3.  The Medieval and Early Modern Village

And then there is Domesday Book.  In it we find that Wednesfield was in Offlow Hundred (a hundred was an administrative unit; the hundreds were carefully defined throughout the country but never seem to have been of much administrative importance in themselves, though they did hold Hundred Courts).  We also find that:  “The canons [of Wolverhampton] themselves have five hides in Wodnesfelde.  The land is three carucates.  There are there six villiens and six bordars having six carucates.  The woods with pannage are half a league long and three furlongs wide”.

Digging, harvesting and sewing.

This is not as clear as it might be.  It is normally reckoned that a “hide” and a “carucate” are the same thing – but that “carucate” was used in the Danelaw and “hide” elsewhere.  If this is the case then Domesday Book may be saying that Wednesfield was in the Danelaw and Wolverhampton was not;  or maybe they were just recording a local usage.  In any event both terms mean an area of land which could be ploughed by one plough team in each year's ploughing season.  How much this was in terms of acreage, depended on the nature of the soil; so it is often reckoned as being between 100 and 300 acres. 

By this reckoning the canon held between 500 and 1500 hundred acres and others (assuming that the figures are cumulative) held between 600 and 1800 acres.

The reference to woodland is quite usual for Domesday Book entries but the fact that it is subject to pannage is not.  Pannage was the right to let your pigs “grovel for acorns”.  It may be that the local people were great swineherds – or simply that it was recorded because there had been a dispute about it in the past.

The entry mentions twelve people living in the area.  But this cannot be taken as being the sum total of its permanent population.  Each person mentioned probably represents a family of, at the least, four; and some locals would not get a mention at all.  So let us take a wild guess and say that between 50 and 100 people were living in Wednesfield in 1085.

Felling trees - the first step in land clearance.

Swine in the forest.

Most of them would have lived in a central village, presumably where the town centre now is.  A few might have lived outside it.  Around the village would be some meadow land, some land held in demesne by the cannons, and a series of great open fields which would have been cultivated, in furlong strips, by the villagers and the canons.
Domesday Book does not mention a mill.  Quite possibly there wasn't one – mills at the time were water mills and there does not seem to be a sufficient stream in the area to power one.  But later there was a windmill.

We can get a picture of the village in the centuries after Domesday book.  The village houses would have been sited along the length of road which is now called High Street and Rookery Lane.  One end would have been where the Dog and Partridge now stands and the road out of the village splits.  The statutory listing of this venerable pub says that it is “probably of late sixteenth century origin” and it is quite possible that there was a building on the site before that.  The other end of the village would have been somewhere near the where St. Thomas's now stands.  That church was built on what was, up until then, the village green.

Mowing with a scythe.

Threshing with a flail.
Most of the eastern half of the area was occupied by the Priest's Wood – Prestwood.  Here the villagers would not only have let their pigs forage but they would almost certainly have been allowed to take wood for fuel, fencing and even house building.  Around the rest of the village lay the open fields, of which here seem to have been four.  Although most villages had three such fields, some had two and some had four.  The four fields were Northlow Field, Luchfield, Southlow Field (aka Windmill Field) and Church Field.  The villagers would have held strips in each of these fields and the course of agriculture in them would have been determined by the Manorial Court.
An important factor in the lives of the villagers was the fact that Wednesfield lay within a royal forest.  A forest was an area of land, not necessarily wooded, which was preserved as a royal hunting ground – even though the King might well not own the land.  The effect was to limit what others might do in such an area and the villagers of Wednesfield would not have been allowed to take wood or anything else from the forested land nor take in dogs or hunt for anything, nor graze pigs or cattle.  The Laws of the Forest were strictly enforced, anyway from time to time; and did not effectively fall into complete disuse until the late seventeenth century.


Over the centuries the cultivated area would have been extended by new areas being cleared and taken into the common fields or becoming separately owned fields.  Even the Prestwood was eaten into.  This was the usual state of things in central England as a whole but something sightly unusual seems to have been happening in Wednesfield (and in a few other parts of South Staffordshire). 

People were acquiring large tracts of land, on the outskirts of the manor, and clearing them for agriculture.  In the centre of these pioneering lands they built farm houses surrounded by a moat.  Smallshire identifies these at Ashmore, Prestwood, Moathouse and Merrill's Hall.  He also suggests they may have existed at Newbolds, Rumbelows, Blackhalves and Perry Hill.  Neachells may have been an even odder case of a whole farming hamlet surrounded by a series of moats. 

The moat at Ashmore can be seen as a depression in the grass, in front of the shops at Ashmore Park.

From the sixteenth century onwards, and increasingly as the years went by, open fields were enclosed – that is, the old strips were abandoned and they and the open fields were re-designed as fields of a modern size and shape and individually owned.  This could be done under an Act of Parliament passed for each area or by agreement between those interested in the strips.  There is no Act for Wednesfield and enclosure must have occurred by agreement.  But it was unusually late for the area, perhaps not being complete until about 1800 – or, in small patches, until much later, the existence of strips being mentioned in the 1840s.  Smallshire notes, very briefly, that this lack of enclosure may have been a brake on industrial and other development in the area.  (In this he was a bit before his time:  the use of enclosure for development reasons other than agriculture was not widely recognised when he wrote).

It has to be said that, until the 1700s, not much seems to have happened in Wednesfield.  The round of the agricultural year went on though, aided by enclosure, bigger landholdings appeared.  Smallshire thinks that the Levesons became the biggest landowners and seems to think that they did so by fair means and foul.  However, the court records of the time are difficult to interpret, particularly where many apparently violent land disputes are legal fictions used to try the ownership of land.  Smallshire examined many court records of the period and his book contains many names of local families, which may be of some interest to genealogists but which do little to advance our understanding of the areas history.

Even the Civil War seems to have left little mark, the exception being the unfortunate Francis Pitt, a yeoman farmer of Wednesfield Heath and, at 65, a good age for the time.  This elderly man was persuaded by Colonel Thomas Leveson to try to negotiate the surrender of Rushall Garrison.  But when Pitt got to Rushall he was arrested, dragged of to London, tried, sentenced to death and executed.  He would have been but one to lose his life,  The Civil War resulted in a greater number of English deaths than any other and doubtless the people of Wednesfield suffered the hardships of war, whichever side they supported and whether they joined the armed forces or not.

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