Wolverton’s Grand Houses

Unusually, perhaps, for a manor of Wolverton’s size and wealth, it has never been dominated by a big house, occupied by the local ruling family. Most of the surrounding manors – Calverton, Loughton, Hanslope, Cosgrove, Gayhurst, Tyringham, Linford – had one big house that was marked out for the local gentry. Wolverton was probably exceptional, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the ruling family sold the manor in 1713 to Dr John Radcliffe. Thereafter, due to his death a year later, it was managed by a Trust, essentially a committee, none of whom were resident. They employed land agents to manage their affairs and until the arrival of Thomas Harrison, whom I will come to in a moment, none of them were resident either. Thus, the only people of significance on the manor were the four or five farmers and the vicar. This small group made up the middle class with no upper class family above them.

The early “great house” must have been that built by Baron Mainou inside the motte and bailey castle at Old Wolverton. We have no idea what it looked like and no archaeological excavations have ever been undertaken to give us any clue. It seems likely that after 300 years the castle would have been abandoned in favour of a more comfortable house. We have no idea what sort of building was there in the 14th century, but we can assume, given the relative wealth of the de Wolvertons, that it was a splendid enough manor house for the period.  From surviving knowledge of domestic architecture of that era, the house at Wolverton probably had a great hall, where all the activities of the house took place, including providing sleeping places for the servants, and attached to it, possibly at right angles, was the private chamber for the lord and his immediate family, often known as the solar.  Kitchens were usually housed in a separate building set away from the great hall, as a precaution against the all too frequent risk of fire. We do not know if this house was of timber or stone construction; all we can presume is that there was a house there and it was of a standard befitting its occupants. This must have been followed by a succession of medieval houses on or near the site occupied by the de Wolverton and de Longueville families and it is fair to guess that they became progressively larger. There is some evidence that the house was largely rebuilt in 1586 and it probably ranked as a fine Elizabethan mansion. One visitor, Thomas Hearne in 1711, was impressed with the building.

“It stood near a large mount, thrown up East of the Church, & it was a magnificent Edifice, being 145 Feet in length & built with good Free-stone.”

The location was most likely that piece of levelled ground above the former rectory.
At the time of Hearne’s visit Sir Edward Longueville was only living in part of it and the house was in a state of general disrepair. Sir Edward’s debts and general mismanagement were catching up with him. After he sold the manor to Dr Radcliffe the Trust deemed the house to costly to renovate and the house was eventually dismantled. Parts of it were used to build the Rectory opposite.
Wolverton lost its great house.

The other factor that must be considered is the existence of Stony Stratford on Wolverton’s western edge. The commercial opportunities afforded by the Watling Street created an extended middle class of innkeepers and tradesmen as well as some sheep farmers who did very nicely out of wool profits in the 15th century and could live in some style in larger houses at Stony Stratford. But my general observation is that after 1713 there was no “upper class” family living in Wolverton.

In 1773 the intriguing figure of Thomas Harrison became the land agent at Wolverton. He was already the land agent for Earl Spencer and was at the time living in the Wittewonge mansion at Stantonbury. He was also the land agent for the Earl of Uxbridge and seems to have used his connections to make a great deal of money out of copper mining, smelting industries and canal ventures. In 1780, when the proceeds from copper mining in Anglesey were flowing plentifully he decided to build his own pile at Wolverton. The Stantonbury mansion was in a state of decay and I guess that Earl Spencer was reluctant to put money into it. Wolverton, being close to the Watling Street, must have seemed an attractive location for Harrison, whose business dealings were taking him to London, Staffordshire and North Wales.
So, over the next four years Wolverton House came into being. It cost Harrison about £1,840 – a massive sum in its time. It was then, and remains, Wolverton’s largest house.
By the standards of the really grand houses that were built across the country in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a modest building, big enough for the family and a modest number of servants, but it was no Downton Abbey.

Harrison’s younger son Richard continued as land agent for the Trust and lived there with his family until his death in 1858. His widow, almost a generation younger than her husband was allowed to live in the property until her death. The house, although built at Harrison’s expense, was always the property of the Radcliffe Trust and they continued to rent it out until 1970, when it was sold.
A third house must be considered, The Gables.  This spacious house was built in 1880 for the Works Superintendent and was first occupied by Charles Park. Although it was a large house by any Wolverton measure, it would never have been considered a great house. It was a middle class house, suitable for the family and a couple of servants. In the 1960s the practice of providing tied houses for employees became outdated. House prices were rising fast and while an earlier generation had been able to live comfortably in tied housing all their working life and purchase a house on retirement were discovering that house-price inflation was leaving them high and dry. The Gables was by then out of date. It was demolished and replace by the tower block that now bear its name.

The 18th Century Land Agents

The acquisition of the Wolverton Estate from Sir Edward Longueville in 1713 by Dr John Radcliffe, a year before his death was a transformational event in the history of the Wolverton Manor. It was probably not intended to be. Radcliffe probably imagined that he had a few years left to play an active role in his new investment, but it was not to be. He died on 1 November 1714, possibly withgout ever having visited Wolverton. Radcliffe hadnever married and had no heirs, so he invested his fortune (which was considerable) in a trust which was to build a library and an infirmary at Oxford, amongst other projects. The income from the Wolverton estate – over £2,500 per annum and a significant income in those days – was to fund these projects.

The early death of Radcliffe meant that almost from the outset of his ownership the manor was run by a committee. Over the centuries many eminent men filled the positions of trustees and they met periodically while handing over the running of the trust to a secretary. All of these men were distant from Wolverton and the man on the ground, as it were, was the land agent, who had the stewardship of Wolverton.

Sir Edward Longueville had employed a man called Thomas Battison in this capacity, although Sir Edward, living in Wolverton, no doubt had a more hands on approach to control. Dr Radcliffe took on the services of Battison’s son John in this capacity.John Battison lived at Quinton. Battison was employed at a salary of £40 a year.

Although Battison had the local knowledge and was probably effective when dealing with tenants he seemd to be a little out of his depth in dealing with the requirements of the trustees. Whereas he was previously able to make a verbal report to the likes of Sir Edward, the trustees required him (and they themselves were legally liable) to produce annual accounts. battison appeared to have difficulty with this an it took him until 1718 before he produced his first set of accounts. It also became apparent that many of the rents were in arrears and by 1720 these arrears amounted to £2,438 – over a full year’s income for the estate. Under pressure from the trustees these arrears were reduced in succeeding years, but the practice continued in greater or lesser degree.

Nonetheless the trustees persisted with Battison for many years and it was only in 1739, when they became aware that Battison was letting some woodland and keeping it off the books, that they finally resolved to part company with him. He either resigned or was dismissed.

He was succeeded by George Gill for the next nine years. Gill was probably not any more efficient that Battison in producing accounts on time but he appears to have been honest. During his tenure the great fire of Stony Stratford laid waste to a number of trust properties. ( A description here.) And in 1746 there was an outbreak of cattle distemper which caused a great loss in cattle stock.

Gill died in 1749 and was succeeded by Joseph Stephenson who died four years later before he could make any impact on the estate.

On March 27th 1754 the trustees appointed Thomas Quartley from Wicken as land agent and it appears that for the first time they had a man who could be relied upon to keep meticulous accounts and make annual reports. The rent books from his tenure still survive and are kept in the Bodleian archive. During his tenure there was a serious crop failure in 1757 which left some families in Wolverton and Stony Stratford destitute and starving – a reminder that 18th century society still had no mechanism for dealing with such emergencies. It was left to the vicar, Edmund Smith, to make the case and acordingly the trustees instructed the land agent to make payments to the vicar to provide bread for 139 poor persons on the manor.

Quartley died in 1766 and was succeeded by Henry Smith of Bicester, somewhat remote from Wolverton. Nevertheless he seems to have managed the estate competently as his relatively short tenure appears to have passed without incident. Upon his death he was succeeded by Thomas Harrison in 1773. Harrison, as I have discussed elsewhere, brought an altogether higher standard of profesionalism to the task and, in fact, moved on to the estate, filling, in many personal respects, the ancient role of “Lord of the Manor”.

It was this role, a traditional one in most villages, that was lost to Wolverton in 1713. Whether or not this was a good or bad thing depends upon your point of view. The trustees were remote figures, unknown to any except perhaps the tenants. The land agent was almost as detached until the arrival of Thomas Harrison who took a more direct interest in the estate. The long term impact was that Wolverton had no “gentry”living on the estate. There was a handful of middle class people in Stony Stratford and the vicar at Old Wolverton, together with a few farmers.

This state of affairs continued into the 19th century with the creation of Wolverton Station. A host of artisans moved into the town to swell the populations of Wolverton and Stony Stratford and a few professional people came along with them. But entirely absent from Wolverton’s history after 1713 was the presence of any ancient privileged family.

The Land Enclosures in Wolverton

Medieval agriculture was undertaken in open fields where each peasant had traditional rights to grow and harvest crops in strips. The fields were “open” in the sense that they were not enclosed by hedgerows, but there was in no sense a free-for-all. Strips of land were passed down through generations, usually on payment of an entry fine. Thereafter the peasant was entitled to make use of the land and everyone knew where the boundaries were. Some peasants had acquired more land rights than other over centuries and some were landless labourers working for day wages. Sheep and cattle were driven out to graze on “waste” (land that was hard to cultivate), sometimes known as common land. Common rights were critical to the peasant economy; without them it was hard to maintain livestock.
The Tudor period witnessed the beginning of land enclosures which continued to the 18th century. What we now see as a familiar pattern of fields and hedgerows in the countryside was developed during these centuries.
In the 16th century common rights were held by all the residents of the manor, that is the inhabitants of the village of Wolverton and outlying cottages and the fifty or so dwellings on the east side of the Watling Street.
The enclosures began in a tentative manner. Sir John Longueville enclosed 10 acres around Bushfield School in 1530 and his son Thomas enclosed 32 acres called the Dickens, but revoked the action on his deathbed. In 1541, Arthur Longueville, then the inheritor promptly re-enclosed the land and in 1554 enclosed another 50 acres in the Stacey Bushes area. However, he also relented and re-opened the field.
His son, Henry, was more determined. In 1566 he enclosed those lands that had formerly been enclosed and in 1579-80 enclosed a 158 acre tract of land known as the Furzes. These combined actions took some 250 acres out of common usage.
The local population at first responded by pulling down the fences. Henry Longueville retaliated by hiring ruffians to beat up the objectors and sometimes to kill their cattle. Local justice was not much use here, as Sir Henry Longueville himself was the Justice of the Peace, so the inhabitants of Wolverton and Stony Stratford petitioned the Lord Chancellor in 1584. Three men had the courage to sign thee petition, Thomas Furtho, John Hinders and Christopher Carne. It appears that their complaint was upheld, although it is not clear how it was enforced.
The final phase of the enclosures occurred around 1654 when Sir Edward Longueville was Lord of the manor, chiefly, it seems, under the instigation of his wife Margaret. We should perhaps bear in mind that the Longuevilles were at the time in somewhat straitened circumstances due to their heavy committment to the royalist cause in the Civil War and may have acted with more ruthlessness than they might have in more affluent times. Not a bit of this mitigation would have impressed the villagers who were uprooted from their homes, and in many cases from their livelihoods. There was probably some compensation, although this is unrecorded, and was probably little enough. Some may have found employment on the manor for low wages, but many would have had to find new ways of making a living in (probably) Stony Stratford. Dame Margaret’s name was infamous in the popular mind.
The location of the ancient settlement can still be seen in the field beside Wolverton Park. I have a post about it here.

Enclosure meant exactly that. Hedgerows were planted to mark off the fields and separate cattle and sheep from arable land. Dr. Francis Hyde published a map of these fields, together with their names, in his A Short History of Wolverton. I have discussed these names (some of which are very old indeed) in these posts.

It has been estimated that there were about 30 families still living in the old medieval village in the middle of the 16th century. However, by 1654, when the Longuevilles completed their objective of enclosing the entire manor, the village had ben totally depopulated.

The Longuevilles come to Wolverton

While the de Wolverton family were in decline, the de Longueville family were on the way up. Maigno le Breton, founder of the de Wolverton line, had acquired large estates after the Conquest and was assessed at 15 knights’ fees in service: that is he had fifteen knights under his patronage, each of whom would have had a manor or part of a manor to support himself and his family and indeed his ability to arm himself for potential combat – no mean expense.
The de Longuevilles by contrast appear to have started their life in England as knights but initially without any grant of land. They emerge on the record in the 12th century, a century after the Conquest in the Manor of Overton in Huntingdonshire, part way between Oundle and Peterborough.  The manor only has one entry in the Domesday Book of 1086  but the holdings are shared between Eustace the Sheriff and the Bishop of Lincoln, Eustace having the larger share.
This quite large manor was divided into two which later assumed the names of Orton Longueville and Orton Waterville after the dominant families of the 13th century.  was subinfeudated, possibly by 1135, to Roger and John, both “men of Eustace”.  One or the other may be the ancestor of the de Longuevilles but there is no documentary evidence to make that connection All we know is that the de Longuevilles hold this manor as one knight’s fee to the Lovetoft barony. The Lovetoft Barony appears to have comprised the holdings of Eustace the Sheriff although in the murky world of 12th century records any lineage with Eustace is unclear.
This information does at least help us to place the de Longuevilles. Their heritage was modest but over a period of centuries they appear to have established themselves as a middling rank family with some landed resources. The Orton Longueville family emerges with Henry who held the fee in 1166. Henry had at least three sons of record but his heir was Reginald who died before 1219. His son John became the tenant and he died before 1265 leaving one son Henry as a minor. In the practice of the day Henry became a ward until he became of age, under the protection of his overlord Roger de Lovetoft, who was then able to enjoy the revenue from the manor.  However, Henry was able to advance himself through marriage to Roger’s daughter Petronilla.
Some genealogists have tried to connect these Longuevilles with the great magnate, Walter Giffard de Longueville. In the first place there is no actual evidence for this and in the second it is highly improbable that any descendants of the great man would languish in the lower ranks of knighthood. This connection appears to have originated with a book published in 1741 and may indeed have originated from the family itself in an attempt to burnish their lineage. Unfortunately more than a few amateur genealogists have repeated this error.
Exactly how and why part of the family moved from Orton to Little Billing is unknown. What we do know is that a John de Longueville acquired the Manor in 1301. He may have had land there prior to this because he gives some land in Little Billing to St John’s Hospital in Northampton. Later in 1323 he founded the Austin Friars in Northampton. He is not the John de Longueville who inherited Orton Longueville from his parents, Henry and Petronilla and who died in 1316 and he is not directly descended from Henry and Petronilla.
It is possible, and even likely, that he descended from a younger brother of Henry and therefore both Johns share a common grandparent.
In the 14th century there were three, possibly four, ways to acquire land – through inheritance, though marriage and through service. The fourth possibility, through direct purchase, cannot be totally ignored, but in this case is less likely. The Longuevilles of Orton do not at this time appear to be that wealthy. The facts that we do know is that the title to  the manor was transferred (alienated to use the terms of the time) to Sir John Longeville in 1301 and there was a so-called foot of fine to put this on record. The rather odd name comes about because these transactions were usually recorded on a single sheet of parchment, on which three copies of the deed were made – one on the left, one on the right and one at the foot. Each part of the document was cut with wavy lines so that the originals could be matched without forgery. The two parties to the agreement kept the right and left hand copy and the court retained the foot.. They are called fines because the agreement was a final concord – fine for short. Thus the court records, which are in most cases the only surviving records, became known as feet of fines.
The Manor of Billing was part of the barony of Winemar the Fleming, the same man who held Hanslope.  The descendants of Winemar, who took the name Preston, after Preston (Deanery) which they also held, appear to have run out of male heirs and in 1284 it is was in the hands of the widow Alice de Preston. What happens after that is unclear but Longueville may have come into the Manor through marriage to one in the female line of the de Prestons.
We know from record that Henry was put into wardship as a minor. He was the heir and there were estates to manage. A younger son with nothing to inherit may well have been given over to the custody of a related family and it may have been this that brought the young John to Little Billing. There will have been no need for any record, which is why we have none, but he must have acquired some wealth somehow, possibly through a will from his relative but if no feudal holdings were involved there would be no need for royal intervention and a local deed would have been sufficient. We must assume that this was lost.
The 18th century genealogy traces the later Wolverton Longuevilles from a Thomas Longueville of Little Billing. The precise relationship with the John mentioned above is not a matter of record. He could have been a son or grandson He married Beatrix Hastings and they had at least one son, Thomas. This Thomas married Isobel. And he died in 1361. They had a son John and his son, also John was the one who married Joan Hunt and thereby came into the Wolverton inheritance.
The de Wolverton line, as we have seen, produced no male heirs after the death of Ralph de Wolverton, then only a boy, in 1351. At this point the great Barony of Mainou is broken up. Chalfont St Giles and Padbury were settled on the four sisters of John de Wolverton’s first marriage and Wolverton and Wyke Hamon (Wicken) divided between Ralph’s elder sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth.
Margery married John de Hunte of Fenny Stratford, and gave birth to a daughter, Joan, who becomes important later. In the meantime, Elizabeth had married Willima de Cogenhoe
Margery outlived her first husband, then a second, Roger de Louth and a third, Richard Imworth, but not the fourth, John Hewes, who after 1393 granted his interest to John de Longueville and his wife Joan.
This is the beginning of the Longueville story in Wolverton which was to last until 1712.

The de Wolverton family

I outlined the first 6 generations from the Breton Baron who established Wolverton as the centre of his power here. This post continues the story.

The third Hamon, who probably died around 1198, had three sons who inherited the estates and the title: Hamon, d. 1211, William d. 1246, and Alan d. 1248. Alan was the first to style himself de Wolverton and he was the only one with a male heir, John, who lived to 1274.
His son, Sir John de Wolverton, succeeded to the title as a minor. He appears to have been an uncooperative character, at least as far as the crown was concerned, and from the standpoint of history his accession marks the beginning of a slow decline in the de Wolverton fortunes.
In 1284, as he was a minor and a ward of the crown, Queen Eleanor chose a bride for him. He refused to marry her. In 1297 he was required to undertake military service overseas. He declined and paid a fine. In 1328 he argued for exemption from the Assize and in 1342 it is suggested that he had not been fulfilling his service duties at Northampton Castle. He was the last of the de Wolvertons to be summoned to Parliament and it seems that the Barony died with him. He died in 1342 and his son John succeeded to the estates but not the dignity of Baron.
This John had four daughters by his first marriage and two daughters and a son, Ralph, by his second marriage. When John died in 1349 (the date would suggest death from the Bubonic Plague) Ralph was only two years old.
Ralph did not last long and died in 1351 and at this point it becomes complicated.
The Chalfont portion of the Barony appears to have been divided between the daughters of the first marriage. The lands in North Bucks, including Wolverton Manor, were divided, after the death of Ralph, between the two daughters of the second marriage, Margery and Elizabeth. Margery and married John de Hunte of Fenny Stratford and the had one daughter, Joan, who became the heir. She married John de Longueville of Little Billing and when the dust settled after the early deaths of other possible male heirs, it was John de Longueville who ended up with the Wolverton Manor in 1427. Thus the male de Wolverton line came to an end.

Medieval names

As I work through the Wolverton manor documents I note perhaps the obvious – that most of the land transactions involve Norman names. There is a Hubert and an Osbert, but these names could equally be derived from Norman/Viking stock so that may mean nothing. It looks as if the Norman control was complete by 1250, when most of these documents were written. All members of the intermediate knightly class were at least in part of Norman descent and the old english names had disappeared. English ( i.e. Anglo Saxon) names made a slight comeback when Henry III, a great admirer of Edward the Confessor, named his son Edward, but the rest had to wait for the 19th century when the Victorians rescued such names as Harold, Edwin, Edgar, Herbert, Hubert, Alfred, Ethel and Edith.

These names are entirely absent for the Wolverton documents, whereas they are crowded with Alan, Bartholemew, Geoffrey, Hamo, Henry, Hugh, John, Nicholas, Peter, Ralph, Richard, Robert, Simon, Thomas, Walter and William. Most of these male names have retained some currency today after 1,000 years, but a few have disappeared. Hamo, or Hamon, fell into disuse after the 13th century and the first baron’s name, Mainou, lasted no more than three generations. Similarly with Meinfelin.
Women’s names occur less often, but some are still around today – Margaret, Sybil, Annabel, Emma, Matilda. Others, like Hawise and Ozanna appear to be extinct. Helewisia probably morphed into Eloise or Louisa.

Surnames are a bit more difficult because they were not common until the 14th century. Even the more important people were not terribly fussy about surnames. the first baron of Wolverton was simply Mainou le Breton – which told us his regional origins and nothing more. His descendants waited about four generations before they took the name “de Wolverton”. Many people in these documents start to carry a place name after their first name – Hugh de Stratford, Peter de Bradwell, Geoffrey de Loughton, Simon de Haversham, John de Hanslope and so on. There are a few who brought names from France – William Vis de Lu, William Mauduit, Geoffrey Conterral. Some acquired names from their appearance – Stephen Blundus (Blond) and William Ruffus (red).

There are two older names: Robert Race and John Hastengs. Race is a Celtic name found today in variants such as Rhys, Rice, and Rees. Hasteng, which later became Hastings, has nothing to do with the town of that name but is a Viking name, probably a leftover from the period of the Danelaw. Both Rees and Hastenga are warrior names. The Race and the Hastengs families may offer some evidence that the natives were able to integrate themselves into Norman society.

You can also see the emergence of a surname in these documents. Matthew le Bule (Bull) was the son of Godfrey of Wolverton. The Bull, possibly a nickname of sorts, may well have progressed into a fully fledged surname.

Medieval Women

The women of 1,000 years ago are largely absent from the surviving records. Even at the top rank of Wolverton society there are no women of record until the end of the 12th century when Agatha Trusbut makes an appearance as the wife of Hamon, Baron of Wolverton. The same is true of men who don’t inherit. The first baron of Wolverton, Mainou, probably had more than one child, but the only one we know of is his heir, Meinfelin, and this continues for a few generations until Hamon (just mentioned) dies without issue and the barony is inherited by his next surviving brother, William. He in turn dies without issue and the estate passes down to a third brother, Alan. If Hamon and his wife Agatha had surviving children I expect we would not have known about William and Alan.

The records that exist concern property, taxes and crime and thus the rules of primogeniture, practised zealously by the Normans, would mean that there was little point in recording the names of younger sons and daughters unless property was in some way involved.  Women, children, younger sons who did not inherit, the mass of tradesmen and the peasantry had unrecorded lives – a very distant remove from today when even our grocery shopping is tabulated.

Chance records survive. This one for example from the Wolverton Manorial documents in the Bodleian Library. It is dated between 1248 and 1250.

Sarra widow of Stephen Blundus of Wlverton in her pure widowhood grants and confirms to Amicia daughter of Richard son of Rand of Bradewell 1 acre in field del Est of Wlverton: 1/2 acre above Rowpittfurlong between her land and that of Amice daughter of Robert son of Rand and 1/2 acre above Depedenehole next land of Rad Mangkorn and abutting above the dole of Robert son of Stephen called Wytherstuuengale and above the land of Hamo Hasteng at Smalewill furlong.

It is probably impossible to make much sense of this. The field names have long since disappeared together with the one-time owners, but it does illustrate that widows did have the right to dispose of property and they could, as in this case, grant the land to another woman. It is my guess (and only a guess) that Amicia is her granddaughter and possibly her only heir.

here is another from the same period:

Basilia, daughter of William son of Basilia of Wluerthon grants and confirms to Robert Clerk of Stonistratford 1/2 acre in field del West of Wluerthon beyond Lebrodewey between land of Hamo Hasteng and land held by Hugh Mayheu.

Service, and 7s gersum. 1d per annum rent.

This deed confirms that land could be owned and disposed of by women and also, after almost two hundred years after the Conquest, little parcels of land had been granted, divided and subdivided amongst many different people. The “gersum” was a premium paid by the tenant on taking up the holding. The rent for this half acre was a mere 1d a year.

Women had a full part in medieval society but not one that we would now recognize. They were either maidens, wives, nuns or widows, so your status in society depended on your father, your husband or your former husband. If you were a nun you were a “bride of Christ”. It was an alternative to marriage but in a subservient role. Some contemporary views of women were not a great deal different from those found in Victorian England:

women are smaller, meeker, more demure, more gentle, more supple, more delicate, more envious and more laughing and loving, and the malice in the soul is more in a woman than in a man. . . . .Woman is of a more feeble nature, tells more lies, and is slower in working and moving that a man. (From a 13th century account quoted in G C Coulton: Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation. p.433) 

 Women did play a role in the economic life of the community. A few became independent tradespeople, many helped their husbands in their business or work and often ran things when their men were off fighting. There is a report of one woman who worked as a blacksmith – one of the most physically demanding of trades. There is Chaucer’s characterization of the Wife of Bath in his Canterbury Tales:

Housbondes atte chirche dore hadde sche fyfe

Clearly a woman who made the most of life and was, by the time she comes to Chaucer’s notice, a woman of some wealth.

But women were constrained. They were not judges or surgeons and their lives were largely defined in the context of men. Widows were often pressured into re-marrying and single women had very little status. Women of a certain class could elect to go into a nunnery, often to avoid re-marriage or marriage altogether. Women from the lower orders could be accepted into nunneries but only to do the hard menial work.
Marriage, the option for most women, could work, and no doubt there were many successful marriages, but the husband always held (literally) the upper hand. If a woman unluckily married a bad, abusive and feckless husband there was little that could be done. Even in a happy marriage, each pregnancy brought with it a 10% risk of death, according to the calculations of some historians. Not even the upper reaches of society, with their better diet and living conditions, were immune to the danger of complications during birth. In the words of that 17th century pessimist Thomas Hobbes, “Life could be nasty, brutush and short.”


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 Common Lands

As I have already mentioned the great part of the manor to the south was not considered suitable arable land in earlier centuries. The Greenleys area, the Ardwell Fields (from OE aeord – meaning rough), the Furzes and the Bushy Fields were given over to pasture for the cattle and pigs. After enclosure these fields were used for sheep grazing, which was highly profitable when wool was about the only substance used for textiles. 
While the open field system was still in operation this land would not have been enclosed and may have resembled a heath. 
The land enclosure took a number of years as the Longuevilles exercised their seigneurial prerogatives but it was certainly complete by 1654. At this time the Parson was given a plot of land just beyond the present cemetary, appropriately named “Parson’s piece”.
I wonder now if the development of Wolverton might not have been different if the original Engine Shed and houses had been built in Three Bush Field. The Railway Company would still have had access to the canal and Green Lane could have been improved as a good road from the Newport Road to Stony Stratford. What difference would this have made? Well, Wolverton could have been built on the less productive land and it is possible that the Radcliffe Trustees may have had less objection than they did have when Wolverton grew on its most productive land.
In 1837 however, no-one was thinking that far ahead.