Land, Lords and Peasants in Medieval Meldreth 1316-1370
The first written record which tells us something specific about the land and people of Meldreth is the Domesday Book. This lists the number and status of people who were living in the village when the Normans came. There were peasants who possessed varying amounts of land (villagers, smallholders and cottagers), slaves (who possessed none) and also at least ten freemen (known as “sokemen”). Those who were not free owed their allegiance to a variety of Anglo-Saxon lords and ladies including the delightfully named “Edeva the Fair”.
The conquest clarified land ownership to a considerable degree and the answer to the question “who owns the land?” was simple: the King owned all the land. The feudal laws introduced by the Normans meant that all land was now owned by the king and there were strict limits on the freedom allowed to peasants. By 1086 the freemen who had lived in the village in the time of Edward the Confessor had become the victims of this Norman reorganisation and their independent farmlands had disappeared: there were no longer any free peasants in Meldreth.
While the king owned the land he could allocate it to those whom he chose to reward. These were the ‘tenants in chief’. There were around 900 tenants-in-chief in 1086 and only a few of these were English. Interestingly, one of these rare exceptions can be found in Meldreth. A man called Kolsveinn or Colswein was allowed to continue to remain as tenant-in-chief of a small portion of village land together with two cottagers. As the name suggests, he may well have had a Scandinavian origins and been seen by the Normans as somehow distinct from the Anglo-Saxons they had defeated in the Conquest. Kolsveinn also continued to be a major landholder in Lincolnshire with over 50 manors in that shire.
The tenants-in-chief could, in turn, grant land to others, including various lords of manors who repaid this with their loyalty and services. Their land continued to be farmed by tenants and peasants. By the late 11th century ‘slaves’ had become ‘serfs’ (derived from the Latin word ‘servus’ which once meant slave). Over time both serfs and tenants came to enjoy greater security of tenure and gained further rights as English law developed. Manorial courts implemented a mixture of early common law and local variations – the “custom of the manor”. By the 14th century tenants could enjoy greater security of tenure and could, for example, pass land on to their eldest son (subject to the discretion of the lord and payment of a fee).
The snapshot of medieval life in Meldreth given in the court rolls for Topcliffe Manor from 1316 to 1370 illustrates these changes. It shows how the roles of lords, tenants and peasants and their relationships had evolved by the 14th century in Medieval England.
The Serfs of Meldreth: 1316-1370
The Topcliffe manorial court rolls during this period contain many references to people who are described as “serfs”. These are generally defined as agricultural labourers bound by the feudal system that tied them to working the lord’s estate. The rolls for the first time allow us to see individuals and something of their day to day activities. Who were they and what sort of lives did they lead?
While the tenants of Meldreth were people able to own land (subject to providing services and “homage” to the Lord of the Manor) a serf was tied to the land and could not move without the Lords’ permission. Their legal status was low and in early medieval times they were deemed to be owned, much as land and chattels were owned. For example, a judicial opinion in 1240 said that “Earls, barons and free tenants may lawfully sell their serfs like oxen or cows”. However, the court rolls show that as time passed their position had improved – something which was probably linked to an increasing shortage of labour.
In practice, the rolls show that serfs were treated in many respects as equals by their fellow villagers. They could be appointed to certain official roles such as reeve (as was Hugh Hulekot in 1324), had a voice in the leet court and could appear as members of the jury. On the other hand, their status as a ”serf” was noted in the rolls and became particularly important when questions of land or inheritance were involved.
It is hard to say what proportion of the population of Meldreth were serfs but there were certainly a significant number. A list of those specifically identified as such during the period from 1316 to 1370 is given below and identifies some 46 individuals. Some serfs made multiple appearances in the rolls. Gilbert Hulcok, for example, appears on fourteen occasions to be fined for various transgressions. Richard Cagwyne similarly appears six times. It is interesting that many of the villagers not identified as serfs share the same surnames as those with serf status. Since this class status was supposedly hereditary and passed from parents to children this suggests that there was a degree of social movement. Perhaps some members of serf families were allowed to better themselves. There is a suggestion that by the 14th century this process could have been encouraged by lords who found they could make a greater profit from freehold rents than employing serfs to cultivate their demesne.
Although serfs could not own land, they could occupy land loaned or allocated to them. They could even have their own tenants and the rolls have the example of William Caggewyne (a serf) who had a tenant (Reginald Kavel) ”in villeinage”. Serfs were obliged to maintain their holdings and could be fined by the lord if they did not. Thus in 1329 it is reported that “John Fryday has not repaired his tenement in serf tenure” and as a consequence was fined 6d.
While serfs could not own land they seemed remarkably willing to behave as though they did. Occasionally they were caught out as was Hugh Hulcok (serf) who in 1332 purchased as a freeholding a house with half an acre of land and then granted it by charter to his son, John. The lord of the manor was informed and claimed a 3/- fine. In 1340 Hugh again purchased three roods of land which he sold to another serf, John Kagewyn “without licence”. He was fined 6d. William Cagwyne (serf) was not so lucky. In 1341 he sold one rood of freehold land to John de Chesewyk (1341) but when detected these were “confiscated and taken into the lord’s hands”.
There are many other similar examples of serfs attempting to act with little restraint. In 1329, John Fryday transferred one rood of land in ‘North feld’ to Robert Collop for two crops “without licence”. He did same in 1337 transferring one acre in the fields of ‘Meldebourne’ to Walter de Caldecote and Katherine his wife. In 1338 he transferred the crop of one acre of land to John Baldok “without licence”.
The value and importance of land was high; whether a serf technically owned his land or not he would still do all he could to protect it. For example in 1325 Gilbert Hulcok (serf) was possessive enough to end up being fined 3d for concealing the boundary between himself and Geoffrey Pumpe “for half a foot”. He was told to correct it and fined 3d.
Apart from landholding, there were other restrictions on what serfs could do. For example they had to pay an annual fine called ‘capitage’ if they lived in a place not owned by their lord. However, the fine was never a heavy one. For example in 1322 “Gilbert Hulcok, serf, came to an agreement with the lord for six capons, giving one capon p.a. to the lord for capitage, until the lord should give him a tenement where he might be received into the fee above bondage.” Also in the same year “William Tugge, serf, made an agreement with the lord for one capon, to be paid at Christmas for capitage”.
The low value of the fine – one capon each year – suggests that the real purpose was not to gain income but was symbolic and designed to keep alive the lord’s claim on his serf, which might otherwise be forgotten as time passed.
Another restraint on the actions of a serf arose on the marriage of one of their children. Permission was required and fees due to the lord – or a fine if this was ignored. In 1322 Hugh Hulcok married his daughter Isabel to John Laverne “outside the fee of the lord” and was fined 6d. And in 1339 Matilda Passon gave a substantial 40d fine for the marriage of her daughter Alice.
The rolls give an impression that while the lord was keen to maintain his feudal rights, the serfs increasingly felt the need to push against them. This is not only true of landholding but also in the day to day unfree labour tasks that were required of them. An example which is typical of many entries in the rolls is one from 1332 which notes that “William Tugh and Hugh Passon, serfs, did not come to perform their service”. They were fined 6d but it is not clear how and when this was collected. Perhaps underlying these entries is a resentment which was building and culminated in the peasants’ revolt of 1381. It is significant that during this revolt John de Topcliffe (lord of Topcliffe manor) was forced to flee due to threats from the rebels. Was this the point which heralded a period of greater freedom for the serfs of Meldreth?
A List of the Serfs of Meldreth mentioned in the Topcliffe Manorial Court Rolls during the period 1316 – 1370
William Friday (son of Geoffrey)
John Fryday (2)
Gilbert Hulcok (14)
Hugh Hulcok (6)
William Hulcok (son of Hugh) (3)
John Hulcok (son of John) (3)
Philip Hulcok (son of John)
William Cagwyne (5)
Richard Cagwyne (6)
Mabil Cagwyne (2)
William Pumpe (son of John)
John Fleming (2)
Hugh Fleming (2)
William Fleming (son of Hugh) (2)
Matilda Passon (daughter of Nicholas)
William Tug (Tog or Tugh) (3)
John Hulstre de Royston
John Michel (2)
John Plover (2)
John de Gentying
Figure in brackets shows number of times names appear in rolls.
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Topcliffe Manor Calendar of Court Rolls, IA H1/ST/K15/4. Held by London Metropolitan Archives.