Settlement in the Stevenage area in the mediaeval period

Landscape

At the end of the 4th century AD the landscape of Stevenage probably did not look that much different from the early 1st century AD. That is, settlement was still rural and dispersed in small extended family units. This pattern is likely to have persisted well into the Anglo-Saxon period. Exactly when the dispersed pattern began to coalesce into the pattern we know persisted up until the mid-20th century is difficult to pin point. With the exception of a solitary ‘grubenhaus’ (SMR 0455) there are few Anglo-Saxon finds spots around Stevenage and it is not until the late 11th century is it possible to begin to understand how the landscape may have appeared.

The principal linear pattern illustrated in Figure 3 shows the individual territories of up to seventeen townships or parishes. Only Stevenage and Shephall are shown in their entirety while the remaining adjoining parishes are in varying states of incompleteness. The purpose here is to ask how these various territories assumed the shape they did and what, if anything, is their significance? Although the majority of these townships/parishes were probably based on middle to late Anglo-Saxon estates, not all fall within this simple, temporal framework. Some are almost certainly later in date while some could conceivably pre-date the middle Saxon period. So the question is which is which? There is no simple answer but some may fall into one category or other on the grounds of probability rather than certainty. For example, Benington is derived from a tribal name, the ‘Beningas’. It is not without significance that the R. Beane forms much of the upper boundary between Benington and Aston to the west as early boundaries often followed natural features. However, Aston is derived from the ‘East farm’ or settlement so there is a probable early link between the two territories.  It has been suggested that the territory of the Beningas may have extended as far as the East Anglian heights and have included Weston, Ardley, Cottred, Rushden and possibly the southern tip of Clothall and Wallington.  East of Benington those territories with the suffix ‘ley’ indicate an extensive wooded area that became intercommoned for the purposes of exploiting woodland pasture. Examples of this are preserved in Langley (‘the long clearing’), Graveley (‘clearing in the thicket’), Wymondley (‘Wilmund’s clearing’), Ardley (‘Earda’s clearing’), and even Stevenage has a reference to wood hidden within its name meaning ‘strong oak’. Names within the townships such as ‘Burleigh’ (‘bare clearing’) reinforce this impression, similarly other early names such as Walden (‘valley of the Britons or serfs’).  The ‘worth’ ending means farm as in Knebworth, Datchworth and Letchworth. The ‘hall’ element as in Shephall, Clothall and Luffenhall refers to a ‘nook or corner’.  The portion of Hitchin and the larger portion of Ippolitts, Langley, St Paul’s Walden and Almshoebury which was originally an integral part of Hitchin illustrates how close another tribal territory was to Stevenage. The name is derived from ‘Hicce’ and this tribal group was established in the Hitchin area by the mid-Anglo-Saxon period.  This area went on to develop into a royal estate (regio) and an associated territory.  It can be seen therefore, that Stevenage was most probably an integral part of the Hicce lands and part of royal patrimony.  It is noteworthy how a significant proportion of the western boundary of Stevenage and Graveley was defined by a Roman road. However, it will be observed that there is an abrupt divergence of this arrangement just to the north of Corey’s Mill. The remainder of the Stevenage boundary looks as though it is proceeding along previously defined routes such as beside fields, track ways and perhaps areas of waste. What seems probable is that when the boundary of the Stevenage township was being defined the landscape was already in an advanced state of development, perhaps having evolved from the early days of the post-Roman period. Whether the territory of Stevenage was a result of communal or seigniorial impetus is impossible to say.

In addition to the configuration of the townships/parishes and place name evidence there is another element which is perhaps relevant to mention and that is the existence of ‘greens’ and ‘ends’ in and adjacent to Stevenage. It will be noted that few, if any greens are located within villages. It has been suggested that they are often associated with fairly small dispersed settlements which grew up over a long period of time in clearings or on edges of ‘thick forest’ that still persisted in the post-Roman landscape.  Whether this was in primary or secondary areas of woodland is not clear, though the author suspects much of it was associated with secondary woodland that grew up as a result of population decline in the late Roman early post-Roman period. ‘Some settlements continued in occupation from the Roman period onward, but instead of continuous expansion of these existing hamlets, [in which] a green might be in one quarter but the new church in another’. . This may have been the case in Stevenage where there are or were seven ‘greens’ and two ‘ends’. These ‘greens’ may be of some antiquity but like the territory of Stevenage itself, it is impossible to be certain about their precise chronology.

Domesday Book

At the time of the survey in 1086 Stevenage or rather its township or later parish area contained, along with Chells and Woolewicks almost 14 ploughlands of arable (a ploughland was a measure of land determined by the area that a single plough could cultivate). Shephall had 10 ploughlands, though if its later parish/township area is to believed only a quarter of the area of Stevenage. Stevenage had an agricultural population of 41 while Shephall had just 14 and these are usually believed to represent heads of household. Both Stevenage and Shephall had a low amount of woodland and neither appear to have possessed a mill for the grinding of corn. This implies that the majority of its inhabitants relied on the use of handmills. Both Stevenage and Shephall were dominated by ecclesiastical lords. Stevenage was held by Westminster Abbey while Shephall was divided between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Abbot of St Albans.

In the adjoining settlements, that is, those areas which were defined by the township/parish areas that survived into the 19th century, the landscape was not dissimilar to Stevenage and Shephall. The principal difference was that there was a greater availability of woodland, as measured by the number of swine they could support. For example, Knebworth had 1000 swine, Weston 500, and Aston and Walkern 200 each. There is also a notable difference in the area of arable, as measured by the term ‘ploughlands’, from those adjoining settlements. Wymondley and Weston had 24 and 23 ploughlands respectively; Walkern 20, Aston 15 which all exceeded Stevenage’s 13.75 ploughlands (includes Chells and Woolwicks). Those that had less were Graveley with 10.5, Datchworth with 6.25 and Benington with 11. Although we are reasonably well informed about the resources of these settlements it is not so clear as to their location and character.

Statistics of Mediaeval Stevenage

Settlement

It is probable that the original settlement of Stevenage was situated in the immediate vicinity of St Nicholas’ Church which lay close to the manor or ‘bury’. The construction of the church was usually a direct result of a grant of land and resources by the local lord. Stevenage was granted by Edward the Confessor to Westminster Abbey in 1062 .  That is, Stevenage belonged to the crown but if so then how long had it been a royal possession? We will probably never know the answer though it does not alter the probability that the lord of the manor, of whatever status, would have built and endowed a church for his convenience rather than for those who lived within the settlement’s territory. That settlement may have been characterised by a dispersed, rather than a nucleated pattern. A dispersed pattern could be characterised by scattered homesteads and hamlets. Within the township/parish of Stevenage there were two other settlements which were in possession of different lords and whose size suggests they were hamlets rather than villages. The first of these was Chells (Fig…) which was held by three land owners (Robert Gernon, Geoffrey of Bec and Peter of Valognes) amounting to 2.25 ploughlands, with a population of two small holders, one cottager and one serf and their respective families.. One of the occupiers, Aelfric Bush who had held half a virgate (notionally about 15 acres but in Boulder clay country almost certainly more) before 1066 still held it in 1086.  The second small settlement was Woolwicks which was held by two of the previous lords (Robert Gernon and Peter Valognes) one and half ploughlands with two small holders and seven cottagers. We cannot be certain that there weren’t similar sized settlements included within the Stevenage entry held by Westminster Abbey but this could only be possibly demonstrated be excavation of the area around St Nicholas’ Church. Just outside the bounds of the ancient parish of Stevenage in the territory of Walkern was the settlement of Box Wood. This was held by three land owners (William of Eu, Bishop of Bayeux and Peter of Valognes) and its arable was assessed at eight ploughlands. There were two villagers (principal cultivator) six small holders, three cottagers and three serfs. There was only wood sufficient to maintain fences. The earthworks associated with this settlement are present within Box Wood.

Post Conquest period

In the years that followed the Conquest the Stevenage area experienced a considerable decline in its valuation. Areas such as Graveley declined by 50%; Datchworth by 47%; Walkern by 38%; Weston by 33%; Ardley and Clothall by 30% and the small township/parish of Letchworth by 25%. Stevenage and Shephall only experienced a modest decline of 10% and 12% respectively, while Aston (10%) and Benington (15%) were also similarly affected. The reason for this decline, twenty years after the Conquest demonstrates that in economic terms, the Norman Conquest was both socially disruptive and economically disastrous for this area of England.

In the next two centuries the fortunes of the 16 different settlements around Stevenage changed quite considerably. At the time of the Domesday Book survey Stevenage (with Chells and Woolwicks) was ranked fifth in terms of value and population (an agricultural population of 41 and value of £14 5s 0d). However, by the time of the lay subsidy of 1292 (a tax of a 15th on movable property) Stevenage had become the most populous township/parish and enjoyed the highest value in the area (74 taxpayers paid £23 14s 61/2d). Shephall by contrast had declined from 9th to 15th most populous and richest township and Aston declined from 3rd to 7th position; Graveley had improved from 13th to 9th position while Wymondley had moved from 12th to 3rd position. In contrast, one of the steepest falls in value was St Paul’s Walden which declined from 2nd place to 12th. Townships such as Walkern, Weston, Knebworth, Datchworth and Codicote remained, in comparative terms much the same as they were. By 1334 Stevenage was still the largest and wealthiest township in the area we are considering (Fig…). Walkern had moved to 2nd place while Aston had declined to 14th and Wymondley to 11th. Other adjacent townships such as Datchworth, Graveley, Knebworth, Langley and Shephall remained, more or less, unchanged. Almost a century later the position, as far as comparison permits, seems to have remained stable, Stevenage still paying the highest Lay Subsidy to the royal exchequer

Settlement

It is not certain when the mediaeval settlement of the Stevenage area finally attained the pattern that is visible in the second half of the 18th century. That it remained relatively ‘fluid’ after the 11th century is suggested by the physical evidence for the deserted sites such as Box, Chesfield and Knebworth and of ‘settlement drift’ in the form of Stevenage itself. The earthworks that survive in Box Wood, together with its associated chapel or church are evidence of this.  The Domesday Book settlement of Box, previously described, lay just inside the township of Walkern, just to the east of Stevenage’s township/parish boundary. We don’t know if all the 14 individuals mentioned in the Domesday Book inhabited the area of the Box earthworks. Some undoubtedly were but probably, by no means all. The earthworks can be interpreted as either small enclosures or, arguably, individual tofts of the peasant proprietors. There are five, possibly six such ‘tofts’ in Box Wood though none have had any form of archaeological investigation, other than a survey by the Royal Commission. From the available historical evidence it would seem that through dynastic marriage and the effects of the Black Death, Box became subsumed within the manor of Walkern in the 14th century. How long the ‘church’ or more probably the chapel survived at Box is not known. This building was noted by Chauncy and Salmon.

There are two other deserted mediaeval villages or ‘DMVs’; one south west of Stevenage in Knebworth Park, while the second DMV is in the parish of Graveley to the north of Stevenage. The Knebworth site lies to the north and south of the church and consists of a trackway, a possible mill, traces of ridge and furrow and house platforms to the north of the church.  Graveley may be only a manorial site, though the earthworks look more like two or possibly three individual ‘tofts’.  The evidence for settlement around St Nicholas’ Church, Stevenage has long been erased though it will almost certainly survive in some form or other in the ground. The gradual migration of settlement away from the church site to what today is referred to as ‘Old Stevenage’ would have been a gradual process. The growth of traffic up the Great North road exerted a slow but persistent incentive for dwellings to be located along this route. Precisely why settlement should have become centred on Old Stevenage is not immediately obvious but it may be noted that three roads converge on the town (one from the south and two from the north and NNW. This has resulted in a more linear form of settlement and Stevenage is a good example of this phenomenon.  In addition, lines of communication also tend to have strips of wayside waste attached to them for ‘hoofed traffic’ to utilise in the form of grazing and rest purposes. Roads were, in reality, multi tracked thoroughfares which could literally meander up wide grassy zones of considerable width. These semi wastes were an obvious target for both primary and secondary settlement. It is almost certain that Old Stevenage grew up as a result of its natural advantages in preference to other locations. The area was granted a weekly market in 1281 and an annual fair (June 23rd-25th) though whether this was in response to meeting an existing need or to promote future growth is not known.  Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the importance of such a development. Even by 1355 a Trade list for the county of Hertfordshire only listed eleven individual tradesmen for Stevenage, that is, two butchers, six brewers, a fishmonger, a smith and a wheelwright. By contrast, Shephall had just two ploughwrights and Walkern and Benington three brewers each; Knebworth had two wheelwrights, two merchants, a smith who was also a brewer, a tailor and a merchant. 

The post-Conquest landscape

Agriculture

The field system of the manor of Stevenage in the early 14th century was arranged in an uneven three season system.  The manorial demesne amounted to a total of 1690.3 acres (684 ha), that is, just over a third of the area of the township/parish;  the remaining two thirds would have been held by manors such as Chells and various tenants whose holdings acquired a sub-manorial status such as Homeleys, Bromesend, Brooks, Canwykes or Broxbournes and later Halfhide.  The arable comprised twenty four distinct fields of which the smaller units were enclosed by hedges. The largest single field was ‘Magna Hulfeld’ (Great Hillfield) amounting to 320.5 acres, followed by Millfield (142.25 acres), Magna Doxfield (108.25 acres), Wyteneye (107.75 acres), Sperlemerehull (105.5 acres) and Little Doxfield at 84.3 acres. Only Millfield was divided into a three season rotation, the others were divided into two units which suggests the field system was in a process of evolving from a two season system. By far the largest of the manor’s resources was composed of arable land which would have been cultivated in strips generally based on an acre unit of 22 yds by 220 yds.  In all, 92% of the manor was arable (1560.8 acres out of 1690.3 acres) which was valued at £9 3s 31/4d. The amount of pasture (35.5 acres) in four parcels was small but was valued at 23s (or 8d an acre). There were 94 acres of woodland called, perhaps significantly ‘Newtonewode’ and whose value, based on coppice and pannage was worth 20s per annum. The manorial garden, orchard and ‘herbage’ was worth 10s per annum; the manor itself was worth 3s and the windmill 48s per annum.

Moated sites, castles, parks and warrens

There were four, possibly five moated homesteads in the Stevenage area (Fig…) though the principal manor did not possess a moat, which was most likely because it lay directly in the hands of Westminster Abbey. There were two moated sites in Stevenage township; one was located at Whormley Wood and is approximately 80m square with a causeway leading to it from the north west side;   the second one was at Chells but was only ever L-shaped.   Manorial sites are often characterised by the suffix ‘bury’ such as Astonbury, Almshoebury, Benningtonbury and The Bury (Stevenage) but only Aston appears to have been moated.  There was a moated site at Little Wymondley but this enclosed the church, conventual buildings belonging to the Augustinian Priory.  A fifth possible moat was situated at Lodge farm between Old and new Knebworth. Although Stevenage was in economic terms locally important it was insufficiently significant to possess an early motte and bailey castle. These only exist outside the parish at Great Wymondley and Benington, thought just outside the study area there is a third castle at Walkernbury. The manor of Stevenage did have rights of warren but did not possess a hunting park such as existed at Knebworth, Benington and the late mediaeval deer park at Little Wymondley.

Figures

Figure 1 - Known Prehistoric sites in the Stevenage area

map of Prehistoric sites in Stevenage

Figure 2 - Known late Iron Age and Roman sites in the Stevenage Area

map of Late Iron Age and Roman Sites in Stevenage

Figure 3 - Medieval Parishes in the Stevenage Area

map of Medieval Parishes in Stevenage

References

1. (Williamson 2000, 112).
2. (Bennington and Aston) (Gover et al 1938, 117).
3. (ibid.).
4. (Gover et al 1938, 23).
5. (ibid.).
6. (Friel 1982, 2-18).
7. (Williamson 2000, 101-2).
8. (Bailey 1985, 77).
9. (ibid.)
10. (Page 1912, 141).
11. (Morris 1976, 34.6).
12. (Hill Davies & Mawhinney 1985, 12-17).
13. (Hill Davies & Mawhinney 1985, 12-17).
14. (ibid.).
15. (SMR 1810).
16. (Med Arch. 31, 144).
17. (Williamson 2000, 196).
18. (Trow-Smith 1958, 12).
19. (PRO KB 27.377).
20. (Camb. Univ. Lib. Kk. V.29).
21. (ibid.)
22. (Page 1912, 143-145).
23. (Ault 1972, 22).
24. (Beckley 2002, 17);
25. (Mawhinney 1994, 83).
26. (SMR 2925).
27. (Doggett 2002, 213).  

Bibliography

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Related pages

History of Stevenage

Contact details

Stevenage Museum
St Georges Way
Stevenage
SG1 1XX

01438 218881
museum@stevenage.gov.uk

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