The Wiltshire Archaeological Society’s “The Rolls of Highworth Hundred 1275-1287” and “Accounts And Surveys of the Wiltshire Lands of Adam de Stratton” and the Wiltshire Record Society’s “Court Rolls of The Wiltshire Manors of Adam de Stratton” (collectively referred to as “The Highworth Hundred Books”) provide an insight into medieval Merston.
Merston was part of the ancient Saxon administrative area of Wrth (Highworth and around) which was governed by the manor of Sevenhampton which eventually passed to Adam de Stratton. The earthworks by Sevenhampton Church are a Scheduled Monument and may be the remains of the medieval village and manor.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) England probably had a population of about 2 million. That increased rapidly during the prosperous 13th Century to about 5 million.
The area now known as “Priors Farley” to the east of Rowborough Farm and Priory Farm to the south-west of the village might be evidence of Priory land but it is likely that the Priory owned land throughout the village as it was stated in 1300 to own “the manor of Marston”, quite probably the legal “ownership” of the village rather than a manor house. Indeed there may well have been no Priory and no monks in the village at all, with the Priory’s interests being looked after by a bailiff, probably based at a farm near the church.
The Highworth Hundred Books state that both South Marston and the Priory of Farley had tithingman (lay policeman), suggesting separate communities; one, the common villagers (who nevertheless probably lived on Priory land and owed services) and the other, the Priory servants, who lived at the Priory farm and were full-time employees.
The Highworth Hundred Books reveal a community at South Marston in 1280 of Eborard the chaplain, Willelmus the blacksmith, Walterum the miller, who worked the windmill which ground the corn, Thomas Poynant, Robertus Godchep, Willelmus Sculhard, Ricardum de Wyk (all tithingmen who served a one year term) and Willelmus Crome, Ricardum de marisco, Robertus Blech, Willelmus Wisside, Thomas Ward, Willelmus Ward, Agnes Warde, Agnes le Abbod, Matild Simond, the various farmers, shepherds and widows of the village. Berton (presumably Burton Grove Farm) also existed as part of South Marston and there was a significant de Berton family and Robertus de Abendon, a landowner, who lived at Berton. These were some of the people mentioned, others were not and the community may have numbered between fifty and two hundred.
A few villagers would have been freemen (freeholders, later called Yeomen, of land owned by the King, administered by the lord of the manor of Sevenhampton) or villeins (tenants, later called husbandmen, of the local manor, owned by the Monks of Farley) or mere cottars who rented only hovels, or cottages, but held no land and peasant servants. The villagers worked their gardens and allotments (tofts and crofts) and grew their crops on allocated strips of land spread throughout the open fields of the village*, but in return they had to pay rent or taxes, attend the meetings of the local courts, help farm their landlord’s land (the Royal or manorial “demesne”) and volunteer or pay for military service.
* As at 2021, it is possible to still see some remaining ridges and furrows from medieval farming, on the recreation ground. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridge_and_furrow
The Hungerford Cartulary refers to deeds which state that the village had two fields, the West and the East, probably located either side of the brook from Hunts Copse to Rowborough Farm. They would have been huge expanses of open arable land. The land immediately adjoining the brook and much of the land to the south of the present A420 road would have been too wet for crops and instead would have been used as meadow (for producing winter hay for livestock) and pasture (grazing for livestock). The rivulets and watery channels of the old marsh, primarily from the church down to the River Cole, can be seen in Aerial Photographs held by the National Monuments Record in Swindon.
It may well be the case that Medieval South Marston was a dispersed community due to the nature of the landscape, with the main village by the church, arable farming centres on higher ground at Burton Grove and Priors Farley and a wick (dairy farm) in the marsh, possibly at South Marston Farm where earthworks exist today. Those earthworks can be seen in the right conditions, near to the footbridge over the railway. It is possible to make out the shapes of dwellings and their doorways, as evidenced by dips created by years of footfall.
The 1840 Tithe Award Map shows evidence of the Medieval East Field at Priors Farley: “The Old Feeding Ground”, “Long Great Feeding Ground”, “Upper Corn Ground”, “Corn Ground” and “Attertons Field”, the later shown in its strip form. The stones which marked the strips in Attertons Field are shown on the plan to the 1918 Estate Auction. Many field names can be traced back in deeds to medieval times.
The 1332 Wiltshire Tax List for “Southmershtone” reveals 24 taxpayers: Nicholas Poynant, Robert de Abyndone, Eleanor de Marisco, John Poynaunt, John atte Wyke, Robert atte Wyke, John Scolarde, Thomas Wythside, Thomas le Haywarde, William Felawe, the shepherd, Adam le Revehyne, Thomas Symmes, John le Riche, Thomas atte Stone, William le Clerke, Walter James, Thomas Richarde, Christine Beccle, Philip Warde, Walter Robat, Thomas Godshop, Maud atte Wydie and William atte Leghe. There are some familiar names from 50 years earlier and there is evidence of names changing from their earlier Norman origin/Latin spelling. There would have been children and other, poorer villagers who were not subject to tax, suggesting again a community of fifty to two hundred, but how many were to die in the Black Death of 1349?
The Poll Tax of 1377 gives a village population of 93, indicating a tax of all inhabitants. The Poll Tax of 1379 lists 15 names, presumably a tax of the wealthier only. Three fields to the east of the church are called “dead pitts”; were they a Black Death burial ground?
The Hungerford Cartulary compiled by the Earl of Radnor in the 19th Century lists title deeds of lands acquired by the wealthy Hungerford family, principally in South Marston by Walter Hungerford in the 1440’s, including those which had been owned by Walter Hyldyet, Robert Hyldyet, Robert de Berton, John de Bertone, Richard de Abyndone, John de Borghton, Andrew le Heywarde, William le Cartere, William Hobbes, Robert Hobbes, John Marlebergh, John Longe, William Warde, John James, Richard Tybole, William Felawe, Andrew Pavy (alias Andrew Chipman), Robert Russell, Elizabeth Seyntomer and Robert and Joan More. Elizabeth Seyntomer had held the manor of Bourton (presumably Bourton, not Burton Grove) from the Duke of York in 1405.
The Hungerford family’s principal residence was at Farleigh Hungerford and there were obvious connections with the Priory of Monkton Farleigh, for whom it acted as administrator. The Hungerford family may well have acquired the manor of South Marston from the Priory in the 15th Century and could have been the first dominant private landowner in the village. From 1349 to 1430 subsequent recurrences of the plague continued to reduce the population; there were insufficient labourers to work the huge, open arable fields and new landowners turned to livestock farming, principally sheep, which required less labour, especially if fields became enclosed with fences, ditches and hedges. The enclosure movement spelt the end of the medieval feudal system.