A little village with a lot of history....

Somerton’s Farmers 1279 – 1734

Somerton’s Farmers  1279 – 1734 

Deborah Hayter

In 1279 John Cole, ‘villanus’, held one yardland of land in Somerton; he held it from Robert de Grey, and paid 44d each year for it;  it was recorded that he was due to work (operabitur); he would be tallaged (taxed);  and he would pay a fine for his children to leave the manor.[1]  Hugh the Reeve also held one yardland for the same payments and services, and after him all the rest of Somerton’s farmers were listed, each of whom held half a yardland for an annual payment of 22d and similar services. Lastly the free tenants (liberi) were listed, with the lands that they held, together with the rather more random payments and services that they owed in return.

This extraordinary level of detail for such a relatively minor and insignificant place as Somerton came about because of Edward 1’s desire for information about the diversion or loss of possible Crown income.  In 1274-75 he commanded that the operation of local government through the hundreds be investigated, and in 1278 all holders of franchises, such as the right to hold courts and markets, and the right to hunt (known as the right of free warren), were made to justify their claims at Quo Warranto enquiries.[2]    The results, along with enquiries into who held land from whom, and for what, were written up in a series of rolls, known as the Hundred Rolls.  They do not cover the whole country, and survive only for parts of Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Warwickshire;  Oxfordshire is the most complete, covering every hundred except Binfield and Bloxham.[3]  

Unlike the Domesday Book, which in many ways this later investigation resembles, the Hundred Rolls listed all the information geographically, place by place, and gave much more detail, down to the names of the peasants who were actually tilling the soil.  The operation of the feudal system is laid out for us here, and as in the Domesday Book, it is made clear at every stage who holds what land and from whom.  The word ‘holds’ is important (in Latin, teneo, tenere, hence ‘tenant’ and ‘tenement’):  legally no-one except the king owned land, and everyone else held land in return for something – loyalty, soldiery, services, money. From the greatest magnate down to the lowly peasant plodding behind his plough, there was a quid pro quo for every piece of land.

So we see in Somerton that the two lords, Robert de Gray and William de Gardinis ( the manor was divided)  held directly from the King and had to find three knights to guard Dover Castle.[4]  They were also bound to attend the county court when it met at Oxford once a year and each had the right to hold a View of Frankpledge and take the profits from it.[5]  Those were their obligations, and for that service they had (as well as their lordship of the manor) a protected fishery on the River Cherwell, the advowson of the church, and ‘in demesne’ four carucates of land, with meadow and adjacent pasture.[6]  The word ‘carucate’ is more usual in the Danelaw than in Oxfordshire, but is equivalent to the hide, the fiscal unit (of taxation) most often used in Domesday Book.  Each carucate was probably equivalent to four yardlands.

After the two lords, their rights and their obligations, the ‘villani’ are listed, beginning with John Cole, as above.  The Latin villanus means an inhabitant of the vill, the equivalent of the OE tunsman.  I have deliberately not used the word ‘villein’ here as that implies serfdom, and it can be argued that these were no longer serfs in any very servile sense.  Lawyers were building up the common law at this period and they made an absolute distinction in law between the ‘free’ and the ‘unfree’, but in practice the relationship between lord and unfree, or customary, tenant was regulated at the local level by the manorial court, which was governed by custom.  In common law the unfree had no rights whatsoever against their lord, ‘saving only life and limb’, but manorial and estate documents show that custom protected against the lord’s whim, and as the thirteenth century progressed rentals and custumals specified ever more carefully exactly what the tenants’ obligations customarily were.[7]   The peasant was tied to his land, but the land was also tied to him by custom.  Many of the restrictions on the tenant’s freedom, such as the freedom to marry, migrate, be educated, or buy or sell property, were in effect financial burdens and could be bought, and substitutes could be paid to perform labour services.

Returning to the Somerton ‘villani’, who were ‘unfree’ by law: though the record states that they would work, yet they were all paying a money rent for their land,  and it is not specified what those works would be.  In other places in Oxfordshire the works are described in much more detail – ploughing, reaping, carrying for a certain number of days, and so on.  Even where such services are described,  it is clear from other records that they were not necessarily being performed, and it is probable that all the Somerton labour services had in fact been commuted to a money rent.  Paying a fine for children to leave the manor was a relic of feudal tenure which was presumably hung on to by the lords as it was a source of income.

After the twenty-five unfree tenants, the fourteen free tenants were listed, the first of whom was the Abbot of Eynsham, with three yardlands, which were sublet to a member of the lord Gardinis’ family.  There was much land given to monasteries at this time, and the abbot held the land ‘in pure and perpetual alms’:  his obligations were to prayer and good works.  Hugo de Brok held two yardlands in return for a pair of gilded spurs each year;  this seems odd, but not so odd as some other local payments – in Middle Aston and Steeple Aston the Hundred Rolls record payments of a rose at midsummer, a pound of cumin, one clove, and a pair of gloves.[8]  More generally throughout the Hundred Rolls the payments of the free tenants are often things that they would have to buy.  The last seven tenants listed all had specific responsibilities for attending the hundred court and the county court when each met twice per year.

Some of the Somerton names appeared more than once – that is, they were the tenants of more than one holding.  John Cole held a half-yardland further down the list from his main holding of one yardland, and Hugh the son of the Reeve is listed among the free tenants although his father is second in the list of the villani.  So it was complicated, and there was a great deal of sub-letting going on.  Two major studies of the thirteenth century attempted to make sense of the information given in the Hundred Rolls; both concluded (amongst a lot of other things) that there was no such thing as a ‘typical manor’ and that the development and disintegration of the feudal system had left an infinite variety of local customs and patterns.[9]  Sandra Raban pointed out that many complicated tenures had to be reduced to succinct descriptions for the written record, and there was a possibility that many small sub-tenancies were oversimplified or left out completely.  She gave as an example Islip, near Oxford, where a rental dated soon after 1279 listed ninety-one customary tenants as opposed to the sixty-nine in the Hundred Rolls.[10]

Including the two lords and the Abbot (none of whom would have been getting their own hands dirty), there were forty farmers in Somerton in 1279, and they were farming between them forty-eight yardlands.   The largest holdings were of eight yardlands each (the lords’ demesnes) and the smallest were half a yardland, but they were all working alongside each other in the same open-field system.  Each yardland had strips in every furlong right round the system, and the whole arable area was divided into two or possibly three great fields.  With three fields one would be sown with winter grain, one in spring with peas, beans and some spring cereals, and the third would be left fallow to recover its fertility and to provide grazing for the  farmers’ animals, assembled in great communal flocks and herds.  The yardlands included only the arable land, but each had, as of right, ‘appurtenances’, which would be a share in the village’s hay meadow and in any common pasture.[11] The end of the thirteenth century was a time of increased population and great land hunger, so it is likely that the village lands were being ploughed to their maximum extent.  Where ridge-and-furrow survives in large amounts (always a signifier of medieval arable), we can see the land laid out in ridges and in strips right up to the boundary of the township.

This was all regulated by the farmers themselves, meeting at the Court Leet, electing a jury and setting out the bye-laws for the coming season.  The system could only work if all the animals were herded together to graze; if similar harvests were sown and cropped;  if all the haymeadow was mown at the same time.  There is a record of Somerton Court Leet in 1482, when it was recorded that some houses were ruinous:  they were to be repaired otherwise fines would be payable;  Richard Scrowe had let Somerham mill flood the meadow and the road, and he would be fined 30s if he did not amend it.  In 1527 it was ordered ‘by the whole homage that no tenant permit his horses to go at large in the common field before the end of autumn under a penalty for each of them making default for each horse, 12d’;  in 1530 ‘it was ordered in the last court …..that every tenant should sufficiently repair and scour his hedges and ditches …under a penalty of 40d.’[12]   Later in the sixteenth century the court records show that no-one was above the necessity of complying with the communal will, as in 1566 ‘the jurors (say) upon their oath that Thomas Fermor (gent), Thos Rond, Robert Kylbie (and four others) have lopped certain trees called ashes, contrary to the custom of the manor aforesaid.  Therefore they submit themselves into the hands of the lord’.  They were fined 2d for each tree.  At this stage Elizabeth Fermor, widow, was the lord of the manor and Thomas presumably her son.  Two years later Thomas Fermor (gentleman) was taken to task because he had two water mills ‘and took excessive toll’.

In 1573 the ‘Court of the Supervisor’ was held, when Thomas Fermor had become the lord, and all the tenants had to present themselves with the evidence of title to their holdings, generally a copy of the relevant court roll.  The forty farmers of 1279 had been reduced to seventeen: Henry Tredwell now had five and a half yardlands (possibly 125 to 150 acres), there were three farms of three or three and a quarter yardlands, with the rest mostly of one or two, except for William Poynter and Richard Smyth each of whom laid claim to a cottage and a ‘quartern of land’, presumably about five to eight acres.

We know that William Fermour (sic) enclosed eighty acres of arable and turned it over to pasture for sheep and other animals in 1512.[13]  This must have been in one consolidated block of demesne, as it does not appear to have affected the general working of the open fields.  We get more information about Somerton’s farming in the seventeenth century from a document of 1634, a very full glebe terrier, found in Oxford Diocesan records. Every time the Archdeacon or the Bishop made a visitation, the parson and churchwardens had to draw up a terrier to record everything that belonged to the church in that parish.[14]  Sometimes these terriers list church furnishings and give details about the parsonage house, but mainly they focus on the glebe land, the income of which supported the parish priest.  In an open-field system, the parson’s land was scattered, like the other farmers, right round the system, so the only way to record it, in the absence of a competent map, was to map it verbally, giving the location of each strip in each furlong and with the names of the neighbours on each side.  (For example:  ‘In the Wheate feild lying towards Frittwell moore…..  Item in Ridge furlong one acre butting into Oxford Way East Robert Apletree North Widdow ffox South’.)  We can’t tell from this how many other farmers there were, but we can tell that in 1634 the land was organized into four fields:  ‘the Wheate feild lying towards Frittwell moore’; ‘the second feild butting on the south side Ardeley way’; ‘the third feild adioyning to the way leading to Bister South being at the townes end’; and ‘the fourth feild lying on the south side Bister way’.  There was also an area of ‘furze land’, for gathering fuel, divided into plots one of which went with the parson’s land, some ‘sward ground’, or what we might call permanent pasture, again divided into lots, and very importantly, the hay meadow, a share of which also belonged to the glebe land.

So the rest of the farmers had followed William Fermour in grassing down some of their ploughland, though it looks as if they had not enclosed all of their new pasture into separate plots.  The conversion of arable to pasture was happening everywhere from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and a later glebe terrier of 1734 shows that in Somerton even more was down to pasture at the beginning of the eighteenth.  The parson’s land was described in quite a different way:  he now had ‘eight cows commons with a bull’; ‘five Lammas commons for horses or cows’, and ‘ninety-seven sheep commons’. His arable acres were also described as before, but much reduced in number, and the cows and sheep commons were an expression of his rights in the common pasture, the equivalent to his former strips of ploughland.  Over the years the collective decision of the farmers must have been that Somerton did grass best and that they would all do better if they concentrated on grazing, so they had grassed down many of the furlongs, but without dividing and enclosing them into individual allotments.

Arthur Young described Oxfordshire’s open-field farmers as ‘Goths and Vandals’;  ‘dark ignorance under the covert of wise suspicions……the old open-field school must die off before new ideas can become generally rooted’.[15]  Like Arthur Young, many of the proponents of enclosure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wrote about open-field farmers as though they were still stuck in the middle ages (and many historians of enclosure have done the same since).  But we can see that the farmers of Somerton had moved with the times and had reacted to the markets – this was a long way from subsistence farming.  There were fewer, bigger farms, which would have been employing at least some of  the landless cottagers, and though the village farmland was still in open-field and a prime candidate for enclosure by Parliamentary Act (which happened in 1765) much of it was turned over to pasture: it was a very long way from the forty peasant farmers of the Somerton of 1279.


The names given in the Hundred Rolls entry for Somerton are as follows:

Holding the vill from the Lord King in chief:  Robert de Gray and William de Gardinis



John Cole

Hugh the Reeve

John Alexander

William Alexander

Thomas the Nywenian

Robert Muchelman

Richard Pestel

William the Gardiner

Walter Caperun

Robert Punch

Alexander Pestel

Margaret/Margery Prestes

Walter Coleman

William of Dene

Robert Brun

Ralph at the Well

Bartholomew Carpenter

William Bonde

William Rys

William Ginner

William Lovel

John Walter

John Goze

Roger le Burs

Hugh le Ginner



Free tenants:


Abbot of Eynsham – 3 yardlands let to Ralph de Gardinis

Hugo de Brok

Hugh son of the Reeve

William of Rucote

Hugh of Finmere

William de Covingtre


Simon son of (?)

Johanna de Brok

William le Smech

Richard Peri/Pari

John Sclici

Roger the Acreman

Thomas de Ledwell

William Cok



Primary sources

Rotuli Hundredorum, 2 vols,  Record Commission (1812 – 1818)

Somerton Court records from The Reports and Transactions of the Oxfordshire Archaeological Society (1906)

Evidence to Wolsey’s commission of 1517:  I.S. Leadam, The Domesday of Inclosures, Vol.1, London (1897)

Somerton Glebe Terriers: Oxfordshire Record Office, Oxf.Archd. Oxon b.41, ff.101-2, f.108, f.99.


Secondary Sources

John Hatcher, ‘English Serfdom & Villeinage:  towards a reassessment’, in Past & Present, 90 (1991)..

G.C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, USA & London,  (1941).

E.A Kosminsky, Studies in the Agrarian History of England in the Thirteenth Century,  Oxford (1956).

Sandra Raban,,  A Second Domesday? The Hundred Rolls of 1279-80, OUP (2004).

Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of Oxfordshire (1813) reprinted Devon (1969), pp 35-36.



Deborah Hayter – author and Latin translator

published here with the permission of Cake and Cockhorse, Journal of

Banbury Historical Society, Vol. 19 No. 5 (Spring 2014).


Somerton Glebe Terriers (photos Deborah Hayter)

published with the permission of Somerton PCC and The Oxfordshire

History Centre.



[1] Rotuli Hundredorum, 2 vols,  Record Commission (1812 – 1818), Somerton entries translated from the Latin by Deborah Hayter.  A ‘yardland’ was the basic unit of  farming in the medieval open-field system, very variable in area from place to place, but usually c. 25 – 30 acres.

[2] The hundreds are subdivisions of the shire (south of the Danelaw) and go back to 10th century local administration.  They may originally have been based on a hundred hides, a hide being a fiscal unit of taxation.

[3] It is not known whether the enquiries were ever undertaken or completed for other counties: see Sandra Raban, A Second Domesday? The Hundred Rolls of 1279-80, OUP (2004).

[4] Dover Castle seems to have no connection with Somerton but castle-guard duties at Dover were also found elsewhere in the Midlands and in Suffolk;  N.G.Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales, Cambridge (1991), pp 46-7.

[5] The ‘View of Frankpledge’ was the medieval system of mutual responsibility for law-keeping, when all male householders were ‘viewed’ to see that they were part of a ‘tithing’ or group of 10 or 12 who were responsible for each other’s good behaviour.  Later View of Frankpledge became synonymous with Court Leet, the manorial court which dealt with petty law and order and the administration of  open-field agriculture.

[6] The advowson of the church meant that they had the right to appoint whom they wanted to the living;  their land ‘in demesne’ (Latin in domenico, literally ‘in lordship’) was the land that was in their own hands;  in later centuries this would be called the Home Farm.

[7] See John Hatcher, ‘English Serfdom & Villeinage:  towards a reassessment’, in Past & Present, 90 (1991) pp 7 -8.

[8] Rotuli Hundredorum, 2 vols,  Record Commission (1812 – 1818), Middle and Steeple Aston entries translated from the Latin by Deborah Hayter.

[9] G.C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, USA & London,  (1941);  E.A Kosminsky, Studies in the Agrarian History of England in the Thirteenth Century,  Oxford (1956).

[10] Raban, A Second Domesday?  p. 127.

[11] For a fuller explanation of how the open-field system worked, see D. Hall, Medieval Fields,  Shire Publications (1982).

[12] From The Reports and Transactions of the Oxfordshire Archaeological Society (1906);  this contains a collection of transcriptions from Somerton court records, mainly of the 16th century.  The whereabouts of the originals is not known.

[13] Wolsey’s Commission of 1517-18 looked into enclosure, particularly ‘depopulating enclosure’;  I.S. Leadam, The Domesday of Inclosures, Vol.1, London  (1897) pp.348-349.

[14] Oxfordshire Record Office, Oxf.Archd. Oxon b.41, ff.101-2, f.108, f.99.

[15] Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of Oxfordshire (1813) reprinted Devon (1969), pp 35-36.

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