Early Colonisation

Willenhall is situated in the South Staffordshire coalfield, on the thick Carboniferous coal measures, and along the edge of the Cannock Chase coalfield. It is one of the sources of the River Tame, the other being at Oldbury.

The whole area was thickly wooded, which is probably why there is no evidence of Roman occupation. There were no Roman Roads in the immediate proximity, but several Roman coins and a piece of Roman glass were found at Wednesbury. Colonisation of the country began in the 6th century when Anglo-Saxons came from France, The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. About 200 years later, a tribe called the Anglian Mercens came from the north. Initially they followed the Trent Valley, and began spreading along the valleys of the Tame (meaning the dark river) and its tributaries. They were known as the Tomsaete (dwellers by the Tame), and would have been the first people to settle here.

At the time, South Staffordshire was a part of Mercia, derived from the old English word “Mierce”, meaning People of the Boundaries. The kingdom developed from settlements in the upper Trent valley, after colonisation by a band of Angles called the Iclingas. Slowly the area became populated, and the kingdoms of the Saxons and Angles in the midlands amalgamated to form the kingdom of Mercia.

The area before colonisation.

There would have been a tiny settlement in the area by the 8th century when the town’s name was first recorded. Willenhall lay in part of Cannock Forest, an area much favoured by the Mercian Kings for hunting the wild boar, wolves, and possibly deer, that resided here. It seems likely that King Aethelbald, who came to power in 716, used the hamlet as a centre for his hunting activities. In the 22nd year of his reign he signed a charter at the hamlet, to reduce certain taxes payable by the Abbey of Minstry in the Isle of Thanet. He did this for the good of his soul, and to help ensure a place in the afterlife.

The contents of the charter were recorded in original Latin by John Mitchell Kemble in his 6 volume “Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici”, printed in 1839 to 1848. Kemble made an extensive study of Anglo-Saxon, and Norman legal and administrative documents, from the British Museum, his own collection, and various libraries. The contents of the charter were also published in the original Latin form in Thorpe’s “Diplomatarium Anglicum” in 1865, and Birch’s “Chartularium Saxonicum” in 1885.

The charter is worded as follows:

From sinful Aethelbald, King of the Mercians, who yields to Mildrith, Abbess of Minster, the tax on a ship of burden, and grants that throughout the kingdom it remains free of royal tribute. I, Aethelbald, King of the Mercians, perform, as far as in my power lies, acts of gratitude to Almighty God, who has deemed me worthy to be chosen for so high a grade of distinction, out of the humble and unquiet life which I led for the space of so many years.

Therefore, for the salvation of my soul, and in return for the liberal offerings of the prayers of holy servants and handmaids of God, I freely bestow upon the churches of God, those things which are brought under my power, and the bounteous gifts of our Almighty Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And to thee Abbess Mildrith, and to thy church, I give up and remit tax due upon a ship of burden, which is gathered by way of tribute by our toll collectors, so that throughout the kingdom the ship may remain free from all royal impost and tax.

If any attempt to infringe upon this gift we have granted, either in great part or in small, let him know that he remains expelled from our communion, and wholly cut off from the company of the pious.

Signed by Aethelbald, Cuthraed, Sileraed, Worr, Cotta, Cynric, Wilfred, Lulla, and Oba.

This was excecuted on the fourth day of the Kalends of November, in the 22nd year of our reign in the place which is called Willanhalch.

A second copy of the charter also survives, which states that this is the 15th decree made in the place which is called Willanhalch.

The well-known, acknowledged, 19th century authority on Saxon place names was William Henry Duignan, a Walsall Solicitor, who wrote books about place names in Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. He stated that the name Willanhalch cannot be applied to any other place in Mercia, or Saxon England, than Willenhall in Staffordshire. There is another Willenhall on the outskirts of Coventry, but that was known as Wylnhale, and any charter signed there would include the Coventry name.

Willanhalch in Anglo Saxon means the meadowland of Willan, presumably the local land owner, head of the ruling family, or local chieftain. The old English word for meadowland, ‘halch’, was shortened and modified in the course of time to ‘hall’. Other similarly modified local place names include:

Tettenhall Possibly Tetta’s hall
Pelsall Peol’s hall
Codsall Code’s hall
Ettingshall Hall of the Etti family

By the 12th century the name had changed to Willenhale, and Willenhal.

In the year 913 Stafford became a secure, fortified stronghold, under Queen Aethelfaed, and soon replaced Tamworth as the capital of Mercia. Within a few years the new Shire of Stafford was formed. At this time the country was divided into ‘Hundreds’, each consisting of an area which roughly supported 100 households. The Shire of Stafford was divided into 5 'hundreds'; Cuttlestone, Offlow, Pirehill, Seisdon and Totmonslow. Willenhall was part of The Hundred of Offlow. Each hundred was headed by a hundred-man or hundred elder, who oversaw justice and administration in the area, organised the supply of soldiers, and led them into battle. Hundreds were usually named after the place where meetings were held to discuss local issues, and where trials took place.

At this time Willenhall would have been a small hamlet, consisting of a few single-storey timber-framed buildings, possibly clad with timber, or even wattle and daub, and covered with a thatched, or turfed roof. Timber would have been in plentiful supply and so was an obvious building material. There would have been a hearth for a fire, but no chimney, the smoke escaped through the roof. All the furniture such as beds, benches and tables would have been made of wood. Valuable items and tools would have been stored in a wooden chest.

Some Saxon houses were built above a hole, up to 9 feet deep, which may have been a basement below a wooden floor. Around the houses would be farm land for crops, and grazing for cattle.

Under new ownership

By 1086 Willenhall had come under the control of Wolverhampton, but some of the events that led to this are unclear.

According to tradition, King Wulfhere founded the Abbey of St. Mary at Wolverhampton (on the site of St. Peter’s Church) in 659, but there is no proof of this. However in 985 King Aethelred gave several pieces of land to Lady Wulfrun in a royal charter, including Bilston, Sedgley, Wednesfield, Upper Penn, and Trescott. In his charter Aethelred describes the area of land in terms of its boundaries.

In 994 the Lady Wulfrun gave the pieces of land to the Abbey of St. Mary ‘for the good of her soul’. The gift included Bilston, but made no mention of Willenhall. The Domesday Book of 1086 does include a reference to Willenhall, stating that part of it belongs to the church; the Deanery Manor of Wolverhampton, (St. Mary’s), and the remainder belongs to the King, becoming part Stow Heath Manor in Wolverhampton. At this time Bilston no longer belonged to St. Mary’s, it was partly owned by Stow Heath Manor, and partly by the Deanery Manor of Wolverhampton. It is possible that an exchange of land was made between the King and St. Mary’s, so that part of Willenhall came under the ownership of St. Mary’s, and part of Bilston belonged to Stow Heath Manor.

Norman Britain

After the Norman invasion in 1066, William the Conqueror made it known that he personally owned all of the land in the country. He appointed around 200 barons as tenants in chief, and allowed them to hold large areas of land, in exchange for the payment of taxes, and the provision of soldiers when necessary. The system, known later as feudalism was the key to the Norman’s success.

The Normans held on to the Saxon ‘Hundreds’, but  carved-up the land into areas called manors, each controlled by a baron, or Norman Lord. They had to take an oath of loyalty to the King, carry-out any required duties, and pay taxes for their land. Each manor would include several villages whose inhabitants were called peasants. There were several classes of peasant. The highest was a freeman who was free to pursue a trade. The other classes were owned as part of the land, and were not free to move around.

In 1085 the Danes threatened to invade, and so William decided to commission a detailed audit of the country, to extract all of the taxes owed to him, and to ensure that he got the maximum number of soldiers to deal with the expected invasion force. The survey was so detailed that an entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle states that ‘not even an ox, or a cow, or a swine was not set down in his writ.’  It seemed so invasive, and all-seeing, that it felt as though judgement day had come. As a result it became known as the Doomsday Book.

All 400 pages of the book, record in extraordinary detail, how the Normans organised their new kingdom. The entry for Willenhall is as follows:

Land of the King

The King holds Winehala. There are 3 hides. The land is 4 carucates. There are 5 villeins and 3 cottagers, with 3 ploughs. There is one acre of meadow. The value is 20 shillings.

Land of the Clergy of Handone

The Canons themselves hold 2 hides in Winehala. The land is one carucate. There are 3 villeins and 5 cottagers having 3 ploughs.

The King had 3 hides, each would be approximately 120 acres, and 4 carucates, each being an area of land equal to the amount that could be worked by a team of 8 oxen. He also owned 1 acre of meadowland. The 5 villeins were nominally free inhabitants of the village, who worked the King’s land in return for a small piece of land to work themselves. They also paid rent. The 5 cottagers were peasants, lower on the social ladder than a villain, with fewer privileges. The 3 ploughs meant that there was enough land on the estate for 3 teams of 8 oxen to cultivate. It was also used to assess the value of the estate for taxation.

Oxen pulling a plough.

The church’s land was much smaller (one quarter of the size), with no meadowland, 3 villeins and 5 peasants. Its taxable value would have been far less.

Everything on the estate would have been owned and controlled by the manor, or the clergy, including property, money, religion, and even marriage. There were labour services to do on the land, and heavy rents to be paid. The majority of food produced, and animals reared, were consumed by the lord of the manor and his household. Many families lived off a simple vegetable soup called pottage. The average life expectancy at the time was just 25.

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