The Medieval Town

Little is known about the town, other than what is recorded in the Domesday Book, until 1164 when King Henry II exchanged it for the manor of Stonesfield. At the time, the King had a large manor at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, with extensive land on which he built a pleasure ground for his mistress Rosamond de Clifford. He needed the land at Stonesfield, which belonged to the barony of d’Oyley for part of the manor grounds. After the exchange Wednesbury came under the control of d’Oyley’s tenant Ralph Boterel, who became lord of the manor.

Payments made to the Crown were recorded in the Exchequer Records, known as the Pipe Rolls. Wednesbury had a taxable value of £4 a year, whereas Stonesfield was only worth £3 a year. To balance matters an agreement was reached in which Boterel would still owe service as a Knight to the barony and also pay an annual rent of one pound to the crown. Boterel died in 1181 and the records show that he had never paid his rent. When William de Heronville took over the manor in 1182 he was charged with 18 years arrears, which he immediately agreed to pay. William became lord of the manor after marrying Boterel’s daughter and heiress.

William rented the mill to the monks of Bordesley Abbey for 10 shillings a year. By 1225 William had passed away, and in January 1226 his son, also named William became lord of the manor. William conveyed the mill to the monks of Bordesley Abbey, who in turn sublet it to the Hillary family, lords of the manor of Bescot, for a free farm rent, which was usually set at one third of the taxable value of the property. This meant that the Hillary’s paid rent and took the profits from the compulsory payments that were made by the local population for their use of the mill.

John de Heronville

In about 1255 William was succeeded by Simon de Heronville, who died in 1259. His son and heir, John succeeded him, but had not yet come of age. As a result he became the ward of the Earl and Countess of Warwick, who had taken over the barony of d’Oyley by marriage. He came of age around 1261, and his son and heir, Henry was born in 1265. John married twice. His first wife was the sister and one of the heirs of William Fitzwarren of Tipton and as a result he gained a share in the manor of Tipton. He later married Juliana, who outlived him.

John took up his knighthood in 1272 because it was the king’s policy that all lords of the manor should do so. The two lions on his shield eventually formed the basis of the borough’s coat of arms. He became one of most prominent knights in the county and along with three others chose the members of the county jury, becoming a juror himself on more than one occasion.

John became one of the four Verderers of Cannock Forest. They were the officials who were elected by the freeholders to administer the laws regarding the forest. The Verderers’ Court would meet to settle disputes etc. In those days the forest extended from Cannock into Wednesbury, and covered about a half of the manor. John also paid fines for some of his tenants when they illegally felled trees or converted woodland into farmland.

F.W. Hackwood in his “Wednesbury Ancient and Modern” suggests that the forest ended along the line of the present High Street, to Oakeswell End, then along Hydes Road to the Tame, following the river along the Bescot boundary.

Many towns such as Wednesbury held manorial courts called Court Leets. They date back to Saxon times and survived the Norman conquest without any great change taking place. John had the right to hold such a court in which the officers were the Steward, the Reeve (who acted as an intermediary between tenants and lord of the manor), the Constable, the Haywards (who supervised and maintained the boundaries) and the Jury men. The Steward had a very important role; he supervised the estate, organised its economy and maintained justice. A full account of all that happened during each year in the manor had to be submitted to the lord of the manor in an annual statement called the Account Roll.

The principal functions of the court were the preservation of the rights of the lord of the manor and the regulation of relations between tenants. It dealt with breaches of the peace, criminal affairs and ensured that the tenants carried out their statutory obligations. The court also upheld the “assize of bread and ale” by appointing ale tasters to ensure that standards were maintained.

What remained of the manor house in 1892. From an old postcard.

John was clearly forthright in his views and would vigorously defend his rights against anyone who challenged them. In 1272 he was sued by 20 of his tenants in the Court of King’s Bench. Although disputes would usually be settled in the Court Leet, the tenants of Wednesbury collectively brought an action against their lord in the hope that the royal court would change the rules within the manor. They felt that they were unfairly treated by John who demanded extra customs and services from them than were rendered when the manor was in the hands of the King. The case would continue for many years with several suits being taken against him. John simply ignored the rulings made by the court, who ordered him to return the goods and chattels that he had seized from the tenants. In 1280 he was in contempt of the court and prosecuted by the crown. The quarrel went on for thirty years, during which time relations between the lord and tenants must have become strained to say the least. Unfortunately the court’s final decision on the matter is not known.

John was also involved in a number of other disputes. In 1280 he was accused, along with two of his tenants, of dispossessing Henry de Bruly of property in Wednesbury. The case was thrown out because Henry’s writ had no validity at the assizes, and should have been considered at the manorial court. In another case at the assizes in 1293, William de Darlaston claimed that he had been dispossessed of his right of common in Wednesbury. This time the court tried the claim, but it was rejected because Wednesbury was an ancient manor, and Darlaston, where the building to which the alleged right of common existed, was not.

The area occupied by the old town.

In 1286 Thomas Hillary took John to court because John and his tenants had not been paying taxes owed to him for use of the mill, which he had previously sublet from Bordesley Abbey. As a result John agreed that he and his tenants would pay the sum owed and the claim for damages was dropped.

It is possible that this came about because it was compulsory to use the manor’s mill, and the tenants were trying to avoid payment by using hand mills of their own.

John de Heronville died in 1315 and the manor came under the control of the son by his first wife, Henry. John’s widow Juliana was entitled to one third of the estate for life (her dower) or until she remarried. The document relating to the dower is an important record, giving details of much of the estate. It records several coal pits, and as such is the earliest record of coal working in the town. Similarly it contains the earliest record of ironstone mining in the town. There are however, earlier records of coal mining at Sedgley and Walsall.

It seems that the 14th century pits in Wednesbury were near Bradeswell, possibly referring to Broad Waters. In some areas the 10 yard coal seam outcrops at, or very near the surface and this is where the first coal would probably have been extracted. In the 15th century Cockheath was named as a coal mining area.

Juliana's share of the manor house included a hall, pantry, a solar (a private room on the sunny side of the house), a cellar beneath the solar, a brewhouse, a bakery, stables, a cow house, and a long sheep house. The buildings were arranged around a courtyard with the hall and kitchen on opposite sides, and the solar and bakery on the other sides. There was a well in the centre, a gate house, an outer court, a garden and 2 yards. She also had her share of the dovecote, and 145 strips of arable land, part of John’s 120 acres. It appears that these strips were interspersed with strips belonging to the tenants in the common fields. The document contains some of the field names, the first time they were recorded. They are Monway Field, Church Field, Hall Field, and Kings Hill Field.

Henry's share of the estate included the manor house with courtyards and gardens, 120 acres of arable land, 10 acres of meadow (the common land of the village), and a dwelling house formerly belonging to Thomas Trond, with 15 acres of arable land, including 2 acres of meadow. Henry was 50 at the time, but only survived for another year, dying in 1316. His son John Heronville II, aged 12 then inherited the estate.

The taxes paid to the crown by the nobility, clergy and laity were listed in the Subsidy Rolls. The record for the year 1327 reveals that Juliana, John’s widow, paid the highest tax in the town, 4shillings and 4¼pence, John Heronville II being absent from the list. In 1332-3 Juliana paid 6shillings and 4¾pence and John paid 3shillings and 8¾pence.

The Subsidy Rolls

The Subsidy Rolls of 1332 to 1333 include the names of individuals assessed for tax. Only the richer members of society were eligible to pay the tax, and although the list cannot be used to calculate population figures, it does provide an indication of the comparative size and prosperity of Wednesbury and the surrounding towns. The amount of tax paid was based upon the value of movable goods that were owned by each person and the status of the town. People living in cities, boroughs and ancient manors paid one tenth of the value, whereas others paid one fifteenth of the value. People whose movable goods were valued at less than 10 shillings were exempt.

Subsidy Rolls - 1332 to 1333


fraction of
value paid

Number of taxpayers Amount paid Total value
of goods
Bilston 1/15th 11 £1.3s.0d. £17.5s.0d.
Birmingham 1/15th 69 £9.1s.4d.   £136.0s.0d.
Darlaston and Bentley 1/15th 12   £0.17s.0d.   £12.15s.0d.
Tipton 1/15th 9   £1.14s.8d. £26.0s.0d.
Walsall 1/10th 25   £3.16s.0d. £38.0s.0d.
Wednesbury 1/10th 13   £1.19s.1d.    £19.10s.10d.
Wednesfield 1/15th 14   £1.10s.0d.  £22.10s.0d.
West Bromwich 1/15th 11   £1.12s.0d. £24.0s.0d.
Willenhall 1/15th 16   £1.13s.0d.   £24.15s.0d.
Wolverhampton 1/15th 30 £3.0s.8d.   £45.10s.0d.

14th Century Court Proceedings

It seems that the relationship between the Heronvilles, their tenants and the Hillary’s of Bescot was becoming somewhat strained. In 1316 Thomas Hillary sued 21 tenants from the manor of Wednesbury for non payment of their dues for the mill, and claimed £100 in damages. The case was heard in the King’s court by Sir Roger Hillary, lord of Bescot, and Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. The tenants admitted their liability and the court decided that Roger was to recover the money owed and collect 6shillings and 8pence damages from each tenant. Roger Hillary then brought a second case against 6 of his own tenants who had not paid their taxes to the mill for 2 years, and claimed £40 in damages. Once again the tenants admitted liability and Roger recovered what was owed, and collected 6shillings and 8pence damages from each tenant. The mill remained as a corn mill until 1423 when it became a fulling mill.

The Plea Rolls of 1337 offer evidence to suggest that coal was extensively mined in the area at the time. The document records that John Walters of Wednesbury sued Sir Roger Hillary for taking away "by force and arms" sea coal or "carbones maritimos" to the value of £40 from his mines at Wednesbury. In 1393 John Wylkys sued Roger Norton of Darlaston for "digging and carrying away sea coal from his several soil" at Wednesbury to the value of £10.

In 1344 at the manorial court in Wednesbury, John de Alne was accused of being a common robber after a break-in at John de Heronville's cellar, at night, when items worth 17 shillings and 2 pence were stolen. He was sent to Stafford to be detained until he could be tried before the next gaol delivery. After waiting 4 years, his trial took place before Roger Hillary, who subsequently became Lord Chief Justice of England. John de Alne was eventually sentenced to be hanged.

The Black Death

The late 1340s were terrible times because of the onset of the Black Death, or plague as it was known. It began in the wet summer of 1348 and large numbers of people were rapidly dying. It continued throughout the winter and became even more virulent in the early months of 1349, continuing into 1350. It began to return regularly, first in 1361 and again in the 1370s and 1380s. Large numbers of people died, greatly affecting the working classes, possibly only ten percent of whom survived. This would change the relationship between the lord and his tenants and bring about an early end to feudalism, in which the peasants had to offer service with many obligations to their lord, in return for a grant of land.

Peasants were now in short supply and many farming communities disappeared. They now wanted to dictate their own wage levels and terms of employment. The rulers of the kingdom reacted strongly, and within a year of the onset of plague, an Ordinance of Labourers was issued, which became the Statute of Labourers in 1351. This law attempted to prevent peasants from obtaining higher wages, by ordering them to accept wages at pre-plague levels. In reality the high death rate meant that rents dwindled and much land was uncultivated. Many villages were deserted and land incomes fell. The rulers’ attempt to maintain the feudal system failed, and before the end of the century the working classes began to dictate their own terms and freely move from one area to another, changing society forever.

John de Heronville III

John de Heronville II died in 1354 and was replaced by his son John, who married Alice, the daughter of John of Tynmore. He bequeathed the manor of Tynmore upon himself, his wife and their heirs, so ensuring that the estate stayed in his family’s control. At the time this action was illegal when carried out by a tenant chief of the king, such as himself. As a result he was ordered to pay a fine of 50 shillings to the crown, which was equal to one third of the annual value of the estate.

In 1366 John was sued by Sir Hugh de Wrottesley for forcibly abducting one of his female serfs. Seven years later John sued William Sagowe, a chaplain, and Roger Hillary for abducting 4 men in his service at Wednesbury. Both cases were possibly due to the labour shortages following the Black Death. The changes in the relationship between lord and tenant possibly led John into a number of disputes with his tenants, some of which ended up in the Royal Court.

Some of the local disputes involved coal mining. In 1377 John Waters of Wednesbury sued Roger Hillary of Bescot for taking coal to the value of £40 from his mines at Wednesbury and in 1392 John Wylkys sued Roger Norton of Darlaston for removing coal worth £10 from his land. In 1403 John de Heronville’s second son Henry took three tenants to court under the charge that they trod down and consumed his corn and grass with their cattle, and carried away earth to the value of £10, which presumably refers to coal.

John de Heronville III died in 1406 and was survived by his three daughters, Joan aged 4, Alice aged 2, and Margaret aged 12 months. They were heirs to his estates at Wednesbury, Tynmore, and one fifth of Tipton. As they were under age a guardian would be appointed to look after them and also be custodian of the manor. The guardian would be a close friend who was not an eligible heir to the estate. John Ede in his “History of Wednesbury” suggests that the first guardian was John Brown of Lichfield, who was not very popular in Wednesbury because in 1413 he had 4 men arrested for his attempted murder. By 1415 John de Leventhorp became guardian and it seems that he was also unpopular in the town because Robert Nightingale, a coalminer, one of the 4 men already mentioned, attempted to murder him. He also had problems with some of the tenants at Tynmore.

John de Leventhorp also seems to have had problems with his tenants at Wednesbury due to the changing relationship between tenant and lord as the feudal system degenerated. In 1416 he obtained bonds for £40 as security from coal miners Henry Hancocks and John in the Lee, on the understanding that they would not dig coal anywhere in the manor without his permission. In spite of this measure they continued to dig coal much as before and so later that year they were sued for a debt of £40. During John’s time, relations between lord and tenant reached an all time low and riots broke out. The riots were probably about coal because John attempted to protect his right to mine coal on his own land and also to obtain a royalty from any tenant who mined it elsewhere.

John de Leventhorp intended to keep the manor of Wednesbury in his hands and this he did by marrying Joan de Heronville to his eldest son William. In 1418 he then persuaded the two younger sisters to take the veil as nuns of the Order of Sempringham. As nuns their share of the estate would pass to Joan, so ensuring that William de Leventhorp became lord of the manor of Wednesbury.

William and Joan had a daughter, Elizabeth, and around 1435 William created a trust on his land in Wednesbury, Fynchespath, Darlaston, and Tipton so that if Joan outlived him she would be entitled to the property for life, or until she remarried. It would then pass on to their daughter Elizabeth and her heirs.

Part of a map showing coal mines in 1812.

Sir Henry Beaumont

Some time before 1446 William had died, and Joan married her second husband Sir Henry Beaumont, who became lord of the manor.

Sir Henry Beaumont, lord of the Yorkshire manor of Thorpe in Balme and second son of Henry, the 5th Baron Beaumont came from a distinguished family. His grandfather was a Knight of the Garter, an admiral of the king’s fleet, and Warden of the Scottish Marches and the Cinque Ports. His elder brother was Constable and Great Chamberlain of England, Knight of the Garter, and the first English Viscount.

Henry made a settlement of the manor of Wednesbury (a complex arrangement for passing on property) for his wife, himself and their heirs. Henry and Joan had a son, also called Henry in 1446. Unfortunately Henry senior died in the following year. In 1452 Henry’s widow Joan resettled the manor upon trustees, one of whom was Charles Nowell from Ellenhall in Staffordshire. Charles became Joan’s 3rd and last husband, and lord of the manor of Wednesbury. Joan died some time after 1460, and her son Henry Beaumont II became lord of the manor. Henry married Eleanor, daughter of John, Lord Dudley and they had 1 daughter and 2 sons, the eldest, John, being born in 1470.

Henry’s reign ended on 16th November, 1471, when he died. During his last year he served as High Sheriff of Staffordshire. Before his death he made a will leaving his land at Egington in Derbyshire to his wife, and the remainder of his estate to their son John. The will also expressed his wish that his body should be buried in Wednesbury Church and that a chaplain should celebrate mass for him for 3 years after his death. He accordingly left 100 shillings to the church, presumably to pay for the chaplain’s services.

Eleanor’s son John married the daughter of John Mitton of Weston in Staffordshire. They had 3 children, Joan, Dorothy, and Eleanor. After his death in 1502 the ownership of the manor passed onto his 3 daughters. Joan and Eleanor married two brothers, William and Humphrey Babington, and Dorothy married Humphrey Comberford, from Comberford near Tamworth. The Beaumont estates were divided between the three sisters as specified in their father’s will. Dorothy and her husband Humphrey inherited Wednesbury, and their son Thomas became lord of the manor. He also had estates at Wigginton and Comberford.

Most of the old Wednesbury street and place names have disappeared. The only street name that survives from those olden times is the "Portway" or Portway Road. Some place names from the old residential parts of the town are still in use. They are Town End, Oakeswell End, Hall End, and Bridge End. Near Bridge End is Finchpath and the Ridding, another two of the old names. The High Bullen was known as Hancock's Cross, possibly named after the wealthy Hancock family.

The second most important residence after the manor house was Oakeswell Hall named after a well, the Oakes Well. William Byng built a house on the site around 1421 which descended into the Jennyns family. The adjacent land, purchased by Thomas Hopkins and his wife was called New Hall Fields. By 1662 the house became known as Okeswell or Hopkins New Hall Place. In 1707 Richard Parkes, ironmaster and Quaker purchased the house and moved there in 1708. By 1774 it had become a farmhouse and was occupied by the Kendrick family, and remained as such until the 1820s.

In 1825 the house was owned by John Beaumont, a lawyer, and in 1846 it belonged to Walter Horton. It became known as "The Rookery" and was later purchased by Wednesbury's first Town Clerk, Joseph Smith, who greatly restored the property. The house then came into the hands of Dr. G. E. V. Morris and survived until 1962.

Oakeswell Hall.

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