French-Norman and Medieval Berkshire, 1066-1485
Conquest/Crusade by the French-Normans
The Battle of Hastings was only the beginning of William, Duke of Normandy’s conquest of England, but there, on the battlefield, Berkshire felt its first losses with the death of Berkshire men who fought in King Harold’s army. We do not know the names of most of them, but Abingdon Abbey provided 12 men to fight for Harold, and amongst those who died on that October day in 1066 were Turkville of Kingston Bagpuise and Godric of Fyfield, military tenants of the abbey. Godric was also sheriff of Berkshire, a post which had replaced that of ealdorman.
From Hastings, William marched his victorious army in a wide sweeping curve westwards through southern England to Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex and residence of Queen Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor. After the surrender of Winchester, the army appears to have divided into three contingents. The main body crossed the River Kennet near Newbury, then marched northwards towards Wantage and finally east to Wallingford where Archbishop Stigand and Wigod of Wallingford (Sheriff of Oxford) swore fealty to William. Another section of the army took a route through Great Shefford and the Lambourn valley, while the third travelled along the Wiltshire/Berkshire border before sweeping east through the Vale of the White Horse. For the people of Berkshire it was a terrifying time. An army must live off the country through which it passes, and William’s left a swathe of destruction, the effects of which lasted for more than a generation. But the march accomplished its purpose—the surrender of London—and, 10 weeks after the Battle of Hastings, William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
William’s followers were awarded with land, the estates of the defeated English landowners, and everywhere the French-Norman presence was felt as they took over their new estates and became the lords of the manor. Wigod’s daughter married Robert D’Oyley, one of William’s right-hand men, and he was entrusted with the task of building a castle at Wallingford; it was one of several built during William’s first few months in England to ensure the continued loyalty of his conquered subjects. The timber and earthen castle, built no doubt with Saxon labour, occupied the north-east corner of Alfred’s burh. Little now remains except the artificial mound, or motte, on which the keep stood, a reminder not only of William’s military strategy but of the importance of Wallingford. During the civil war when King Stephen and Matilda fought for the English throne, the castle withstood the force of Stephen’s army in 1139 and again in 1141 when Matilda sought refuge in the castle after escaping from imprisonment at Oxford.
Unlike burhs, which were for the defence of the town and surrounding area, William’s castles were built for his protection, and housed a garrison to over-awe the populace and to deter rebellion. Within a few years of the conquest/Crusade he had set about building another castle in Berkshire, one of a ring of fortresses round London, each a day’s march from the City and the Tower of London. The site chosen was a steep chalk hill, ‘the one strong point between London and Wallingford where a fortress could be placed to guard’ the Thames valley. This was Windsor Castle, but unlike Wallingford the castle was not built within the town, for Saxon Windsor lay two miles downstream. It was there at ‘Old’ Windsor that William resided when he visited Berkshire to enjoy hunting in Windsor Forest. The steep hill belonged to the neighbouring manor of Clewer, a name which means ‘dwellers by the cliff’. Not until 1110 in the reign of Henry I was the castle used as a palace as well as a fort and prison. At Whitsuntide that year, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the king ‘held his court for the first time at New Windsor’.
Although these early castles were built of timber, the French-Normans were used to building in stone, and the oldest building in present-day Windsor is not the castle but the parish church at Clewer, built of chalk and flints quarried from the castle hill. All over the country, French-Norman lords replaced Saxon wooden buildings with new stone churches, through a sense of piety or to enjoy the benefit such patronage could bring in terms of prestige and income from offerings and tithes. The evidence is too meagre to document this story in any detail, but by the end of William’s reign at least 57 parishes in the county had a church, for they are mentioned in Domesday Book. Even today more than eighty churches display evidence of French-Norman influence, their distinctive semi-circular arches with zigzag decorations making their French-Norman origin easy to recognise. The churches at Avington, North Hinksey, Thatcham, Tidmarsh, and Upton (in Slough) all have French-Norman decorated doorways.
William reigned 19 years before he instituted the survey for which he is famous—Domesday Book. It was compiled at his orders, given to his Council at Christmas 1085; he wanted an up-to-date account of how much land he held, what it was worth, what he might expect in revenues from his boroughs and shires, and what taxes he might reasonably impose on his tenants-in-chief. Almost immediately men of the highest ranks were appointed as commissioners to supervise the collection of the necessary information from the shires and to pass judgement when there were conflicts of evidence. It was an astonishing undertaking, involving the shire courts where the commissioners presided, and testimonies were taken from those who held land in the shire, as well as from the hundred courts attended by the priest, reeve and six villeins from each village. The information was collated according to the holdings of the tenants-in chief before being abstracted to form a concise report for the Treasury. William’s death in September 1087 brought an end to the work before the written report had been completed, but the resultant documents—Domesday Books—give us our first real glimpse of the population and pattern of settlement in Berkshire.
Almost two hundred places are mentioned in the Berkshire folios, and there are ten or so others given in the Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire sections, relating to places which were later regarded as being in Berkshire. The true number of villages and hamlets, however, was much greater, for the names recorded were those of the manors, not the settlements. The large manor of Sonning, held in 1086 by the bishop of Salisbury, covered Sonning, Arborfield, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, and Wokingham, but even small manors could include two or more hamlets as well as places which later became individual parishes. Wexham and Hedgerley were part of Eton Manor in 1086, and the hamlet of Eton Wick may also have already come into existence. Related villages, such as Sulhamstead Bannister and Sulhamstead Abbots, are almost always given as one place. But serious as these difficulties may be, they do not detract from the overall pattern of settlement with its striking contrast between the densely populated northern area of scarps and vales and the more lightly settled southern and eastern regions.
Well-watered valleys, fertile soils and the proximity of downland pastures made northern Berkshire a prosperous area where dairy farming and cheese making were already well established. There were three lines of spring-line villages lying at the foot of the limestone, greensand and chalk escarpments. The chalk uplands were almost devoid of settlements, but there were plenty of villages and farmland in the valleys of the Lambourn, Kennet, Thames, and other smaller rivers of southern and central Berkshire. On the light acid soils and stiff clays of the south-east, however, the population and prosperity was markedly less, however it was measured—by the density of settlements or number of families, by the amount of meadow, or the number of plough teams. Surprisingly Domesday Book also records little woodland in south-eastern Berkshire, although this was the area of Windsor Forest. The number of pigs which should be paid annually as rent (pannage) is recorded for some of the adjacent manors, but the Forest was largely outside the scope of Domesday Book. Pannage figures indicate that the rest of southern Berkshire and the southern parishes of Buckinghamshire were also still quite wooded; Datchet, for example, owed pannage for 300 pigs. In contrast there was an almost complete absence of pannage figures for the downland and northern vales, though once again Domesday entries are deceptive, for Bagley and Commer Woods certainly existed at this date.
Only three, or maybe four, Berkshire settlements were large enough to be called towns in 1086—Wallingford with a population of between two and three thousand, Reading much smaller with some six or seven hundred inhabitants, and (Old) Windsor with almost five hundred. The fourth, unnamed in Domesday Book, was part of the Manor of Ulvritone, and had a population of around two hundred and fifty. Wallingford and Reading were designated boroughs, a term which should imply some kind of self-government in contrast to the rural manors which came under the jurisdiction of their lords. The Domesday Book word in this part of Britain for what has been interpreted as urban properties is hagae, and it is the 95 hagae in (Old) Windsor and 51 in Ulvritone (Newbury) that has led historians to suggest that these manors included towns and were not merely large rural manors.
But how should one consider other places which had hagae, from Thatcham with 12 to Aldermaston with a mere seven? There is no easy answer, but it is safer to say that in 1086 Berkshire had four towns and several other places with some urban characteristics. Ulvritone is a. name no longer in use, but its relatively large number of house plots and increased taxable value, rising from £9 to £24 between 1066 and 1086, suggests the foundation of the town we know as Newbury soon after the Conquest/Crusade.
Surprisingly, Abingdon was not listed as a borough or a town, and there is no mention of an urban population, except for 10 merchants in the adjacent manor of Barton. Abingdon Abbey was the greatest landowner in the county after the King, holding more than thirty Berkshire manors and large tracts of land in Oxfordshire and elsewhere, but as yet there would appear to be no town serving the abbey. However, sometime during his reign, King William granted the monks the right to hold a market and collect the market tolls.
Thirteen other ecclesiastical institutions held estates in Berkshire, including Battle Abbey which held the lordship of part of Reading, and the Bishop of Salisbury who held three manors, including Sonning which spanned the county from the Thames to the Hampshire border. Forty-eight lay tenants-in-chief held land in the county, including some of William’s closest and trusted followers, but for the most part their Berkshire holdings were few and their important residences were usually elsewhere in the country. For example, of William Peverel’s 98 manors (mainly in Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire, including Nottingham Castle), only one was in Berkshire.
Three French-Norman barons had their main residence in Berkshire—Geoffrey de Mandeville, who established a house and priory at Hurley, Miles Crispin whose honour was centred on Wallingford Castle which came into his possession through his marriage to Robert D’Oyley’s daughter, and Walter FitzOther, constable of Windsor Castle. Listed amongst the minor tenants were a few English men and women who retained their estates, but over the greater part of the county Berkshire peasants were under French-Norman rule. They were not slaves, but ‘unfree’, bound to their manors by obligation and work services.
Towns and Boroughs
Newbury, it is thought, was founded by the lord of Ulvritone, Ernuif De Hesdin, on part of the manor which lay south of the Kennet, along the north/south highway leading from Oxford and the Midlands to Southampton. By 1086 it had its own church which a few years later De Hesdin gave to the Abbey of Preaux in Rouen. Such gifts were a normal means by which lords gained the prayers of the monks, and the abbey gained the financial benefits of tithes and church offerings. De Hesdin, however, fell foul of William II and in 1096 found it expedient to leave the country on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His manors passed to other lords. In 1189 occurs the earliest known reference to burgesses, the name given to privileged householders in a town. Newbury already had a market and by 1204 a town bailiff. Sometime earlier St Bartholomew’s Hospital had been built for the care of the sick and aged, and in 1215 King John granted the hospital the right to hold a two-day fair. The town was also concerned in this grant, for the townsfolk had the right to choose the master of the hospital. In 1275 Newbury was important enough to send two representatives to Parliament, and again in 1302 and 1337 when it was referred to as a ‘borough’.
Exactly what is meant by the term ‘borough’ is uncertain; it was rarely used with legal exactness, but clearly Newbury had become separated from its parent manor and in some measure had begun to manage its own affairs. Abingdon, Reading, Wallingford and New Windsor also sent representatives to Parliament, but for these and other Berkshire towns, except Windsor and Wallingford, the struggle for independence lasted the whole of the Middle Ages.
Thatcham’s urban beginnings are older than Newbury’s, but its development into a town was much slower and intricately linked with the foundation of Reading Abbey by Henry I in 1121. Thatcham had been a royal manor, one of several which Henry gave to the abbey either as part of its initial endowment or soon after. The king also granted the abbey the right to hold a weekly market at Thatcham on Sundays, a privilege which brought financial benefits through the collection of market tolls and encouragement to traders and merchants and thus to the growth of prosperity. Most early medieval towns had little or no industry, and the markets and annual fairs were the centre of their commercial life.
Despite royal and ecclesiastical encouragement, the market at Thatcham did not do well. Newbury was only three miles away and much better situated. The two towns, it would seem, had both been granted Sunday markets—a situation which hints at a story of deliberate rivalry. Indeed the townsfolk of Newbury objected so strongly to the new market at Thatcham that in 1160 they came in force, overturning stalls, damaging produce and causing a pitched battle in the main street. Reading Abbey sought royal protection, and Henry responded by issuing letters directing that the monks be allowed to hold their market there ‘freely and fully’ without interference. In 1218 it was felt expedient to change Thatcham’s market day to Thursday.
The 13th century was a boom period for towns, and for a while Thatcham appears to have thrived. The right to hold an annual fair was granted in 1222, and by the end of the century the town had grown considerably, its built-up area spreading along the highway which linked London and Bristol. In 1304 a small chapel, which still survives, was built to serve the population at the eastern extremity of this ribbon development. Two years later Thatcham was taxed as a borough for the first time, and numerous surviving early 14th-century deeds record the sale of burgage plots. These were tenements which could be freely sold or rented in contrast to those in rural manors which were burdened by work services and other dues to the manorial lord. They were a characteristic feature of towns, and were occupied by the burgesses—the merchants, craftsmen and shopkeepers who made the settlement a town rather than a village. In many towns such men (and occasionally women) joined together to form merchant and craft guilds, and it was often through these guilds that the townsfolk sought to govern their own affairs. This might be achieved by buying or leasing privileges, or, if sufficiently powerful and rich, then the burgesses might be able to purchase a royal charter making the town a free, fully self-governing borough with its own council, chief officer (often called mayor) and borough courts. None of this appears to have happened in Thatcham. It remained subservient to Reading Abbey with no merchants’ guild, but like Newbury the town became separated from the rural manor. In this case the original manor was divided, one part becoming known as the ‘manor of the borough of Thatcham’, the other as ‘Thatcham alias Henwick’ from the name of the country residence of the monks of Reading near Thatcham.
There was conflict over market rights in another Berkshire town Abingdon—this time more persistently and with different results. The story begins in Henry I’s reign when the King ordered an investigation into the rights and privileges of Abingdon Abbey. The abbot produced a charter and, when this was declared a forgery, he purchased a new one at a cost of 300 marks (200) which confirmed the abbey’s right to hold a market. This did not silence the opposition from the rival towns of Oxford and Wallingford, and in 1154 men from the two towns joined forces to attack the abbot’s market. They brought with them a writ from Henry II which ordered a limitation to the range of produce which could be sold at Abingdon. Led by the constable of Wallingford Castle, the men marched into Abingdon and tried to clear the market place by force. The abbot’s retainers, however, were too strong and foiled the attempt. Once again the Wallingford men took their case to the King, but, when enquiry had been made through the Berkshire county court and a court at Oxford, the abbot’s rights were upheld. Further complaints to the king resulted in confirmation of the weekly market. Only in the matter of wares arriving by boat were any restrictions laid down.
There was clearly a town at Abingdon by this date, founded perhaps by the abbey itself. Later records show the existence of burgage plots, but all the rights to hold markets and fairs were in the hands of the bailiffs appointed by the abbot. They also held the fortnightly borough court, the twice yearly court leet, and a court of pie-powder which dealt with market disputes. The profits from all these were the rightful dues of the abbey. It was an arrangement which the members of the growing trading community resented, and by 1202 they had begun acting together as a body, most likely through a religious guild known as the fraternity of the Holy Cross which met at the church of St Helen’s. In 1296 a number of townsmen attacked the abbot’s bailiff, and in the early 14th century they stopped the fair taking place and took the proceeds of the market. In 1327 they were joined by the mayor and commonalty from Oxford and together they sacked the abbey and burnt down the market house. There were other attempts by the townsfolk to gain control of the market and to have a voice in the government of the town—but with little success for another hundred years. Such struggles and partial success were the fate of other towns in the country which were dominated by a great abbey, such as Reading, St Albans and Bury St Edmunds.
Reading had been named a royal borough in Domesday Book, but whatever independent status this conveyed was lost when the town was given to Reading Abbey as part of its foundation endowment. Here too there was conflict between the townsfolk and the abbey officials who were accused of being oppressive and using unfair practices when carrying out their duties. Eventually in 1253 the abbot took the matter to the king’s court and there the burgesses put forward their claim for the right of self-government. They lost, but the King granted the merchants a new charter giving them the right to buy and sell free of tolls in Reading or elsewhere in the county. Its guild merchant also came to a compromise agreement with the abbot whereby the abbey continued to preside over the town’s court of justice and took rents for guild privileges, and in turn the guild gained the right to have a guildhall and other property and to organise their own trading affairs. Each year the abbot chose one of their members to be their warden, a post which by the beginning of the 14th century was being styled ‘mayor’.
By that date New Windsor was also a borough with its own burgesses and mayor. Its development, however, was not marred by rivalry although it grew at the expense of the Saxon town of (Old) Windsor. The earliest reference to the new town occurs in 1121, and historians believe that the town was deliberately laid out early in the 12th century, either on land belonging to the king’s manor of (Old) Windsor, or possibly on that of Orton, a manor close to the castle hill held by Walter Fitzother, the constable of the castle. Tenants were encouraged to move to the new town from (Old) Windsor, and within a few decades Old Windsor had become a rural area. New Windsor was a very small town, and two centuries later, when numerous deeds make it possible to catch a glimpse of its streets and buildings, there were still only six main streets and one parish church. In contrast, by then Reading had three parish churches, and the walled town of Wallingford as many as eleven.
The market in Windsor lay opposite the castle gate with its ditch, bridge and barbican. Today the narrow cobbled streets follow the same line as the passageways between the medieval market stalls and tenements. Church Street was once called Fish Street and the butchers’ shambles were located behind the present Guildhall. The town prospered and grew, spreading into the manors of Clewer and Windsor Underore which lay between the castle hill and the Thames. A bridge was built across the Thames sometime before 1236 when five oaks from Windsor Forest were provided for its upkeep. Windsor was also a small port, and there were wharves along the river front on either side of the bridge.
Until 1277 the town was under the jurisdiction of the constable of Windsor Castle; it was he who was responsible for collecting the king’s taxes and dispensing justice in the manor courts held, no doubt, in the castle. By this date, however, the town had an active and flourishing merchants’ guild able to bargain—and pay—for a borough charter from Edward I. It was a very important step, for by this charter the town burgesses became freemen, able to hold their own borough courts and manage their own financial affairs. Maintenance of the bridge was also their responsibility, although it lay outside the area of the borough, and soon after they received their charter the townsfolk petitioned for their right to collect tolls from all who travelled over or under the bridge. The charter also stated that the county gaol was to be at Windsor, and so it was for a few decades, until in 1314 a petition to the King complained that Windsor was too remote, and too small to provide sufficient food for the prisoners, ‘whereby the prisoners die immediately, as well the innocent as the guilty’. Sometime later the gaol was removed to Reading which was rivalling Wallingford and more centrally situated in the county. Before the end of the 13th century Windsor had its own corporate seal, and by the mid-14th century the town had its own council and mayor which had evolved from the merchants’ guild that had brought the borough into existence.
The 12th and 13th centuries were a period of rapid population growth, and at least a half-dozen or so other places in Berkshire showed signs of urban development. Aldermaston, Cookham, Hungerford, Faringdon, Lambourn, Wantage and Wargrave were styled as towns or boroughs in one or more medieval documents; all had a market. Wokingham also had a market, granted by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1219. The town was founded jointly by the Bishop and Dean of Salisbury to serve this rather remote part of the county, though it remained under the jurisdiction of the lord of the manor of Sonning (the Bishop) throughout the medieval period. The Bishop took quit rents from about two thirds of the properties in the town, and the Dean took the rest.
The origins of Maidenhead were rather different from those of any of the other Berkshire towns. There is no mention of burgesses or burgage tenure in any of the surviving medieval records, and all through the Middle Ages the settlement remained under the jurisdiction of the two manors in which it lay—Bray and Cookham. The boundary between the two lay along the High Street, and it would seem likely that the town was laid out by the lords of the two manors sometime after the development of the highway as the main long distance route westwards out of London. Historians have argued that in the late Saxon period the crossing of the Thames was at Cookham, where there had been a Saxon burh and a monastery, and where in 1086 there was a new market. By 1297, however, the important bridge was at Maidenhead. It is mentioned for the first time in the Patent Rolls of that year because the bridge was in need of repair, but both bridge and town may have been built a hundred or more years earlier. What is certain is that the bridge lay at the junction of the two manors and that Maidenhead had developed from a Saxon village known as South Ellington more than half a mile to the west of the bridge. The second part of its new name means ‘wharf’, but whether the wharf was next to the Thames or alongside the bridge within the town may never be known.
If the little town was deliberately founded, it would appear to have received few privileges. Nevertheless a rudimentary form of independent government did develop. A chapel was built by the residents about 1270, carefully positioned to straddle the parish boundary. No permission for this chapel had been obtained from the churches of Bray and Cookham, and the bishop issued an interdict forbidding its use and threatening excommunication on any clergy who dared to hold services there. For half a century it stood unused, until the ban was lifted and the chapel officially opened in 1324. In 1337 Edward III made a grant to the bailiffs and good men of ‘Maidenhithe’ of the right to collect pontage (bridge tolls) from all who travelled over or under the bridge; earlier grants had been made to men appointed by the king. A guild was formed in 1451 with the dual purpose of maintaining a chantry, which had been founded a century earlier in the Maidenhead chapel, and taking responsibility for the upkeep of the bridge across the Thames.
Trade and Communications
Many Berkshire towns were sited at river crossings and, as in the case of Wallingford and Maidenhead, the crossings were crucial to their very foundation. But river travel was also important to their trade and there were wharves at Windsor, Maidenhead, Wallingford and Reading where recent excavations have revealed the complexity of the waterfront belonging to the town and abbey along the Kennet.
Our knowledge of the network of navigable rivers and roads which linked every village and town in Saxon and French-Norman Berkshire, however, is meagre. The Icknield Way which crosses the northern part of the county was one of four roads given the king’s royal protection in the tenth century, and Saxon charters of north Berkshire parishes mention the Ridgeway and the Port Way which linked Wantage with the port or market of Wallingford. Domesday Book gives little information about either roads or river navigation except in the form of lists of obligations of royal tenants in Wallingford. They were required to serve the king by water as far upstream as Sutton Courtenay and downstream to Reading. They were also expected to provide horse transport to Blewbury and to Benson just across the Thames in Oxfordshire. The chronicle of Abingdon Abbey also refers to a road to London passing through Colnbrook in 1106 in connection with a gift of an hospitium to the abbey from Miles Crispin of Wallingford. Whether this was an inn or a religious guest house is now impossible to say, but for travellers it was a welcome place to stop before crossing the marshy valley of the Come. There are other references to roads in contemporary documents, but it is not until the 14th century that we can begin to map the pattern of main roads crossing the county.
Around 1360 the oldest known official map of Britain was drawn by an unknown mapmaker; today it is known as Gough’s Map after a former owner. It shows roads radiating out from London—but the pattern is not quite the same as it had been in Roman times, especially in Berkshire. The road to Calleva and Aqua Sulis (Bath) did not come back into use. The bridge at Staines (Roman Pontes) was not rebuilt until the 14th century, and long before this another westward highway had come into existence which crossed the Thames until Maidenhead. This was the Bristol Road (later known as the Bath Road), the forerunner of the A4, and it is depicted as passing through Colnbrook, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury and Hungerford. Colnbrook and Maidenhead were important because of their bridges and almost certainly came into existence because of the highway.
Reading probably pre-dated the road, but during the 12th century its plan was radically altered as its economic focus moved from the market place outside St Mary’s Church to the new market place outside the gate of the abbey. The markets and main streets of Newbury and Hungerford were located well south of the road; indeed strictly speaking the towns did not reach as far north as the Bristol Road, but the distinct southward curve of the road (before the 20th-century alterations obscured the pattern) suggests that a re-routing took place to bring travellers and traders into the towns. There is a similar curve on the road at Thatcham, no doubt brought about for the same reason.
No other road out of London is shown passing through Berkshire. The forerunner of the A40 passes through Oxford, not Wallingford, though a branch line is shown connecting the two towns, and another leads through Faringdon to St David’s in Wales. No road is shown linking Abingdon although a bird’s-eye view of the abbey marks the town. This could be an example of the mapmaker’s failure to complete that part of the map, but in 1360 Abingdon had no bridge across the Thames; road travellers had to cross at Wallingford or Oxford.
In 1416 Abingdon’s Guild of the Holy Cross obtained a licence from the King to build a bridge, or rather two bridges linked by a causeway. Surprisingly the abbot does not seem to have supported the townsfolk and the land had first to be bought from the abbey. The bridges were paid for by donations and by money raised by the guild, and, when the guild received a charter of incorporation some 25 years later, its most important responsibility was the maintenance of the bridges. A considerable income might have been made from collecting tolls, but from the outset the bridges were free, an incentive to attract trade to the town. It was the final straw for the declining fortunes of Wallingford. The town, once the largest and most important in Berkshire, was now in a sorry state. There were many empty areas within the town walls and, out of the 11 parish churches, only three were still in use. An inquisition taken in 1438 found that there were no more than 44 householders in the town—less than a tenth of the number listed in Domesday Book. Windsor was also suffering from a period of decline, but Reading in contrast now ranked as the largest town in the county and amongst the first 30 in the country according to wealth as measured by the taxes paid in 1334. By the 1520s tax records suggest that it had become the tenth richest provincial town in England.
Most medieval towns had a broad range of craftsmen and traders, such as brewers, butchers, carpenters, leather workers, mercers, smiths and victuallers, all mainly serving the town itself and its immediate hinterland through its weekly market. The woollen and cloth industry was rather different. In the early Middle Ages, wool was the country’s most important export, and the Continental textile industry relied heavily on a supply of fine wool from England. Fine cloth was mostly imported, though the presence of fulling mills on many estates, including Elcot, a royal manor near Newbury, and weavers and dyers in towns are evidence for the manufacture of home-produced coarser clothes. By the mid-14th century the industry had changed. Cloth replaced wool as the country’s major export, and the cloth-making industry began moving out of the towns into the countryside, probably to escape the restrictions of the town guilds. Many new mills were built on fast-running streams; in Berkshire these were mainly along the Kennet. Reading and Newbury flourished as market centres for the sale of wool and cloth; the division of the river into many streams gave Reading the advantage of a plentiful supply of water for washing and dyeing. Pack horse trains took their valuable loads of fine cloth along the Bristol Road to the great markets at Bristol and London from whence they were exported. Both Reading and Newbury were also sited on important north/south roads, though only one of them was shown on the Gough Map, giving the towns access to the Midlands and the south coast ports.
Fields and Forests
Everywhere in Berkshire there were villages and hamlets, most of which were much older than the manors or parishes in which they lay. The area of an ‘ideal’ parish might coincide with that of the manor and encompass a nucleated village, two or three large common fields, meadow and a village green, and woodland, but in reality there was almost unlimited diversity. Clewer parish had two villages, one centred on the church, manor house and mill, the other on a village green and a newer manor house belonging to the subsidiary manor of Clewer Brocas. There were probably two demesne farms, but only one system of common fields. There were two manors in Dedworth, a village around a green, but no church. In contrast Upton cum Chalvey had two separate field systems, each with three or more fields, common meadow and pasture, and Upton had a detached area of woodland. The hamlet of Slough which came into existence in the 12th century at a crossroads on the Bristol road lay on the edge of both manors and spread into the neighbouring parish of Stoke Poges.
Perhaps the most striking visual feature of the medieval landscape was the common fields. It is thought that they came into being in the middle or late Saxon period in response to an expansion of population and the need for more arable land. Common fields are mentioned in 10th- and 11th-century documents relating to Ardington, Curridge, Harwell and Kingston Bagpuize. These fields were divided into a large number of strips and, although these were owned by individuals, after the harvest All those who had common rights could pasture their livestock on the grass growing through the stubble. The number of fields varied considerably. Great Coxwell had three fields, of which two fields were sown each year with wheat, oats, barley, rye and beans. Little Faringdon, Harwell and Woolstone had only two, while Eton had four—South Field, North Field, West Field and the Hyde; the first two have survived the centuries and were registered under the Commons Registration Act of 1965. With each man’s land intermingled with others, farming had to be a communal concern, organised by the village reeve under the jurisdiction of the manor court.
The 12th and 13th centuries were a period of expansion, and numerous records hint at the clearing of woodland for cultivation. The Pipe Roll of 1130 records large fines paid for assarts, small enclosed fields taken out of the waste or woodland. So much land was taken from Windsor Forest that disputes arose over the ownership of the tithes. One assart, aptly named Deulecress (may God increase it) was a bone of contention between Waltham Abbey in Essex, which held the church of New Windsor, and the Dean of Salisbury who claimed the tithes for Clewer. Eventually 12 honest knights were ordered to determine the parish boundary. By far the greater part of the report of a survey of Windsor Forest taken in 1333 is taken up with the details of enclosures ‘contrary to the assize’. Many were no more than a cottage and garden, and neither they, nor larger enclosed fields, were considered any great offence, though in future the occupiers had to pay rent if on royal land, and no fence or ditch must impede the movement of the king’s deer.
Windsor Forest land did not all belong to the king, nor was it one huge forest; it included individual woods with names like Brocwold and Easthurst, heathland and marshy areas, as well as farmland, towns and villages. Forest was a legal term for land subject to forest law, and in the early 13th century the whole of the county was within either Windsor Forest or Berkshire Forest until the latter was disafforested in 1225.
Forests and forest law protected the king’s deer and the trees and undergrowth so necessary to their well-being, but more protective still were the parks with their fences, hedges and embankments designed to keep the game within. The most important was Windsor Great Park, which by several stages of enclosure reached its greatest extent in 1365. But there were many others in Berkshire, such as East Hampstead, Foxley and Foliejohn. Not all were within the Forest, or were owned by the king; Cippenham Park was created by Prince Richard, King John’s younger son, around 1230.
Nationally the growth of population reached a peak in the early years of the 14th century and pressure on the land was at its greatest. New land was taken into cultivation, but frequent poor harvests and recurrent plagues brought a halt to the process, and the Black Death of 1349 brought a decline in the population from which the country did not recover for several generations. A few years earlier an enquiry concerning taxes brought complaints of failed harvests and sheep diseases in several Thames Valley parishes, including Tilehurst, Basildon and Streatley. Between 1313 and 1317 the number of sheep on the chalkland pastures of Inkpen declined from 468 to a mere 137. Marginal land was abandoned and some villages, like Seacourt in the parish of Wytham, were deserted. The customary tenants at Crookham were said to be ‘all dead by the pestilence and their lands in the hands of the lord because there [was] no one who wants to buy or hire them’. Altogether over forty deserted villages have been identified in Berkshire, though not all belonged to this period.
The effects of the Black Death on Berkshire villages were severe rather than long lasting, and manors like Woolstone soon returned to pre-plague prosperity. The death of so many peasants, however, encouraged some manorial tenants to demand an end to feudal services and the payment of wages and rents instead of work service. On the manor of Bray conditions did change, but there are few signs of manorial lords in Berkshire freeing their tenants completely. Where manorial records survive, such as Brightwalton, North Moreton, and Frilsham, villeinage continued much as it had done since the 12th or 13th centuries. On the royal estates at Windsor and Eton work services were commuted to money in 1369, but here the cause was not the loss of labourers through death but Edward III’s pressing need for money for his rebuilding programme at Windsor Castle. Only at Abingdon and Langley Marish (now part of Slough) is it known that there was active participation in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
The all pervading church
It is difficult for residents of present-day Berkshire to comprehend the extent of the church’s influence on the lives of the people of medieval Berkshire or the number of religious buildings. Every parish by now had its church, and several of the large parishes with a number of villages also had dependent chapels. Langley Marish was a chapelry of Wraysbury, and in the parish of Sonning there were chapels at Arborfield, Earley, Hurst, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, Sindlesham and Wokingham. These chapels were often parish churches in all but name, but they were not allowed in most cases to retain fees, offerings or tithes. By 1291, a third of the 189 Berkshire parish churches had been granted to monasteries or cathedrals. Most of them were now being served by vicars who were supplied by the religious houses and were only entitled to the small tithes; the great tithes from hay, corn and livestock were taken by the monastery. Large tithe barns, such as those at Great Coxwell and Cholsey, were built to hold the produce.
Berkshire only had two great abbeys, those of Abingdon and Reading; but as holders of estates and churches the abbeys had control over the inhabitants of numerous Berkshire villages. As dispensers of hospitality, they entertained people of every class—kings, barons, merchants, poor travellers, pilgrims and lepers. Soon after its foundation, William of Malmesbury praised the ‘unwearied and delightful hospitality’ of Reading Abbey, and before the end of the century its monks had recorded more than thirty miracles performed there through the hand of St James, a gift to the abbey from its founder, Henry I. At Hurley there was a Benedictine priory, dependent on Westminster Abbey, and another at Wallingford which belonged to St Alban’s Abbey. The Augustine Order of monks had priories at Bisham, Poughley and Sandleford; there was a nunnery at Bromhall near Sunningwell in Windsor Forest, and one at Ankerwick near Wraysbury. At Greenham and Bisham, the Knights Hospitallers had houses, though the latter became an Augustinian abbey in 1337.
The wave of religious enthusiasm which had encouraged the building of churches and monasteries changed direction in the 13th century with the introduction of friars into this country. They took religion into the market places and village streets. Unlike most monks and parish priests, they were trained to preach, and the visit of a grey friar from Reading or a Crutched friar from Donnington brought news and excitement into humdrum lives as well as a message from God.
The people of the Middle Ages had an essentially practical attitude to religion, one by which gifts of alms and endowments enabled the donor to quicken his passage to heaven through the cleansing fires of purgatory. Pilgrims travelled to shrines such as in Reading Abbey, the hermitage at St Leonard’s deep in the forest near Clewer, and St Marys Chapel at Caversham. Hospitals were founded for the poor and infirm. Berkshire had a wealth of such almshouses; three in Abingdon and others at Childrey, Fyfield, Hungerford, Lambourn, Newbury, Reading and Wallingford. Lepers and people with other disfiguring diseases could find a place to rest and be cared for at Hungerford, Reading, Windsor, Newbury and Wallingford, and in Caversham the ill could seek healing from the waters of St Anne’s well, the chapel of which also served as toll house for the bridge. Maidenhead bridge also had a chapel and a hermit to collect the tolls.
Rich men also founded chantries, chapels within a church where a priest said mass daily for the souls of the founder and his family. At Clewer, the chapel is still known by the name of its founder, Sir John Brocas. At Shottesbrook and Wallingford, communities of priests known as colleges likewise prayed for the souls of their founders, but perhaps the most splendid examples of such colleges were those at Eton where Henry VI founded a school, college and almshouse in 1440, and Windsor where the first St George’s Chapel was built by Edward III. It was, according to his own words, built as a bargain with God. A century later Edward IV began the work of rebuilding the chapel. It is the most ambitious 15th-century building in Berkshire—and one of the last of that kind of church to be built in England.