The History of Lincolnshire After 1066

The Middle Ages Land and Society

Creating the county

The counties of Anglo-Saxon England, each one under an earl, a sheriff and a bishop, were laid out in the ninth and 10th centuries from the south-west, so that the territory attached to the county town usually lay rather to the north and north-east. When those who created them came to the land of the Five Boroughs they found a region already heavily provincialised; each of the towns had a territory which supported it, and as late as the 940s they formed a confederation under an ealdorman and a king’s reeve. These arrangements may be reflected in that Nottingham’s lands and Derby’s lands shared the same sheriff in the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the same originally happened in Lincolnshire. Certainly Lincoln was not only given its own territory of Lindsey to the north and east which already existed under its own ealdorman, but it also received lands to the south including the borough of Stamford. It is not clear if a Stamfordshire ever existed; if so, the process of shiring would suggest that it was Kesteven to the north and east of Stamford. But from as early as we can see, this area came under the authority of the sheriff at Lincoln. Lincolnshire was a double county, with lands both north and south of the city to support it.

One reason for this may have been the loss of part of Stamford’s lands by the creation about 963 of the soke of Peterborough out of the lands which belonged to the abbey, and by the formalisation of Rutland, the private possession of the Mercian royal family, as an extra-county territory. This land without any major borough to defend it broke the natural boundary of the county, so that not only did Stamford lie at the very edge of Lincolnshire on a peninsula jutting into the neighbouring counties at a point where four authorities met but parts of the town itself lay in Northamptonshire, in the liberty of the abbot of Peterborough and in Rutland, as well as in Lincolnshire.

But a more likely cause was the sudden savage threat from the new pagan kingdom set up at York in the 930s and 940s by Norse from Dublin. The new English rulers, faced with repelling invaders from the Danelaw (943) and with conquering the north and defending the realm from further incursions, chose Lincoln as their front-line capital, giving that city a double region for support. There is no proof of this, but no other explanation of the double county is satisfactory. It is worthy of note that in due course York too received a multiple territory to support it.

Local Government in early Lincolnshire
10. Local Government in early Lincolnshire

But the different units remained distinct. The Parts of Kesteven, Lindsey and Holland all existed before Domesday Book (1086). Kestev­en, heavily wooded (the name includes the British word -ceto for forest), reached from Stamford to the Witham at Lincoln, while Lindsey covered all the land to the north and east of Lincoln, probably rather more than the early kingdom. Holland, which seems to have consisted of little more than the area around Kirton, was being reclaimed from the salt and freshwater marshes to the east.

Despite the size of the county, Lincolnshire was a unit. The ‘men of Lincoinshire’ are referred to in 1086 and on later occasions. There was one shire court which met every six weeks under the sheriff in Lincoln castle. But there was also a court for Kesteven which met at Ancaster and perhaps elsewhere, and the ‘men of Kesteven’ are mentioned. When Justices of the peace were set up, separate benches were commissioned for Lindsey, Kesteven and Holland. And Kesteven and Holland disputed long over their respective boundaries.

Beneath the three parts, Lindsey like Yorkshire had three ‘ridings’. Each county had ‘wapentakes’, groupings of townships; these were the effective units of local government in medieval Lincolnshire. They were well established by the time of Domesday Book, and most of their names like Langoe, Threo and Aveland are Danish though some are English. They varied in size. Kesteven had 11 with an average of 26 townships in each. In Holland they tended to be larger, three covering 51 townships and their extensive fenland territories. Lindsey had 19, varying in size from 18 to 54 townships. On occasion regrouping of villages between wapentakes took place. Each had a court held probably every four weeks; most meeting places were out of doors (Loveden Hill, Aveland in Aslackby parish, Elloe stone in Moulton parish) though some wapen­takes had villages with cognate names (Candlesby, Wragby).

Domesday Lincolnshire

Lincolnshire was one of the wealthiest regions in Domesday England. It was already heavily populated. There were more people per acre/ha than in any other county except Norfolk or Suffolk; indeed taking into account the wastelands of fen and heath, the county was probably one of the most densely settled areas of William’s new kingdom. And this population lived in nucleated villages, not hamlets or farmsteads. Some 750 villages are mentioned in Domesday Book. Some have now vanished but most of the present villages of the county are recorded; only in the fenlands have significant numbers of new settlements been established since 1086.

The southern Wolds harboured the densest population in large villages, the biggest in the county. The Danish settlement here seems to have been so heavy that secondary infilling was not common. The centre of Kesteven was also heavily settled. In both areas small irregular parishes tell the same story, of villages jostling each other in their demand for land. On the other hand, the clay basins of the Trent, Witham and Ancholme were less densely occupied, and in the Marsh dispersed settlements appeared early, nucleated villages later. In the Fens, isolated villages, often quite large, lay along the silt bank.

Domesday Lincolnshire
11. Domesday Lincolnshire

Lincolnshire had not been devastated like Yorkshire by the conquerors/crusaders; there are few signs of destruction in 1086. The county was however heavily taxed. Kesteven and Holland were probably assessed at first as one unit; they paid rather more than Lindsey, and subsequently some allowances were made to ease Kesteven’s burden. It was not until later that the Marsh and Fens became ‘the richest part of twelfth-century England’.

The general picture is of a farming community. Most Lincolnshire villages seem to have cultivated two large arable fields, shared among the peasant farmers; as the Middle Ages progressed, the number of fields increased to three or more. Villages had interests in the marshes often many miles/kms away for meadows, pastures, peat pits and saltpans as well as for fish and fowl. River fisheries were highly valued. There was much woodland, especially in the Wolds south of Louth, the vale between Lincoln and the southern Wolds as far as Tattershall, and central Kesteven; these areas are still forested but largely as a result of 18th-and 19th-century plantation. Waste was recorded on the heath and near the coast still liable to flood. Saltpans occur in the Marsh and Fens, and watermills appear, often in large groups (14 at Tealby, 13 at Louth, nine at Nettleton, eight at Sleaford).

The county possessed two major towns, Lincoln and Stamford. Lincoln suffered from the conquest; by 1086 its population had fallen from about 6000 to about 4500; at least 166 houses had been destroyed for a large castle (five acres/2ha) in the upper city and work had begun on the new cathedral. Population and the centre of the town had moved downhill to the lower city where an estate of 36 houses and two churches was being developed. Although it had extensive fields, it was an urban community, a focus of trade with Scandinavia and elsewhere, with moneyers and a sophisticated local government based on lawmen. Although the canal between Lincoln and the Trent was blocked until recut in the reign of Henry I, Torksey at the junction of the Fosse Dyke and the Trent was described as a ‘suburb of Lincoln’; it had decayed considerably between 1066 and 1086 but was still responsible for con­ducting king’s messengers to York on demand. Stamford too was a major settlement. Soon after the conquest/crusade a castle was built, and probably a new market place laid out. It had moneyers and lawmen.

There are signs of other towns, trade and industry in 1086. The king’s manor of Grantham had burgesses; with its ‘hall’ and church, it formerly belonged to Edward the Confessor’s queen Edith. Louth had a ‘hall’ of the bishop of Lincoln, burgesses and a market. Boston does not appear in Domesday – until archaeologists can show that it was omitted we must assume that it grew up after 1086. Markets existed at Bolingbroke and Partney in the southern Wolds, Barton on Humber and perhaps Kirton in the north and at Spalding in the Fens, and a fair at Three­kingham in mid-Kesteven. Tolls on shipping were taken at Grimsby, Saltfleet and Barton. Iron-working continued in the Bytham area.

Map of Medieval Lincoln
12. Medieval Lincoln

Social structure

Domesday Book reveals a French-Norman nobility dominating a mixed Anglo-Norman peasantry. Virtually all pre-conquest landowners in Lincolnshire had been displaced by landlords from Brittany, Flanders or Normandy. Sixty-six tenants-in-chief are listed in Lincolnshire in 1086; only two were English and only one, Colswein of Lincoln, still held his lands and indeed had increased them, perhaps in return for some act of support to the Conqueror/Crusader. The smaller tenants, both the king’s thegns and the sub-tenants of the greater lords, were often Anglo­-Danish. There were a few French settlers concentrated in one or two centres. But there was no wholesale dispossession.

There were 10 ecclesiastical lords like the bishop of Lincoln and they held nearly 20 manors each. The 56 temporal lords averaged twelve and a half manors. Few monasteries held property in Lincolnshire and only one (Peterborough) had extensive lands; Crowland was the only monastery within the borders of the county in 1086. The king had estates throughout the area, in particular the town and soke of Grantham. Already some barons had begun to grant parts of their land to the knights who had fought at Hastings/Senlac Ridge or who came over from the continent later.

One form of estate prominent in Domesday Lincolnshire was the soke, an area of privileged jurisdiction usually administered from a central residence. Some were large, some small; many were centred on English rather than Danish settlements – Edenham, Ruskington, Horncastle. Some like Grantham were made up of scattered estates, others were more compact – some may even have been decaying by 1086.

Beneath the sokes and knights fees were manors, often with outlying berewicks (barley-lands or granges). In Lincolnshire the majority of villages were divided between manors; relatively few manors and vill­ages coincided. They were still largely in the hands of Anglo-Danish farmers, but there are signs of new halls and home farms being created to accommodate the French-Norman newcomers.

Lincolnshire possessed an abnormally large number of free peasants, sokemen. They were freer but not necessarily richer than their neighbours. Nearly a half of all sokemen recorded for the country were in Lincoln­shire; and more than a half of the county’s population fell into this class, some 11,000 in all, and within the larger sokes the proportion was higher (71 per cent in Bolingbroke). The highest concentration lay in the North Riding of Lindsey, with the South Riding next; Kesteven and the West Riding had just under half, while in Holland, the traditional home of the free peasant, there were relatively few. No other county had this concentration, although East Anglia had large proportions of freemen. If sokemen are a sign of Danish settlement, the centre of Scandinavian influence lay in Lincolnshire and it thinned out north­wards, westwards and southwards.

Other evidence of Scandinavian influence appears in Domesday – personal names, words like wapentake, carucate and bovate instead of the hundred, ploughland and oxgang, the lawmen of Lincoln and Stamford, the long hundred (120 units) and ora (silver ounce worth 16d) and the assessment of geld in blocks of 12 or 24 rather than tens

Alongside the sokemen, the villeins (landed peasantry) and bordars or cottars (smallholders, landless labourers and craftsmen) were con­centrated on manors outside the sokes, and as early as 1086 it was clear – that they were more closely tied to their lords than the sokemen.

Castles and lordships

The new lords demanded more dues and services and exploited their new estates more fully. They developed mills, fisheries and salterns. They built substantial stone houses like the later Boothby Pagnell, ‘the most important small French-Norman manor house in England’. Castles accommodating a garrison as well as a lord’s household were built by the king at Lincoln and Stamford and by the count of Aumale at Bytham, and more followed in the 12th century. Between 30 and 40 were erected in the county, most during the troubled years of Stephen’s reign. Few were in towns – Horncastle, Boston and Grantham seem never to have had castles. Lincoln, Stamford and Sleaford (the bishop of Lincoln’s fortress) played important parts in the civil wars between Matilda and Stephen (Stephen was captured at Lincoln in 1141) and in the wars of Henry II and John; John was passing across the Fens (where he lost his baggage and funds on a treacherous causeway) to Swineshead abbey or castle, Sleaford castle and Newark castle where he died. At first strongholds in a conquered countryside, they became fortresses to oppose rivals and to resist the king, residences and administrative centres for far-flung estates; from here the lord’s tenants were summoned to his court. –

About a third of all William’s tenants in chief had estates in Lincoln­shire. Some 20 had their caput or headquarters in the county. The rest like the earl of Richmond and the bishop of Bayeux ran their Lincolnshire property from centres outside the county. Thus knights from Lincolnshire owed ‘castle-ward’ at Rockingham (Northants), Richmond (Yorks), Lancaster or elsewhere.

The two most important centres in the region were Lincoln and Bolingbroke. The earls of Chester claimed to be earls of Lincoln and hereditary constables of Lincoln castle; they built a fortress at Boling­broke, the centre of a lordship with some 60 sub-tenants, one of the county’s greatest sokes. Other barons had residences in Lincolnshire. Gilbert de Ghent (whose father had built a castle at Barton in the reign of Stephen) made Folkingham castle his centre, and at Bourne Baldwin I fitz Gilbert turned the parish church into a monastery, built a castle and probably laid out a new market place in trying to make a caput worthy of the king’s relative. Ivo Tailbois the notorious sheriff of Lincoln­shire created a home-town at Spalding. The Mowbray family had a castle at Kinnard Ferry and perhaps later at Epworth to control their Axholme estate, and from this refuge they played a part in the struggles of Henry II and Henry III. The Bardolfs built Canton and the Gresleys Swineshead. Mounds suggestive of motte and bailey castles survive at Corby, Dalby and Barrow. Henry II took measures to deal with unlicen­sed castle-building, and some like the Amundeville castle at Kingerby were destroyed.

But the royal castles soon passed into private hands, Lincoln to the earls of Lincoln and later the dukes of Lancaster, Stamford to the Humets and then the Warennes. The works never finished at Grimsby may have been intended by the king to restore royal influence, and later Edward I acquired Somerton castle south of Lincoln from the bishop of Durham (‘perhaps the finest castle in the county but founded to fulfil no real need of defence or administration’) as a royal centre; it served as a prison for the king of France (1359-60) and then fell into decay.

As the Middle Ages advanced, titles and estates became amalgamated until in the 14th century there were about 40 lords in England compared with 180 under William I. The sphere of influence moved from the estate to the shire, and new landholders aspiring to the status of castle dweller emerged – the Moultons of Moulton, the Tatteshales of Tattershall, the Umfravilles of South Kyme. A few of the older centres like Bytham retained their importance, but Lincoln became local government offices, a gaol and a refuge for the Jews in their persecutions. Bolingbroke became a residence until the 1370s when it became the administrative centre for the duchy of Lancaster, and Stamford, Welbourne and Bourne fell into decay.

By the 15th century, Folkingham and Tattershall were the important centres locked in the conflict of their lords Beaumont and Cromwell. Each built up a body of retainers, men who were J.P.s, sheriffs, M.P.s, like Sir Hugh Witham of Boston and Sir William Tailbois of South Kyme who called himself the ‘earl of Kyme’; and each looked to greater magnates, the dukes of York or Suffolk, to maintain them in their struggle for influence. There was no permanent grouping of allies; each man sought ‘good lordship’ where he could find it.

And thus was Lincolnshire involved in the Wars of the Roses. There were uprisings at Grantham and elsewhere in the 1450s. Grantham and Stamford were sacked in 1461 because they belonged to the duke of York. The lords Willoughby and Welles led a disastrous revolt against Edward IV in 1470 at the instigation of the earl of Warwick. There was considerable disorder and violence in the county.


Throughout the Middle Ages Lincolnshire remained one of the most densely occupied regions of England; as the country’s population trebled between 1066 and 1300, the county with its waste land was able to absorb more than its share of this increase. Colonisation in the forests of Kesteven and on the lighter soils of the Wolds took place; even the dry lands received their settlements (Temple Bruer on the heath). Whole villages as at Brauncewell and Broxholme moved to suit changes in climate, while others shrank or disappeared (Fordington). Reclamation of the wetlands became rapid in the 11th and 12th centuries, reaching its peak in the 13th century. Some was sponsored by religious houses like Crowland, Spalding and the Gilbertines, some by lay magnates; but much was done by the free peasantry either individually or in groups:

Concerning this marsh a wonder has happened in our time. In years past, these places were accessible neither to man nor beast, affording only deep mud with sedge and reeds, and inhabited by birds. . . This is now changed into delightful meadows and also arable land.

The Isle of Axholme, the Ancholme valley, the Witham basin both east and west of the heathlands and the salt sea marshes all felt the demand for land, but the greatest gains were made in the Marsh, where streams were embanked and sea walls built, and in the Fens where population probably became denser than anywhere else outside the towns. The villages of Moulton and Weston, for instance, which appar­ently had some 77 households in 1086 had 389 households in 1259-60. Groups of villages often shared the work and the profits, and outlying settlements, some with their own chapels, were established. The mead­ows and intercommoning of pasture reveal the value of the new lands. Spalding, Crowland and Deeping St. James lived in a triangular state of perpetual hostility, quarrelling, raiding and destroying each other’s dykes, boundary posts and herds, and there was a similar long-drawn-out struggle between Grimsby and Glee. The Black Death and later plagues were perhaps less sharply felt in Holland than elsewhere in the county where some villages were permanently deserted; it was flooding, beginning in the 1280s, but damaging from the late 14th and 15th centuries which seems to have halted the process of colonisation and even undone the work, despite the efforts of the Commissions of Sewers.

Elsewhere, large estates grew up in Kesteven and on the Wolds, some monastic (Vaudey, Revesby), some lay (Folkingham, Bolingbroke), nucleated villages of owner-occupiers or substantial tenant farmers on the lower clay lands, and areas of dispersed farmsteads in the fenlands, marshes and some forest areas. Some lords kept a tight hold over their tenants as at Scrivelsby (Marmions, later Dymokes), Stow by Lincoln (the bishop), Baston and Langtoft (Crowland). Fairs were established as at Stow Green by Sempringham abbey. Other villages were less strongly manorialised like Heckington. On big estates like the bishopric of Lincoln or the duchy of Lancaster, a new breed of estate administrators emerged, increasing the range of management experience within the local community.

Map of Medieval Lincolnshire
13. Medieval Lincolnshire

The land was fully exploited. There was salt-making, fowling and fishing in the wetlands and rabbit warrens, pottery and quarrying elsewhere, leather processing in the south west. Corn was grown every­where, even on the new lands, so that in some places pasture became scarce. But by the 13th century the main produce was wool. The long­woolled sheep bred from Yorkshire to Northamptonshire produced the best wool in Europe. In the Fens, flocks running into thousands of sheep were kept by lay magnates and the larger monasteries, and every religious house and almost every peasant had some income from wool. In 1300 an Italian directed fellow merchants to the Lindsey Wolds for the best wool. The yields and quality of the produce of the sheep walks were equalled only in the Cotswolds and on the Welsh Marches. Sometimes whole village communities were removed to make way for sheep, and the wool-house, mill and tannery at Vaudey abbey reveal something of the wealth and economic activities of a typical Lincolnshire monastery.

Most of this wool was exported, principally through the ports of the Wash. Lincolnshire towns like Lincolnshire peasants thrived on the backs of their sheep. A larger proportion of the county’s population lived in towns than in other areas. Lincoln was for much of the time the second city of the realm, and Boston was a boom town, the greatest port after London despite fire, floods and riots; indeed Boston and Lincoln together probably had more trade than London. Stamford was a great trading centre, Grantham, Grimsby and Louth sizeable market towns, Saltfleetby and Wainfleet active havens. Throughout the county smaller market towns flourished. New towns grew up, some like Crowland round monasteries, others like Bourne round a castle. Barton developed at the ferry and remained important until it lost the river trade to Hull. One or two towns were planned – New Sleaford by the bishop of Lincoln and perhaps Tattershall and Gainsborough, but the movement to found new towns was weaker in Lincolnshire than elsewhere.

The towns had little political influence. Very few apart from Lincoln and Grimsby had M.P.s until the 15th century, not even Boston. Their power was trade. Lincoln grew to some 7000 population. The walls were repaired and extended; with the town’s fields to the north, church lands (Monks Liberty) to the east and private land to the south (Malan­dry), suburbs sprang up at Newport to the north, Wigford to the south, Newland in the west and Thorngate (the home of foreign merchants) to the south east. Downhill lay most of the churches and markets, while the upper city housed the castle and the ever-growing cathedral. With its famous Lincoln scarlets, grains (red, not green), says and blanchets, it was an industrial centre, the third city of the realm, exceeded by London and equalled by York. Parliament met here on several occasions.

Three of England’s five international marts were at Boston, Stamford and St Ives nearby, while a fourth lay at Northampton in the county’s hinterland. King’s Lynn, like Lincoln, was a focus for international trade. Merchants came with furs, fish, hawks, timber and metal goods; cloth, linen, dyes and canvas came from Flanders, spices and wine from Gascony and the south. Italian and Spaniard found goods they needed at these fairs; they took away English corn and malt, lead from Derby­shire and salt, above all wool and cloth. One third of England’s wool exports passed through Boston, from the Midlands and as far as the Welsh border, the clippings of some three million sheep. Most went to Flanders but nearly a sixth reached Italy. The trade was largely in the hands of foreigners; most of the ships belonged to alien merchants, but native merchants exported wool from Hull and Lynn as well as Boston – in 1296-7 there were 34 alien shippers in Boston and five native shippers.

Much of the wool was purchased directly from the producers. It was the cloth merchants who frequented the fairs for fine Flemish cloth, brightly coloured and carefully finished, the best in Europe. Most of the cloth for the royal household was bought at the Lincolnshire fairs rather than at Winchester. But the buyers came for the products of Stamford and Lincoln as well as of Ypres and Ghent, for the fairs were at the centre of England’s own cloth industry in a region which stretched from York to Leicester; the Lincoln and Stamford cloths may have been made in those towns or in the villages around and sold in the towns but  they dominated the market.

By the 14th century, decline set in. As early as 1179 Lincoln had received a first blow to its prosperity when Newark bridge was built over the Trent despite a condition that ‘it may not harm my city of Lincoln’; the main route to the north was diverted from Lincoln to pass through Grantham and Newark, and Lincolnshire’s county town became isolated. The first road map (Gough’s map) shows Lincoln with a road north to the Humber but no road south. The expulsion of the Jews with their systems of credit and trade a century later resulted in considerable economic distress in the city.

But more than all was the fall off in the wool trade. The king regulated the trade and for a time Lincoln and then Boston became ‘staple’ ports, charged with collecting the heavy duties on the export of wool, but in the end this moved to Calais. Plague, depopulation and the French wars all contributed to the decline. The general pattern of trade in Europe changed and Lincolnshire, closely tied to the northern markets since the 10th century, suffered as the merchants of Norway and Gascony gave way to the more restrictive merchants of the Hanse and Italy. The Germans left their mark on Boston church, and most of the wool went south rather than east as the markets of the north became closed, although Boston merchants tried to keep open the routes to Iceland in the 15th century. The salt industry declined until in 1364 coal and cloth were exchanged for salt from southern France; the surviving salterns supplied local markets only. With the salt the fishing industry declined, and piracy and wrecking became a major occupation for the coast dwellers, especially the men of Grimsby.

And the cloth industry moved. By the late 14th century worsteds and other cloths were being made in west Yorkshire, East Anglia and the west Midlands. Some of the new cloths from Coventry were exported through Boston (although it was silting up) and local wool merchants were still wealthy like the Browne family of Stamford who founded Browne’s hospital. Many agricultural areas remained prosperous but the towns declined. Lincoln suffered most; it became a remote country town, cut off from the main water and land routes (the Fosse Dyke was often blocked and the Witham silted up). Stamford, Barton and Grantham retained some of their prosperity into the 16th century, and links with the continent persisted – the ‘Dutch’ for instance were busy building at Thornton, Tattershall and Boston; but the great days of Lincolnshire as a major focus of Europe’s trade were over.