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It was in January 1066 that Harold Godwinsson, Earl of Wessex, was crowned King Harold II of England, despite the rival claims of both Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and William, Duke of Normandy. In May 1066,  Harold mustered his knights and a peasant army to defend against the expected Norman invasion. However, throughout the summer the winds were against William, and the invasion failed to  materialise, and in September the militia was stood down. Within days news came that Harold, King of Norway had landed in the north. Hurrying north, King Harold's forces surprised and defeated the invaders at Stamford Bridge, east of York on 25 September. On 28 September William, Duke of Normandy landed at Pevensey. King Harold swiftly made his way south raising new forces on route, and finally faced William outside Hastings on 14 October. The battle continued all day, finally ending with the death of King Harold. Initially the English Earls gave the throne to Prince Edgar, the 13 year old heir to the Anglo-Saxon dynasty; however, within a few weeks both the Earls and Prince Edgar capitulated to William. Despite the decisiveness of his victory, William moved cautiously, taking control of the West Saxon capital of Winchester before entering London. He was crowned on Christmas Day 1066 by Ealdred, Archbishop of York, in Westminster Abbey. William's hold on England remained precarious throughout his reign. He dealt ruthlessly with a series of uncoordinated rebellions in 1068. Devon and Cornwall were put down first, but the fighting in the west Midlands and in Yorkshire proved much more severe. William's response was the ferocious "Harrying of the North" in 1069-1070, and the results were still visible nearly 20 years later at the Domesday survey when estate after estate in Yorkshire is recorded as producing no revenue in 1085, because the land was largely uncultivated waste. It took another four years for William to subdue the whole of England, thereby completing the Norman Conquest.

On the eve of the Norman Conquest, most of England, including Devon, was a land of hamlets and farmhouses, with the community already established in a pattern of settlement and land-use that is still recognisable to the present day. Although the term "manor" came with the Conquest, it is believed that a similar manorial system was already in place.

From the earliest times for which we have records, the normal type of peasant holding was the 'yardland or virgate'. This consisted of about 30 acres, scattered in strips. The substitution of the long, narrow strips for the rectangular Celtic fields is attributed to improvements in ploughshare design and larger teams of oxen. The virgate represented the amount of land that could be ploughed in a day, so varied from place to place, according to the soil and topography. These virgates were never divided among heirs, always going to the eldest son, therefore second and third sons had to find a living as cottars or serfs tenanting their master's cottage, with about 5 acres, in return for set days of work on the demesne, and hiring themselves out as day labourers (journee men) to villeins for a living.

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Against his lord, the villein had few, it any, rights. The lord owned his or her body and could do as he pleased. But a villein was not a complete slave, as he did own land and could enjoy the produce of that land and pass it on, with whatever dwelling he may have constructed, at his will. Besides his land holdings, the villein would share with his lord the common holdings of meadow and waste, have rights of pasture and messuage (homestead), surrounded by a toft, or farmyard. What he couldn't escape was his responsibility to the lord under his villeinage. To that extent, villeins were still serfs.

The cottage tenant, cottar, occupied a lower place in the manorial hierarchy. The terms cottars and bordars are interchangeable. They were most often recruited from the younger sons of villeins. They usually had a holding of just 5 acres for their own survival. They usually worked for the lord one day a week. Their usual service was ploughing, using their own oxen. Cottars worked for hire on other days on the lord's demesne or those of villeins. Besides this, there were still slaves, who had no rights at all.

William was equally concerned to exercise control over the Church, one of the most important landowners. Again much of the existing senior clergy was removed, and replaced by Normans and others allies of the Kings under the leadership of Lanfranc, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070 to 1089. One visible sign of these changes was the massive building programme in which many of old cathedrals, churches, and monasteries were demolished and rebuilt using the latest architectural styles from France, including Normandy. This building program went right down to parish level as Norman lords used their new wealth to either rebuild, or create new parish churches in thanks for their new found success.

With the Normans victory in 1066, all the existing land ownership changed, although the only details we have are derived from the Domesday Book of 1086. This documents the wholesale replacement of the previous landed Saxon gentry, who, assuming that they were still alive, found themselves dispossessed and replaced by Normans and other allies of King William. The remarkably few English landowners who still held estates directly from the king as tenants-in-chief had been required to surrender their land to William before he re-granted it to them. To the agricultural labourers in their varying degrees of servitude, the only noticeable difference would be that their Lord now spoke French rather than English.

In 1085, King William I ordered a thorough survey of England to take place to find out who owned what throughout the country, and consequently, how much each manor owed in tax. Also, because the information was on record, nobody would be able to dispute or argue against a tax demand. For this reason the book brought a great deal of doom and gloom to the people of England, and hence the name, "Domesday Book". In conducting the survey, every manor was visited and the reeve and six peasants were questioned in every instance. The survey was considered so thorough that one Englishman wrote:

"So thoroughly did William have the enquiry carried out, that there was not a single piece of land, not even an ox, cow or pig which escaped the notice of the survey."

The first draft was completed in August 1086 and contained records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees. This showed that landholding was based firmly on a rigid social hierarchy called the feudal system, imposed in England by William the Conqueror following his successful 1066 conquest. Rather than being owned, land was granted by the king to tenants-in-chief, who were usually lords or members of the Church, in return for their assistance in the Norman Conquest. Next came under-tenants who held land from the tenants-in-chief, and so it continued with the bottom of the ladder being occupied by peasants - villagers, bordars and cottars - who earned their opportunity to hold a small amount of land by working on the land of the lordship, and slaves, who held no land.

Norman Line

William I, the Conqueror (1066-87)
William II, Rufus (1087-1100)
Henry I, Beauclerc (1100-35)
Stephen (1135-54)

House of Plantagenet

Henry II, 1154-1189
Richard I, 1189-1199
John, 1199-1216

Physically eleventh century Witheridge would have been largely recognizable to us. The valleys and hills had been carved out of the frozen ice age wilderness, and the River Dart flowed through the parish just as it does today, although its banks would certainly have been more heavily wooded. Indeed the woods would have echoed with the sounds of snuffling pigs and the calls of the swineherd, for it was here that the pigs were kept, feeding off acorns and whatever else they could find. Here and there, smoke would have been rising from the simple houses made of mud walls and thatched roofs. Perhaps the richest farms in the area were built of stone, but it is likely that only the village church was built in this way. Here, surrounded by vivid wall paintings, on Sundays and holy days the vicar, probably the only person in the parish who could read or write, would deliver his warnings of hell fire for those who sinned and promises of paradise for those who performed their daily tasks well. There would have been little sign of "heaven on earth" for the villagers. Their lives would have consisted of endless toil, from childhood to grave, with little reward apart from enough food to make sure they could go to work the next day.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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