Causes of desertion


Many different reasons have been postulated for the desertion of settlement. Initially many laid blame at the door of the Black Death. Further research and in the context of Goldsmith’s poem of 1770 (see below), the emphasis moved to an analysis of the medieval economy and a change to sheep farming, the displacement of people, and a move to the towns. This section explains a variety of reasons why settlements have been deserted and points you to examples that can be viewed on this website from the initial release of counties with full descriptions.

However – not all deserted settlements may mean that population disappeared. Changing settlement patterns can also mask shifting populations. Many of the records used to plot the fortunes of a settlement such as lay subsides, poll taxes, hearth taxes and census records may be recording parishes and townships which may have included a multitude of settlements, not just a single village. Movement within this zone, which may see the complete desertion of one settlement, may result in no drop in recorded population as they are redistributed between other places. For example a single nucleated village may be replaced by a single farmstead, and many other smaller farmsteads in the area, with no real reduction in population. Also communities affected by the factors outlined below may not become completely deserted but shrink or migrate as population continues but in another settlement format.

Natural Forces
The Black Death
Examples of abandoned villages purely as a result of the Black Death are rare – even though this is the often quoted reason for settlement desertion. That the Black Death lowered the population in certain areas is probable, but the complete abandonment of a settlement is hard to prove. One example of desertion suggested as a result of the Black Death is Cainhoe in Bedfordshire. This settlement is thought to be located somewhere between the remains of the motte and bailey castle to the north and Cainhoe Manor to the south. Cainhoe was recorded in Domesday with a minimum population of 15 and later in the 1334 Lay Subsidy the village was taxed alongside the village of Clophill. The site was held by the d'Albini family following the Conquest, and it is suggested that the village was deserted soon after 1349. An inquisition post mortem of 1375 found ten cottages that were empty ‘since the pestilence’ (Beresford and St Joseph 1979: 158).

Coastal erosion
Ravenserod in the East Riding of Yorkshire was a settlement clutching to existence. Located on an isolated area out in the Humber Estuary, this thriving town of the early fourteenth century was completely inundated and destroyed by the sea by 1360. It was founded in around 1230 on an island and becomes a town and was first described as a borough between 1241-1249 (Allison 1984). It gained its first grant for quayage in 1297, and another in 1310. It gained a royal charter in 1299, but erosion began soon after 1300 (Allison 1984). In the 1297 Lay Subsidy 36 people paid 113s 7d. By 1346 two thirds of the town was destroyed. A record of 1347-8 suggests that there were at least 300 buildings (English 1991). By 1350 the chapel was in ruins (Beresford 1952). The residents had moved to Hull and taken up residence in the town. For a full description of the history of the town see Boyle (1884).

Climate Change
Changing climate has often been quoted as a reason for desertion especially in areas perhaps seen as marginal. The economic historian Michael Postan had suggested that there were clear links between climate, desertion and marginal land (Postan 1966). Hound Tor in Devon is one such site. Here the reasons for desertion are not completely clear but there is evidence to suggest this was due to climate change (Beresford 1979). As Hound Tor was one of the highest villages on Dartmoor, there is a claim that the changing climate would have affected these sites earlier and more deeply (Beresford 1979). There is evidence for bad harvests but there are also good harvests mixed in with those years. Climate change was slow as was the desertion of the site (Beresford 1979). The medieval village seems to have developed in the middle of the thirteenth century and then becomes deserted in the middle of the fourteenth century (Beresford 1979). More recent pottery analysis has suggested that the settlement was still occupied into the late fourteenth or maybe early fifteenth century (Allan 1994). Pollen analysis does show a change from arable to pastoral activity in the fourteenth century (Austin and Walker 1985). Climate change affecting marginal areas assumes that those places with poor soils, flooding or other factors would be deserted first. Regional studies have now shown that there was no clear link between poor quality soils and desertion (Jones 2010: 10-11).

Forced Eviction
Forced eviction was the cause of depopulation lamented by Goldsmith in 1770. In the poem The Deserted Village he describes the fate of a settlement at the whim of local landowner:
‘The man of wealth and pride,
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage and hounds;’
(Goldsmith 1770: 15 lines 275-278)
Here emparking (see below) is the main cause suggested but other uses of the land were also to blame. But not all changes are at the hands of the lords or the church. Ordinary people played a role as well. Peasant farmers acquired more land and could initiate enclosure and change (Dyer 2010:30).

Sheep Farming
During the fifteenth century there was a movement to evict tenants and to enclose areas. This was often associated with a shift to sheep rearing. Legal cases were brought against landowners who had forcibly evicted their tenants. At Lillingstone Dayrell in Buckinghamshire, a settlement is recorded at Domesday and in the 1334 Lay Subsidy. By 1535 only three people paid the Lay Subsidy and in 1563 there are four households recorded. Glebe terriers in the early seventeenth century record memory of the depopulation, and in 1517 the local inquiry into enclosure laid the blame at the feet of Thomas Dayrell (Beresford 1953-4). The inquiry recorded the displacement of 40 people in 1491 and that this was the total population (Leadam 1897). More of this story can be found in Jones and Page (2006). However this is not all the story. There is clear evidence for settlement contraction in the second half of the fourteenth century when one third of the village was abandoned. Here Dayrell removed an already weakened settlement (Jones 2010:25).

A further village in Buckinghamshire tells a similar story. Doddershall does not appear in Domesday Book but the first place-name reference can be found in the late twelfth century (Mawer and Stenton 1925). In 1334 it pays an average Lay Subsidy along with Shipton Lee. By 1495 enclosure is reported which included the displacement of 120 people (Beresford 1953-4, Leadam 1897). By 1525 only nine people paid the Lay Subsidy. It is with this form of desertion that we see some of the most clearly documented and recorded causes. Wharram Percy, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the best known deserted medieval settlement, suffered under changes in land use. A once thriving settlement, by 1435 only 16 cottages are recorded showing the decline of the settlement had begun (Wrathmell 2010). Further reduction in population is noted in the 1517 enquiry into enclosure. This records that after 1488 four cottages had been removed (Wrathmell 2010). It has been well established that the fate of Wharram was the conversion to pasture. Over time more and more land was removed from arable production. A legal case that was heard in 1555 helps date the final stage of conversion to 1527 (Wrathmell 2010).

The whims of landowners led in some cases to settlement being removed during the landscaping of parks and gardens. At Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, a map by Benjamin Hare of the hall and park in 1638 shows houses close to the church and to the south of the hall. There are also other scatters of houses in other areas of the park. In total there are five clusters of houses around three main route ways (RCHME 1968). Wimpole is mentioned in Domesday and had a sizable population in the fourteenth-century taxation documents. There was a decline in population by the sixteenth century, but there were still 36 households recorded in 1563. The map of 1638 shows that there was still a sizable population and that the settlements were gradually depopulated in the eighteenth century when the park was laid out.

Small settlements were not the only ones at risk from the whims of land owners. Milton Abbas (Dorset) is a fascinating example of deliberate destruction of an established and flourishing town. In the mid-tenth century, the founding of a Benedictine Abbey allowed a village to thrive and by Domesday the village had become one of the largest settlements in central Dorset, with its own fair and market (Good 1987). The stability of the town was such that the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 had little effect on its prosperity which continued throughout the seventeenth century (Good 1987). 137 people signed the Protestation Returns of 1641–2 (Good 1987). In 1752, the estate was purchased by Joseph Damer and he commissioned the construction of a new manor house (RCHME 1970a). Wishing to empark a larger area of his estate, Damer began to purchase leases and holdings and subsequently succeeded in also demolishing the town allowing for the creation of landscape gardens and an ornamental fishpond in around 1780 (Good 1987). More than one hundred homes, three inns and a school were all relocated, to ensure an uninterrupted view from his new home.

On many occasions the emparking of land around grand houses did not lead to the disappearance of population but rather their re-housing in new settlements as at Milton Abbas. At Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire the village was originally located close to Gayhurst House and church. It was moved north in 1725, where it still exists today, when the area was landscaped for George Wrighte (Pevsner and Williamson 1994). At Sledmere in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a real reduction in population begins in the 1740s. Sledmere House was built in 1748 and at the time was at the north-western edge of a sizeable village. With the construction of this new house, any houses on the higher ground to the south-east which interrupted the view were cleared (Neave and Neave 2008, Pevsner and Neave 1995). This included 20 garths or former houses and parts of four others (Neave and Neave 2008). The remaining houses were hidden behind plantations to the north-east and south-west. In the 1770s the gardens were remodelled and the remaining villagers moved to the new village laid out to the north of the house (Neave and Neave 2008, Pevsner and Neave 1995).

Emparking is not just a feature of the later centuries. During the Middle Ages land was also enclosed for a range of activities including hunting. At Nether Haddon in Derbyshire there are suggestions that the village was deserted by 1330 with the creation of a hunting park.

Monastic sites
Not all evictions were through secular landowners. The church was also responsible for the removal of population, either to provide a more secluded environment, or as with secular landowners to increase the profitability of their land. Evidence for the removal of settlement to create a monastic site can be found in a number of areas. The village of Meaux in the East Riding of Yorkshire was mentioned in Domesday as Melsa and as a berewick of Aldbrough. It was destroyed when the Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1151-4 (Bond 1866).

An example of changing land use can be found at Shingay in Cambridgeshire. The village was first mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book, however it was depopulated in the early fifteenth century (Oosthuizen 2009). The site was one of the earliest preceptories of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and dates from 1144 AD. The preceptors carried out a thorough policy of enclosure. In June 1381 there was a peasant uprising which badly damaged many of the buildings and required that the site be rebuilt. By 1452 the village had been mostly cleared and reduced to only a few houses when there is mention that ‘the preceptor possessed crofts in which once were houses’ (Ellis and Salzman 1948, Keeling 1982).

Sudden events
As well as the whims of local landowners, there are occasions when sudden events have seen entire villages depopulated. One clear example of this is the village of Boarstall in Buckinghamshire. Here in 1645 the Royalist garrison housed in the local manor destroyed the village and church to avoid them being used by the besieging Parliamentary forces (Porter 1984). The houses were burnt within two days and the church had been demolished before 26 July giving us a rare example of a dated desertion to the actual day. However the population did not disappear, they were redistributed throughout the parish (Broad 2010).

Other sudden desertions may be a long time in the planning. One such example is Derwent in Derbyshire which was destroyed in the 1940s with the creation of Lady Bower Reservoir. In years of low rainfall remains of buildings can still be seen (Sidebottom 1993).

However some stories of rapid desertion may not be that clear cut. Rowley in the East Riding of Yorkshire is well known for the story surrounding the seventeenth-century incumbent Rev. Ezekiel Rogers (Cooper 1908). He went to America in 1638 and founded Rowley, Massachusetts, and some have claimed that the parish registers show that many of parishioners went with him and depopulated the village (Pevsner and Neave 1995, Beresford 1952). However it is now known that many of the people that went with Rev. Rogers were from further afield, and the size of settlement at Rowley was probably always small (Allison 1979).

Economic decline
On some occasions a once prosperous settlement witnesses a rapid economic decline, often at the expense of a neighbouring settlement and this resulted in depopulation. At Linslade in Buckinghamshire, the settlement known as Old Linslade saw a decline after a ban was issued by the Bishop of Lincoln (Powell 1925). A holy well in the town had been attracting pilgrims, but the reporting of false miracles led to the ban being issued by 1299 and the pilgrims stopped coming and the town declined, being replaced by the neighbouring settlement at a new location. Prior to this an extensive settlement was present. At Domesday the manor included a minimum population of 33. It was a thriving settlement of borough status, and in the late thirteenth century it became a market town with a market and fair granted in 1251 (Letters 2003).

On some occasions the weakening of a settlement due to a number of factors will result in economic decline and desertion. At Seacourt in Berkshire, the vill’s 1334 Lay Subsidy assessment seems low, perhaps suggesting contraction before the Black Death. The estimated desertion of the site by c. 1400 is supported by a letter dated 1439 which notes that the church had collapsed and only two buildings remained occupied in the village. It has been suggested that Seacourt’s decline could be linked to the rising prosperity of nearby Oxford (Wilson and Hurst 1961).

Absent settlements
Sometimes a settlement may appear in the documentary records, but never really existed. This could be due to the nature of settlement in the area – a cluster of small farmsteads or buildings given a collected name in the taxations records, but no central, nucleated settlement existing. Henny in Cambridgeshire is mentioned in Domesday and papers of Pembroke College but it is unclear whether there was ever a settlement (Beresford 1954). Hughenden in Buckinghamshire was recorded in a range of taxation documents but there is no evidence of settlement at the manor site and it is suggested to have always been dispersed settlement (Ellis 1925).

Sometimes a settlement was planned but was never developed. One such example can be found in Dorset at Gotowre. No such settlement appears in the local area, and the only place-name evidence is to Goathorn Pier and Point suggesting an area of landscape rather than settlement. However it is mentioned in the plans of Edward I in 1286 (RCHME 1970b, Good 1987). It is stated that the plan was ‘to lay out with sufficient streets and lanes, adequate sites for a market and church, plots for merchants and others in a new town with a harbour in a place called Gotowre’. It is not clear to what extent the order was ever carried out (Beresford and St Joseph 1958, Bowen and Taylor 1964). Four months later a charter was granted to the burgesses of Nova Villa (Newtown) for a weekly market. After this though, no further references are found to the Gotowre or Newton (Beresford and St Joseph 1958). It is suggested that this settlement was never established.

Long slow decline
Settlement desertion was all too often a long drawn-out process – resulting from many of the aspects discussed above. One example that illustrates this is Eske in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It seems to have been a settlement of just below average size based on the 1297 and 1334 subsidies (Brown 1894). A charter of c. 1280 notes at least 10 tofts, (Poulson 1840), whilst 63 tax payers were recorded in 1377 – again indicating a just below average, but certainly sustainable village. There is no evidence of tax relief during the fifteenth century. In 1458 at least seven holdings survived, but by the 1524/5 Lay Subsidies Eske was grouped with Routh in the taxation records, as it was again in the later seventeenth century. It has been suggested that depopulation accompanied the enclosure of Eske’s common fields in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, but the final decline of the settlement appears to have been a drawn out process (English and Miller 1991, Allison 1989). The present Manor House is thought to date from c. 1680, probably a re-build of the nine-hearth house present in the Hearth Tax of 1672. The year before five one-hearth dwellings survived in addition to the manor house (Allison 1989). In 1786 the manor contained just three farms, reduced to two by 1788, and the township had only three buildings in the 1841 Census.

As has been shown above the reasons for settlement desertion are wide and varied. There is no one explanation that fits all, and many settlements see a number of different factors coming together to seal their fate. On some occasions the reasons appear clear cut – for example the case at Boarstall, where a clearly recorded event sees the destruction of the settlement. But even those cases where recorded events seem to reveal the reason for desertion – these are not as clear cut – such as at Rowley. Also in some cases there is no population decline, the settlement and population are remodelled, redistributed but still exist in the general locality. Regional studies of desertion alongside those villages which have continued to the modern day are beginning to shed light on patterns that may exist. One suggestion is that smaller, newer settlements were less likely to become well established and therefore were more likely to decline and become deserted (Jones 2010). Only through detailed examination of settlement patterns at a regional level will more understanding be produced.

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Related pages

Causes of desertion