Land Use in Medieval Fontmell Magna AD 932 – AD 1539


Before AD 932.
DNA mapping suggests that many of the people in Dorset today are substantially the direct descendants of the people who colonised the land in the bronze age after the ice sheets melted. That would imply a continuity of farming ideas, methods and boundaries that goes back much further than the Roman period.

It is important to remember that the boundaries of a viable self sufficient settlement had to include a mix of pasture, arable, woodland and waste so that, the overlapping processes of farming could be carried on. Ideally, a settlement also had to have some high ground with selenium in the soil because the lush lowland grazing was deficient in that essential element.

Before the arrival of the Romans in AD 43, British farmers would have produced only enough grain for the tribe and a small surplus to be hidden in grain pits against hard times. However, from their first landing at Richborough in North East Kent in AD 43, the Romans must have had an urgent operational problem, which was that their legions were fed by shipments of grain from Germany and ensuring regular and adequate supplies were essential to support the army in its campaigns into the south west and other parts of the country. Bringing grain from Europe must have been a slow, erratic, and expensive process and the Roman Army would have wanted to create a sufficient native grain supply in Britain as quickly as possible.

If the Roman army were to feed itself, it had to get the conquered farmers to expand their operations and to deliver the resulting grain to collection stations. In time, these stations might grow into villas and then, perhaps, into market towns. The parallel with the medieval pattern of settlement and meadow in the valley bottoms, arable land on the valley sides and part of the higher ground, might mean that something similar to the typical medieval Dorset estate already existed at this time.

There are indications that many features of the medieval landscape came into being during the Roman period. Following the establishment of Roman Britain, when laying out plots for retired legionaries, the surveyor would allow cultivatable allotments, woods and rough ground held in common, common grazing, which sounds rather like the standard medieval manor. But it is important also to remember that there are very few ways of farming that can be guaranteed to work in these cold and infertile climes. Since the soil, the crops, the weather and the farmers have not changed much since the end of the last ice age, there is no reason to expect that methods have changed much either.

Following the conquest of the Durotriges by the 2nd Legion of Augusta and the subjugation of the south west in AD 46, the Roman settlement began and, in the following centuries, villas and their associated estates were established. The estates are likely to have included several existing British settlements and their lands under cultivation. However, it has been estimated that only some 5%-10% of those original estate boundaries form today’s parish boundaries.

Whilst Roman artefacts have been found in Fontmell Magna, including coins, no evidence of a villa has yet been discovered. It is quite possible that the villa discovered in Iwerne Minster, was the home of the local Roman responsible for the collection of taxes from the local native population, that included those living in the area known to us today as Fontmell Magna.

In this ancient world, subsistence farming balanced on a knife edge. In consequence, if a single peasant or even the village as a whole could increase its land holding while paying the same tithe and/or tax as before, the gain would be substantial. The taxing collecting authority cared only about getting the prescribed amount of money or grain from each collection point. It was immaterial who had contributed to the total.

During the 400 years of Roman rule, the Celtic speaking British people of Dorset became what is referred to today as Romano-British and adopted the Roman ways of organisation. When the Roman legions finally departed in AD 410, those remaining had to continue under the rule of Romano-British leaders and revert to self-sufficiency similar to pre-Roman times.

But now, in the vacuum left by the departed Romans, it was not long before the Saxon settlement began to spread across the country from the east. The first indications in Dorset occur from around the middle of the fifth century or even a little earlier, when evidence of a Germanic presence in Dorset is provided by the recovery of surface finds of a woman’s equal-arm brooch from a probable villa site, and another of cruciform type, probably from a female burial, from two separate locations below the hill-fort of Hod Hill in the central part of the county. An Anglo-Saxon spearhead, datable between the mid-fifth and the mid-sixth century, has been recorded from within the defences of the hill-fort. These artefacts together, it may be argued, hint at the arrival at Hod Hill of Germanic mercenaries in the employ of the now independent post-Roman British, together with their families.

The arrival of these immigrants in this area is underlined by the exceptional place-name, Seaxpenn, ‘the hill of the Saxons’, now Pen Hill, which occurs in a Fontmell Magna charter of 932, and which appears to have defined their territorial limit at the north-west – for the coining of that name would have been irrelevant at a later date.

It is possible that this early Saxon presence in Dorset was absorbed into, or had a special relationship with, post-Roman British authority in the county. It is possible that new Saxon territories may have come about peacefully, through some accommodation with the local British elite (who are likely to have been Christians and who may still have regarded themselves as ‘Romans’) – or perhaps, for instance, as a result of a marriage agreement with the Britons – rather than through military conquest.

However, it seems clear that it was only in the first half of the seventh century that the Saxons finally achieved mastery of the whole county of Dorset. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides no information about the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Dorset, though it does refer to a battle in 658, at ‘Peonnan’, (possibly Penselwood), where the counties of Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset meet together when, it is said, the Anglo-Saxons forced the Britons to flee as far as the River Parrett.

Whilst considerable numbers of displaced people made their way across the English Channel to that part of France that is today called Brittany, many small farmers chose to come to terms with their new Saxon Lords and in return for labour services, were allowed to continue relatively unmolested. Farming life had to continue, for even conquerors would starve without its continuing activity. Therefore, in many places, the Saxon occupation meant only a change of landlord, for better or for worse. The overall picture for Dorset, is of a relatively small warrior aristocracy imposing its own political, tenurial and ecclesiastical organisation on the existing British peasantry, who continued to work the land as they always had.

Whilst it is likely that the basic foundation and arrangements of the settlements and their associated estates in Dorset are Celtic or Romano-British in origin, some settlements were undoubtedly founded by the Saxons. In fact it was during the time of Saxon Rule that England became a land of villages and the land boundaries of each village or manor were laid down, usually in the form of a charter. Many of the parish boundaries of today were laid down in such a Saxon charter.

One of the earliest Saxon charters for which a reliable text survives, is dated AD 704 and records a grant of land near Fontmell Magna. The charter records a grant made by Coinred, father of the Saxon king Ina,(688-726).

The period of Saxon settlement continued through the time of the Vikings and their eventual downfall when their chieftain, Guthrum, was finally defeated by the Great King Alfred at the battle of Edington in AD 878. Wessex was saved and during all this time, Dorset remained part of Wessex and the day to day life of the peasantry continued as always, relatively untouched and unmolested by the changes of kingship and ownership of the lands that they farmed.

Fontmell’s boundaries were laid down in a Saxon charter of about A.D.888, when the manor was included in the grant of lands for the foundation of the great nunnery at Shaftesbury. The original charter does not survive, but copies do and the text reads:-

‘I, King Alfred do give and grant in honour of God, the Virgin Mary and all Saints for the health of my soul. To the church at Shaftesbury, 100 hides of Land; That is Donhead St.Mary and Compton Abbas 40 hides; Fontmell Magna and Iwerne Minster 15 hides each; Tarrant Hinton 10; Handley and Gussage St.Andrew 20 hides’.

In AD 924, King Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan became King and it was he who finally conquered all of the country and created a kingdom that has ever after been known as England.


AD 932
In this year, at Amesbury, on Christmas Eve; King Athelstan granted 11½ hides of land in a place that the inhabitants call ‘Funtemel’, ‘to his most faithful community of Nuns who serve God under the rule of practising the life of devotion in the city which is called Shaftesbury’. The grant was confirmed in a charter, which was witnessed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The charter includes a survey confirming the boundaries of Fontmell, which follows the present day parish boundary and includes Hartgrove.

The survey is written in the language of the Saxons and, whilst it mentions many place names now lost, it also mentions some places still known today, such as ‘Wde Brighthe’ (Woodbridge), ‘Langencumbes’ (Long Coombe), ‘Seaxpen’ (Pen Hill) and Stirchel.

As has been previously stated, it was during the period of Saxon rule that England became a land of villages. Everywhere they were originally accompanied by the ‘open field’ system of agriculture.

Not a great deal is known about the nature of the open field system during the Saxon period. In its simplest form it probably consisted of two large fields – one each side of the village. Each field would have covered perhaps a few score acres at first, but every generation added to the area by clearing woodland and other wild ground around the perimeter. It took many centuries for villages to reach the limits of their territory and for the fields to reach their maximum extent. It was not until the late 13th century or early 14th century that this was generally achieved.

An open field was a large area of land, which was divided up into hundreds of ‘Strips’. A strip was a parcel of land that varied in size and shape, but which was generally one furrow long (a furlong = 220 yards (201m) by about 22 yards (20m) wide). Thus, the area equated to about one acre.

In Saxon times the peasant farmers lived in small houses, or more probably hovels, grouped together in a nucleated village. Behind each home was a small plot of land, but the main arable land lay out in the open fields surrounding the village. Sometimes there were 3 fields, depending upon whether one was left fallow every second or third year.

In Fontmell, it is likely that by AD 932, a 3 field system was in operation. Those 3 fields being Long Coombe, Little Coombe and Netton. The earliest detailed map that survives is dated 1774 but, apart from some additional open fields, the field plan has probably changed little through the centuries.

Beyond the open fields was the common, or wasteland. This was uncultivated land and woodland, which provided rough grazing for cattle, sheep and pigs and also timber for fuel and building.

In this manorialised village, part of the arable land was reserved for the lord of the manor which, in the case of Fontmell, was the Abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey. It was called the ‘Demesne’ land. The remainder was held by the peasantry, each man having a number of strips allocated in various parts of the open fields, so that his holding was not a compact block but strips scattered over a fairly wide area. Coupled with this went the rights of grazing on the common and a share of the meadows proportionate to the size of the individual’s holdings.

Each week the peasant was required to provide so many days work on his lord’s demesne land. He also had to provide extra or ‘Boon’ work at sowing and at harvest time. The peasant was not allowed to leave the manor and was legally ‘Bound to the soil’. He was an unfree or servile tenant.

At that time, the village looked very different from the Fontmell that we know today. Although the basic topography was the same, the landscape would have seemed unfamiliar. In general the village landscape was wilder and less tamed. Probably, a very much larger part than today was woodland of oak and ash, with beech on the chalk uplands. Originally, there were no sycamores, which were not introduced until the late 16th century. The village and its areas of cultivation had been won from wilderness, a process that had been going on for hundreds of years and was to continue for generations.

The village of Fontmell was small and relatively isolated; linked to adjacent settlements by tracks or roads that were little more than bridle paths. The neat patchwork fields of the modern countryside, often thought of today as typically English, were largely absent; instead, the arable land lay open, without hedges or walls. In those days the Church was probably built of wood and roofed with thatch; Most stone churches were not built until the early 13th century. The Church of today was mainly rebuilt by the Victorians in 1862, with only the west tower being of 15th century origin.

Through the ages, the downlands were much as they are today, but with most of the woodland to the East of today’s Higher Blandford Road.

1086 (Domesday Book)
Domesday Book was compiled for William the Conqueror 154 years after the Saxon King Athelstan’s grant of lands and confirmation of the village’s boundary. The translated entry for Fontmell Magna reads as follows:-

‘FONTMELL. Before 1066 it paid tax for 15 hides.
Land for 16 ploughs, of which 3 hides and 1 virgate
of land are in the lordship; 2 ploughs there; 3 serfs;
45 villeins and 20 bordars with 14 ploughs.
3 mills which pay 11s 7d; meadow, 8 acres; pasture,
4 furlongs; woodland, 8 furlongs and 2 acres.
The value was £10; now £15’.

So the taxable assessment had grown from 11½ to 15 hides, with a fifth being directly farmed for the Abbess by her servants. The remainder was tenanted by no fewer than 65 inhabitants and their families. They cultivated the arable land with 14 plough teams, had a share of meadow, pasture and woodland, and took their corn for grinding at one of the Abbey’s 3 mills in the manor.

Domesday tells us how much land was in the manor. The ‘Hide’ was an area of land measure and although it has never been exactly quantified, it can generally be taken to be the area of land required to support one farm and its personnel. A hide of land was measured by its fertility and agricultural value; poor land with bog and heath could be as much as 200 acres to the hide. The land around Shaftesbury was rich and fertile, so 60 acres to the hide would have been enough. For the purposes of this history, it is best probably just to consider one hide to be one farm. A virgate was about a quarter of a hide (a smallholding).

As stated previously, the demesne land was the land reserved for the Lord of the manor and in Fontmell there were 3 hides and 1 virgate of demesne land.

A ‘villein’ can best be thought of as a farmer who had a holding of a virgate. In Domesday Book, villeins were the most numerous of the peasantry, accounting for over a third of the rural population. In Fontmell they were over a half of the population.

Below the villeins were the ‘bordars’. The bordars were the cottagers who had only their home and a small parcel of land, anything from 1 to 5 acres. They also accounted for about a third of the Domesday population.

At the bottom of the social scale were the ‘servi’ or serfs, who numbered a little over 10% of the Domesday population. They were slaves who did not normally hold land, but worked solely for the Lord of the manor (the Abbess) on her demesne land.

Although none are recorded in Fontmell, there was another, more superior class of peasant, called a ‘freeman’. These people were superior in status to the villeins, although their holdings were not necessarily larger. They did, however, enjoy a tenure free from most of the burdensome restrictions under which the villeins laboured.

As mentioned above, the majority of the peasants were villeins and they held their land in return for labour services. They were often required to provide so many days work each week for their Lord on his demesne land.

The bordars and serfs were similarly bound, but as their parcels of land were smaller, they owed fewer labour services to the Lord of the manor. However, since their own holdings were too small to support their families, they would also work for the wealthier peasants.

So, to sum up, Domesday Book tells us that there were some 15 farms in the manor of Fontmell Magna, of which the equivalent of 3 and a quarter belonged to the Abbess of Shaftesbury. There were 3 mills, 8 acres of meadow, 40 acres of pasture and 82 acres of woodland, which was farmed by 45 villeins, 20 bordars and 3 Serfs.

The manor was administered for the Abbess by her officials; Steward, Bailiff, Reeve, Hayward and Beadle and manorial affairs were settled in the manor court, which all were required to attend regularly.

Every village needed a blacksmith and carpenter and perhaps a miller, a wheelwright and other tradesmen. These were important craftsmen in the peasant community and were generally from amongst the smaller tenants or bordars, holding 5 acres or less.

Peasants lived in cruck houses. These had a wooden frame onto which was plastered wattle and daub. This was a mixture of mud, straw and manure. The straw added insulation to the wall while the manure was considered good for binding the whole mixture together and giving it strength. The mixture was left to dry in the sun and formed what was a strong building material.

What a cruck house may have looked like.

Cruck houses were not big but repairs were quite cheap and easy to do. The roofs were thatched. There would be little furniture within the cruck houses and straw would be used for lining the floor. The houses are likely to have been very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Windows were just holes in the walls as glass was very expensive. Doors might be covered with a curtain rather than having a door as good wood could be expensive.

At night, any animal you owned might be brought inside for safety from wild animals that roamed the countryside. The loss of any animal could be a disaster but the loss of valuable animals such as an ox would be a calamity. If left outside at night they could also have been stolen or simply have wandered off. If they were inside your house, none of these things could happen and they were safe. However, they must have made the house even more dirty than it usually would have been as none of the animals would have been house-trained. They would have also brought in fleas and flies etc., increasing the unhygienic nature of the house.

The houses would have had none of the things we accept as normal today – no running water, no toilets, no baths and washing basins. Soap was unheard of as was shampoo. People would have been covered with dirt, fleas and lice. Beds were simply straw stuffed mattresses and these would have attracted lice, fleas and all types of bugs. Your toilet would have been a bucket which would have been emptied into the nearest river at the start of the day.

Water had a number of purposes for peasants – cooking, washing etc. Unfortunately, the water usually came from the same source. A local river, stream or well provided a village with water but this water source was also used as a way of getting rid of your waste at the start of the day. It was usually the job of a wife to collect water first thing in the morning. Water was collected in wooden buckets. Villages that had access to a well could simply wind up their water from the well itself.

Bathing was a rarity even for the rich. A rich person might have a bath just several times a year but to make life easier, several people might use the water before it was got rid of!

It was said that a peasant could expect to be fully bathed just twice in their life; once, when they were born and when they had died! Face and hand washing was more common but knowledge of hygiene was non-existent. No-one knew that germs could be spread by dirty hands.

Regardless of how water was acquired, there was a very real potential that it could be contaminated as toilet waste was often thrown into rivers.

Families would have cooked and slept in the same room. Children would have slept in a loft if the cruck house was big enough.

The lives of peasant children would have been very different to today. They would not have attended school for a start. Very many would have died before they were six months old as disease would have been very common. As soon as was possible, children joined their parents working on the land. They could not do any major physical work but they could clear stones off the land – which might damage farming tools – and they could be used to chase birds away during the time when seeds were sown. Peasant children could only look forward to a life of great hardship.

A farming year in medieval times.
Many medieval English country people held that New Year began on Lady Day, March 25, for it marked the time when work began in earnest after the winter lull. Plough teams began the first ploughing of the fallow field in April when the soil was soft enough to turn easily. Each team consisted of a heavy plough pulled by eight oxen, guided by a ploughman and a goadsman. The team was expected to plough an acre a day. In the later medieval period pairs of horses were combined with the oxen on lighter soils, or even used exclusively.

Ploughing with Oxen

The innovation which marked the heavy plough from the earlier ard-Plough (also known as a scratch- or hook-plough) was a mouldboard mounted on the right hand side, behind the ploughshare, which turned the sod. Because of the difficulty in turning the plough, the team worked in long strips, turning clockwise several times before starting on a new strip. This method resulted in the sod constantly being thrown in towards the middle of the strip, creating a pattern of ridge and furrow.

While the plough teams were busy on the fallow field, preparations began for the sowing of spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans and vetches). In a two-field system the spring crops would be sown on half the active field (winter crops, sown the previous autumn, would already be growing on the other half); in a three-field system the spring crops would have a field to themselves. Grains – barley and oats – were sown by the broadcast method, and were sometimes sown together in a mixture known as dredge. Peas and beans were painstakingly dibbled, the seeds being placed in a series of small holes made by poking a stick (known as a dibbler or dibbling-stick) into the ground.

Choosing the right amount of seed to sow was a delicate matter which depended on soil quality and, to some extent, local custom. Too little seed and the weeds would choke the growing crops; too much and the crops would choke themselves. A working guide is that barley would be sown at four bushels to the acre and oats, peas and beans at three bushels to the acre.

Ploughing the fallow and sowing spring crops continued into May if necessary. Children would defend the newly-sown seed from crows and other marauding birds with slings.

Harrowing a newly sown field

The seed was quickly protected by harrowing to cover it with soil. The simplest, cheapest and most ineffective harrows were bundles of brushwood dragged behind a horse – sometimes even tied to its tail. More sturdy harrows consisted of wooden pegs fixed into a wooden frame; iron-toothed harrows were virtually unknown, and certainly well beyond the means of peasants. Sometimes the harrow was unable to break up heavy clods, and these were broken up with mallets.

Gardens also required attention. They were used not only to grow such staples of the peasant diet as cabbages and members of the onion family (onions, leeks and garlic – though Hârniacs should note that onions are not known on Hârn) but also cash crops such as flax and hemp. Dye plants like madder (red), woad (blue), dyer’s greenweed (green) and weld (yellow) were also grown in gardens, probably for home use initially as well as for sale, but increasingly as a cash crop as the clothing industry became more urbanised in the 13th century. Culinary and medicinal herbs detected by archaeobotanists include parsley, fennel, celery, camomile, mint, summer savoury, catmint, mustard, opium poppy and coriander.

Cows came back into full milk as pastures took over from sparse winter fodder. Between May and Michaelmas (September 29) each cow was expected to produce seven stones (98lb) of cheese and a stone (14lb) of butter. Any time left over was spent on maintenance work – hedging, ditching, repairing fences and buildings.

Haymaking was the main event of June, and it was a communal activity. Meadows were relatively rare, and those outside the lord’s demesne were often held by the villagers in common. Haymakers used long-handled scythes to cut the grass close to the ground. Teams of men moved down the meadow in lines, each expected to mow about an acre a day. Women and children followed to turn the hay behind them to ensure it dried evenly. Finally the hay was gathered into large stacks. In some areas custom dictated that haymakers could carry away as much of the lord’s hay as they could lift on their scythes without letting it fell – letting any part of the scythe or bundle touch the ground resulted in forfeiture.

The hay crop was vitally important to the village economy, for it provided the main winter fodder for animals. If the crop was bad fewer animals could be kept over winter; a good crop could mean a relatively steady supply of fresh meat over winter, a good supply of breeding stock or a surplus for sale.

Sheep in a sheep fold

Lambs were weaned as early as possible, for sheep’s milk was rich and highly prized. Shearing began late in June. The best fleeces came from wethers (castrated males), and fleeces taken earlier were often finer and more valuable than those taken later in the year. Lambswool is extremely fine, but medieval sheep did not start to produce decently-sized fleeces until their third or fourth year. In areas where three ploughings of the fallow field were the norm the second was generally begun in late June. This ploughing was a little deeper than the first to expose the roots of weeds, and as much manure as was available would be spread on the field before the teams began their work. The easiest way of getting the dung onto the field was to pasture beasts there. Each acre could support two sheep; cattle required about two acres each. Manorial lords often insisted that beasts were folded on demesne lands overnight to ensure they got most of the valuable manure. The beasts were not permitted to graze the meadows until at least a month after the haymaking to give the grass a chance to recover.

The Works of Summer
Between the hectic days of haymaking and the summer harvest the loathsome task of weeding the crop-bearing fields was the most important work. Thistles were among the most common weeds, and tradition held that thistles cut down before St John’s Day (June 24) would multiply threefold before the main harvest. Other weeds common in medieval grain fields were dock, dead-nettle, charlock and corn cockle. Corn marigolds grew amongst spring-sown barley, and cornflower was associated with rye.

Weeding the corn field

Weeding called for special tools. The most common were a pair of long-handled sticks, one with a Y-fork at the end and the other with a small sickle blade: they were used together to cut the stem of the weed at ground level. With manure in short supply, careful and dedicated weeding was probably the most effective way of increasing the harvest yield, but the sheer quantity of weed remains found in archaeological contexts shows medieval techniques were far from perfect.

Flax and hemp matured in the gardens, and required careful preparation to extract the fibres. Both plants were pulled up, roots and all, rather than cut. They were laid in the sun to dry before being retted: placed in a stream to rot away the fleshy parts of the plant. Once the fibres were clean they were beaten to separated them and hung up in strikes to dry thoroughly. Hemp was then ready to be wound into rope or cord, and flax to be placed on a distaff and spun into yarn.

July was the hungry month. Grain stores were at their lowest ebb, awaiting replenishment from the forthcoming harvest, and peasants in need eked out their diet by foraging and many no doubt by poaching.

The main grain harvest began in early August if the weather allowed and would usually be completed by the end of the month. The winter crops (wheat and rye) ripened and were harvested first, followed by the spring grains (barley and oats). The timing depended very much upon the weather – not only were weeks of warm sun and gentle rain needed for a good crop to grow, but several dry, sunny days were required to bring the harvest in.

Reapers working in a field

Wheat was harvested with a sickle, used to cut a couple of hands-breadths below the ear of corn, leaving the long stubble standing in the field. The other grains were cut closer to the ground with a long-handled scythe. A team of five people – four reapers and a binder – could harvest two acres of crops a day. The process was not terribly efficient, and some of the grain fell to the ground; the poorest peasants often had the rights to glean the fallen grain from the fields after the harvest was brought in and before livestock was released to graze the stubble. Gleaning rights were hotly contested and seem to have been of considerable benefit to the recipients.

Collecting the sheaves of corn

Church tithes – one sheaf in every ten – were collected from the field before peasants carted their crop to their barns and houses. Medieval harvest yields have been widely studied, and often hotly debated. They varied widely from year to year, depending largely on the weather conditions. According to one study, bad harvests (where the yield was 15 per cent or more below the average) occurred about one year in eight and good harvests (where the yields were 15 per cent or more above the average) about one year in 20.

If poor weather delayed the start of the grain harvest, it would be finished in early September before the peas, beans and vetches were harvested. Work was not finished when the harvest was complete, although the pressure eased a little once the sheaves were safely brought indoors. But the grain still required processing. First it was threshed with a flail to separate the individual grains from the ear. The grainflail consisted of two lengths of wood, the handstaff and beater, joined by a leather thong. A worker could thresh about seven bushels of wheat in a day, or eight bushels of rye, 15 of barley or 18 bushels of oats. After threshing the grain was winnowed to remove the chaff and straw. This could be done by throwing the grains on a winnowing sheet and letting the wind blow the lighter chaff and straw away, or by using a special winnowing fan. The chaff and straw was not wasted but carefully collected to use as animal fodder.

Finally the grain was sieved to remove the smaller weed seeds. It was then ready to be stored. It would last several years if kept dry and free from vermin, but this was not always easy. Flour had a much shorter shelf-life, and milling the grain was done as and when necessary.

Wagon loaded with grain

Beans and peas were carefully dried as a source of both food and animal fodder over winter. Pottage was a staple of the peasant diet, and a pot of it was generally kept cooking at all times, topped up with new ingredients as required.

A substantial portion of the grain processing had to be completed by Michaelmas (September 29), which marked the start of the new financial year and was the day for settling debts, rents and dues. The idea of a wide-ranging Michaelmas slaughter of livestock is largely myth; animals not wanted as breeding or working stock were generally sold at market earlier in the year. In general only pigs, which lived largely on scraps and by scavenging, and beasts at the end of their working lives were candidates for slaughter on the manor, and not usually until Martinmas (November 11).

The Works of Autumn
The third and final ploughing of the fallow field was carried out prior to the sowing of winter crops of wheat and rye. Wheat and Rye was sown at about two bushels per acre. Harrowing was performed after sowing (see May, above, for details).

By mid-September beechnuts and acorns were ripening and falling, and swineherds drove their pigs into the woods to forage for them, a process known as pannaging. Pannage rights were generally paid for by a small cash fee on top of a peasant’s normal dues, and provided a valuable means of fattening swine up for slaughter. Pannaging generally lasted for six weeks, ending in mid-November. Whatever wild fruits and nuts were available were also collected for human consumption.

Wheat stubble, which had been left standing in the fields, was gathered in to mix with hay as winter fodder.

Martinmas (November 11) was the traditional day for slaughtering and salting old stock and swine to provide a supply of meat, however meagre, for the coming winter. Little of the pigs were wasted – flesh provided meat which preserved well by salting or smoking, skin could be cured into tough leather and even the blood was carefully saved to make black puddings. Ox-hide was also cured into leather.

By mid-November preparations for the hardships of winter were well underway. Firewood (Lignage) was collected from the woods; peasants were generally forbidden from taking anything but dead wood for their own personal use, and the amount they were allowed to take was often limited by local custom. Taking wood for sale generally resulted in a fine, but it did not stop people trying.

In some areas turfs and peat were cut and stacked to dry for the winter fire. Reeds and sedges were cut to be dried for thatching, and bracken was gathered to use as winter bedding for cattle.

Threshing and winnowing continued whenever the weather was too wet to do anything else.

Outside work.
By now almost all the outdoor work was complete, and little grain processing remained unfinished. Cold and rain largely confined peasants indoors, where they performed whatever tasks they could to while away the hours and perhaps earn a little cash: women spun, men performed handicrafts.

The Works of Winter
There seems little point in breaking the works of winter down into monthly tasks. Whatever maintenance could be done was carried out, and animals cared for. Dung from the barns was carefully stockpiled to be mixed with marl and spread upon the fields, though the peasants never had enough to fertilise more than the closest strips.

Lambing began in late February and in March the plough teams went out to prepare the fields for the spring sowing (see April, above).


12th Century Surveys & the people of Fontmell.
From time to time, the Abbess of Shaftesbury had surveys of the Abbey’s lands and the obligations due from her tenants carried out; two of those surveys survive and are held in the British Museum.

The two surveys have been reliably dated to c.1130 and c.1170 and include the manor of Fontmell Magna.

By the 11th century, the once independent manor of West Orchard had become attached to Fontmell although it appears that there was no Demesne land there.

By 1170 the situation regarding customary obligations was very different than 1130 and very few of the villeins now owed any weekly ploughing, or indeed regular work of any kind outside of harvest time; cash rents had correspondingly risen.

In addition to the two surveys, a list of free tenants survives and which can be dated to about 1113. In this list, two freemen are listed in Fontmell; they are:-

‘Richard, son of Hugo holds half a hide to the value of 5 shillings’
‘Henry, the Chaplain, has one tenth of the tithe and pays rent of 20 shillings’                                              

c. 1130
In this survey there are some 68 tenants listed in Fontmell and their names (mainly Saxon) were as follows:-

Edwin, Richard, Elvric, Teodric, Elgiva, Elmerus, Leovric, Eluine, Winegot, Elward, Edmund, Brichmer, Elwin, Scoria, Elgar, Elmer, Semer, Golwy, Willelm, Elric, Leofgar, Brunman, Nordman, Wolsie, Adward, Leoffi, Leoviva, Alfric, Brunwin, Seric, Roger, Eilward, Eilwi, Wado, Wlmer, Brichtric, Ediwa, Wlward, Wlwin, Wlfric, Boie, Elwy, Seward, Segar, Godwyne, Bliwe.

A further 15 tenants are listed for West Orchard.

Against the entry for each of the tenants are their customary obligations and payments due to the Abbess in return for their land holdings. Examples are as follows:-

‘Teodric de dimidia virgata iiii d. quadrantem minus et opus ii dierum  in ebdomada et unam acram armature et iii partem unius acre warecture et unum ambrum frumenti et de lignagio v d’.

This can be approximately translated to:-

‘Teodric holds half a virgate for 3¾ pence per year, and for service he must plough one acre, and he must harrow ¾ of an acre, and he must supply one bag of wheat, and for the right to cut wood he must pay 5 pence’.

Another example:-

‘Elgar de dimidia virgata iiii d. i quadrantem minus et dimidiam acram arature et dimidiam acram warature et opus duorum dierum et ambrum frumenti et de lignagio v d’.

This can be similarly translated to:-

‘Elgar for half a virgate pays 3¾ pence yearly, and for service he ploughs one acre and harrows half an acre, and for service he must also work 2 days per week for the Abbess, and he must supply one bag of wheat, and for the right to take wood he pays 5 pence’.

A third example:-

‘Pastores porcorum habent iiii acras et unum porcellum et garbam in Augusto et ad festivitatem sancti Martini quicquid fert porcus excepto bacone et duas acras arature et ii acras waracture’.

This can be translated to:-

‘The swineherd has 4 acres and provides one pig for the Abbess, and corn in August, and at the festival of Martinmas, he provides a pig or a flitch of bacon for the Abbess, and he must plough 2 acres and harrow 2 acres’.

Listed in the survey for Fontmell are also the Shepherd (Pastor ovium), two Oxherds (Bulbulci), three Goadsmen (Gadinge), Mowers (Falcatores) and the general herdsman (Pastor animalium), who would looked after the other cattle of the manor.

It is also recorded that there are 4 millers in the manor, therefore one can assume 4 mills; one more than at Domesday Book, 44 years before, though this could include a mill at West Orchard, now included in the survey with Fontmell.

c. 1170.
More than a generation later and although the names of the tenants have changed, the same sorts of customary dues are still required. There are now some 60 tenants listed (excluding West Orchard) and their names were as follows:-

Alward the Reeve, Alwine of Fontmell Hill, Osbert Comes, Almer of Bedchester, Alwine of the Manor Farm, Randulph of the Manor Farm, Brichtwi of Hartgrove, Adwin Copenere, Teodric of the Manor Farm, Alvred the Cleric, Roger of Tholca, Radulph of the Hill, Walter the Dubber of Black Venn, Alwi of theManor Farm, Giestmund, Adam, Guffrid, Nicold, Reginald of Gupples, Willelm of Hinton, Willelm son of Brithwi, Alnoth, Brithwy, Willelm of Bedchester, Almer son of Luveger, Adam of Sixpenney, Alvred the Miller, Alwin, Alvred of the Hill, Guffrid of the Hill, Robert of Coseleaga, Willelm of the Hill, Adward the younger, Roger the Cordwainer, Roger the Hatter, Richard, King, Siward, Alvred, Stephan, Eduva, Randulf, Ailuva, Seburche, Garmund, John the Ploughman, Willelm Sueva, Adward the Skinner, Willelm Budel, Robert the Blacksmith, Alvric the Shepherd, Willelm Swor, Gilbert, Ailnoth, Walter Suos, Edwith, Storrie, Oed, Willelm, Godric.

Roughly translated examples of entries are as follows:-

Walter the Dubber(1) holds of the Abbess, one virgate at Black Venn for 3 shillings. And for lignage he pays 10 pence. And he performs service for the Abbess at the end of August. And moreover for a further quarter virgate he pays 10 pence. And for lignage(2) 1¼ pence. And performs service in August’.

‘Gilbert holds 4 acres for service of 2 days each week and  4 chickens to the village priest. And for one cow in the pasture  he pays 2 pence. And he gives 2 pence to the Churches of  St.Peter and St.Martin. And he supplies one beast each year in return for the sheepfold one day. And for the licence to brew he pays 4 pence or one day’s service each week’.

‘John the Ploughman holds ½ a virgate from the Abbess for 30 pence. And for lignage he pays 5 pence. And he performs service at the end of August. And he gives 30 pence for the right to pannage(3) and pasture’.


  1. A ‘Dubber’ is a man who beats cloth with teasels in order to raise the nap.
  2. Lignage is the right to take wood.
  3. Pannage is the right to pasture pigs, usually in the woods during the late autumn.

And so nothing could be more typical of the medieval manor than Fontmell Magna. The villagers were carrying on with all the tasks that supported them, the manor and their Lord, the Abbess. They were keeping cows, oxen, pigs, sheep, chickens and no doubt all the other livestock necessary. They were ploughing, tilling and reaping the crops just as their forebears and just as would be carried on for generations to come.

During the 12th century, it seems that there was an increase in the population of the manors, but not a consequent increase in the overall amount of land. Instead it seems that the standard holdings of the villeins decreased and the holding of half a hide (c.60 acres) had gradually been replaced by the virgate (c.30 acres), and by the time of the 1170 survey, the half virgate.

Often the sub-division of earlier holdings had occurred when a Father’s original holding was split between sons, which is what happened in Fontmell where, at the time of the 1170 survey, there were two brothers each with half a virgate, which had been held in its entirety in the late 1120’s by their Father.

The low level of prices for agricultural produce in the mid 12th century, as well as the unstable and unfavourable conditions created by the anarchy of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, meant that many landowners retreated from active involvement in farming and preferred to lease their lands for money instead of labour services.

One of the most significant changes that took place during the 12th century was that most of the tenants’ labour services were commuted for money payments. By the time of the survey of 1170 rents of 1s 3d (6½p), 2s (10p) or 2s 6d (12½p) were now being paid, in addition to some work at harvest and some duties in carrying some produce to Shaftesbury or nearby markets.

In both surveys, 4 mills are listed. Springhead and Town Mill would have been two. Probably Middle Mill and Woodbridge Mill the other two. As already mentioned, the manor was administered for the Abbess by her officials; Steward, Bailiff, Reeve, Hayward and Beadle and manorial affairs were settled in the manor court, which all were required to attend regularly.

Every village needed a blacksmith and carpenter and perhaps a miller, a wheelwright and other tradesmen. These were important craftsmen in the peasant community and were generally from amongst the smaller tenants or bordars, holding 5 acres or less. In general we should think of the manor as an estate, organised as a self-contained economic unit, with the peasantry bound to their Lord and contributing either labour services, rent or both.

Livestock were a vital component of the economic unit that was the manor and they all had sheep, pigs, cattle, other animals and poultry. In medieval times, the plough was pulled by oxen and the care and maintenance of those creatures was particularly important. It was necessary for someone to be appointed to take care of the oxen and perhaps other cattle, whilst all of the other men were out in the fields working their own or their Lords arable land. In Saxon times this person was called the ‘Heirde’, a name which became the ‘Heirdeman’ and eventually evolved to ‘Herdsman’.

If a man became specifically responsible for the care of the manor’s sheep flock, then he became known as the Sheep Heirde, which evolved to Shepherd. If he took care of the pigs, then he was a Swine Heirde or Swineherd.

These peasant farmers were the people least affected by the changes in Kingship or Lordship of the country; they were the people who ensured that the day to day organisation of the village continued, that the crops were sown and harvested, that the livestock were fed and watered and that all the other many and varied tasks that ensured self-sufficiency and therefore survival, continued as they always had, through time immemorial.

It was at about the end of the 13th century that the areas of cultivation reached their fullest extent. Indeed, such was the need for arable land that in many manors, including Fontmell Magna, the sides of the hills were terraced to create lynchets to create additional land to grow crops.

Also two other open fields were brought under cultivation; their names were Upper Field situated to the north of the parish and New Field situated adjoining and on the north side of Long Combe Field.

A map produced for Henry Lord Arundel in 1774, shows the extent of the village and shows the open fields with their individual strips, the pastures and closes. It is probably a picture that had changed little through the centuries and gives us a glimpse of the village before the enclosures of the 19th century.

Some 10 or so of the closes (what we call fields today) are named as ‘Home’ Close on the 1774 map, which indicates that they were originally part of the Demesne holdings of the Abbess.

Long Coombe Field looking west, with the Lynchets overlooking Netton Field in the distance

Little Coombe field, with Netton field beyond

Netton Field

1327 & 1332 – Lay Subsidies

For the vast majority of people in England today, the earliest ancestor that could be traced would be the one who first decided to identify himself from other individuals by using a surname. However, it is unlikely that that ancestor decided to take a surname simply because he thought it a good idea at the time. Far more likely, is that it was thrust upon him by a higher authority.

It is likely that the Normans first introduced surnames into this country, but in the 11th century they were probably restricted to the higher ranks of society. It was about the middle of the 13th century when the great ‘Lay Subsidies’(Taxes), began to be levied on the mass of the population. This is when persons of ‘unfree’ status, (peasantry), began to take on hereditary names. The surname developed from the need of the King’s tax collector to differentiate between one tax payer and another.

By 1290, taxes on personal property were well established and during the years 1290 to 1332 inclusive, 16 such taxes were levied by Parliament for the King. Unfortunately, none of the lists (Subsidy Rolls), for Dorset survive for the years prior to 1327 and 1332 was the last year that Lay Subsidy Rolls were compiled.

A man would be allocated a suitable surname depending upon various appropriate factors. A surname could describe where a man lived, whose son he was, what particular physical characteristics he had or what his occupation was. For example, in the same order as written above, a man would be described as Johanne at Wode, which translates to John at the wood. Similarly Johanne Johannesonne or John’s son became John Johnson; Johanne le Boule became John Bull and of course Johanne le Smyth became John Smith.

A ‘lay subsidy’ was a tax for a specific purpose, such as subsidising a foreign war, which was distinguished from taxes levied on the clergy. The subsidy was based on a fraction of the value of moveable goods (e.g. livestock and produce). To start with, the fraction varied with each assessment but, from 1334, the process was simplified by fixing the sums required from each community at the amounts that had been levied in 1332. The subsidy was not abolished until the 17th century. In 1327, the fraction was one twentieth, whereas in 1332, the fraction was one fifteenth for rural and one tenth for urban areas and the royal demesne. From 1332, the tax was therefore commonly known as the Tenth and Fifteenth. The subsidy became a mainstay of medieval taxation.

In the lay subsidy roll’s of 1327 & 1332 for Fontemel, the following are lists of those liable to tax and the amounts due:-



Name Tax Name Tax
John Pouke 6s 6d. Peter Houpere 20d.
Robert Foyle 3s. Richard Short 12d.
Richard the Blik 5s 6d. Robert Popele 12d.
John in the Combe 6s 6d. John in the Hyle 2s.
Walter Wyʒtrich 4s 6d. Thomas the Nywe 12d.
Robert Andreu 3s 3d. Maurice Gopyl 12d.
John Kyng 3s 6d. John Dam Bemette 6d.
John Crech 4s 6d. Alicia la Calewe        12d.
Robert Nicol 2s. Alfred Vppehulle 12d.
William Ywon 2s 6d. John the Rhouk 6d.
John the Nywe 3s. Robert Crynt 18d.
William Northou 4s 6d. Robert the Knygh    8d.
John at the Brouke 12d Alfred Shene 18d.
Richard Broun 2s. William Bolle 8d.
Thomas Berde 18d. John Creche 15d.
Thomas Vreke 15d. William Nye’uman 12d.
William at the Chirche 18d. Thomas Shene 6d.
Richard at the Houk 18d. William Edmund 18d.
Thomas Louel 12d. Robert Stefne 6d.
Hugo the Halueknygh 12d. Walter Geruas’ 8d.
John Stefne 8d. Peter Kyng 12d.
Henry Osburn 6d. Walter Denys 18d.
Thomas Fycher 6d. Ada the Swon 2s.
William Cros 18d. John the Tannere 9d.
Robert of the Combe 12d.    
Thomas Shene 2s. Sum Total: £4 11s 10d.


Name Tax Name Tax
William Northow 10 s. Richard Broun 18d.
John Pouke 8s 7¼d. John at the Broke 2s.
Robert at the Comb 3s 9½d. John Blyk 2s.
Walter Wy?trich 6s 6½d. Robert Foyl 2s 8d.
Adam Andreu 5s 6d. Thomas Shoue 12 d.
William Gopyld 2s. Peter the Hopere 12d.
Roger Goudrich 18d. John of Monketon 2s.
William Cros 2s. William le Nywe 12d.
Thomas Ficher 12d. Richard Robet 18d.
Henry Osbern 2s. Thomas the Bau 18d.
William Ywon 2s. Agnete Creych 12d.
William Nichole 6s 6d. Richard the Gog 2s 6d.
John Creich 3s. John at the Yate 18d.
Richard at the Ok 2s. Galfrid Shoue 2s.
John Steuene 7d. Walter Denys 18d.
Hugo Haleuknyghtz 3s. Robert Crynte 18d.
Thomas Louel 8d. William the Hopere 2s.
John Guch 12d. John Damebeneyte 2s.
William at the Church 3s. Adam the Swon 2s.
John Frele 8d. Peter the King 12d.
John Rawel 4s. William Bolle 12d.
John King 2s.    
Sum Total: £2-17s-0d.

Key: s = solidus = shilling, d = donarius = penny.

It is interesting to note that, amongst the early forms of surname in the above lists, some, such as Andrews, Roberts, Shute, Foyle, Denis and Brown, were still in use in the village more than 600 Years later, in the 20th century. Even the writer remembers Charlie Andrews, Bert Shute, John Foyle and Joe Brown, and descendants of the Roberts family still live in the village today.

The villagers in the list were the wealthiest and would have been those who held lands, either freehold, or in return for services and rents. The value of their holdings can be calculated by multiplying the amount of tax by 20 or 15. As examples, in 1332, William Northow was the wealthiest with estate valued at 10s. Whilst John Steuene was the poorest with his estate valued at only 7d.

It is interesting to note that the tax due in 1332 had reduced significantly in the 5 years between the subsidies. As an example in 1327, Robert Foyle’s taxable property was valued at 60 shillings (20 x 3s), whereas in 1332, it had fallen in value by one third, to only 40 shillings.

Throughout the medieval centuries, the population increased steadily and it is likely that it was during this time that the need for more land led to the Lynchets being created, thereby increasing the land under cultivation. However, this process would be stopped in its tracks by the disaster that was just around the corner.

1348 – The Black Death.
The pestilence first attacked England in the summer of 1348. It was probably brought from the continent by fugitives hoping to escape it. It appears that the first place to be effected was the port of Melcombe Regis, situated adjacent Weymouth in the county of Dorset. At the time, Melcombe Regis was a port almost as important as London and Bristol.

The plague swept across southern districts, killing countless people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset and, it is estimated, between 30% and 50% of the population was exterminated by it. Fontmell will have been hit just as the all the other manors of Dorset and surrounding counties.

The manorial system received a tremendous jolt, from which it never really recovered. At first the pestilence fell most heavily on the labouring classes and in many villages there were only enough left to cultivate a small part of the arable land.

Many villeins would have fled from their home manors in order to try and escape the awful death. If they managed to escape and survive, then they could expect to be accepted into other manors as free labourers, able to demand and receive high wages; indeed it was not long before the labour shortage brought about an improvement in the status of the surviving peasantry. Although Parliament did try to impose an incomes and prices policy, it was largely unsuccessful and, more and more, landlords were forced to accept that it was better to allow their villeins to commute their labour services for a money rent, rather than having labour services being reluctantly, or carelessly performed; it took almost until the end of the 15th century for the process to be completed. By then, most villagers had become ‘free’ men.

Partly due to the lack of labourers and partly because it was found to be more profitable to grow wool instead of corn, large tracts of land, formerly cultivated, were converted to pasture.

Dorset was not only devastated by the plague in 1348/9; in 1361 it returned and if anything, was probably even worse the second time. In 1365, King Edward III granted a charter of vacation to the prioress Joan Fromage and the Nuns at Shaftesbury Abbey because, by reason of tempestuous winds and pestilence, the revenues were scarce sufficient to maintain them.

In 1381/2, the nuns petitioned King Richard II due to the great loss of their tenants by the plague and their cattle by the murrain and other accidents, so that they could not hold out the year through against their creditors. The King granted them relief.

During the years at the end of the 14th century, many villages were reduced to single farms or were lost altogether. The distress is indicated by a list of vills destroyed, wasted, destructed or depopulated and as a result of which, in 1435/6, the county was quite unable to bear its normal share of national taxation.

However, it was during these dark years that a new class of ‘yeoman’ farmer arose from the more successful peasantry who were able to take advantage of the economic situation. They prospered as a result of skilful husbandry and market dealing or, more likely, by agreeing with their neighbours to consolidate strips and thus farm more profitably. They put their profits into more land, acquiring freeholds or good copyholds. These independent farmers prospered and reached yeoman status and in some cases even aspired to the ranks of the lesser gentry.

During these medieval times the rural peasant occupied, together with his livestock, a home built of timber and mud or stone and which was thatched with reed or straw. The sparsely furnished interior was gloomy and smokey and very little light penetrated the simply shuttered casements. It was usually divided up into two parts, the larger part used for living accommodation, the smaller part for livestock. It might also boast one or two lean-to accretions; today we would call it a hovel.

However, as they rose in status through the 15th century, the new peasant class were no longer content with the humble living quarters of their ancestors. These ‘yeomen’ pulled down the old houses and built larger and stronger stone ones in their place.

This, briefly, was the situation in most of the manors of Wessex until the enclosures of the late 18th and the 19th centuries.

During 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, land tenure made great strides towards freeing itself from the numerous obligations and encumbrances of medieval practices. Villeins or serfs on the medieval manor, who could not get away from their land, at least had the assurance that the land could not get away from them. Evidences of his right to his property were not always being sought out and inquired into. He lived meagrely, but with a certain security on the acres that his forefathers had tilled; for neither his neighbours nor his landlord were trying to get them away from him.

However, this was gradually changing and it became more and more necessary to prove your entitlement to the land that you held and the rights by which you held them. This process became even more pertinent following the disaster of the Black Death, which would change things forever.

Types of Land Tenure.

The Knight’s Fee.
This type of tenure, formerly known as ‘knight’s service’, was originally a military tenure requiring that the land owner furnish a stipulated number of mounted men to serve in the king’s wars. A knight’s fee was the accepted measure of land that could maintain a knight and his horse. Later, military service of this kind gave way to a tax known as ‘scutage’, a money payment that enabled the king to hire his own soldiers whenever and for as long a time as he needed them.

As a major land owner, the Abbess had an obligation to keep fighting men (knights) in readiness for military duty and landholdings were set aside to support such men, and the tenants of ‘knights fees’ as these holdings were known, were required to discharge the Abbess’s military duty (themselves or by proxy) on her behalf. Depending on the nature of their tenure they might perform other services as well, and these are stipulated in the surveys. One had to supply a rope for the well at Shaftesbury, another had to lend his cart to carry hay to the hall, several others had to act as messengers, riding errands for the Abbess.

In 1156, the Abbess of Shaftesbury paid scutage on 10 knight’s fees, which was based on the demesne lands in her Manors, which would in turn have included her lands in Fontmell.

By the 16th century, with the King preferring grants or subsidies from his Parliaments, scutage had fallen into disuse.

This form of tenure became the most popular as it became more and more important for a tenant to be able to prove his rights to the land that he occupied and under what customs of the manor he held the land and to what rent he was liable.

As stated above, it had become more and more important to prove your rights under what was previously called ‘customary’ tenure. Until copyhold was introduced, only the Lord of the manor had a record of those rights, which were written down and recorded from time to time in surveys such as those made for the Abbess of Shaftesbury in 1130 & 1170.

And so, as existing tenancies ended and became free, the new tenant would now have his customary tenure recorded in the manor court roll and would be given a copy of the court roll to be held as proof of his entitlement. He would now be a ‘copyholder’.

Copyhold entitlement could be held in inheritance, or for specified lifetimes, or for a term of years. Inheritance was the best form as it was almost as good as freehold and meant that it was not possible for a tenant to be evicted and the ownership could be simply passed to his heirs in accordance with his will. Furthermore, the payments and rents defined in an earlier age, could not be increased.

If however, the tenure was for the copyholder’s lifetime or his and that of his wife and heirs, or for a term of years, the tenancy was bound to terminate from time to time and the surviving heir would need to apply for a renewal via the manor court. This is also the point where the landlord had the option to offer new terms, which might be impossible for the heir to meet. The tenancy could then pass to a new tenant, his family and heirs.

The Manor Court.
The manor court was mainly administrative; it supervised the agricultural organisation and social life within the manor and continually interpreted its customs. By right, each Lord held a court in his, or her, manor and attendance was one of the chief obligations of the tenants there. The offences, which were dealt with by the manor court, were mainly concerned with tenure, services and dues within the manor.

The offences reported to each court by the Lord’s official representative, sometimes called the Steward, were recorded in court rolls and/or court books. Also recorded were other details of manorial life, such as the services due from the peasants within the manor, payments of relief, Heriot (Death tax) and Merchet (Marriage tax). The lord’s rights over the villagers and their tenements were also recorded.

Each county was divided into ‘hundreds’, which were made up of groups of parishes. In those days the parishes were further sub-divided into smaller areas within the parish, usually centred on a settlement. These smaller areas were defined as ‘tithings’ and were the responsibility of a designated ‘Tithingman’.

More serious misdemeanours in the manor came within the jurisdiction of the Hundred Court. These higher courts were sometimes combined with other jurisdictions, such as the lord’s right to take a local ‘View of Frankpledge’, an ancient Saxon presentment, by tithings, for maintenance of law and order.

The manor courts were usually held every few weeks, though this did vary from manor to manor. The higher hundred courts with View of Frankpledge might be held twice a year, for example in April and October as in the Hundred of Sixpenny and the Manor of Fontmell Magna.

Records of the proceedings of the Manor Court of Fontmell survive in books and rolls going back into medieval times and the early documents are held at the Swindon & Wiltshire records office.

Front page of the Manor Court book for the year 1489, which included the
Hundred of Sixpenny which, in turn, included the Manor of Fontmell.

A Typical example extract from the Court Book for Handley, dated the 27th, April, 1489.

The heading and names of the jury members transcribes from latin as follows:-
‘Hanleigh. hundred court of law with this entire view of frankpledge held there on Monday, 27th day of April in the 4th year of the reign of Henry 7th and during the 30th year of her holiness Margaret Seynt John, Abbess, and during the time of John Cheyny, knight and steward there.’

Thomas Smethfield                     John Crowter                  John Hardyman
Richard Frogge                           John Butler                       Roger Nyppred
Ralph Langeford                         R’ Williams of ?               John S.r…ale
Robert Hardyman                       John Burden                      Walter Butler

Margaret St. John was elected Abbess on the 9th, March, 1460. She was the half-sister of Margaret Beaufort, who was the mother of King Henry VII.

The Court books covering the years from 1698 until 1894 are held at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester. Before 1733, the proceedings are written in latin and not so easy to read, but typical examples of entries from more recent years are as follows:-
October, 1737.
John Lawrence appeared and claimed for his lifetime a tenement & Mill with appurtenances, by copy of a court roll dated 26th, October, 1713, late in the tenure of John Lawrence his father deceased. Did his fealty and was granted the same.

October, 1755.
It was reported that the gate between Bedchester and Penn Hill was very much out of repair and that it ought to be repaired by William Monkton, John Foot and George Vincent within one month, under penalty of 3s 4d.

April, 1773.
William Monk was presented for making an incroachment on the wastelands of this manor, by inclosing part thereof into his garden. Ordered that he pulls down the pales by which the same is now inclosed and removeth the same to its usual boundaries in one month’s time – under penalty of £5.

April, 1806.
It was reported that a bridge late called Legg’s Bridge, leading from Sutton to Fontmell is fallen down or taken away. The Waywardens were ordered to put up a new one within a month – on penalty £5 (£140).

October, 1807.
It was reported that the wastelands of the manor are much impoverished by cattle being allowed to feed thereon. It was ordered that no cows or horses be allowed on penalty of being impounded, and that the Hayward be allowed to charge 6d(£4.03) for his fee.

These are entries that would be typical of those recorded throughout the centuries of the medieval period and reflect the way that the land and the water was being used, protected and managed.

For more on the Manor Court, see my article on Fontmell Magna website. ‘Manorial Court Records’

1539 – The Dissolution
Although she did not know it, in 1529, Elizabeth Zouche became the last Abbess of Shaftesbury, the largest nunnery in the country.

In 1533, King Henry VIII became head of the Church of England and was no longer answerable to the Pope, and it was at this time that the purpose for the existence of the monasteries and nunneries became seen as largely pointless.

In 1535, the government took an inventory of ecclesiastical wealth and began the process of dissolving the nunneries and monastries. Dorset’s commissioners in charge of the dissolution, were Thomas Arundell and John Tregonwell. The Abbess tried to buy them off and offered the sum of £440 to allow herself and her nuns to remain in the Abbey ‘by some other name and apparel’. But it was too late and on the 23rd, March, 1539, having negotiated the terms of pensions for her 56 nuns and herself, she signed the document of surrender, thus ending monastic life in Shaftesbury.

After some 650 years, Shaftesbury could not only claim to be longest surviving nunnery in existence, but also the largest and the last nunnery to be dissolved.

The core of the holdings in north Dorset, including Fontmell, were acquired from the crown by Sir Thomas Arundell, one of the commissioners responsible for closing the Abbey down.

From the point of view of the tenants, it made very little if any difference to their lives. It was simply a change of landlord, which meant only that their rents were re-directed to the new lord of the manor.

Author: Dave Hardiman