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The medieval period saw the abandonment of around 3,000 villages and towns. Christopher Dyer asks, what caused such an exodus and what remains to show that they were ever there at all?
This article was first published online in September 2010
Even during a recession, we expect towns and villages to expand. New housing estates are, after all, part of modern life. It is rather depressing, and even shocking, to see dilapidated houses in towns or ruined farmhouses in the country.
Yet in earlier centuries, roofless buildings, grass-covered streets and redundant houses were commonplace. We could take the story back to the decay of Roman cities and villas in the fourth and fifth centuries, or the abandonment of the farms founded to replace them in the countryside of the Anglo-Saxon period. This article, however, focuses on thousands of hamlets and villages – and a handful of towns – that were deserted from around 1300 until recent times, but have left traces of their existence in the modern landscape, many of which can still be visited.
By the year 1100, concentrations of houses and people in villages with between 12 and 50 dwellings had developed in the Midlands, the north-east and central southern England, and parts of eastern Scotland and south Wales. However, elsewhere in Britain most people lived in hamlets or scattered farms.
Villages thrived through the cultivation of grain in large open fields, and generally grew in size until about 1300. They began to run into trouble when the population fell in the 14th century. This meant less grain was required, which could then be sold only at low prices.
These problems were exacerbated when the peasant cultivators tried to adjust their farming by bringing in more animals, leading to disputes with neighbours over grazing land. As a result, families moved out, and heirs did not take over their parents’ holding of land. Sometimes, the balance tipped completely over to pasture, and the cultivators became redundant.
So, from around 1380 until the early 16th century, many villages were either deserted or severely shrunken. Sometimes the problem came from within, as ambitious peasants took over their neighbours’ land, drove hundreds of sheep over the common fields, and newcomers were discouraged from moving in.
These developments made communities quarrelsome and fractious. Worse still, they often doomed them to failure. Sometimes the lords of the village or their agents – such as the farmers who managed the lord’s own share of the village fields – killed off the village by expanding their own flocks and herds, forcing tenants out, or buying up land. In many cases, after a period of decay, the landlord removed the remaining vestiges of a once-thriving community in order to profit from the wool and meat that could be reared on the site.
The problems of outward migration, land being concentrated in fewer hands and lords pursuing higher profits continued to afflict villages well into the 17th century. Then, in the 18th century, villages came under attack from a different source: the owners of stately homes. The gentry were often blamed for removing villages that ‘spoilt the view’ when creating their landscape parks. However, the villages they removed were often in poor health by the time this landscaping was taking place.
Villages weren’t the only settlements to disappear from the landscape. Hamlets and farmsteads were also abandoned – but for different reasons. Those on high ground were blighted by poor weather, while those engaged in managing pastures were no longer needed when the pastures were permanently settled, or when grazing was reorganised.
Occasionally, even towns were consigned to history. Dunwich in Suffolk was washed away by the waves; others were damaged in wars. Yet there was usually some underlying economic problem, such as shifts in trade, which weakened larger settlements and made them vulnerable to accidents of environment and politics.
Plagues, weather and wars have all been blamed for destroying Britain’s villages – often without justification. Some people claim that the changing climate or soil exhaustion made the land uninhabitable, but these are only likely to have been decisive factors in extreme environments like high moorlands. Disease rarely killed everyone in a village, and many abandoned by 1450 were still flourishing in 1380, 30 years after the Black Death. Wars rarely caused damage that could not be repaired.
So what remains of these deserted villages? Occasionally a ruined building marks the site. Yet these are usually part of a castle, manor house or church as they would have been the only stone structures in the village.
A typical peasant house may have had a low, stone foundation wall, but was built mainly of timber and wattle and daub, with a thatched roof, which either decayed or was carried away to be recycled when the village was abandoned.
Yet all is not lost. The sites of houses are usually visible as grassed-over foundations or platforms on which the building stood. You can sometimes see roads and lanes as sunken hollow ways, while the boundaries of the enclosures (tofts) in which the houses stood are sometimes marked by banks and ditches.
Once the village had gone, the lord often built a mansion on or near the site. It is in the fields surrounding these mansions that you can sometimes identify the grassed-over banks and hollows of walkways, flower beds and water features which formed part of the garden that occupied the site of the village. Look closely and you might see the prospect mounds (for visitors to view the garden) or the pillow mounds for rabbit warrens.
We do not know what this settlement was called, but its modern name is Hafod y Nant Criafolen. Hafod refers to a seasonal settlement, which accommodated herdsmen moving from their permanent homes in the valley to look after their livestock in the summer.
The nearby lake is a modern reservoir – the site originally lay on the edge of an area of pasture, and consisted of seven houses with enclosures of irregular shape attached. The finds from the excavations of these houses showed that they were occupied in the 15th and 16th centuries, but also revealed something of life on the summer pastures.
Spindle whorls were used to weight distaffs when spinning woollen yarn in preparation for cloth making, but the main task for the women living here would have been milking cows and ewes, and making butter and cheese. The men rode about in the hills, judging from the horse shoes and spurs that were found.
Later sources from Ireland tell us of the pleasures of life on the hills when the young dairywomen and herdsmen were freed from the restrictions and conventions of life in the valley settlement. The finds from Brenig, however, included pieces of a sword and a pistol, a reminder of the insecurities of living on a remote hillside.
This hafod, located in the Brenig Valley, was probably abandoned when farming was reorganised in the 17th century.
This piece of open moorland at a height of 400 metres lies surrounded by the industrial and post-industrial landscape of the south Wales coalfield. A group of six 13th-century houses lay in a row on a shelf of land on the edge of the moor, overlooking the valley through which the small river of the Bargoed-Rhymney runs.
Each house was built on a relatively level platform created by digging into the slope at the higher end, and piling the earth excavated at the lower end.
The dwellings were each about 15–20 metres long, built with a low stone foundation wall and a framework of timber. When some of the houses were excavated in the 1930s, hearths were found in the middle of the floor.
So was this a permanent settlement? Metal working went on there, suggesting it was more than a summer camp, but its most likely use would have been as a hafod.
The houses were abandoned soon after 1300, judging by the pottery excavated in and around them. This may have been the result of the deteriorating climate. Or perhaps the peasants were left impoverished by the huge fines levied on them after a rebellion against the English lords of Caerphilly Castle in 1314.
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The striking feature of this site is the ruin of the church tower, which was rebuilt soon after the whole church fell down in 1600. The long hollow way defines the village street, with the banks and ditches defining the closes in which houses stood. These well-preserved earthworks are not often seen in Norfolk, mainly because so many sites have been ploughed up in modern times.
The long street, however, shows that the elongated plan – the one-street village – was established in East Anglia as well as in other parts of the country. Another recurring feature is the early modern garden visible around the existing house, with a deep hollow way and a series of rectangular enclosures. This reflects the effects of the wealthy landowner on the landscape after the village had gone.
Godwick was always a small place, with 14 peasants recorded in Domesday Book in 1086.
It paid a modest amount of taxation in 1334, which declined as the community shrank in the 15th century. Only five households paid tax in 1525 when the village was, in reality, already ceasing to exist.
Quarrendon was sited on the low-lying clays of Buckinghamshire, which is good land for pasturing animals and growing crops. This is, in some ways, typical of the deserted villages found in Midland counties, because the village was large, with at least 300 inhabitants around 1330 and their 60 houses grouped closely together.
The peasants lived chiefly from growing grain in open fields. An unusual feature was that there was a pair of settlements, a quarter of a mile apart. Their remains can still be seen in the modern grassland.
The irregular shape of the settlements suggests that they were not deliberately planned, but had roads (now marked by sunken hollow ways) meeting at a centre, perhaps a small green, surrounded by clusters of platforms, and small enclosures or yards. The houses were built from timber and wattle and daub, with low stone foundations. Fragments of the stone-built church can still be seen lying between the two settlements.
The number of families living at Quarrendon declined after 1350, and fell rapidly in the 16th century, with only four remaining in 1563. The land was taken over by the Lee family, who began as butchers and who, with the profits, bought land, rose to become commercially-minded landed gentry. They built a house with an elaborate garden, which occupies the space between the two deserted village sites.
On the western village site, paddocks can be seen where cattle were kept after the desertion. On the other site are pillow mounds. These were man-made warrens for rabbits, which were symbolic of privilege and a leisured style of life.
The village’s role was to allow peasants to gain a living from farming. It was replaced by a landscape designed for aristocratic pleasure and prestige.
On the slopes of Dartmoor, surrounded by bracken, lie the granite foundations of 11 buildings, including houses, barns and bakehouses which have kilns and ovens.
The hamlet probably began life c1000 AD as a shieling – a summer settlement for herdsmen. Houses for permanent occupation were added in the 13th century, and the inhabitants cultivated part of the moorland, where traces of ploughed fields can still be seen. Yards and gardens lay next to the buildings.
The house foundations have survived so well that visitors can see doorways and internal partition walls that divided the hall (the room where people ate and socialised) from the chamber (for sleeping and storage). It was once thought that the hamlet was abandoned in the early 14th century, perhaps because the climate was worsening, but now it’s believed that people finally left in the late 14th century, following the Black Death.
The inhabitants weren’t killed by the plague, however. Instead, the general fall in population made it possible for peasants to move to more hospitable places in the valley.
The coastline of the English Channel on the Sussex/Kent border was unstable, and the port of Old Winchelsea was being destroyed by flooding when, between 1283 and 1288, Edward I founded a new town to accommodate the displaced population.
He set about the task systematically, rather like the planners of Milton Keynes and Telford in the 20th century, buying the land which had belonged to the hamlet of Iham and laying out a grid of streets, set exactly at right angles, before surveying lines of house plots along the streets.
Old Winchelsea had been a sizable town, and its successor was assigned 802 plots, enough for a population of 5,000. The town did quite well out of the wine trade, fishing, and wood and timber from the Sussex Weald, but it was raided by the French, the estuary eventually silted, and the sea retreated.
Today’s visitors can see gates and part of the town’s walls. The church, once very big, has been reduced in size, and around it sit the remaining houses. Demonstrating that they stand on the sites of the original merchants’ houses, some of these buildings have medieval cellars underneath.
Most of the south and west parts of the old town are now fields, and the footpath towards the New Gate is an old sunken way, with building stone and roofing tiles clearly visible on either side.
Over this 17th-century site stands the ruined remains of a bastle, a characteristic domestic and defensive building of the Scottish borders, and a ‘ferm toun’, a hamlet for peasant cultivators found everywhere in Scotland. The bastle had two storeys, and was built as a precaution against raiding parties from northern England, or indeed other parts of Scotland. Often cattle were kept on the ground floor and the family lived on the upper storey.
The bastle’s builders were wealthy enough to afford a substantial house, and had property worth protecting. Around this structure were six peasant houses, all of one storey, with accommodation for people at one end and animals at the other. These long houses were in use in western and northern England as well as Scotland.
The houses were attached to small yards, and the peasants grew crops and pastured animals nearby. The people were not hopelessly poor, and were in contact with a wider world, as the finds from excavations – coins, tobacco pipes and pottery made in Staffordshire – demonstrate. The settlement was abandoned soon after 1700 but we do not know why.
Wharram Percy, perhaps the best-known English deserted village, took 40 years to excavate. Visitors to the village see the ruined church first, sitting in a steep-sided valley near some unoccupied Victorian terraced cottages and a pond. A single farmhouse stood here in the 19th century, which farmed land thatonce provided a living for 40 peasant families.
On the plateau above the valley are rows of small rectangular enclosures, about 40 in all, containing house sites, sometimes still with visible foundation walls. The walls of the manor houses and its farm buildings can also be seen, as well as hollow ways, boundary banks and enclosed crofts.
The village was clearly planned because the rows of houses are set out in a regular pattern. Perhaps a lord of the manor did this, but when? The tenth century is possible, but it could have happened as late as the 12th century.
By about 1280 there were around 40 peasant families farming about 18 acres each, and cultivating wheat and barley in the fields stretching out from the village over the chalk wolds. The community suffered from Scottish raids, famine, disease and economic troubles, and had halved in size by the 14th century. By about 1500 there were only four large farms left, and these were turned into a single sheep pasture over the next half century.
The church reflects the history of the village it served, founded in the tenth century, expanding until about 1300, and then losing aisles and shrinking over the next two centuries. Excavations revealed houses with low chalk walls, once supporting timber frames and thatched roofs.
Judging from their rather drab pottery, the villagers of the 13th and 14th centuries did not have a wide range of possessions, and the bones of the villagers buried in the churchyard reveal hunger, disease and high mortality. A large house from about 1500, perhaps belonging to a greedy villager who had swallowed up neighbours’ land, was prosperous enough to burn coal and drink ale from German stoneware jugs.
Christopher Dyer is professor of regional and local history at the University of Leicester and co-editor of Deserted Villages Revisited, (Univ of Hertfordshire Press, 2010). You can buy this book from BBC History Bookstore for £14.99 (RRP £14.99).