AD 900 – The Origins of the English Village

3 mins read

When did the typical English village begin? That is, when did the outlying farms join together to become a nucleated village? Professor Mick Aston has been finding out.





(Note to American and other viewers outside the UK: Mick Aston is the leader of the ‘The Time Team’, Britain’s most popular archaeology programme. This account represents his serious long-term research).



Shapwick, in Somerset, is in many ways a typical English village, but it it has been laid out on a very distinctive ‘ladder pattern’.This air photo shows the pattern, with two parallel roads running top to bottom, and a series of rungs of the ladder running between them. Most of the houses are set along the ‘rungs’ of the ladder. Note the church at the centre, and the Manor house at the top.


The plan (right) shows that the pattern can be traced back at least to the 17th century. Note the brook running down the centre, and the two streets, one to either side of it. It was clearly a deliberate planned layout: but when did this layout take place?

At the north end of the village was the Manor House.


The Manor House appears at first sight to be a 17th century building, but when local historians John and Jane Penoyre examined the roof they realised it was an elaborate late medieval roof. They estimated it was built around 1475, and subsequently, tree ring dating showed that the timbers had been felled in the spring of 1489. Clearly this is the medieval Manor house, that is mentioned in the records of Glastonbury Abbey, which owned the village throughout the Middle Ages.

The Medieval Hall


Originally it must have been the elaborate roof of an open hall, as shown in this reconstruction drawing by local historians John and Jane Penoyre.

Originally the village belonged to Glastonbury abbey, and the records of 1515 indicate a hall surrounded by a moat. Subsequent excavations revealed that the moat had been filled in around 1620.

The mystery of the parish church


The church built in the wrong fashion. The church at the centre of the village may seem a typical medieval church to the casual viewer, but in fact it is all wrong. According to the documentary evidence it was built in 1331 at a time when central towers were hopelessly out of fashion, and western towers had long been the norm.

The site of the old church


The site of the old church had never been lost: it lay about a mile to the west in a field still known as Church field. Geophysical survey, and aerial photography (see photo right) combined with excavation, soon revealed the answer: when the church was moved in 1331, the new church was built in the exact form and dimensions of the earlier church, in a style that was by then over a century out of date.

How the problem was solved: The hamlets before the village
The habitative field names


The position of the old church revealed the position of one of the hamlets that was abandoned with the new village was laid out. But where were the other hamlets? A clue lay in examining the old field names recorded in the survey of the village made by Abbot Bere, of Glastonbury Abbey, in 1515. These revealed a number of ‘habitative’ field names, that is field names indicating habitation which no longer survived: these were field names ending in ‘wick’ worthy’ or ‘chester’ . A good example is a field known to the present day farm as ‘Henry’ which turns out to be Enworthy. Field walking revealed that some of these had been occupied down into the middle Saxon period.

Bridewell Lane


The final clue came from an excavation in the village in Bridewell Lane, on the site of a house abandoned in the 13th century. This produced pottery of the Cheddar E variety – very coarse, which appears to date to the 10th century. Thus at present all the evidence points to a tenth century date for the foundation.

This fits in well with the historical evidence. In 940 The great St Dunstan was abbot of Glastonbury and busy reforming English monasticism, introducing the ideas of the Benedictines, and ejecting all the clerks who refused to become celibate monks. We can perhaps imagine the more go-ahead monks visiting the Benedictine houses in the continent and returning full of the latest agricultural ideas. “Remove all the peasant farms, set up cereal factory farms instead. Move all the peasants off their scattered land holdings into villages. You think you can grow cereals – but you ain’t seen nothing yet”!

Was this how the typical English village was founded?

This is based on a fuller account in Current Archaeology 151

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