The History of Devon after 1066

The History of Devon after 1066


The Domesday record, pieced together at the Conqueror’s orders from the sworn evidence of local juries, was intended to give practical information on the value and taxable capacity of estates. It was not a census, and it mentions only heads of households. Women came into it only if they held land in their own right (as three, all Saxon, did in Devon) and churchmen only if they held estates; children are never mentioned. The recorded population of about 15,500 for the county may therefore represent a total of some 80,000 – less than that of Exeter alone at the present day.

Seventy-seven tenants-in-chief (not all resident in Devon) held land direct from the King, whether as barons with many manors, or lesser men with a few or only one. In the latter group came thirteen French knights, nineteen surviving English thegns who had given no excuse for confiscation by supporting Har­old or the later rebellions, and seven sergeants or King’s servants who performed special duties. Three of these were crossbowmen, one an archer, and one the gatekeeper at Exeter Castle. The other two were Court officials -an usher and a hearth-keeper. 420 sub-tenants held manors, or parts of them, from a lord.

The evidence of Domesday Book is of great interest for localities, but difficult to use for firm conclusions about the county as a whole. It is sometimes incomplete, for example crediting places with ploughlands and plough-teams but no inhab­itants. It shows hardly any working-class freemen outside the boroughs (such as were common in the former Danelaw), and divides the rest into approxi­mately forty-nine per cent of villeins – holding from a manor lord a considerable area and doing service accordingly; thirty-two per cent of bordars and others of similar status – holding less land, doing less service, and probably with another occupation; and nineteen per cent of serfs – landless men who at this stage had almost slave status and were employed for their keep. The last figure is more than double the national average, and may in part represent the conquered Celtic population.

Settlement appears, as one might expect, to have been either in large compact villages, mostly then or earlier belonging to the King and going back to early Saxon times; or in hamlets, often offshoots of larger villages; or isolated farms – many of which were probably Celtic in origin or the result of later forest clearing. The highest recorded settlements, all tiny, were at about the level of the 1200-foot (360-metre) contour; but none are recorded on Dartmoor above its fringes, and there is no mention of the tin-mining Which was soon to be important. Figures for live‑stock often suspiciously ’round’, for what they are worth show about  seventy-four percent sheep, eleven per cent each of cattle and goats, and four per cent swine. The number of sheep implies that cloth-making was already well established. 370 swineherds are mentioned (but no shepherds – presumably that was a bordar’s job), sixty-one salt-workers, and a very few iron-workers and smiths, fishermen and bee-keepers- there must have been more, simply described as bordars.

The King’s own demesne lands, and those es­cheated to him as a result of misbehaviour or lack of heirs, amounted to a quarter of the whole in value, besides those of Queen Matilda who had recently died. The Church, including recent grants to a bishopric and several abbeys in France, accounted for almost another quarter; and the rest was held by tenants-in-chief or their sub-tenants.

Over ninety water-mills are mentioned (windmills not having been invented), but the great majority of these were either on the Exe or east of it. The reason for this lopsided distribution is not clear: it is not explained by relative wealth and population, since on that basis the Barnstaple area should have had more. Possibly the water-mill was a recent intro­duction here, and most of the west and north of the county was still managing with hand-querns. Some of the fisheries were evidently freshwater, and payments in salmon are recorded. Salt-pans were of great importance when meat had to be butchered in the autumn and preserved through the winter.

In population, and in productivity (except for livestock), the red earth region of the south-east led easily. Here, and in the area inland of Torbay which came second, were most of the large manors and the best soil and climate for cereals. The third area was that around Barnstaple, since the promising soils of the South Hams were not yet used to anything approaching their capacity. The poorest area, with least cereals and most cattle, was that of the Culm Measures of the north-west. As a whole, Devon was still not as developed as its eastern neighbours: there was still much room for pioneer settlement, and this was to come (see Chapter 9).

Domesday Devon

Of the four boroughs surviving from late Saxon times, three (Exeter, Barnstaple and Lydford) were in the King’s hands, while the fourth (Totnes) had been granted to Baron Judhael. Exeter was much the largest, doing the same service in wartime as the .other three together. 285 houses belonging to the King are recorded there, and 114 belonging to tenants-in-chief, possibly making a total of 399 (though it is not clear whether the 114 are included in the 285: some of them, at least, paid the usual burgage house-site rent of eight pence per year to the King). The number of burgesses in Exeter is not recorded; Barnstaple is credited with 40 besides 9 living outside (but whether this includes or excludes 17 belonging to other lords is not clear). Tomes had 95 plus 15 outside ‘who work the land’, and Lydford 28 plus 41 outside – mostly at Fernworthy. Lydford, already decaying, had lost 40 houses since 1066 which the small site of the original Norman castle there cannot account for; 48 had been lost in Exeter, mostly by the building of the extensive Rougemont Castle with its inner and outer wards, and 23 in Barnstaple which also had a castle inserted within its walls.

The distinction between burgess and villein was not as clear as it later became. In Exeter, for example, we find 11 burgesses who belong to the sheriff’s manor of Kenn, and pay dues there. Several barons owned houses in Exeter: Ralf de Pomeroy had six, and Walter of Douai ten. This gave the lord of a rural manor access to the market and to borough privileges, and somewhere to stay when attending on public business. The sheriff’s manor of Okehampton also had four local burgesses, and a market and castle, and was developing into a borough.

Devon Hundreds

Apart from the boroughs, and much of the royal demesne, the county had been divided since late Saxon times into ‘Hundreds’ for purposes of justice and administration. What they were, or once had been, ‘hundreds’ of is not at all clear, particularly as they varied greatly in size within a county and in number between counties. However, at a time when it was impossible to get people together to do all business effectively in ‘a shire court, they served a useful purpose with their monthly meetings to hear minor cases, register land transfers, publish royal orders, and apportion taxes. In theory their moots were attended by the priest, reeve, and four respecatable villagers from each place; but some Hundreds were so large, and travelling so difficult, that in practice the manor stewards often sufficed. Twice yearly, however, all adult males were supposed to turn out for the ‘View of Frankpledge’, when the sheriff’s officer saw that they were enrolled in ‘tith­ing’ groups, responsible for each other before the law. Traditionally the meetings were in the open air, but most of the Devon Hundreds contrived to meet In places where they could adjourn to a church or hall in wet weather. The Hundred, like the shire, was a pre-Conquest survival. The shire was too useful to the king to be allowed to lapse as an  effective unit’ the Hundred gradually lost its importance with the growth of feudal courts held by barons and manorial lords for their tenants, which cut right across the older system. Nevertheless it continued, if only nominally, as a division of the county well into the nineteenth century.