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life in the 11th century | william the conqueror | place name origins | timeline

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  • Life in the 11th Century

    o    Aristocracy
    o    Castles and Churches
    o    Manors and Villages
    o    Landholding and Feudalism
    o    Rents, Tax and Manorial Values
    o    Population
    o    Agriculture
    o    Pasture, Livestock and Fishing

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    % of land owned
    King and family 17%
    Bishops and abbots 26%
    Tenants-in-chief 54%

    As you can see on the right, the upper tiers of the aristocracy held almost half of the land in England, while another half was held by 190 lay tenants-in-chief. Some of the holdings were huge, and a dozen or so leading barons together controlled about a quarter of England. Such estates were geographically scattered: 20 leading lay lords had lands in ten or more counties, and 14 had possessions both north of the Trent and south of the Thames.

    The great majority of Domesday landholders came from northern France, but there were still a few Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Only one member of the old nobility still possessed sizable estates - Thorkill of Arden, who had lands in Warwickshire.

    Many formerly independent Anglo-Saxon and Danish thanes and their descendants appear in Domesday as the under-tenants of Norman lords. One man called Toli held lands at Cowley in Oxfordshire until 1086 when he became under-tenant of Norman baron Miles Crispin Another, Saewold had kept property worth 10 in the same county but had to mortgage half to Robert d'Oilly.

    However, there was one Englishman who occupied a place of the highest importance in 1086 - Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester. At first a monk, he rose to become a schoolmaster, then prior, and in 1062, became bishop, an office he held until he died in 1095. Wulfstan was loved and respected by his community and by the people of his diocese. In Worcestershire alone the monks had more than a dozen valuable manors. Their wealth had not gone unnoticed, however their taxation assessments were fixed at a high level which caused problems in future years.

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    Castles and Churches

    There were few castles and churches built in the 11th Century but those which survive today are a tangible link between the England of 900 years ago and the England of today. Most of the castles were built out of wood and consisted of a simple mott and bailey.

    Parish churches constructed immediately after the Conquest are indistinguishable from those built just before in Anglo-Saxon England. They are not recorded systematically in Domesday which mentions only 147 churches in Kent, whereas other sources note at least 400. It does however give details about them such as how they were divided into fractions between different owners.

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    Manors and Villages

    The manors were very diverse in size and although they appear from Domesday to be very typical; compact, centred around a church and separated by open land, they were not.

    Instead, habitations in most areas of late 11th century England followed a very ancient pattern of isolated farms, hamlets and tiny villages interspersed with fields and scattered over most of the cultivable land. As in the Iron Age, over time the settlements gradually shifted or were abandoned or reclaimed. This is a pattern which is still retained in Cornwall today.

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    Landholding and Feudalism

    The system of landholding as portrayed throughout the Domesday Book was based on a rigid social hierarchy called the feudal system, imposed in England by William the Conqueror following his successful 1066 conquest. Rather than being owned, as is the case nowadays, land was held from a member of society higher up the social tree. At the top sat King William who granted land to tenants-in-chief - usually lords or members of the Church, in return for their assistance in the Norman Conquest. Next down the ladder came under-tenants who held land from the tenants-in-chief, and so it continued with the bottom of the ladder being occupied by peasants - villagers, bordars and cottars - who earned their opportunity to hold a small amount of land by working on the land of the lordship, and slaves, who held no land.

    The basic unit of land in the Domesday Book is the manor; manors could be larger or smaller than just one village, but all consisted of land and had jurisdiction over the tenants. These were part of larger administrative subdivisions of land called hundreds (wapentakes in Danish areas of the country), which contained several manors and had their own assembly of notables and representatives from local villages.

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    Rents, Tax and Manorial Values

    The total value of the land in Domesday has been estimated at about 73,000 a year. The most common form of land ownership was under-tenancies, whose holders owed military services to their lords, and subsequently to the King. Another form was leasing or renting land for money, often large amounts. Thaxted in Essex, for example, was worth 30 in 1066 and 60 in 1086, but its holder had leased it to an Englishman for an annual amount of 60. The tenant was unable to pay and defaulted on at least 10 a year.

    The value of an area of land and its resources was calculated according to size, with set values on each resource unit. In some areas, the values of the manors and their geld assessments are also connected, these are the figures in hides, virgates and carucates.

    Domesday shows to some extent the cost of the Conquest on land values, which was particularly devastating in Northern England where many small villages were destroyed or damaged so badly their land values decreased by about a quarter since 1066 (these villages were noted as 'waste' in the Domesday Book). King William was partly to blame for his men's ruthlessness, but raiders from Ireland in Devonshire also had a bad effect on land values in the areas they passed through.

    Justice was a valuable business in the Middle Ages. Domesday records that the yields of the soke (the jurisdiction) of a hundred or wapentake went to the holder of the manor. While the earl kept a third of the money, the king reserved two thirds of that made from justice in the manor.

    Therefore, the value of a manor was an estimate of the money its lord would receive annually from his peasants, including the annual dues paid by a mill or mine, a proportion of the eels caught or pigs kept, etc.

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    The total population of England in 1086 cannot be calculated accurately from Domesday for several reasons: only the heads of households are listed; major cities like London and Winchester were omitted completely; there are no records of nuns, monks, or people in castles. The population of England at the time of Domesday has been tentatively estimated at between 1 and 2 million. However, these figures are much lower than the 4 million people there are estimated to have been in Roman times.

    Lincolnshire, East Anglia and East Kent were the most densely populated areas with more than 10 people per square mile, while northern England, Dartmoor and the Welsh Marches had less than three people per square mile. This is because many villages had been razed by the conquest armies.

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    Domesday Land Use
    Arable 35%
    Pasture / Meadow images/blank.gif - 810 Bytes 25%
    Woodland 15%
    Other 25%

    In 1086, 80% of the area cultivated in 1914 was already used for farming. The table on the right shows the extent to which land was being farmed, with other land being occupied by settlements, heath, moor and fen, and devastated land.

    The figure in the entries giving the actual number of ploughs is the best guide to the agricultural capacity of the manor. A plough team consisted of eight oxen and either belonged to the lord who had peasants working them for him or belonged to the peasants themselves. Some areas of Sussex and Herefordshire were highly fertile and could support at least four ploughs per square mile, while the poor land of the North and the Somerset levels could only support one plough in every two square miles or more.

    The arable land was used to grow wheat, barley, oats and beans. Domesday records over some 6000 mills to cope with the heavy work of grinding the grain; these were all water mills as windmills did not appear in England until the 12th century.

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    Pasture, Livestock, and Fisheries

    Pasture was land where animals grazed all year round. Meadow which was much more valuable, was land bordering streams and rivers, which was used both to produce hay and for grazing. Pasture was entered in Domesday less regularly than meadow and was measured in several different ways; In Essex size was estimated according to the number of sheep it could support, whereas in Sussex and Surrey, sometimes according to the number of pigs.

    Sheep were of great economic importance. At Puddletown in Dorset 1600 sheep are mentioned. Other animals included in the records are goats, cows, oxen and horses, wild horses and forest mares. Bees were also extremely important to produce honey and wax.

    Many of the references to fisheries in the Domesday Book are to weirs along the main rivers, but fishponds are also noted. A millpond at Stratford in Warwickshire is said to have produced 1000 eels per year; Petersham in Surrey rendered 1000 eels and 1000 lampreys.

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    The Domesday Book, 1086

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