Armed with little more than a couple of maps, two pairs of socks and a good(-ish) set of walking boots, last Sunday I made a temporary departure from the usual schedule of Bayton-based medievalism to set off on an 8-mile round trip to the village of Leigh near Malvern. There were two main reasons for the journey:
- Leigh has several extant medieval sites – some of which are of national significance – which can be associated with its holding by Pershore Abbey.
- For early November, the weather was remarkably nice.
Having sufficiently justified it to myself, I set off in the early afternoon on a walk across a lot of muddy fields, a few paved roads and an active train track. Surviving potential flattening I arrived around an hour later at Leigh’s parish church, an imposing sandstone structure dating mostly to the 12th-14th centuries. The church has the peculiar characteristic of retaining its pre-conquest devotion to St Edburga, the product of a close association between its landholder, Pershore Abbey, and Edburga’s cult; shortly after her canonisation in 972 the abbey acquired a number of her relics, stimulating a cult whose accoutrements included a dedicated chapel at Pershore and a 1226 grant to host a fair on her feast day, 15 June.
The church has several extremely interesting exterior features, including an elaborate 14th century ashlar tower and a potentially 15th century timber porch, although its interior is particularly significant for containing a remarkable 12th century relief carving of Christ. However, at the time I visited the lights weren’t on – and I couldn’t find a light switch – so all my photographs look particularly bad; thankfully, a photograph taken for the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture is more than enough to whet the appetite.
One of the more visible internal features, however, was a plaque hanging in the nave listing the rectors of the church and their dates of appointment. The document has evidently been carefully compiled from several sources by earlier parish historians – one of whom, Lisle-Wright, has produced a handy short history of the church. While the record has inevitable limitations – there are no records of rectors predating 1274, for example, leaving more than a century of the church’s life without local documentation – it nevertheless sheds interesting light on ecclesiastical arrangements in medieval Leigh. Between 1274 and 1556 it records some 38 rectors, representing an average post-holding of 7.5 years; for each quarter-century between 1275 and 1474 there are generally two to four rectors recorded, demonstrating a high degree of fluidity in the holding of ecclesiastical posts. In other words, the rectors of St Edburga’s do not seem to have stayed in their job all that long. The real significance of the changes can be seen most clearly for 1432 and 1504, when the post swapped hands twice in one year. By the early 16th century there is an enormous growth in the number of named rectors.
The records provide a strong indication of sudden and localised demographic change, the most likely cause of which would be disease. The most obvious of these is plague, a fate that is likely to have befallen Rector Willelmus de Burthone, who in the ominous year of 1349 was replaced by a new postholder, Walterus de Morton.
After leaving the church I did think to take a visit to the Leigh Court tithe barn, conveniently located right next door. This building, managed by English Heritage, is one of the oldest extant cruck-built barns in England, dated to c.1325 using stylistic features and dendrochronology. The barn would have served as a centre for the storing and threshing of grain cultivated on the monastic granges, and testifies to the scale – both physical and financial – of Pershore Abbey’s agricultural interests during the later Medieval period. Unfortunately however I made an error of timing; the barn is now closed for winter. In any case, at least I got a good view of the exterior; the photo really doesn’t do it any justice.
At this point it was beginning to get darker, so I made the executive decision to head back, albeit via the footpath past Leigh Castle Green, a small Norman motte that seems to have miraculously escaped later plough damage – although the number of animal burrows surrounding the site suggest that below ground things might not be quite as nice as they seem. While no archaeological research has been conducted that might shed light on the site, a documentary tradition exists relating the motte to the manor of Castleleigh, held by the Pembridge family in the 13th century; nevertheless, as at Leigh church, the documentary record here seems to postdate the physical evidence by at least a century, leaving many questions essentially open. At this point, sunshine rapidly receding, I decided to hop back on the homeward path.
The visit to Leigh is useful in providing some stark contrasts with Bayton. The size and scale of the tithe barn is ample evidence that the Abbots of Pershore had a very profitable holding at Leigh; St Edburga’s lavish 14th century tower speaks volumes about the amount of surplus income in their possession, readily available for new expenditure. The entry for St Edburga’s in Pope Nicholas IV’s 1291/2 taxatio reiterates this key point, listing the church in two portions; that held by Pershore Abbey was valued at £8 6s 8d, rising to £13 6s 8d when both portions are combined.
The 1332/3 lay subsidy entry for Leigh, however, demonstrates that wealth was not only possessed by the church, with a total of £4 5s 10d levied. This conclusion is supported by numismatic evidence, with 40 coin finds recorded by the PAS and EMC in the parish; assuming these represent casual losses, they demonstrate a sizeable amount of circulating monetary wealth – from groats to farthings – with a chronological distribution often paralleling the county average, albeit with proportionately fewer pre-Short Cross and more post-1465 issues.
By contrast a noticably poorer community is evidenced at Bayton, whose parish church, St Bartholomews, was valued at only £4 in the taxatio, and whose 1332/3 lay subsidy levies totalled only £2 3s 6d – by no means a small sum, but nonetheless considerably smaller than Leigh’s contribution. The numismatic evidence for Bayton’s wealth is considerably weaker, as very few coin finds have been discovered or reported, although a single Short Cross halfpenny recorded by the PAS underlines the fact that money did indeed circulate in the parish. In any case, the wealth disparity between Bayton and Leigh seems to have had deep roots. In a previous post we have seen that Bayton’s 1086 valuation was £4; the valuation for the two holdings at Leigh were a remarkable £18 10s.
As such, Leigh serves as a good example of a wealthy medieval holding in Worcestershire; Bayton, by contrast, reveals a noticeably poorer counterpart, emphasising the diversity of even a comparatively small county like Worcestershire during the Middle Ages. As local historians this should warn us away from making sweeping generalisations about ‘medieval life’ – within less than 20 miles people could experience very different standards of living, as true in the past as it is today.