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What was Hadleigh like 700 years ago?

PUBLISHED: 13:00 01 December 2018 | UPDATED: 14:55 04 December 2018

Good eyesight (or an optical aid) is helpful when youre translating historic records! This document is actually about Layham, near Hadleigh Picture: Archant

Good eyesight (or an optical aid) is helpful when youre translating historic records! This document is actually about Layham, near Hadleigh Picture: Archant

Archant

How Suffolk folk found themselves with the Archbishop of Canterbury as their ‘boss’

Margaret Woods at home near Hadleigh. When I retired 15 years ago a friend said Why dont you come to the medieval Latin palaeography classes? I loved it. Absolutely loved it Picture: ArchantMargaret Woods at home near Hadleigh. When I retired 15 years ago a friend said Why dont you come to the medieval Latin palaeography classes? I loved it. Absolutely loved it Picture: Archant

We need a time-travelling machine and we need it now! It would let Margaret Woods go back 700 years or so and chat to some of the people she’s “met” on the pages of ancient documents. Not that they seem two-dimensional, this cast of “ghosts” from Suffolk’s past, for the limited details we have are intriguing enough to fire our imaginations.

I want to know, for instance, why brewer’s wife Matilda refused to sell ale to Adam Basset – not once but twice – and was fined sixpence each time. There’s surely a story to be told.

And wouldn’t it be great to sit down with Alice and see how she felt about being fined 20 shillings – a lot of money, then – for common usury (lending money at unreasonable rates of interest, basically). In 1276, the wife of Vincent the Fuller had loaned 16 shillings to John Wyoth for a year. Long before Wonga…

Then there’s Lord John Ernfield (“lord” was a courtesy title for rectors) whose rectory in the 1300s had a garderobe – a loo. There were complaints about this leaking towards Hadleigh Hall.

“He’s charged” – fined – “two shillings for this leaking latrine. Then 10 years later it’s still leaking! He’s charged a further two shillings and told to put it right,” says Margaret.

More? Well, Hadleigh had a grammar school by 1275 – early, in the scheme of things. Precious little is known about it, but Nicholas, the “master of scholars”, was concerned mostly with the brewing and selling of ale, apparently. Perhaps he wasn’t paid much and had to supplement his income.

In 1330 or thereabouts, a high-up official was in town, along with eight of the King’s horses and grooms. The horses were milling around a courtyard, it seems, eating manorial hay, and the town serjeant was getting a bit fed up. So he gave the keeper of the King’s horses six shillings and eight pence to go and feed them somewhere else.

The building of St Marys Church started in the late 12th/early 13th Century, on the site of an old Saxon church. There was a whipping post and stocks outside, and a ducking stool in the Bridge Street area  Picture: peter cutts/citizenside.comThe building of St Marys Church started in the late 12th/early 13th Century, on the site of an old Saxon church. There was a whipping post and stocks outside, and a ducking stool in the Bridge Street area Picture: peter cutts/citizenside.com

Someone definitely needs to invent a Tardis, so we can meet these characters in the flesh. “Oh, it would be wonderful,” Margaret agrees. “I’d love that!”

So how did she come across all this?

“When I retired 15 years ago a friend said ‘Why don’t you come to the medieval Latin palaeography classes? (The study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of manuscripts.)

“I had done Latin at school, to ‘higher’ level (in Scotland), so went along.” Medieval Latin proved a bit different to the classical version, but “I loved it. Absolutely loved it”.

It led to Margaret becoming part of a group transcribing historic documents about Hadleigh – putting Old English records, such as accounts, into modern English.

Then she heard about old Hadleigh court rolls, accounts, charters and so on stored in Canterbury Cathedral’s archive. Kent? Why? Well, the manor of Hadleigh belonged to Canterbury for several hundred years – the priory benefiting from rents and produce.

A tough old world... Part of the cover of Margaret's book  Picture: ARCHANTA tough old world... Part of the cover of Margaret's book Picture: ARCHANT

The first documented lord had been ealdorman Byrhtnoth – killed at the Battle of Maldon in 991 as he and Anglo-Saxon forces tried to repel Viking invaders. Ealdorman was the highest rank of noble and just before his death he was the most senior ealdorman in the country to King Aelthelred.

Byrhtnoth and his wife had no children, “so he bequeathed his many lands to churches or religious institutions around the country”.

The manor of Hadleigh, along with those of Lawling in Essex and Monks Eleigh in Suffolk, were among those given to the Priory Church of Canterbury Cathedral. It made Hadleigh an “archiepiscopal peculiar” – under the direct control of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Local managers kept things running. Accounts from the 13th and 14th Centuries show it was always in profit.

As the chief manor it was responsible for running the court leet, which dealt with more-minor offences, such as assault and theft of under a shilling.

“Hadleigh did have the right to hang people without a trial, if they wanted, but there’s no record of that happening!” says Margaret.

Not surprisingly, she found this Canterbury link fascinating, so she and husband Michael travelled from Suffolk to Kent a number of times, looked at the records on Hadleigh and ordered copies.

Stories of the past. The writing might sometimes be hard to decipher, but its magical  Picture: ArchantStories of the past. The writing might sometimes be hard to decipher, but its magical Picture: Archant

Back home, Margaret sat in the light of a bay window and over time translated between 200 and 300 documents. She produced a little booklet some years ago, put together a display and gave talks. And then realised she really ought to write a book.

“Medieval Hadleigh – The Chief Manor and the Town”, running to more than 300 pages, is available from December 10. It gives rich detail never before aired in such digestible form.

Change never stops

The feudal system weakened. By the start of the 15th Century the Hadleigh lands are being rented to a single farmer, and tenants pay their dues to a rent collector. In the 1500s came Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

The experience of Laura atte Pond illustrates the inequalities of the feudal structure, in which power and wealth trickled down (sort of) from the monarch.

Accounts in 1338/9 show her giving two shillings (a not-insubstantial sum) to the manor. It seems she was in the lord’s wood when she came across a swarm of bees.

“Normally it would have been the lord’s prerogative to have the bees and honey, but she was allowed to keep the bees – on condition she gave half the profits from the ensuing wax and honey to the lord of the manor.

“So from this poor little lady, probably, this wealthy person takes half her profit. Very sad – though he was probably thinking he was very magnanimous!”

• The book should be available from December 10 at The Idler bookshop and Keith Avis Newsagents – both in Hadleigh High Street. It costs £20.

Was Wat Tyler here?

Margaret’s book covers 991 to 1540, with an emphasis on the 13th and 14th centuries. (The bulk of the documents relate to 1270 to 1377.)

• Hadleigh was a moderately-sized town, with a reckoned population of about 1,100 or 1,200 in 1306. The manor had 2,000 acres.

• The manor was a working farm, with crops and some animals, and had quite an important dairy.

• Hadleigh Hall was the site of the medieval manor house, in four acres.

• There were 118 “unfree” tenants in 1306. They had to pay rent, provide labour services… and pay 16 pence when their daughters got married! “Free tenants” had fewer obligations and dues. (There were 75 free tenants, and 31 of unknown status: making 224 tenants in all in 1306.)

• Margaret understands 15 acres or more was probably enough to live on, feed one’s family and sell some surplus. If you had only a small amount of land, you’d also have to work as a labourer or craftsperson, if you could.

• The building of St Mary’s Church started in the late 12th/early 13th Century, on the site of an old Saxon church.

• There was a whipping post and stocks outside, and a ducking stool in the Bridge Street area.

• There’s good reason to believe Walter “Wat” Tyler and his wife were Hadleigh tenants 20-odd years before he was one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt (against the poll tax) and came to a sticky end.

Records show a Wat Tyler taking over a freeholding in Coram Street in 1358/9. It’s possible he worked as a tiler.

• Margaret is a former lecturer at Suffolk College in Ipswich. She set up the early childhood studies degree course now offered by the university.

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