A tenacious stock: sokemen and the origins of the Lincolnshire yeomanry

 [Slide 1 – title]

Hilary Healey's Lincolnshire, Spalding Grammar School, 14 June 2014

(For the PowerPoint presentation that accompanies this lecture, please contact David Roffe)


It is a great pleasure to be here today to celebrate the life and work of Hilary Healey. Hilary was, as Tom has so eloquently explained, at heart a collector and her chosen passion was the history of Lincolnshire. Her knowledge was phenomenal. There was no antiquarian account of a hump or a bump, it seemed, that she had not read and, moreover, all the details were at her finger tips. Before we could type 'Lincolnshire' into Google, we had Hilary. The nitty-gritty was always her forte and, in my experience at least, she was no more in her element than in 'The Medieval Earthworks Survey of South Lincolnshire'. The project had its origins in a job creation scheme. In 1977 the late Vic Ancliffe, a local government surveyor, had been made redundant - nowadays, I suppose, he would have been 'let go'. Hilary spotted an opportunity. Funded by the Manpower Services Commission, Vic was employed to draw up measured plans of certain unlisted earthworks in Kesteven. To these were added various sites in Holland in the early eighties and a few years later the Department of the Environment provided funding to compile a gazetteer. I worked with Hilary to make sense out of a mass of disparate sites.

            Earthwork surveys were very much the fashion at the time. They were, though, only just beginning to be incorporated into a broader landscape history. The standard was to be set for Lincolnshire, and indeed for England generally, by Paul Everson and his colleagues in their study of a sample of villages in north-west Lindsey, It was to be published in 1991 [Slide 2 - NWLincs]. There sites are viewed as elements within the changing morphology of the settlement in which they were situated. The result is in a rich diachronic account of each. Such an approach was beyond the scope of our more modest project. The available resources in money and time dictated the necessity to confine the study to the earthworks themselves. This was, indeed, the usual approach at the time. Our sample was diverse. We had eight shrunken or deserted villages, two abbeys and six monastic granges, eight castles, seventeen moated sites, and eight miscellaneous features of more or less medieval date.

            What could we possibly do with this ratbag? We had a few major sites like Sleaford Castle, Swineshead Abbey, and Catley Priory. The profiles of these grander monuments was much in line with what was already known. Thus, as one would expect, there was a marked difference in terms of origins and date between royal and baronial castles, on the one hand, and honourial castles, on the other. What the Lincolnshire evidence added to the picture was the degree to which the distinctive characteristics of each group reflected pre-Conquest differences in power and status. It was the site of halls of Anglo-Saxon thegns that determined the location of major castles in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. You can read an analysis on my website [Slide 3 - Castles]. The abbeys and granges were also true to form. They were equally aristocratic foundations that expressed seigneurial values and aspirations.

            Much as one would expect. Most of the remaining earthworks, though, are poorly documented. Not, as an historian, sites I would have chosen to study. Nevertheless, despite their apparently unpromising potential, as a group they provided some unexpected insights into the history of Lincolnshire. They proved particularly eloquent on the processes of manorialization, that is the ways in which lordship became identified with land and encroached upon it.

            We all have an indelible picture of social relations in the Middle Ages. There were lords on the one hand who 'owned' all the land and peasants on the other who worked it. Now, it was not quite like that in Anglo-Saxon England [Slide 4 – AS Lordship]. As difficult to comprehend as it may seem - and historians are as guilty of this as anyone else - there was no simple equation of lordship with land. Land itself tended to be owned by those who cultivated it  - they could be individuals or families. The lord's rights were confined to various dues from it. These might include rents in cash or kind, labour, and sundry personal imposts, but generally not freehold. Not exactly the Marxist definition of feudalism. The tenth and eleventh centuries had seen an intensification of these bonds, but, by and large, this picture remained true in 1066. The Normans, by contrast, saw it all differently. All of England belonged to King William by conquest and he granted it out to his barons. Lordship and land became one. The twelfth century saw the rapid growth of manors, hence the manorialization of English society to which I have referred [Slide 5 - Norman lordship]. This is a rather simplistic representation, but, I think, makes the point.

            So runs the conventional understanding of the Norman settlement. Our mundane earthworks told a somewhat more nuanced story. They revealed that a resilient substratum of English society survived the Conquest to mould the distinctive society of medieval and early modern Lincolnshire. Alongside the tale of Norman kings and lords we uncovered a parallel story of a vigorous class of English yeomen, the Lincolnshire sokemen.

            As you know, sokemen were ubiquitous in eleventh-century Lincolnshire. Domesday Book shows that in some parts of the county they represented as much as 80% of the recorded population. This is H. C. Darby's distribution map [Slide 6 - sokemen]. The Wolds and parts of Kesteven had particularly large concentrations. To these areas should be added the wapentakes of Kirton and Skirbeck where Darby's method under-estimates distributions. As a class the sokemen were characterized by their freedom. The dues they owed to local lords were light and they were usually free to go with their land. As such, they were in effect a peasant aristocracy. They can be contrasted with the run of rural society. Villeins were also free in the eleventh century but owed more onerous services to their lords; it was only bordars and slaves who were completely dependent. The origins of the sokeman class do not concern us today. I'll just say, briefly, that historians no longer believe that they are the descendents of the rank and file of the Danish armies of conquest of the ninth century, as Stenton argued in the last century. Rather as a class they appear to have been more broadly characteristic of pre-Viking English society. What is of more relevance here is the understanding that the Norman Conquest saw a depression in their status. The evidence is apparently compelling. Time and again twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources record villeins alone, or sokemen owing villein-like services, where there had been large free populations in 1086. In Crowland Abbey's manors of Baston and Langtoft it even appears that villeins were better off than their nominally free neighbours.

            The Norman Yoke was apparently inescapable. Sokemen and socage tenure seemingly diminish in frequency in the two hundred years after the Conquest. And yet we found in our survey that when we took the story on into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries socage tenure suddenly re-appeared. The earthwork known as Wybert's Castle is a case in point [Slide 7 - Wybert's Castle]. Lincolnshire antiquaries, no doubt influenced by the colourful account of the origins of the settlement in the Historia Croylandensis, the Pseudo-Ingulph Chronicle, identified the site as the castle of the putative late ninth-century founder of Wyberton. However, little credence can be given to this interpretation. The name of the earthwork is a fanciful invention. In the eighteenth century the site was known as Wells Slade. As such it can be identified as the manor held by the Wells family in the fourteenth century [Slide 8 - earthworks]. Its character was distinctive. The estate was not held by military service or sergeancy, but in socage, and its lord was subject to all the customs of sokemen. Thus, on the death of Adam de Wells in 1310, for example, the land was not taken into wardship, but was divided equally between his three sons who sued for immediate seisin despite their minority. We have here all the hallmarks of the sokeman's freedom.

            Now, it has to be said that this was not unusual at this time. Socage of the Wells kind is generally seen as a new type of tenure. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were period of economic and social upheaval that mark a departure from earlier medieval forms. Radical climate change - yes, it has happened before - and then plague with their devastating impact on population, put irresistible pressures on the manor. The result was the relaxation of tenurial bonds and the release of dependent labour at a time when feudal incidents were still demanded. It must be remembered that the knight also owed onerous dues to his lord. Socage tenure became a desirable alternative to knight service. In medieval English law it conferred a title to real estate that came as near as damn it to modern freehold. Supply adjusted to meet demand and hence the sudden appearance of socages.

            Such, the historiography tells us, was the origins of later medieval sokelands. But, was the Wybert's Castle socage really a new tenement in the early fourteenth century? If we go back to Domesday Book we find that Guy de Craon held a manor identified as Wyberton. However, its later history shows that it was actually situated in Tytton. The name Wyberton identifies the twelve-carucate hundred in which the settlement was situated. The whole of the vill of Wyberton itself was soke of Drayton. 9 carucates and 3 bovates were held by 38 sokemen and a further 10 bovates by a certain Æthelric before the Conquest. There was not a manor in sight in 1086 [Slide 9 - DB Wyberton]. The coincidence is striking. 'Free tenants' still held much of the vill in 1242 and Æthelric's sokeland may be represented by Ralph son of Ralph son of Stephen's one fourteenth of a knight fee at the same time. All of this is suggestive. But there is not much more to corroborate continuity between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.

            Somewhat clearer, however, is the case of Winkhill in Heckington [Slide 10 - Winkhill]. At much the same time as the Wells family held Wyberton, it was designated as a manor and it too was held by non-military service by the Asty family. In the thirteenth century it was in the possession of a certain Thomas Anglicus, that is Thomas the Englishman, for the service of one twentieth of a knight's fee. Earlier it was held of the Templars by a certain William, apparently in socage. It can with some confidence be identified with the tenement held by the freeman Conded in 1086 or, just conceivably, one of the many other sokemen in Heckington at the time. Here the origins of the fourteenth-century estate can be traced to a pre-Conquest equivalent.

            Other examples could be cited, but it has to be admitted that continuity of this kind appears to be rare. But the fact does not mean that sokemen families survived only in exceptional circumstances. We are simply failing to recognize them in our sources. They, it has to be said, are not socage friendly. Almost all our administrative documents - scutages, inquisition post mortem, even surveys - are predominantly feudal records: they are concerned with tenure by knight service and sergeancy. They deal with the nobs, if you like. Socage sits uneasily in this world. We see it from time to time in its own terms, especially in later records like the Ragman Rolls of 1275. There holdings are measured in carucates, as opposed to knight fees, and render a small quit rent to their lord in discharge of all their obligations. More usually, though, medieval administrators strove to shoehorn socage into the feudal system. So, from the mid twelfth century formulas like x carucates where y carucates make a knight fee begin to make their appearance. By the thirteenth century the principle was apparently understood and the fraction of a knight fee that such equations implied was alone recorded. Outlandish figures are ubiquitous in Lincolnshire. Besides the fourteenth of a knight fee in Wyberton and the twentieth in Winkhill, we have twenty-fifths in Barkston, Welby, and Londonthorpe and Manthorpe, a nineteenth in Westby, and fiftieths in Gonerby, Houghton, and Walton. A fair sample of these can be identified with fees held by Englishmen in 1086 and we can thus conclude that they are a marker for socage tenure. What have formerly been perceived as feudal fees are in fact pre-Conquest land holdings.

            The body of evidence of this kind is considerable. I have recently published a comprehensive analysis, so I will not bore you with the detail [Slide 11 - Legacy]. Sorry, that's a shameless advert. What is important is that from it we can begin to perceive how socage tenure survived in the interstices of feudal society. There must, it is true, be instances in which free land was simply appropriated and incorporated into the manor. This was the fate of the sokemen of Welbourn. By the early twelfth century they appear to have been dispossessed. The castle of the honour of Bayeux was built on their land [Slide 12 - Welbourn]. Nevertheless, if ultimately they could not resist the will of their lord, they may well have exacted a price. Certainly William de Roumara, earl of Lincoln, could not run roughshod over his tenants in Revesby when he founded a Gilbertine abbey there in 1142. Revesby was soke of Bolingbroke and was inhabited by 54 sokemen and 14 villeins in 1086. Knights were subsequently enfeoffed in the village and William had to recompense them for the loss of their land. However, equally he had to come to terms with a group of 27 rustici. This term usually refers to villeins, but here the referent is probably sokemen. Six opted for an exchange of lands elsewhere in return for dues and services which were typical of socage tenure.

            These were clearly exceptional circumstances. Other appropriations are more apparent than real. Henry de Clinton was granted all of the lands of English thegns, that is free holders of the king, in Kesteven and Holland in the early twelfth century. We can point to estates in Austerby in Bourne, Burg in Kirkby Laythorpe, Ouseby, Little Lavington, Creeton, and Skillington. All appear to have been fully appropriated according to the Book of Fees and the like. But the odd incidental reference indicates that English families were still in possession in the thirteenth century, all owing the tell-tale service of fractions of a knight fee. These are just a handful out of hundreds of examples. It was not land that was granted but service. Sokemen continued to hold their lands as they had always done so. I think we can conclude that sokeland tenures survive in much greater numbers than has hitherto been considered

            Nor were the sokemen who held them apparently handicapped by their status. I have yet to trace the antecedents of the Wells family, but they were certainly doing well in the fourteenth century. They held a considerable number of lands in the area in addition to Wyberton. Whether they were direct descendents of sokemen or had bought the land is unclear, at least to me. The Astys in Winkhill were also on the up. They too had a large holding, consisting of various fees in Great Hale, Little Hale,  and Howell, as well as Heckington. There was no greater testimony to the fact that they had arrived than the right to the court that they enjoyed. The estate remained intact, although somewhat diminished, into the last century. The manor house is now represented by a bungalow [Slide 13 - bungalow]. Sic transit gloria mundi.

            I don't suppose that the owner holds a manor court nowadays. It is, nevertheless, remarkable to be able to trace the nucleus of a Domesday sokeman's holding to the present day. It is probably not alone in having a profound effect on the modern landscape. Wybert's Castle, it will be noted, was remote from the main centre of population in Wyberton [Slide 14 - Wybert's C], So equally was Winkhill from Heckington [Slide 15 - Winkhill]. It would seem that a dispersed settlement pattern was characteristic of most socages: sokemen lived in scattered farms rather than villages. Whether this was cause or effect of their freedom is indeterminable. Manorializing sokemen in the fenland must anyway have been like herding cats. But it is clear that socage tenure and its concomitant liberties had a considerable impact on the fate of the communities in which it was found.

            Again, the earthworks survey was enlightening. Our sample of shrunken and deserted medieval villages - SMVs and DMVs - was small. But taken in combination with the others that are known in Lincolnshire, a patterns emerges. All tended to be situated on inferior land and it is tempting to think that they were always destined to fail. In the past historians and archaeologists looked for a single cause for contraction and extinction. The claims of climate change, the Black Death, enclosure for sheep, and the like have all been canvassed. But what is striking is that similar settlements on equally poor land subject to comparable pressures managed to survive. The human history of each was evidently as important a factor in the fate of any particular settlement as its environment. Those that 'failed' - an unfortunate word, for habitation was usually never entirely extinguished and the land is, of course, still exploited today - those that failed had almost invariably experienced extensive manorialization. Lords owned the land. Faced with contracting labour supply and decreased profits both resident and absent landlords were in the position to maximized returns by turning to less labour-intensive means of exploitation, like enclosure for sheep. The result as depopulation. The freer communities, by contrast, were not subject to such pressures and in consequence were more likely to weather the vicissitudes of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Landlords looked to profit, farmers to survival. We owe it to medieval sokemen for the continuing existence of many settlements of the present day.

            What does all of this tells us about sokemen? Well, first, I think we have to accept that many of them were of higher status in 1086 than is often assumed. Indeed, we know that the Domesday scribe frequently had difficulties in categorizing them. In Yorkshire, the first county to be compiled, he assigned manors to them. By the time he got to Lincolnshire, he had generally decided to mark them down as peasants. But doubts persisted: in Deeping there were five sokemen on five manors and in the Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire folios sokemen are regularly said to have held manor. Historians have tended to compare them unfavourably with holders of land in 1066 who were named in the Domesday text. But the contrast marks a distinction without a difference. It was largely a textual artefact. Many sokemen, it seems, had their own curias and dependent tenants of their own.

            Second, as such they were better equipped than previously appreciated to resist manorialization - the appropriation of their lands by lords - in the later Middle Ages. The picture of the Norman Conquest as a tenurial revolution is an over-simplification. There can be no doubt there was a change of personnel at the top of society. The old English aristocracy was swept away. In 1086 Lincolnshire is only exceptional in this respect in the survival of a handful of minor lords from a pre-Conquest elite. But it was English legal forms that mediated the Norman settlement. You may be surprised to learn that in the twelfth century tenure by barony was defined in terms of sake and soke, an English legal concept, and knight service was legally analogous to thegnage. All of this was a veneer, as it were, before the Conquest as after, on a society that is not fully represented in the sources. Lordship in 1086, as it was in 1066, was less about land than dues. Sokemen may well have had to pay more to their Norman masters. but they continued to hold their lands as they always had.

            The sokeman of the eleventh century, then, represents a yeoman class, not quite gentry, but nevertheless a significant element in Lincolnshire society. And history was on his side. His clout was evidently strong enough to resist Norman acquisitiveness and survive what has been described as a kleptocracy. In the following century it was feudalism that that was forced to adapt to him and his lifestyle and thereafter, unlike the knight, he found himself perfectly placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the crises of the fourteenth century. One suspects that many a gentry family of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had their roots in a similar background.

            History is written by the victors but it does not belong to them exclusively. Hilary and I started off with some pretty ordinary earthworks. However, our study ended up with the unearthing of a class that played a large part in the making of Lincolnshire in the Middle Ages and beyond [Slide 16 – final].

            As a coda, I will add that, for various reasons, our gazetteer was never published. I have posted the commentary on each site, minus the surveys, on my website, along with a brief introduction that outlines the issues that I have covered today. The fifty or so pages remain the most popular on the site and have been widely cited. Hilary would no doubt I am sure have been gratified that the medieval earthworks survey continues to prove useful for hundreds of people each month.


©David Roffe 2014