Domesday Book is a remarkable document. Less than twenty years after conquering England, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 1085 þam midewintre wæs se cyng on Gleaweceastre mid his witan… se cyng mycel geþeaht. 7 swiðe deope spæce wið his witan ymbe þis land hu hit wære gesett. oððe mid hwylcon mannon. Sende þa ofer eall Englaland into ælcere scire his men. 7 lett agan ut hu fela hundred hyda wæron innon þære scire. oððe hwet se cyng him sylf hæfde landes. 7 orfes innan þam lande. oððe hwilce gerihtæ he ahte to habbanne to xii monþum of ðære scire. Eac he lett gewritan hu mycel landes his arcebiscops hæfdon. 7 his leodbiscops. 7 his abbods. 7 his eorlas. 7 þeah ic hit lengre telle. hwæt oððe hu mycel ælc mann hæfde þe landsittende wæs innan Englalande. on lande. oððe on orfe. 7 hu mycel feos hit wære wurð… 7 ealle þa gewrita wæron gebroht to him syððan (‘the King was at Gloucester at midwinter… the king had a great meeting and deep conversation with his council about this land, how it was occupied and by what sort of men. Then he sent his men over all England, into each shire to find out how many hides were in each shire, what lands the king held himself, and what livestock was on that land; what dues he ought to have from the shire each twelvemonth. He also asked them to record how much his archbishops had, and his bishops, and his abbots, and his earls. And though it is lengthy to say, what or how much each man who held land in England had, whether land or livestock, and how much tax it was worth… And everything that was written down was afterwards brought to him’).
The scale of the survey was vast and was complete a year before the king’s death in September 1087. This was an undertaking without precedent and the speed with which it was finished it testimony to the resilience of the local administration created a century earlier through times of Danish wars and three invasions (Swegn Forkbeard in 1013, Cnut in 1016 and William’s own in 1066). Little wonder that about 1179 Richard FitzNeal explained that it gained its name because its statements were final and unalterable, like the Last Judgement (Doomsday).
Given its canonical status as the ultimate authority for the condition of England in the later eleventh century, it is unsurprising that it has been used for centuries by historians. As a record, it is considered unimpugnable. One still occasionally meets people who insist in all sincerity that ‘my house is named in Domesday Book’ (spoiler alert: it isn’t, because the document is about taxable people and resources, not buildings, so we see priests listed but not their churches). Even so, it has been used as evidence in a court of law as recently as 2019.
Among King William’s lands in dimidio Hundret de Hiz (‘the half Hundred of Hitchin’) is a place called Welle. It has long been identified with a place now known as Wellbury, named in other medieval documents as la Welle (1294) and Welles (1310). The form Weelberia is first found in 1200 and Welberye in 1556, while in 1714 it is given as Wells al. Welbury al. Welberrye (al. stands for alias). The -bury part of the modern name refers to a manor, and is particularly common after about 1500, although earlier examples are known, as here. This manorial use of bury, which earlier referred to a fortification, is especially common in Hertfordshire, less so in Essex and rarely in Middlesex.
According to Domesday Book, Welle incurred tax on one hide of arable land, conventionally calculated as 120 acres, held by a sochemannus (‘soke man’, a free man liable to attend the hundred court) with one carucate (a ploughland, the area of land that an eight-ox team could cultivate annually). He had space to bring another carucate into cultivation. There were four bordarii (tenants with only a small amount of land), also with one ploughland between them and room for another, emphasising the difference in status as measured in arable land. There was pasture and woodland ad sepes (‘for fences’), showing that it was managed and, probably, coppiced. In 1066, when it was held by a woman called Leofeva, it paid 60s (£3) in tax, but this fell to 40s (£2) when Peter de Valoinges acquired it after the Norman Conquest, and it had fallen still further by 1086, when it paid 26s 8d (£1.33). This decline in taxable value is typical of the years following the conquest and may hint at massive social disruption by the new administration.
After the conquest, the Sheriff of Hertfordshire and Essex, Ilbert, attached the manor to his holding in Lilley, to the west. After he was removed as Sheriff in 1072, his successor Peter de Valoinges (1045-1110) and Ralph Taillebois attached the manor to Hitchin, bringing it under the king’s control. Both these moves were new arrangements, although it is perhaps more than a coincidence that Leofeva had also held the manors of Lilley and Kings Walden. Women, of course, could not hold land under the Norman administration and Ilbert’s actions may have been an attempt to consolidate holdings into a single block. Through the actions of Peter de Valoinges and Ralph Taillbois, Welle became one of William I’s extensive manorial holdings in and around Hitchin.
Domesday Book indicates that there were five households in the manor liable for tax; there may have been others too poor to be liable, but the data suggests that this was a small community of probably fewer than twenty people. In the second regnal year of King John (6 Apr 1200-5 Apr 1201), Henry de Tilly (1133-1206) conveyed the manor to his brother William FitzJohn. William’s descendants were ancestors of the Gournay family of Harptree in Somerset and there is no record of how or when they disposed of Wellbury. Walter de Welles appears liable for 13¼d in Offeleye in the 1307 Lay Subsidy tax assessment, and he was perhaps then the tenant of Welle manor. It belonged to Walter de Goldington in 1309, as he conveyed it to William Tuchet in that year. In the late 1320s, Isabel widow of Richard de Welle (perhaps the son or brother of Walter de Welle) successfully sued for a third of the manor, which she had obtained as dowry.
So much for the manor. What about the rest of the community? Was there ever a village hereabouts and, if so, where? Twenty-first century Wellbury consists of three places: Old Wellbury Farm, New Wellbury and Wellbury House. The timber-framed house at Old Wellbury Farm dates from the early seventeenth century, with a brick front range of about 1700, while the farmyard also contains an early to mid seventeenth-century barn. The farmhouse is Listed Grade II. New Wellbury is a mid nineteenth-century planned farm that incorporates a seventeenth-century barn and eighteenth-century dovecote, not shown on a map of 1822 and presumably removed from somewhere else. Again, the farm is Listed Grade II.
Wellbury House is an altogether more interesting building. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, when the present house was either built or underwent substantial alteration, it was known simply as Wellbury Farm. The Enclosure Map of 1807 shows a completely different configuration of buildings from those on later maps, although the central farmhouse may have been incorporated into the nineteenth-century structure. Late in the nineteenth century, it acquired a planned garden that have largely reverted to agricultural use. The estate came up for sale in 1918, having belonged to the Gosling family since 1872. They sold it to Sir William Austin, who was Master of the Hertfordshire Hunt and continued to use the estate for fox hunting, as the Goslings had done. He was appointed Master of the Suffolk Hunt in 1920, and decided to sell the estate in two lots, as Wellbury House and Park as the smaller of the two parcels and Wellbury Farm. Ralph Delmé-Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory bought a tiny part of the farm (22 acres) by private treaty, while the rest went to Alfred Bullard of Newport Pagnell. Stanislas Eyre, a London solicitor, bought Wellbury House.
Bernard Kenworthy-Browne later bought Wellbury House, where he set up a preparatory school for Catholic Boys about 1933. The school closed in the 1970s and then became a residential care home for boys. About 1999, the house became the Yeshivas Toras Chessed (better known as the Hitchin Yeshiva), following the Ashkenazi Orthodox ritual, affiliated to the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. When the headmaster fell ill in 2009, the yeshiva moved to London and a new school took over, the Yeshiva Ohr Torah. It has about 200 students.
None of these three places has any earthworks to indicate that they are on the site of a ‘deserted village’; indeed, New Wellbury did not exist before the middle of the nineteenth century, hence its name. Wellbury House may have been the original manor house, although an evaluation of the site in 2003 by The Heritage Network revealed nothing earlier than the nineteenth century, perhaps elements of the garden layout.
At Old Wellbury Farm, proposals to create a golf course in 1991 led to a fieldwalking survey of a large are to its east and southeast. Although fragments of early tile and a few medieval coarseware sherds were found, they mostly likely arrived in the fields through dumping manure from farmyards, not occupation. The team undertaking the survey concluded that the missing village probably lay to the west of the present farm.
There is no reason, as we have seen, to suppose that the manor of Wellbury was ever a nucleated village. It was tiny in 1086 and seems never to have grown into a larger community. It probably comprised just a manor house and cottages occupied by the farm workers, which could have been dispersed throughout the landscape. Lidar reveals nothing resembling a street pattern and historic maps suggest that the manor house lay astride a track leading from the Hexton Road through Little Offley to the north end of Lilley.
Domesday Book is a fascinating document, but we are wrong to treat its every entry as if it refers to a village like community. As here at Wellbury, its focus was purely on providing King William I with details of its manorial tenant and how much tax could be extracted from him.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews