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Stowe

The parish of Stowe lies a little over 2 miles north-west of Buckingham, close to the boundaries of Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. The parish measures about 3 miles by 2.5 miles (5 by 4 km), with land falling from a height of 490 ft in the north to 330 ft in the south (150m to 100m) as it nears the valley of the River Great Ouse. In common with much of the surrounding countryside of north-western Buckinghamshire and southern Northamptonshire, Stowe lies on a bed of oolitic limestone, generally overlain with glacial boulder clay, which produces soil that is fertile but heavy and difficult to work. Spreads of gravel deposited at the end of the Ice Age and outcrops of limestone exposed by the subsequent action of water have furnished Stowe’s inhabitants with plenty of building material. Abundant timber and clay have also provided the raw materials for pottery production.

A pottery kiln dating from the 1st century AD is the most notable evidence found so far of Roman settlement in the parish (SP 6807 3843). However, other sites almost certainly remain to be discovered. In neighbouring parishes a wide range of settlements have been identified, from villas and large Romanized farmsteads to lesser concentrations of Romano-British pottery indicative of small family farms. Indeed, sites are encountered approximately every half mile (800m) across the landscape. Although not all these settlements were occupied contemporaneously, the evidence suggests that the area around Stowe supported a large rural population in a well-defined social hierarchy. Furthermore, the countryside appears to have been dominated by arable and livestock farming, with relatively few areas of woodland to supply building timber and fuel for homes and rural industry. The kiln at Stowe, however, was conveniently sited close to a probable stand of Roman woodland and to an important artery of communication. The Roman road from Alchester (south of Bicester) passed through the parish on its way to Towcester, where it met Watling Street (the modern A5), the main road running north-west from London.

The medieval inhabitants of Stowe, like their contemporaries elsewhere in the region, used this Roman road as a boundary, which they called Buggerode. For example, it probably separated the open fields of Dadford from those of Stowe and Lamport. Its use as a thoroughfare, however, may have declined soon after the Roman retreat when Alchester and Towcester faded in importance. In places its course was either unknown or ignored by the medieval inhabitants. For instance, Holback Lane, which follows the course of the Roman road for a short distance, became a more important routeway in the later Middle Ages, providing access to the chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket, which lay half a mile (800m) to the west of Luffield Priory. The road to Buckingham, called the hey way (or highway), also assumed a greater prominence in the Middle Ages.

The extent to which there was continuity of occupation between the Roman and medieval periods is a notoriously difficult area of enquiry. In the four centuries following the end of Roman rule (AD 400-800), the countryside around Stowe was characterized by population retreat, a sparse and dispersed settlement pattern, and woodland regeneration. Direct evidence of occupation in Stowe parish is limited to a few sherds of handmade pottery recovered from the deserted settlement site at Lamport. The lack of archaeological, as well as documentary, information shrouds in obscurity the origins of the village of Stowe and its neighbours, Dadford and Lamport.

There is a suggestion that, before the middle of the 9th century, Stowe formed part of a vast territory (or ‘multiple estate’) belonging to the king. Comprising much of north-western Buckinghamshire, south-western Northamptonshire and north-eastern Oxfordshire, this estate, in common with others, probably witnessed the large-scale transhumance of animals from grain-growing areas in the spring and autumn to areas of grassland and wood pasture, often at some distance away. This agrarian regime was threatened after about 850 when many multiple estates began to be broken up and the pieces granted to followers and family. However, the king might take care to preserve the pasture rights of particular manors, now separated from their customary grazing grounds by the lands of other lords. These detached portions of manors usually survived long enough to be documented in Domesday Book or other late medieval records. Indeed, some administrative oddities, such as Boycott, were not finally cleared away until the 19th century. Boycott, and nearby Lillingstone Lovell, were detached portions of the royal manor of Kirtlington, about 20 miles (32 km) to the south-west. They were thus included within the hundred of Ploughley and the county of Oxfordshire rather than the hundred of Stodfold in Buckinghamshire. The date at which Boycott was granted to Kirtlington cannot be known for certain, but was probably during the 10th century. The boundaries of the territory were presumably decided at the same time; significantly, the survival of Boycott for so long as an administrative anomaly ensured that these boundaries were mapped by 18th- and 19th-century cartographers.

Boycott may thus have been an area of wood pasture before the Norman Conquest, which was either grazed by livestock from the king’s manor of Kirtlington or leased to the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. The settlement at Boycott may have been occupied only seasonally, by the herdsmen and shepherds who kept watch over the animals before driving them back to their farms for the winter. In the late 11th century, Domesday Book reveals that arable farming had been introduced at Boycott, the result perhaps of a grant by the king giving a tenant the right to clear a specified amount of land. This would be consistent with the evidence of the place-name. The element cot often denotes a cottage or humble dwelling originating in the 10th century or later, to which the Old English personal name Boia was prefixed. The cleared land was presumably cultivated from an isolated farmstead, by one villein using a single plough (according to the record in Domesday Book), which was surrounded by the remaining areas of wood and wood pasture.

At the time of Domesday Book there were six manors in the parish of Stowe: one each in Stowe and Boycott and two each in Dadford and Lamport. However, the parish was not heavily populated in 1086, when just 23 tenants and slaves were listed. Even allowing for the fact that these were probably heads of household, it is unlikely that the population of Stowe exceeded more than about 100 people in the late 11th century. Far higher concentrations of people can be found in adjacent areas, in the valley of the Ouse to the south and in the villages close to Banbury in the west, in more open, arable countryside than the largely wooded environment in which the inhabitants of Stowe resided.

The description of Stowe’s inhabitants recorded in Domesday Book is of interest and offers an insight into the development of settlement and landscape in the parish. The three tenants of Stowe and seven of the eight tenants of Dadford were described as bordars, a term usually reserved for smallholders who possessed insufficient land to feed their families. Such people accounted for about 30 per cent of the rural population of England in the late 11th century and were most numerous in woodland and pastoral regions, where they could keep animals and find employment in such work as wood-cutting and turf-digging. That the Domesday population of Stowe and Dadford was almost exclusively made up of bordars suggests that the landscape and settlement pattern of these manors was similar to that of Boycott: areas of woodland and wood pasture interspersed with arable fields farmed, possibly, from an uncoordinated collection of cottages, the holders of which engaged in other occupations as well as agriculture.

In some parts of the Midlands, the farming in common of large open fields by all the inhabitants (usually called villeins) of nucleated villages can be seen to have come into being before the Norman Conquest. But this development was by no means universal. The process of uprooting from scattered hamlets and settling alongside other residents near the church and manor house was on-going at the time of the Domesday survey. So too was the reorganization of the arable into two or three large blocks, divided into strips, that followed the removal of the fences and hedges which had previously enclosed a multitude of small fields cultivated by individual families or groups of tenants. Areas of woodland, in particular, were often late to adopt the practices of the champion landscape lying, in some cases, only a short distance away. Arable farming certainly existed at Stowe and Dadford when the Domesday commissioners visited the manors, but it was on a limited scale. Only 1½ plough-teams were in use at Stowe, and at Dadford there were just two. Is it possible, therefore, that there persisted in Stowe a pre-Conquest pattern of small enclosed fields farmed by the inhabitants of scattered hamlets, which was subsequently reorganized to create the open fields characteristic of the typical Midland village? Indeed, was this reorganization underway at the time Domesday Book was compiled?

A final clue in the Conqueror’s survey tempts us towards this conclusion. The value of the manors of both Stowe and Dadford declined after the Norman Conquest. Indeed, Stowe was described as waste ‘when received’ in 1066. If this was the result of military destruction by the Norman invaders, it was extremely localized and did not affect neighbouring manors, such as Lamport, Lillingstone Dayrell and Maids Moreton, which had maintained or increased their value in 1086. Perhaps it is more likely that the low valuation of Stowe and Dadford – especially Stowe – was the result of some sort of reorganization which adversely affected the ability of the lord to extract revenue from his tenants. Might this reorganization have involved the removal of isolated farmsteads prior to the creation of a compact village and the laying out of open fields, an enterprise which may not have been completed by the time the Domesday commissioners finished their work? In the late 13th century, certainly, the manor of Stowe was populated by villeins holding virgates and half-virgates lying in strips scattered across the open fields. But that should not lead us to doubt the testimony of Domesday Book that villein holdings were not yet in existence at Stowe and that the only tenants in 1086 were bordars with just a few acres each.

Whatever the precise chronology, there can be no doubt that there was a transformation of the landscape and settlement pattern of medieval Stowe that was quite as dramatic as any produced by the Temple family after 1600. A survey of the manor of Stowe in 1279 makes a striking contrast with the record of Domesday Book two centuries before: 13 villeins each holding between 15 and 30 acres which were distributed over the open fields in strips, commonly of about half an acre each. This method of farming necessitated cooperation among the villagers and ensured that everyone had equal involvement in the system, with both good and bad soil, some land situated near to their homes and some at a distance. The villagers of Stowe shared in the cultivation of their open fields with the neighbouring village of Lamport. In the 13th century there seem to have been two fields: a half-virgate granted to Oseney Abbey was said to comprise seven acres in one field and eight acres in the other. Another grant to Oseney, however, reveals the clearance of woodland and its subsequent cultivation. A parcel of land called Le Stockinge (which means woodland clearing) consisting of half a virgate lay between the abbey’s grove and the clearing of John son of Maurice de Langport. The extension of the arable into former woodland probably led to the reorganization of the field system in the late 13th or early 14th century, so that when the Temples surveyed the estate in 1633 there were three fields in Stowe and Lamport, called Windmill Field, Stockhold Field and Netherfield.

In common with other parishes in north Buckinghamshire, however, Stowe experienced a contraction of arable cultivation in the 1340s, apparently caused by an impoverished and shrinking population suffering from a lack of seed corn. Arable farming on the heavy clays of Stowe was always likely to have been hard, and the amount of grain harvested from the open fields may often have been insufficient to meet the needs of all the inhabitants. Factors such as the weather or changes in the amount of labour which peasants were able to devote to particular tasks, for instance manuring and weeding, might lead to an improvement or decline in yields at any time. The problems of the 1340s, therefore, may not have been entirely without precedent, although they were perhaps made more severe by the legacy of the Great Famine and agricultural crisis of 1315-22. Land could be taken into and out of cultivation as circumstances dictated, with an increasing emphasis on livestock farming and the exploitation of the woodland when arable farming contracted. This tendency towards more pastoral husbandry was confirmed and deepened by the demographic disaster caused by the Black Death of 1348-9, when perhaps half of England’s population was killed. In every part of the country arable cultivation declined in the late 14th and 15th centuries and many peasant houses and farm buildings were abandoned and fell into ruin.

These changes cannot be traced in any detail at Stowe owing to the lack of late medieval records, although we occasionally catch a glimpse of tofts – former house sites, from which the buildings had been removed – in 15th- and 16th-century records. In neighbouring parishes the decline in population allowed the lord of the manor to convert former arable land to pasture and, in some cases, to force the expulsion of the remaining tenants. At Lillingstone Dayrell, for example, in 1491 Thomas Dayrell engrossed eight peasant holdings of 20½ acres each, thereby displacing 40 people from their homes and leading to the abandonment and ruin of seven messuages and four cottages. In total, 164 acres of previously cultivated land were given over to pasture, on which the lord’s sheep were set to graze.

The economic and social changes of the 15th century meant that sheepfarming – in particular wool production – became a more profitable venture than the production of grain. The gentry were particularly active in acquiring large blocks of former arable land for grazing, especially in the Midlands and East Anglia. Thomas Dayrell was just one of many who exploited prevailing economic conditions to transform tillage into pasture. Others included John Spencer of Warwickshire, who later became lord of the manor of Althorp in Northamptonshire, and Peter Temple, also of Warwickshire, who later acquired the manor of Stowe.

The foundations of the Temple family’s extraordinary rise to prominence thus lay in the flocks of sheep grazed on former arable lands in Warwickshire, the lease of which Peter Temple inherited from his cousin in the mid-16th century. The money made from the sale of wool enabled Peter and his son first to lease and then to purchase the manor of Stowe, an opportunity which itself arose as the result of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (five of the six manors of Stowe were held by monasteries in the Middle Ages). Having chosen Stowe as their main place of residence, the Temples were not at first concerned to alter established patterns of settlement and farming. Thus, the inhabitants of Stowe village did not immediately suffer the fate of their former neighbours at Lillingstone Dayrell. Instead, they continued to cultivate the open fields and exploit the surrounding pastures and woods, much as their predecesssors had done throughout the Middle Ages.

When they first come fully into view, in the late 13th century, the inhabitants of Stowe appear typical of many peasant communities in Midland England. There were three virgate holders, each with 30 acres of arable, 10 half-virgate holders and four cottagers. All were unfree or villein tenants, who owed cash rents of 7s. a year for a virgate, 3s. 6d. for half a virgate, and 2s. for a cottage, as well as other servile dues such as merchet, a fine paid to the lord when an unfree woman wished to marry. In addition, the tenants were obliged to work on the lord’s demesne at certain times of the year at specific tasks (often called boonworks), such as the ploughing or the harvest. But they were not expected to work on a regular basis each week, as was the custom on some church estates. Thus, in the 1330s we find the abbot of Oseney buying fish and brewing ale to feed the ploughmen who performed one of these boonworks before the sowing of the wheat. For other tasks, however, such as weeding, the abbot hired labourers, many of whom were probably residents of the parish, either cottagers who needed to earn wages to supplement the profits of their meagre holdings or household members of the more substantial tenants.

For the most part, therefore, the tenants of Stowe were left to work their own holdings. No records survive to tell us how each household managed their land, but we might expect them to have grown quantities of wheat, oats and dredge (a mixture of oats and spring barley). They probably also owned cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry. Certainly, this was the kind of mixed arable and livestock farming practised by the lord at Stowe before the Black Death and also by the tenants of nearby Leckhampstead, for whom there survives a detailed tax return. A number of tenants at Stowe, moreover, illegally grazed animals such as these in the lord’s meadow and grain, for which they were fined at the manorial court. In short, there is little to suggest that patterns of farming at Stowe were much different from other parts of lowland England.

In the 12th and 13th centuries the inhabitants of Stowe lived within the boundaries of Whittlewood Forest. They were thus subject to forest law, the system of justice instituted by the Norman and Angevin kings to ensure the preservation of the deer and the protection of their habitat for the royal hunt. The taking of deer and the clearance of woodland for farming were, therefore, carefully regulated, with those found guilty of infringements by the forest justices liable to a fine or imprisonment. In 1255, for example, it was reported that two dogs which the abbot of Biddlesden’s hayward was accustomed to take with him to the fields, probably of Dadford, had been found gnawing on a deer. The dogs evaded capture but the abbot could not escape a fine of two marks (£1 6s. 8d.) imposed by the court. The woods of Stowe parish belonged to the lords of the individual manors, even though activities within them were regulated according to the king’s forest law. Woodwards appointed by the lords to manage their woods were required to appear before the forest justices to ensure that the king’s interests were being maintained. Thus, John Bateman was in charge of John Maurice’s wood of Lamport at the time of the eyre of 1255, while the abbot of Oseney’s wood of Stowe was in the keeping of William de Hazlewood.

Many lords found the restrictions of forest law irritating and the corruption of forest officials objectionable. In an attempt to overcome this, in 1267 Oseney Abbey secured a charter from the king confirming the monastery’s right to take estovers (wood for repairs) from its own woods ‘without view and livery and danger of the foresters, verderers or other bailiffs’. Another concession granted to the abbey was that its dogs kept at Stowe need not be lawed; that is, they were allowed to keep their claws, which according to forest law ought to have been removed to prevent them from harming the king’s deer. Oseney Abbey was also given permission to create a park at Stowe, in which they were able to hunt deer for their own table without fear of punishment by the king’s justices. It is evident too that forest law was not always an effective barrier to the clearance of large areas of woodland in Stowe and their conversion to arable. To the north of Dadford, for example, lay an area called Hyhold Hill. In the 13th century, Heiholt, as it was then called (the name means ‘high wood’), was in the process of being cleared of trees and the land converted to tillage. Among those responsible was one William Thurban who granted ‘all my assart of the wood of Dadford in Heiholt’ to Biddlesden Abbey. At one of the periodic inspections of assarts in the royal forest, the monks of Biddlesden were found to be sowing oats on their land in Dadford.

For the smallholders of Stowe, those without sufficient arable land to feed their families, the woods of the parish provided the resources necessary to make a living. Unfortunately, the surviving sources for Stowe are too few to allow us a detailed insight into the occupations pursued by these people outside agriculture. But a comparison with other woodland communities in medieval England highlights the range of possibilities: woodworkers, including carpenters, coopers, sawyers and wheelers; bird-catchers, charcoal-burners, iron-workers, potters (especially at nearby Potterspury), rope-makers, and smiths. At Stowe there was a forge, the fuel for which was almost certainly gathered in the woods. Two half-virgate holders in the village in 1279 who were called Smith (Faber) may have worked there during slack times in the agricultural year. Another half-virgate holder was called Quarry, indicating that there were opportunities to engage in stone-working as well. Other by-employments included milling. The abbot of Oseney held a watermill at Stowe, and the abbot of Biddlesden held another in Boycott. One tenant in Boycott and three in Dadford were called Miller in 1279, indicating no lack of expertise in the grinding of corn or unwillingness to make a profit from the operation.

Such a potentially diversified economy may have shielded the inhabitants of Stowe from the worst effects of the 15th-century recession, when a declining population and falling grain prices reduced employment opportunities in the more arable-dominated countryside. One activity of which we have very little evidence at Stowe, but which must have occurred with some regularity, is poaching. The records of the forest justices reveal the capture and punishment of poachers in other parts of Whittlewood Forest; for example, Richard son of William Tipper was imprisoned for taking a haunch of venison and three deer hides to a house at Lillingstone Dayrell in 1253. The abbot of Oseney may also have suffered from poaching in his park at Stowe. In later centuries, the Temple family were notorious for the severity with which they punished poachers who killed their deer. In 1748 two Silverstone men were caught red-handed by the game-keepers. They were tried at Buckingham and, according to one account, ‘were drawn through the town streets to a neighbouring common, and there done to death amid the yelling of an execution mob that had gathered to feast its eyes on the sight of their agony’.

In the 13th and 14th centuries poachers were more often fined than executed for their crimes. In Stowe a court roll from 1357 reveals the lord disciplining his tenants for their misdemeanours. Thus, Thomas Clement was one among many who was fined for illegal grazing on the lord’s demesne. But the manorial court was too an opportunity for the resolution of disputes among villagers. Thomas Isaac, for instance, was fined for a trespass and false claim against John Carter. Both men may have been the descendants of half-virgate holders – William Isaac and Adam Carter – listed in the survey of 1279. The descendant of another half-virgate holder in 1279 – Walter Durant – was one of two tithingmen serving in 1357, who were responsible for the standard of general behaviour in the village and for presenting cases to be heard in court. The manorial court at Stowe continued to be heard into the 16th century. A chance survival from 1512 reveals two women – Joan Church and Margaret Spencer – paying the fine to brew ale for sale, a common occupation for women at this time. Meanwhile, the miller of Stowe was fined for charging excessive tolls and for badly grinding the tenants’ grain, while the miller of Boycott allowed the water from the mill-stream to overflow and flood the neighbouring meadow.

In the final part of this paper, I want to turn to the demise of the village community at Stowe, the trials and tribulations of which can be glimpsed, all too fleetingly, in the few surviving court rolls. The parish church of Stowe today stands isolated within the landscape gardens, just to the south of Stowe House, lying hidden within a small clump of trees. The likelihood is that the medieval village of Stowe once lay clustered around the church, within a triangle of land formed by three roads. Little is known about its size or layout at any point in its history. Even the date of its final disappearance is uncertain. One piece of evidence cited by the Buckinghamshire historian and antiquarian, Browne Willis, in 1755 has been widely reproduced to suggest that in 1712 Stowe village consisted of 32 houses and a population of 180, which rapidly disappeared over the following years as Lord Cobham proceeded to remodel the gardens and rebuild the house.

In fact the tax return to which Browne Willis referred encompassed the whole of Stowe parish and thus the settlements at Dadford and Lamport, as well as any surviving village at Stowe. In all likelihood, however, Stowe village was long gone by this time. The depopulation of Stowe was clearly underway by the middle of the 17th century; one document records at least seven houses depopulated by Sir Peter Temple by the time of his death in 1653. Another gives an even higher figure, claiming that Sir Peter ‘depopulated 10 or 12 ancient farms in Stowe, where the farmers had formerly lived very well, maintaining tillage, [before Temple] had turned them out with diverse other poor people, to the heavy burden of the neighbourhood’.

In fact, the removal of the village of Stowe appears to be connected with Sir Peter Temple’s decision, after his inheritance of the estate in 1637, to enlarge the deer park which his father had created in the 1620s. Thus, after the clearance of the ‘10 or 12 ancient farms’ mentioned above, it was claimed that Temple had ‘emparked a great part of these farms and their common fields in his own lands … and made a very large park, storing the same with red and fallow deer’. These deer, we are told, had subsequently ‘increased to so great a multitude’ that they had ‘overrun the country, destroying corn and barking and spoiling [Temple’s] own woods, the woods [in Akeley] belonging to New College, Oxford, and Sir Thomas Dayrell’s woods’. The destructive actions of the deer, combined with Sir Peter Temple’s protection of them, spelled doom for the remaining inhabitants of Stowe, who had already suffered damages in ‘corn, grass, and goods’ valued at £500.

There is a strong possibility, therefore, that the final demise of the village of Stowe was the result of the enlargement of the Temple family’s deer park in the 1640s and that the removal of most of the inhabitants had been completed by the middle of the 17th century. The population of Stowe manor fell from 37 in 1620 to 28 in 1634. Moreover, a number of the tenants were closely linked to the Temple household, at least six being employed as servants. Such an association would have made the process of securing the consent of the villagers to being removed to a neighbouring settlement, probably Dadford, a good deal easier to achieve.

Like the neighbouring village of Lillingstone Dayrell, therefore, the village of Stowe was ultimately destroyed by the dictate of the lord of the manor who wished to use the land for a different purpose. In the case of Lillingstone Dayrell, the former house sites and arable fields were given over to the grazing of sheep. In the case of Stowe, deer occupied the land formerly tilled by the inhabitants. However, whereas archaeological investigation has uncovered a good deal of evidence about the rise and fall of the village of Lillingstone Dayrell, its location and layout, much less is known about the village of Stowe. The creation of the Elysian Fields, part of the landscape gardens, in the 18th century appears to have removed all trace of the medieval buildings which formerly surrounded the parish church. The Temple family succeeded in erasing completely the material remains of a village which had been in existence for some 600 years.

December 2003