A Great Medieval Estate

A Great Medieval Estate

Christ Church Priory acquired most of its estates as gifts from Saxon kings, nobles and thanes. By the time that Domesday Book was compiled the priory had already been in possession of much of its property for two or three hundred years. The estates did not lie together as a compact block, but were scattered over some eight southern counties in England, and the monks also owned land as far away as Ireland. We are concerned here only with their 21 Kentish manors. Their total area is not known, but it certainly ran into tens of thousands of acres. The income which the monks derived from their estates was something like two or three thousand pounds a year, although this figure includes the manors which lay outside Kent as well as those within the county. It is impossible to translate these monetary figures into 20th-century terms, but for the Middle Ages they represented vast sums and vast wealth.

The typical organisation of a medieval manor in Kent was this: part of the manor, called the demesne, belonged in a special sense to the owner, the lord of the manor. He might farm it himself or he might let it out at a fixed annual rent known as a fee-farm, the man who took the demesne on lease being termed the firmarius or farmer. For another part of the manor we might use the term tenant-land, because it was held by tenants in return for certain services which they owed to the lord of the manor. The tenants also, in a sense, owned the land they occupied; sons succeeded to father and provided that the services were properly performed the tenant could not be turned off his hold­ing. In addition to the demesne and the tenant-land, most manors included pasture, woodland or waste, in all of which the tenants, as well as the lord of the manor, had certain rights.

Some of the priory’s manors were many miles from Canterbury, so that it was obviously impossible for the monks to farm their own demesne lands in person. They therefore employed on each manor a manager or bailiff usually known as a serjeant or reeve, to supervise the cultivation of the demesne. He could call upon the tenants to work upon the demesne, and in some counties the greater part of the farm operations was performed by the tenants. It was not so in Kent, where the tenants’ services were comparatively light. Often they had to pay small rents, in money or in kind (corn, poultry or eggs), they had to help with the harvest, and they had to perform carrying-services. For the monks, the latter was most important; the lay owner of several manors could move from one to another, living off the produce of each in turn, but the monks had to remain in their cloister at Canterbury, and they had to arrange for the farm-produce to be brought to them. Carrying-service was, therefore, especially useful to a monastery situated, as Christ Church was, at a distance from some of its estates. Nevertheless, the lord of the manor frequently found it more convenient to exchange (or commute) his tenants’ services for a small fixed yearly rent in money.

The amount of help which the monks could demand from their tenants in cultivating the demesne was, in any case, trifling, and it was necessary to employ a large number of paid agricultural labourers, who lived on the estate, and by whom most of the work on the farm was done. For example, at Monkton in 1307 there was a permanent full-time staff of 34 which included:

17 ploughmen 3 stackers
4 shepherds 3 drovers
2 cowherds 1 lambherd
1 swineherd 1 sower
1 harrower 1 cheesemaker


Their wages were about 3s. a year, together with food, and some of them received a gift of gloves once a year. In addition, there were the serjeant (£2 14s. lOd. a year), the hayward (£1 14s. 1d. a year), and the beadle (13s. 4d. a year). Hollingbourne was a smaller manor, employing only eight ploughmen, a shepherd, a swineherd, an oxherd, a cowherd, a goatherd and a dairymaid, with wages at more than twice the rates that were paid at Monkton.

Boys' map of 1796 showing the soils of Kent
Boys’ map of 1796 showing the soils of Kent

The lord of the manor enjoyed another source of profit in that he was entitled to hold a court, at which his tenants were bound to appear, and the fees and fines of which went into his pocket. On some manors the lord had much more extensive rights of jurisdiction than on others, depending, in theory, on the extent of the grant from the King, but depending much more, in practice, upon the custom of the particular manor. The monks of Christ Church had fairly wide rights; they were entitled, for example, to have their own gaol (even that was a source of profit), they were entitled to treasure-trove and to a share in wrecks driven ashore on their land; they could fine their tenants who brewed bad beer or sold bread under weight; and all ordinary civil actions in which their tenants were involved must be settled in the manorial court.

This was the kind of organisation which existed on the manors of a great monastery, but a manor belonging to a lay landlord would be organised in the same way. No doubt the monks were, in general, more businesslike and efficient than other owners; they preserved their records (hence our knowledge of their affairs) and there was a continuity of policy from one generation to the next which was often lacking on other manors. But, in their standard of living, the Prior of Christ Church could be compared with one of the great barons, and the monks with his squires. In the matter of food, they looked after themselves well; one Trinity Sunday, about 1190, Giraldus Cambrensis, who was visiting the priory, counted 16 courses at dinner. Fish, eggs, poultry, cheese and bread were the principal foods. The monks’ bread was always wheaten, but the servants had to be content with bread of barley or mixed corn. The rule of the priory forbade the eating of meat, but this came to mean that meat could be eaten anywhere except in the refectory, and large quantities of beef, mutton and pork were consumed. Beer was the staple drink, but the best French wines were also imported through Sandwich. Between the years 1100 and 1400 the number of monks varied from 30 to 150, with an average of 60 to 80. Their servants numbered more than twice as many as the monks themselves, so the total household was usually well over 200. In addition, there were numerous and often important guests to be fed. These figures give some idea of the size of the problem which confronted the cellarer, whose business it was to provide the monks with food and drink, and to look after the guests and pilgrims.

Against this background of manorial and monastic organisation, we can examine the ups and downs which the Christ Church estates underwent between the 12th century and the 16th, when the monastery was dissolved.

During the latter part of the 11th century, it had already become quite usual for the priory to let off its demesne lands rather than for the monks to farm them themselves. In this way the monastery’s income from rents was increased, but the large quantities of ‘food which were required for the sustenance of the monks and their numerous servants had to be bought in the market. This was sound economy so long as prices remained low, as they did throughout the 12th century. However, by about the year 1225 the prices of corn and of cattle had risen so much that it began to pay the monks to farm their own lands and grow their own food rather than to let off the demesnes for money-rents.

The century from 1225 to 1325 saw demesne-farming at its most prosperous. Crop-growing became so profitable that a good deal of pasture was broken up and converted into arable. The monks were progressive farmers; they manured their lands thoroughly; they dressed the heavy clay lands with chalk or lime;, they knew that it was better for each farm to get seedcorn from another farm than to use home-grown seed; and they discovered that it paid to sow corn see rather more thickly than was customary at that time. At Barksore, near Chatham, for example, wheat was sown at the rate of four bushels to the acre, and at Monkton the rate for oats was seven bushels, and for barley six bushels to th acre. Where land had been recently manured and dressed, a bushel of see could be expected to give a crop of four-and-a-half bushels, but if the land had not been treated the return was likely to be not more than three-and-a-half bushels. To manure the land sheep were folded on the upland fields, as the still are, but the main source of manure was the farmyard. Great numbers of cattle were kept, and to feed them (as well as to make pottage and coarse bread for the lower ranks of servants) peas and beans were increasingly grown from about 1275 onwards.

By 1322 the monks had nearly 5,000 acres of land under cultivation Kent, growing the following crops:

Wheat  1,312 acres

Barley  981 acres

Oats  1,223 acres

Peas and beans 1,210 acres

Rye 52 acres

Total 4,779 acres

In other counties, where the soil was poorer, a much larger proportion of their land was under rye. Barley, to which nearly 1,000 acres was devoted, was used almost wholly for brewing beer.

Pasture was skilfully combined with arable fanning. Huge flocks of sheep were kept, the Monkton estate, for example, carrying 2,000 head of sheep in 1322. In all, in that year, the monks had some 10,000 sheep on their Kentish manors. They were kept mainly for their wool, which was exported through Sandwich, New Romney and Rochester, but they also ensured a good supply of mutton, and cheese was made from the ewes’ milk (10 or 12 ewes were regarded as equivalent to one cow). From dairy-farming, cheese was much more in demand than milk or butter. In one year the farm at Monkton produced almost a ton of cheese. This is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that there were no artificial foods to enrich the cows’ milk in the winter, and that the cheese-making season lasted only from April until September.

In the first few years of the 14th century Kentish agriculture prospered as never before. Corn was being sold off the Christ Church demesnes, not only in the local markets, but also in London and abroad, the main port of export being Sandwich. These figures for the manors of Agney (in Romney Marsh) and Ickham shows how much the income from corn sales increased in a period of 35 years:

Agney Ickham

1280    £10      £15

1315    £49      £28

Similarly, the profits from the sale of wool from all the Kentish manors, which had been £48 in 1288, went up to £146 in 1321 and to £157 in 1322.

And then came one of those sudden reversals in fortune which have always marked the history of agriculture. In 1323 the profits from wool sales were down to £93, and they never again reached £100. Corn production fell, and farming, which had been so prosperous until about 1320, 10 years later was in a sorry plight.

What were the causes of this sudden decline? The weather was certainly one of them. Towards the end of the 13th century and during the early 14th, Kent suffered from a series of severe storms which must have made farming difficult. More serious still were droughts during the 1320s, followed by pestilence which carried off a great part of the sheep and cattle. At the same time the sea flooded the low-lying parts of the manors near the coast—Monkton (the River Wantsum still flowed on the south and west sides of the Isle of Thanet, and Monkton therefore was subject to flooding by the sea), Lydden (in Worth parish) and Ebony, Agney and Orgarswick on Romney Marsh. From these causes the monks lost, in the years 1324-6, no fewer than 4,585 of their 10,000 sheep. Indeed, except on Romney Marsh, the flocks never recovered nor did sheep-rearing ever again reach its former importance and prosperity. Dairy farming also suffered; the profits for 1350, for example, were half those for 1320, and they continued to fall for the rest of the 14th century.

Before the agricultural economy could recover from the damage caused by flood, storms, drought and pestilence, it was further weakened by the Black Death of 1348-9. The plague struck west Kent more severely than the eastern part of the county, and altogether wiped out some villages, such as Dode (near Snodland). A monk of Canterbury, writing at the time, said that the pestilence ‘left barely a third part of mankind alive’, but that must have been an exaggeration; more probably about a third part died, although some places were stricken more hardly than their neighbours, and the bishop of Rochester, for example, seems to have lost the whole of his household of 32 men.

One result of the Black Death was that the number of farm labourers was much reduced and those who survived naturally pressed for higher wages. In the hundred years between 1310 and 1410 the average wage went up from 3s. Od. to about 18s. Od. a year. Because labour was more costly, the monks, during the second half of the 14th century, began to require the tenants to perform their labour-services, instead of commuting them for money, but the brunt of the work on the priory’s farms continued to be borne by labourers hired for wages.

Reference has already been made to the damage which the low-lying manors near the sea suffered from storms and floods. To protect them sea-walls had to be built and ditches cut, and they must constantly be kept in repair. This applied particularly to the great tract of land lying between Hythe and Rye which comprises Romney Marsh, Walland Marsh, Denge Marsh and Guldeford Level. It embraces more than 50,000 acres of some of the most fertile land in the whole country, marsh only in name, nearly all of it lying below sea-level. The Marsh has evolved from estuarine swamp during the last 2,000 years as. a result partly of natural causes and partly of man’s efforts. Its history is complicated, too long and too confusing to be described here in any detail. The south-western boundary of Romney Marsh proper follows the line of the Rhee Wall, now an earth embankment flanked by dykes that stretches from Appledore to New Romney. South-west of the Rhee much of the land was owned by the archbishops of Canterbury, by whom it was reclaimed from the sea in the 12th and 13th centuries, the ‘innings’ bearing the names of successive archbishops—St Thomas, Baldwin, Boniface and Pecham. These newly-reclaimed lands proved, richly fertile, once the soil had been dressed and manured, and they could be let off at high rents.

Because the greater part of the Marsh lies below sea-level, every landowner, however far from the sea his own land may lie, is concerned in the preservation of the sea-wall and the maintenance of the dykes. From a very early date special system of local government was evolved to deal with the upkeep of the walls and dykes. Twenty-four lawful and sworn men of Romney Marsh were chosen to keep them in repair, the sworn men having the right to levy a scot, or tax, upon every landowner in the Marsh. This scheme had been in existence. ‘from time immemorial’ when it was confirmed by Henry III in 1252. Later, the scheme which had been worked out by the marshmen was adopted in other parts of the country where low-lying lands had to be protected against flood.

However, the walls and dykes were inadequate to defend the Marsh from ravages of the unusually severe storms of the latter part of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries. In 1284, so Camden recorded 300 years later, ‘the sea driven by violent winds overwhelmed this tract and made great havoc of men, cattle and buildings, and having destroyed the little populous village of Promhill [which stood between Dungeness and Rye] changed the channel of the Rother, which here [at New Romney] emptied itself into the sea and filled up its mouth, making it a new and shorter course by Rye’. We shall have to say something more about these catastrophic changes in the topography of the Marsh when we come to the history of the Cinque Ports. They obviously cast a heavy burden on those who, like the monks of Christ Church, owned land there. Not merely did the monks pay the common scot, but they also spent large sums of money privately on cutting new dykes, and building and repairing walls, usually of clay but sometimes strengthened with timber, straw or turf to protect their lands against inundation. Similar work had to be carried out on the Thanet and Thames-side marshes, although not on anything like the same scale—there are no items of expenditure to compare with the £1,500 which was spent on the ‘inning’ of Appledore marsh during the 15th century.

We must rapidly pass over the history of the Christ Church estates during the last 150 years before the Dissolution. After the disasters of the 14th century agriculture gradually recovered during the 15th, although it did not again reach the heights of prosperity of the years 1280 to 1320. As it recovered, the monks began to change their policy and, instead of themselves farming their demesne lands, they let off entire manors on long leases, thus ensuring for themselves a large income from rents and freedom from trouble in the management of their estates. They lived the comfortable life of well-to-do landowners, but they also spent a great deal of money on the cathedral. The latter-day monks may not for the most part have been pious men, but they were good husbandmen, and their Priors Selling and Goldstone built the great Angel Steeple, or Bell Harry, surely the loveliest cathedral tower in England. Such conspicuou expenditure suggests that Kentish agriculture, by the end of the 15th century was recovering something of its former prosperity.

This chapter is based almost entirely on the records of Christ Church Priory For privately-owned estates no such records are available, but (allowing for th fact that monks were among the best and most progressive farmers of the time) what is true of the Christ Church manors would no doubt hold for other estates in the county. We can, then, sum up the history of agriculture in Kent during the Middle Ages by saying that 1100 to 1280 was a period of steadily increasing prosperity; the years from 1280 to 1320 saw agriculture at its peak there followed a sudden and sharp decline, the slump lasting until after th middle of the century; from about 1370 onwards a slow recovery set in continuing during the 15th century, but the levels of the ‘high-farming’ period of 1280 to 1320 were never again reached during the Middle Ages.