The History of Surrey After 1066

Conquest and the Surrey Domesday

By one of those strange turns of history, it was the unfortunate Alfred’s brother, Edward, who became king of England in 1042. Edward, a pious man who later earned the epithet ‘the Confessor’, had spent 25 years in exile across the Channel under the protection of the Duke of Normandy. His affinity with the Duke’s people naturally led him to gather many Normans about him at court, one factor which brought resentment and finally open opposition amongst his English subjects. Earl Godwin, whom Edward understandably seems never to have trusted, was the most powerful of those Englishmen. Godwin died in 1053 but was succeeded by his son, Harold, who eventually became the centre of power in the land, even above the king. Edward the Confessor had promised his throne to the Duke of Normandy, but Harold was considered by many to be the obvious successor to a benign and Christian monarch who was later raised to the sainthood.

Edward’s Christian principles gave the lead throughout his kingdom and brought a surge of church building in communities both large and small. The parish church of Stoke D’Abernon is claimed to have the earliest surviving work in a Surrey church – the remains of an apse and a doorway which are said to date from the 7th century. The church also, incidentally, has the oldest surviving church brass in England – that of Sir John d’Abernon dated to 1277. However, it is no coincidence that several Surrey churches incorporate in their fabric features which indubitably date from the reign of Edward. The tower of St Mary’s in Guildford is built in flint and chalk, with typically Saxon small double-splayed windows and shallow pilaster strips. The tower would originally have been topped with a wooden belfry but this was later replaced by the crenellations seen today. Compton church also has a Saxon tower and a number of other features thought to date from the period.

St Peter and St Paul, the parish church of Godalming, has at its core a Saxon church, but nothing of it is visible from the outside. However, up in the beliringers’ chamber there are two blocked double-splayed circular windows which would originally have been in the east wall of the Saxon nave. The Saxon chancel arch survived until 1879 when it was removed during Victorian ‘restoration’. Victorian church builders were also responsible for the demolition of the church at Hascombe, which many consider to have been of an early date. Having survived almost intact for perhaps more than 900 years, this beautiful little church was razed to the ground in 1864. In mitigation, it has to be said that its replacement, designed by Henry Woodyer, is undoubtedly one of the best churches of its type and period in England.

Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066 and Harold was duly installed as the new king. Meanwhile, in Normandy, Duke William, who had been promised the English throne by Edward, began his plans to take it by force. Harold had but nine months to reign.

The story of the battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England must be well known to most readers and will not be repeated here. Suffice to say that, during his short reign, Harold, England’s last Saxon king, showed himself to be a good leader of men. He undoubtedly had most of the nation behind him but his throne was threatened from two fronts. Firstly, by Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, whose claim to England descended via Harthacnut. Harold of Norway landed with a Scandinavian army in Yorkshire but was defeated and killed by Harold of England at the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066. The English king had no time to recover from this bloody encounter before he heard of Duke William’s landing at Pevensey. Within a mere 18 days Harold had tidied up matters in the north and marched south, gathering reinforcements as he went, to face a Norman army of handpicked fighters. Amongst Harold’s army there were undoubtedly men drawn from all levels of society in Surrey. From trained warriors to simple peasants, most were to meet the same fate as their leader on the autumn battlefield of Hastings.

After Hastings, William sought possession of the key to England, London. It proved impossible to storm the capital from the south across London Bridge. Therefore, the Norman army marched westwards across Surrey, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. For many Surrey folk their first sight of a Norman soldier was probably their last. The army moved into Hampshire, then Berkshire and finally crossed the Thames at Wallingford, coming down on London from the north. William was in sight of the city when he received the submission of its leaders. On Christmas Day 1066, at Westminster Abbey, he was crowned king of England.

Despite continuing insurrections during the early part of his reign, William soon consolidated his hold on his new possession. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported sombrely of William’s enemies:

‘Some of them were blinded

And some driven from the land.

So were the traitors to William

Brought low.’

During the next 20 years the English ruling classes were replaced by William’s Norman followers and England became a nation ruled by a foreign elite. By right of conquest William personally took possession of all the land except that belonging to the church. He then rewarded his followers with gifts from his vast new gains in return for military service as required. William was shrewd enough, however, not to give any individual too large a holding in one place, in case they should use it as a power base from which to turn against him.

Part of William’s strategy to subjugate the Saxon population was the construction of castles, which were designed as bases for the control of the surrounding countryside. The castle also provided a safe haven in times of threat and many eventually developed into massive structures capable of withstanding lengthy sieges. Some, like that at Guildford, were built under William’s direction but others were the work of his barons. The royal castle at Guildford is Surrey’s earliest example and was probably originally built about 1070. The chosen site guaranteed that every inhabitant of the Saxon borough would feel intimidated by the castle’s looming presence. It also guarded an important river crossing and the entrance to a narrow gap in the North Downs.

To construct the castle, a projecting spur of chalk downland was cut through by the digging of a deep ditch. The resultant spoil was then heaped upon the spur itself to form a mound or motte. The flat top of the motte was then encircled with a wooden palisade to form a keep. A more extensive palisade, and probably also a ditch, enclosed the motte and a triangular area to the south-west known as the bailey. The bailey contained the buildings which housed the garrison, always at the ready to ride out in pursuit of the rebellious. Gradually over the years all the wooden structures were replaced in stone, much of it being a locally found type of hard chalk known as clunch. The present keep dates from the 12th century and is built mainly in Bargate stone, which was quarried in the Godalming area. It would still dominate the town but for the Sydenham Road multi-storey car park which stands almost immediately behind it! Guildford Castle played a significant part in the history of medieval Surrey and will be mentioned again later.

Bletchingley Castle was built by Richard de Tonbridge, founder of the de Clare dynasty, soon after the Norman Conquest and consisted of a ringwork with an outer bailey. As at Guildford, any defensive palisades and buildings were originally in wood and later replaced in stone. The castle was demolished in 1264 during the battles between Simon de Montfort and Henry III. Reigate Castle is perhaps a little later than either Guildford or Bletchingley and was probably originally constructed in about 1090 with, as at Bletchingley, a ringwork and bailey rather than a raised motte. It was the Surrey base of the de Warrennes, sometime Earls of Surrey. Now only earthworks remain, decorated by a feeble gatehouse constructed in 1777 from original stone left lying about the site of the demolished castle.

At Abinger, near the church, stands a small motte which was excavated in 1950. Here archaeologists uncovered a series of postholes on the top of the mound, which showed that it had once been surmounted by a wooden watch tower on stilts surrounded by a stockade. A date in the late 11th or early 12th century, has been suggested for the construction of this small ‘castle’. Similar mottes existed at Walton-on-the-Hill and possibly also at Chessington, Cranleigh, Godstone and Ockley.

The motte and keep which formed the basis of Farnham Castle were built in 1138 by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and brother of King Stephen. Later in the same century the keep was rebuilt and much of it survives to this day, despite being blown up during the Civil War of the 17th century. Unusually, its base encloses the original motte and had only very rudimentary accommodation for use as a safe haven in dire emergencies, the main living quarters being arranged in a courtyard below it.

Whilst these castles successfully helped to control any threat from within William’s new kingdom, the greatest potential dangers came from without. In 1085 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle told that ‘in this year people said and declared for a fact, that Cnut, king of Denmark, son of King Swein, was setting out in this direction and meant to conquer this country’. William was in Normandy at the time but returned quickly to face this possible challenge. He brought with him a large army which included many mercenaries from France and Brittany. They were billeted all over the country at his Norman followers’ expense and ‘they provisioned the army each in proportion to his land.’

In the event, the Danish invasion did not materialise and part of the army was dispersed. A core was, however, retained through the winter because William rightly felt that his possessions, both England and Normandy, remained under threat. The situation set William thinking and ‘… at Gloucester at midwinter … the King had deep speech with his counsellors … and sent men all over England to each shire … to find out … what or how much each landholder held … in land and livestock, and what it was worth.’ Principally he wanted to know, perhaps, how much it was worth for tax purposes and what size of army it could support, bearing in mind that Danish ships might appear on the horizon at any moment. The written record of this survey, completed in less than a year, came to be known as the Domesday Book. It was proof of a highly organised and sophisticated nation.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicler had to reluctantly agree that a very thorough job was done: ‘… so very narrowly did he have it investigated that there was no single hide or virgate of land nor indeed . . . one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards.’

The Surrey survey covers an area identical to that of the county which survived until the creation of London County Council in 1889, when a number of parishes in the north-east were absorbed into the new administration. In all, 142 separate places are named and there are also a further 14 holdings listed anonymously. Two settlements in the ancient Surrey are listed as boroughs, Southwark and Guildford, but only the latter remains within the present county. Here Domesday lists 80 dwellings, 75 of which were owned directly by King William. From this we can deduce that Guildford was only a small town of perhaps no more than 700 people. However, the record is not as complete as the Anglo-Saxon chronicler would have us believe – Guildford had a castle by this time and at least one church, St Mary’s, but neither are mentioned.

All the other places listed in the Surrey section are assessed as agricultural units. The record shows the extent of their arable land, assessed by how many plough teams it supported, and the acreage of meadows for grazing animals. The inhabitants are listed in four categories – villeins (villagers), bordars and cottars (in Surrey both smallholders) and serfs (slaves). Woods are shown according to how many pigs were paid as an annual rent for the right of pasturage on the acorns, roots and beechmast or ‘pannage’ of the woodland floor. Also recorded are the values of watermills and fisheries. Finally, most entries give three separate values for the holding – in the time of King Edward the Confessor, after the Conquest and at the time of Domesday. Thus, as an example, the entry for Ockham reads, in translation, from the Phillimore edition of the Surrey Domesday Book published in 1975:

‘Richard holds Ockham himself, in lordship. Aelmer held it from King Edward. Then it answered for 9 hides, now for 1.5 hides. Land for 4 ploughs. In lordship 1 plough; 6 villagers and 2 smallholders with 2 ploughs. A church; 3 slaves. 2 fisheries at 10d; meadow, 2 acres; woodland, 60 pigs. The value is and always was 100s.’

The Lord of Ockham was Richard de Tonbridge, who was the founder of the de Clare family, who acquired the name from his major land holdings in Suffolk. In Surrey, Richard held no less than 38 manors which, in addition to Ockham, included Cheisham, Woldingham, Beddington, Mickleham, Walton-on-Thames, Betchworth and Bletchingley. It was Bletchingley Castle which became the main base for the family’s activities in Surrey.

In the time of Edward the Confessor Ockham had been assessed at 9 hides. A hide was a unit of land for tax purposes, which varied in area according to factors such as the quality of the soil and its consequent agricultural yield. Therefore, the actual area could vary from 60 to 180 acres. By 1086, Ockham’s assessment had dropped to 1.5 hides, despite the fact that its value had remained the same. Present day Domesday experts still argue the reasons for this and, as yet, no established explanation has been forthcoming.

Many Surrey manors do show a drop in value immediately following the Conquest – the possible explanation for this being that the loss was a direct result of the destruction caused by William’s army as it rampaged across the county after the battle of Hastings. For example, Domesday says of Chipstead, another of Richard de Tonbridge’s Surrey manors: ‘Value before 1066 £7; later 100s; now £6.’ Clearly, this manor had not fully recovered even 20 years later. Richard’s manor of Shalford was worth £16 before the Conquest when it was held by ‘two brothers’ whose actual names were not recorded by the Domesday commissioners. Perhaps there were no original inhabitants left in the place to remember the names of the Saxon owners, for it had suffered greatly under the Norman invaders and its value post-Conquest had sunk to £9. However, by 1086 it had not only recovered but was now worth in excess of its pre-Conquest value at £20.

The Domesday entry for Ockham includes a church but for more than half the manors listed there is no such record. Both Guildford and Reigate (Cherchefelle) are known to have had churches by the time of the Norman Conquest although they are missing from Domesday. The reasons for these omissions are obscure. In contrast, some places are recorded as having more than one church – Epsom, Sutton and Godalming had two, whilst the now comparatively small village of Bramley had three. One of these was probably the church at Hascombe, a settlement which is entirely missing from Domesday.

The Ockham entry is also of particular interest because it records two fisheries. These would probably have consisted mainly of eel traps on the river Wey, the eel being a popular addition to the medieval diet. Just downstream from Ockham at Byfleet, eels are specifically mentioned as the product of its fisheries. All the Surrey fisheries were on the Thames or the Wey, with the exception of that at Limpsfleld, which must have been on a small tributary of the river Eden. No fisheries existed on Surrey’s other major river, the Mole, according to Domesday, but perhaps, like the missing churches, they were there anyway.

There is no mill listed at Ockham and the earliest surviving reference to a mill there dates from the 13th century, but just under half of Surrey’s settlements had at least one mill. Dorking had three, worth an annual rent of 15s 4d. Some settlements shared mills, as is proved by entries such as that for the Bishop of Bayeux’s holding in Fetcham. This included ‘the sixth part of a mill and the third part of another mill’. All these mills were, of course, watermills for the grinding of corn – the windmill was not introduced into Britain until later in the medieval period. Therefore, it is curious that mills are also recorded for some settlements situated on the Downs, away from surface streams. For example, at Banstead there was a mill worth 20s – it must have been a detached property situated some distance from its manor on the upper reaches of the Hogsmill at Ewell or on the river Wandle at Carshalton.

Hascombe, mentioned above, is only one of many Surrey settlements which have no entry in Domesday. Most of these ‘missing’ places are situated in the extreme south of the county, where the Wealden clay made arable farming difficult if not impossible. Although still well forested in the 11th century, this area would also have had substantial areas of open pasture well suited to summer grazing. There is evidence to suggest that many small settlements did exist here at the time of Domesday. However, details of them may well have been included in the entries for manors further north to which they were attached.

The Domesday Book formed the basis for taxation for some considerable time after it was completed. Information on those liable to pay was of the utmost importance, so the final document was arranged not by place but by landholder. Thus in Surrey it begins with the properties of King William himself, followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Winchester and so on. It is the record of Norman lordship over a Saxon people. In Edward the Confessor’s time most of Surrey was held by Saxons but by 1086 they had been almost entirely replaced by William’s followers. Only a very few remained – like Wulfwin, who held Byfleet from his overlord, the Abbot of Chertsey, just as he had more than 20 years before. It is no coincidence that the most minor landholder in Surrey, listed at the very end of the document, was the Saxon, Wulfwy the Hunter, who held Littleton near Guildford worth a mere 20 shillings.