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A short background to manorial agriculture in southern England and why manorial farming characterized the whole period from before 1000 to after 1350 and continued to influence life and farming in the following centuries.

Written by Dr Donald Peck and presented to the Virtual Museum February 2022.


Combe seems to be a pretty good example of the survival of a medieval manor, or rather manorial settlement, but its high and secluded location is rather unusual for the south of England - the nearest equivalent being Brixton Deverill, in West Wiltshire, coincidentally another holding of Bec Abbey at that time.

Combe’s world was, and is dominated, by corn and sheep, sometimes with those priorities reversed. It is worth looking at the contrast between Combe and neighbouring West Woodhay, which had a good balance of downland, farmland, woodland and meadow covering a whole parish of 1,430 acres. With a large house for the landowner, a village centre of a sort and few, and quite far-flung, outer farms, West Woodhay is an almost perfect example of a manor to this day, though it is smaller than most and even smaller in area, of course, than Combe, in fact two-thirds of its size. 

The development of manors across southern and central England:

There has been a manorial system of a sort, evolving in a gentle continuum from before Anglo-Saxon times until the present. The early heyday of the manors came about as the Anglo-Saxons developed an efficient way of farming south and central England’s quite diverse patchwork of arable land (some of it very well developed in the Bronze and Iron ages), and meadow, natural pasture, hill pasture/downland (later known as rough grazing) and woodland. Nobody has ever put a finger on the way in which this manner of farming developed, by whose agency, or when, or where. That may be because, over centuries before 1050 or so, the system was adapted and/or adapted itself so well to the ecology of different places that it is difficult to tell how it could have worked differently, or very differently, before that. Each manor, naturally enough, managed to combine all or most of these elements in its own way.

The fact that many manors, like Combe, did not have a manorial lord and were only managed in very indirect ways, but yet functioned and survived quite as well as manors directly managed by resident lords, suggests that the key element was the community of villagers rather than the system of land ownership and control. Certainly Roman villas very seldom survived and the buildings in rural settings in later centuries were all fairly modest timber affairs. The farms and small farming settlements (such as the vicus or wick of Eastwick) that survived from the late Roman era gradually adapted and formed a new kind of community centred on mixed farming with labour that was mainly unfree, but usually only partly so). Mixed farming involved settled agriculture (rather than shifting cultivation – known as swidden) with this large and growing workforce, combined with increasing attention to improving domesticated livestock, rather than semi-wild animals, and getting the right balance between the two.

The origins of this form of land management may never be very clear, but from 1050 for nearly 300 years, nearly until the Black Death, manors worked as the basis for a significant growth of the population of England (it probably multiplied by 2 to 2.5 times to a peak which would not be matched until late in Elizabeth I’s reign). Most manors were almost entirely self-sustaining but could generate significant ‘exports’ as we shall see. They had their own craftsmen, such as the smith, the parminter (tailor) and other specialists, like the generally female daie (as in dairy), who was responsible for dairy production.

Manors often, but not always, had a central farming unit – originally sometimes the mansus or manse, later always (in southern England), the messuage, a word from the same root. The biggest farm (often still recognizable today as the manor farm) was situated not far but still clearly away from a separate central area or village where small farmers (whom we will call here villeins, in Latin villani (in English sometimes spelled villein), ie villagers, inhabitants of what might once have been a countryside Roman villa-centric farm) lived, with small plots and arable landholdings not far from them. The arable land and the grazings were divided between the lord of the manor and the villein tenants. villeins were no longer serfs but were in some senses, unfree (until after the Black Death); they paid rent to the lord and also performed labour services. Manorial landholdings were formed in part by bringing together outlying settlements, which were often associated with livestock farming, cattle, sheep or pigs – hence names like Eastwick (a remote vicus, probably a cattle farm), and Ashmansworth, Woodhay – ‘worth’ and ‘haeze’ both meaning enclosed, ie fenced clearings in the wood (like ‘thorp’ further north) - or Tenterden, Rolvenden, etc. – ‘den’ meaning specifically a place for wood pasture (in Tenterden’s case for the then transhumant animals farmed from the grasslands on Thanet).

What did the Lord of the manor control?

The lord controlled around half the land and grazings and, to farm his land and animals, needed an often-fluctuating mixture of hired labour (servi or ‘slaves’ were prominent in Anglo-Saxon times, but the category disappeared in the decades after the Conquest, possibly more slowly than in some parts of Europe) and tenant labour services. The villein tenants were increasingly less and less unfree – and there was certainly a land market in smaller plots of land, sometimes also in new land which was being brought into arable cultivation or pasture. But the villeins continued to pay low rents to the lord and to perform compulsory services of many different kinds, many of which would depend on the use of animals: ploughing with teams of 3-4 animals, almost invariably then oxen, went on almost all the year when weather permitted, and carting was another major service required. Hay-making and harvesting were also compulsory as all hands were very much required, including all the women, whose outdoors fieldwork specialities included cutting and turning hay, making haycocks to dry hay before haystacks were made by men, weeding, binding sheaves of corn and making stooks and turning them into shocks, and gleaning the stubble after harvest.

What did the villeins have?

The villeins had basic holdings of various sizes, usually between about 10 and 30 acres, consisting of strips in open fields and common fields (there was some common grazing on scarce meadows), together with common pasture rights and common rough grazing rights. The villein holdings were measured in virgates or yardlands (a term related to the ploughing duties which took up many weeks of the year), and were essentially hereditary, but managed by the customs of the manor, as enforced by the manor court. The rents they paid were quite low but were subject to periodic lump-sum payments to the lord (fines and heriots, the latter payable in the form of the best beast, which had to be handed over to the lord on the villein family head’s death) There were some cottagers with smaller holdings who would have been employed as labourers – but the villein families undoubtedly also required a lot of labourers on their land as they grew the same crops as the lord.

The village would generally have had three large fields and the villeins would have strip holdings in each one, for the sake of equity and risk-mitigation. The three fields would be rotated between:- 

• winter crops, generally wheat or rye or a mixture of the two (maslin, or in the north massledine, which is the same as the French bread-making méteil - or alternatively the mixture unpromisingly called dredge, which would have been mostly oats, and used for porridge)

• spring crops (barley or oats), sometimes with a smaller area alongside of peas and/or beans and/or vetches (otherwise known as tares) as legume fodder crops, with the peas for use in pottage, eg pease pottage; and, of course,

• fallow, carried out with varying degrees of sophistication, but often needing ploughing even during fallows. The fallow was ploughed periodically during each fallow year (from August till the sowing of wheat just over a year later), and it took many months to prepare the ground for, in particular, the crucial wheat crop. 

Barley and wheat were both needed and formed the overwhelming bulk of most people’s diet, the former malted for ale and the latter for bread and porridge. It is generally estimated (following John Hatcher and also Christopher Dyer) that an average family could live reasonably well in this way on an arable holding of 20 acres. 


Livestock farming of varying degrees of specialization and intensity also developed, perhaps rather gradually, during the period after the Conquest (Anglo-Saxons seem to have had more wild horses and even cattle). There were plough oxen and some dairy cows, of course, and quite a few horses, not generally used for ploughing, though there were carthorses and all-purpose affers (literally, traction-horses). Sheep were the major feature in southern England and also in eastern England, as they too were needed to fertilise most types of soil – which was done by folding them every night (and sometimes) more when the land needed fertiliser most (sometimes before, sometimes after sowing). The more soil was ploughed the more sheep were required, though putting lime or marl (adding clay) on the soil also developed. The efficiency of this system, ie sheep-corn farming, was no less for villeins tightly managing their own plots and animals (as historians like David Stone have cleverly shown) than the landlords, farming with a mixture of permanent, hired and forced labour. Pigs were also important for any family that could afford them and also as a major source of protein – particularly associated with woodland areas because of the wood pasture on acorns and beech nuts. 

The key livestock products came from sheep, which became increasingly important after the mid 12th century for producing raw materials for the industries of the day, with some innovations pioneered by the Cistercians. There were sheep houses in outlying parts of manors and elaborate sheep accommodation at the manor and there were different specialist flocks producing wethers, breeding ewes and lambs, each with dedicated shepherds. Large amounts of wool and hides were produced and also sheep’s milk; the milk was mostly turned into cheese and sometimes even exported across the Channel to France. The main products were sheepskins in various forms and, of course, wool in many forms, rather than mutton. By the early fourteenth century, sheep were kept in quite a few places (including on remoter new land, and not just on such land by the Cistercians) a business for speculators too, on an almost industrial-era scale, but sheep ownership tended to be associated with large farms and also with the largest few of the tenants of the lord of a manor, who had holdings of 50-100 sheep each or sometimes more. 

Milch cattle had always also been important, and often were also kept on outlying parts of manors, where the main specialist was the daie, the dairy person, who concentrated on producing butter and cheese rather than milk. In some cases a lot of the cow-milk products went to support the sheep business, eg winter whey to boost the sheep diet and butter and pig-fat required to add grease to the tar formula that they had to import to protect their sheep as protection against parasites and to increase the water shedding properties of the fleece before winter. Sheep murrains – epidemics -were of course frequent, and devastating in the early fourteenth century, as they were to be again in southern England at the end of the nineteenth century. 

The numbers of sheep, cattle and horses kept on a manor were strictly regulated, with a maximum of about 50 per typical villein holding in most places, across the high middle ages. The main constraint often was the amount of common grazing (on sown fields and fields with stubble on them as well as on common rough grazing). There were also strict controls on bringing in livestock from outside for grazing. In many places there was intercommoning between adjoining parishes, ie buffer zones where both parishes could graze at the same time. 

Wood pasture:

Wood pasture was also important, as we have seen, and used for cattle and sheep as well as pigs, with parts of the wood at different stages of the coppicing cycle being kept open for different types of animal, another sophisticated rotation, enforced by the manor court; as always there was a shortage of people who really wanted to build adequate hedges or fences to keep animals off recently-coppiced trees. There were carefully defined common rights over common woodland and over trees and shrubs growing on rough grazing too, to estovers, general limited wood collection rights, and limited rights to timber for specific purposes, to fallen wood (and sometimes to ‘snap-wood’, ie wood which people could break from trees), and also for fuelwood, eg the collection of gorse and other combustibles. Woodland was quite actively managed, for example for poles for fencing (and also used in the construction of live as well as dead hedges were used) and hazel stems used for various purposes, particularly building crude sheep shelters and pens. 

Manor courts: 

The manor courts were a major part of village life. These courts might have been dominated by manorial officials whose job was to raise money and ensure labour services were well performed by, or on behalf, of the villein tenants, but they could often develop a life of their own when there was no lord of the manor or if none was well-represented there; this was partly because some or all of the officials, such as the constable and the reeve and the hayward, who between them managed most of the lord’s affairs, were always chosen from and often by the manor’s villagers. Chaucer’s unforgettable lean and cunning reeve, who rapidly enriched himself is only a slight exaggeration. 


Tithes were also a feature of village life, and were one of the few things which escaped the attention of the manor court, as they were directly administered in the field – in many cases counting and taking their tenths of produce there directly in many cases - by the clergy or their servants, or, in the later middle ages, by the rentier who usually had bought the right to collect this quite valuable piece of private property.  


Churches were often closely associated with the owner or lord of the manor, who might build, or rebuild the place of worship, though sometimes the place of village worship would have preceded the arrival of the manor, and sometimes the reverse. The actual location of the church would often be decided by pre-existing features, such as an earlier place of worship or burial (churchyard yews are often thought to pre-date churches), and would normally be distinct from both village and manor, though it could become identified closely with the manor, as the lord, if there was one and he helped extend or improve the church fabric. 

Sheep-corn farming persisted in its various forms – with or without extensive downland or meadow - right up to the end of the nineteenth century, when sheep numbers declined very significantly, as did the growing of corn, and shooting began. 

A closer look at Combe: 

There follows a more detailed sketch of Combe, then in Hampshire and associated with the Bishop of Winchester, who was a major landowner in the Ashmansworth/Highclere area as well as at Ham and at East Woodhay. Combe was never actually part of the landholding of the Bishop or his neighbouring Winchester institutions, the abbey, the priory or the College.  

Combe has one important characteristic: it never had an active lord of the manor – and in fact there was to be no active resident lord even in Combe’s later history, except for the 50 years of Gabriel Whistler – 1660-1710, when he leased Combe manor and the manor farm on 20-year leases from King’s College, Cambridge, and also held other smaller copyhold properties in Combe and neighbouring Faccombe.

Combe – and its church too, unusually in some ways - has a clear Domesday entry. However, within 3 or 4 years of Domesday it had been left by its Norman owner, Ernulf de Hesdin, and his wife Emmelina to the large Norman abbey of Bec in the time of King William II, just when Bec became famous in England because of Archbishop Lanfranc and St Anselm, two Bec monks originating from the south of France. The names of the transferors of Combe are Norman, but they do not recur in the later history of Combe. Ernulf was extraordinarily well-known to his contemporaries as a great agricultural entrepreneur. He came over with the Conqueror, and in addition to Combe, he held estates, mainly manors, across the south of England. He held over 80 manors as tenant-in-chief (two/thirds of those as manorial lord as well), plus some urban property, which included 51 small properties in Newbury. The contemporary chronicle of the abbot of Hyde in Winchester described him as ‘a marvel for his skill in agriculture’ and Orderic Vitalis, the monastic chronicler, said the same sort of thing about him. Most of Ernulf’s manors grew in value between the Conquest and Domesday, particularly his large Wiltshire holdings; in addition to Combe, he also held Newbury, Linkenholt and some of Buttermere, all of these having been properties of Eadric, a large Saxon landowner, before him. Eadric was sheriff of Wiltshire until shortly after the Conquest, when he was succeeded by another Anglo-Saxon, Edward of Salisbury – which suggests that Combe was part of a similar holding of an Anglo-Saxon landowner. But such landholdings should not be taken to imply much direct involvement of their lords, of course. 

The Domesday return for Combe shows that Combe was larger than the surrounding villages, and was assessed at 2 hides and valued at £6 (vs Linkenholt at £4, Buttermere at £1 3s). Combe’s geography was well-suited to sheep-corn farming and its inhabitants were not among the poorest of that era. Combe’s total of 12 actual ploughs in 1086 is particularly striking, as compared with the land which Domesday assessed as being adequate for 9 ploughs, not 12. In addition, as many as 7 out of the 12 ploughs - a very high proportion of the manor’s ploughs compared with all the manors in the region – belonged to the villeins, ie one plough shared on average between every 3 of the 21 major unfree tenants of the manor. Perhaps the reason was that the high-altitude thin-soil arable farming of the Iron Age and the Dark Ages was still the dominant factor in this area. There was little or no meadow in Combe, unlike in many of its neighbouring parishes. Combe sought additional land in the form of assarts in the 13th c, ie new land cleared from woodland, but there was probably not much potential arable land still available, as we calculate that out of 2,100 acres in Combe parish, the manor and the villeins were sowing (still in roughly equal proportions to each other) 600 acres a year and leaving 300 acres fallow (for this we have the manor’s detailed accounts, kept by Bec for the years 1306-8, near the pre-Black Death peak). Bec acquired some additional land for Combe to the south near Oxenwood and also purchased or rented rather more land in the form of high-value meadows for its sheep and cattle, north of the downs in the ‘woodmarsh’, or wide enclosure, of East Woodhay, which extended north to the heathy area of ‘la waesshe’, probably Wash Common. 

In terms of population, Combe was also quite large, with 28 families recorded at the time of Domesday and 35 families, say 150 people in those households, at the time of the Bec custumal of the mid-thirteenth century; that was before the peak of prosperity around 1300 and the Black Death of 1349. But this custumal excludes the manor and its resident servants (or famuli) and an unknown number of poorer landless labourer households. In comparison, 600 years later, in the 1861 census, at the time of Combe’s peak population after the demographic explosion of the late 18th - 19th c, the village had no more than 49 households. 

Medieval Combe was much more focused on arable agriculture than the nearest Bec manor which lay at Monxton, near the Deaver and Ann rivers at Andover, which, though smaller in terms of population, had meadow and as a result was valued more highly at the time of Domesday.  In terms of Domesday’s comparison between the value in the time of Edward the Confessor and the value in 1086, Combe at least maintained its value (as did all Ernulf de Hesdin’s manors in Wiltshire, but not his small Linkenholt one), whereas most other local manors declined in value, including Monxton. It is worth noting that all the woodland in the downland manor of Combe (and also its neighbours) was valued only for producing fence-poles, not for its greater potential value as wood-pasture for pigs, as in the case of other Bec manors, like Ruislip in Middlesex which had woods for 1,500 pigs.

In subsequent centuries Combe remained a reasonably successful sheep-corn manor, its farmers’ and villagers’ prosperity presumably rising and falling with the rise and fall of the sheep industry, while also being sustained by the balance between arable and livestock farming, which benefited and, as mentioned above, supported each other. Combe’s lack of a manorial landlord also stood it in reasonably good stead during its almost 450 years of ownership by King’s College, Cambridge; King’s was a disengaged landlord which did not even have the incentive of providing livings at Combe for its students, as the College never owned the right to name the vicar (though in his time Gabriel Whistler, who ‘farmed’ the ‘vicarage’ and its tithes, as well as the Manor farm, in effect did).

[DP 05/20]

See also:

Combe and the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin - Combe (c 2,200 acres including woodland) as it appears from the account rolls of the owner of the manor, the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin, in the Middle Ages:

Combe as a manor of Bec in the Middle Ages - from the custumal records of Bec-Hellouin.

Combe and its landless cottagers - the Wadsmere Common dispute of 1840-43 and beyond. 

Combe gibbet - myth and background.