the New Forest was used in the widely scattered kilns making greyish and red and white pottery. Even in 1100 the Forest was called Ytene, land of the Jutes, and it was probably these people whose descendants were working the few acres of good land and making a few clearings in the later Anglo-Saxon period. Forest place-names ending in -icy, -wood, and -hurst, and -shaw, are indications of this kind of change. Cnut fined those who hunted his Forest illegally, but in the early medieval period Forest law was much more severe; death and mutilation were the penalties, and the royal hunter’s course was unimpeded, for until 1483 it was illegal to make any kind of enclosure for the protection of young trees or of animals. Some of the inhabitants, however, did benefit by ‘Commoner’s Rights’, the privilege of turning out livestock to graze in the Forest at certain periods. Instead of the normal kind of manorial court found in other parts of Hampshire, Courts of Regard, Attachment and Swainmote. dealt with human and with canine offenders against Forest Laws, and special Justices visited the area regularly to punish the most serious infringements.

Stone was even more infrequently used for building in the New Forest than it was in other parts of Hampshire countryside. A mixture of heather and clay produced walls of ‘cob’, the usual material of domestic buildings, stone being reserved for churches, and for the great Cistercian abbey of Beaulieu, the Forest’s most important medieval building.