Have you ever given a thought, maybe when mowing your lawn or perhaps digging the flower beds, that some predecessor, in the distant past, might once have been labouring, like you, on the same spot of earth? Or have you ever considered, when you have been stuck in traffic in Croxted Road or the slaloms of Red Post Hill, that some similarly frustrated individual, seven or eight hundred years ago, might have had his cart and oxen caught up in the same road in a similar jam? If you have ever pondered about this, then you will be pleased to know that there is a considerable amount of information on the people who lived in this place all those centuries ago. In this, and a further issue of the Journal we examine in detail, life in medieval Dulwich, see how it has evolved and changed, list the names of its inhabitants, its roads and fields.

Having only just celebrated the 400th anniversary of the of Edward Alleyn’s foundation of his College, Chapel and almshouses, it might come as a surprise to some to learn that apart from one brief period during the four centuries prior to 1616, Dulwich was actually owned and administered by the Priory of Bermondsey. In 1127, Henry 1 gave the manor of Dulwich, then spelt Dilewiche, to this Cluniac monastery which had been founded some forty five years earlier and which would grow to be a wealthy foundation owning over thirty manors, rectories and lands mainly spread over the Home Counties. Henry 1 was particularly generous to the Priory, confirming earlier gifts to it by his predecessor William Rufus, and making further grants of land himself and in 1159 adding the advowson of the rectory of Camberwell.

Bermondsey Abbey

The priory had a sound reputation. When the abbot of Cluny ordered an inspection in 1262 it confirmed that all devotional offices were most properly and becomingly performed, that the rule of silence and the correction of abuses were rigidly fulfilled, and that almsgiving and hospitality were carried out according to established custom. There were thirty-two monks and one lay brother in residence.

However, despite its apparent wealth and piety, all was not entirely well. Appeals were constantly being made by creditors of the house in order to get their claims settled. In marked contrast to the importance enjoyed by Bermondsey, with its vast possessions and imposing rent roll, are the accounts of its struggle with dire poverty from the twelfth century onwards, ever hampered by debt and threatened with destitution. In addition to the losses they suffered by the flooding of their lands in the low-lying district surrounding Bermondsey and the economic causes which impoverished all religious foundations during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the policy of the Cluniac order itself seems to have contributed to that want of good government which might have overcome, or partially overcome, these natural difficulties.

Nor were relations of the brethren with their tenants and neighbours always of the happiest description; scuffles were not unknown and complaints were lodged of rough treatment on the part of the monks. Overzealous servants were also responsible for occasional transgressions, sometimes demanding work on the Priory’s demesne land when there was no requirement to do so.

In Dulwich, in 1235 we find that the Priory’s steward William Gerarde was something of a bully. He had discovered a poor woman named Mabel, the daughter of Walter of Camberwell, gathering firewood in what is now Dulwich Wood, which also belonged to the Priory. Gerarde struck her, took her cloak ( and she claimed he also took her gown and four shillings) to ensure her attending the manorial court where she could expect to be fined. However, Mabel did not take this act of violence quietly and complained to the Surrey Eyre court conducted by a Crown appointed Justicular, a travelling magistrate, with a sitting jury, including four men from Dulwich. It is not known if this jury settled other scores against the Priory because, although they did not believe Mabel’s story, she had clearly embellished it too far by claiming she had four shillings which Gerarde had also taken, a large sum for a poor woman to have, so instead of finding Mabel guilty, the court dismissed the charge against her for the theft of wood because she was so poor, but fined William Gerarde for assault and put him in custody until it was paid.

Dulwich Manorial Court

While written accounts record the life and times of kings, nobles and religious houses, discovering the conditions in which the lower classes lived through the centuries is a much greater challenge. That is where we are particularly fortunate in Dulwich because the proceedings of the local court which dealt with minor infringements like trespass, supplying under-weight bread or watered-down beer and even assault, are recorded in the manorial rolls, a number of which survive, the earliest being dated 1333. The court rolls tell us a number of things about life in medieval Dulwich, from the names of the inhabitants to details of its agriculture, from topographical references to indications of the size of the population. The rolls, together with records of land holdings, taxes and inheritances can tell us a considerable amount about the life being lived by our predecessors.

The manorial court was held four times a year at Dulwich Court, which later became Dulwich Court Farm which stood at what is now the Court Lane entrance to Dulwich Park. Another court, known as a View of Frankpledge was held twice a year. The proceedings of both courts were written on rolls of parchment by a professional clerk. The court rolls, which cover much of Dulwich’s history right up to the nineteenth century, are kept in the archives at Dulwich College. Some are being transcribed and translated from their original Latin by Patrick Darby and will be put online in their entirety in due course. An example of what Patrick laboured on is given at the end of this article.

The 14th Century

There are 123 names on the six court rolls covering the years June 1333 to 1335. Of these, 36 are women. The names may be divided into three categories; those whose surnames indicate the place from which the person originated; so we have Philip de Atescombe, (Adiscombe) and William of Havering. From these and 36 more individuals we can see that there was considerable mobility of population, most came from Kent or Essex but some as far as Scotland and Wales and several from France.

The second group of names in the rolls indicates the occupation of the person. From this we can discover that there was a miller (Henry le Meleward), a carrier (Ingolph le Carter), three shepherds and others connected with wool and cloth; Reginald le Spyndelman (maker of spindles), Margate la Kembestre (wool comber), Elias le Webbe (weaver). There was also a farrier and another was a form of solicitor. Keeping the whole community entertained by accompanying their dancing there was Robert Gifford le Tabourer, who beat a drum with one hand and played a three note pipe with the other.

The third group of names refer to topographical features. We find Roger Bythewode (By-the-wood), Richard atte Wode (at the wood), Thomas atte Grene (at the Green) and Sabina atte Styghele (at the stile) Several more of her family - Christina, Roger and Maurice are also listed in the rolls and other documents. They were better off than most of Dulwich’s population and appear to be freemen. When Christina atte Styghele suffered an untimely death, the court ordered that her possessions should pass to her young son Hugh. They consisted of “two parts of a crop of two acres sown with winter wheat (now growing) worth 4s, a brass pot worth 2s, a chest worth 12d, a vat worth 2d, a larder worth 4d, a gander and a goose worth 10 pence, a cock and a hen worth 3 pence, and … four bushels of dranckcorn worth 16d and a third part of two young oxen worth 2s.”
 A rough estimate of Dulwich’s population at this time would be 400-450. Most of these inhabitants were peasants, properly called villeins, who worked the Priory’s demesne land and in return were given accommodation, protection and land of their own to work to sustain their families. Villeins were normally excused 12 days work at Christmas (The Twelve Days of Christmas), 1 week at Easter, 1 week at Whitsun, and approximately 24 saints' days. Work for the manor occupied 264 days plus additional boon work, usually at harvest time. By law, villeins were bound to the lord of the manor, in Dulwich’s case the Priory, in this service.

There were also a number of freemen; individuals who had either made a success of their own farming and were able to lease land from the Priory or who had inherited property or land. Ten individuals were wealthy enough to pay the newly introduced Lay Subsidy tax of 1332-4 and some may have also had land in Camberwell. Sixteen freemen are listed in the court roll. From various references, we can see that the descendents of William Gerarde continued to live in Dulwich, possibly inheriting William’s office as bailiff. A hundred years after the unfortunate affair in Dulwich woods Alan Gerarde sold a house and land ‘ next the Eststrete and pasture called Dylwyssch Wode to the south.’ which he had inherited from his father Hugh Gerarde, to Roger and Matilda Berlyng.

Everyday LIfe

From other sources we know that conditions at the beginning of the fourteenth century were difficult. In the previous century there had been a considerable expansion in population for reasons which are still unclear. This had required the cultivation of those marginal lands previously not thought to be productive enough, to feed the increased population. The effort needed to achieve this was to an extent mitigated by technological changes, the most significant was the change from a hook plough to a wheeled plough drawn by animal power. We know that In Dulwich, the Gerarde family had cleared some marginal land described as rude or uncultivated and in time even lent their name to it - Gerardes Rudene.

However, other factors made life precarious. Between 1315-22 there had been what was called The Great Famine following a series of bad harvests due to poor weather caused by cold winters and wet summers. In Dulwich, a court roll tells us that two (female) beasts of burden, 3 chickens (one of them a cock) and a cow died since Michaelmas last (1332), not through lack of looking after, nor from old age, but from a sudden attack of the murrain. Murrain was the umbrella term used to define death of cattle and sheep and might well in this case have been foot and mouth disease. The loss of such animals would have been a great financial blow to their owners.

There is plenty of evidence of the importance of the production of wool to Dulwich life. There were the three shepherds (interestingly, all originally hailing from Essex) and we have seen by some of the names of the inhabitants the involvement in the preparation of wool and cloth. When the Dulwich Society arranged an archaeological dig near Lovers’ Lane some years ago, the jaw bone of a sheep was found.

Much of the evidence contained in the court rolls relates to fines imposed by the court for the straying of animals into the Priory’s fields and damaging the crops. In the autumn of 1333, nine inhabitants were fined for this offence. This large number of fines suggests that either the owners of the offending animals were grazing them on the Common and the Priory’s cornfield, oatfields and pastures were adjacent (in what is now Dulwich Park) or the 2-3 common field system still existed in Dulwich in the first half of the fourteenth century. This system was a fair division of good and poor land divided into strips of between a quarter acre and two acres ( probably unfenced or unhedged), and shared between the Priory, who had the considerable part and the remaining inhabitants. There were also three fines for trespass caused by animals brought by the villagers against each other, which further supports this hypothesis. In other cases, fines were imposed for trespass by individuals into Dulwich Wood, either, as in the case of Mabel, to cut timber or to graze animals in what by this time were areas that had been partly cleared to provide additional grazing land. Some of the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf course and the adjacent allotments might be identified as this.

The diet of the peasants was largely made up of vegetables and fruit, however most kept pigs, either around their cottages, or by allowing them to forage for acorns in Dulwich woods for which the owners made a payment to the Priory for what was termed pannage. Thirteen inhabitants paid this charge and between them kept as many as 75 pigs in the woods.

The keeping of the peace was administered through the system of Frankpledge, meaning ‘peace pledge’ which is derived from the Old English name frith-borh. It was a system which began to operate widely through England as early as the tenth century. Families or groups of neighbours numbering ten or more were bound together by pledges known as tithing and were responsible for each member’s activities and behaviour. As the population increased a tithing could increase to as many as 20-40 individuals or families. Every man over the age of 12 was obliged to be a member of a tithing and would swear fealty (loyalty) to the lord of the manor, ie the Priory. Dulwich’s population was large enough to require three tithings. A headborough or head of each tithing was elected annually to ensure the attendance of the whole tithing at the manorial court as well as the apprehension of any culprits. It was not a popular job. The headborough might be assisted by an aleconner who was responsible for ensuring that ale was brewed correctly and bread was sold at the proper rate.

Law and Order

Twice a year the court held what was termed the, ‘ View of Frankpledge’, In Dulwich, this court appears to have been conducted by the Priory’s manor steward and took place following one of the regular manorial courts we have discussed. The fines imposed by the court of frankpledge passed through the hands of the steward, the Priory and the King who each received a share. There was always a financial result; if a culprit failed to appear at the court then the whole of the tithing would be fined. Records of the View of Frankpledge survive in two of the court rolls of the 1330’s.

While much of the frankpledge records deal with minor infringements relating to the brewing of beer - eighteen people in Dulwich were fined between 2d and 3d for brewing and selling ale of the incorrect strength, they also show us that life in Dulwich was frequently violent. There are a number of cases of assault involving the drawing of blood. The victims in these cases raised what was called the Hue and Cry. This was a general alarm accompanied by shouts and noise and the sounding of horns to which the whole manor had to respond to pursue the assailant.

There was one particular ruffian among Dulwich’s inhabitants, named John de Boloyne. He assaulted and drew blood from both Philip de Atescompe and Roger de Berlynges and on another occasion, Richard le Brand who lived near Crokestrete (Croxted Road). All three victims rightly raised the Hue and Cry and John was fined 6d for each offence. In the event he was unable to pay, the two inhabitants who pledged for him would have to pay instead.

One year later, in the summer of 1334, there was a violent dispute between neighbours which would have done credit to a modern TV soap like ‘Eastenders’. According to the manorial court rolls it had all started when Richard Rolf struck Phillipa the wife of William Hosewode whereupon she rightly raised hue and cry. Richard was found guilty and fined 3d Alas it did not end there. Apparently, soon after, Richard Rolf counter-claimed that William Hosewode ‘took, abducted and carried away his wife Edith together with one cow worth 10 shillings .. as well as other goods & chattels to the value of 40s in breach of the peace..’ William Hosewode denied all this and ‘says that in nothing is he guilty as the same Richard imputes to him’ and reminds the court that ‘ the same Richard on Thursday next before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross at Dyluyssh in the said present eighth Regnal Year of the king Edward & there insulted & unjustly wounded the said Philippa . Richard denies this and says that ‘ the said Philippa, wife of the said William, insulted and attacked him in breach of the peace.’ As the Hosewodes failed to mention any damage they sustained, to the court, it was assessed at 12d, the amount Phillippa had apparently earier acknowledged, presumably without consulting her husband. This clearly outraged William Hosewode who ‘.. comes to Court & using verbal threats to the Court & others said that the said twelve [pence] for the damage to himself & his wife awarded to him cannot be enough’.