The complexity of medieval Soberton (1)

When, several years ago, I embarked upon writing the first of the Meonbridge Chronicles, I read a lot of books in preparation. Most of the books were filling in the gaps in my knowledge of how ordinary people lived in the 14th century: their homes and clothes, their food and tools, what they did and what they thought. What, I now realise, I didn’t much investigate, was how the manorial society in which they lived was managed.

Of course I knew something – I knew about the feudal system and that it was already beginning to break down by the time of the Black Death. I knew about lords and tenants, and manorial obligations. So in the first Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel, I imagined that my fictional Meonbridge had a “lord of the manor” (Sir Richard) and a couple of hundred tenants before the plague halved the population, all living together in a state of sometimes more or less harmonious equilibrium, sometimes uneasy tension. What I didn’t really think about was how Sir Richard had acquired his ownership of Meonbridge (and his many other estates across the south of England). Did he hold it (them) from an overlord, such as the king, or some ecclesiastical overlord, such as the bishop of Winchester or Beaulieu Abbey? Or perhaps he held it from his own “liege lord”, a fictional Sussex earl? I hadn’t worked that out, and, from the point of view of the story, it didn’t matter all that much.

But the third Meonbridge Chronicle, which I am currently drafting, addresses matters of inheritance, and so it is interesting to consider how manors were held and passed on in the Middle Ages. So I’ve done a bit more reading…

My reading has been mainly confined to two sources: the Domesday Book, and one of my favourite resources, the Victoria County History (accessed from the British History Online (BHO) website, about which I have waxed lyrical before, see Meonstoke’s “glittering” past.

In that blog post, I talked mostly about Meonstoke, which lies about half way along the length of the River Meon and is, in my mind, the village that “Meonbridge” aligns to most closely. What I read of Meonstoke’s manorial history was interesting and reasonably straightforward. This time, however, I chose to read about Soberton, a couple of miles downstream of Meonstoke, and the picture I have gained is no less interesting, but far less clear. The results of my reading have been both enlightening and confusing. I wanted to gain a general insight into Soberton’s medieval manorial structure and to discover some of the people who held, and disposed of, the manors. I have achieved that, more or less, but it is a complex picture.

This is the first of a two-part post about what I have learned of Soberton’s manorial arrangements. Because the picture is rather complicated, I have more information than I can possibly include in one month’s post. But I think it’s interesting enough to warrant telling all!

The parish of Soberton and Newtown is apparently one of the largest, geographically, in the United Kingdom. Today, the parish is still largely rural, or semi-rural, with several working farms, a few horticultural and industrial enterprises, and a population of about 1600. Its main church, St. Peter’s, was begun in the 12th century. A second church, in Newtown, was built in the 19th century, as was a Methodist Chapel in Soberton Heath (now a private home). The southern part of the parish (Soberton Heath/Newtown) contains a good area of the Forest of Bere, once a vast area of royal woodland stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest to the west in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I all hunted here. The oak woods provided timber for building, including warships and bridges, from the 13th to the 19th centuries. I have written more about the Forest in the wider context of “industry” in the Meon Valley, in an earlier post, The “industrious” Meon Valley.

Most, though not quite all, of the modern parish lies within the boundaries of the South Downs National Park.

One of the constituents of the BHO web site, the Victoria County History for Hampshire, provides extensive and fascinating information about the historical ownership, as well as the important buildings and features, of Hampshire’s manors. As I said in my earlier post about the BHO, it is intriguing to see how the ownership of quite small manors, or parts of manors, sometimes rested with quite famous individuals, like the bishops of Winchester, or the (in)famous third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley.

In the Meon Valley, many of the estates were originally owned by the Crown or by some illustrious ecclesiastical institution. But, as I have discovered, many of these estates were in practice held by aristocratic or knightly families, some of whom retained their manorial holdings for generations and centuries, although sometimes manors were subdivided to provide for multiple heirs, or sold off to meet liabilities. Families such as the Waytes, Newports, de Venuz’s and Wallops were long-standing “lords of the manor” in Soberton. In the case of Soberton, too, I have noticed how frequently women seemed to inherit and hold – or dispose of – manors, giving the impression that, for several centuries at least, women had more power over their property than one might have thought.

I have discovered, too, how fascinating it is to see – or to try to fathom – how locations named in earlier centuries align with what we have now. I don’t know quite why I find this so absorbing… Perhaps it’s something to do with what I also said in one of those earlier posts: “It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.” It’s about wanting to understand the shape of our ancestors’ lives.

According to the Domesday Book of 1086, Soberton (attached to the Meonstoke Hundred) had four main “estates”, which together had a population of about 35 households, or perhaps 150 or so people. There is also an entry in Domesday for [East] Hoe, which lies within the eastern boundary of the parish, with another nine households. Domesday also tells us of a place called “Benestede” (or Bensted), with 12 households, which lay on the western boundary of the parish of Soberton (the River Meon), though it no longer exists under this name. I am including reference to it in this post largely because of its geographical proximity to the Soberton manors. 

The Domesday entries for Soberton proper show that two of the four estates belonged to the king, William I. A major part of Soberton had, at the time of the Conquest in 1066, formed part of the estates of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. His son, King Harold Godwinson, made his father’s a crown estate. Domesday says:

“Harold took it from him and put it in his revenue; it is so still”. And these estates remained in the overlordship of the king.

Domesday Soberton
Main Domesday entry for Soberton

A third Soberton estate at the time of the Conquest had belonged to “Wulfnoth”, who I assume was either Godwin’s father, Wulfnoth Cild, who held vast estates in Sussex and was possibly the thegn of South Sussex, or another Wulfnoth Godwinson, Godwin’s sixth son and Harold’s younger brother. By the time of Domesday, the estate was in the hands of Herbert the Chamberlain, who was chamberlain of the Winchester treasury.

The fourth Soberton estate was crown land in 1066 but, by Domesday, it belonged to Henry the Treasurer (about whom I know no more). 

[East] Hoe was again crown land in 1066 but, by Domesday, it had been transferred to Hugh de Port, a French-English Norman aristocrat who accumulated a great number of estates, perhaps as many as 53 by 1086, most of which were in Hampshire.

Bensted, which was located just outside Soberton parish, was owned by the bishop of Winchester both prior to and after Domesday, but the wealthy Hugh de Port held it (or part of it) in 1086.

So, that was the situation in 1086. But, in the decades and centuries that followed, it seems that the, perhaps initially quite clearly delineated, estates referred to in the Domesday Book became divided and subdivided, according to the practice of “subinfeudation”, by which tenants who held land from an overlord, including the king, sub-let or alienated part of it to heirs or others. As a result, says the Victoria County History, it became difficult to trace the subsequent history of some of the estates. The results of the “subinfeudation” in Soberton made its manorial structure really rather complex, and I have enjoyed trying – while not entirely succeeding – to tease out the details.

Soberton manors
Rough sketch map of Soberton parish, showing the manors referred to in this post. (c) Author

From the information in the History, the five Soberton estates were divided (eventually) into about seven manors:

  •   Soberton
  •   Longspiers
  •   Flexland (Englefield)
  •   Wallop’s Manor
  •   Russell Flexland
  •   Bere
  •   East Hoe 

The History doesn’t mention a Bensted at this location at all.

[As an aside, on a website called Manorial Counsel Limited, I have found that lordships of the following manors exist: Soberton, Russell Flexland, Wallop’s Manor, Bere, Longspiers, East Hoe, but also Faulkner’s Pluck and Huntbourne. None of these titles are available for sale (which is partly the function of the website), so whether this means someone actually still owns them all, I really don’t know!]

Soberton

The Clere family held “a” (rather than “the”) manor of Soberton from the king from early times. In the reign of Edward III the abbot of Beaulieu Abbey purchased “a” manor of Soberton. It seems unclear exactly where this manor (if indeed it was the same manor) was located, but perhaps it was located where Soberton village is now, in the north of the parish, and maps to the two estates identified as belonging to the king in 1086? I can’t tell this from my reading of the History, but I suppose it is a reasonable conjecture.

Anyway, as early as 1229, the forests in Soberton that belonged to the Abbey were extensive enough to justify the king ordering the abbot to supply the royal navy with five hundred wickerwork baskets (cleias) and two hundred bridges. In 1359, the Abbey was granted free warren in Soberton, and in 1393 the king confirmed the right of common of pasture within the Forest of Bere for the animals of the tenants of Soberton. About this time the Abbey began what seemed to be a common practice, to farm out the manor, and it was let to various tenants from then onwards. 

In 1411 the manor was leased to a Richard Newport and his heirs for two hundred years. This lease seemed to have been equivalent to a sale, for no annual rent was mentioned in the indenture. In 1477 the manor was said to be the property of Henry Stafford, the second duke of Buckingham, who was married to Catherine Woodville, sister of Elizabeth, the wife of King Edward IV.

Later in the 15th century, the manor and other premises in Soberton were passed to John Dale and Richard Kingsmill, apparently as trustees, rather than owners. Richard Newport’s grandson, John, who had inherited the manor, died in 1521 with no children to succeed him. John’s widow, Elizabeth, died six years later. They were buried together inside St Peter’s church, in a marble tomb that can still be seen in what was once called the Lady Chapel, and now the Curll Chapel. Elizabeth left fifty sheep, two cattle and ten marks in money to the church, and 3s. 4d. (about £70 or 5 days  wages for a skilled tradesman) to each of her Soberton tenants.

Wriothesley_southampton
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

In 1544, William Dale, presumably a son or grandson of John Dale, and still a “trustee”, passed the manor of Soberton, together with those of Longspiers and Flexland Englefield (see next month’s post), to a Walter Bonham who, five years later, sold them to Thomas Wriothesley, the first Earl of Southampton. The earl died a year later. His grandson Henry, who inherited Soberton at the age of eight on the death of his father in 1581, became the infamous third Earl. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Henry was drawn into the Earl of Essex’s conspiracy and was sent to the Tower when the plot failed. In 1601 he was convicted of treason (and presumably deprived of all his estates). However, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, had Henry’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment. But in 1603, he was released by the new king, James I, who also restored to him his Soberton manor (among many others, I presume!) and, four years later, granted him free warren, view of frankpledge, assize of bread and beer, and various other privileges. When Henry died on the king’s service abroad in 1624, his heir was his son Thomas, then aged sixteen.

British School; Walter Curll (1575-1647), Bishop of Wells (1629-1632)
Dr Walter Curll

However, within the next few years, Soberton was sold to Dr. Walter Curll, who was bishop of Winchester from 1632 to 1647. When, in 1645, the Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell captured Winchester, Walter went into exile to his manor in Soberton. It was said that he “led a retired life there in a sort of obscurity for a year and a half or thereabouts in a declining state of health. He was brought up to London for advice, but died 1647 about seventy two”. After his death, the manor was taken from the family but, in 1651, Walter’s widow and his son petitioned for its restoration. It was restored, and passed eventually to Walter’s grandson, another Walter. Then, in 1678, this Walter’s daughter, Anna, married Thomas Lewis, and brought the manor to her husband. 

And it wasn’t long before Thomas was the owner of nearly all the manors of Soberton parish.

I will continue Soberton’s manorial story in a post next month.

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