Orwell at Domesday

By Sue Miller

Domesday Book contains the results of a country-wide land use and land ownership survey, commissioned by the Norman King William after his conquest of England in 1066, and completed in 1086.  William's grandson,  Bishop Henry of Winchester, was later to declare that the reason for the survey was to ensure that "every man should know his right and not usurp another's", but clearly it gave William a precise guide to the tax gathering possibilities of the kingdom he had just won for himself, as well as the manpower he could call on in time of war.

Photo:Part of the Domesday Book entry for Orwell

Part of the Domesday Book entry for Orwell

 Historians are divided on the reliability and usefulness of Domesday Book as a statement of the population and economy of England's villages in 1086, but if we accept its figures as a rough guide this is what it tells us about Orwell at that time:

Norman overlords displaced Saxons

William the Conqueror dispossessed all but one of the Saxon freemen who had held land in Orwell from King Edward the Confessor and gave the land to seven of his Norman followers instead.  Earl Roger of Shrewsbury received the largest estate, covering 155 acres, and this later became the basis of the manor of Orwell. 

The village, named Ordwella in Domesday Book, covered four 'hides', or 480 acres in 1086. (Malton was not then recorded as a separate parish.) These acres included enough arable land to keep six and a half plough teams occupied, each team being of eight oxen. There was apparently enough meadow to provide hay and pasture for five of the plough teams and enough trees around the village to provide timber for fencing them in.

Two mills were mentioned in Domesday

Corn grown in Orwell's fields could be ground in the two mills mentioned in Domesday, but these would almost certainly have been animal or water powered as windmills were not in use in England before the 12th century. 

Twenty-one heads of households were listed, suggesting a population of around a hundred. Most Orwell men were classed as 'bordarii' or smallholders, with just enough land in the village Open Fields to support their families, and four were 'cotarii' occupying a cottage with no more than a bit of garden ground. Most would have been required to work for their landlords in payment for their land or dwellings as well as cultivating their own field strips.

Orwell was a small village compared with its neighbours

These facts and figures are of greater interest if you  compare them with the Domesday entries for our neighbours.  Barrington, Haslingfield and Meldreth for instance were between three and four times bigger than Orwell, both in terms of acreage and population. The King directly collected a large part of the rents for land in Haslingfield and that village had to supply him with as much corn, malt and honey as he required.  There was evidently little woodland in our area, as Domesday Book mentions only 'wood for repairing fences' in most places. By contrast, villages between Cambridge and Newmarket, such as Woodditton, had extensive woodlands in which large herds of pigs were kept. Domesday Book for Cambridgeshire is available in paperback and is an interesting read.  A summary of the Domesday entry for Orwell at  http://www.domesdaymap.co.uk/place/TL3650/orwell/ provides a quick overview of the details and enables you to access and compare the entries of other villages.

The open fields where our Orwell forebears grew their crops in 1086 were gradually extended over the following centuries, but characterized the landscape here until Enclosure created individual farms in 1837. The political journalist William Cobbett, riding through our area in 1830, described the hedgeless open fields as "very ugly things, with have all the nakedness, without any of the smoothness, of the Downs."  The houses of 1086, built of timber, wattle and daub, are long gone, but may have been grouped close to the church, around the spring that used to rise where Lordship Close now stands. Perhaps one day a Test Pit project, like that planned for Meldreth this year, may reveal where Orwell folk were living when King William's surveyors came to call !

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This page was added by Sue Miller on 06/02/2013.

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