More than a bad rash: mapping the 1291/2 Taxatio in the Bayton area

Everybody loves a good map.

As part of my PhD thesis I’ve recently been making a bunch of national-scale distribution maps, comparing hoard findspots to other contemporary distributions – most obviously that of wealth, usually reflected in lay and ecclesiastical tax assessments. Britain, and England especially, is pretty well blessed with evidence of this sort. On the church front we’re definitely blessed by the University of Sheffield’s recently-beautified Taxatio Online database, the fruit of almost three decades’ work digitising Pope Nicholas IV’s 1291/2 tax assessment of English and Welsh benefices. The significance of this assessment has been justly recognised by historians for more than a century, not least because it remained the basis of parliamentary and convocation grants of the clergy well into the 16th century.[i]

In the course of converting this data into something mappable for my thesis, I was itching to check out what the Taxatio had to say about wealth – at least, of the church – in Bayton and its surroundings in the later Middle Ages. The obvious route was to look at the spatial distribution of tax assessed wealth using GIS mapping. The process from web database to pretty map is fairly smooth, but for the curious here’s a step-by-step walkthrough. Thanks to the nifty ‘Browse by County’ function it’s straightforward enough to extract data for the three counties in the study area – Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire – through a simple cut-and-paste job in Excel. At this stage a little data cleaning was necessary to clarify county attributions. Since Taxatio Online groups benefices by historic county, reattribution is necessary where modern county boundaries have shifted or where an attribution is otherwise historically incorrect; Bayton, for instance, has been historically a member of Worcestershire’s Doddingtree hundred, so it’s a little odd to find it chucked in as part of Shropshire. This complete, each benefice can be broadly spatially referenced via batch geocoding, and therefore importable into the GIS package of your choice. Unsurprisingly there are a couple of benefices listed which don’t yield an easy coordinate – some do not exist in the present day – and therefore some manual attributions were necessary, with the remainder given a quick double-check to make sure there were no obvious howlers in the spatial data. All in all this yielded coordinates for 535 benefices in the study area – not bad going!

Spatial bits thus recorded, the next main task was converting the assessment values – which Taxatio Online records as a £ s. d. value in a single cell – to a more uniform number amenable to analysis. The obvious solution is to convert everything into d. values; thus the assessment for Kinlet (Salop) changes from £ 10. 0s. 0d. to the simpler 2400d. A bit of Excel wrangling later and we have a .csv file ready to import as a vector in QGIS. All that was left was to load it up, do some styling, stick on top some boundary vectors and, hey presto, we have a map!

Taxatio assessments for NW Worcs/SE Salop in the later 13th century; the redder the dot, the higher the tax value ( Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2014 and data available from U.S. Geological Survey).

Taxatio assessments for NW Worcs/SE Salop in the later 13th century; the redder the dot, the higher the tax value ( Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2014 and data available from U.S. Geological Survey).

Chickenpox resemblance aside, the map gives some interesting glimpses of the distribution of church income in the region; since much of this was based on farmland tithes, it should offer some hints – albeit imperfect – to broader distributions of agrarian wealth in the region. What’s notable is the broad uniformity in which most of the benefices – including Bayton – fit, characterised by lower rung tax assessments of  £3 6s. 8d. to £9 4s. 0d. Poorer, certainly, than some of their cousins in the fertile arable of the Vale of Evesham, but by no means impoverished. Presumably the degree of uniformity reflects shared topographic characteristics conditioning local agrarian regimes across the area, but a note of caution against environmental determinism is given by the benefices at the foot of the Clee Hills – which includes Bitterley (Salop), whose value falls in the top 40% of assessed benefices, and Silvington (Salop), which was exempted by merit of its low income.

At the top end of the spectrum we can see a correlation between benefices with high tax assessments and the presence of a market. This is most obvious at Lindridge (Worcs), but can be observed beyond the map’s limits at Stottesdon (Salop), Kidderminster and Tenbury (Worcs). A link between the sites of formal marketplaces and areas of relative wealth comes as no surprise, and perhaps this is why the high values at Cleobury Mortimer (Salop) and Rock (Worcs) are so intriguing. Cleobury Mortimer was granted borough status in 1362, at which point we can presume it also acquired formal market rights, as Rock was to receive on 10 May 1328. Could the high tax assessments in 1291/2 indicate late 13th century markets formalised by subsequent charters? Excavations at Rock Farm offer a snippet of supporting evidence, yielding a medieval ceramic assemblage of 13th century and later date composed of both local and Malvernian wares produced c. 20 miles south east at the Hanley Castle potteries. Could some of this have arrived via the cross-county network of rural markets?[ii]

In itself the map raises a bunch of other questions. How much does the Taxatio reflect variations in ecclesiastical wealth alone, without taking into account the holdings of laypeople? Come to think of it, given the much-debated connections between population and wealth in this period, to what extent does the map inform us of broader issues of land, people and wealth during the ‘long’ 14th century? One route would be to map population and wealth as reflected in near contemporary lay tax records – most obviously the published 1327 lay subsidy returns for Shropshire and Worcestershire. Another project for another day?

[i] R. Graham, ‘The taxation of Pope Nicholas IV’, English Historical Review 23:91 (1908), 434

[ii] D. Hurst, “The finds,” in Evaluation at Rock Farm, Rock, ed. L. Fagan (Worcester: Hereford and Worcester County Council, 1993), 15.

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Floods, storms and environmental nasties in medieval Worcestershire

Floodwaters over the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2013

Floodwaters over the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2014

It’s hard to escape the news – and physical reality – of the floods and storms currently drenching Britain, which, according to the Met Office, are the worst in some twenty years and aren’t being helped by climate change and swingeing cuts to flood defences. That said, so far we’ve got off relatively lightly in Worcestershire, road closures and drenched fields notwithstanding. This makes a mild and welcome change from the norm in a county whose topography and drainage – bearing more than 1700km of streams and rivers amidst large lowland floodplains – have historically made it ripe for both farming and flooding.

Given this objective situation, it’s unsurprising to see the impact of floods, storms and other environmental events on everyday life in Worcestershire inscribed in the medieval documentary and archaeological records. The river Severn, at the centre of the county’s waterways, provides particularly abundant clues, and one of its earliest recorded floodings on 4 June 1258 is vividly described in the Flores Historiarum. Triggered by ‘a terrible storm of wind, accompanied by torrents of rain’[1], the Severn broke its banks from Shrewsbury to Bristol, flooding all the meadows and cornfields along its route and destroying all the crops. These were not the only victims; ‘some men were even drowned in the violent waters, and innumerable boys, and great quantities of animals of every sort’. The deluge was of a scale unseen in living memory, and to the eyes of locals had only one origin – ‘the secretest gulfs of hell’. Further floods are recorded, albeit on a much smaller scale; in 1374 flooding of the Severn caused severe damage to the bridge at Evesham[2], and recurrent floods at the vill of Strensham resulted in a 1395 indult allowing residents to bury their dead at the nearby chapel rather than the parish church of Pershore Abbey[3]. In some cases even these could have severe results, with repeated flooding in the late 14th century leading to the eventual abandonment of the mill complex at Bordesley Abbey[4]. Sometimes, however, it had its upsides; in 1325 it meant that the ruined mill at Naunton Beauchamp could finally grind cereals once again[5].

For such a perennial problem it’s equally unsurprising that people should find ways to overcome nature’s difficulties – or at least to work around them. If the raised floor levels of the transept at Bordesley Abbey constitute a low level damage mitigation policy[6], the earthwork defences erected parallel to the Severn at Bushley are of a quite different scale, with linear banks and draining ditches stretching out in sections over roughly 1115m[7]. However, in a time when flooding could be attributed to devilry, perhaps the best alternative approach to risk-mitigation was spiritual; amidst heavy rains in 1437 the Prior of Worcester ordered a procession of the shrine of St Oswald across the city, just as ‘hyt hath byn afore this time for cessying of such continual reyne’[8]. At least in agricultural terms, however, perhaps a more straightforward approach was to avoid cultivating the most risky floodplains altogether. The photo below of today’s flooding along the Powick Hams might reveal this strategy in action; ridge and furrow earthworks extend down the slope of the hill in the foreground, terminating along a boundary beyond which the land is a lot more sodden – and lacking the obvious marks of cultivation.

Sheep grazing amidst extant ridge and furrow along the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2014

Sheep grazing amidst extant ridge and furrow along the Powick Hams, 6 Jan 2014

Where does Bayton fit into all this? Although the medieval vill is sited some 400-600 ft above sea level, the presence of the river Rea and several tributaries – principally the Shakenhurst, Tanner’s and Mill Brooks – in its immediate vicinity do pose occasional flood risks, proven in practice in June 2012 when lower lying areas of the parish were left flooded after facing as much as 63.2mm of rain in a single day[9]. As these were the locations where mills – such as that recorded at Shakenhurst in 1275 – were sited, it is easy to imagine the risk posed by flash-flooding along the Rea to the local economy, disrupting food production and causing grave consequences in the incomes of millers and mill owners. How residents dealt with these challenges is as yet uncertain, although we can easily imagine that, like elsewhere in the county, both practical and spiritual works had a role to play.

Bibliography

Astill, G. 1993. A medieval industrial complex and its landscape: the metalworking watermills and workshops of Bordesley Abbey. York: Council for British Archaeology.

Averill, M. 2012. More record floods in 2012. Wyre Forest Study Group Review 2012. pp 26-27.

Lloyd, D. 1993. A history of Worcestershire. Chichester: Phillimore.

Page, W., and Willis-Bund, J.W. 1924a. Parishes: Naunton Beauchamp. In W Page and JW Willis-Bund, eds. A history of the county of Worcester. Vol 4. London: Victoria County History. pp 143-7.

Page, W., and Willis-Bund, J.W. 1924b. Parishes: Strensham. In W Page and JW Willis-Bund, eds. A history of the county of Worcester. Vol 4. London: Victoria County History. pp 202-8.

Rahtz, P., and Hirst, S. 1976. Bordesley Abbey, Redditch, Hereford-Worcestershire. First report on excavations, 1969-72. Oxford: BAR

Rudge, E. 1820. A short account of the history and antiquities of Evesham. Evesham: J Agg.

Yonge, C. 1853. The flowers of history, especially such as relate to the affairs of Britain. Vol. II. A.D. 1066 to A.D. 1307. London: Henry G Bohn


[1] Flor. Hist., p 357

[2] Rudge 1820, p 108

[3] Page and Willis-Bund 1924b

[4] Astill 1993, p 54

[5] Page and Willis-Bund 1924a

[6] Rahtz and Hirst 1976, p 71

[7] WSM46806

[8] Lloyd 1993, p 45

[9] Averill 2012, p 26

Something slightly different

Leigh, Worcestershire. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2013

Leigh, Worcestershire. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2013

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:

  1. Leigh has several extant medieval sites – some of which are of national significance – which can be associated with its holding by Pershore Abbey.
  2. 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.

St Edburga's church, Leigh

St Edburga’s church, Leigh

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.

Number of newly-appointed rectors by quarter-century at St Edburga's, Leigh.

Number of newly-appointed rectors by quarter-century at St Edburga’s, Leigh.

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.

Leigh Court Tithe Barn

Leigh Court Tithe Barn

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 motte at Leigh Castle Green. Note the large spoil heap at the bottom right, caused by animal burrowing; these surround the site from most directions.

The motte at Leigh Castle Green. Note the large spoil heap at the bottom right, caused by animal burrowing; these surround the site from most directions.

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.

Coin loss profile for Leigh. Periods are those of Kelleher 2012; Worcester regional mean from Andrews 2013

Coin loss profile for Leigh. Periods are those of Kelleher 2012; Worcestershire mean from Andrews 2013

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.