Monday, October 17, 2016

Ossulstone - London in the Domesday Book

By Mark Patton.

"While spending the Christmas time of 1085 in Gloucester," the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler tells us, "William [the Conqueror] had deep speech with his counselors and sent men all over England to each shire to find out what or how much each landowner had in land and livestock and what it was worth ... there was no one single hide, nor a yard of land, nay, moreover (it is shameful to tell, though he thought it no shame to do it), not even an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine was there left, that was not set down in his writ. And all the recorded particulars were afterwards brought to him."

So began one of the most remarkable undertakings of record-keeping in Medieval Europe, the Domesday Survey, probably inspired by the Biblical story of a decree going out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. In fact, the great cities of London, Winchester, and Durham (and with them, probably, a significant number of cattle and swine) were excluded from the survey, the results of which were almost certainly never brought before William, who returned to Normandy in 1086, and did not set foot in England again.

Part of the Domesday Book entry for Middlesex. Photo: National Archive (Public Domain).

Whilst the walled city of London was excluded from the survey, most of what we today consider as "Greater London" was included. England was divided into seven "Circuits," one of which included the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex. Each county, in turn, was divided into "Hundreds," and the return for each Hundred as sworn by twelve jurors, half of them English, half of them Norman (the population of England at the time was around 1.5 million, of whom 10-20 thousand were Norman settlers).

The Domesday Circuit of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex. Image: Thomas Gun (licensed under CCA).

London north of the Thames fell within the County of Middlesex, where 25 major landowners were recorded, including the King; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Bishop of London; Westminster Abbey; Holy Trinity Abbey, Rouen; various noblemen, and one noblewoman. Most of North London fell, more specifically, within the Middlesex Hundred of Ossulstone, where the largest settlement, by far, was Stepney.

The Middlesex Hundreds. Image: Institute for Historical Research (Public Domain).

The Bishop of London held Stepney, with 32 hides, and land for 25 ploughs. On his land were 44 villagers, each with one virgate of land; 46 cottagers, each with one hide, paying 30 shillings per year; four mills; pasture for the village livestock; and woodland for 400 pigs. The total value of the land in 1086 was £48 (it had been £50 before 1066 - land values diminished across the country in the aftermath of the conquest, but far more so in the north of England than in the south).

The Medieval system of land-holding (image is in the Public Domain). A virgate was the amount of land that was tillable by two oxen in a ploughing season, and was, typically, seen as a quarter of a hide, the latter being the area of land required to support a household.

In the same village of Stepney, Hugh of Berniers (not one of the 25 major landowners of Middlesex) held five hides of land under the Bishop. Below him were two small-holders, each with half a virgate; and two cottagers, each with two and a half acres: these land-holdings were below subsistence level, so the cottagers and small-holders would have to work on Hugh's land; or on the Bishop's; or as labourers on building projects in the City; in order to support their families.

Part of the Domesday Book entry for Middlesex. Photo: National Archive (Public Domain). 

Other settlements mentioned in Ossulstone Hundred include Hoxton (held by the Canons of Saint Paul's, with 10 villagers and 16 cottagers); Hampstead (held by the Abbot of Saint Peter's - Westminster Abbey, with one villager, five small-holders, one slave, and woodland for 100 pigs); and Haggerston (held by Robert Gernon - one of the 25 major landowners of Middlesex, with three villagers and seven small-holders).

Most conspicuous of all, however, are the place-names that are not represented: there is no Hackney; no Camden; no Islington; and no Highgate. There are twelve and a half acres of "nomansland," held by the King (presumably for hunting); and many acres of woodland, supporting a great many pigs (or hogs, or swine - these words are all Anglo-Saxon), tended by the English cottagers and small-holders, whilst most of the pork (a Norman word, derived from the Latin - porcus, a pig) would have been consumed by the Norman landowners, bishops, abbots, and their guests.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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