Articles about The Middle Ages

These articles are part of a series written by Diana Wall for local magazines and newsletters.


Some people know it as “The Book of Winchester” or “The Great Survey” but, in the words of a Norman writer of the time, “Domesday is what the ordinary man calls it in the English language … for its verdicts are just as unanswerable.” Following William, Duke of Normandy’s great victory in 1066 his nobles expected the spoils of war – manors, bishoprics, the rights to hold markets and fairs – and over the next two decades these were granted and Saxon overlords dispossessed. There were many disputes between those with conflicting claims and the others who underpaid, or refused to pay, the taxes necessary for the costly defence of the realm.

It was against this background that William I visited the town of Gloucester, then comprising a settlement of a few thousand people, a small fraction of those in the agricultural countryside around, to spend Christmas in 1085. A new Norman earth and timber castle stood by the River Severn, in the south west of the town, but he probably stayed at the old palace of Kingsholm, entering the town through the rebuilt North Gate to visit the abbey church being constructed by Abbot Serlo. Here, as recorded in 1122, William held “deep speech” with his advisors “about this land, how it was peopled, and with what sort of men.” Not a survey born from a desire for facts, but rather from the military necessity of keeping a standing army provisioned, by stationing troops in various localities, the numbers set according to what the land would support. During 1086 the Conqueror’s commissioners visited the whole of the kingdom south of the Tees, attending shire courts where local juries gave details of land ownership, the land use, the population and numbers of livestock. These were inscribed on parchment, by one person, to become “The Domesday Survey”.

The nun’s church of the Holy Trinity at Caen holds HAMPTON. Countess Goda held it before 1066. 8 hides. In Lordship 5 ploughs. 32 villagers and 10 smallholders with 24 ploughs. A priest and 10 slaves. 8 mills at 45 shillings. Meadow 20 acres; woodland 2 leagues long. Value £28”

“Tewkesbury Church holds from the King AVENING. Before 1066 there were 10 hides. In lordship 8 ploughs. 24 villagers, 5 smallholders and 30 slaves with 16 ploughs. 4 mills at 19s. 2d. Now the reeve has added a mill at 40d. Woodland 2 leagues long. A hawks eyrie. Value £27” (Translation from Domesday Book)

These local entries in The Great Survey show just how important these two manors were in 1086. A hide was about 120 acres (the derivation of modern Hyde), and a league was about 1½ miles in length. Most of what we know as the Common was wooded in Norman times, and the Avening woods included Gatcombe and Hazelwood. A plough team was eight oxen, and those “in lordship” were reserved for use on the demesne land, with all produce belonging to the holder of the manor. The villagers and smallholders also had to work on the lord’s fields, spending only short periods cultivating small strips of land for their own sustenance. In proportion to the rest of the population there were more slaves in Gloucestershire than anywhere else surveyed; they would work for the lord or an official such as the reeve (steward) or priest. All the mills would be in the valleys, water powered, and at this time used for arable crops. For comparison, Painswick had a value of £24, Cheltenham £20.

In reality, although the lordship had passed into Norman hands, either directly or through the church, conditions for the vast majority of the population had changed little in the twenty years since 1066. Gradually, over the next century the feudal system would become strengthened, and the self-contained manor, with three arable fields, pasture and woodland providing all the needs of the community emerged in both Minchinhampton and Avening. Later manorial records, however, cannot compare in detail or scope to “The Great Survey.”


CECILIA of CAEN (c1056 – 1127)

The story of Cecilia of Caen and her parents William of Normandy (“The Conqueror”) and his wife Matilda of Flanders might seem to irrelevant to Minchinhampton, but that is far from the case. Following the defeat and death of King Harold at Senlac Hill in 1066 all lands held by the Saxon thanes were confiscated and redistributed to the Norman victors and their allies. The manor of Hampton was far larger than the present civil parish and was held by the Countess Goda; it was defined as lying within a circle of woods, stretching from Colecumbe to Burleia and Rodeberowe. To the north, the line of the River Frome marks the old boundary and to the south was the manor of Avening in the ownership of Brihtric. (Legend has it that Brihtric had scorned Matilda’s love many years before her marriage, when he was at the Flemish Court). Both these manors were confiscated and the valuable lands, agricultural produce and people given to L’Abbaye aux Dames in Caen.

William and Matilda were cousins and religious law prohibited their marriage. An alliance between Flanders and Normandy was seen to be a positive step in 1050, but Pope Leo IX issued a Papal ban; this caused a delay of two years but the marriage went ahead. A dispensation finally came from Pope Nicholas II in 1059, but only after the couple agreed to found two churches as penance. Children born before that date (including Cecilia) were legitimised. Saint-Etienne in Caen became L’Abbaye aux Hommes and Sainte Trinité became L’Abbaye aux Dames. The dedication was copied for the Norman Church here and after a few years the settlement became known as Minchin-Hampton, from the old word mycenen meaning nun. Norman rule brought a degree of stability to England, and the manor was run as an estate bringing wealth to the absentee landlord – the Abbess – through the sale of wool, grain and other agricultural goods. The adjacent manors with the differing situations complemented each other, with Hampton on the plateau and Avening in the valley.

Although we know that Matilda bore William four sons and their order of succession, none of the original sources give the order of birth for the daughters (or even if it was five or six girls!). However, Cecilia, or Cecily, is usually described as the eldest daughter and Matilda took a great interest in her children’s upbringing. All were known for being intelligent and well educated; the girls were taught to read Latin at Sainte Trinité. The building of L’Abbaye aux Dames became one of Matilda’s passions and, to their mother’s joy, Cecily and her sister Adela were deeply religious, both taking holy vows. Cecilia was offered as an oblate to the Sainte Trinité in 1066, probably in part to obtain divine blessing for the project to invade England. She became a nun there in 1075, her tutor being Arnoul de Choques who later became Chancellor to her brother Robert, Duke of Normandy and subsequently Patriarch of Jerusalem. She became Abbess at Sainte Trinité in 1113; prestigious religious houses considered royal blood in the abbots and abbesses essential to the sanctity and welfare of the establishment. One of the Norman scholars records the death in 1126 of “Cecilia Abbatissa, Willelmi Regis filia”. (Abbess Cecilia, King William’s daughter). When a name was sought for the development of flats off Cambridge Way, the eldest daughter of William I was perpetuated in “Cecily Court”.


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