MEDIEVAL LIFE IN WOLVERTON

 

While change was taking place on Wolverton’s western edge agriculture still remained the

engine house of the economy. The new types of business at Stony Stratford may have been a

welcome supplement to the manor’s economy but manorial life on the largest part of the

manor was probably unchanged from the 11th century.

The Development of The Manor

500 years elapsed from the Anglo Saxon settlers to the Norman establishment and we

know extraordinary little about the period. Most of what we know can only be pieced together

from archaeology and studies of land use form the period. There is very little documentary

evidence which we can tie to Wolverton.

It requires a real effort of imagination to reconstruct life in those times. The local lord

probably had the resources to construct a cruck-built hall, which could house his family and his

principal followers. There was no privacy. People ate, talked, entertained, copulated and slept

in a single room. It is possible that the kitchen was an outbuilding. The poorer peasants lived

in small hovels of their own making, with low walls made of interleaved branches and filled

with mud, together with roofs of thatched straw, unsupported by strong timbers and vulnerable

to storms. Farming, as described earlier, was limited by the technology of the age, and probably

only supported a handful of families.

Beyond the time of Wulfhere, who probably prevailed in the late 6th century we know

little detail until the evidence of the Domesday Book. As the kingdoms developed Wolverton

fell largely under the control of the King of Mercia where it became a frontier settlement on the

edge of the Danelaw, where the Ouse became a border. It appears unlikely that Wulfhere

founded a dynasty and at Domesday there is no single ruling family. It is almost certain that in

the upheaval of these centuries no single family left its mark. Indeed, by the time of the

Domesday record, there were three thanes on the Wolverton manor, neither one of them

particularly powerful. Circumstances may have been fluid in each of these centuries. The only

stable pattern that one can detect in the trend to land ownership and the development of

hierarchies. The frequently-used phrase in the Domesday Book is “he could sell” when referring

to the saxon thanes who once had possession of land, indicating that they had independent

rights of ownership.

The peasantry meanwhile continued to do what they always did, try to scratch a

subsistence living from the soil. Lords came and went, but while they were there they exacted

their demands. Death and taxes it seemed were life’s only certainties. It would be wrong,

however, to envision the peasantry as a homogeneous mass. Social mobility was possible then as

in all societies at all times. And although all peasants were engaged in more-or-less the same

activity, there were degrees of social and economic standing.

A treatise on estate management, known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum The

Management of People), written in the early 11th century sets out three classes of peasant and

probably fairly reflects the existing or emerging economy. The author describes three classes:

the genat, the gebur and the kotsetla. There were of course slaves below these ranks. The geneat,

at the head of the peasantry, while not free of service, was free from much of the routine

drudgery and was expected to perform a range of general duties, often requiring some skill. He

was entrusted with errands for his lord, some guard duties, maintaining the fences around the

lord’s house. The gebur was probably the forerunner of the Norman villein, a man who may

have had up to 30 acres to tend and was committed to two days a week service on the lord’s

land and three days a week at harvest and seeding time. He was also assessed at various rents

from his own land. The kotsetla, in the third tier, was the cottarius or bordarius of the

Domesday Book, probably with 5 acres or so to till for his personal needs in return for work on

the lord’s desmesne every Monday and three days a week in August.

By the 7th century Western Europe was connected by trade to the Mediterranean world.

The Caliphate of the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire fostered a demand for extensive

trade and even the outlying fringes of Europe were drawn into this highly developed web.

Archaeological evidence provides us with artefacts from the Mediterranean, probably traded for

metals such as tin and slaves to reinforce the labour force. During this period market centres, or

emporia, began to emerge, or re-emerge in some instances. The overall picture is incomplete. Sites at London (Lundenwic),

Ipswich (wic) and Southampton (Hamwic) are known to have been quite important. Other

settlements across the south and east have been identified although the overall picture is

indistinct.

The Manor in 1200

In our local context there may have been some sort of trading centre at Buckingham and

at Newport. Based upon our assessment of the later evidence one can assert with some

confidence that there was no such trading post in Wolverton. Any trading needs (and this was

still a society without much currency) could probably be met through occasional fairs at other

centres.

The 12 to 15 generations from the departure of the Roman colonisers in 400 AD to the

eleventh century, is a period where we can witness the results of social change without being

able to supply a narrative as to how and why that change occurred. Historians of the 19th and

20th centuries who nourished the idea of the “dark ages”, a period of barbarity between Roman

and Christian civilization. Even so, the archaeological evidence is accumulating from partial

excavations and more advanced techniques of analysing land deposits and consequently newer

theories are emerging which cause reconsideration of traditional views.

One agricultural practice which did emerge in these years before the conquest was the

open field system. Rather than the system which might have applied during the Celtic period

where families farmed sections of land around their own households, a highly organised system

emerged whereby large open fields were farmed in strips by individuals. Crop rotation was

practiced, with one field being left fallow each year. Anglian society had reached a level of

organisation that permitted the development of the sophisticated three field system which

allowed two fields under cultivation and a third lying fallow to allow the soil to recover its

nutrients. Some have theorized that this system developed from a two field system, but more

recent scholarship takes the view that the two field system was localized to Wiltshire and the

south west and that the Midlands had always practised a three field system of cultivation. This

open field system was the means by which these Anglians practised agriculture. That is, the

cultivatable area was divided into strips of land. Individuals or families cultivated these strips

and acquired customary rights over time.

It is possible that this agricultural revolution was the cause of the relocation of the

Wolverton village. The first Anglian settlers had established themselves on the unoccupied land

at Wolverton Turn, as mentioned earlier, but at some time before the 9th century they appear to

have relocated to the lower ground. There are no clear reasons why. It may have had something

to do with the growth in numbers of the Anglian community or to developments in farming

practices, or a combination of these and other factors. As they were able to claim and farm the

better land it must have made more sense to relocate the core of the village closer to the great

fields.

The higher ground may historically have been wooded or scrub land and was probably

undeveloped at the time of the conquest. A lot can be learned from names. The weald at

Calverton probably extended across the Watling Street for some way and names from this area

can offer some insight into the gradual clearing. Fuller’s Slade, for example, was a green

clearing in a wooded area either cleared by a man named Full, or Fuller or Fowler, or held by

someone of that name when it was first recorded.1 Greenleys (sometimes Grindleys) suggest

also that green meadows have been cleared from wooded land. The furzes and bush fields to

the south east of the manor suggest rough land that was probably not cultivated early. The area

now known as Warren farm was likely a wooded area used for hunting rabbits – the warren.

The Warren may still have been wooded at this time, and certainly the higher land

adjacent to the Calverton Weald must have been covered with woods. Wood was a resource for

building and for fuel and probably under the control of the lord. Peasants would be given

permission to harvest broken twigs and deadwood on the ground but would not be allowed, on

pain of severe punishment, to cut down trees without payment.

So you could draw a fairly convincing picture of a manor that by the late 11th century had

only developed alongside Bradwell Brook and the Ouse. Gradually, and probably over these

two centuries, more land was cleared for arable purposes and for pasture. The work was

extremely hard. Each tree had to be cut down by hand and the stump dug out. In addition

these assarts, as they were called, were undertaken in a man’s spare time, on top of his hard

work in his own fields and on the lord’s domain.

One practice, which expanded the amount of available land, was the founding of priories

or monasteries on poor land. The foundation of Bradwell Priory by Meinfelin was typical.

Meinfelin could earn some credit in heaven at no great cost to himself and the monks in

subsequent generations would do the work to clear the land and make it productive.

This land usage continued until the enclosures began in the 16th century, but even if it

had provided for a growing population for a century or so it was never much more than

subsistence agriculture. While everything looked promising when Edward I’s youngest son

succeeded to the throne in 1307, matters were infinitely worse eight years later with two

successive harvest failure. The years 1315 to 1317 were subject to abnormally heavy rainfall and

the yield was dire. In Wolverton we can picture most of the meadows close to the river being

flooded and the higher clay lands becoming waterlogged. Prolonged rainfall inhibiting the

ripening of crops and delayed the harvest. It was hard enough to preserve enough food for the

winter months in normal years, but to encounter successive crop failures must have led to

famine and the consequent death of both people and animals. Wolverton villagers would have

cared more about this than Edward’s disastrous defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, although in

their superstitious minds they may have connected the former as a presager of the famine.

There was no happy way out of a famine in medieval times. Food storage was limited and

once supplies were used up there was no vehicle for providing aid. Valuable stock animals had

to be slaughtered and inevitably people died of malnutrition or starvation.

Stock animals were expensive and not every peasant could afford them. Cattle and sheep

were smaller animals than they are today and their yields of milk, wool, leather and meat were

correspondingly diminished. The biggest challenge was to keep the animals away from the

crops, in part the responsibility of the cow herd and shepherd, but just in case the village also

employed a hayward (hay guard) to make sure that animals did not stray onto arable land. Some

enclosures may have been built, either hedged or protected by earth bank or ditches to keep

stock animals enclosed in winter.

Certain specialized jobs developed in this economy. The Reeve was a man employed by

the lord of the manor as an administrator. He would ensure that services dues were met, that

tithes were paid, and that disputes between the villagers were resolved.

The Hay Ward was often an assistant to the Reeve but his main function was to organise

and control the cropping of hay. In all communities tis was a significant crop necessary for

winter feed. All of the meadows in the north of the manor would be closely supervised by the

hayward. He would determined when the grass could be mown and what portions were taken

by the peasants and what portion reserved for the lord. He would determine the times when

the meadows could be used for pasture and when they could not. At other times of the year he

would be the enforcer if livestock on the commons got out of control and started to feed on the

arable fields. He would give warnings to the owners of the cattle and possibly levy fines.

On the Watling street it was probably more of the same, except that here, innkeepers

would have larger buildings and outhouses and a strip of land going back from the main street.

We could also present the argument that Wolverton grew as two villages. The manor

village and the settlement at Stony Stratford. Their different purposes meant that they grew on

different models. Whereas the Wolverton village developed irregularly, (and as it turned out

impermanently) the west side of the Watling Street was defined by the road, and houses that

were built there fronted the street with a back yard that may have extended to the footpath that

once marked the eastern edge of Stony. And it is clear from later developments that these plots

varied in size.

The Open Fields

Medieval Farming was based upon large open fields which were communally farmed. The

lord controlled rights of access to the land, usually in return for payment of a portion of

produce, or services, or money, or sometimes a combination of all three. From the labourers

point of view these rights were customary and could be passed from father to son and so on.

Typically 30 acres was held to be sufficient to support a family. The local picture was often

more complicated than this, but as a general description this is how the manor worked. The

large fields were divided into strips and crops were rotated each year. One field could be left

fallow for one year in every three.

Professor Hyde’s analysis of Wolverton’s three great fields and the Lord’s demesne was

developed from the 18th century enclosure map on page [Referenced content is missing.]. He

uses the later names to describe the make-up of the three fields of Wolverton. One of the fields,

he explains, extended from Stony Stratford to the mill drive and was bordered to the south by

the Wolverton Road. Thus all the fields named Rylands – a good giveaway to the arable

properties of the soil – were in this field.

The second field was to the south of the Wolverton Road, starting at the corner turn and

encompassing Barr Piece and Barr Close, Marron Fields, Dean’s Close, Roger’s Holm and

Lower Slade. This was the land mostly covered by the Railway Works, McCorquodale’s and the

19th century town.

Barr (OE baere) means barley and plainly takes its name from what was grown there. It is

likely that the name Atterbury, often found in Wolverton and area, can trace its origin from

this or a similar named field in the area. When surnames originated in the 14th century people

were quite as likely to take their name from the place where they lived. Thus John atte Barre

(John at the Barley Field) became in time, Atterbury.

Possible arrangement of the three open fields

I am not certain of the origin of Marron, but it may possibly come from the Old English

maere, meaning great

The third field included Colt’s Holm, Linces, Upper Hey, Kent’s Hook and Debb’s Hook

and the Severidge. Great Dickens (great diggings) was probably part of the lord’s demesne.

Linces, from linchets meaning ledges of ploughed earth gives us a clue as to how this land was

traditionally

used. Kent’s Hook and Debb’s Hook, meaning Kent’s and Debb’s corner respectively are also

ancient Saxon names.

Nash Meadow, beside the river, was always pasture land.

The Lord’s Demesne was probably the land that later became identified as the park,

which was the land after enclosure that was reserved for the Longuevilles.

A lord was the pivotal figure in the manorial system which emerged after 1066. His

wealth came from appropriating the best land for himself and requiring the peasantry on his

manor to work his land for him. You could view this as a modified form of slavery or a version

of tax in kind. In return the peasant got sufficient land for himself and his family and a certain

security of tenure. Most scholars now believe that the so-called Feudal System never quite

operated in the pure form I have described and that certainly after the plague years in the

middle of the 14th century the old system gave way to one based upon money.

The first baron, Manno le Breton, established a motte and bailey castle near to the

present site of Holy Trinity church and laid claim to the adjoining land for his demesne

(domain). This would include the later named fields, Fiddler’s Butts, Morter Pitts, Home Park,

High Park, Park Meadow, Low Park, Kiln Close and Ludkin’s Closes.

Fiddler’s Butts was probably used for archery practice and Hyde suspects that Ratcliffe

Close was also used for recreational purposes. The Morter Pitts would have been used to

extract lime and Kiln Close suggests that there were once kilns on the present site of Wolverton

Park House. Low Park was the original village settlement.

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. It was probably known as Wolverton Common, but

due to the early enclosure of these lands the name has been lost to history.

Aerial view of fields in Padbury showing the old medieval strips

You can see from this photograph of Padbury, not so far from Wolverton and in a similar

landscape,

how strip farming shaped the land over many centuries, and because Padbury was a

very late enclosure, the hedgerows visibly cut across what were once long continuous strips

along which the peasants could drive their ox-drawn plough. The early enclosure of Wolverton

land left a few centuries of variant cultivation between the old field system and a more recent

aspect of the landscape. Dr Hyde’s reconstruction of the early manorial landscape represents

our best estimate.

A Walk around the Manor in 1307

It is very easy to telescope time when looking at the Medieval period, and particularly

when looking at the uneventful history of Wolverton it is easy to miss the fact that 240 years

had elapsed since the Conquest and the year that Edward II came to the throne. In the last

chapter we looked at the change that was brought about by the development of Stony Stratford,

so in this year let us do some time travelling of our own and see what the manor looked like in

1307. This is at the beginning of the 14th century when the population on the manor, without

counting the Stony Stratford side, is at least double that of 1066. There will be no shortage of

people as we walk around the manor. We are in the midst of one of those periods of global

warming, which, in general, has led to increased food production. Men and women are more

fertile and families are larger.

We can leave the high road at Stony Stratford where we have probably stayed overnight at

one of its several hostelries. Stony Stratford is a newish town but it is already a place of some

importance along the road. We will walk eastwards towards the village of Wolverton, just under

a mile away. We will take the new road, Portfield Way, which cuts across the manor to Bradwell

Brook and continues to Newport Pagnell. The growth of markets in both Stony Stratford and

Newport Pagnell in the last century has led to increased traffic. The road, or rather track, is not

in very good condition and carts have left deep ruts but if you walk or ride on horseback it is

passable in good weather. As this is the end of June our problems are minimal. This road is

slightly to the north of the present Wolverton Road and leads us directly to the village much

closer to the mill.

While we are on this road we may as well take a detour to the mill, known as West Mill.

As we walk down the track through the meadows there is a man in the meadow checking the

height of the grass. He looks at us suspiciously. He is the Hay Ward, quite an important official

in Wolverton, and his principal duty at this time of year is to organise the hay crop. He will

organise the teams of mowers who skilfully swing their scythes back and forth in a long reaping

motion. This is one of the critical crops of the year because it will keep the livestock fed during

the winter month. At other times of the year he will ensure that animals do not stray onto the

arable fields and issue fines to those who allow their animals off the commons. He is the man

who make sure that the hay is properly stored and appropriately distributed during the winter

months. The Hay Ward, as the right hand man to the Reeve, the village administrator, will

most likely be assigned a number of duties during the year. As a village official he will certainly

be keeping an eye on strangers like us.

A drawing of Wolverton as it might have appeared in 1307

The mill, as we come to it, is probably the most sophisticated piece of machinery we will

find on the manor. It has a huge waterwheel which is turning as we watch at a steady rate

controlled by the mill race, a ditch dug beside the river. By means of a system of gears the

power of the wheel turns a specially cut circular stone, which grinds the flour. the miller and

his family are among the better off in the village. He has a good degree of control over prices

and everyone has to come to him. At one time the Lord was in direct control of the mill but

now he finds it more convenient to rent it out who can meet the annual rental. How much

money he makes or loses is of little concern to Sir John de Wolverton.

What will become quickly apparent to us as we walk back from the mill to re-join the

road to the village is that there are none of the hedgerows or fences that we might expect to

find in a farming landscape. The concept of enclosing fields has yet to be invented. Here are

large open fields as we have come to call them, marked out in cultivatable strips, each tilled by

one peasant family and separated from his neighbour by baulks, that is, raised furrows of earth.

Each would be a furlong in length, although not necessarily the exact length which the furlong

was later understood to be, but long enough. A furlong was later defined as 220 yards (just over

200 metres) but the very name would tell us that it was some distance to walk behind an oxendrawn

plough. The field picture would resemble todays allotments, but on a larger scale.

Peasants are scattered across the manor.

We do notice that different crops are growing side-by-side in different strips. The old idea

of everyone trooping off to one large field to sow barley has been replaced by a more

sophisticated approach. Peasants now can farm their strips closer together in some cases. They

are still practising crop rotation but within the limits of their own three strips rather than in a

large communal field.

One area which is fenced off is the copse. These were small wooded areas which were

vital for the community’s supply of wood. We can see one example on the higher ground to the

south in the area known as The Warren. There is a fence around it to stop deer from eating

tree shoots. Not much of Wolverton is wooded at this time but what wooded areas are left are

very carefully managed, under the strict control of the lord. Peasants are allowed to gather twigs

and fallen branches for firewood but the cutting of trees is strictly controlled. Each year a

coppicer will clear some of the undergrowth to allow the trees to grow to full strength and new

saplings will be planted – hence the need for a fence. We will see several copses as you make our

tour of the manor.

This last walk should bring us to the village settlement of Wolverton which straggles out

for over half a mile along the road, with cottages built on both sides of the track. None of the

cottages look very permanent, and indeed they are not. The low walls, about four feet high, are

made of a mixture of clay, gravel and straw, using animal dung as a binder. We now see why the

term housebreaking came into being, because any robber could easily break a hole in the wall

in order to gain access. The cottages we see vary from 16 to 20 feet long and are no more than

10 feet wide. They are single room dwellings without windows. Ventilation comes through the

door and the roof, which is at a very steep pitch, so the whole dwelling might be as high as 25

feet. The steep pitch is essential to keep out the rain because these roofs are all thatched and

our eyes will also notice that many of them are now green with moss. Thatch is common

enough in these parts. It is a cheap roof covering and is easily repaired. It helps to keep the

house warm too, although it provides that same service to a variety of animal and bird life who

nest within it. Smoke from the open hearth fire inside the cottage escapes through a crude

opening at the top. There is no chimney. This opening is covered by a louvre. The eaves also

extend quite far out from the walls to protect them from rain. We will observe some variation

in the size of the cottages, depending upon the relative status of the peasants within the

community. Some, for example, may be able to afford a wooden sleeping platform inside the

cottage.

The yards surrounding the cottages vary in size but all are fenced. This is because almost

all of them keep some chickens and geese and they must be protected against foxes. Inside the

yard, known as a toft, we can see an earth closet and further away from the cottage a mound of

animal dung, destined for future use as a fertiliser. At this time of the year they can become

high in both senses of the word and complaints about a neighbour’s “mound” were common in

these times. We also notice several crude clay pots under the thatch eaves’ these are designed to

collect the water run-off to meet immediate domestic needs, although there is a communal

village well.

Some of the better off peasants have built byres for their livestock within their tofts.

As we go up the hill towards the church and the manor house the scene changes for the

better. The church as we come to it far outstrips anything we have seen thus far in size and

importance; however, it is still a simple 11th century building – rectangular, probably about 40

feet long and 25 feet wide. It has a tiled roof and the building is made of locally quarried stone.

The church also boasts some expensive windows. Later in this century it would be extended

with the addition of a tower and a chancel, but in 1307 we see only a functional and

unprepossessing building.

The vicarage, which stands nearby is larger and better built than the rough and ready

structures we have passed in the village, but thatch again is the roof covering of choice.

This house is typical for the 12th century. The Wolverton Manor House may have resembled this.

Just to the north, we can see the huge earthworks which once held the keep of

Wolverton’s castle. Now that times are more peaceable it has been abandoned and there is no

sign of the structure that must have been here when it was the residence of the baron. Even so,

the earthworks and stone wall around the bailey remain and there are two gatehouses, one just

ahead of us, and another north entrance. They are open during the day, although they are

guarded. If we are challenged about our busienss we will say that we have a message for Sir

John. Nobody in 1307 will understand tourism.

Once at the manor house and its related buildings we are left in no doubt as to the

importance of the people living here. The house stands two stories in height and is built of

quarried stone with a tiled roof. This is the great hall, presently occupied by Sir John de

Wolverton and his family and servants. The main building is quite impressive and is about 50

feet long and 25 feet wide. The walls are built of stone brought from the quarry at nearby

Cosgrove and the roof structure is an impressive piece of carpentry. There is a huge fireplace at

one end and a brick-built chimney. There are a a good number of buildings within the bailey,

which is quite extensive.

The great hall itself is public and we will not be bothered if we wander in to take a look.

People are always here on some matter of business or another. Everybody eats here and the

servants work here and sleep on the floor at the end of the day. Sir John and his family have

the luxury of a solar, a second storey platform that spans the hall and is reached by stone steps.

The solar is the private area for Sir John and his family and only a privileged few have access.

The family also has the luxury of a garderobe, a privy behind a screen at one end of the hall.

But this is not the only building here. there is a kitchen, separate from the main hall

because of the risk of fire, stables of course, and a penned area for chickens and geese. We also

find kennels for dogs, used mainly for hunting but also useful to warn against intruders,

human or animal, at night time. Sir John also has a dovecote and many of these doves will

grace the lord’s table at one time or another. A huge barn will store grain from the Lord’s

demesne and the villagers’ tithes.

Let’s move further north, because the village continues. This landscape has no canal at

this date. The road continues to a large barn known as the Grange. This is a barn for storing

grain and is looked after by a granger who lives in one of the nearby cottages but this one does

not belong to the manor. In fact this land has been acquired by the Priory of Chicksands, near

Dunstable and the land here is worked for their benefit. Just on ourr left we can see a

boundary ridge which has been dug to distinguish between the two manors. On either side we

can see long strips of growing crops. Today, most of the villagers are out in the fields with their

hoes removing weeds.

Ploughing in the 14th century – from the Luttrell Psalter.

Directly north of the grange we can witness some new development. There are men at

the bottom of the field digging a new trench or channel to cut across the great loop of the River

Ouse. This new channel will become a mill race for a third mill in Wolverton. It is to be a

fulling mill, planned by the Hastings family, well established in these parts, to ease the arduous

process of fulling, that it is hammering the lumps out of the crude woollen cloth until it is

smooth and wearable. If I said that the west Mill represented the pinnacle of mechanical

sophistication in the village, that was true, but if we come back in a year’s time we should see

the fulling mill in action with a very complex mechanism of gears, levers and hammers. This

mechanised process will make life much more bearable for those involved in the trade. Sheep

farming, as we shall see, when we reach the commons, is becoming an important industry.

If we now rejoin the road we can proceed eastwards through some very good arable land.

Furlong strips spread out on either side of the road and when the harvest is in next month will

provide the bulk of food for the inhabitants of the manor. This road takes us along the valley

for another mile or so where we rejoin the river Ouse as it meets a tributary stream known as

Bradwell Brook. We will pass by the road to the north that goes to Wolverton’s second mill,

known as Mead or Meadow Mill. This mill is worked for the benefit of Bradwell Priory and the

track to the south will take us to the priory itself, which was founded by the Baron of

Wolverton in 1155. You can see the priory walls and building across the brook. It is not very

grand. Its church, dedicated to St. Mary is quite a modest building and the priory does not

seem to have made much progress beyond its original endowment 150 years earlier. The land

across the brook was at one time part of the Wolverton Manor but it was granted to the priory

by its founder Baron Meinfelin. Now this land feed the monks and earns some income for the

priory. In addition the monastery was granted the income from Holy Trinity so one of their

number is usually appointed vicar and the priory collects the church tithes from Wolverton.

This southern and eastern part of the manor is not well populated. We can only find the

odd scattered cottage for shepherds and cowherds and woodsmen’s cottages near some of the

copses. But if we walk up to the old ridgeway, the old high trackway which crosses the manor

from east to west, in later times known as Green Lane we find ourselves in the uplands of the

manor above the valley. There is a good view to the north from here where we have a wide

panorama of the cultivated lands by the river stretching up to the barley fields beside us. As we

turn to face south we see mostly scrub lands and furzes. These are the great commons of

Wolverton and here we can see the livestock of the manor grazing. We will of course be struck

by how small the cattle are compared to what we see in the 21st century. The sheep too are

much smaller animals than modern ones. The animals are all owned by various, but by no

means all, members of the community. Livestock are costly to rear and maintain. Naturally, if

one does own some livestock there are the benefits from the products of milk, wool or meat but

the investment, and indeed the risks, are high. So, for the most part, the cattle and sheep we

see grazing are owned by the more prosperous members of the community, including the lord.

Sheep pen in the 14th century – from the Luttrell Psalter

Everywhere we go today we see men, women and children out in the fields. Children do

not go to school; that activity is only available to a very few who may be sent to Oxford or

Cambridge in their early adolescence to prepare themselves for a career in the church. So

children, as soon as they are old enough, are given useful tasks. Everything in this world is done

by hand and the days are long and arduous.

We can complete our circular tour of the manor by rejoining the Watling Street at

Gallows or Galley Hill and then walk down to one of the inns for rest and refreshment.

The Early Church in Wolverton

We do not know when the first Christian Church was built on the Wolverton Manor. No

archaeological evidence so far has been uncovered that might help to answer this question, and

there are certainly no written records.

The larger picture tells us that the Christian mission from Rome began in 597 in Kent

and it is probable that Christianity spread to Wolverton in the 7th century AD. The early

establishments were minsters (from the Latin monasterium) which provided a base for monks

to travel outwards on their missionary work. There is no evidence of a Minster near Wolverton.

The nearest known minster in Buckinghamshire was at Wing. In Northamptonshire there was

one at Higham Ferrers, although not, apparently, at Northampton and another was established

in Bedford. The missionary work probably emanated from one or other of these minsters and

served the spiritual needs of the converts until the establishment of a resident priest or church.

Saxon church foundations that do survive date from the 10th and 11th centuries, but it is

likely that as Christianity embedded itself some sort of local building was erected to serve the

needs of the population. The practice of the Norman conquerors was to replace Saxon

churches with their own structures. Most were demolished and little evidence remains of their

location or architecture. Even very substantial and important buildings were replaced.

Winchester Old Minster, for example, was a large and imposing building, but once the new

cathedral was built it was pulled down. As to small parish churches, they simply disappeared. In

some cases the old building was a basis for the newer structure; in other instances the old

building was pulled down and the materials reused in the new structure. Church building was a

political statement by the Norman rulers. They were here to stay.

The general absence of Saxon churches has led historians to speculate that earlier Saxon

churches were wooden buildings. In the case of Wolverton the best guess is that it was a

wooden building and it is reasonable to assume that it was close to the present church of Holy

Trinity. What the structure resembled is again pure speculation. Not all Saxon churches, for

example, were complete buildings. Some merely provided some cover for the altar while the

congregation gathered in the open air. Later buildings were more complete, but were usually

modest buildings. I imagine that Wolverton’s church, serving a population of no more than

200, was an unpretentious structure.

Church building started in earnest after the Norman conquest. The Normans were

aggressive and ambitious church builders and most of the cathedrals and churches that we now

recognise date from the post Norman period where grand impressive architecture was a

manifestation of the ruling imperative. It was a matter of prestige for the new landowners, so it

is probable that Manno, the new baron, built a new church once he established himself. There

is however, no record that would confirm this.

Manno was succeeded by Meinfelin who was probably able to consolidate the wealth of

the barony. In his will of 1155 he founded Bradwell Priory, as previously mentioned.

Thereafter, until the dissolution, the Church at Old Wolverton was under the control of the

Priory.

We can infer from this that there was an existing church at Wolverton, presumably under

the direct control of the lord until 1155 and thereafter administered by the priory. No

permanent priest appears to have been in charge until 1240, or thereabouts, when a man called

Alan was Vicar. I assume that various monks or chaplains were appointed before that but with

no specified living associated with the church. It is probably worth bearing in mind that

although there was a settlement in the field to the south west of the church, there were

probably families scattered across the manor.

The church of Holy Trinity was almost completely rebuilt in the early 19th century, leaving

only parts of the tower as a record of its medieval past. William Cole, rector of Bletchley and a

keen 18th century antiquarian, has left some record.

These notes, written 23rd April 1754, offer us a useful description.

‘Passing thro’ this Parish in my way from the Archdeacon’s Visitation held at Stony

Stratford, I called in to look at the Church; which is a small building with the Tower,

Cathedral Fashion, between the Nave and the Chancel; the last of which is tiled and the

Nave and South Aisle leaded. It has 4 bells. The Chancel is very elegantly paved thro’ out

with black and white Marble. The Altar is railed in and stands on an elevation of 3 steps.

On the North Side worked in the Wall is a very antique Altar Tomb of black marble but

without arms or inscription to inform one to whom it appertains. The 2 Ends of the

Arch and above it are adorned with very old-fashioned Carvings of Oak of Medallions of

Men’s Heads and old Shields. On the opposite side of the Altar against the south Wall is

erected a very noble Monument of white Marble, having the Figure of a Gentleman in a

Roman warlike Habit reclining on his left side, with his Eyes looking up to Heaven, and

his right Hand laid on his Breast.’

The medieval church that was pulled down in the 19th century dates from the reign of

Edward III, and is therefore of 14th century origin. Parts of the previous church were used to

build the newer church. It looks as if the chancel formed the first church with a later addition

of the tower. This was a conventional development of churches. The first small building

became the chancel when the church was enlarged and was thus absorbed into the new

building. The nave was likely a later addition and finally the crenellated south aisle. In the case

of Holy Trinity, the almost total rebuild of the 19th century has left little of this evidence

behind.

Someone had the foresight to record the old church before it was demolished so we do

have some idea of what the new church replaced. Browne Willis made a rather crude sketch of

the church in the first part of the 18th century and J Buckler made a fair copy of a drawing once

in the possession of the Reverend Cook of Haversham which confirms the Browne Willis view.

This drawing is reproduced here.

The church was a modest one but Cole indicates that some money had been spent on the

interior.2

By placing the church under the jurisdiction of the Priory, Meinfelin met two objectives:

to provide the Priory with income from the tithes, and to place the responsibility for the

upkeep of the church upon the Priory. After the dissolution of the monasteries the

responsibility for the church reverted to the Lord of the Manor.

A drawing of the old Holy Trinity Church

The growth of Stony Stratford in the 12th and 13th centuries led to a need for a chapel of

ease on the Watling Street. As noted on page [Referenced content is missing.] the earliest

mention of any such place occurs in an undated document from 13th century, sometime during

the tenure of William, son of Hamo, between 1214 and 1247, so the grant could have been

made at any time during this period, but possibly earlier than 1238 when Hamo the Clerk was

lodging in a house that formerly belonged to Richard the Weaver.3 On this fairly thin evidence

we could suggest that a chapel had been established in the first 30 years of the 13th century, and

this is consistent with a foundation on the west side, made in 1203.4 Both chapels succeed the

formal establishment of markets at Stony Stratford and no doubt the increase in trade brought

more travellers to the town and in those medieval times the need for a place to pray and make

donations to the church.

Both new chapels, on both sides of the Watling Street, must have increased their

congregations fairly rapidly in the thirteenth century as both were able to build full scale

churches by the end of that century. The church on the Wolverton side, St Mary Magdalene, is

thought to date from about 1290.

The tower was a later medieval development, from the middle of the 15th century,

although there is no record of its building. Edward Swinfen Harris, the distinguished Stony

Stratford architect, was impressed with the building and design. Writing at the end of the 19th

century, he noted:

“The tower of St. Mary Magdalene’s church (though but a fragment of what must have

been a very beautiful church) is a precious heritage, which we should all value very highly.

It is the work of an able but unknown architect of the latter half of the fourteenth

century, and has many features about it of a passing notice It has been illustrated in

Parker’s Glossary. Among these we may mention the almost Italian method of dispensing

with buttresses, for those used are too shallow to deserve the name. Its belfry stage is of

singular beauty and faultless proportion. The gurgoyles are full of quaint humour. The

parapets form a beautiful compromise between the ordinary English embattled and the

‘saddle-back’ type found in Normandy and the Isle of France or rather they might well be

described as a happy union of these two beautiful types. Its whole character is made up of

exceeding delicacy, refinement, and reserve. It has been carefully repaired, and no more

than was absolutely necessary had been done, in order to ensure the safety of a building,

alas! too long allowed to suffer from past neglect.”5

Records for the church are quite poor and early priests are largely unrecorded. This may

have something to do with the fact that the Bradwell Prior regarded this as a chapelry and did

not ever make a permanent appointment. Nevertheless, the quality of the building would

suggest that the church was well-supported by the stony Stratford merchants on the Wolverton

side.

Population Growth

The three centuries after the conquest became a period of growth and development in

England. Once recovered from the initial ravages of the aftermath of the Conquest the country

largely prospered under the new rulers. Several factors were at work here: some improvements

in plough design which made the breaking of the soil easier and faster; a period of global

warming which extended the growing season, the breaking of new land and relative political

stability.

Records specific to Wolverton that might tell us how the land was developed during this

period are non-existent. There are modern scientific techniques which can discern soil

movement and date from there, but techniques such as these have limited application to

Wolverton where building over the past 170 years has destroyed such evidence. We can take

information from the larger picture of England which has been developed by economic

historians and infer some things about Wolverton’s development.

Inevitably this growth in population must have led to a more complex society. The

amount of land could not be increased and customary strips were probably tilled in much the

same way that they always had. The difference may have been in the development of specialised

trades. If less time was needed to work for food, surplus time was available for other activities.

The 13th century deeds which make up part of the manorial documents deal with a number of

transactions around Stony Stratford, which would suggest that the trade to the travelling public

was well advanced. Inns would be found on both sides of the street, each with their own

household and staff of servants. It is possible that specialised smithing trades could now be

supported and the weaving and fulling of cloth and tanning of leather might earn enough to

support a family without tilling the soil.

No estimates of population for these early centuries can be precise and we can only work

with estimates from economic historians working from a variety of sources, but if the

population of England was between 1.25 and 1.5 million in 1086, it was probably double that

by the beginning of the 14th century. Estimates made from the Poll Tax figure of 1377 give a

total population of 2.3 million living in England. If a loss of 40% as a consequence of the

Black death of 1349 and its subsequent outbreaks is accepted, then there must have been 3.2

million in the country on the eve of the plague, double that of the 11th century. It took many

centuries for the population to recover. This rise in population seems to have arisen through a

period of global warming which had brought about higher food yields and enhanced by

improvements in farming technology. Better fed people brought improved fertility and better

chances of surviving infancy.

Population estimates for Wolverton are complicated by the growth of Stony Stratford,

which also had buildings on the Calverton side of the street. In the prime years of the coaching

trade in the early 19th century the town had a population of about 1,500. The 14th century may

have accommodated 3 to 400, although this is pure guesswork. But let us assume that, as

discussed earlier, the manorial population doubled from 1086 to about 500 in 1349. A further

2 to 300 may have been making a living on the Wolverton side of Watling Street, giving a total

population of about 800.

The Black Death and Wolverton

This growth might have continued but for the extraordinary pandemic known as the

Black Death. Although we have no records from the time there is no reason to suppose that

Wolverton escaped the affliction. We do know what happened at Bradwell Priory so there is

no reason to suppose that the area escaped the impact of the plague. The numbers of monks at

the Priory were greatly reduced after 1349, the year in which the Prior himself, William de

Loughton, died and the fortunes of the Priory, never very well endowed, did not recover. Later

they had to seek Papal dispensation to allow illegitimately born children to become monks,

even the Prior – something that would not have been countenanced before the plague.

The plague was not a one-off; there were recurrences in the years immediately after 1349,

and further devastating outbreaks in 1360-62, 1369 and 1375. The influence was profound.

We can begin to detect some of these changes in some of the deeds after 1349

1349 Stony Stratford

William Grik of Stony Stratford, chaplain grants and confirms to Roger Grocone of

Calverton A MESSUAGE in Stony Stratford in the parish of Calverton between

messuage of Henry Anketil and that once of Hugh Turnus & 10 acres arable at Calverton

and 1 acre meadow in le Mulueholm. William’s brother Thomas had held all those

properties.6

We may deduce that Thomas Grik died in that year of the plague and possibly all of his

direct heirs.

We find more women as heirs. For example:

1360 Wolverton

Alice, Elizabeth and Isabella Dikoun, daughters and heir of Elyas Dikoun release to John

de Broughton and Eleanor his wife all their right and claim in lands, tenements and

messuages in Wolverton next Stony Stratford which they had after the death of their

father.7

These are some examples of how society was changing. In earlier centuries there were a

small number of transactions either between the lord and his tenants or with a certain amount

of hands-on involvement by the lord. The services were often specific. Here, and in other

documents of the period, the reference to services has become formulaic and unspecified,

simply noting It is probable that the services were acquitted on the basis of some agreed

payment.

The years between the Black Death and the Peasants Revolt coincided with the end of

the de Wolverton male line and the emergence of the de Longuevilles. John de Wolverton died

in 1349, possibly a plague victim himself and his only son Ralph two years later. The barony

was then divided between Sir John’s daughters and their husbands. John de Longueville came

into the manor in 1393 as the husband of John de Wolverton’s granddaughter Joan Hunte. So

it would appear that in the unsettled period of 1381 the manor was still in the hands of the

established family and one might conclude that after three centuries the lords and the

peasantry had settled into a comfortable relationship. Most people are inherently conservative;

they only become radical when pushed too far. What would have mattered most to the majority

on the Wolverton manor was that all their customary rights and practices were upheld and that

they were treated fairly. Taxes were imposed from above, but if the tax gatherers were

reasonable, then some accommodation would be found. What sparked the revolt and fed into

accumulated grievances was the ineptness of the tax gatherers in Essex.

Social Change

The Black Death resulted in a serious labour shortage. A 40% reduction may have cut

back the combined population of Wolverton and Stony Stratford to about 500. 14th century

society was dependent on agriculture and it was the peasants who were engaged in actual

production. Two segments of society, the nobility and the church, were entirely dependent on

the work undertaken by the peasantry. Suddenly, there were not enough people to till the fields

and harvest the crops. There was a slight shift in economic power. Lords who had hitherto

been able to demand service and payment for the use of their land found themselves with 40%

fewer bodies to undertake that service and a 40% reduction in output. Some began to

circumvent to old system and offer wages and soon peasants, who had worked land for

generations were drawn away to another village for the prospect of wages. This only deepened

the plight of the lord who refused to adapt to changing circumstances. The result was a

revolution as profound as what happened in the 19th century, when agricultural workers

discovered that they could improve their income by moving from their traditional villages to

the new industrial towns. And just as that change brought about later discontent in the form of

campaigns for better wages and working conditions, so too did the changes of the latter part of

the 14th century.

There were what we might call “working class” revolts in France and Italy during this

period. Mostly they were led by members of the merchant classes. England came to its own

version in 1381, known since as The Peasants Revolt. Although still an agricultural society (as it

was to remain for a further 600 years) Wolverton, like most of southern England, had become

more sophisticated in the diversity of trades. The care of a flock of sheep, for example, required

a shepherd who might spend his days monitoring the sheep in the Stacey Bushes area and not

have time to farm land for himself. He would be paid, probably by the lord of the manor, or he

might earn a living from having his own small flock. The same could be said for a swineherd or

a cowherd. With the growth of Stony Stratford on the edge of the manor, there would be

sufficient work for thatchers, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, blacksmiths, tanners, fullers,

weavers and dyers and carters. The River Ouse might also provide for the employment of

boatmen. The growth of Inns on the Watling Street opened up opportunities for ostlers and

1 Fullwell appears in Radcliffe Deeds

2 John Brushe. Holy Trinity, Wolverton, Buckinghamshire. p 8-9)

3 Close rolls 22 Hen III

4 Curia Regis. John 4. John de Calverton a “cotland and two messuages and appeurtenances in Stratford which he

had receive from William the son of Alvric to Roger the clerk for the purpose of building a chapel.”

domestic servants. Most, if not all, these people would need to be paid in money rather than in

kind. Tying people to service as a foundation for society was beginning to disappear, or at least

become less central to the economy.

Wolverton was still a middling manor, not poor, but without a significant middle class.

Those who might be considered an emerging middle class in Wolverton, were a few innkeepers

in Stony Stratford, hardly a nucleus for rebellion. The unrest of the summer of 1381 passed

Wolverton by.

Once again we have to observe that Wolverton was immune to another episode in

English history. The uprisings came from Kent and Essex and East Anglia. There was also a

brief uprising in Lincolnshire and there were signs that northerners were thinking about it, but

these came to nothing.

There were some scary days for the government. The Kentish and Essex throngs raged

through London, sacked John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace on the Strand and executed Archbishop

Sudbury, who was an unpopular chancellor. They were eventually persuaded to meet with

Richard II at Smithfield, and planned or not, some of Richards men surprised and executed

the leaders. The headless army was easier to deal with and the horde was dispersed with written

promises of pardons – which subsequently were not even worth the paper they were written on.

Once everyone had returned to their homes the government pursued and executed the

ringleaders ruthlessly and the incident was over.

Wolverton people were on the sidelines. They may have heard some news and probably

did from Watling Street travellers, but none were moved to take up arms.

240 years is not a negligible period and by the time Edward I’s only surviving son came to

the throne in 1307 this amount of time has passed on the Wolverton Manor since the Norman

Conquest. The population had, as discussed in the last section, doubled, which meant that

there were more people to work the land and there was a greater prospect of producing

agricultural surplus. Slaves had disappeared from the economy and indeed many of the old

feudal ties to the land had been weakened. Money was a larger part of the economy. Services to

the lord, originally part of the feudal bargain, could now be excused for a cash payment or

directly paid for in wages. This newish practice was accelerated by events of the 14th century.

In many respects the 14th century was a benighted century. Europe was in turmoil. Some

serious weather problems caused famine in many years in Northern Europe. Political regimes

were often unstable. England and France entered into a conflict in 1340 that was to continue

for almost a century. It resulted in heavy taxation for the English and frequent ravaging of

Northern France. The Papacy was in schism for much of the century, with one Pope in

Avignon and another in Rome. The Iberian peninsula endured war between competing

kingdoms and would be dynasties. The Italian states were at loggerheads and in frequent armed

conflict. The great plague afflicted all of Europe in the middle of the century, and its aftermath

was a restructuring of European economies.

It would be remarkable indeed if Wolverton was not affected by any of this.

5 Oliver Ratcliff. History and Antiquitiesof the Newport Pagnell Hundreds. Olney: The Cowper Press, 1900.

p.376-377.

6 Bodleian. MSS. dd. Radcl. deed 262.

7 Bodleian. MSS. dd. Radcl. deed 114.