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Domesday and the feudal system

Grantham is first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. It has been suggested that name derives from an Old English personal name ‘Granta’. It has also been suggested that it is more likely to come from the Old English word ‘grand’ meaning gravel, which would reflect its location. The ‘ham’ part is from Old English, meaning ‘homestead or estate’. The other spellings in the Domesday Book are ‘Grandham’, ‘Granham’ and ‘Graham’.

Before the Norman Conquest in 1066 a large part of Grantham was owned by Queen Edith, who had a hall there. By the time the Domesday Book was written the estate belonged to King William. By 1086 Grantham had become a Royal Borough, or an important town, along with (in Lincolnshire) Lincoln, Stamford, Torksey and Louth. It was also recorded as having its own mint between about 979 and 1016.

Not only was there land in Grantham but there was a large amount of land belonging to the estate in the surrounding area, known as sokeland. The administration of the estate would have happened in the Manor at Grantham. Land belonging to the manor in Grantham included parts of Gonerby, Harlaxton, Great Ponton, Stoke Rochford, Hungerton, Somerby, Manthorpe, Sapperton, Braceby, Welby, Belton, Little Harrowby, Londonthorpe, Barkston, Houghton and Denton. There are some villages which no longer exist which were part of the estate, like Dunsthorpe, Westhorpe, Nonegtune, Spittlegate and Walton. Those that disappeared often became part of other settlements which still survive.

Grantham and the surrounding villages, like the rest of England, was organised under the feudal system. The Domesday Book records amounts of land and people in villages so that King William would know how much tax to charge each village.

A manor was the dwelling and estate of a man of higher social standing than his neighbours, like a Lord. This would be a person who could collect payments from the peasants around him and make them work for him. In the Domesday Book the sizes of manors vary enormously.

Sokeland was land worked by sokemen. Sokemen were peasants who paid their own taxes and rent for the land they worked to their soke Lords, either in goods or in kind. A sokeman would have far more control over his land than a villein. He was also expected to attend the Lord’s court. Sometimes sokemen would be expected to do other tasks for their Lord, like repairing his manor house, but only if they lived close by.

Villeins worked on land owned by the Lord, and the Lord paid taxes on behalf of the villein. He also had rights to pasture and meadow for hay and grazing. In return he had to spend part of his time working for his Lord for free. Although villeins had less control over their land than sokemen, they could become very rich, certainly in Lincolnshire.

Bordars were landless peasants who could be hired labourers. They could also be craftsmen, like smiths, carpenters, wheelwrights or potters.

In the villages in Lincolnshire peasants would live in houses made of wood, turf or unbaked earth on platforms known as tofts. Later, where it was available, stone would be used for foundations and walls. Adjacent to the house there would be a croft, or garden and paddock. Peasants would keep chickens, geese and ducks. They were growing vegetables such as peas, beans, leeks and onions, as well as native herbs.

In Domesday land is measured in carucates and bovates. A carucate was the amount of land which could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. A bovate was an eighth of a carucate. The open-field system was used across England, including Lincolnshire. Each village would be surrounded by two, three or four very large fields. Each year crops like wheat, barley, oats, peas and beans would be grown on one or more of the fields, and one would be left to regain the fertility it had lost the previous year.

The land was farmed communally, and each field was divided up into strips (about 1 acre in size) and split among the peasants, so that good and bad growing land was shared equally. There would have been few land divisions like hedges as we have today; they were a result of enclosure from later centuries. You can often still see the distinctive remains of the results of medieval strip farming in fields today, as ridge and furrow earthworks (the corrugated-iron effect). Some archaeological work was carried out during development on some land off Belton Lane, and the remains of ridge and furrow were found and recorded. This gives us some idea of where land around medieval Grantham was farmed in medieval times.

Life could be hard in rural areas in medieval times, and although those in the countryside were mostly self-sufficient, they were at the mercy of natural disasters, and also increasingly reliant on a cash economy. This led to many years of hardship and famine.

Burgesses were those who lived in towns. They could hold land, paying rent to the local lord, but unlike villeins in the countryside, they could dispose of their land as they chose, without having to ask for permission. This allowed economic progress in towns without restriction and was fundamental to their development. Furthermore as time went by towns became the driving force for capitalism and industrialisation, and the places where new ideas and cultural models came into being, which were emulated by those in the countryside. They became centres of production as well as market centres.

At the time of Domesday 111 burgesses were living in Grantham. That isn’t the total number of people who were living in Grantham, but were those who were working and paying tax. We can estimate the minimum population in Grantham in 1086 as about 555, which at the time, was a town of considerable size. The number of tofts recorded was 77. The assessment of the value of the land had doubled in the twenty years since the Conquest, so was probably growing at that time. Some of the population in towns were villeins from rural areas who ran away from their estates. It was customary law that if they managed to remain in a town for more than a year and a day without being pursued, they would become free, hence the maxim expressed at the time: ‘the town’s air makes a man free’.

A church is mentioned in Domesday, which was almost certainly on the site of the present St Wulfram’s. Churches are mentioned in Domesday where they provide an income for the lord of the manor.

Four mills are also mentioned as having existed in Grantham. These would have been watermills, as windmills weren’t built in England until the twelfth century. These also provided an income in rent for the lord of the manor. Interestingly, on the Ordnance Survey map of the 1830s four mills are marked along the River Witham near Grantham: Slat Mill, Well Lane Mill, Spittlegate Mill, and Houghton Paper Mill. Could these be on the same sites as those mentioned in the Domesday Book?

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Last updated: 3 March 2011

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