Measuring Burgage Plots

For some time it has been speculated that some of the property boundaries in the village might reflect early divisions known as Burgage Plots and that these may date to the late Early Medieval Period. These were basically plots of land allocated to merchants in a settlement known as Burgesses, though some early burgage plots can relate to purely agricultural land held by Freemen.

The possible burgage plots in the village are best seen on the early Ordnance Survey maps; the one below is 25 inches to the mile and was surveyed in 1878. Plots 122, 123, 125, 126 and 127 are the plots in question and lie on the north side of the High Street. The gap between 123 and 125 will also be considered.  There may be old plots to the south of the High Street however these seem to be harder to distinguish.

Many of these boundaries can still be observed today. The image below is a LIDAR image of the village which has the advantage of ‘seeing through’ trees to the landscape below.

At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 Stanstead Abbotts (then Stanstede or ‘Stony Place’) listed 7 burgesses and these are assumed to be merchants.  They were in fact the only burgesses listed for the Braughing Hundred, of which Stanstede was part, though there were much larger settlements such as Sawbridgeworth and Ware. The burgesses may in fact have served the whole Hundred as many of the parish estates had been in royal hands in 1066 and it is possible that the siting of burgesses at Stanstede reflected the topographical advantage of the settlement being the most southerly on the River Lea, the place where traders could gather to bring goods to and from the lower River Lea and London.

Burgage plots were usually laid out in the old measurement of Perches (5.0292m or 16.5 feet), most commonly being four perches (66 feet) wide. If these are indeed in perches then it could confirm their nature as Burgages. For ease of calculation throughout this document we will be using the measurement in feet. By identifying where the boundaries are still clear on the ground it is possible to use Google Earth to measure the width of the plots.

Taking two points where the plots were still clearly visible on Google Earth it is possible to use the ruler function to accurately measure their width.

Width 1 in plot 122 gave a width of 65.75 feet,

Width 2 in plot 124 gave a width of 65.33 feet.

This would seem to indicate that the plots were laid out in 4 perch units in width or standard plot width and confirm they are very likely Burgage plots.

Plot 125 appears to have been two plots that were joined together at some point.

The lengths vary and are not so clearly laid out to a standard pattern; they are all somewhere between 5 and 6 perches long. Furthermore the two most easterly plots appear to be laid out on a slightly different angle to the High Street than the rest, though this may have been dictated by gap between 125 and 6. The nature of this gap is explored below.

The next map has a grid overlain to show how well these measurements match across all the plots.

Counting the plots:

Historian Susan Oosthuizen has suggested that confirmed burgage plots could be matched to the number of burgesses shown in Domesday; in the case of Stanstede that would be 7. It is possible to do this match but only if the empty plot (part of 121) is counted as a burgage plot. It could be retained as an empty access to the mead beyond if either part of Willoughthorpe (spelling as shown on the map above) is included (which may indeed have some remnants of a boundary) or if part of the Red Lion site was included. This would require specialist interpretation.

The Plots shown as a grid

Dating the plots and further study:

Being able to date one or more of these boundaries would give us a fix on when they were laid out. This could include an archaeological approach (test pits or small trenches) but it is also possible to offer a notional date within other known developments that are similar and fit the economic and political development of the later Early Medieval Period. This would give a likely time period of economic expansion somewhere in the late 10th to late 11th centuries.  However if the Burgesses were serving the royal estates in the Hundred as a whole then a pre-conquest date would be more logical as the overlordship of the various parishes was broken up between numerous followers of William after 1066.

Burgess merchants would often have their plots overlooking a market area; this could be large triangular areas, though not in every case. Identifying where this market might have been might be possible by looking at other boundaries within the village and seeing if a possible site emerges. It has been suggested that a site opposite the Red Lion could be the location, however significant later development may make this untestable. If it is the site of the market then the gap between 125 and 126 could have an explanation. It appears to have a sinuous outline on the early maps. Known as Pill or Pit Rail Holmes on the Tithe map, it is possible that this shows an old stream course, which may have brought goods by barge to and from the settlement. The proposed market area above would indeed bound the eastern side a putative stream, and Early Medieval markets were commonly close to water for transport. This is based on a possible reading of Pill as Pyll, which in Old English can mean ‘Stream’ or estuary. It is worth noting that other interpretations could be made here (Pill can mean ‘Oats’, or if it was later then it may be ‘Pit’ and refer to an area of gravel extraction). However the Holme element may support the idea of a stream in that it can mean a small island, or an area next to a river and liable to flooding.

Was the Red Lion plot part of this lay-out or developed later? It would require a lot more work to tell as the route of the Mill-Stream may have changed.

Was there a church or chapel that served the settlement? One local history book claimed that such a building was sited under the Clock House, however when the authors were contacted they said it was purely conjecture. They assumed the settlement had a chapel, nd that the top of the High Street afforded a good location.

Further reading:

This article is based largely on the work of John Blair’s ‘Building Anglo-Saxon England’ 2018. A free and informative article by Blair can be found on the Current Archaeology website called ‘Exploring Anglo-Saxon Settlement’.

R Bennett  (2022)