STANSTEAD – AN ABANDONED VILLAGE?

by Ron Dale

Harold Godwinson


In September, 1066, peasants of our ancient village would have been busy working the land we still tread today. According to the Domesday Survey of 20 years later there were 36 households in the manor which could be estimated to a population of about 120 to 150 people, plus we had a priest and two slaves. We now know that the church of St. James at Stanstead Bury was commenced circa 1060, although it was a much smaller church than now. The font is 13th century on a 15th century pedestal and as only parish churches could perform baptisms, we know this was our local parish church at that time. But where was the parish?   Because of the Roman site of Stanstead Bury and the location there of the church, we must assume that a community would live nearby.  We can never know the location of these 36 households, although we do know that some houses existed on the Easneye estate  as Sir Simon de Stanstede lived in the 12th century in a house in Alwine’s Frith on the high plain above Little Briggens Farm (According to The Early Charters of Waltham Abbey). As this area bears the name of our Saxon lord Alwine Gottone, he also may have lived there; he certainly owned it as did the later Norman manorial lords.

    On 25th September the recently crowned King Harold had just defeated the Norwegian Vikings at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in their bid to take the throne. Some of our local villagers may have been recruited for this battle as Harold’s base at Waltham Holy Cross is only a few miles away and this was his land.   He and his battle-weary soldiers were making the 200-mile trek back to the South when news arrived that William of Normandy had invaded with a massive army of infantry, archers and cavalry. The invaders had landed at Pevensey in Sussex and were already assembling a pre-constructed wooden castle.  And the disastrous battle which ensued is too well-known to be repeated here. Afterwards Stanestede peasants would still be working the land, but for different masters; but for England, this was probably the most important change in our history. Most land was taken away from the Anglo-Saxon owners and given to French-speaking strangers. For the landed gentry, this was disaster, and here again, men of Stanestede may have taken part and lost their lives in battle.

     Stanestede is the village name in the Domesday Book, meaning a place of stones, probably due to the widespread gravel deposits. In the 12th century when the village passed into the hands of the abbot of Waltham Abbey, property transfers in subsequent charters were in Latin and there we became Stanstede Abbatis, or in English, Stanstead Abbotts. The problem facing local historians today is that villages were rarely featured on  early maps and we have no way of knowing if there was a settlement of some kind at Stanstead Bury, in addition to the church and possibly a large house, the forerunner of the manor house we know today. However   common-sense dictates that they would not build a church where there was no community living nearby and there is evidence that the site we know as Stanstead Bury has been occupied as early as Roman times and probably long before that. It has a dominating position on the hilltop overlooking the Stort and Lea valleys and it has a salubrious chalybeate spring still bubbling away today. In Victorian times the house became a successful spa for the rich who wished to take the water cure. In the Domesday Book mention is made of a 4th century Roman pavement and it has been suggested that the current manor house is sited on top of a Roman villa. Roman tiles and bricks are to be found in the walls of St. James church. Today the mansion and the area are known as Stanstead Bury, the home of Mr. & Mrs. Jonathan Trower and it has out-buildings and a working farm, in addition to the retired church. In any period of history, such a site would have attracted residents.


      Stanstead Abbotts is recorded in two books listing abandoned medieval villages of Hertfordshire. No specific reason is given for individual villages being abandoned, but a list of reasons is offered. Climate change is one reason, where horrendous crop failures caused people to leave the land and gravitate towards larger towns for alternative employment. Another good reason was the spate of plagues which decimated the population severely in the 14th century, sometimes wiping out half the population.

    The evidence for some kind of settlement near the church is strong. In spite of this, local historians do not all agree on the existence of an ancient village up on the hilltops a mile or so distant from the modern High Street. There is no archaeological evidence of an early hamlet at Stanstead Bury, mainly due to the widespread gravel diggings which have been done in the fields between Stanstead Bury and Roydon village.  On the other hand, we do not have any idea when the first houses appeared on our High Street. There is to-date no evidence of any kind before the 16th century, and this only due to the building of the Red Lion Inn in the late 15th century when it was only a single-storey building ‘of the manor house style’ according to English Heritage. The inn shows a 16th century date on the outside of the building which is possibly the date it became an inn with an upper storey and bedrooms added. However the Red Lion is some distance from the river on a slightly elevated site where floodwater does not normally reach.  We know from 12th century records that after the bridge was built across the Lea between St. Margarets (then Thele) and Stanstead Abbotts, a grain store existed near the bridge for ‘the men of London’ who were already coming up the river to buy the superior barley from the three towns of Stanstead, Ware and Hertford. The grain was being taken to the large London breweries, and this trade gradually increased over the centuries, especially when these three towns began malting their grain. The signs were there already for some kind of building to commence near the bridge, once it was safe from flooding to do so. Certainly by the 1600s we would have the beginnings of a High Street with perhaps two or three inns and a few maltings with a corn/hay merchant and a blacksmiths for passing travellers. We know there were shops in the High Street by the 18th century (see on this site my Stanstead in the 18th century).  The malting trade built up busy barge traffic on the Lea which became the highway for malted barley for London and some local breweries. Malting soon became the main industry of Stanstead Abbotts and Ware, and Hertford had its own breweries. With the beginning of the malting industry and the brewing in Hertford, this offered an alternative to living half-starved on a plot of hilltop land. But there is a belief that the site of our High Street was once a swampy marshland before work began on taming the river and altering its course. This is the other side of the discussion on which agreement cannot be reached.

    The safe building of High Street property depended on the conduct of the river Lea.  Personally, I feel that most people would avoid living in areas liable to regular flooding – and our river has a reputation for doing this and even more so in past centuries.  I do not believe that any housing appeared at the riverside of our High Street until about the 16th century. Improvements to the river flooding have been ongoing for centuries but the High Street is still a little affected even today.  We have no facts to show the date when houses first appeared in our High Street. Additionally there are several small streams which still flow under the High Street and which occasionally remind us of their presence by bursting through the tarmac. The very detailed Tithe Map of 1840 shows these, but in 1066 we do not know where the course of the river flowed.   

  

    The Domesday Survey of 1086 shows that the Stanestede entry was divided into four sections. The facts  are interesting and helpful in our quest:


1. Taxable value 17.5 geld units (about 17.5 hides) Payment to lord 1066 £20. In 1086 £17. Woodland for 100 pigs, 16 ploughlands, 2 lord’s ploughlands.

30 households, 4 Villagers, 2 slaves, 1 priest (named as Peter on another translation), 5 cottagers, 5 others (foreigners), 7 burgesses.

Lords in 1066: Alwine Gottone, Eskil of Ware, Lords in 1086: Ranulf, brother of Ilger, Tenant-in-Chief: Ranulf. This is by far the largest area of the village and may have been fairly concentrated on the higher land such as at Stanstead Bury, especially noting this is where the priest lived and the existence of the church there.

 2.  4 households: Ploughlands 0.89, woodland for 8 pigs. Lord in 1066 Gothmund, Overlord King Edward. Tenant in Chief-in-1086 Gothmund. This is only a small parcel of land which may explain why Gothmund, a Saxon, was not usurped from his land, an unusual event.

3.    0.5 geld unit (another small area of land, about half a hide. 1 household, 1  Cottager (un-named), Lord in 1066 Bettica, Wulwin of Eastwick’s man, Tenant-in-Chief 1086 Geoffrey de Bec.


4.    0.1 geld unit (about one tenth hide), meadow and woodland for one pig! Lord in 1066 1 Freeman (un-named). Lord in 1086 1 Freeman, Tenant-in-Chief 1086 Geoffrey de Mandeville.


ALWINE GOTTONE


The Saxon lord of Stanestede was Alwine Gottone, with various spellings (Alwin, Godtone etc.) As can be seen in the Domesday Survey, he did not own all the land, but he also held Roydon, Nazeing, Hunsdon, North Weald, Ayot St. Lawrence, Harlow and Great Parndon. As there were several thegns called Alwine in the Domesday Book, his name is always linked to the words Gottone or Godtone. I have searched most ancient languages and place names, but have been unsuccessful in discovering the meaning of this word describing our Alwine.  However, I did find one reference to it which claims it to be a synonym of the word Goth. No citation was given for this, however.  One subculture of the Goths survived as late as the 18th century in the area of Crimea, but most were early absorbed, either by the Roman Empire or the Huns. Alwine’s Frith is discussed elsewhere on this web-site and is believed to be where he may have lived in the 11th century. This is the only plot of land named after a Saxon lord in our village.  It is only due to the existence of the Domesday Survey that we know the names of Alwine and Ranulf as land-owners for 1066 and 1086.

 

RANULF, BROTHER OF ILGER


The first Norman lord of Stanestede was Ranulf, brother of Ilger. Unfortunately we know very little about him. He was an important thegn of William the Conqueror with many estates in the South East including manors in Hertfordshire, Essex, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. Because there were several Norman knights named Ranulf, he was identified by his brother’s name, Ilger, who was the tutor of King William’s son Robert, thus making  identification easier (Ranulf frater Ilgeri).  It is not known with certainty where Ranulf had his caput (seat) as his estates were very widespread, but he did have a cluster near each other in our locality and in nearby Essex taken over from Alwine. This suggests that Stanstead, being the largest manor at the time, could have been his caput.  Additionally his wife was the niece of Ralph Taillebois, once lord of Hunsdon, who brought with her dowry a parcel of land in Hunsdon.  Ranulf was Sheriff of Huntingdonshire from 1092 to his death in 1100. As he is mentioned as having 88 estates in the Domesday Book, he must have been a man of considerable wealth.

    When I was a young boy at school we learnt of the brave warrior, Earl Harold Godwinson, popular with all who knew him and second to Robin Hood, he became my childhood hero. When I learnt that William of Normandy was responsible for Harold’s death and the theft of his kingdom, I never forgave him for this. Still haven’t. We do, however, have William to thank for arranging the 1086 Survey. Of course it was formulated purely for taxation purposes, but it did leave behind for all generations a record of people and places which is invaluable today. Sadly, only the land-owners were named. If we can imagine thirty-six households spread around our modern village, this would give us some idea of how thinly populated the village was.


     The Domesday Survey does help the question of a hilltop settlement in one respect. In my opinion the 30 households of section 1 of the survey suggest a settlement of this size at or near Stanstead Bury, but this is only an opinion.          The record shows section 1 was owned by the Saxon lord Alwine and Askil of Ware, so this section could also include land adjacent to Ware at Easneye, where we know Alwine had property. (Alwine’s Frith). We must also remember that in this section Peter the priest was included as a resident, plus the two slaves. These slaves would have been owned by a high-ranking person (the lord of the manor) and the priest would certainly have lived near the church or in it. Both Easneye and Stanstead Bury are hilltop sites and this fits in with other factors.  

    It would appear from a close examination of these facts that a settlement of some kind must have existed fairly close to the church at Stanstead Bury, and the thirty households in section one of the Domesday Survey may include some in the area of Cats Hill and Netherfield, together with Easneye.  Conversely we can see that an industry was bound to develop at the riverside from the 12th century once the bridge was built. We also know and have many records of river improvements ongoing from the 14th century, a time when many locals died of the plague. Gradually the hilltop community would shrink for various reasons, possibly also including crop failures and the development of malting in the valley offering a more reliable income. And as this transfer of employment continued, we would find the residents of Stanstead Abbotts now mainly living a mile or so away from its church. Additionally we also know that a chapel was built in Cappell Lane in the 13th century, which endowed the road with its name and the 16th century Grammar School (now the Clock House) was utilised as a chapel after this earlier chapel was demolished (See Manorial Court at Stanstead Bury on this site).  Both these facts point to an attempt to avoid the arduous trek uphill to St. James church by residents compelled by law to attend church or face a fine and who were already living in the valley (Cappell Lane) or at Easneye, but still away from the riverside. The dissipation of the 30 households of Section 1 was obviously gradual and I can see no need of any disagreement between opposing opinions as both sides are in many ways correct. The only dispute is a matter of dates, and neither side has proof of these: impasse.

******

Here are some names of early fields and parts of the village mentioned in 13th century documents from Waltham Abbey and other charters. In spite of the fact that it is impossible to locate the sites of these fields, we must retain their names for posterity:

Danesthemanewode, Sturtereshull, New Strate (possibly part of Cappell Lane), Beckebergfelde (field with a stream on a hill), Kings Feld (King’s Field), Alfeydesholme, Alvevesholm, Hascholm. [Note: The Swedish word holm means river island (as in Stockholm) or a place near water liable to flooding.

(Domesday Survey details from the latest translation Open Domesday site of Anna Powell Smith, translated by Professor J. J. N. Palmer, University of Hull, Yorkshire.)

 Ron Dale, March, 2017.