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Life in Silverstone in the 15th Century

This is a shortened version of the paper published in Hindsight: Northamptonshire Local History Magazine 3 (2002), pp. 14-18.

A good run of court rolls survive for Silverstone among the archives preserved in Northamptonshire Record Office. The courts were held by the lord of one of the manors of Silverstone, the abbess of Burnham. Burnham Abbey in Buckinghamshire was a house of Augustinian canonesses which was founded in 1266 by Richard, earl of Cornwall. A manor in Silverstone was granted to the abbey by John de Molyns in 1338, of which it retained possession until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Another manor in Silverstone belonged to Luffield Priory, for which a comparable series of court rolls survives in the library at Westminster Abbey. The earliest record of one of Burnham Abbey’s courts is dated 1407 and the proceedings of a further 45 courts survive until the series is broken in 1449. This short paper discusses the main features of village life in Silverstone in the 15th century as seen through the perspective of these fascinating documents.

The abbess of Burnham held two types of court. The first was the annual view of frankpledge, at which complaints involving disturbances of the peace were heard. These included numerous cases of assault, an example of which was recorded in 1416. William Collier attacked Thomas, the servant of John Lambard, with a dagger, causing him to bleed. William was fined 2d. by the court and his dagger, worth 1d., was confiscated. An assurance that William would pay the fine was given by John Plott, a fellow villager, who in this year served as the chief pledge of William’s tithing. This assurance, or pledge, to use the contemporary terminology, was the basis of the medieval system of frankpledge: the good behaviour of an individual member of the community was the responsibility of that individual’s kin and neighbours. The view of frankpledge was intended to ensure that the system was working properly and that any deviation from the expected norms of behaviour was punished. It was also a lucrative source of income for lords.

The view of frankpledge was in origins a royal right which frequently fell into the possession of local lords. All males over the age of 12 were expected to be members of frankpledge, and each frankpledge unit was based, in theory, upon the smallest administrative unit of medieval local government, the vill. Although in many cases the vill was synonymous with a single area of settlement, the abbess of Burnham’s view of frankpledge encompassed not only the inhabitants of Silverstone but also part of neighbouring Whittlebury. A further complication was that Luffield Priory held its own view of frankpledge on its manor in Silverstone. The members of frankpledge were divided into tithings, each of which were intended to contain 10 men, and each tithing was presided over by a chief pledge. In 1416 there were 15 chief pledges on Burnham Abbey’s manor in Silverstone, a figure which appears to have remained constant throughout the first half of the 15th century, although the fragmentary state of the court rolls and the loss of considerable portions of text means that it is impossible to be certain. But there may well have been about 150 adult males resident in Silverstone and Whittlebury who fell under the jurisdiction of the abbess’s court.

The cases of assault brought before the court reveal the tensions that might erupt within a village community. But while the court rolls provide evidence that such conflicts existed, they rarely allow us to understand the reasons behind an attack. What was it that drove John Hawarden to spill the blood of William Tillsworth with a sword in 1411 or for William Collier to do the same with a pole-axe? The court roll tells us nothing about motives and merely records that the two men were fined and that their weapons were confiscated. The violence unleashed on William Tillsworth may have had repercussions. In 1414 William was fined 2d. for assaulting Roger, the servant of Robert Collier, which was perhaps an act of retaliation for the attack by William Collier three years before. Violence did not only erupt between neighbours. In 1430 William Salham assaulted Alice Salham, who may have been his wife, and in 1449 Geoffrey Webbe was attacked by his son. Family quarrels, however, appear only rarely in our sources and may have been more commonly settled out of court. Attacks on the lord’s officials also seem to have been rare. One example occurred in 1437 when Stephen Carter assaulted Richard Adam, who was serving as the abbess’s hayward.

The annual view of frankpledge was chiefly concerned with punishing those guilty of violence and bloodshed. But there was another type of court, held every three weeks, which facilitated the more peaceful resolution of disputes. Many of those involved in violent attacks were also to be found prosecuting their neighbours in Silverstone’s manorial court, although it has not proved possible to demonstrate that the two courses of action were deliberately employed in tandem. Certainly, however, men such as William Tillsworth were no strangers to entering pleas in the abbess’s court. In 1425, for instance, William complained that Thomas Maidford allowed his beasts to trample down and consume barley worth 6d. which belonged to him. Thomas admitted the charge and William was given permission to recover his damages. In the same year, however, William was himself found guilty of letting his animals destroy hay and pasture worth 3s. 4d. belonging to Thomas Maidford in Whittlebury. Clearly, there was an element of tit for tat in this dispute. The court not only heard many such pleas of trespass but also numerous cases of debt. Networks of credit were common among medieval villagers and in this the inhabitants of Silverstone were no exception. To take but one example. In 1424 John Sprentham complained that Roger Butcher had not paid the 13s. 4d. which he owed for sheep bought from him. Roger was ordered to appear in court on pain of forfeiting his household goods, including a brass pot, a pan and linen thread, worth a total of 6s. 8d. Like many others, it is possible that the two men settled the case out of court.

Anti-social behaviour affecting the entire community was another aspect of life in Silverstone recorded in the court rolls. Tenants were regularly fined for failing to unblock ditches on their land which subsequently flooded, damaging the land of neighbours and making roads impassable. Failure to cut down overhanging branches or thorns and underwood which grew on verges might also render paths and lanes difficult to use and lead those responsible to be presented in court. These cases are often a useful source of topographical information about Silverstone in the 15th century. References can be found to such familiar names as West End and Cattle End (the latter in 1449, perhaps the earliest recorded example of its use); and Green Lane, the obstruction of which Nicholas Startup was found guilty in 1416, also survives to the present day. Other names, however, have disappeared. Examples include Towns End and Wood End, Parkers Lane and Braunston Lane (the latter the name of important tenants of the king in Silverstone in the 13th and 14th centuries). The difficulty lies in attempting to identify these places on the ground today.

There can be no doubt that medieval Silverstone was primarily an agricultural community. The court rolls abound with references to the arable and pasture farming which was practised there, from a dispute over money owing to a ploughman, to the purchase of hay for which the debt was outstanding, to the sheep and oxen which were found straying and were taken into the possession of the lord. But it is clear too that this was a woodland society. Many tenants were fined for trespassing in the lord’s woods, where they felled trees, cut down thorns for fuel, and collected nuts. Grants of timber might also sometimes be made. In 1437, for example, the lord’s woodward was ordered to deliver a spire (or timber pole) to William Hempman to enable him to repair his cottage. Non-agricultural activities, such as brewing, supplemented the income of a number of villagers, and surname evidence suggests that there was a capmaker and a schoolmaster in residence. The court rolls give the impression that this was very much a male-dominated society. Certainly, as the principal focus of village life, the manorial court was a male forum. But women appear regularly in the rolls, either as the victims or the perpetrators of violent assaults, as complainants and defendants in pleas of debt, as brewers, a traditional occupation for women (although in Silverstone many men also participated), and as the holders of land. Although historians agree that court rolls provide only a partial picture of life in a medieval village, enough evidence survives to offer considerable illumination.

December 2003