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Narrative History of the County of Somerset
by Brenda Ralph Lewis


Saxon Times

Somerset, therefore, was already a well-organised county by the time the Normans invaded in 1066. Despite their military superiority, the Normans did not find subduing England an easy task and to keep an eye on the potentially rebellious populace, strong castles were built in various places across the land. Somerset"s share of castles stood at Montacute, Dunster and Neroche. Later, by 1135, more had been constructed at Stogursey, Castle Cary and East Harptree. At the same time, the Norman aristocracy took over the Saxon noble estates and by the year of the Domesday Book, 1086, there were only about seventy-five Saxon landholders. The King was the major landholder and what remained was divided up between forty-four Norman tenants-in-chief and their own tenants. The feudal system introduced by the Normans reorganised peasant life, but did little to improve their day to day existence. There were many unfree tenant farmers, owning about 16 hectares of land apiece, a larger number with even smaller holdings and an increasing mass of landless wage-earners.

Their difficulties increased as the population grew and extreme measures were taken to obtain new land for cultivation. Marshes and wetlands were drained to make meadow and pasture, hill land and salt grasslands were reclaimed, and woodland was cleared. By 1240 an extra 400 hectares had been freed but more was needed and earth and stone banks were constructed to reclaim the salt marshes around the River Parrett estuary. Reclamation could involve regular contests with the sea, which flooded in at times of unusually high tides,as happened in 1259. This seeming disaster had its "up" side, however, producing particularly fertile land once the floodwaters had receded. This, in its turn, produced plenty of taxes for the royal revenues which in the mid-14th century made the Stretcholt tithing in Pawlett, much of it consisting of reclaimed land, one of the most highly taxed in Somerset.

Agriculture in late medieval Somerset operated on both the mixed farming system and by open-field farming on land held in common with others. To ensure there was no trespassing, an "umpire" wearing white gloves and carrying a white stick was noted in 1340 supervising the mowing and the making of hayricks at Shepton Beachamp. Where there were no fields suitable plots of land, like closes, were used for planting oats and rye. The produce of manor orchards included fruit, especially pears and apples, some of which was turned into cider, vegetables such as leeks and onions and trees for timber.

Timber was a vital resource, used for houses, hurdles, furniture, tools and, of course, for fuel. Special grants of wood from the royal forests and parks were made for building purposes to the castles of Bridgwater and Stogursey, the abbeys constructed at Glastonbury and Cleve and for the prison at Somerton.

The mixed farming system employed many different agricultural specialists - drovers, oxherds, shepherds, swineherds and dairy workers. Somerset became well known for the quality and quantity of its butter and cheese and several estates had specialised dairies. The Abbey dairy at Galtonsborough, for instance, produced over 300 cheese and 77 kgs. of butter before beating its own record in 1304 with 406 cheeses and 102 kgs. of butter. Cheese made from goat's as well as cow's milk was also produced and large flocks of sheep were kept for the production of wool.

With so much livestock around - oxen, horses, pigs, goats, sheep, poultry - there was always the risk of poaching on grazing land and numerous disputes arose. Animals caught "illegally" grazing were shut up in a pound, presumably awaiting ransom. In 1299, men in the service of the Dean of Wells were beaten up by those in the service of the Abbot of Glastonbury in a quarrel over trees on the moors. In 1332, there was an argument between the Prior of Stogursey and his neighbour Robert FitzPayn over what the prior complained was the illegal impounding of some of his livestock.

For the landholding lords in Somerset, life could be very pleasant and on occasion, luxurious. They owned mills for grinding corn, fisheries, parks, dovecotes, and rabbit warrens and certainly ate well, from a cuisine that included honey, fish, eggs, capon and spices. For some places, the provision of food resembled the payment of regular "tribute", with 300 eggs and 1,275 kg of cheese as an annual due from the tenants at Pawlett. In towns, fairs were held on a regular basis and at the great rural fairs, like the fair held at Lopen in the early 13th century, business went on for seven days at Whitsuntide, with a great deal of livestock and money changing hands.

Fertile and flourishing, Somerset was a gainful place to be in medieval times, until the climate turned against its agriculture and disease, most particularly the Black Death, decimated its population. Grain yields declined, vineyards were closed, poor harvests became all too frequent and with that, incomes reduced, rents and other dues went unpaid and families became homeless. These were the unhappy circumstances in Somerset even before the Black Death struck and cut its swathe through the population. Deaths from the plague were reflected in rental payments at Crowcombe which fell by 97 percent, to a mere five shillings. At Poundisford, near Taunton, the tenants of fifty holdings died, together with their families, as did another sixteen at Chedzoy.

As elsewhere in Britain, those who survived the plague were able to claim unprecedented advantages: labour was now scarce, and they could pick and choose, refuse to work and demand wage increases which, in this first ever flush of peasant freedom, were often excessive. The result was the vastly increased expense of agricultural production. To make ends meet, estates were broken up and manumissions granted to villeins, releasing them from their feudal obligations.

As life in the countryside underwent huge social change, life in the towns gained momentum. In 1340, there was only one city in Somerset, Bath, but there were sixteen others bidding for the rank and Wells and Taunton were rich communities. The wealth of a city or town could be reckoned by the number of its taxpayers and in 1430, Bath had 106 rising to 577 by 1377. The richest place in Somerset at this time was Wells, with 901 taxpayers, and Bridgwater was not far behind with 838. The major focus for town development in Somerset were the markets.Taunton already had a well established market by the 14th century, so did Crewkerne where there had been a mint for making money before 1066. By the time the Domesday Book was compiled twenty years later, Milborne Port and Axbridge had significant markets with a very lucrative turnover.

Next: Tudor & Stuart Times

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