The Medieval Countryside

The Medieval Countryside

William the Conqueror’s devastation of the north, and his incomplete hold on the region, meant Northumberland, along with other parts of the north, was not included in the great Domesday Survey of 1086. In more southerly parts of England this Survey provides a picture of the countryside at the end of the Anglo-Saxon era and before the great agricultural and commercial expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries. In Northumberland few surviving records are earlier than the 12th century (the oldest royal charter, now in Ainwick Castle, is a grant of Ellingham near Bamburgh by Henry I to Ralph de Gaugy, dated 1120-1133),  and it is more difficult to disentangle the Anglo-Saxon and Norman elements in the landscape. However, the place-name evidence indicates that the main features of settlement had been laid down before the Conquest.

Nevertheless, there remained scope for considerable agricultural expansion. In the lowlands the village fields were surrounded by wastes and commons, many right down to the 18th century. There were large tracts of moor, and many areas were still wooded, as around Rothbury and Brinkburn, or in the foothills south of the Tyne. Several parts of the Cheviots were well wooded, and Robert de Umfraville had 300 acres of wood at Kingshope and 100 at Cottonshope in Upper Redesdale. There was room for the early Norman kings to set aside large areas of the county as hunting forests, as occurred around Alnwick, Rothbury, and Felton. These were not dense woodland, for the term ‘forest’ in this context comes not from the Latin foresta, but from foris, ‘outside’, meaning land outside the common law, but they were often overgrown, scrubby or lightly wooded.

In the lowlands there was open-field 4rable farming. Cultivation was generally in furlongs, often loosely grouped into blocks, and individuals might hold strips in many parts of the unfenced fields. On these plots the main crops were oats and wheat. In Northumber­land the climate and soil often did not allow the roughly equal acreages of winter-sown grain, spring grain, and fallow that formed the basis of the regular three-course rotations further south. Such systems probably existed at Bamburgh and Embleton, and in 1232 there was a three-course rotation of rye and wheat, oats and fallow at Hextold. But the acreages for the Knights Templars’ estate at Temple Thornton, near Mitford, in 1308 are probably more typical: there they sowed 37 acres of wheat and 101 acres of oats. They spent £9 8s. 6d. (£9.42p) on the seed and 5s. 9d. (29p) to have the 138 acres weeded at ½d. (0.2p) an acre. The accounts also detail 12s. (60p) for the repair of ploughs and harrows, and l0d. (4p) for salt for the servants’ porridge.

The crops might be mixed up in the village fields, but the problems this created gradually forced farming towards a regular two- or three-field system for a village, each field devoted to one crop or fallow. The sort of problems are illustrated by Henry Fawkes of West Backworth, who sued the Prior of Tynemouth in 1316  for damage caused by the Prior’s animals to his corn, but the claim was disallowed because Henry had been cultivating a furlong that should have lain fallow that year.

Pastoral farming was at least as important as arable. In the Temple Thornton accounts are listed 400 sheep, though 97 had died of disease or ‘murrain’ and 3s. (15p) had been spent on sheep ointment. Two hundred and fifty-three fleeces had been sold. In many areas there were large-scale flocks and herds. During the early fourteenth century there were 3,600 sheep pastured along the lower banks of the Tweed. The Umfravilles had numerous sheep and cattle on the moors of Otterburn and Redesdale, and in 1245 the pasture of Aiwinton and Otterburn was estimated to carry 1,140 sheep and 1,400 cows. In the lowlands the animals were grazed on the commons and the fallow, but on the moorlands the sheep and cattle were taken in the summer months to the higher fells of Redesdale, Tynedale and Kidland, the shepherds living in tempprary huts or shielings, returning to the valleys in winter. As the human and animal population increased, so the regulation of pasture rights became more important. At the assizes in 1293 the Abbot of Ainwick was sued for exceeding his pasture stint on Edlingham moors. Each tenant of a bovate was allowed two horses, two oxen, two cows, two pigs, and 40 sheep, but the Abbot, who had four bovates, had overstocked to the tune of 1,000 sheep, 200 pigs, 40 oxen, 40 horses, and 40 cows.

Only rarely does the surviving evidence go beyond the manorial duties to the details of peasant living conditions in the medieval farming community. One enquiry after the death of a tenant at Wallsend in 1349 (he had died in the Black Death of that year) reported that he had farmed 23 acres, sowing 10 with wheat, two with barley, and eight with oats and peas. The man’s possessions were listed as a plough, two carts, three harrows, an earthenware pot, and a vat, four boars and a cow.

The 12th and 13th centuries were periods of great agricultural expansion in Northumberland as elsewhere in England. There was a growing population, strong Norman organisation, and an improving climate with better growing conditions. New arable land was broken in from the wastes and in some places entire new villages formed.

The expansion of existing arable can be seen at Chirton on the south of the great Shire Moor that lasted in south-east Northumberland right through to the end of the 18th century. By a deed of 1320 Henry Fawkes of Backworth granted to Tynemouth Priory, 60 acres of Rodestane Moor north of Chirton to bring into cultivation. A 1250 survey reveals even larger intakes from the commons of Shoreston and North Sunderland near Bamburgh. The bondagers of Shoreston had recently broken in 18 new acres from the moor, and bondagers at North Sunderland 312  new acres. In the south of the county at Whittonstall, Hugh de Baliol in about 1200 granted 314 acres to be assarted (cleared of trees), cultivated, built upon and enclosed. This was probably the origin of Newlands village on the Ebchester road. Later another 200 acres were added.

About a mile north of Ashington, on the Ellington road, is the site of New Moor farm. The origin of this settlement was in a marriage agreement about 1160-80,  when Hugh de Morwick was granted Ashington ‘et territorium ad unam villam edificandam in Pendmor’, land to build a village in Pendmoor. Pendmoor means Penda’s swamp, and one can readily imagine the efforts to cultivate arable from the damp lands that still surround the Potland Burn today.

In the uplands the margins of farming were also being expanded, and many shielings became permanent settlements. In Tynedale, Duncliueshalch, the site of one of the hunting lodges of William the Lion in about 1166, was by 1279 the settlement of Donkleywood with arable fields. By 1292 le Carrisideschel, by the Wark Burn, was a settlement with holdings of arable and meadow, as was Shiel Dyke on Alnwick Moor north of Newton-on-the-Moor.

New settlements were also carved out of the forests. The King’s forest of Rothbury on the slopes of the Simonside hills was nibbled away by a whole series of clearings. Before 1200 the canons of Brinkburn paid the King 20 marks (a mark was 13s. 4d., or 67p), so that the 100 acres of assarts they had made in the forests might be free of all restraints, and a number of laymen also paid 16 marks for the same purpose. In 1204 Rothbury forest was granted to Robert Fitzroger, and the village of Newtown was created sometime between 1214 and 1242. By 1249 it had 270 acres of arable land. Pastureland was also important, and in 1249 the villagers of Rothbury paid 14s. (70p) a year so their animals could use the wood during the ‘fence-month’, when the wood was normally restricted to the deer. But these inroads into the hunting areas provoked landowners to create specific deer-parks to protect their game. Such parks were built at Warkworth, Acklington and Chillingham. Here in Rothbury forest, a deer park was created in 1275. Robert Fitzroger surrounded part of the forest with a stone wall, a section of which can still be seen on the slopes of the Simonsides near the small road from Lordenshaws to Tosson. Not surprisingly, the commoners reacted and at the 1279 Assize the Rothbury jurors complained that Robert had enclosed part of the forest they needed for their cattle. They added that Robert had bought off the local parson, giving him six acres as a park to stop him objecting.

The last decades of the 13th century saw the high water mark of this tide of agrarian expansion. Warfare with Scotland was about to destroy many of these gains. We, fortunately, possess a detailed tax assessment, taken in the last year of peace, 1296. This Lay Subsidy Roll is preserved in the Public Record Office. As a record it has many flaws, but it still gives, village by village, a unique assessment of relative wealth. Glendale, near the border over the Tweed, had the villages with the greatest average wealth. East and West Coquetdale, which included villages up to Lilburn and Chatton, was the second most wealthy. The heavy clay lands south of the. Coquet were much poorer with Tynemouthshire at the bottom. So Monkseaton was assessed at only £18 7s. 2d. (£18.36p), whereas Thockrington, now an isolated farm near Sweethope Lough, was assessed at £41 5s. 9d. (£41.29p), and Hethpool, west of Wooler, at £48 16s. 2d. (£48.82p).