The mystery of the missing maypole?

Back in the 1860s the antiquary John Noake penned a series of sketches of Worcestershire for the Birmingham Daily Gazette, republished in 1868 as a Guide to the county. Recounting his visit to Bayton, Noake drew attention to ‘a relic of old times…in the shape of a veritable Maypole’.[i]  As so often we’re indebted to Noake’s keen eye for this tantalising fragment of local heritage – there’s next to no trace of it in the present, and he seemed quite sure of its antiquity. So we’re justified to dig that little bit deeper – what can be said about the maypole, just how much of a ‘relic of old times’ was it, and why does it matter at all?

Tantalisingly terse - John Noake on the Bayton maypole

Tantalisingly terse – John Noake on the Bayton maypole

Somewhat paradoxically, going backwards necessitates going forwards – in this case to early 1887 when, with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations fast approaching, the parishioners of Bayton undertook to restore the village maypole. For around seven or eight years the wooden pole had lain unused and in disrepair, apparently because the family which could foot the bill for the festivities – the Wicksteads of Shakenhurst – had moved out of the area.[ii] The restoration efforts were evidently a success; the pole was back up in time for the year’s May Day celebrations, and the ensuing newspaper reports offer us some of the most detailed records we have for the revived custom. The day was a feat of organised quaintness:

  1.  In the early morning women and children started ‘wending their way towards the village carrying flowers and evergreens’, which they then tied onto garlands fastened onto the still-grounded pole;
  2. The flag was tied to the top of the pole, which was then heaved up by a group of men until it stood around 50ft in the air;
  3. The assembled crowd, which included the Mamble village band, performed patriotic songs and gave cheers for the Queen, the Vicar, and the Maypole, before breaking off into a dance.

After about an hour the crowd broke off, reassembling in the evening for more singing.[iii] The basic formula was repeated a couple of months later in time for the actual Jubilee – albeit then with the addition of food, sports, and the lighting of a beacon on Collier’s Hill.

The account reeks of twee Victoriana, probably because it is twee Victoriana – drenched in ‘Merrie England’ sentimentality and parochial romanticism, this is more Mary Berry than Medieval Bayton. Where it becomes more interesting is the claim that some parishioners had ‘helped to adorn the May-pole’ for 70 years, a fact independently verifiable in diary entries from 1801 onwards. So far so good – a terminus ante quem predating the wave of mid-Victorian revivalism, albeit still bearing the trademark gentry patronage of the revivalists. An earlier pedigree, however, was suggested by the eldest parishioners, who claimed that the pole had ‘been there long before them’.[iv] Assuming these claims were accurate, the custom of maypole rearing at Bayton is pushed back into the 18th century. Good stuff. Anything earlier?

Well, no. Anyone who studies vernacular culture has to make do with inadequate, incidental records, and in this part of Worcestershire the problem is amplified by the uneven survival of pre-18th century documentary evidence. Taken by itself, the evidence from Bayton would suggest that Noake’s ‘relic of old times’ wasn’t quite as old as he thought. Zooming out to the national scale, however, forces us to reconsider; the evidence of churchwarden accounts suggests that the rearing of maypoles, like many other May rituals, had been firmly rooted across southern Britain by the late 14th century, and early references can be traced in Worcestershire and Shropshire into the 17th century and earlier.[v] It’s therefore quite possible – likely, even – that the 19th century revellers were continuing a custom of later medieval precedent, albeit with much Victorian tat adhered to it. Importantly, however, we can’t yet prove it, mainly because we don’t have pre-19th century churchwarden accounts for Bayton or the nearby parishes of Mamble, Neen Sollars, Cleobury Mortimer, Lindridge, Rock or Pensax.[vi] Maybe something will turn up in future research, but maybe this is misplaced optimism. Some conjecture might not be amiss.

Stripped of the 19th century flags-and-flowers, we’re left with a big wooden pole standing in the village green.[vii] The evidence for its location is furnished by 20th century accounts and, importantly, the house name ‘Maypole Cottage’ on the east end of the green. No pre-19th century references can be found for this house name, although the building itself is a timber-framed structure of 17th century fabric – it may hint at earlier origins, or it may not. Either way, the monument would occupy a significant focal point in the local landscape visible from some distance. Its siting in the village green could be read as a metaphor for the significance of calendar customs in rural life; the ability of may rituals to ‘bring together’ otherwise fragmented rural communities would be expressed at the ideological and spatial levels. One poem in Corbett’s Poëtica Stromata, satirically addressed to the Vicar of Bewdley – around 6 miles due east of Bayton – gives us clues to visual appearances; ‘a Pole painted, and wrought…a lew’d Bird, towring upon the topp’.[viii] A post-medieval account, granted, but one which tallies with the gaudy decor so common to medieval monuments. Big wood implies trees, and the medieval parish had no shortage of woodland resources to draw on; one plausible source could be the extraparochial ‘Custom Wood’, a block of woodland in the Wyre Forest to which the parish had customary rights of housebote and timber, although many other sources are quite possible.

Speculation is indulgent and ultimately inconclusive, but serves to drag out a point; it’s quite plausible that the custom of maypole-rearing in Bayton was quite venerable indeed, perhaps even moreso than Noake had imagined. Despite Victorian reinvention, however, it was not to last. The maypole re-erected in 1887 was to be a permanent fixture in the village landscape into the early 20th century, featuring in the 1902 coronation celebrations of Edward VII; by the end of the decade, however, it had begun to rot, posing a danger raised at parish council meetings. At its AGM in April 1909 the parish council took the decision to remove the pole once the May Day celebrations were over, offering to cover any costs incurred by James Dunn, a local postmaster and grocer who had agreed to do the job free of charge. Execution was less than prompt, however, and a year later the rotting maypole was still standing on the village green awaiting replacement.[ix] Presumably before 1911 fresh wood had been found, when the council agreed – funds permitting – to organise a coronation party for the villagers of Bayton and Mamble, featuring ‘a meat tea for adults and tea with a souvenir of the coronation for children, also sports, bonfire and fireworks and raising of the May Pole’. It remained in the green as late as 1928, when Wedley could paint an idyllic picture of ‘the sports and pastimes of the England of long ago’.[x] Thereafter the trail darkens again – if anyone reading this knows about its fate, I’ll be pleased to hear it.


[i] J. Noake, Noake’s Guide to Worcestershire (London: Longman, 1868), 272

[ii] Worcester Chronicle, 7 May 1887, 5

[iii] Ibid.; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 2 July 1887, 2

[iv] R. Judge, “May Day and Merrie England” Folklore 102:2 (1991), 135; Worcester Chronicle, 7 May 1887, 5; WAAS 705:126/BA 6442/3/iii. The authors of these diaries are anonymous but belonged to ‘the Meysey, Wigley and other families’; those of the 1870s are most likely to have been authored by Charles Wicksted, and make references to the ‘May Pole’ on 1 May. Unlike later volumes references in the diaries of 1801 and 1802 are less explicit, although both mark out 1 May in a way unparalleled for any other beginning of a month.

[v] R. Hutton, The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 233; R. Palmer, The folklore of Shropshire (Almeley: Logaston Press, 2004), 300

[vi] R. Hutton, Rise and fall

[vii] Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 2 July 1887, 2. Unsurprisingly this description is quite similar to Worcestershire examples from Hallow and Offenham; C. Taylor, “May celebrations” Explore the Past, May 6, 2013, The danger in assuming that these reflect older appearances is stressed by V. Alford, “The Maypole: an engraving of 1751” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 4:4 (1943), 148

[viii] R. Corbett, “An exhortation to Mr. John Hammon,” in Records of Early English Drama: Herefordshire Worcestershire, ed. David Klausner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 364

[ix] WAAS 268.1/BA 6137, particularly the entry for March 1909. I am indebted to Mary Swift and Sue Burrows for highlighting this reference.

[x] I. L. Wedley, Twixt Severn and Teme: The story of a delightful country (Kidderminster: Shuttle Press, 1928), 93



There’s gold in them thar hills

As part of my ongoing research into local place names I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time looking through the Bayton Parish Registers. For various reasons – population mobility, marriage patterns, formal ecclesiastical union and shifting parochial boundaries – this has meant delving into the registers of most of Bayton’s surrounding parishes as well, and during this work I came across a peculiar entry in the Mamble registers, dated 10 June 1681:

“It ye ghold yt was found was buryed”

As a numismatist – and in particular someone who’s spending an awful lot of time right now looking at buried gold – this is all rather exciting. After a few deep breaths I decided to see if I could find out anything else about the discovery, when I came across…

…absolutely nothing.

This is of course not one bit surprising, and presumably has been the fate of many discoveries of historic precious metal objects in the past and sadly, in a few cases, continues right up to the present. As far as I can tell outside of the register there are no documents recording the find or its findspot; this is especially unfortunate, as the parish of Mamble in this period included much of what is now Bayton, and unlike a few other places there are no helpful field names to point us in the right direction.[i]

This makes any real interpretation of the find and its significance almost impossible. We might suggest that the date of the record indicates something of its circumstances of discovery – possibly drawn up by the plough during the ‘second stirring’ of the fallow ground – but cannot prove it; it is equally possible that it was come across by coal miners, or maybe even thrown up by rabbits like those immortalised in 19th century field names.[ii] More firmly the date of discovery gives us a terminus ante quem for the find – whatever was found at Mamble must predate the late-17th century. But that still leaves a lot of space for speculation, and a few salient possibilities spring to mind.

1) A prehistoric deposit?

The chance that the Mamble find might represent a prehistoric deposit ought to be considered, but should be placed alongside the more concrete evidence for prehistoric precious metal finds from the Worcestershire-Shropshire-Herefordshire region. Although chance finds of worked flints from Bayton demonstrate activity in the area of late neolithic to early Bronze Age date, the area lies outside the classic distribution of elaborately furnished Bronze Age burials, and, although not unknown, Bronze Age gold objects are scarce in the region more broadly. This is also true of other classes of prehistoric gold finds like Iron Age torcs which, while represented by a growing number of local finds, are largely made of copper alloy, not gold, in the Worcestershire area, and are in turn generally found in the south of the county rather than the north.[iii] We might therefore doubt that the Mamble find was from a prehistoric deposit – whether a hoard, a burial or something else – but recognise that this is an unabashedly circular argument. The possibility remains, small though it may be.

Possibly, but not probably?  Bronze Age gold from Shrawley (PASID WAW-052196) Used on a CC-BY SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Possibly, but not probably?
Bronze Age gold from Shrawley (PASID WAW-052196)
Used on a CC BY-SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

2) An ancient coin hoard?

Another possibility is that the Mamble find was more specifically of gold coins. If so, analogy with modern finds might suggest that it was most likely formed of Iron Age – or maybe Roman – gold coins.[iv] Certainly we have ample evidence for the discovery of precious metal ancient coins in the late medieval and early modern periods – denarii of Trajan seem to have been included in the 1607 Higham on the Hill hoard (deposited c. 1195-1247) and woodcuts of British and Gaulish Iron Age coins were inserted into the 1600 edition of Camden’s Britannia, reminding us that incidental discoveries might occur even before the advent of modern deep ploughing.[v] Compared to the earlier prehistoric material there is a much more promising regional context in which to situate a possible late Iron Age or Roman gold coin hoard; Iron Age gold coins in particular are reasonably well represented in the Worcestershire-Shropshire-Herefordshire region, and the limited quantity of archaeological, metal detector and chance finds from Mamble and Bayton include Iron Age harness fittings, Roman coins and a possible Roman brick kiln – all of which points to more substantial settlement activity than for the earlier period – although allowances must be made for the much greater visibility of this material vis-a-vis earlier prehistoric archaeology.[vi]

A little more likely? Iron Age gold stater from Pershore (PASID WAW-C74642) Used on a CC-BY SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

A little more likely?
Iron Age AV quarter-stater from Pershore (PASID WAW-C74642)
Used on a CC BY-SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

3) An (?early) medieval hoard?

Along similar lines we might question whether the find was of later medieval gold coinage – or even recently deposited 16th/17th century gold coin. One traditional objection  – that gold coin rarely circulated in rural contexts, and therefore is unlikely to be found hoarded in the bleak hill country of the Worcestershire/Shropshire border –  appears quite untenable in light of reassessed finds and documentary evidence.[vii] Against this, however, we must plead the question of reception and familiarity; although the reforms of Henry VIII changed the shape of the English gold coinage considerably, the basic iconography of ships and angels so common to later medieval gold coins persisted in one form or another into the early 17th century; it’s hard to imagine that even the most stereotypical country bumpkin might not have recognised the find for what it once represented.

Top: AV angel of Richard III, 1483-5 (PASID LEIC-E209C1) Bottom: AV angel of James I, 1615-6 (PASID LEIC-C684F6).  Used on a CC-BY SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Familiarity’s a funny thing…
Top: AV angel of Richard III, 1483-5 (PASID LEIC-E209C1)
Bottom: AV angel of James I, 1615-6 (PASID LEIC-C684F6).
Adapted on a CC BY-SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Could we then raise the possibility of an earlier gold coin or object, whose iconography might be less familiar? We are, of course, in Staffordshire hoard country after all. Certainly possible, although again without any tantalising reference to gemstones or enamel work we’d do well to restrain ourselves. And again the testimony of existing artefact and coin distributions is less than encouraging; even accepting modern recovery biases the sparse evidence of gold coins of the 5th to 10th centuries tends much more towards southeast England, as indeed does the evidence for early medieval gold – or for that matter any – objects more generally.

These proposals clearly aren’t exhaustive, but to me seem a fairly reasonable précis of what the discovery made in the summer of 1681 might have been. So what results, if any, can be drawn from the speculation? The balance of probabilities leads me to think that what was found was likely an ancient – probably Iron Age, or maybe Roman – coin hoard (or single find?), but this has to contend with the fact that our sole reference makes zero reference to coins whatsoever. In any case, without any further documentary testimony – or, even better, a fortuitous survival lurking away from plain view – we’ll never really know for sure. But where’s the fun in that?


[i] John Field, A history of English field-names (Harlow: Longman, 1993), 218.

[ii] Coal mining in Mamble has been extensively considered in David Poyner & Robert Evans, “Mamble Colliery” Shropshire Caving and Mining Club Journal 4 (1997), 34. The 1838 Mamble tithe map records several fields names after coneys; WAAS S760-459.

[iii] With the notable exception of a possible fragment from Pershore: Derek Hurst and Ian Leins, “The Pershore hoards and votive deposition in the Iron Age” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 79 (2013), 304.

[iv] Roger Bland and Xavier Loriot, Roman and Early Byzantine gold coins found in Britain and Ireland (London: Royal Numismatic Society, 2010), 29.

[v] D.M. Metcalf, “Find-records of medieval coins from Gough’s Camden’s Britannia” Numismatic Chronicle 17 (1957), 193; Colin Haselgrove, Iron Age coinage in south-east England: the archaeological context (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1987), 1.

[vi] Ian Leins, “Numismatic data reconsidered: coin distributions and interpretation in studies of late Iron Age Britain” (PhD diss., Newcastle University, 2012), 283.

[vii] (*cough*selfpromotion*cough*) Murray Andrews, “‘Noble, fair and fine’: Single finds of English gold coins from later medieval England and Wales” (forthcoming); see also the discussion in Christopher Dyer, A Country Merchant, 1495-1520: Trading and Farming at the End of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 122.


Of Arsons and Parsons

The south porch and west tower, St Bartholomew's.

St Bartholomew’s church, Bayton

Between May and July 1275 four royal justices and their entourage sat in residence at Worcester as they held a general Eyre for the county[1]. Over 46 days the commission heard more than 1000 civil and crown pleas brought before them, at least ten of which directly concerned disputes over land, administrative practices and criminality in Bayton parish. Most are fairly mundane; two berate villagers for not attending inquests into the (exceedingly clumsy) accidental deaths of Maud la Fole – who drowned in a marlpit – and Roger Edith – who fell on his own knife and died three days later[2]. Yet one case in particular stands out among the others. After a succession of hearings concerning larceny, trespass and theft, the justices heard a case concerning an arson attack on the parson’s grange in Bayton[3]. Since they dealt with arson and not homicide we can assume that nobody was hurt; perhaps the parson was not in residence that night, or had made it out of the blaze alive. The individuals who brought the case to the justices named a chief suspect, Thomas le Ku of Shakenhurst, a propertyless peasant who had fled the vill shortly after the attack. To the eyes of the justices his flight was proof enough, and its ruling was swift and straightforward; Thomas was exacted and outlawed.

The reference to this event is both concise and tantalisingly cryptic. If the Eyre’s notes and ruling are at all accurate, we are immediately presented with a question – what would drive Thomas to burn down the grange? The justices record no possible motive; perhaps in their eyes – and presumably those of the parson – Thomas was an individual malefactor, driven by the same sort of criminal instincts which allegedly led to theft and murder.  Certainly the judgment passed treated him as such. Yet the brief note may mask a more complex reality. In an interesting recent paper Müller draws attention to certain peculiarities about arson which distance it from other crimes in the medieval period. While burglary and extortion were offences which could considerably enrich their perpetrators, arsonists rarely benefitted financially from their acts[4]; while a thief like William Russell of Bayton could possess some 18d in chattels[5], Thomas the alleged arsonist possessed nothing. Furthermore, arson is a very visual and very social act, transmitting explicit messages to both the victim and the wider community, and it is therefore of little surprise that it features so prominently in acts of social rebellion or interpersonal disputes in medieval England. In 1348 a long-running series of disputes between Worcester Cathedral and the city’s lay community over legal privileges culminated in an organised attack on the cathedral priory; the monks were shot at with arrows and the priory set ablaze[6]. An almost identical incident had taken place some 21 years earlier in Bury St Edmunds, where rural peasants and townsfolk burned down several abbey houses and manors during a rising against the Abbot[7]. Numerous similar examples can be found throughout the period, most notably in the midst of the Peasant’s Revolt[8]. While other instances of arson might lack such overtly political functions – for example, a murder and arson committed by a group of ‘unknown malefactors’ at Holt might have been over a local dispute between the victim, Thomas Moliar, and one of the alleged perpetrators, Hamo le Messager[9] – it is clear that in many cases arson served as a ‘weapon of the weak’ in the face of exploitative relationships or unjust demands, providing a vivid and public statement that the victim had caused such problems to the perpetrator  that they felt justified to gain revenge through a dramatic destruction of property.

Might Thomas’ actions represent one such act of resistance? Certain aspects of the case might point in this direction. As the archetypal poor peasant Thomas fits the bill well –a man who possessed no chattels at the time of the Eyre, and who probably eked out some of a miserable living through the occasional sale of cooked meat. The local church held quite a different position. In 1291 Pope Nicholas IV’s taxatio valued St Bartholomew’s at £4, from a national standpoint hardly enormous yet locally of a significant economic weight. Its associates lived in some comfort; in the c.1280 Worcestershire lay subsidy a village clerk, William, is recorded as contributing 40d, an assessment placing him firmly within the top 25% of contributors – themselves a selection of the parish’s better off. That he possessed reasonable personal holdings is demonstrated in a dispute recorded in the Eyre between William and two villagers, Julian de Pres and Brian de Croft, over the unjust disseisin of 4 parts of a messuage and 3 acres of land with appurtenances he held in the vill[10]. While the wealth of the parson himself cannot be observed with such security, a hint of its scale is revealed in a record of the rights given to the vicar of Mamble when he assumed an additional post in Bayton shortly after August 1298; these included the vicarage house, a third share of the corn tithe, the whole of the ‘small tithes’ – renders from wool flocks, flax mills, orchards and gardens – and all the fees and offerings of the parishioners[11].  When the glebe is added to this mix it is clear beyond doubt that the parson occupied a very different rung on the class ladder to Thomas the alleged arsonist[12]. While the sparse details of the case make its interpretation inevitably speculative, given the extent of the church’s claims in Bayton it is certainly within the realms of possibility that the arson attack served as the culmination of some potentially long-running disputes over the rights of a wealthy clergy to exploit some of its poorest parishioners by tithing or otherwise; it is hard to see the action as anything other than a final resort by an aggrieved individual, and in this instance one taken by a man who – quite literally – had nothing to lose.

In any case, whether the law ever caught up with Thomas after the Eyre’s ruling is unknown. If they did, his fate was unlikely to be pleasant; a contemporary ruling on a case of theft in Bayton resulted in the hanging of the accused, and Bracton makes clear that no softer punishments would apply to arsonists[13]. While in the short term Thomas’ moves do not seem to have made much difference – parson Walter was still serving his post two years later[14] – memories of the affair may have been in the minds of Great Malvern’s priors when they took the first steps towards appropriating the church not long after the attack on 11 June 1275; the decision to make the vicar of Mamble also serve Bayton’s parish church might have reflected in part a desire to break with any lingering disputes between lay parishioners and the local clergy. If they were, the measures taken did little to alleviate the situation. In his 1781 Collections for the History of Worcestershire Nash preserves a detailed account of a 1344 exchange of livings between John Curdwall, vicar of Mamble and Bayton, and Thomas Aleyn, rector of St Clement’s, Worcester. Reporting to an inquisition held between several local rectors and vicars Curdwall explained his request ‘on account of the violent hatreds and quarrels that raged around Mamble, and that for fear of death, or some capital injury, which he might receive from his enemies, he could not safely live there’[15]. Apparently his peers agreed; Curdwall was presented to the rectory of St Clements on 18 July 1344.


Primary sources

Capes, W. ed. 1909. Registrum Ricardi de Swinfield, Episcopi Herefordensis, AD MCCLXXXIII-MCCCXVII. London: Canterbury and York Society.

Griffiths, R. ed. 1907. Registrum Thome de Cantilupo, Episcopi Herefordensis, AD MCCLXXV-MCCLXXXII. London: Canterbury and York Society.

HMSO. 1906. Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward III Vol VIII, AD 1348-1350. London: HMSO

Röhrkasten, J. ed. 2008. The Worcester Eyre of 1275. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society.

Secondary sources

Baker, N., and Holt, R. 2004. Urban growth and the medieval church: Gloucester and Worcester. Aldershot: Ashgate

Bellamy, J. 1998. The criminal trial in later medieval England. Sutton: Stroud

Hilton, R. 1973. Bond men made free: medieval peasant movements and the English rising of 1381. London: Meuthen and Co.

Hilton, R. 1983. A medieval society: the West Midlands at the end of the thirteenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Müller, M. 2012. Arson, communities, and social conflict in later Medieval England. Viator. 43:2. pp 193-208.

Nash, TR. 1781. Collections for the history of Worcestershire. Vol 2. London: John Nichols.

Stroller. 1937. Worcestershire villages by ‘Stroller’. Vol 3. Worcester: Worcester Herald.

[1] Röhrkasten 2008, p viii

[2] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem. 49 nos. 1210 and 1212.

[3] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 49a no 1249

[4] Müller 2012, p 195

[5] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 49a no 1245

[6] Baker and Holt 2004, p 299; Cal. Pat. Edw. III Vol. VIII, mem. 13d

[7] Müller 2012, p 203

[8] Hilton 1973

[9] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 36d no 787

[10] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 12 no 175

[11] Reg. Ric. Swin, fol 121; Stroller 1937, p 29

[12] Hilton 1983, p 63

[13] Worc. Eyre 1275, mem. 49a no 1245; Bellamy 1998, p 187

[14]  Reg. Thom. Cant., fol. 41b

[15] Nash 1781, p 159

Counting people: demographic change in medieval Bayton

Looking west towards Bayton village.

Looking west towards Bayton village.

Once home to a small but significant manorial community, the disappearance of the vill of Carton in northeast Bayton serves as a potent reminder of the waves of demographic change experienced in the parish over the last millennium. Charting population changes provides an essential background to the parish’s medieval history, but is inevitably hampered by the lack of anything approaching modern census records; in the case of Bayton, we also lack the manorial court rolls which have proven so informative for demographic studies elsewhere in the West Midlands[1]. In reconstructing Bayton’s medieval population we are therefore heavily reliant on the evidence of taxation records written up at a number of fixed and unevenly-distributed dates throughout the 11th-16th centuries, none of which were ever meant to say much about population in the first place. Problematic as these sources are, they do let us make some population estimates at a series of fixed points, illuminating at least the broad contours of demographic change in the medieval parish.

Point 1: Domesday Book

The earliest of these fixed points is the 1086 Domesday survey, whose usefulness as a demographic ‘benchmark’ is well-established albeit much debated in the details[2]. In one of the more useful methodological surveys of English historical demography Goose and Hinde propose a series of multipliers to convert Domesday’s household listings into viable population estimates[3], using which the parish entries –divided in the survey between the manors of Bayton and Carton – can be transformed into estimates of 77-125 people at Bayton and 24-75 at Carton. These estimates clearly vary quite considerably in the details, but serve as eminently reasonable approximations of the highs and lows of where population is likely to have lain, suggesting a parish-wide total of some 101-200 people in the later 11th century.

Point 2: c.1280 lay subsidy

Our next ‘fixed point’ for demographic estimates in the parish comes almost 200 years later in the form of another tax document – the c.1280 Worcestershire lay subsidy. The subsidy, levied at an uncertain rate[4], lists the names of some 27 taxpayers in Bayton and 8 in Carton whose contributions varied between 1s – 10s apiece. It is not unreasonable to assume that the taxpayers represent heads of households, although given the financial scale of their payments it would be unreasonable to assume that they represent all households; more likely many were exempted by poverty, while a few more might have conveniently disappeared when the tax assessors came to visit[5]. Following Dyer[6], the high estimate used here for the c.1280 lay subsidy assumes that those listed represent only 50% of households in their respective vills  – the remaining 50% exempt from or evading the survey – and that each household on average contained 5 people, producing high estimates of 270 people in Bayton and 80 in Carton. These figures are clearly quite optimistic, and can be complemented by lower estimates which assume that only 40% of households went untaxed and on average contained 4 people, suggesting totals of 180 residents in Bayton and 53 in Carton. In both the individual vills and the whole parish we can therefore identify a steady rate of population growth during the 200 years since the Domesday survey, mirroring broader trends at the national level[7].

Point 3: 1332/3 lay subsidy

Using the same principles we can make some population estimates from the 1332/3 lay subsidy. Levied at a fifteenth in rural areas like Bayton, the subsidy records 17 taxed individuals at Bayton and 6 at Carton, which using the same assumptions about evasion and household sizes adopted for the previous subsidy gives estimates of 113-170 at Bayton and 40-60 at Carton. This suggests a significant decline in settlement size over some c.50 years in the early 14th century – hardly surprising given the massive famines and livestock murrains sweeping Europe at the time.

An interlude – what about the plague?

By this point we have some reasonable estimates for Bayton’s population on the eve of the massive demographic crises of the mid-late 14th century. Assessing the impact of these crises at the local level usually involves comparing pre-plague figures with post-plague figures, the latter of which are commonly calculated from the 1377-81 poll taxes[8]. Here the record for Bayton hits a brick wall, as very few Worcestershire poll tax records have survived – none of which include the parish[9] – and alternative sources like manorial court rolls are absent or inconclusive. What does this mean for demographic history in this critical period?

As in most places in England, it’s hard to imagine that Bayton’s inhabitants escaped the plague years unscathed. On 21 July 1349 the parish received a new vicar, William de Emynghope, on the death of his predecessor, Thomas Aleyn[10] – a fate shared with almost half of Worcestershire’s parish clergy between July and December 1349, and one that whiffs quite strongly of the plague[11]. This alone, however, is not sufficient to establish local mortality rates, much less their overall impact on the local demographic pattern. Analogy – problematic as it is – seems to be the only source for estimating parish population at the end of the 14th century. This presents new problems, as studies which have assessed pre- and post-plague demographic change underline some quite substantial differences at the national and local levels; the most commonly cited national figure suggests that the English population approximately halved in size between c.1340-1400, although varying between counties, parishes and manors. Worcestershire certainly seems to have been one of the worse-hit counties in England, its maximum percentage mortality reaching 45-50% in 1349 alone[12].

Bearing this in mind, it seems fair to propose some very tenuous population estimates for Bayton and Carton c.1400, using the 1332/3 lay subsidy estimates as a benchmark. A low population estimate c.1400 assumes that the lower population estimate for 1332/3 was hit particularly hard in the mid-14th century, halving in size over c.50 years to around 57 individuals in Bayton and 20 in Carton. A more optimistic estimate assumes that the higher population estimate for 1332/3 got off slightly lighter, contracting by 40% by c.1400 to approximately 102 people in Bayton and 36 in Carton. The conditionality of these estimates cannot be stressed enough – after all, they are assumptions of what may have happened based on analogies from elsewhere in the country – but serve to provide a useful indication of the likely practical impact of demographic crisis on a small parish community in the mid-late 14th centuries.

Point 4: 1524 lay subsidy

The exchequer lay subsidy of 1524 provides a welcome opportunity to move towards some firmer ground for population estimates, but presents a new set of problems. Unlike previous incarnations Bayton and Carton were not taxed separately in the 1524 subsidy, instead being assessed together as a parish. The change coincides with the declining importance of Carton, whose manor was valued at only 26s 8d per year by 1400 – an absurdly low sum little more than its residents had contributed in tax alone c.120 years earlier[13]. The 1524 entry for Bayton parish lists 30 people contributing to the tax, although as ever it is unclear whether these are heads of households or taxable males aged 16 and over[14]. The high and low estimates given here have been calculated using the method outlined by Goose and Hinde[15], and imply a parish-wide population of 137-204 people.

Looking at the long term

The results of this survey have given us four reasonable population estimates at fixed dates – 1086, c.1280, 1332-3 and 1524 – and an additional (albeit more problematic) estimate c.1400. The scope of the estimates are limited – having an obviously uneven chronological distribution and telling us very little about sex ratios, birth rates and death rates – but do illustrate some of the broad contours of Bayton’s population history, largely mirroring the national pattern of steady growth in the 11th-13th centuries, a rapid decline by the 15th century and a slow resumption in growth by the early 16th century[16]. In absolute terms, the estimates for c.1280 reveal a parish population that had reached a peak never again experienced until the late 18th century.

Population estimates for the vills of Bayton and Carton, plus total parish population, at fixed dates.

Population estimates for the vills of Bayton and Carton, plus total parish population, at fixed dates.

Looking at the estimates in a general way it is interesting to note the differences in scale between the vills of Bayton and Carton, the latter consistently sustaining a far smaller population yet retaining enough significance to be taxed independently before the 16th century. This picture is consistent with a 1307 description of Carton as a hamlet[17], and raises questions about Habington’s description of it as ‘a place of great accompte in thys paryshe’ – which presumably alludes more to the prestige with which he held  its noble landholders than its medieval size or value. In hindsight the declining population at Carton seems to foreshadow its eventual desertion as much as its declining tax payments do[18]; the human impact of a sizeable fall in population in so small a vill would no doubt be felt more sorely than in its larger counterpart,  perhaps therefore providing an interesting counter-example to Dyer’s suggestion that woodland communities were hit less critically than those in champion landscapes by a declining population[19].

The changing shape of Bayton's parish population, 1086-1524.

The changing shape of Bayton’s parish population, 1086-1524.

[1] Razi 1980; Dyer 2012

[2] Goose and Hinde 2006

[3] Goose and Hinde 2007

[4] Lay Subs. R. Worcs. c. 1280, p v. Amphlett later suggested that the tax was levied at a tenth, although it is unclear where he derived this figure from; see Lay Subs. R. Worcs. 1332-3, p vi

[5] Were it not for fleeing the parish after burning down the grange some 5 years earlier, presumably Thomas le Ku of Shakenhurst would have been one of those exempted from the subsidy through personal poverty – possessing no chattels at the time of his blacklisting. Worc. Eyre 1275, mem. 49a no. 1249

[6] Dyer 2012, p 133

[7] Hatcher and Bailey 2001, p 29

[8] Goose and Hinde 2007, p 78

[9] Fenwick 2005, p 126

[10] Reg. Joh. Trill. At this period Mamble and Bayton shared clergy, despite retaining separate parish churches.

[11] Lloyd 1993, p 45

[12] Hinde 2003, p 43

[13] Cal. Inq PM. Vol. XVIII., no. 62; Lay Subs. R. Worcs. c. 1280, p 59.

[14] Faraday 2003

[15] Goose and Hinde 2007, p 79

[16] Hatcher and Bailey, p 29

[17] Cal. Inq. Vol. V Edw. II., no 57

[18] Lay Subs. R. Worcs. c. 1332-3, p 24; Lay Subs. R. Worcs. c. 1280, p 59

[19] Dyer 2012, p 134


Primary Sources

Amphlett, J., ed. 1893. Lay subsidy roll for the county of Worcester, circ. 1280. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society

Amphlett, J., ed. 1899. Lay subsidy roll, AD 1332-3, and Nonarum Inquisitiones, 1340, for the county of Worcester. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society

Faraday, M., ed. 2003. Worcestershire taxes in the 1520s: The military survey and forced loans of 1522-3 and the lay subsidy of 1524-7. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society

Fenwick, C., ed. 2005. The poll taxes of 1377, 1379, and 1381, Part 3: Wiltshire-Yorkshire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

HMSO. 1908. Calendar of inquisitions post mortem and other analogous documents preserved in the Public Record Office, Vol V Edward II. London: HMSO

Kirby, J., ed. 1987. Calendar of inquisitions post mortem, Vol XVIII 1 – 6 Henry IV (1399 – 1405). London: HMSO

Parry, J., ed. 1912. Registrum Johannis de Trillek, Episcopi Herefordensis, AD 1344-1361. 2 vols. Hereford: Wilson and Phillips

Röhrkasten, J., ed. 2008. The Worcester Eyre of 1275. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society.

Secondary Sources

Dyer, C. 2012. A country merchant, 1495-1520: trading and farming at the end of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goose, N., and Hinde, A. 2006. Estimating local population sizes at fixed points in time: Part I – general principles. Local Population Studies. 77. pp 66-74.

Goose, N., and Hinde, A. 2007. Estimating local population sizes at fixed points in time: Part II – specific sources. Local Population Studies. 78. pp 74-88.

Hatcher, J., and Bailey, M. 2001. Modelling the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hinde, A. 2003. England’s population: a history since the Domesday Survey. London: Hodder.

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

Razi, Z. 1980. Life, marriage and death in a medieval parish : economy, society and demography in Halesowen, 1270-1400. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press