The Wolverton Settlements

While the whole history of Wolverton has been (as far as we know) relatively peaceful, there have been times when settlements have moved. Archaeologists have discovered a Bronze Age settlement at Wolverton Turn in recent times and there was a discovery of a bronze Age hoard at Stonebridge House Farm earlier in the last century. The settlement at Wolverton Turn appears to have been a farming community of sorts.

At the time of the Romano-British period, 55-400 AD, there were farming settlements at Bancroft and in the Manor Farm area. The Bancroft villa was very prosperous but it does not appear to have survived the collapse of the Roman administration, although the archaeologists did discover signs of continued farming activity in the 5th century.

Historians, now having the benefit of the work of 20th century archaeologists, are revising the long-held view that the country was overrun by marauding Germanic invaders in the 5th century. What now appears to have happened is that there was at first small settlements of immigrant farmers in the early parts of the 5th century but that this increased to a flood by the end of the century. The pattern was probably closer to that of European settlement in North America. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were small groups of pioneer settlers living alongside the native population on the eastern seaboard. By the 19th century immigration was in full spate and the native populations were overwhelmed.

We can probably envisage something like this happening in Wolverton. The native British were probably still farming in and around Bancroft and Manor Farm and when the Anglian people came, possibly early in the 6th century, they were able to move onto vacant land, in this case at Wolverton Turn.

Archaeological work was undertaken here in the 1970s and in the 1990s. During the second dig the archaeologists unearthed strong evidence of an Anglian settlement in the 6th century. These dates fit into the general framework of the English settlements; they came in small numbers after 420AD to settle on the east coast and in increasing numbers as the century progressed. After 590 the migration became quite large and newcomers moved further inland.

We know that the land had been cleared in the Bronze Age and it was always assumed that once farming stopped the land would be reclaimed by woodland, but again modern archaeology has challenged that assumption. Land once cleared largely remains so with some loss to trees at the edges. Grassland can take hold and remain for centuries. In the light of this we can assume that the newcomers found this land, neglected and unused certainly, but with some work could be made productive. Thus we can imagine a situation whereby the English newcomers, who in no way appeared to threaten the livelihood of the natives, were allowed in without any kind of struggle. That peaceable adaptation, not glamourous but plausible, did not prevail in succeeding centuries as powerful individuals and tribes struggled for supremacy.

The settlement at Wolverton Turn was Wolverton’s first medieval village. Some time in the 9th century it moved to more arable field in the west. This became the site of Wolverton’s second village until it was depopulated by enclosure in the 16th and 17th centuries.

An early Anglo-Saxon settlement in Wolverton

The excavations at Wolverton Turn in the 1990s added considerably to our knowledge of previous settlement. The Bronze Age settlement I described yesterday was confirmed but more revealing as there was substantial evidence for settlement in Anglo-Saxon times.

The archaeologists excavated the enclosure ditches and found evidence of a grubenhaus and a small rectangular post-built structure. Many pottery fragments were found and over half was dated to the 8th to 9th centuries. They also discovered many domestic animal bones, including a surprising number of horse bones, which led to some speculation that this may have been a horse breeding centre. There were some Roman period pottery sherd and some pre-historic.

The authors of the report are cautious about their findings. Although they found evidence of settlement at different periods, they cannot conclude that the site was continuously occupied for the entire period. The most active period of occupation was during the 8th and 9th centuries. It may be that after this time the villagers moved to a site lower down to the site where the medieval village was known to be. The reasons for this are completely unknown, although it is apparently not a phenomenon known only to Wolverton. It is possible that their pattern of agriculture changed. If these middle saxons were, as is suggested, engaged in horse breeding and animal husbandry, the location on higher ground may have made better sense. But if they switched their focus to arable farming, then the lower fields and meadows might have become more attractive.

Might this then be the location of Wulhere’s ing tun? Was this the enclosure and meeting place presided over by the chieftain Wulfhere who gave Wolverton its name? The question cannot be answered but it does open up the possibility that the motte and bailey castle built by Mainou le Breton overlooking the valley may have been a hitherto unoccupied site. And possibly the neighbouring church was not built on a saxon site at all. The earlier saxon church, whatever it might have been, may not have been in this location at all.

For a detailed article on this subject:

Bronze Age Occupation and Saxon Features at the Wolverton Turn Enclosure, Near Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes 1972-1994. Steve Preston and others. Records of Buckinghamshire Vol 47, Part 1 (2007)

The Population in 1086

The Domesday description of Wolverton gives us some way of estimating the population almost 1000 years ago.

Land for 20 ploughs; In lordship 9 hides; 5 ploughs there.

32 villagers with 8 smallholders have 10 ploughs; a further 5 possible.

10 slaves; 2 mills at 32s 8d; meadow for 9 ploughs.

The villagers were most likely the villeins, that is those whose right to the land were tied to service on the lord’s demesne. The smallholders were probably freemen whose use of the land was not tied to service. The slaves probably worked the mills, the “morter pitts” and performed other functions on the lord’s demesne. The two mills were likely to have been on the sites of later mills – Wolverton Mill and Mead Mill, which disappeared in the middle of the 19th century. This latter mill was close to the present railway viaduct.

These numbers record men only so if we take an average of 4 per family, these 50 men might translate into a population of 200, surprisingly, about the same number of inhabitants in the parish in 1800. There are reasons for that which I will discuss in another post.

The impact of the Norman Conquest

The so-called Domesday Book of 1086 offers us an interesting insight into the totality of the change after 1066. The entry in the survey records this:

Three thanes held this manor. One of them, Godwin, Earl Harold’s man, had 10 hides; the second, Thori, one of King Edward’s guards, had 7 1/2 hides; the third, Aelfric, Queen Edith’s man, had 2 1/2 hides; they could all sell to whom they would.

I should pause to explain the hide – a unit of measurement now unfamiliar to us as we subsequently measured land in acres and now apparently in hectares, which are about as much as a mystery as hides! The hide was understood to be the amount of land that could support a household and is generally considered to be 120 acres. The measurement could be elastic. A hide of poorer land would cover more actual terrain than a hide of good arable soil. The hide was used for tax assessment purposes. In Wolverton’s case we can take the 120 acre measurement as pretty close since it was assessed at 20 hides and the measured coverage of the Wolverton Manor is about 2,500 acres.

After the Conquest Maigno le Breton acquired some 15,000 acres, most of it in Buckinghamshire, but some in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Herfordshire. The best of it may have been Wolverton and this may be in part why he centred his barony here.

The three thanes were well-connected. Godwin served King Harold (always referred to as Earl Harold in Domesday since William did not acknowledge his title to the throne); Thori was one of King Edward’s housecarles and Aelfric was a guard for Queen Edith. Aelfric does not appear anywhere else in Domesday, so his 2 1/2 hides was a relatively small holding, although sufficient to maintain himself as a fighting man. Godwin’s 10 hides, or 1200 acres, also appears to be the limit of his landholdings, but Thori owned the Manor of Thornborough and a few other parcels which gave him about 2,800 acres. I don’t think we can accurately determine which parts of the manor each had, but we could deduce that Godwin had the northern land based on Manor Farm, Thori, the western part based on warren farm, and Aelfric, the smaller eastern part based on Stonebridge House farm, or possibly Bancroft.

The significant phrase “they could sell to whom they would” meant that their rights to the land were not tied to service as it became after the conquest. In other words it was understood that they had free title.
This became meaningless after the Conquest because the land was simply appropriated by the invaders. It is highly probable that all three men and their brothers and sons were part of the army that tried to resist the invasion. They may not have survived, but even if they did, they were dispossessed. What happened to them and their families is unrecorded.

One of the important distinctions between Saxon and Norman society lay in land ownership. Thanes were granted land by the king for their service. This land could be inherited by the Thane’s heirs and in this way some families built up extensive estates. Burgred of Olney, for example, not only had the manor of Olney but also possessed several manors in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. His son, Edwin, owned the manors of Lathbury and Sherington, so there were indications of dynastic growth. The Norman’s changed this. William appropriated everything to the crown and then allocated most of it to his tenants-in-chief. They in turn let their holdings to their supporters. The land could be, and was, taken back by the king for any treasonous or disloyal behaviour, so nobody really “owned” anything. People enjoyed customary rights to land which could be passed to their inheritors but their was no land ownership in the sense that the Saxons understood it nor as we would understand it today. This system held until the 19th century.

Land ownership by the Thanes meant that their land could be and was subdivided, for example between two sons. The system of primogeniture practised scrupulously by the Norman aristocracy was not necessarily a part of Saxon culture. The consequence of this can be seen in the rather large number of Thanes with relatively small landholdings. There were about 4,000 Thanes recorded in Domesday – all in the top rank of Anglo Saxon society (at least in theory) but in many cases little better off economically than the average Ceorl. (A Ceorl rented but did not own land.)

Governance must have changed. Three smaller lords on the manor were replaced by a powerful magnate. The interests of Wolverton were now a part of a much larger estate. The transformation may have been akin to Parish Councils being replaced by more centralized bodies in the last century.

The saxons on the Manor

One of the great “what if” questions of English history relates to the Norman Conquest of 1066.  The outcome of Harold’s engagement with William hung by little more than a Bayeux tapestry thread and could have gone either way. In the end William was the lucky one and with Harold dead the English lacked the leadership to withstand William’s eventual triumph. Would English history have turned out differently. I suspect it would and this is apparent in the microcosm of the Wolverton Manor.
At the time of the conquest it was in the hands of three thegns Godwin, Tori and Alvric. After the conquest the whole manor was under the control of one man. And this was repeated across the country. It is estimated that in the last days of Anglo Saxon England there were about 4000 thegns. William replaced all these with fewer than 200 lords of his own.
Anglo Saxon England was in many ways a more equal society. I don’t want to use the word democratic because it does not apply in any modern sense but people then did have more of a voice in community affairs. The council, witan, was a feature at all levels of society, and, as can be seen in this Wolverton example, the presence of three thegns within the manor meant that no one of them could become too powerful. The Norman centralization of power was the significant revolution of 1066 and has had its long term  impact to this day. The Normans largely married amongst themselves and held themselves a class apart from the natives they had subjugated. In my view this is the origin of our English obsession with upper and lower classes – not a feature of Anglo Saxon society.


We don’t know much about the man who gave his name to Wolverton – in fact we don’t know anything other than his name. But the name can tell us something.
The Wolf was much admired by the Saxons, possibly because of its ability to hunt effectively in packs – a shared characteristic – so it is a popular name in these times. “Here” (pronounced Hair) was one of the Anglo Saxon words for army. The other was fyrd. In the Anglo Saxon Chronicle the word “here” tends to be applied to the invading Danes and the “fyrd” is the local militia. We might deduce that “here” is used in the sense of a marauding army, so we could translate Wulfhere as Wolf (chief of) the marauding army. Wolf the Marauder perhaps.
There was a Wulfhere who was a king of Mercia, and quite a successful one too and he has given his name to some other Wolvertons, but our Wulfhere, although a chief of sorts, was nowhere near as mighty.
Wolverton’s name develops from Wulfhere’s ing tun. An ing is a meadow or grazing land. A tun is an enclosure. So the ing tun is an enclosed or hedged field. This probably indicates that Wulfhere had sufficient status to own cattle and to arrange for them to be enclosed and protected.
Wulfhere’s ingtun becomes Wolfrington and then Wolverton.
This explained, the next question is why would this be important enough to assign a name that would still be important 1500 years later? Well if Wulfhere was a chief then those who depended on him for protection would come to his tun to pay their various tributes. Thus the tun became an important centre.
Many of them, like Wolverton and its neighbour Calverton, lost importance over the ages and Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell became more significant trading centres.
As we know some tuns became larger market centres in the middle ages and the word became town – which we today associate with an urban centre.
Town life started in a field!