The Middle Ages

Written details of the town at this time are very few and far between, and tend to consist of lists of often unconnected events. They do however, give us an insight into everyday life in the small forest hamlet of Willenhall.

The earliest mention of local landowner Roger de Wylnale is in a deed dated 10th  April, 1109. The deed carries details of a gift of some land in Bilston, known as Bovebroke Field, given to Roger de Wylnale by Nycolas Bovebroke of Bilston.

During the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), his son, the Black Prince, claimed the custody and guardianship of Matilda, daughter and heiress of his old comrade in arms, John de Willenhale. So the heiress of much of the land in Willenhall was a royal ward.

In the middle of the 12th century the Canons of Wolverhampton are recorded as holding 2 hides of land in Winenhale (approximately 240 acres).

How the early village may have looked.

The William Salt Archaeological Society, transcribed, translated, and published records from ancient law courts in the society’s journal. Black Country historian, and author, Frederick Hackwood, who wrote the Annals of Willenhall, published in 1908, was a member of the Society, and often quoted details of trials and disputes from the Journal in his books. They are some of the few surviving records of the town in the Middle Ages, and so I have included several of them here. As Willenhall was part of the Royal Forest of Cannock, the inhabitants had to abide by the oppressive forest laws of the day. Numerous fines were imposed on local landowners for illegal enclosures, such as growing a hedge on forest land.

The Levesons (pronounced Lusons) became the principal land-owning family in Willenhall. The family, who had lived there since the early years of the Norman occupation, farmed their land, and not infrequently came before the law courts in one dispute or another.

In 1271 Richard Leveson was fined 2 shillings and 3 pence by the Forest Court for illegally removing trees and bushes from forest land, in order to cultivate it. Three generations later family members were attracted to Wolverhampton where they became wealthy wool merchants, and landowners. They married into some of the wealthiest local families, and fully exploited their estates, to become the richest family in the area.

In  1306 John de Swynnerton married the daughter and heiress of Philip de Montgomery, Senescal (the Lord’s representative in the administration of his estate), of the Royal Forest of Cannock. He became Stewart of the Forest. In 1364 he sued two Willenhall men for forcibly and feloniously removing some of his goods and chattels from Willenhall.

In November 1334, John, son of John de Bentley, was attacked by 30 assailants including five members of the Leveson family, namely, Geoffrey, Moses, John, Simon, and Simon the younger.

Richard Adams of Willenhall was charged with murdering two men, John Odyes, and John de Bentley in 1339. He was acquitted, so the act was probably carried out in self-defence.

In 1347, Andrew, son of Simon Leveson of Willenhall, was sued for treading down, and consuming the corn of Andrew de le Lone, at Willenhall, with his cattle, and by force of arms, and for cutting down his trees, and beating and wounding his servant.

In 1348 Geoffrey Leveson of Willenhall brought a charge of trespass against John Oldejones of Wednesfield. A few years later, Juliana Leveson married William Tomkys, a member of one of the leading families in Bilston.

In 1369 John de la Lone of Wolverhampton sued John Leveson of Willenhall for forcibly taking his fish, to the value of 100 shillings, from his ponds in Willenhall.

John Wilson of Willenhall prosecuted a burglar in 1373 who forcibly broke into his house and estate at Hammerwich, and removed household utensils, clothing, timber, corn, hay, and everything that he could carry away. Twenty years later, possibly the same John Wilson prosecuted John Wilkes of Darlaston for stealing two of his oxen.

Two Willenhall men, William Colyns, and William Stokes, were arrested and charged with cutting down trees and underwood at Bentley, in 1399. They were also charged with using force and violence to carry out the act.

John Pype and several other Bilston men were prosecuted by Sir Hugh Burnell in 1415 for breaking into his closes at Willenhall, trespassing on his land, breaking down his grass with their cattle, committing damage to a grievous extent, and all in undisguised defiance of the law.

In 1429 Richard Leveson sued Robert Dorlaston, a weaver, Richard Colyns, a lorymer (meaning a maker of parts for a horse’s harness, in particular the metal parts), William Brugge, a yeoman (meaning a man who owned his own land, and often farmed it himself), and William Bate, another yeoman, all of Willenhall, for forcibly breaking into his close.

A similar case occurred in 1433 when James Leveson of Willenhall, sued Roger Walters, a lorymer from Willenhall, for forcible entry into his houses and close. Three years later James Leveson sued John Pippard, a chaplain, over a piece of land in Wolverhampton, which he said he had inherited from Richard Leveson of Willenhall.

A ploughing team in action.

From the details of the individual cases, a picture emerges of a small farming community, working on individual pieces of land, adjacent to the forest, and governed by the strict forest laws. Ownership of land, or the right to farm it, was clearly very important, because it would have determined the income, and lifestyle of the individual farming families. There were also small service industries, supplying the local community with their everyday needs. Mentions are made of a weaver, and a lorymer. Some of the landowners were comparatively well off, being able to afford a servant.

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 so the list cannot be used to calculate population figures, but does provide an indication of the comparative size and prosperity of Willenhall 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
Place fraction of
value paid
No. of
Total value
of goods
Darlaston and Bentley 1/15th 12 £0.17s.0d. £12.15s.0d.
Wednesbury 1/10th 13 £1.19s.1d. £19.10s.10d.
Walsall 1/10th 25 £3.16s.0d.  £38.0s.0d.
Willenhall 1/15th 16 £1.13s.0d. £24.15s.0d.
Bilston 1/15th 11 £1.3s.0d. £17.5s.0d.
West Bromwich 1/15th 11 £1.12s.0d. £24.0s.0d.
Tipton 1/15th 9 £1.14s.8d. £26.0s.0d.
Wolverhampton 1/15th 30 £3.0s.8d. £45.10s.0d.
Wednesfield 1/15th 14 £1.10s.0d. £22.10s.0d.
Birmingham 1/15th 69 £9.1s.4d. £136.0s.0d.

As can be seen, Willenhall was more prosperous than some of its neighbours, possibly due to the fertile soil in the locality.

It is not known what effect the Black Death had on the local community, after its arrival in 1348. Nationally it resulted in the deaths of between 30 to 40 percent of the population, around 2 million people. It certainly changed the way the country was run, and eventually led to the demise of the old feudal system.

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