SE Northumberland Villages in the Middle Ages

1066! Probably the most famous date in British history. But it was several decades later that the Normans eventually colonised and fully controlled Northumberland. William I rewarded his followers with grants of land. They held these manors in return for military service, loyalty and strategic defence of that piece of territory. The land was a source of income to the these tenants-in-chief - or barons and knights as they were styled. Being away from their estates fighting the King's wars a great deal of the time the Norman aristocracy: "Wanted the English to work their land but did not want the the responsibility of feeding and caring for them."

Planned village settlements cropped up in the lowland districts. Agricultural, community units with a settlement in the centre of a tract of land known as a township. Here, the majority of the population resided. Towns were for craftsmen and traders.

The lord of the manor needed his villeins, more commonly known as bondsmen in Northumberland, to organise themselves. This was done through the manor court. The bondsmen didn't leave much record of their life, so we can only surmise from studies of other areas where there have been a reasonably good set of surviving records or detailed excavations, what their daily life was like. But there are a few surviving records which give an indication of local living, especially at Seaton Delaval.

The tenants served as jurors. Common agreement was needed as to when to sow, what to sow, which field to leave fallow, pasturing animals and cutting meadow, but it was within the guidelines set by the lord as supervised by his bailiff who was the overseer of the estate and rent collector.  The tenants could in fact bring an action against the lord whose strips were intermingled with the tenant's holdings. The court also dealt with minor offences such as for pre-marital sex.

On September 29th every year the bondsmen chose a reeve to act as an overseer and supervisor of the labourers. He made sure they did their work, making this an unpopular post. He was usually the most prosperous and best husbandman in the village, but was largely uneducated and would use tally sticks to present the accounts to the bailiff. However, medieval villages were well organised business operations. The reeve was often no thicko. But he was still a bondsman and was not respected by the lord. He received no cash reward but he was exempt from working the lord's demesne land and would have other privileges.

The land was farmed in big open fields each manor or village had two or three large fields, usually several hundred acres each, which were divided into many narrow strips of land. A strip could be ploughed in one day. Each strip was cultivated by an individual or his family. These strips, only separated by a baulk of grass, were divided into furlongs which was the main unit of the arable land.  The holdings of a manor also included woodland and pasture areas for common usage. An individual's strips were scattered throughout the fields and allocated on a periodic basis. Barley, wheat, oats, beans and peas were the common crops. A field was left fallow each year to allow the soil to recover.

The majority of villages comprised of two rows of farmsteads, known as tofts. facing one another usually along an east-west axis. The rows were separated by an open space wide enough to be called a green. This is well illustrated from archaeological evidence from West Backworth deserted medieval village. The evidence as to the siting of the housing and fields in South-East Northumberland settlements has largely been lost, but in the Coquet valley a surviving set of surveys produced for the Duke of Northumberland combined with aerial photography shows the medieval plan to still be in existence, especially at Acklington and Shilbottle.  The majority of tenants were bondmen with a holding of between eighteen and forty-eight acres of arable land in the open fields. Twelve to sixteen acres was considered just enough to support a small family. Above this it was possible to have a surplus crop which could be sold. Tofts were between 150-450 feet long although at Killingworth they were 600ft. This township was considered to be a late development. The area of the toft was enclosed by a quick set hedge or fence. It was divided into 2 parts, the former occupied by the farmhouse and outbuildings. The rear section was a garden and used for grazing a small number of animals. A back lane divided the tofts from the fields.

Site of tofts at Acklington Northumberland

Street view along the site of two tofts at Acklington

Houses in this area were 320 square feet as the norm. Walls were timber studs resting on a stone footing filled with wattle and daub. It would have had a thatched roof. In later times it may have been re-built with stone walls. Our main knowledge of housing comes from archaeological investigation carried out, in recent decades, at West Whelpington deserted village on the upper reaches of the River Wansbeck. A new tenant being admitted to a holding was often the impetus for a house rebuild. This was done by the tenant although the lord often helped with the supply of timber and other materials.

Reconstructed house at Rydale Folk Museum

NCHC History of Northumberland Seaton Delaval Manor.

Seaton Delaval could be described as a textbook manor, common in the south of the country, in that it had a resident lord with a village and a church.

The subsidy roll for 1296 suggests that the tenants were poor people probably possessed of customary holdings. The subsidy was a taxation on moveable goods. Those with goods under 10s were exempt from paying.

Seventeen taxpayers are listed including Lord Delaval. Due to exempt poor this has been estimated to be only one-third of the total households, therefore there were approximately fifty to sixty households in the manor.

There were approx 2500 acres in the manor. 814 acres under the plough with 300 acres of this being in demesne for the lord's own purpose. forty-five acres meadow. This was a large township 1000 acres being about the average. Two villages were created in the manor with a dairy farm being created at Lysdon at a later time.

By an inquisition taken on 8th November 1297 it was found there were twenty-four bondage holdings paying £29 2s money rent and the value of £3 7s in labour. Twenty two cottages held by labour only valued at £1 14s per year, and eight cottages giving a rent of £3 7s 2d. The manor house was estimated to be worth five shillings per year. There was a brew house, a water mill, a dovecote, a pasture held by Lord Delaval and two windmills. A water mill was operational in 1519 at the junction of Seaton Delaval and Holywell townships where the old  Avenue railway line crosses the burn.

Names listed on the 1296, 1312 and 1336 taxation records mention a reeve on all occasions. Also mentioned are a carpenter, hoggard (herdsman possibly of swine), faber (smith), carter and lounes (journeyman). These were the lord's demesne staff known as famuli. They were generally paid two to four shillings per year, settled on small holdings and given an allowance of grain. On the same taxation records for Earsdon township, a little to the south of Seaton Delaval, there is listed a John son of Thurbert. There are a mixture of tenants with Anglo-Saxon and Norman names including Siward, Humfrid, William and Henry indicating an assimilation of Norman ways into the English peasantry by this time.

Another detailed survey taken on 30th September 1353 shows and increase of demesne; the number of bondage holdings remains constant but the sites of twenty waste cottages mark the recent presence of the Black Death. The water mill is also described as waste and demolished. There is also 200 acres of moor and sandy pasture held by Lord Delaval for his own purpose (severalty).

Seaton Delaval Township (part)

Two large commons, or village units, namely those of Whitridge and of Seaton, lay within the manor. Seaton common lay on the borders of Holywell and the tenants of that township had rights of intercommoning. Lord Delaval also held part of Hartley township. A wood extending along the northern slopes of Holywell dene was held by the lord of the manor in severalty  and no tenant was permitted to cut down timbers or take estovers (wood) from the wood without his lord's licence and order. To the lord also belonged some forty acres named the South Moor. Here the tenants appear to have a right of pasturing their cattle, but the soil belonged to the lord, and a prohibition was subsequently made against cutting the heather that grew thereon. The lord also held of his own private right the links along the coast. The coarse sea bents (grass) and the rabbits that made their warren there had their uses. Bents were the lord's monopoly; they might not be cut without his license; fetching them at the commandment of the lord's officers was a duty incumbent upon all tenants; a by law passed in 1584 provides that the tenants of Seaton Delaval shall divide themselves into two parts, whereof six tenants to fetch bents one week the other six tenants the next week and the cottagers the third week upon pain of a 3s 4d fine. They made hats from the bents. Cottagers held no land but had odd skills and they could find occasional work from their neighbours.

Earsdon was part of the Prior of Tynemouth's extensive estates. Seventeen customary tenants, or bondmen, farmed thirty-six acres of arable each. The whole township consisted of 1062 acres. In 1295 One of the tenants, Ralph Hert, owed this to the Lord Prior by custom and this was a typical agreement:

  • 8d on Palm Sunday
  • Carting from Marsdon at Whitsuntide
  • 3 ½d on the feast of St John the Baptist
  • Fifteen cakes at the great boon works (harvest time)
  • 2 hens at St Oswin's feast
  • Carting from Marsdon at Martinmas
  • One quarter of oats at Christmas
  • One quarter of barley malt at Whitsuntide
  • Plough and harrow one acre at Martinmas
  • Loan of his plough for one day to the Lord Prior
  • Harrow with one horse at the Lord Prior's will
  • Cart turves from Marsdon for three days at the feast of St John the Baptist
  • Cart six loads of wheat in Autumn
  • 104 days work at the Lord Prior's will
  • At the boon work (harvest) he and his whole family shall do one day's work
  • Two auth-repes with two men for one day in Autumn

As can be seen there were plenty of feast days where tenants could enjoy themselves with carols, wrestling, summer games, drinking, bowling, blind man's buff, fishing, archery, dancing and cock fighting.

There were two cottagers living at Earsdon who did 3 days work in the Autumn and paid 12d and 6d rent. There were also two freeholders who didn't owe any personal loyalty to the lord and were not tied to the lord. Freedom could be granted for personal service and loyalty. The Boldon Book of 1166, which was a survey of the estates of the Bishop of Durham, mentions: "Walter Lord Bishop freed John son of Thomas of Bedlington for ever from his servitude." He also does this for the tenants of East Sleekburn in return for a fixed-rent cash payment.

The lord of Seaton Delaval's sporting rights were by no means limited to his rabbit warren. Under a charter granted by Henry II (1154-1189) he was entitled to beasts of the chase throughout the township, and the privileges find further expression in an order made in the manor court in 1592 "That non of the inhabitants in Holywell nor elsewhere within the lordship shall hunt in the lords demesne or bring any greyhound within the same without license, fine of 6s 4d. An indenture made in 1599 states that Lord Delaval leased to Christopher Richardson his rabbit warren called the Links "from the South side of the beck called Newsham to a lodge on the south side of the links commonly called the warrener's house." This could be where Gloucester Lodge farm now stands. The lodge was part of the lease as was enough pasture for four cows. The premises were leased for three years for the payment of 300 rabbits in the first year and 480 in the following years. Richardson was to get a livery coat the same as the other servants of Delaval. This land forms part of Newsham township and is outside the boundary of Seaton Delaval but it was also owned by the Delaval family.

There was also a fish pond directly North of where Seaton Delaval Hall now stands. Its site can still be made out from a crop mark as seen on aerial photos.

On so much of the arable land as each year lay fallow, in the stubble of the corn fields after harvest and in the fog left on the meadows when the hay was mown, tenants and cottagers found pasture for their horned cattle, horses, pigs and geese. A few enclosed pieces of pasture were reserved for draught oxen and fattening cows. The order of pasturage and the number of stints allowed to each inhabitant were rigorously defined by by-laws made in the court or fixed by common agreement and offenders were presented by the jury at the next court meeting. A cowherd, shepherd and swineherd, common servants of the community, controlled the pasturing of the flocks and herds in daytime and brought them back nightly to the town gate. There was a common bull and a pindar had the charge of the common pound or park for the maintenance of which the husbandry tenants were wholly responsible. Among these communal servants the smith deserves a passing mention. He held a tenement with land and meadow adjacent known as Smiddyland. His smithy had to be kept in repair by the tenants acting in common. Authoritative orders not only fixed the proportion of stock  that villagers might keep upon a given area, but prescribed the nature and amount of live stock which each might have in his possession. It was laid down in 1494 that no tenant may keep on his land above two horses or mares and no cottager should keep more than one cow. The cottagers were also not allowed pigs or sheep except by special licence and were not allowed to put cattle on the land until a month after the bondsmen had done so. Another by law of 1560 mentions cottagers are allowed two geese.

The same rotation of crops and seasons of husbandry were incumbent upon all tenants. "Every man shall sow his seed when as neighbours sow." Each had to bear his share in repairing fences and gates, in making dykes and scouring water courses. Encroachments and and using a neighbours' strip as a right of way were equally offences against 'neighbourhood'. In 1564 "It is ordered that by the whole consent of the jury  that no inhabitor shall at no time hereafter make way with wains  or otherways throughout or over men's rigs sown with corn fine 12d over and besides agreeing with the party offended."

It should not be supposed that the cultivation of the demesne depended entirely upon tenants and cottagers. Additional labour was provided a class of hired servants or hinds. As land was often inherited by primogeniture the hinds would often be the younger sons of a tenant.

Presentments at Court:

John Fraunch was presented for ploughing after his neighbours had sown their seed.

Edward Fife for not working with his neighbours on the churchyard dyke. An order made in 1537 furnishes interesting evidence as to the character of these dykes: "That every man make his dyke lie as high as that may reach to the height of a spade, fine 3d.

Edward Fife for having more mowers than his neighbours.

Dictus Fife for putting four more cattle on the stubble than his neighbours agreed of.

Thomas Swane for not sending to dam water in the Lysdon [Burn] and the brook for their cattle.

Gavin Skipsie for not coming with his neighbours to request the muck of Whitridge.

Dictus Skipsie for putting forth his oxen before day before the corn was brought in.

The wives of four of the tenants of Hartley for cutting bents and carrying them off to Newcastle without the lord's licence.

Robert Gray for not helping in with the corn. Fine 12d

One Cuthbert Daglish for not doing his share of the day work.

In the course of three centuries (even though the 16th century is not regarded a medieval times) the position of the tenants had not materially altered. They were still prohibited from selling livestock without the licence of the lord or without offering him the pre-emption - the old sure mark of villeinage. Some orders from the court rolls illustrate this:

It is ordered that no man shall sell any kind of cattle but only such as they shall first present and make offer to their master. Fine 6s 4d.

It is agreed between the tenants and the miller of Seaton Delaval and Hartley that the said inhabitants shall grind at the lord's mills all the corn that they grow. Fine 6s 4d - the corn after being ground into flour at the lord's mill was taken to the common bake house, where the lord's officers took dues.

The said tenants of Seaton Delaval shall repair and amend the smith's house and shop before Martinmas next and that the smith shall uphold and maintain the same in sufficient reparation in all places except the great timber.

That none within this lordship shall refuse to spin the flax or lint belonging to the said lord. Fine 2s 4d.

If any hind or servant of the lord of the manor, having grassing of cattle within his demesne, to pay for over stint, as well as young cattle and old. And to remove the said over stint when challenged and not to keep sheep.

Right to hold assize of ale was accorded to Robert Delaval, in the Quo Warranto proceedings of 1293, as is by custom. Ale tasters were appointed and brewers were licenced at each successive court. Brewers were required to used Lord Delaval's malt and refusal to supply customers was an offence. The tavern was often the house of a tenant who happened to recently have brewed a batch.

A completely different example could be that of Burradon, near Killingworth. A small township of about 550 acres it was an outlying and separate part of the barony of Whalton. The township was divided into two and was granted by the Baron of Whalton, in the 1160s, to two prominent knights who held the villages of Ogle and Widdrington and took their family names from these locations. Ogle and Widdrington built small castles at these places and had villages on their manor. Because they were absent landlords of Burradon they granted this holding out to other freeholders, largely to Peter Graper and Roger Baret who were prominent Newcastle merchants, who often served as mayors, as did their descendants. The granting of Ogle's holding may have not occurred until the 1290s.

Only three persons are mentioned on the 1312 lay subsidy taxation as having effects in Burradon. The township wasn't assessed as a separate unit in 1296, which could indicate it was still in an undeveloped state. We learn little from all the conveyancing records of how the land was farmed, whether by bondsmen of famuli, although they often mention houses and gardens rather than tofts, presumably for the owners. This could indicate demesne farming as the norm done by famuli, but there is not an abundance of evidence to give a full picture.

It was not until 1570 when a conveyance was made of four houses with orchards, two cottages and six tofts with land and moor of what was one quarter of the township. The township had been recorded as almost worthless in the period 1420-40 because of wars and invasion so this could have been a recent development.