A tenacious stock: sokemen and the origins of the
[Slide 1 – title]
(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
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.
could we possibly do with this ratbag? We had a few major sites like
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
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
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
you know, sokemen were ubiquitous in eleventh-century
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].
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
sokeman of the eleventh century, then, represents a yeoman class, not quite
gentry, but nevertheless a significant element in
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
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