Lissingleys and the Meeting Place of Lindsey

Until enclosure in the early nineteenth century, Lissingleys was the name of an area of pasture situated between the townships of Linwood, Lissington, and Buslingthorpe, some twenty miles to the north-east of Lincoln. From the early thirteenth century when the name first appears in the sources, the land was common to the three communities that abutted on it and to the neighbouring villages of Faldingworth, Friesthorpe, Snarford, Wickenby, and Market Rasen. To the modern mind, common rights of this type might appear to be vestiges of a frontier economy: where the population was small and under-used resources vast, there was no need to divide the abundant waste. But in reality common rights were rarely ad hoc in medieval England. They usually relate in one way or another to the organization of communities and indeed the most recent study of the Lissingleys area has suggested that the eight intercommoning villages, along with the topographically related vill of Snelland, formerly constituted an Anglo-Saxon estate.

Such estates are well-attested in England before the tenth century. Their origins are debated, but they typically appear in the historical record as tributary units, composed of complementary elements and common resources, which rendered dues, notably a food rent, to a central lord's hall. It must be doubted. however, that the Lissingleys complex is of this type. Usually, the survival of common rights is paralleled in vestigial tenurial and ecclesiastical links. None of note is known around Lissingleys. In Domesday Book a parcel of land in Linwood was sokeland of Market Rasen, as was land in Snarford, but otherwise the various vills were apparently independent of each other. What links can be perceived in patterns of interlocking estates associate Lissington and Wickenby with vills to the south and Faldingworth and Snarford to estates to the north-west. Likewise, no church is known to have occupied a pre-eminent position in the vicinity. Wragby, Bardney, and Lincoln were probably the nearest foundations with any claim to importance in the area.

And yet pre-Conquest patterns of tenure within the vicinity of the complex suggest a central place of some kind. Three estates belonged to king's thegns in 1066. Merlosuen, the predecessor of Ralf Pagenel in his manor of Middle and West Rasen with its soke in Snarford, and, inter alia, a messuage in Lincoln, was one of the great lords of Anglo-Saxon England, holding land throughout the country. In 1066 he was King Harold's representative in the North and sheriff of Lincolnshire. Turgot Lagr, who held Buslingthorpe and conferred title on Robert de Tosny, was of more modest status, but with extensive lands in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Yorkshire. His soubriquet 'lagr' means 'the short' rather than 'lawman' as previously thought, but nevertheless he probably was so designated for he witnessed Earl Leofric's endowment of Stow St Mary with the lawmen and citizens of Lincoln. Agemund, who held land in Wickenby and Snelland, was purely a Lincolnshire thegn as far as is known (the name is a relatively common one). He was Gocelin son of Lambert's predecessor in a dozen or so estates within fifteen miles of Lissingleys and he can almost certainly be identified with the Agemund son of Walraven who was a lawman of Lincoln. All three held their lands with sake and soke, and were thus of the highest status in the county.

The lords of Linwood were probably of only slightly less importance. Both before and after the Conquest the vill was divided between two estate units. Tenurially-dependent manors held by William, Grinchel, and Asford in 1066, had passed to Alfred of Lincoln by 1086, whilst a further manor in the tenure of a certain Rolf was held by Durand Malet. Alfred of Lincoln was related to the Malets - indeed his predecessor William may well have been William Malet - and it seems likely that the two fees had been held by an extended kin group at some point before the Conquest. The social standing of the family at that time is unknown. Alfred of Lincoln's manor of Hungate in Lincoln, later known as Beaumont Fee, was evidently a considerable political presence in the City from an early date if ecclesiastiical structure is an indicator. There were no less than fifty-five medieval churches in the City and its suburbs, indicating a high degree of tenurial hetergeneity and diverse lordship, and yet few are found in or around Alfred's manor. The estate and its lords probably dominated the western side of the Lower City before the Conquest as after. It seems to have been held by a certain Sybbi in 1066, but unfortunately it is not known whether Alfred had right to it by inheritance or grant. The influence of the family only becomes visible after the Conquest. Little is known about Durand Malet, although his kinsman William Malet was sheriff of Yorkshire. Alfred was an important Lincolnshire tenant-in-chief and the nephew of Thorald the sheriff of Lincoln. Beaumont Fee was probably his principal manor in 1086, but Linwood, subsequently the caput of the honour, may have already been Alfred's main demesne estate.

Finally, Lissington was the caput of a small soke encompassing the vills of Swinthorpe, Snelland, Holton Beckering, and Beckering and was the archbishop of York's largest fee in Lindsey in 1086. The estate was held by a certain Lambecarle in 1066. He does not appear to have held with sake and soke, and it would therefore seem that he was a tenant. There is no notice of his overlord (although the order of the text hints at the organization of his estates), but it is possible that he can be identified as the archbishop. The only estates that the church of York is known to have held in Lindsey before the Conquest were the manor of Stow St Mary and Louth. However, from the late ninth or early tenth century to 1072, when the bishopric of Dorchester on Thames was moved to Lincoln, the archbishop acted as diocesan in the area. Attempts were made in the 950s and the early years of the eleventh century to resurrect the diocese of Lindsey within the province of Canterbury and the bishops of Dorchester repeatedly challenged the authority of York. But, beyond Stow and Louth, they failed to assume control of episcopal estates. William the Conqueror had to re-endow Remigius the new bishop of Lincoln, and it must therefore be suspected that the archbishop of York's lands in 1086 represent something of the ancient patrimony of the church in Lindsey. Lissington may well have been one of its principal manors.

A context for such a concentration of powerful interests around Lissingleys is suggested by the location of the land in relation to units of local government. Lissingleys was situated at the point at which the boundaries of the three ridings of Lindsey meet (figure 1). That this was an ancient characteristic of the site cannot be doubted. Although there is no concrete evidence for the exact line of the boundaries before the late eighteenth century, the extent of the ridings in terms of their constituent vills can be reconstructed from Domesday Book and the Lindsey Survey, and it seems clear that that pattern dates from at least the time of the carucation of Lindsey in the late tenth century. To effect the pattern careful manipulation of the bounds of the wapentake of Lawress was apparently necessary (Buslingthorpe, Faldingworth, and Friesthorpe are somewhat artificially appended to it) and in consequence the junction cannot be accidental. Lissingleys was clearly perceived as central to the three ridings and it must therefore be considered as the meeting place of the whole of Lindsey.

At first sight that conclusion appears intrinsically unlikely. It is true that the meeting place of Yorkshire, in the later Middle Ages, was likewise situated at the point where its three ridings meet, but this of course was in York itself, the county town and a major urban centre from an early period. Lincoln was clearly the primary settlement in Lindsey from the foundation of the kingdom and it might be expected that the court of Lindsey had always met there. However, it would appear that the aspiration to concentrate power in royal centres was a late development and was never fully realized in the pre-Conquest period. Decentralization was a basic characteristic of the political topography of the Northern Danelaw. Boroughs and the sokes were the nexus of political power in the East Midlands and the North. But the relationship between such centres and the land that constituted their territories was an essentially personal one between jarls and their men rather than a proprietorial one between lords and their bondsmen. Free men had duties and obligations to both institutions. They nevertheless retained their independence as communities and met in more neutral contexts. Stamford was the primary settlement in Kesteven and the whole of South Lincolnshire, the proto-shire of Stamford until the formation of Lincolnshire in the early eleventh century, met within the town court, but Kesteven itself probably met at the more centrally-placed Roman town of Ancaster. Likewise, the West Riding met at Spital on the Street within the soke of Kirton in Lindsey but well-removed from the estate centre, whilst almost all the wapentakes of Lincolnshire held their courts in remote spots outside soke centres.

A meeting place at Lissingleys, then, would conform to a practice which is apparent at lower levels in the administrative structure of the area. No place-name unequivocally refers to the site. The name Lissingleys itself is mysterious. The final element, -ley from OE leah, indicates a wood or clearing in a wood, and the medial -ing a tribal or kinship group, but the specific of the name, the initial Liss- element, which is also found in Lissington, has defied interpretation. The name Linwood, however, may be of relevance. It is first recorded in Domesday Book in the form Lindude, and, with later medieval spellings approximating to this form, its etymology is seemingly transparent. On purely philological grounds, it would appear that the first element is OE lind and the second OE wudu and that it connotes 'the lime tree wood'. It is not impossible, however, that the pre-Conquest form was something like *Lindeswude, that is 'the wood of the people of Lincoln', or *Lindissewude, 'the wood of Lindsey'.

Determining the antiquity of such a meeting place devolves upon the date of formation of the historical Lindsey and its integral ridings. The internal divisions are normally assumed to be of Danish origin on the ground that the word treding, 'thirding', is Scandinavian. This would be consonant with a recent analysis of the formation of the kingdom of Lindsey. It is argued that the -eg element in the name Lindsey, connoting 'island', was an early form which could not have referred to the area of Lindsey as a whole, as defined by the Witham and Trent fens, the Humber, and the North Sea, since the term is always used of small islands. Rather it is suggested that the island in question was the suburb of Wigford in Lincoln to the south of the Lower City, as bounded by the River Witham and the Sincil Dyke, and that this was the centre of a kingdom which encompassed part of Kesteven. It was only subsequently that the kingdom became confined to the historical Lindsey.

Neither argument can be said to be conclusive. There is nothing intrinsically Danish about a threefold division and it is therefore not impossible that the structure perpetuated an earlier adminstrative pattern. Indeed, the meeting places of all three ridings can perhaps make some claim to be the most ancient in the region. A pagan Saxon burial of regal wealth at Caenby suggests the early importance of the adjacent Spital, whilst Caistor, where the North Riding met, was a Roman town and Saxon central place, and Louth, a meeting place of the South Riding, was a Middle Saxon cult centre. The identification of 'the island of the Lindes' with Wigford is itself suspect. There is no archaeological evidence for settlement in the suburb before the ninth century, and, if indeed the element -eg is only used of small areas, it is more likely to refer to the promontory on which the Bail is situated. In more general terms, any extrapolation of the extent and form of the kingdom of Lindsey from the name itself founders on the fact that the form Lindsey does not appear before the mid ninth century. The earlier form of Lindisse and variants has an unknown final element and can therefore tell us nothing of the early history of the kingdom.

Sounder evidence can be adduced to suggest the extent of the kingdom. The Humber and the North Sea seem to have defined its boundaries to the North and East from before the time of Bede. The Tribal Hidage, a tribute list of the late seventh century, provides clues to the location of those to West and South. In that document Lindsey is associated with, but distinguished from, a Heath feld land. This latter was formerly thought to refer to Hatfield Chase in the present South Yorkshire, but recent research has shown that it can be better identified with that part of Nottnghamshire later known as Hatfield and the Clay. The boundary of Hatfield seems to have always followed the left bank of the Trent. It would therefore appear that pre-Viking Lindsey was confined to the right bank and thus probably excluded the Isle of Axholme. To the south-east the kingdom cannot have extended beyond the Witham at Billinghay, for that settlement was in the territory of the Billingas. Further to the east was the territory of the Spaldas. Only their southern boundary along the Welland has been identified, but it might be expected that the tribe substantially occupied the boundaries of Holland, although it may have extended to the more ancient outfall of the Witham at Wainfleet to the north-east. Elsewhere evidence is wanting. It is probably significant, however, that the archbishop of York never laid claim to episcopal authority in Lincolnshire south of the Witham, despite the fact that the Danes of York exercised authority as far south as the Welland and beyond, thereby suggesting that the river was the boundary of Lindsey when he assumed jurisdiction in the late ninth or early tenth century. The extent of the pre-Viking kingdom may, then, have differed little from that the historical Lindsey.

Decentralization was not just a characteristic of Danish society. It was also typical of early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Burh was separated from villa regalis and the church from both. In Bernicia, for example, Bamburgh was the major defended settlement, Yeavering the site of a royal palace, and Lindisfarne the bishop's seat. Yeavering may have functioned as a meeting place, for excavations have uncovered an imposing amphitheatre next to the palace, but its suitors are not known; the composition of local assemblies in the pre-Viking period is largely unrecorded. Place-names, however, sometimes provide a clue to their existence. Berkshire, according to Asser writing in the 890s, derived its name from a wood called Barroc 'where box grew'. Its location is unknown, but presumably it was the meeting place of some community to which the shire was heir.

It is not impossible, then, that the meeting place at Lissingleys dates from the Anglian period, but the case remains unproven. It can only be asserted with any confidence that the site was in use after the viking settlement of the area. The Scandinavian origin of the word treding is evidence enough that the Danes were familiar with the divisions, and it seems clear that the eleventh-century ridings antedate the English conquest of Lindsey in 942. Following the redemption of Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Nottingham, and Derby from subjection to the Viking of York by King Edmund of Wessex in that year, a system of local government was established based upon a new assessment to royal service in carucates. A quota of 600 carucates was imposed upon each riding, but two whole wapentakes that were geographically in the South Riding were transferred to the North for fiscal purposes to make up the assessment of that riding. The divisions were evidently not a function of carucation, as some wapentakes were, and they must therefore have already been in existence before 942. As part of the Viking kingdom of York until that date, Lindsey was untouched by West Saxon reforms introduced by Edward the Elder and Athelstan his son, and there is thus no reason why the ridings and their meeting place should not have been in existence from the earliest years of the viking settlement.

It seems equally certain that the site had been abandoned by 1086. Meeting places are usually characterized by tenurial hetergeneity: much of the land in county boroughs, for example, belonged to lords who held large estates in the shire. The concentration of important estates around Lissingleys is probably a vestige of a similar pattern. Domesday Book, however, reveals that all but Linwood had passed to tenants after the Conquest and, by implication, were not of central importance to their lords. The distribution of the endowment of Lincoln reveals a similar disregard for the site. Bishop Remigius appears to have adopted a conscious policy of land acquisition in the vicinity of the major centres of power in Lincolnshire as elsewhere. In addition to the endowment that William the Conqueror conferred upon him, he acquired the churches of Kirton and Caistor in Lindsey from the king, while in South Lincolnshire he purchased the manor of Wilsford next to Ancaster from Godfrey de Cambrai and attempted to regain seisin of land leased from the abbot of Ramsey by Bishop Wulfwig in Drayton, the major soke centre in Holland. His failure to acquire an estate in the Lissingleys complex must suggest that the site was no longer used for public meetings.

The reason for the abandonment of the site can only be a matter of speculation. Some presumably traditional centres of the type did survive. From at least 1071 into the modern period the shire of Kent met on Penenden Heath in Maidstone Hundred. But the extension of royal power, which accompanied the creation of a united kingdom of England, tended to erode the power of popular assemblies in favour of royal courts located in county towns. If this was the mechanism in Lindsey, then three possible contexts are suggested. Carucation in the mid tenth century was probably the first. The new taxation was the infrastructure of a territorially-based burghal system known as the Confederacy of the Five Boroughs. As one of those boroughs, Lincoln assumed responsibility for the protection of Lindsey and the maintenance of the peace therein. Its court coordinated the new administration and in consequence it may have eclipsed the Lissingleys assembly.

It was the early eleventh century that saw the next radical change in the jurisdiction of the court. The Confederacy of the Five Boroughs collapsed in the face of renewed Danish raids in the latter years of the reign of Æthelraed the Unready, and in 1016 or shortly thereafter it was replaced by the East Midland shires of the later Middle Ages. Lincolnshire, uniting Lindsey and the former territory of Stamford, came into existence for the first time and the court of Lincoln became a shire court. However, the most likely context for the demise of the Lissingleys assembly is perhaps the settlement of the North after the Norman Conquest. Despite the introduction of a new administration, Lincolnshire remained a political battleground disputed by the earls of Mercia, Middle Anglia, and Northumberland throughout much of the period upto 1066. Crown control of the shire was probably minimal and it was only the construction of the castle of Lincoln and transfer of the diocese to the City which provided solid foundations for royal power. The Lissingleys assembly was most likely the victim of vigorous Norman government in a politically volatile area.

Only the common rights in Lissingleys remain unexplained. Hundred and wapentake meeting places were often located on commons and some of them may have related to estates to which jurisdiction was attached at an early period: the manerium cum hundredo is a mechanism by which some hundreds may have come into being. But the widespread separation of the tenurial and the public must suggest others possibilities. Intercommoning may have often been a characteriistic of boundaries between ancient folk groups. In Worcestershire, for example, the Tomsaetan and Pencersaetan probably shared land between their respective territories. It might be supposed that such areas were a natural focus, since neutral, when folks were organized into kingdoms. The obscurity of the name Lisingleys precludes any firm conclusions, but the common rights may attest a boundary between tribal groups within the kingdom of Lindsey of this kind.

© David Roffe, November, 2000.