When is a Village?

of caution about "Anglo-Saxon villages".

Most of the towns and villages of England have Anglo-Saxon names. It easy to assume that these settlements must be Anglo-Saxon in origin. Maybe they're a bit bigger than in the old days, with bus shelters and street-lights and things, but still, they've been expressing the history of stout English yeomen across the centuries - from before the arrival of those effete Frenchmen.

Unlikely.

For one thing, the pattern of Anglo-Saxon rural life wasn't at all like that. Most Anglo-Saxon countrymen lived in independent homesteads or, at most, small hamlets. And these homesteads and hamlets were seldom occupied for more than a century at a time.

In some places, these homesteads or hamlets "migrated". That is, existing dwellings were abandoned for newer ones. For the most part, we are talking about huts - a timber frame, wattle and daub walls and a thatch roof - they wouldn't have lasted long. Often, the new structures were built only a field away from the old. Over many centuries the illusion of an ancient, abandoned village was created, even though it was never occupied by more than one family.

But what about the Domesday Book? Didn't this great taxman's audit of 1086 A.D. enumerate village after village, with precise details of occupants, their livestock and their valuables?

No, it didn't.

Domesday wasn't concerned with villages - it was concerned with land and taxable assets. It enumerated the people and their property associated with a manor. That manor may have had a name which we can now recognise as belonging to a village or town, but that doesn't mean that the village or town existed at the time of Domesday. More likely, a village grew up later, and took the name of the local manor for convenience (or acquired the name by association).

A classic example is the village of Faxton in Northamptonshire. This community fizzled out in the 1950s - not for any dramatic reason, just rural depopulation. The aerial photography from that time shows clear signs of a large, complex community of 20 or 30 dwellings.

The name "Faxton" is reckoned to come from "Fakr"- a Scandinavian personal name, and "tun" - Anglo-Saxon for "farm". So Fakr's tun was the farm of a Norse settler, which should, in theory, place the origin of the village around the ninth century, or earlier.

The Domesday Book seems to confirm this, giving a reckoning of the manor of "Fextone", then in the possession of the king. It reports a population of some 60-80 souls.

But when archaeologists came to look at the empty village in the 1950s, they found not a trace of settlement before 1150 A.D. (apart from a few scraps of Roman origin).

There may have been 60-80 souls in the manor of Faxton, but they weren't villagers. There may have been a few large farms, with a few live-in minions, serving an extended family. There may also have been several individual families, living in isolated huts. All Domesday was interested in was that they all owed some allegiance to the manor of Faxton.

Indeed, there might not even have been a Faxton Manor house or Manor farm; many English manors have a long history of being managed from larger establishments elsewhere.

This same exercise has been repeated again and again in many dead English villages. Of course, it is seldom possible to make such a thorough investigation of an existing village, but there seems to be no reason to believe that the pattern would be very much different.

In fact, study of the Domesday Book for the South-West shows a multitude of entries - recorded just the same as everywhere else - where there has never been a village.

So, when you stop in a picturesque English village, and fall to chatting with one of the locals - if they proudly boast, "we're mentioned in the Domesday Book, y'know," - just smile, nod and keep your doubts to yourself. Anglo-Saxons can be touchy about things like that.

© David Craig Send me a message