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Whittlebury

This is a shortened version of the paper published in Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 16 (2001), pp. 15-25.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Whittlebury, like neighbouring Silverstone, was a chapelry dependent upon the royal manor of Greens Norton, about four miles to the north. The parish lies in a detached part of Greens Norton (or Foxley) Hundred, separated from the remainder by the hundred of Towcester, which was probably carved out of an enlarged Greens Norton in the early 10th century following Edward the Elder’s defeat of the Danes. The ‘burh’ element of Whittlebury, compounded with the personal name Witela, suggests the presence of a hillfort held by a Saxon nobleman. The area was strategically situated on the border between the kingdom of the West Saxons and the Danelaw. In 921, Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, stationed his West Saxon army at nearby Passenham, on the River Great Ouse, while the stronghold at Towcester was being fortified. According to one of his law-codes, Edward’s son, Athelstan, held a council at Whittlebury in about 930.

The origins of Whittlebury may thus lie in a hillfort, situated perhaps on the high ground in the enclosure now occupied by the parish church. Although there is no direct evidence to suggest that the place ever suffered from the depredations of marauding Danes, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes clear that this was an area at risk of attack in the early 10th century. The site must, therefore, have been reasonably well defended, enough at least to serve as the venue for a royal council in 930. A defensive hillfort may also have acted as a focus for settlement, much as Norman castles were to do in the 11th and 12th centuries. Tenements may thus have been established in the shadow of the enclosure. Whittlebury is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. It is possible that this was because the manor was subsumed within the account of one of the estates in Silverstone. In the 12th century it was reported that Richard held six small virgates in Whittlebury of the fee of Silverstone. Alternatively, the dependency upon Greens Norton may explain the manor’s absence from Domesday Book. In 1316 John son of William Marshal was lord of Greens Norton and its vills of Duncote, Burcote, Caswell, and Whittlebury. The earliest mention of Whittlebury’s chapel is in 1322.

The entire parish of Whittlebury is depicted on the Whittlewood Forest map of c.1608. This illustrates clearly the four constituent elements of the parish at that time: the village and fields of Whittlebury; the farms and enclosures to the north and east of the village; the park of Paulerspury; and the woods of Whittlewood Forest. The map depicts the church within its enclosure, together with a building, no longer extant, adjacent to it. A house in an enclosure named Bray is illustrated on the site of the present-day Home Farm, previously Church Farm. A further 26 houses are depicted on either side of the road leading south from the church towards the forest. This linear pattern is still clearly visible today, despite modern extensions to the village in the north-east and south-east. Some of these houses lay in close proximity to one another in the 13th century. Thus, in c.1225-31 the half-messuage which Roger son of Nicholas of Whittlebury granted to Philip, then chaplain of Silverstone, lay between the houses of young Aubrey and Hugh Shepherd. At much the same time, a messuage granted to Luffield Priory was said to lie between the houses of Henry Doket and Robert son of Reginald.  

Figure 1: Landscape and settlement in Whittlebury c.1608

Two substantial farms in Whittlebury remained separate from the village and its fields. Lordsfields Farm lay in the north-western tip of the parish and was centred on a medieval moated site which still exists today (SP 687 450). The map of c.1608 depicts the second farm, Monks Field, lying to the north-east of the village abutting the border with Paulerspury. Monks Field was in the possession of Luffield Priory before the dissolution. In 1551 it came into the possession of Nicholas Throckmorton, along with other lands in the area which had belonged to the priory.

A large part of Whittlebury parish, particularly in the east and south, was occupied by the woods of Whittlewood Forest. Not surprisingly, assarting began early on the manor. For instance, a document of the early 13th century lists seven separate assarts in Whittlebury amounting to 19¼ acres. The largest of these belonged to Thomas de Waleshale, who held 12 acres, six of wheat and six of oats, of the fee of the earl of Albemarle, lord of Greens Norton in the early 13th century. There can be little doubt that assarting on a considerable scale continued in Whittlebury throughout the Middle Ages. The map of c.1608 suggests that much of this occurred in the north and west of the parish, as indicated by the place-name ‘Stockings’, and by the enclosures near Monks Wood and Porters Wood. Specific references to assarting in Whittlebury, however, are rare because it appears that the parish formed part of a much larger area known as Norton Wood, which extended into the parish of Paulerspury. Thus, although the numerous references to assarts held of the Marshal fee in Norton Wood, recorded in documents such as the forest regard roll of 1252-3, must include some which lay in Whittlebury, their precise location is difficult to determine. According to a charter of c.1231, one assart belonging to John Marshal lay next to arable land in one of Whittlebury’s fields.

It is likely that, as a detached part of the royal manor of Greens Norton, Whittlebury and Silverstone originally formed a single estate which was only later divided into two separate parishes. Evidence suggests that the links between the two communities and Greens Norton persisted into the 16th century. For example, an account roll of 1536 records that both paid an annual due called aberyes rent to the lord there. The links between Whittlebury and Silverstone were also strong. Indeed, the fact that both late medieval manors of Silverstone also encompassed parts of Whittlebury suggests that the parish boundary between them may only have been established at a relatively late date, perhaps in the 12th century. Certainly the views of frankpledge held by the abbess of Burnham and the prior of Luffield extended across the parish boundary, and many tenants in Whittlebury were obliged to attend the Silverstone courts. Thus, in 1430 Thomas atte Churche fined for the reversion of a messuage and virgate called Churches in Whittlebury which his father John held. Later the reeve reported the death of Sarah Plot who held a toft and cotland of the abbess of Burnham in Whittlebury. Separate ale-tasters were also appointed at Whittlebury by both Burnham Abbey and Luffield Priory, who reported breaches of the assize to the Silverstone courts. In 1425 William Tillesworth was fined 1s. 4d. for 12 offences by the abbess. Similar fines were imposed on Whittlebury tenants, such as William Bird, by the prior.

Although the courts held by Burnham Abbey and Luffield Priory were dominated by business concerned with Silverstone, sufficient references to Whittlebury survive for something to be said about the tenants there. First, numerous tofts existed in Whittlebury in the 15th century, suggesting a significant contraction of settlement there. Thus, in 1420 Thomas Walsh died holding a toft and two acres. In 1468 five tofts were listed in a rental of Luffield Priory’s lands, one of which was stated to be ‘formerly a cottage’, and William Hall held two tofts beside his messuage. Evidently there had been some consolidation of holdings in the wake of the Black Death. Second, while some tenants at Whittlebury in the 13th century held standard villein holdings of a messuage and virgate or half-virgate, others held smaller amounts of land such as a messuage and croft or a few acres. There was, therefore, a significant number of smallholders in Whittlebury who may be expected to have made a living in much the same way as their counterparts in Akeley. Third, as at Akeley, there were attempts by the absentee lords of Whittlebury to ensure that the tenants fulfilled their obligations to keep the roads clear, mend the weir, enclose the well, and prevent other nuisances. Thus, in 1444, one man who enclosed land which the tenants of both Whittlebury and Silverstone were entitled to graze in common, was fined 6d. by the abbess of Burnham’s court. To conclude, our picture of the settlement at Whittlebury derived from the documentary evidence is not as vivid as that of Akeley, but that there are parallels between the two communities, in terms of settlement development, tenurial structure, assarting, and lordship, is clear.

December 2003