Ellen Munson

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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.

Wellbury Farm fieldwalking survey.

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

The Knights Templar (more correctly, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, or The Order of Solomon’s Temple) are a well-known military order of religious knights. Their history (and pseudo-history) is well known, and following their suppression in the early fourteenth century, their properties were transferred to another order, the Hospitallers. As with the Templars, the commonly used name is a contraction of the more wordy The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem.

The origins of the Order are complex, but it survives to the present day. Traditionally, the Order began operating about 1099, following the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. They were based in an existing hospice run by a Brother Gérard de Martigues (about 1040-1120). It had been established about 1058 on the site of a Late Roman building traditionally identified as the Church of St John the Baptist, said to have been founded by the Empress Aelia Eudocia (about 401-460), wife of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II (401-450), who lived in the city for the last seventeen years of her life after marriage had broken down. Brother Gérard looked after injured crusaders following their occupation of the city, and those who recovered founded the military order, taking its name from the hospitium he ran.

In 1113, Pope Paschal II recognised the knights as a Sovereign Order, as it had quickly become wealthy and had established daughter houses along the pilgrim route from western Europe to Outremer (the name of the Crusader state). By the later twelfth century, the Hospital had grown to be able to look after a thousand sick and injured knights. They also took on a role similar to that of the Templars, of providing military escorts to pilgrims arriving in Outremer. Of their many possessions, the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria is perhaps the best known and certainly the most spectacular.

After Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin in 1187, the Knights moved first to Tyre and then to Acre in 1191. That city fell to the Mamluks in 1291, ending the existence of Outremer, and the Knights fled to Cyprus. To avoid political disputes on the island, the Knights chose to move to Rhodes, and after a four-year campaign, eventually took it from the Roman Empire (don’t call it Byzantine!) in 1310. Two centuries later in 1552, Sultan Süleyman-ı Evvel (Suleiman the Magnificent, 1494-1566) captured Rhodes and expelled the Knights, who fled to Sicily. Pope Clement II (1478-1534, himself a member of the Order) and Holy Roman Emperor Karl V (1500-1558) agreed to settle the Knights in Malta, Gozo and Tripoli. In 1566, work began on creating a new capital city and base for the Order, which became known as Valletta after its founder, Grand Master la Vallette.

The Order remained in Malta until Napoléon’s invasion as part of his Egyptian campaign in 1798. This was a devastating blow to the Order, as no single European nation was willing to give it land. Russian Emperor Paul I (1754-1801) gave the greatest number of Knights land in St Petersburg, where they remained until the Revolution in 1917. In 1834, some of the surviving Knights settled in Rome, establishing themselves as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (otherwise known as The Sovereign Military Order of Malta), where it continues to operate mainly as a humanitarian charity, with Permanent Observer status at the United Nations General Assembly since 1994. 112 countries regard it as a sovereign state, issuing its own passports but with only three citizens (the three principal officers of the Order). Several other Orders – The Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg), The Order of Saint John in Sweden, Johanniter Orde in Nederland and Most Venerable Order of Saint John in England – claim with varying degrees of plausibility also to be descendants of the medieval order.

As they had across Europe, the Hospitallers gained many estates in England throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their holdings were increased after the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1312. Among those transferred to the Hospitallers was the preceptory at Temple Dinsley, said to have been the largest outside London, which was home to six brethren and twelve visitors in 1309. The manor of Temple Dinsley was carved from part of the lost manor of Waylay before 1147, and the manorial histories of other parts of Dinsley (Furnival Dinsley, now Maydencroft, and Dinsley, now St Ippollitts) make reconstruction of the history of Temple Dinsley challenging. Although many accounts state that the manor passed into various hands, we can never be certain which of the Dinsley manors is being discussed in the primary documents.

We do know that in 1330, the Prior of the Hospital of St John leased the property at Temple Dinsley to William de Langford for the remainder of his life. The Priors held the manor of the lords of the manors of Hitchin, Dinsley Furnival and King’s Walden, showing the complex and scattered nature of their holdings, a good reminder that a manor is defined legally, not geographically. Eventually, the Order was suppressed in England in 1540 and the manor sold to Sir Ralph Sadleir in 1542. He built a new E-shaped house on the site, although a plate in Sir Henry Chauncy’s The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire, published in 1799, seems to show a line of low stone buildings lying to its east, roughly along the former parish boundary between Hitchin (of which Preston was a part) and St Ippollitts. Perhaps these were the remains of conventual structures.

After Sir Edwin Sadleir sold the manor in 1712 to Benedict Ithell of Chelsea, the new owner had a new mansion built immediately to the east. The original house was demolished some time between 1815 and 1832, while Ithell’s was a typical Queen Anne style mansion, the core of which survives to the present. Later alterations include a kitchen in the early nineteenth century, re-roofing before 1840, a drawing room to the west and bay window to the north in the early 1870s, and a new kitchen and scullery block to the east in 1884. After H G Fenwick bought the house in 1908, he engaged Lutyens to carry out extensions and cross-wings at each end between 1909 and 1911, then after it became a school in 1935, further extensive alterations and additions have been made.

During the building work of 1884, skeletons, gravestones and parts of a pewter chalice and paten were found. One of the ‘gravestones’ (actually a coffin lid dating from the early thirteenth century) was taken to St Martin’s Church in Preston, where it is now on display. More discoveries were made during work for Lutyens’s extensions, when medieval floor tiles were uncovered; foundations of the sixteenth-century house were found at the same time, suggesting that the discoveries were made beneath the west wing.

Encaustic floor tile

Six of the tiles are in the collection of North Hertfordshire Museum and five are in the British Museum, which also has the pewter chalice and paten fragments. Although the British Museum identifies them as having been made at Mill Green in Essex (for two of them, it places the production centre in Shropshire!), it is more likely that they were made locally. In many cases, tilers with large ecclesiastical commissions would travel to the site and set up a kiln there, as this was cheaper than trying to transport heavy items across country. If they were brought from outside Preston, then there were tilers in Hitchin who could easily have supplied them.

The style of tile in the photograph was popular in the later Middle Ages, and this example probably dates from between 1325 and 1375. The image is of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) carrying the vexillum (a flag that was originally a Roman military standard), showing the triumph of Christ over death and sin. Other designs from Temple Dinsley include two fleurs-de-lys (symbolising the Blessed Virgin Mary), a shield emblazoned with a bear (?) and lion rampant in chief, lozengy in field, an obscure crouching animal with another above its back, a wyvern and several geometric designs. All seem to be of the same date.

The date of the tile belongs to the early years of the Hospitallers’ tenure of Temple Dinsley. They may be evidence for a refurbishment of existing buildings or for new construction on the site. Work by the Temple Dinsley Archaeological Project, which ran between 2000 and 2010 failed to find any trace of the conventual buildings, either through geophysical survey or trial trenching. While the scale of Lutyens’s landscaping around the house may have removed most traces, it is possible that elements remain beneath Benedict Ithell’s house.

Once again, what started as a simple investigation of a relatively ordinary (if high status) object in the museum’s collection, has raised more questions that we are not (yet) able to answer.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Human stone (or lithic) technology rarely produces tool types that are chronologically distinctive. The microlith (‘tiny stone’) is one of the few diagnostic types. Early Mesolithic peoples in Europe developed them as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The traditional view was that they show the poverty of these people, living at a time when the big game animals such as mammoth had become extinct and before the bounty produced by farming.

Before the 1970s, this was the standard view of the European Mesolithic. We will find out later how and why our ideas about the people of this era – from about 11,000 to 4000 BC in Britain – were wrong for so long. The first person to subdivide the Stone Age was John Lubbock who, in 1865, introduced the terms Palaeolithic (‘Old Stone Age’) for the period when stone-using peoples were hunter gatherers and Neolithic (‘New Stone Age’) for the time when the first farmers still made their tools from stone. In 1866, Hodder Westropp proposed that there was a middle period, the Mesolithic, between the end of the glacial climate and the introduction of farming.

The idea of a Mesolithic was controversial, and many prehistorians denied that it existed as a separate period. By the middle of the twentieth century, though, it had come into regular use in northern Europe, while southern European prehistorians prefer the term Epipalaeolithic (‘beyond the Old Stone Age’). The main objection to the name is that it implies a teleological approach to history: the distinction is often made that Mesolithic societies are those who later develop (or are replaced by) farming, whereas those that remain hunter-gatherers cannot be described this way. This naming of the period wrongly presupposes the inevitability of farming, as if all societies follow the same historical trajectories, and that there is an evolutionary progression; a similar objection can be made about Epipalaeolithic, as if such societies necessarily developed from Palaeolithic. These views belong in the past, in Whig interpretations of history or in Marx’s universalising approach.

Today’s object comes from Hitchin and consists of a type of microlith usually described as geometric, as it is one of several forms that resemble geometric shapes. In this case, it is a scalene triangle, a three-sided shape where each edge is a different length. Geometric microliths are typical of the Early Mesolithic (about 10,000-6150 BC), when they were one of a number of flint tools made at this time. Microliths were not tools in their own right but elements of composite tools, in which two or more microliths would be mounted in a haft using a glue such as birch resin. People also made tools from bone and antler, but these rarely survive on dryland sites.

Priscilla Ransom (1871-1951), widow of Francis Ransom (1860-1935), gave three items, including this one, to Hitchin Museum, where they were accessioned on 1 May 1939. The entry originally read ‘Flint microlith’, but someone later added an s in pencil, so perhaps she brought in two more at a later date. It also gives the provenance as ‘Local’ and ‘The Chilterns’, added later in pencil, has been rubbed out. This is where the Ransoms were living from 1910, so it is unclear if they made the finds there. The house was built in 1894 and originally called Broadview, so it is unlikely that the Ransoms or the builders found the flints while they were digging its foundations.

To complicate matters (there is always a complication with these archaeological accessions), these same three objects appear in the Letchworth Museum Accessions Register on 26 February 1940, without a donor’s name. There, they are described as ‘A. Tattooing Lance (Riddy Field, Hitchin). B. Toe Cleaning Scraper (Riddy Field, Hitchin). C. Scraper & Borer combined’. The first is a lanceolate microlith, Hitchin Accession Number 92/1, the second is the one we’re looking at today, and the third is a rhomboid microlith, 92/2. According to the card index Sites and Monuments Record maintained by the former Archaeological Service of the museum, these finds were made in Riddy Shott. This was the name of the field immediately east of The Chilterns. Other early prehistoric finds in Letchworth Museum also came from Riddy Shott or Riddy Field, which may be the correct findspot for these three microliths. The name Riddy perhaps derives from Old English ryding, ‘an artificial clearing (an assart)’.

Riddy Shott is on the east side of the most prominent hill in Hitchin, known since the nineteenth century as Windmill Hill. The western side has a steep concave scarp into the valley of the River Hiz, while the western has a gentler slope down to the River Purwell. Many of the finds of Mesolithic material across north Hertfordshire have come from higher ground, as here. Does this mean that people frequented the hills more than the river valleys? Probably not. The valleys were rich in resources – reeds for basketry and thatch, foodstuffs (both animal such as fish or wildfowl, and plants) – that would have been attractive to these people. However, we also know from environmental studies carried out by Museum of London Archaeology in the early 2000s that the Hiz valley was damp and marshy at this time. There is no reason to think that the Purwell valley was any different.

The remarkable site at Star Carr, near Scarborough, developed from the 90th century BC on the edge of a now vanished lake. People were cutting down trees to make a clearing where they built houses, using timber to make a platform on the shore and dumping large amounts of timber into the lake. Over the next 800 years, they continued to cut down trees, live on the slightly higher ground above the water level and enlarge the area of activity. They processed animals for food, skins and tools made from bone and antler, used willow and aspen to make houses and waterside platforms, some of which came from coppiced woodland, made cord from nettles and used reeds growing at the water’s edge. The people indulged in occasional feasting, which was perhaps when they wore the famous antler masks made from deer skulls.

It is now obvious from the ongoing work at Star Carr that Early Mesolithic societies were anything but simple, impoverished hunter-gatherers. They could live in permanent village-like settlements, where they managed the landscape by coppicing woodland, altering the edges of a lake and undertake a broad variety of craft activities. Star Carr is unlikely to be unique. The number of tranchet axeheads found at Weston before the 1920s – more than six exist in the museum collection – suggests that the local Mesolithic people were exploiting the woodland there. We used to believe that these axeheads dated from the later Mesolithic (after about 6150 BC), when it was thought that the first houses were built, but the research at Star Cass shows this to be mistaken. Their use perhaps spans the whole of the period. The field name Riddy Shot may show that the land was formerly wooded, so this may have been another area where Mesolithic people were coppicing trees, millennia before medieval farmers made a more permanent clearing.

As well as managing the woodland, the Mesolithic people who dropped microliths at Riddy Shott must have taken resources from the nearby streams. Whether their activity there was as complex as at Starr Carr is unknowable on present evidence However, the 2003 geoarchaeological work in Hitchin town centre uncovered an organic deposit west of Biggin Lane that contained molluscs and charred grains, radiocarbon dated to the Early Mesolithic. Charred grains likely show human agency and point to food preparation taking place close by. Perhaps there was indeed a settlement away from the marshy land surrounding the River Hiz and, as at Star Carr, people were using the wetlands to dispose of rubbish.

Ethnographic evidence shows that hunter-gatherer societies need not be ‘simple’: some North American groups lived in town-like settlements, some had aristocracies, some focused on accumulated wealth through hard work. We fall back into teleological thinking if we assume that Mesolithic peoples were merely waiting around after the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age for farming to turn up. There was nothing inevitable about the westward spread of domesticated crops and livestock from the Middle East, a process that took millennia.

Moreover, the development of microlithic technology shows a huge technological jump from early ways of using flint. In the Palaeolithic, tools were made from single pieces of flint and were unusable once they were broken. Using microliths, tools became modular, allowing the user to remove and replace just the broken or blunted element. It was also a more efficient use of flint, allowing many more tools to be made from a single core. Indeed, as the Mesolithic developed, we see the increasing miniaturisation of microliths into what is known as narrow-blade types, where individual pieces might be only a few millimetres wide.

Our view of the Mesolithic has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. We can now appreciate that these pioneer permanent inhabitants of Britain modified their landscape, created village-like settlements and had a sophisticated technology. We can only begin to guess about the sort of complex societies they lived in.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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