Melbourn and Meldreth in the Olden Time

William Mortlock Palmer MD, FSA
Taken from a newspaper cutting, date unknown


This lecture was first delivered in the Congregational Schoolroom, Melbourn on Monday 16th January 1893 by William Mortlock Palmer. It has been transcribed for Meldreth Local History Group by David Marsh, Helen Meridew and Hilary Rhodes

As the title suggests, the lecture covers both Melbourn and Meldreth. For clarification, some comments have been added (in square brackets) in 2024.

We have much pleasure in presenting to our readers the first instalment of Mr Palmer’s full notes of his lecture delivered before the Mutual Improvement Society in the Congregational Schoolroom, Melbourn, last week. Further instalments will be given in future issues of this paper.

Domesday Book was the book in which William the Conqueror had written a complete account of the land which he had conquered. The original was written in Latin and in old English characters, the words also are usually put in a contracted form, for instance, instead of writing “habuit”, the Latin for “had”, the scribe would put “ht.”  Hence it requires considerable trouble and patience to read it. No translation of the Cambs portion has ever been published, so its contents are not common knowledge. [Palmer was writing in 1893; translations are now available.] This book was compiled about the year 1086, or 20 years after the battle of Hastings. So, complete a survey of a country as this was perhaps never made before, and for centuries after there was nothing to compare with it. The mode of preparation was as follows: – Commissioners appointed by the king were sent into each county, and held an inquisition in each hundred separately. Sheriffs, lords of manors, reeves, bailiffs, freemen, and even the humble villein, were each called upon to give evidence. The names of some of the freemen and villeins in each hundred are preserved.  In the hundred of Armingford in which this village sands, Hugh Penfold of Meldreth and Colsuan the Saxon who held Topcliffe’s manor, and his son Almar, gave evidence.  As there were men from each class of society, there was little likelihood for favour anywhere. The commissioners wrote down the accounts which they received and took them back with them to the Exchequer at Winchester. The clerics there transcribed the accounts into the great book which is still existing. It is not to be supposed that the commissioners’ accounts were transcribed verbatim, on the contrary, much was probably left out, for the king only really wanted to know the value of the land and who held it, and whether it had decreased or increased in value since the Confessor’s time. The returns of the commissioners were not all of them kept, but the return for Cambs remains to us still, and I will read you an extract from it later on. In addition to these records there is another called the Inquisitio Eliensis, or Inquisition of the lands belonging to the Abbot of Ely. In this record is shown what lands King William had taken from the monastery and given to his favourites. The names of the many tenants of the monastery are also to be found here.

From the above three records, it is possible to construct a skeleton of our two villages in Anglo Saxon times. The owners of land in Melbourn and Meldreth in the time of Edward the Confessor, were as follows: – Algar, Earl of Mercia, the father-in-law of King Harold, held the lordship of 4½ hides. His manor extended into both villages, but most of it was in Meldreth. It was let chiefly to two men, named Sired and Goda, but five sokemen, or Danish freemen, held a small portion of it (now Sheen Manor). King Edward himself had the lordship of 2½ hides. A Saxon thane, named Edric, was his under tenant. Two of the king’s sokemen, also held a small portion of land in Meldreth. It was their duty to form part of the bodyguard of the shire reeve or sheriff, when he held his court in the district (now Argentines and Trayles).

A well-known and wealthy Saxon lady called in these records “Eddeva pulchra,” or “Edith the Fair,” held a hide of property in these villages. Her under tenant was named Colsuan (now Topcliffe Manor). It is not possible to establish the identity of this Edith for certain, but it is possible she was the Edith of Lytton’s Romance and Tennyson’s Drama of “Harold.” She held several other manors in the neighbourhood, and who knows, but that she, the beautiful Edith Swansneck, may not have sometimes made a tour round the Cambridgeshire manors, and have spent some time in her manor house which stood by the mill opposite Meldreth Church.

The Abbot of the Monastery of Ely – for there was no Bishop until the beginning of the next century – possessed more than half of the villages, nearly 5 hides in Melbourn and over 6½ hides in Meldreth. Some of this property had been given to his predecessors, as long before as 970.  The charter by which King Edgar gave it to the Abbot is printed in several collections of Anglo Saxon charters.  It is the earliest mention which we have of our village, which is called “Meldeburna in Grantabridgeshire, outside of the Isle of Ely”. This is now called the Bury Manor, which has thus been in the same hands for 923 years.

On the Abbot of Ely’s Manor there were before the Conquest 20 sokemen.  Their names were:- Almar Presbyter, Aluric brother of Godwin, Alaric son of Godwin, Alurie Mus (the mouse), Alwin the Fair, Ailured, Elsi the Shepherd, Elsi sone of Beres, Eisi Crit, Elsi, Edric Presbyter, Godwin Priest, Leofwin Priest, Ordmer, Wenesta, Wensi and the Abbot’s bailiff, Alwyn.

In the time of the Danegeld tax each village contained 10 hides of property. The yearly value of the whole village of Melbourn was £24.5s, of Meldreth £23.2s; these sums represent about £726 and £693 of our present money.

Before giving an account of our two villages as they were 800 years ago, it is necessary to say a few words on the great difference which exists between the present state of things and the state which then existed. The Feudal system, or system of tenure of land by knight service, had its origin in the Conquest. The Conqueror divided out the land amongst the Normans who followed hi, and they held it on condition that they would fight for him when he required it of them. These in their turn divided up their land amongst under tenants, who also usually paid their rent my knight service. Thus in Melbourn, Durand who held Caxton Manor under Hardwin d’Eschallers, who held of the King, had to follow Hardwin to Brandon when he was summoned there with  other Norman Knights to form the host which ultimately crushed the rebellion of Hereward the Wake. The great difference between land holding then and now, was that there were no representatives of the present class of freeholders. No man could sell, give away, or bequeath his land without the permission of his lord or King. He was only a life tenant.

I will now read you the description of the first manor in the report made out by the King’s commissioners in 1086. It refers to the manor now known as the Sheen. The translation is as literal as possible.

“In this hundred Melreda paid Danegeld for 10 hides in King Edward’s time and now for 8, and of these 10 hides the Abbot of St Evroul holds two hides under Earl Roger. Here is land for 5 plough teams. Two of the plough lands are in the lord’s demesne and 3 plough lands divided amongst the serfs. There are 5 villeins, 3 bordars, and 2 slaves. Two mills of 15s 4d. Meadow for two plough teams. Five store oxen, 124 sheep, and 26 hogs. It is worth altogether £6, when received by its present owners £2. In King Edward’s time £6. Goda, a freeman of Earl Algar held this land. He could give it to whom he wished and could go away.”

The Earl Roger mentioned above was Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury and Arundel. He led the centre of the Norman Army at the battle of Hastings. The numerous grants which he received from the crown made him one of the largest landowners in England. All the forfeited estates of the Earl of Mercia fell into his hands as well as many others. Goda held several other manors under Earl Algar, amongst them the manor of Shingay.

In the time of William the Conqueror there was not nearly so much land under cultivation as at present. Melbourn is by far the larger parish, but there was more arable land in Meldreth.

In Melbourn there was enough land to employ 18 ploughs. How many acres that would mean, most of you would be able to calculate much better than I should. This land lay close around the site of the present village, the hills towards Royston and the Summer House were open heath and used as common pasture by each manor. There was a Church which stood in the same place as it does at present. As for the manor houses, there was one where Mr Spencer’s house now is, and another in the meadows by the river near the Bury. There were three chief streets, the present main village street which then ran by Greenlow Hill, Ashwell Street, which ran along the present Back Street, and another leading to Sheen Mill. With regard to the inhabitants there were about 53 adults, of whom four were slaves. The free tenants of Saxon times have now all disappeared. The two classes which we get instead are villeins and cottars. The former were the most important class. The land as you heard in the extract which I read to you, was divided into that in demesne, and that in villeinage. The villeins cultivated the land in demesne, which belonged solely to the lord of the manor, and in return were allowed so much each of the remaining portion of the manor, hence called “land in villeinage.” There were 14 of this class in Melbourn. The cottars possessed 15 or 10 acres of land and a cottage each. How their rent was paid I’m not sure, but I suppose it was by carting the corn on the demesne land, supplying the lord’s table with fowls, eggs etc, making hay, or something of that sort. There were 35 in Melbourn.

There were six different manors in our two villages, four of which extended into both. A Norman named Guy de Reinbudcurt [or Guy de Raimbeaucourt], held a large manor consisting of 16 plough lands. It probably included all the land comprised in the later manors of Argentines, Trayles and Veseys. This land had been taken from the Abbot of Ely, the sokemen of the late king, and Earl Algar. The abbot of Ely still held 12 ploughlands, which at present forms the Bury Manor. A man named Durand held 1½ ploughlands under Hardwin D’Eschallers. This was afterwards call “Caxton’s”, from the family who held it for some generations. They probably took their name from the town of Caxton, the chief seat of the D’Eschallers barony. This manor was given in 1392 by Sir Wm. Castleacre to the Prior of Ely, and it has since been lost in the Bury Manor. An Englishman named Colsuan, or Colswegen, held under Alan, Earl of Richmond, the same land which he had held under Edith the Fair. The whole of Edith’s land in this part of the country appears to have been given to Earl Alan. Colsuan was one of the very few Saxons who retained their possessions under the new rule. He held also extensive lands in Lincolnshire. One of the churches now remaining at Lincoln was built by him. Freeman has something to say about him in his “Norman Conquest.” The remaining manor was held by a Norman soldier named Hugh Pedevolt under Hardwin D’Eschallers. It was afterwards known as Flambard’s Manor, and extended into Shepreth.

One of the most remarkable points about this survey is the large number of water mills existing in these two villages. At present there are only three, but in 1086 there seem to have been nine. In Meldreth alone there were 8, viz., 2 each on Sheen, Reinbudcurt, and Topcliffe’s Manors, and one each on Bury and Flambard Manors. In Melbourn, Reinbudcurt and the Abbot of Ely shared a mill between them. The value of these mills varied considerably. Thus the Topcliffe Mills were worth 18s a year, Sheen Mills 15s, Reinbudcurt’s 10s 8d. The Abbot of Ely’s mill was worth only 3s., so it must have been on a very small stream. Flambard’s Mill, which may have been in Shepreth was worth 5s.4d. The Melbourn Mill was worth 6s. I am assuming that all these mills were watermills because we are told by historians that windmills were not introduced until after the Crusades. As regards the present site of these mills, I believe that the couples of mills were where the 3 watermills stand at present. The Melbourn Mill stood perhaps on the road to Fowlmere. As for the Ely Mill, I know of no site, perhaps someone here could suggest one. It has been suggested to me that a small mill might have stood on the stream at the bottom of the meadow attached to Vesey’s Manor House.

I propose now to inflict on you a short account of the owners of the various manors here. We will begin with the largest manor at the time of Domesday survey, that of Reinbudcurt. The owner of this, Guy de Reinbudcurt, or Rembercourt, came into England after the Conquest. His name does not appear on the roll of Battle Abbey, on which are inscribed the names of all the knights who accompanied Duke William from Normandy, but it is to be found on a roll called the Roll de Riches, or the money roll, which was compiled about the same time. So I suspect that he was not of knightly rank in Normandy, but that he contributed a good sum of money or other means of help towards the expedition. He was much more richly rewarded than some noble families, such as the Argentines. His chief seat was at Wardon in Northants, but he had large estates also in Oxfordshire and Lincolnshire. Most of his estates descended to his eldest son Richard, who was lord of Melbourn in the reign of Henry I. This same Mr Richard was very fond of gaming, and of playing for heavy stakes. And we have it recorded that one day he was playing with the king himself, and lost more money than he could possibly pay. Now, money in those days was very scarce. The only bankers were the Jews, and their rates of interest were remarkable. I suppose that in those times, very few great lords could lay their hands on £100, although they might possess thousands of acres of land. And indeed Richard Reinbudcurt appears to have had great difficulty paying his debt, and was so long about it, in fact, that his Majesty got tired of waiting for it. o he sent down his servants to take possession of one of Richard’s Northamptonshire manors. This they did, and the manor remained in the hands of the crown ever after. Of course this turned out a very good bargain for the king’s successors. When Richard died he left no legitimate son, and all his estates descended to Robert Foliot, who had married his only daughter. This baron’s male line ceased in the next generation, and his granddaughter carried all his estates in marriage to Wischard Leydet. The only issues of this marriage were daughters who married into the families of Braybrok and Furnival. The estates were then divided, Melbourn went to the Furnivals. Gerard de Furnival had an only daughter, who married into the Latimer family, and the estates continued with them for many generations. But the Foliots, Leydets, Furnivals, and Latimers, never lived at Melbourn. They let the greater part of their land to the Argentine family, who had a mansion here for several centuries. The last male Argentine died in the 15th century, and the estates passed by marriage to Lord Allington, whose descendants sold it to Rich. Hitch about 1703.

But two other manors were carved out of the original Reinbudcurt Manor. Sometime in the 13th century a portion of it was given to the Prior of Takeley in Essex. Takeley was an alien priory, that is, it was subject to a foreign monastery, viz.; St Valery in France. In the 15th century the property of all foreign houses was confiscated, and the property of Takeley, including this manor, was given to Winchester College, Oxford. It was farmed by the Trayley family, and gained the name of Trayley’s Manor. The Trailis were a very old family who were settled in Bedfordshire before the time of Domesday. The remains of their fortified castle at Yelveden can still seen. The name first occurs in connection with Melbourn in 1228, when Nicholas de Trailly let certain lands on Grenlane to Christiana Burel and Henry son of Gonilda. I suppose this land lay near Greenlow Hill. In 1274 we find the heir of Traileys in a very undignified position. He got into trouble with the King’s escheator. In those days a very important person was the King’s escheator. It was his duty to find out about the value of the property of minora. If the heir to property was underage when his father died, it was the privilege of the King to take all the rents of the estate until the heir reached his majority. As there was no need for him to render an account of his receipts, he made a very good thing out of it. From this reason the heir to property had to prove most surely that he was of age before he could come into possession of his birthright. So when in 1274 John de Trailey died, the Escheator for this district thought that Walter, son of John, was under age. So down he comes with his servants to take possession of the Trayley estates, in the King’s name. But Master Walter was equal to the occasion. He gathered together his retainers, and send the intruders back again, cutting off the tails of the Escheator’s horses, which I suppose was a mark of especial contempt. He then found a number of witnesses who swore that he was 22 years of age. As a matter of fact he was only 18, which was found out by the King in 1279, and Master Walter had to pay a find of £100 for his perjury. Several generations of Trayleys lived at Melbourn during this century. John and Maud his wife, John and Castonia his wife, and Hugh de Traili. The first two and the last named gave lands to Royston Priory. But I don’t think the family had anything to do with this village after the middle of the 14th century, for in 1395 a man named William Wakefield, a connection of the Argentines, had the manor and obtained a three years’ licence from the Bishop of Ely to have mass with his family in his manor house on Trayley’s manor. Perhaps this stood opposite the present Rose Inn. This manor eventually became joined to Argentines and passed with it to the Hitch family.

In Meldreth there was arable land for 20 ploughs. The rest of the parish was wood or marsh. There was only one straggling street. One manor house stood in the Sheen meadow, another somewhere near the Stocks, and another by Topcliffe’s mill. There was probably a church here also, standing where the present one does. There is in the description of one of the manors, a mention of a Church, but whether this means what we now understand by Church, I do not know. Parts of the present Church are very old, dating from the 12th century. The serfs of the village consisted of 14 villeins, 39 cottars, and 7 slaves, total 60, a larger population than Melbourn contained. The character of the uncultivated land in the two villages is shown to a certain extent by the cattle which it fed. It must be remembered that there was twice as much uncultivated land in Melbourn as in Meldreth. In Melbourn there were 695 sheep, 82 pigs, and 11 store oxen. In Meldreth 235 sheep, 109 pigs and 6 store oxen. The sheep required grazing ground, of which there was plenty at Melbourn, and the pigs required woodland of which the waste ground at Meldreth chiefly consisted.

The third manor which was carved out of the original Reinbudcurt Manor was that of Veysey’s or Vasey’s which lay chiefly in Meldreth. We first meet with mention of this in 1201, when Osbert L’Eveske obtained some land in Meldreth by an agreement with Hawisia and Maria, daughters of a man named Ingelram. This Ingelram I believe to have been a descendant of Reinbudcurt, for I have read somewhere that there was a son of this family name Ingelram. But I can find no other mention of these ladies. The family of Eveske do not appear to have had a very comfortable time of it during the first 30 years of the 13th century. One would almost be inclined to think that they had obtained their property by unfair means, for a they were always being mixed up in legal business. The Prior of Ely seems to have had some claim on their land, and they had to make a composition with him so that they might be left alone. But before they could get this composition effected several offerings had to be made to the King and his officers. Thus in 1208 Henry L’Eveske gave 3 Palfreys to the King that the plea which was between him and the Prior of Ely, might pass through the Court speedily. At another time Osbert had to defend his right to some land in Meldreth by duel. This took place in his own hall at Meldreth about 1200. A man named Alexander Le Poer fought for Osbert. The result of the duel was that the opponent of Osbert gave up all claim on the land on the payment of 50 marcs. This result was questioned in 1224, when Henry L’Eveske had to bring up his retainers from Meldreth to the King’s Court to prove it. The only other members of this family which are to be met with, are Mabel and John L’Eveske. Henry is last heard of in 1237 when he was with Alan de Bassingbourn and others deputed to collect a tax in Cambs. But although we read no more of the name of Eveske or Evesque, another name very much like it occurs in 1297, and that is L’Evesye. That Leveyse is a corruption of Levesque, I would not say, for there was a Lenveyse living in Essex in the time of Henry II, but I am almost sure that Walter Le Veysey held in 1315 the same land which Henry le Vesque held in 1237. This family lasted only long enough to give a name to the manor, which has since passed through many hands. Cavell, Caldecote, Hasilden, Bury, Clerk, Holder, and others have possessed it in turn. The red bricked house which faces the stocks was the manor house.

The manor now known as Topliffe’s originally formed part of the large estates of the Earls of Richmond. In the reign of Henry III, the Bassingbourn family were its tenants. From these it passed to the Brumptons by marriage. Some time in 14th century the lordship of the manor was transferred to the Priory of Ware. The Brumptons lived at Meldreth. George de Brumpton was born there on June 24th 1327. There is in the Public Record Office an elaborate proof of the age of this man which was taken on July 20th 1360. The following were Master George’s witnesses, probably all of them Meldreth men:- John Baudawyn, John Gentyng, Roger Basse, Robert Huckt, Henry Stotard, William Gerald, Henry Finshere, John Orelern, John Benyngworth, and William Wright. Each of these men mentioned some event by which they were able to fix the date of George’s birth. William Gerald deposed that on the Feast of St Martin after George’s birthday a certain William Smyth was murdered at Royston, on which occasion he was summoned before the coroner to give evidence. William Stotard deposed that he well remembered that a certain Richard de Eltham was indicted for this murder, was taken to Cambridge Castle and was hanged there, before the Christmas after the said George’s birth etc etc. This man died without any heirs. After being in the hands of John de Topcliff for a short time, it came into the hands of the De La Poles in Richard II’s reign. At the time of the Dissolution it belonged to the Savoy Hospital and was purchased by the City of London for St. Thomas’s Hospital.

The manor of Sheen belonged, as we have seen, to the monastery of St Evroul in Normandy. This monastery had a priory at Ware which was subject to it. The Prior of Ware had the management of the Meldreth manor. There were formerly several families in Melbourn and Meldreth having the surname of Ware. In the 15th century all the lands in England belonging to foreign religious houses were seized by the King, this manor amongst them. It was then given by Henry V, to the Carthusian Priory, which he had lately founded at Sheen in Surrey. As the Dissolution it was sold to Sir Robert Chester of Royston.

A paper was read here last season on Agriculture in the 14th century, so I shall not enter into any details of land tenure here, but it may interest you to have a short description of the Sheen Manor as it was in the reign of the 2nd Edward, over 550 years ago. Now, as I have just said, this manor was farmed by the Prior of Ware, and the Prior of Ware paid his profits to the French monastery. The king liked to know the value of manors, the profits of which were going out of the country, so he sometimes had them surveyed, and an Inquisition was taken at Meldreth on November 16th 1323, before certain upright and legal men of the village, of whom a John Payne was one, as to the value of this manor. They stated that the manor house, with garden, fishpond, and dovecot, was worth 10s. a year, clear of all expenses; that there were 160 acres of arable land worth 4d. an acre, 4 acres of meadow fit for hay, worth 2s.6d. per acre, and 4 acres of pasture worth 1s.6d. The watermill was worth 20s. a year (250 years before 2 mills on this estate were worth 15s). The rents of the free and villein tenants were £3.2s. The number of tenants on the manor is not stated, but we know that on the neighbouring manor of Argentines, which was smaller than this, there were about this time 10 free tenants, 13 villein tenants, and 10 cottar tenants. This was a time of low prices and low wages. It may be particularly interesting for you to have a few instances of this. The following are not all taken from farms in this village, but all from farms in this part of Cambridgeshire. In the year 1300 the average price of wheat per quarter was 5s.6d, of barley 4s., of oats 3s.6d., of rye 4s.4d. In the famine years 1315-17, wheat went up to 20s., and barley to 14s. In 1318 wheat was down again to 6s. As regards cattle in 1300 a cow in calf sold for 10s. 5d., a heifer for 6s. 11d., a sow for 3s., sucking pig 7d., goose 2 ½ d., hen 1 ½ d., eggs 4d. a hundred, a horse at Gamlingay in 1316 cost 12s., candles cost 1 1/2d. per lb., which was a lot of money, as values then were. Salt was 3d. a bushel, hurdles 1¼ d. each, lime 1s. a bushel, iron about 1d. a pound, ploughshares were 3d. each, horseshoes were 3s.4d. per 100, nails 1s. 3d. per 1,000, a lantern cost 4d., two dungforks 3 ½ d. each, a mattock 4d., a 3 gallon tankard 1s. As for wages threshing was paid at the rate of 3d. per quarter of 10 bushels, thatcher and his assistant 3d. a day, carpenter 5d. a day, mower 4d. The ordinary labourer when he was paid in money got about 4d.a day, and in harvest 6d.

Although I have never been able to meet with the record of anything startling at Melbourn or Meldreth, yet I suppose that the inhabitants did occasionally take part in some of the great events of English History. For this neighbourhood was always the most flourishing part of the county, and hence probably always produced the best men. We read in the Saxon Chronicle that during an onslaught of the Danes on this part of England, in a battle which took place on the Gogmagog Hills, only the men of Cambs stood firm. Doubtless Melbourn and Meldreth furnished some of these staunch men and true. When Hereward the Wake held out in the Isle of Ely, this part of the country was lively enough.

Hardwin D’Eschaller who possessed land in these villages, and the greater part of Whaddon was one of Williams most active knights. And in the reign of Stephen, when the Fenland became again a stronghold of the rebels under Geoffery de Mandeville, these villages probably witnessed some of those horrors which are described in much graphic language in the Saxon Chronicle. During the peasant rebels in the reign of Richard II, although we get no direct mention of these villages, we know that Cambs. and Herts. were two of the first counties to rise. The common people of Cambridge marched about the country pillaging and burning the houses of the nobles. That they sacked Shingay Hospital and Steeple Morden, we know from the Rolls of Parliament, and I rather suspect that they would have been at Melbourn, for in 1383, only a year after the riots, it is recorded that the manor house and buildings on the Argentines estate there were in such a raised state that they were worth nothing.  In 1461, during the wars of the Roses, when after the battle of Wakefield, Queen Margaret marched with her disorderly northern army down the Ermine Street, on London, the chronicler Stowe tells us that Melbourn and Royston were sacked from cellar to roof, church, mansion, and cottage, all coming in for it. The reason for these places being picked out may have been that the Earl of March who had just succeeded his father the Duke of York as chief of the Yorkshire faction, had property there.  In the Puritan Civil War, when Triplow Heath was used by the Parliamentary leaders as a point concentration, the excitement of war must have been strong in this village.

And the proximity of the Icknield Way, and the Ermine Street and the Great North Road, which were the main arteries for all movements which took place from  the east or north towards London, most have kept our forefathers fully in touch with what was going on in those directions.

Medieval Justice

Six hundred years ago the methods of dispensing justice was very different from what they are now. There were no petty sessions, county court and quarter sessions such a we have now. The lords of manors dispensed justice on their own estates, where they hanged, mutilated and fined at their pleasure. The old bank tree has, I doubt not, had the corpse of many a wretched serf dangling from its branches.  Assizes were held at the chief towns, but they were few and far between, and the judges could get permission from the king to put them off, if it was not convenient  for them to attend. So I suppose evil doers were often content to abide by the justice of their lord, rather than wait indefinitely for the tardy  justice of the king. In Melbourn there were three courts of jurisdiction, those of the Prior of Ely, Abbot of St Valery and Baron Argentine.  In Meldreth the chief court was that of Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford and another smaller court was held by Wm de Brompton. The chief thing in these courts was the view of frank pledge. This was a system by which each adult had to find another to be pledge for his good behaviour.  If he committed any offence, and was found out, his pledge had to pay a fine as well as himself. I shall give examples of this when speaking of the court rolls of the Manor of Clare. Besides this individual roll of frank pledge there was a general roll.  For if a stranger was murdered the whole hundred in which it was committed, had to pay for it.  Thus in 1158, a foreign merchant was robbed and murdered on the Ermine Street near Whaddon. The culprit was not found, so the hundred of Armingford was muleted to the sum of 10 marcs which it took three years to pay off. Entries of this kind are frequently found in the Pipe Roll or Sheriff’s account.

Honor of Clare

The chief court leet of Meldreth was owned by the Clares, Earls of Hertford and Gloucester.  This family also held courts in Royston, Litlington,  Abington, Tadlow and Morden. How the leet of Meldreth first came into the hands of the Clares I have not been able to find out  but they were in possession of it long before 1250. When Gilbert, Earl of Clare, was slain at the battle of Bannockburn his estates were held in severalty by his two sisters who had been married to Piers Gaveston and Hugh de Despencer, the unfortunate favourites of Edward II.  After their time, Meldreth court leet passed to the Earl of Ulster, and from him to Lionel, Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III.  Afterwards it became attached to the Earldom of March, and when Edward, Earl of March, came to the throne as Edward IV, the Honor of Clare became a royal possession, and it has so remained ever since.  The business of the court at Meldreth has now dwindled down to very small proportions, and consists of the payment of two small sums by the constable of Meldreth parish to the Commissioners of woods and forests. The amounts of ‘Silver Lark money 5s, and Fee Farm rent 12s’. The constable receives the money again from the overseer of the parish, for he has nothing to do with the finances of the parish now.  But it is very significant of its being connected with the Court Leet, or law court of the parish, that the payment should be made by the constable who was the representative of the law under the  old order of things.  These payments seem to be a mystery now, to both payer and payee, and I am told that, when some years ago the overseer objected to the payment without an explanation, he was threatened with legal proceedings for answer. When the payment of  Silver Lark money was first started I cannot say, but as far back as the reign of Richard II. (500 years ago) this village was paying an annual rent of 3s. called “Lark Silver” to Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. As for the fee farm rent, it may be a commutation of all the fines to which the village was liable in the Court Leet, or a survival of the Common Fine.

In the Public Record Office there are many rolls of the proceedings of the Court Leet at Meldreth. Those which I have examined belong to two periods, 1323-63 and 1520-85. As far as I can make out the Court of Meldreth was held only once a year, sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the autumn. The business occupation of the Court Leet was the fixing of fines for misdemeanours and giving of licences. The earliest record runs as follows: –

Court Leet held at Meldreth on Tuesday, the 8th day after the feast of St Ambrose in the 16th year of the reign of Edward, son of Edward (1323).

William Vache (? cowkeeper), Henry Ingrith, John Merveille, Peter le Knyght, Thomas Newman, John Warin, William Rechole, Margery de Keteringham, the jurors, present that they give 10s. as a common fine.

Likewise they present that Margaret Custance, Amice, who was the wife of Will Francis, and Joan, the wife of William Custance, are brewers and sellers of beer, according to the assize, for which they pay 2s.

Anyone might brew beer for their own consumption, I suppose, but for selling purposes, a licence had to be obtained from the lord of the manor. These are examples of the ale wives of which we read so much of in middle age literature. They were credited with cheating their customers by giving too little, and we shall find that the Meldreth ladies were not too honest in this respect. At this court indeed Margery Custance was fined 3d for using an unsigned measure. I should imagine that it was too small.

The jury also present that William Gerold and John Waryn are ale tasters, and did not do their duty, therefore they are fined 6d each.

That was one advantage of the middle ages, the beer was usually good. Ale tasters were appointed to sample every cask of beer which was broached for sale, and if it did not come up to the  proper standard, it was not allowed to be sold.  I daresay that even in these enlightened times there are men to be found who would delight in the job of tasting the ale in every barrel in every barrel in every public house in the village.  In1323 I don’t suppose that Messrs. Waren and Gerold were  fined for not doing the tasting part of their duty but rather for allowing some beer to be sold which was not up to the proper standard. To return to the roll  : –

The jury present that Peter Knyt, the miller, takes toll with a measure unsigned. It was too large also, no doubt.

The jury also present that John de Brampton, Hamo de Ware, William Att More, William de Baldock and Thomas de Babraham are free tenants within the said leet, and ought to come to the leet as suitors.

There are a few more entries, but they are no interest.

In 1327 Guy Slipper was fined 12d for breaking into the house of Nicholas the Cobbler. The Court, held in 1331, on the first Saturday in May, was a long one. There are over 30 entries. The jury present that Agnes, wife of Nicholas the Cobbler, struck Felicia Merveyle for which she is fined 6d; also they present that the foresaid Felicia raised hue and cry upon the said Nicholas (from this it seems as if a husband was responsible for his wife’s misdeeds). But it was done justly, therefore let her pay 3d (for unjust hue and cry the fine was 6d). The jury also present that Nicholas the Cobbler drew blood maliciously of John  Merveyle, therefore let him pay 12d: also that John Merveyle drew blood maliciously of Nicholas the Cobbler, therefore let him also be fined 12d. There must have been a family quarrel here. There are several other assaults and drawing of blood. Many of the fines at this Court were for encroachments on the common fields. Ralph, the son of William, who held Flambard’s Manor and part of Malton, seems to have encroached on all the free tenants of the leet. A great difference was made between intentional  and accidental injury. This Richard Newlyn drew blood accidentally of Thomas Garey, and is fined 6d. But malicious blood drawing was, as we have seen, fined at 12d.

In 1333, Richard, son of Thomas the Driver, William Paynol, Hugh Belamy, John Nokky and Alexander Molle, shepherds, were fined 6d each for having fed off the common pasture with their flocks against the custom of the town. Richard Cagewan was fined 12d for baking and selling contrary to the assize. Baking for selling purposes required a licence, and the loaves must be of a certain weight. The ale taster and miller are then fined, the one for not doing his work, the other for using an unjust measure. In 1337 jury present that Roger Colat made an attack on William Paynol, nearly killing him, for which he was fined 3s. John le Taylour and Richard Caggwin paid 3d each for licence to leave the  hundred. In 1343, John Street, the miller at the Prior of Ware’s mill, that is the Shene Mill, was fined 12d for taking unjust toll.

The latter rolls are very brief. They consist chiefly of lists of juries and pledges. In 1537, at the Easter Court, Richard Brevis was ordered to mend the king’s highway opposite his gate, under a penalty of 6s 8d.

If one had time to read through all these rolls, a good many amusing and interesting items might be found. But they are by no means easy to read, for besides being written in the most contracted form of Latin, many of them are crumpled and dirty.

I have not been able to examine any other Court Rolls beside these of Clare. It would be interesting to get hold of the Court Rolls of Argentines Manor, but they are probably lost, especially the older ones. The Rolls of Ely Manor seem to have disappeared with the Priory, for there are none amongst the Court Rolls of the Bishop’s manors. We get one glimpse of the Bishop of Ely’s jurisdiction in Melbourn from an entry on the patent roll of 1327. Hamond de Ware, a tenant of the Prior of Ware, refused to pay some rent or fine to the Bishop, so the Bishop caused his bailiffs to distrain a horse belonging to the said Hammond. Then, Mr. Hammond was very angry. It was no good telling him that the distraint was made according to a judgement of the Court of the liberty of Ely. He gathered together a band of men, consisting of his sons, John, Thomas and Hamend, with John Careless, Will de Baldock, John Payn, John the Parson,  Henry Smart, and other men of the town, broke into the park of the Bishop, took away the horse again, assaulted the bailiff and followed him to Foxton where they again beat him and carried away his goods. Whereupon the Bishop got a writ from the king, appointing Master John de Chishill and Master Henry de Trippelowe to inquire into the matter, and if necessary to punish the offenders. [Some of the Topcliffe Manorial Court Rolls have been transcribed by Meldreth Local History Group and form the basis of several pages on our website.]

You will have noticed that a certain parson named John was amongst those who aided Hamond in his bad deeds. Now the lives of patrons in these times were not always exponents of the truths which they ought to have taught. I am afraid that they were often very badly behaved. In the Assize Rolls are frequent entries of robberies with violence, and even murders by parsons, and where the rights of any religious house were concerned, they were sure to be found on the other side. For monks and parsons were never friends, and no wonder for the monks robbed the parsons of their Rectories whenever they had the chance.

Final Concords

During the middle ages the most common way of transferring property was by means of the “Final concord.” Briefly, this process was as follows:- The person or party who was the purchaser, commenced an action in the King‘s Court at Westminster, against the owner of the land. But before the case really came on for trial, a composition was arrived at between the parties, and the action proceeded no further. The particulars of the composition were entered amongst the records of the court, and preserved most carefully. Hence this was the safest mode of obtaining possession of land. These records have been kept for 700 years, and can still he referred to. They give, of course, most valuable information to anyone writing the history of a parish.  A calendar of the final Concords for Cambs has been published by the Camb. Ant. Soc. But this only contains the names of the parties and villages in which they lived. Much more information concerning these villages can be obtained from records themselves. Rather an interesting name occurs in 1261 when Stephen Torkyl, and Agnes his wife, gave up all claim on a messuage in Meldreth, to Adam, son of John de Chesewyk, for one red sparrow hawk, and the rent of one gilly flower at Easter. It occurs to one’s mind that this Adam de Chesewyk may have given his name to Chiswick End, Meldreth.

Another concord worthy of notice occurs in 1377. Richard Cobham and Rosa, his wife, of Royston, sold to William Batchelor, of Melbourn, a chaplain, 4 villeins named Robert Bond, John Bond, and John Wynnok, senior and junior, for 100 marcs of silver, that is £66 13s. 4d, or £16 13s. 4d each. So that we see that 500 years ago the value of a man in Melbourn was considerably under £20 in Plantagenet times.

A few of the relics of Plantagenet Melbourn and Meldreth still remain. If you will go down to Meldreth Church and walk round the north side, you will find a doorway which was made when Richard of the Lion Heart was King, or even before that. The tower of the Church was also built at the same time, but outside it has not got very distinctive characters. Inside, however, the arch under which the organ stands, is a typical example of the style of architecture which was practised during the last 20 years of the 12th century. The rest of the Church is of much later date. There is nothing quite so old as this in Melbourn Church, but still there is something very interesting. In the transept where the organ stands, can be seen the remains of a Chapel and altar, which were built by the noble family of Argentine in the early part of the reign of Henry 3rd, for which a special licence from the Pope was obtained. This was during the early English period of architecture. Behind the organ you may still see the tracery of the string course which ran above the altar. On the side of the transept nearest the chancel are the remains of two niches, the arches of which were once beautifully ornamented with blue and cold tracery, portions of which still remain. These niches at one time doubtless contained statues of saints, which were removed during the first defacement of the Churches in the diocese of Ely, which took place between the years 1554-6l. And not content with removing the statues, the reformers must needs use a hammer and chisel to break down the delicate pillars which ran alongside the niches. You can see to this day the marks made by the chisel.

The old bank tree which has for centuries sheltered the village children, probably occurs to all as one of the oldest objects in the village. To estimate its age is a risky undertaking, but I will venture to give my opinion that it was there when William the Conqueror, 300 years ago. What strange scenes that old tree must have witnessed! The flocking of the villages to hear the preaching of a travelling friar in 13th century, for sermons were then rarely heard in village Churches. The many and bitter disputes between the bailiffs of the Priors of Ware, Takeley and Ely, with the Rector of the Church about the payment of tithes. There met the  villagers to discuss the latest news about the bloody feud which existed between the Argentines and Bassingbourns during the Barons War.  Under its boughs the dedication festival of the Church was started, and the sale of Church ales carried on. The present feast remains of it. Here too the Court Leet of Argentines Manor was held. The pillory and stocks were somewhere in the neighbourhood, probably on the green. The village green suggests to us the springtime merrymaking during the middle ages, when the maypole was set up, and everyone hailed the earning warmth and light of summer with tumultuous joy. We may sometimes think the winter dark, dreary and wretched enough in our time, but it was very much worse 600 years ago, when people had none of our comforts, and many hardships of which we know nothing. Therefore they had nothing but praise for the springtime. For the long dark nights, which the peasant could not afford to lighten with a candle, the bad, scanty food, the loathsome diseases which were spread, as the wretched people huddled together for warmth, all these were now past, and the time of rejoicing and plenty had come with the spring.

The mansion of the Argentines stood where Mr Spencer‘s farm now stands. Remains of the moat and rabbit warren still exist. The pound has only lately been done away with. As you walk through the Meads towards Meldreth you can see the mound on which the Manor house of Prior of Ware stood, surrounded by a wide moat.  A dreary situation this must have been in the wet season. I don’t know how long it is since there were any buildings on this mound, but an old fashioned pear tree still remains of the garden.  The manor house of Topcliffes stood in the orchard by the mill. The mound and traces of the moat are still visible. Borage and other old fashioned plants still grow in this mound. It was here that George de Brampton was born June 24th, 1360.  You would like to know what kind of a house he was born in. Well, one, I suppose, to which an ordinary farmhouse now-a-days would be a palace.  Probably it consisted of only one large hall, with an upper chamber, or solar, for Dame Alicia de Brampton and her family to sleep in. In the hall the family lived and the servants slept. The stocks and whipping post still remain at Meldreth.  Of the wretched mud huts of the peasants we are content to see nothing.

Meldreth Brotherhood

Before the dissolution of monasteries, there existed in most large villages a guild, or brother-hood, which filled a position similar to that of the modern Benefit Society, e.g. Oddfellows and Foresters.  Each member paid an annual subscription, and was entitled to receive pecuniary relief when he was sick. He was also buried, and masses song for his soul, at the expense of the guild. The guild feasts, held on saints’ days, were a much more serious affair than the modern club feasts. An enormous quantity of food and drink was provided, especially the latter. After the eating business was over, the company settled down to drink in earnest. The loving cup was filled and re-filled, and passed round and round until no more liquor was left. By that time, I suspect, some of the members were under the table. A curious rule at these feasts was, that if a man got drunk he was fined, and also if he let the cup pass without drinking, when it came to his turn. A man evidently got no credit for being a teetotaller in those days. I have not been able to find any mention of a guild at Melbourn, but I suppose there was one there, for it was one of the largest villages in the neighbourhood. I have been since told that the Guildhall at Melbourn stood at the Cross, on the south side of Mortlock St, and that when the house, which stands at this corner, was partly rebuilt some years ago, remains of the old hall were discovered.

Of the brotherhood of Meldreth, however, I have found some particulars in an inventory of its goods and lands in the reign of Edward VI, about 1543.  All guilds in the country were done away with in this reign, according to a law made by Henry VIII.  He pretended that they fostered superstition, and obedience to the Pope of Rome, but this was no just excuse for their destruction, even if it was true. The loss of their guild was a great hardship to the country people, and one can hardly wonder that Queen Mary was welcomed to the throne as a partisan of the old order of things.

Meldreth Brotherhood was not nearly so large as that at Bassingbourn.  The land belonging to it was as follows : –  A messuage, 38 acres of arable land, and one acre of meadow in Shepreth, let to John Witte for 60s. a year.  A farm of 6 acres of land, 3 acres of meadow, and a close of 3½ acres in Meldreth, let to Thom. Dunham for 33s. 4d. a year. A messuage in Litlington with 19 acres and 1 rod of land, and a yard containing half-an-acre, let to Robert Meadow for 13s. 4d. a year.  The guild did not get much out of this Litlington land, for 8s. 7d. and 2 capons had to be paid yearly to the manorial lords there. The goods of the guild consisted of 6 platters and 6 dishes worth 4s., a brasse pott worth 6s. 4d., and iron spete worth 2s., and 2 pewter salts worth 4d.  These were in the custody of Robert Morley who was at that time one of leases of the land belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Ely.  I cannot help thinking that some of the articles belonging to the guild had been kept back from the King’s Commissioners, for the above list would not furnish a supper table even in the 16th century.

The Church

The architectural grandeur of Melbourn Church must have made a striking contrast with the wretched houses of the mediæval villagers. The present tower is a very fine specimen of the perpendicular style of architecture, and was built about the time of the Wars of the Roses. Most of the other parts been altered by “restorers.” The pomp and ceremony of the old religion was well represented inside, until the fanatics of the Reformation and Puritan times did their best to destroy or efface all that was handsome and picturesque there. In 1553 the following ornaments were removed from the Church by order of the King’s Commissioners. A silver cross, partly gilt, weighing 57 oz; a chalice, partly gilt, weighing 14½ oz; a silver pax weighing 4 oz and a pair of silver censers weighing 21 oz.  And these garments: –  A cope of Jaffa damask, one of yellow and blue damask with flowers of gold, a vestment of red velvet, another of white fustian, and another of red satyn of Bruges with a cross of green velvet. All that was reserved for Church use were:  A chalice of silver weighing 16 oz, a cope of blue velvet, and a vestment of yellow and blue. These were delivered to John Chamberlayn, churchwarden. All the other goods were delivered into the custody of five parishioners, named John Sterne, William Pete, William Monyons, Robert Coleys and William Cresswell. What they did with them, whether they sold them and paid the proceeds to the young king’s officers, or used them as household furniture, history does not state. More damage was done to the Church by William Dowsing. His journal runs as follows : –  “Reformation, Melbourn Church, 1643, March 14th. Ordered 60 superstitious pictures, on of Christ, a cross of the steeple, to be taken away by William Brown, parson;  William Allen and Benjamin Medcalfe, churchwardens; Francis Radford and Timothy Atkinson, constable.”

The Commissioners did not find so much furniture in the Meldreth Church, and they were only able to abstract two vestments of white silk, and a blue vestment of satin, which were delivered into the care of Thomas Gatward, Robert Robinson, Richard Ward, and Nicholas Collop; leaving to the churchwarden, Waren Burley, a chalice weighing 14 oz, a cope of red sattin, and a vestment of sattin of Bruges.  However, plenty was left for Dowsing, for he notes :  “Meldreth, March 14th, we defaced 60 pictures of Christ.” Most of these pictures were the stained glass windows of which Layer had fortunately taken note eleven years previously.

Melbourn and Meldreth were not always left to the charge of a Vicar alone.  Seven hundred years ago, each parish also had a Rector, and fine fat livings they were. So attractive were they, in fact, to the eyes of the greedy Benedictine monk from Ely who looked after the Bury Farm, that he and his fellows had already begun to agitate for an appropriation of the Rectory.  But they had to obtain the permission of the Pope in order to do this.  By the middle of the 13th century everything had been arranged, and the proceeds of the Rectories of both these villages went to the support of the monastery, and the Prior had the appointing of the Vicar.  The Prior was then the chief landowner in the parish of Melbourn, but his rule does not seem to have been a very beneficial one, for we find that in 1340, 700 acres of arable land were lying uncultivated on account of the poverty of the tenants.


Until long after the Reformation the Church was the only centre of religious life in the parish. It was not until the latter part of the 17th century that dissenting places of worship sprang into existence. During the Puritan civil war, Cambridgeshire was, with the Eastern counties, strong for the Parliament, and all the pulpits were filled with Puritan preachers. And when many of, these were ejected in the reign of Charles II they started independent congregations. Most of you have heard, I suppose, of Francis Holcroft, Fellow of Clare College and Vicar of Litlington, and Joseph Oddy, Fellow of Trinity and Vicar of Meldreth, who between them started most of the dissenting causes in the neighbourhood. Each of them lost his fellowship and vicarage through Nonconformity, and underwent besides various terms of imprisonment. Oddy was first imprisoned in 1663 for preaching at Meldreth, being committed to Cambridge Castle by Order of Sir Thomas Chicheley, of Wimpole Hall.  But notwithstanding that he was in prison for five years at a stretch, he and Holcroft did great work between them, and the lamp of Nonconformity which they lighted in this neighbourhood never went out, but increased rapidly in power.

As early as 1676 the Bishop had to own that there were 26 obstinate dissenters in Melbourn out of a population of 240. The visitation of the Archdeacon on October 13th, 1685, does not give a very bright picture of the religious centre of the parish, “The chancel walls are decayed for want of plastering, the chancel floor very bad, the windows very faulty and stopped up, the chancel seats broken, the minister’s and clerk’s Common Prayer Book want binding, the font nasty, with an ill-plug and worse cover. The church needs much paving, the seats in the church want boarding, the church porch with huge deep. About 70 families and about 12 families Holdcroft disciples, one Metcalfe, an Anabaptist, ex-communicated. “This man (Metcalfe) or one at his family, was probably responsible for the thorough defacement of the church in 1643, for Benjamin Metcalfe was then churchwarden. The report for Meldreth is no better, “The church, a dove house, the windows unglazed the ceiling in the chancel full of great holes, seats broken miserably, the chancel in a sad pickle, the graves uncovered, the gravestones lie about ye church yard and great heaps of other stones, and dust. A poor pitifulhouse which ye clerks live in. Sacrament twice per annum.  Many unbaptised dissenters, Mr Holcroft’s disciples. Such being the neglected state of the church, one is not surprised that independent sects sprang up and flourished. In 1728 there were two meeting houses in Melbourn and about half the people were what the Bishop calls Presbyterians and Anabaptists.


There in no certain method of estimating the population of country villages during the Middle Ages, but I will endeavour to give you approximate estimate of our two villages at various periods. We have seen in 1086 there were 53 villein and cotter holdings in Melbourn, and 60 villein and cotter holdings in Meldreth. Now at the lowest possible rate, these holdings must have supported at least three people on an average, man, wife and child. This will give 159 customary tenant class in Melbourn and 180 in Meldreth. These of course formed the bulk of the population, but there were besides, the rector of the church, and his chaplain. several lords of the manors, with their families and slaves swelling the population to a little under 200 in Melbourn and a little over in Meldreth. It is 250 years before we have any data for another estimate. In the year 1333 King Edward levied his second tax of one twentieth of all men’s goods; 107 people had taxable property in Melbourn, and their united contributions amounted to £9 15s. At the same time 73 people were taxed in Meldreth, producing £3 4s. 4½d. Allowing three for each ratable person, this gives 331 souls in Melbourn, and 219 in Meldreth. Fifty years later were levied the Poll taxes of Edward 3rd and Richard 2nd. In this every person over 15 had to pay a groat. Thomas de Bradfield, who had estates at Shepreth and Wendy, was collector for this hundred of Ar. in 1377. For Melbourn the constables, John Rumbold and Thomas Trumpington were sub-collectors, and reported that there were 16 score and 3 adult persons there, from whom they had collected £5 7s. 8d. In Meldreth the constables William Balle and John Slepyr, reported that there were 12 score and 13 persons, who had paid £4 4s. and 4d.  At the same time there were 367 adults in Bassingbourn, 76 in Kneesworth, and 170 in Whaddon. Between this tax and the last mentioned had occurred the terrible epidemic know in history as “The Black Death”, during which half the inhabitants of this country are supposed to have perished.  Consequently the population of our villages had not increased much meantime and was very much the same at the end of the century as it was at the beginning. It is some time before we can again form an estimate. There are no taxation rolls during the 15th century, and during the 16th, the only rolls which would help us are those for 1523-4. but these are dirty, crumpled, and almost illegible. The mode of taxation must have been very different, for the number of names on a roll only rises up to 30 one in Melbourn. In the first year of James 1, 1603, 33 people in Melbourn paid £9 16s, the same amount which 107 paid, 270 years previously. In 1641 the last subsidy for Charles 1, 25 people in Melbourn paid £15 10s. 8d and 13 people paid £1 17s. 4d in Meldreth. In 1663 we find from the Hearth Tax that there were 104 houses in Melbourn and 59 in Meldreth. In 1676 according to the visitation of the Bishop of Ely there were 240 souls in Melbourn and 165 in Meldreth. In 1685 we find from the name source that there were 70 families in Melbourn and 60 in Meldreth, and in 1723 also from the same source, there were 90 families, or 250 souls in Melbourn, and 71 families or 218 souls in Meldreth.  In the poor rate for Meldreth in 1769, George Palmer and Thomas Folks being overseers, the assessment of 8d in the pound produced £41 19s 5d, from 42 people.

In 1783 the assessment was 1s. in the pound, and produced £62 14s. 8d.

The following figures give the population of the two parishes at four periods in the present century.


In 1433 a return was made to the King of the gentry all over the country.  The names for Melbourn and Meldreth are as follows : –  Melbourn, John Argentine, Knight, John Zokeale, John Turner, Thomas Gentyng, John Bayley, Nicholas Pulter.  Meldreth , Nicholas Caldecote, Warin Ingrith, William Adam, Thos. Cosyn, William Lyle, John Gentyng.

In 1662 a free and voluntary present of money was made to his Majesty, for such is the heading of the Subsidy Roll. Melbourn contributed £6 7s. 6d and Meldreth £24 11s. 6d. The comparative largeness of the Meldreth sum was due to the gift of £20 by Squire Pyke. The largest amount given in Melbourn was by Richard Hitch and Mrs Ann Hitch who each gave £1.

You will be perhaps surprised to hear that there were more large houses on Meldreth than in Melbourn in 1665. But it is so if we may judge from the Hearth Tax.  For in Melbourn, John Payne had a house in which there were 12 firehearths, (? was this an Inn). Mrs Ann Hitch, widow, had 8, Richard Hitch and John Harrison, gents, 4 each. In Meldreth, George Pike, gent, had 11 (he was Sheriff in 1674), Henry Blany 8, John Stacy Sedgewick, gent, and Will Gryper, 6 each, John Candle and Thomas Smith 5, William Robinson and Mary Gosling 4.


Although our villages cannot boast of any noble family now, six centuries ago, one of the most powerful families in England lived here. I refer of course to the Argentines. This family had been living in Normandy long before the Conqueror though of winning England. David de Argentine accompanied Duke William to this country in 1066. His name occurs on the Roll of Battle Abbey. He does not seem to have been thought of much consequence, however, for the grants of land which he had were neither large nor valuable  –  6 hides in Croxton, 1 in Westwick, and a yard land in Caldecote. But the descendants of David were destined to climb higher in the ladder of greatness.  His grandson, John, married the heiress of Guy Fitz Tek in the reign of Stephen, and thus gained large possessions in Hertfordshire. Reginald de Argentine, who lived during the reign of Richard 1 and John, was Itinerant Justice for Essex; and Herts, and Sheriff of Cambs. He also sat as a justice at Westminster in 1202. He sided with the barons in their dispute with John, and was present at the signing of Magna Carta. In revenge for this, John confiscated all his lands, but he regained them on that tyrant’s death. He was succeeded by his son Richard, who is the first of the Argentines we meet with in connection with Melbourn. In his youth he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; on his return he was made a steward of the king‘s household, and constable of Hertford Castle.  He was afterwards a Justician of Normandy. He founded a chapel in Melbourn church in 1229, and endowed a chaplaincy to pray for him. He was also the founder of the Hospital of St. John and St James at Royston, and the Priory of Wymondley. His death is noted in one of the chronicles  –  “In the year 1246, died certain great and renowned Englishmen, among them Richard de Argentine, a most worthy soldier, who in the Holy Land served God faithfully”. He had a brother Reginald who joined the Knights Templars. He was slain before Antioch in 1233, when he and his fellow knights refused to retreat before an overwhelming force of infidels. He was Balcanifer or Standard Bearer, and his gallantry as such, has caused his name to be preserved as one of the bravest of the Templars.

The political importance of the Argentines reached its height during the Barons’ War, in Giles de Argentine, the elder. He held many high appointments under the king before the war. But after the battle of Lewis, in which King Henry III was defeated and taken prisoner, he joined the rebellious barons, and formed one of the council of nine who governed the realm. His name was affixed to all proclamations. This baron’s eldest son did not do anything very great. He was member of Parliament for Cambs. in 1297. But a younger son, Sir Giles. was one of the chief heroes of the age. Henry of Luxemburg, and Robert Bruce, were the only men of the age who were reckoned his superior in knightly powers. On his return from the Holy Land in 1313 he was taken prisoner near Rhodes, and imprisoned by the Emperor of Constantinople. But our Edward II sent letters to all the Christian Potentates along the Mediterranean, asking that he might be released, as he required his services in the war which he had declared against Scotland. Copies of all these letters are printed in Rymer’s Fædera. Sir Giles was liberated, and accompanied the army to Scotland. At the battle of Bannockburn, when he saw that all was lost, he forced the king away into a place of  safety, and then returned to the fight and to his death.  He had no family, being a Knight of St John. He takes a prominent place in Scott’s “Lord of the Isles.” The glory of the race seems to have died with the knight for they’ made little show afterwards in chivalry or politics. We just read of their being represented at Poitiers and Agincourt, but their time was past. The last male heir died in 1426, and all the estates passed to the Allingtons, with the heiress of William Argentine.

The names of the inhabitants of a village are to be obtained chiefly from taxation rolls. The first for our villages occurs 1327, the first year of the reign of Edward 111. Many of the names are such as we do not meet with now, being perhaps Latinised forms. of nicknames. The next list is about 1333, to which the same remark applies. After this it is two centuries before we meet with any more rolls, and then the names are more intelligible. In the earlier rolls some of the men were named for the situation of their dwelling. For instance, there is John at the Hall, William and Hugh of the Brucke, Margery at the Grene, Hugh and John at the Church, Hugh at the Bery, Waren at the Asch, William on the Moor, and Aldwin at the Cross. The latter is a Saxon name, of which there were not many left at this period. There are many other families who were formerly of great importance in the village, but who are now almost forgotten. Who ever heard of the Gentings or Gemptings? They had considerable possessions in Meldreth in the 14th century, and Layer tells us, that in his time (1632) there was a stained glass window in the North side of the Church, which Roger Gentyng had given. At this time various lands or fields were called after their name (? at present). Another well-to-do family was that of Cavell. They first appear in 1327, afterwards they had Vesey’s Manor. There was a monument to them also in the Church. A knightly family named Paynel held land in Meldreth for many years, and another named Leggatt, gave their name to an estate. Street was another Meldreth name now extinct. A Henry Street of Meldreth was tax collector for Cambs in 1422. Richold and Richer, probably the origin of the present Racher, occur in the 14th century.

Ash, Cooe (there is on the inside wall of the aisle of Meldreth a strange roughly carved shield bearing the inscription “Robert Coe, buried 1589, R. Hutton”) Monyons, Gatward, Slypper, Harvey, and Morley are common names during the Tudor period. The two latter were lessees of the land belonging to the Prior of Ely. Other names which were common two and three centuries ago were Prime, Willmott, Dunham, Letchfield, Metcalfe, Cresswell, Harrison, Brasbone, Pratt, and Belamy.  The owners of most of the manure in these villages had their arms put up in the church. There are not many of these existing now but some are described by Cole in this description of the churches written in 1747, and there are many more in Layer’s list of arms in Cambridgeshire churches compiled in 1632. Layer‘s list was copied and emblazoned by Cole and this copy is in the British Museum. Meldreth Church was much richer in arms than Melbourn Church. In the former (in Layer’s time} in a window on the North side, there were then to be seen three coats of arms, with their bearers, Caldecoat. D’Eschallers, and De la Pole, “all of them kneelinge in complete armour, habited with their arms, and on the other side over against each of them their wives also kneelinge having their husbands arms depicted on their surcoats.” There were besides these the arms of many others, Cavell, Lilly, Mortimer, Harrison, Halfhide (who left 2s. 1r. 36p for poor land in Meldreth), Ayloffe (who endowed the school at Melbourn), Bradston, Marshall, Haseldine, Bury, Pike, Woodcot, Gore, Whally, Cheney, Brown and Argentine. The arms of the latter were three gold cups on a red shield, or as the heralds read it, “Gules, 3 covered caps, or.” The origin of this peculiar coat-of-arms is supposed to have been a custom connected with Wymondley Manor in Herts. The head of the family had to serve the sovereign on Coronation day with a gold cup, which he afterwards claimed as his perquisite. This was continued up to the last century I believe.

And now I am going to speak of the antiquity of some of the families who still remain in the village, and members of some of which are in this room. I hope they will not be offended at the free use which I make of their names. They are only paying the penalty of greatness. For to have lived in the same village since the time of Edward I – 600 years  – confers a certain amount of distinction on a family. I will begin with an ancient family which is still, represented and well-known in this village, that of Newling. In 1327 this family was well established at Melbourn, Richard Newlyn was then head of it, and paid 8d. as the twentieth part of the value of his goods in that year. No taxation rolls being available for two centuries, it is not until 1544 that the name is again found, when John Newling was overseer. In 1567, the Master of Peterhouse let to John Newlyn and his son Alexander, on a lease of 40 years, their mansion place called Wares (probably where Hamond de Ware lived formerly) and a tenement called Pomper’s, with 5 score acres of arable land, for a rent of £4, a quarter of good grey or read wheat, 4 capon, and a dozen of larks at Christmas. In 1571 Richard Newlyn was described as a husbandman. In 1597 Alexander and Michael Newling were taxed. To the free and voluntary gift to his Majesty in 1662, John Newling contributed 2s 6d, and in 1665 the same gentleman paid 4s. for the two firehearths in his house.

The family of the Republican poet, Andrew Marvell were natives of Meldreth. They had been living in this neighbourhood for four centuries before his time. A Warin Merveyle was living at Malton in 1279, and the name occurs in Meldreth less than 50 years later. It occurs very frequently during the 15th century. An Andrew Marvell was baptised at Meldreth Church on Nov. 6th, 1626. This would be about the date of the birth of the celebrated Republican, but he is generally stated to have been born at Hull. The residence of the Marvell family at Meldreth, which twenty years ago was called after them, is now known as “Meldreth Court“.

Hitch occurs at Melbourn first in 1520. It is to be met with in Foulmere nearly a century earlier. In the Armada List of 1583 Walter Hitch, Esq of Melbourn, is stated to have lent £25 to the Government. Their pedigree is given in the Herald’s visitation of Cambs. for 1685, which is printed in the “ Genealogist” for 1879, p.300.

Another old Meldreth family is that of Ingrey. There has been a constant succession of them since 1523. During the 16th and 17th centuries they appear to have been living chiefly at Shepreth, but Meldreth or Melbourn was their original home, and to it they have now returned. In 1453 Warin Ingrith is described as one of the gentry of Meldreth, and in 1665, Thomas Ingrey, gentleman, had five firehearths in his house at Shepreth.

Below are given the dates of the first appearance of some family names of these two villages. William Allen was Churchwarden in 1643, Austen, 1662, William Adams 1433, Nicholas 1444, Barron 1543, Cann 1665, CasboIt 1663, Cooper 1663, Chamberlayn. The appearance of this as a family name in Melbourn may be due to the widow of Lord Allington marrying Sir Robert Chamberlayn in 1509. It occurs first in 1522, when Richard Chamberlayn lent £20 to the King in the loan of that year. In 1546 Joan Chamberlayn left the wood of the grove at the west end of the town to her sons John and Thomas, frequently met with afterwards. Coo was a common name during 3 the 16th century;  Clements occurs in 1526, Course in 1330. Colys, Collop or Collis. was formerly common at Melbourn.  In 1279 Collop at Orwell, and Colys at Shepreth.  In 1327 Collys at Meldreth. Many families there and at Melbourn during next century, still occur at Orwell. Chapman, Edmund Ie C, in 1327, Robert Chapman 1468, still common. Frost 1641, Green 1468, Gosling 1621, Fordham 1543, French 1327, 1603, 1663, Grant a Shepreth family, 1444, 1597, 1660.  Hagger 1663. East 1327, twice, but not afterwards, up to 1665, Huggins, Tryamore H, husbandman, 1511. This peculiar christian name occurs in several generations. There were four distinct families in 1665. Hankyn. common at Meldreth during 14th century. Harnold, Arnold or Hornold, 1520, gave £20 to loan; in 1597 four families, 1621, Hugh Arnold of the West End; Benjamin Arnold gave 5s. towards the Free and Voluntary Present to his Majesty, 1662. Germyn or Jarman 1541, 4 families in 1558, Mumford 1663. Munsey 1663, Miller 1665, Mayer 1663. Norman 1665, Nash 1621, Oliver 1665, Pattman 1665. Payne 1323, Hugh Payn, the carrier, 1340. In 1660 Benjamin Payne gave 10s. towards disbanding the army, and in 1662 John Payne gave 10s. towards the Free and Voluntary present. Smith occurs as a trade name in 1330. In 1662 Thomas Smith gave 5s. towards the Present. Stockbridge is one of the commonest names in the Church register of Melbourn, during 17th century. Sell 1597, Scrooby 1603, Rumbold 1327, Tabraham 1665, Titmus 1603, Waldock 1330, Webb 1327, Ward 1520.   Benjamin Ward gave 5s. towards disbanding Gromwell’s Army.  Wright 1360.

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