Exploiting the Land

Exploiting the Land

Domesday Book demonstrates quite clearly that the riches of Somerset lay in its soil, and the history of the county until the present day is a continuous story of the development of its agriculture. Variety of terrain produced many different farming patterns. Down in the south, on the fertile soils around lichester, Yeovil and Crewkerne, the traditional open fields proved efficient and long-lived, and the pattern of strips and furlongs is still to be seen in Shepton Beauchamp, Barring­ton and Stoke sub Hamdon. Medieval custumals, outlining in detail the holdings on a manor, often reveal the landscape and its people in remarkable detail. At Brympton D’Evercy, on the rich Yeovil Sands, the village in 1343 was surrounded by three common arable fields, four pieces of meadow, four little pastures let for grazing, and another pasture planted with oak trees. The lord’s home farm, the demesne, measured 165 acres/66.7ha. There were 10 tenant farmers each with a few acres/ha of his own, 10 cottagers, one of whom was the village blacksmith, and 20 peasant families, some with 30 acres/12.1ha, some with only 15, who in return made hay, ploughed, sowed and harvested on the lord’s farm, paid specified rents and served when chosen as reeve, drover, or domestic servant.

Brympton lay in arable country, growing mostly wheat, but also a few acres/ha of oats, beans and peas. The home farm could only support a few animals-12 oxen for ploughing, a bull, six cows and their calves and a hundred sheep fed on the fallow arable. Over in the west, in Stogumber parish, the manor of Rowden was in different country. Already by 1307 there was only a furlong or two of arable, in an area which had, perhaps, never had strip fields; most of the land was in closes, marked out by several of the tenants whose duties involved making the earth banks so typical of the Brendons and Exmoor. The survey of Rowden which has survived was not concerned with crops, but records how many fields had recently been improved with marl.

Medieval Castles & Fortified Houses
Medieval Castles & Fortified Houses

On the prior of Winchester’s rich manor of Bleadon, on the edge of the Levels where the Mendips stretch out towards the sea, grassland dominated the economy, and 10 small farmers paid extra rent for a guarantee of grazing elsewhere should the common pasture be flooded by sea water. Wheat, oats, beans and peas were grown there, the standard crops of medieval England, but this was primarily grazing land which stretched from the top of the Mendips to the low-lying moors, and detailed customs bound the smaller tenants to the care of sheep and cows.

Custom everywhere governed the life of the countryside, regulating farming by the feasts of the Church in bewildering variety, but giving each tenant of the manor a settled and defined part in society. On the manor of Stoke sub Hamdon in 1287 Walter Vox was tenant of about 15 acres/6ha of land scattered in the fields of the parish. His many duties on the farm of his landlord, Lady Cedily Beauchamp, included ploughing and harrowing in the winter, taking carts for brushwood or timber to Marston Magna, Hatch Beauchamp or Merrifield, fetching salt and herrings once a year from Lyme, and seed from Shepton Mallet or Marston. There was some harrowing to be done in the spring, but more important was haymaking, done in the 22 days between the Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June) and the Feast of St Peter’s Chains (1 August)—mowing five swathes in one or two meadows and six in others, all before dinner time, in return for taking for himself a truss of hay as large as he could carry. If the corn should be ripe On St Peter’s Chains, Walter and other tenants like him were to begin the harvest, cutting three acres/1.2ha of winter corn first and then five of spring corn, and so on every day until it was finished and carted and stacked until Michaelmas.

William de Mora of the tithing of Holway in the bishop of Winchester’s manor of Taunton worked for the bishop one day in every week except Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, and in autumn daily while the harvest lasted, labouring from sunrise until midday. He had to be prepared to take corn to Topsham in Devon, Bridgwater, Langport, or Ilchester, and to fetch wine from Exeter, Topsham, or Bridgwater. He was to carry firewood to Taunton Castle at Christmas, and when the bishop travelled from Taunton to Winchester he was to help carry his goods as far as Rimpton, on the county boundary. On the same manor, but in the tithing of Galmington, lived Robert Wylie, who by custom carried letters for the bishop wherever he might be ordered.

At Capton in the Brendons tenants by 1307 were responsible for carrying grain after threshing to Bawdrip, Dunster, Watchet, or elsewhere within 15 leagues/45miles/18.2ha, and were to fetch herring and salt either from Lyme or Exeter. Bleadon was in a different market area, and Gilbert Huppehull and his fellow tenants went regularly to markets at Bristol, Wells, Priddy, and Bridgwater, and if goods were to be sent abroad they were first to be taken to Axbridge, there to be loaded on boats.

The Christmas feast at North Curry, as on any manor, must have been the highlight of the year. Each tenant there was given two white loaves on Christmas Day, as much ale as he could drink in a day, a mess of beef, and another of bacon with mustard, chicken ‘browis’, a cheese, enough fuel for a fire for them all, and candles to burn from dinner until bedtime. On the next day they had as much ale as they could drink between noon and evening.

Customs like these, drawn up mostly in the 13th century when the county’s population was at its greatest in the medieval period, saw the land exploited to the full. Unpromising land on the Quantocks and Exmoor, for instance, was then brought into cultivation, only to be abandoned until the 19th century. Following the lead of Glastonbury abbey the owners of land in the Levels ditched and embanked to rescue hundreds of acres/ha of rich grassland for grazing and settlement.

The prosperity which all these works brought was halted in the mid 14th century by the most virulent outbreak of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, which carried away nearly half the beneficed clergy and probably more than half of the tenants in the countryside. The summer of 1348 was very wet, and everywhere crops were spoiled. A prayer against plague issued to every parish by the bishop of the diocese in the autumn was of no avail, and by December the progress of the disease was rapid, clergy dying and being succeeded in rapid succession in parish after parish. The bishop himself stayed on his manor at Wiveliscombe, and his letters from there included emergency measures allowing the dying to confess their sins to laymen or even to women if a priest was not available. The bishop’s register also includes the first Ordinance of Labourers, the government’s answer to the inevitable reaction of the surviving workforce, to sell their labour to the highest bidder rather than still to follow the old system of labour services.

Somerset was not to be affected in the 1380s like East Anglia in the Peasants’ Revolt, though there were small outbreaks of disaffection. But by 1400 landowners had in many places divided home farms and let them to tenants for cash rents, so that labour was not demanded. References to the old system are still found in records of the 15th century, notably on Church property; and still in the 16th century there were isolated attempts to retain serfdom in some places: on the manor of Raddington, in the remote Brendons, officials continued to record the fact that the Davis family had left the manor without permission of the lord and was living in Exeter. Much more common was the situation recorded in a custumal of Wellington about 1600. The ancient offices of reeve and hayward still survived, and the holder of each was also given pieces of land to cover his expenses of office. One Mr. Yorke, however, had taken some of the land by ‘violence and strength’. The lord’s court had always in the past been held in the mansion house adjoining St Laurence’s chapel, but both seem to have been pulled down. There and elsewhere only the vestiges of the old system remained.

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The produce of Somerset’s arable land was primarily for home consumption; urban markets absorbed surplus produce from neigh­bouring villages, and Bristol especially created a wide hinterland of demand. There were, however, many remote places, particularly on Exmoor, where during the 14th century the produce of marginal land was not enough to support the small communities eking out a living in a subsistence economy.

In striking contrast was the development of sheep farming. At Domesday nearly 50,000 sheep were recorded in the county. The rapid appearance of fulling mills for finishing woollen cloth from the early 13th century tells more than the few surviving account rolls how and where cloth was being produced, but for two centuries exports took the form of untreated wool, which was sent to France in the early 14th century via Melcombe in Dorset. In the mid 14th century the best English wool came from Lincolnshire and the Cotswolds, but Somerset’s wool, priced at 11 marks the sack, was equal to second-rate Cotswold. It was considered ‘slight’ and ‘coarse’, and in the 1450s its minimum price had fallen. By that time, however, only the worst wool was left. The large flocks kept by the abbots of Glastonbury or the Luttrell flocks at Kilton and Carhampton contributed to the revolution which by the end of the 14th century converted Somerset from a wool-producer to a cloth-producer. Attempts by cloth merchants to avoid export controls at the Staple at Calais were at first frustrated, and cloth producers in Somerset and other West Country areas were obliged to expose each cloth for sale unfolded, the merchants who bought them having occasionally found themselves threatened abroad with summary vengeance when the buyers unwrapped the cloths and found them damaged or unevenly dyed. By the middle of the 15th century cloth from Somerset was being exported direct through Bridgwater and Bristol, and overland through the Dorset ports to France and Spain, and 20 years later the county was the second largest exporter of cloth in England. Not far short of a thousand cloths were shipped from Bridwater alone in 1481-2 and 1500-01, probably drawn from west and central Somerset, while Bristol merchants like John Smyth did business in the Mendips and east Somerset. Smyth’s remarkable ledger covering his trading in the 1540s shows how, for instance, he sold woad for dyeing to clothiers such as John Yerbery of Bruton, and in return took Somerset cloth to Andalusia. In August 1540 he bought 38 cloths from Yerbery of the ‘better sort in colores, hewlynges and light grenes which cost clere abord £4 per clothe’, and exported them in two ships.

There were few men in medieval Somerset who could match Smyth, and John Chapman and John Compton were perhaps more typical. Little is known of either, but Chapman died in 1384 leaving money in his will to the fabrics of churches at Norton St Philip, Priddy and Binegar, three market centres where he had probably bought up wool from the Mendip sheep farmers. John Compton the elder of Beckington died in 1505 and is buried under a brass with his wife, dressed in a long robe furred at collar and sleeves. In his will he left the large sum of £20 to buy two silver gilt candelabra for his parish church. He gave money for the repair of several local roads, £10 to the building fund of Bath Abbey, cash to the monasteries of Witham and Hinton, and to the four houses of friars in Bristol. This connection with Bristol is significant, and so is the bequest of £20 to 17 churches, not actually named in the will, but known to his executors. Compton may have wished to appear in the guise of a gentleman in death, but like John Chapman before him, he had spent much of his life travelling from parish to parish collecting wool. This is no educated guess: for the brass roundel beside the traditional figures on the grave bears the characteris­tic mark of a wool merchant and his initials, marks which were stamped on all sacks which went to the clothiers in his name, or on cloths collected for export, bought from Mendips and probably East Wiltshire producers.

Chapman and Compton and their like did much of their business at the cloth fairs held each year in many villages. No fair in East Somerset could rival that owned by the priors of Hinton at Norton St Philip. There was a wholesale fair held on 27 April each year for both woollen and linen cloth. The woollen cloth was sold in the open air, in a field near the churchyard, the linen at the George inn. For four days after the 27th the fair was for retail business. In the 1530s the linen cloth was stored in the under-used guest rooms at the inn for several days before sale, and the owners were charged 1½d. ‘hallage’ for each pack. Toll at the rate of 4d. a pack was paid to the priors on each sale. Another fair was held at Norton at midsummer, and a market on Good Friday. The cloth trade continued to flourish at Norton well into the 17th century, and, as in many other places in the county, remained until the challenge from the North in the later years of the 18th century.

There were other resources in Somerset exploited to some effect. Tenants on six manors at the time of Domesday paid rents in ‘slabbs’ of iron, and the eight smiths recorded at Glastonbury at the time presumably imported their raw materials. By the 13th century iron ore was being dug on the Brendons and the Mendips. Quarries of fine building stone were developed during the Middle Ages, Ham Hill, Doulting and Dundry providing the freestone and the many local workings the has or sandstone which makes so striking a contrast in surviving churches and houses. Coal was extracted at Stratton on the Fosse in the 15th century, while Priddy, East Harptree, Chewton Mendip, and Charterhouse were the centres of the four lead ‘mineries’ on Mendip.

Natural resources of another kind have left fewer traces in manorial records. Wild life had long been the support of Somerset’s population, and the French-Norman kings, like their Saxon predecessors, recognised the potential of a rich countryside. The forests of Selwood, Mendip, Neroche, Petherton and Exmoor, however, were closed to the Somerset countryman as sources for food and fuel, and even outside those areas hunting and hawking remained the preserve of the privileged. The importance of hawking is clear from the record of Siward the hawker, a rare survivor from Saxon England. Siward held substantial lands both in the Confessor’s time and in the Conqueror’s/Crusader’s, for he was a specialist. His lands were between the Parrett and the Isle at Seavington and Dinnington, close to waterways where hawkers find their best sport and not far from wooded terrain, marshland and moor where small game and gamebirds thrive.

By the 14th century tenant farmers at Huish Episcopi were allowed to go fowling for a consideration, and Thomas Gateryn (died 1554), whose family had been in the business since that time, left to his two sons his boat ‘with all manner of fishing pertenances’. The Isle and the Parrett, well known to the Gateryns, were both rich in eels. Two fisheries on the abbey estate of Muchelney paid 6,000 eels a year in 1086, and one fishery in 1475 was let for 311/2 ‘sticks’ of eels a year, the abbot as landlord finding timber to keep in repair the weir in which they were trapped.

Landowners laid claim to the swans which gathered at the great Meare, near Glastonbury, each owner having his distinctive mark painted on their bills. The bishop of Winchester employed a keeper of swans, whose charges occupied the Tone and the millstream below the castle at Taunton and the swamp outside its west gate. Landowners also took care of herons, Thomas Tremaille of Blackmoor, near Cannington, and a neighbour ordering in their manor court in 1510 that during nesting time children were not to go into the heronry to play with bows arrows. The spoonbill carved on the benchend at Stogursey might have been a record of a local rarity or of a colony which bred there as in East Anglia until the 17th century.

Manorial accounts and court rolls reveal the great variety of farming practice throughout the county and the many ways in which landlords and tenants wrested a living from the soil. Always there were problems: animals straying or stolen, rents not paid, ditches and rhines not cleared, stables and houses in disrepair, mills and weirs blocking rivers A reeve was apt to find good excuses for his failure to produce a balance at the end of the year, and surveyors had to account for any deficiency. When Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury died in 1363 his estates came under close scrutiny by officers of the Crown, and each item returned as of no value had to be explained. There were acres/ha of grassland under water at West Buckland, Huish Episcopi, Kingsbury Episcopi, Blackford, and Compton Bishop; the dovecote at Cheddar was in ruins; there was no grass in the gardens at Banwell, Yatton, Blackford, Wiveliscombe, Wellington, and Chard because of the shade of the trees. The garden at Compton had been ruined by the wind, and the woods at Yatton and Bishops Lydeard and the garden at Claverton were infested with adders. The bishop could hardly be blamed for the weather and its consequences, but other attempts at horticulture were evidently more successful. The bishops of Winchester had a garden at Rimpton, and in the 1260s grew linseed and flax, apples and pears, and planted vines. The gardener at Glastonbury abbey had four assistants in the 1330s, cultivating herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruit in great variety. Perhaps the most remarkable was the garden at Merriott which in 1370 included a tree nursery. The fertile soil there still supports one of the largest nurseries in the county.