Why did settlements become deserted? Part One

Many different reasons have been postulated for the desertion of settlement. Initially many laid blame at the door of the Black Death. Further research and in the context of Goldsmith’s poem of 1770 (see below), the emphasis moved to an analysis of the medieval economy and a change to sheep farming, the displacement of people, and a move to the towns. Below we look at two main categories of desertion – natural forces and forced eviction. Next week we will explore some other forms of desertion – sudden events, economic decline, absent settlements and the long slow decline.  Examples are provided for each reason that can be viewed on the Beresford’s Lost Villages website.

Natural Forces
The Black Death
Examples of abandoned villages purely as a result of the Black Death are rare – even though this is the often quoted reason for settlement desertion. That the Black Death lowered the population in certain areas is probable, but the complete abandonment of a settlement is hard to prove. One example of desertion suggested as a result of the Black Death is Cainhoe in Bedfordshire. This settlement is thought to be located somewhere between the remains of the motte and bailey castle to the north and Cainhoe Manor to the south. Cainhoe was recorded in Domesday with a minimum population of 15 and later in the 1334 Lay Subsidy the village was taxed alongside the village of Clophill. The site was held by the d’Albini family following the Conquest, and it is suggested that the village was deserted soon after 1349. An inquisition post mortem of 1375 found ten cottages that were empty ‘since the pestilence’ (Beresford and St Joseph 1979: 158).

Cainhoe in Buckinghamshire - location of the motte and bailey castle
Cainhoe in Bedfordshire – location of the motte and bailey castle

Coastal erosion
Ravenserod in the East Riding of Yorkshire was a settlement clutching to existence. Located on an isolated area out in the Humber Estuary, this thriving town of the early fourteenth century was completely inundated and destroyed by the sea by 1360. It was founded in around 1230 on an island and becomes a town and was first described as a borough between 1241-1249 (Allison 1984). It gained its first grant for quayage in 1297, and another in 1310. It gained a royal charter in 1299, but erosion began soon after 1300 (Allison 1984). By 1346 two thirds of the town was destroyed. A record of 1347-8 suggests that there were at least 300 buildings (English 1991). By 1350 the chapel was in ruins (Beresford 1952). The residents had moved to Hull and taken up residence in the town.

Climate Change
Changing climate has often been quoted as a reason for desertion especially in areas perhaps seen as marginal. The economic historian Michael Postan had suggested that there were clear links between climate, desertion and marginal land (Postan 1966). Hound Tor in Devon is one such site where climate change has been suggested as a cause of desertion – see last week’s blog…… Here the reasons for desertion are not completely clear but there is evidence to suggest this was due to climate change (Beresford 1979). Climate change affecting marginal areas assumes that those places with poor soils, flooding or other factors would be deserted first. Regional studies have now shown that there was no clear link between poor quality soils and desertion (Jones 2010: 10-11).

Forced Eviction
Forced eviction was the cause of depopulation lamented by Goldsmith in 1770. In the poem The Deserted Village he describes the fate of a settlement at the whim of local landowner:

‘The man of wealth and pride,
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage and hounds;’
(Goldsmith 1770: 15 lines 275-278)

Here emparking (see below) is the main cause suggested but other uses of the land were also to blame. But not all changes are at the hands of the lords or the church. Ordinary people played a role as well. Peasant farmers acquired more land and could initiate enclosure and change (Dyer 2010:30).

Sheep Farming
During the fifteenth century there was a movement to evict tenants and to enclose areas. This was often associated with a shift to sheep rearing. Legal cases were brought against landowners who had forcibly evicted their tenants. At Lillingstone Dayrell in Buckinghamshire, a settlement is recorded at Domesday and in the 1334 Lay Subsidy. By 1535 only three people paid the Lay Subsidy and in 1563 there are four households recorded. Glebe terriers in the early seventeenth century record memory of the depopulation, and in 1517 the local inquiry into enclosure laid the blame at the feet of Thomas Dayrell (Beresford 1953-4). The inquiry recorded the displacement of 40 people in 1491 and that this was the total population (Leadam 1897). More of this story can be found in Jones and Page (2006). However this is not all the story. There is clear evidence for settlement contraction in the second half of the fourteenth century when one third of the village was abandoned. Here Dayrell removed an already weakened settlement (Jones 2010:25).

The ploughed out remains of Lillingstone Dayrell
The ploughed out remains of Lillingstone Dayrell

A further village in Buckinghamshire tells a similar story. Doddershall does not appear in Domesday Book but the first place-name reference can be found in the late twelfth century (Mawer and Stenton 1925). In 1334 it pays an average Lay Subsidy along with Shipton Lee. By 1495 enclosure is reported which included the displacement of 120 people (Beresford 1953-4, Leadam 1897). By 1525 only nine people paid the Lay Subsidy. It is with this form of desertion that we see some of the most clearly documented and recorded causes.


The whims of landowners led in some cases to settlement being removed during the landscaping of parks and gardens. At Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, a map by Benjamin Hare of the hall and park in 1638 shows houses close to the church and to the south of the hall. There are also other scatters of houses in other areas of the park. In total there are five clusters of houses around three main route ways (RCHME 1968). Wimpole is mentioned in Domesday and had a sizable population in the fourteenth-century taxation documents. There was a decline in population by the sixteenth century, but there were still 36 households recorded in 1563. The map of 1638 shows that there was still a sizable population and that the settlements were gradually depopulated in the eighteenth century when the park was laid out.

Wimpole Park
Wimpole Park

Small settlements were not the only ones at risk from the whims of land owners. Milton Abbas (Dorset) is a fascinating example of deliberate destruction of an established and flourishing town. In the mid-tenth century, the founding of a Benedictine Abbey allowed a village to thrive and by Domesday the village had become one of the largest settlements in central Dorset, with its own fair and market (Good 1987). The stability of the town was such that the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 had little effect on its prosperity which continued throughout the seventeenth century (Good 1987). 137 people signed the Protestation Returns of 1641–2 (Good 1987). In 1752, the estate was purchased by Joseph Damer and he commissioned the construction of a new manor house (RCHME 1970). Wishing to empark a larger area of his estate, Damer began to purchase leases and holdings and subsequently succeeded in also demolishing the town allowing for the creation of landscape gardens and an ornamental fishpond in around 1780 (Good 1987). More than one hundred homes, three inns and a school were all relocated, to ensure an uninterrupted view from his new home.

On many occasions the emparking of land around grand houses did not lead to the disappearance of population but rather their re-housing in new settlements as at Milton Abbas. At Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire the village was originally located close to Gayhurst House and church. It was moved north in 1725, where it still exists today, when the area was landscaped for George Wrighte (Pevsner and Williamson 1994). At Sledmere in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a real reduction in population begins in the 1740s. Sledmere House was built in 1748 and at the time was at the north-western edge of a sizeable village. With the construction of this new house, any houses on the higher ground to the south-east which interrupted the view were cleared (Neave and Neave 2008, Pevsner and Neave 1995). This included 20 garths or former houses and parts of four others (Neave and Neave 2008). The remaining houses were hidden behind plantations to the north-east and south-west. In the 1770s the gardens were remodelled and the remaining villagers moved to the new village laid out to the north of the house (Neave and Neave 2008, Pevsner and Neave 1995).

Emparking is not just a feature of the later centuries. During the Middle Ages land was also enclosed for a range of activities including hunting. At Nether Haddon in Derbyshire there are suggestions that the village was deserted by 1330 with the creation of a hunting park.

Monastic sites
Not all evictions were through secular landowners. The church was also responsible for the removal of population, either to provide a more secluded environment, or as with secular landowners to increase the profitability of their land. Evidence for the removal of settlement to create a monastic site can be found in a number of areas. The village of Meaux in the East Riding of Yorkshire was mentioned in Domesday as Melsa and as a berewick of Aldbrough. It was destroyed when the Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1151-4 (Bond 1866).

An example of changing land use can be found at Shingay in Cambridgeshire. The village was first mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book, however it was depopulated in the early fifteenth century (Oosthuizen 2009). The site was one of the earliest preceptories of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and dates from 1144 AD. The preceptors carried out a thorough policy of enclosure. In June 1381 there was a peasant uprising which badly damaged many of the buildings and required that the site be rebuilt. By 1452 the village had been mostly cleared and reduced to only a few houses when there is mention that ‘the preceptor possessed crofts in which once were houses’ (Ellis and Salzman 1948, Keeling 1982).

Next week….. We will look at some of the other reasons that have seen the desertion of settlements……

Allison, K.J. 1984. ‘Kilnsea’, in K.J. Allison (ed.) A History of the County of York East Riding Volume 5: Holderness: Southern Part: 65-74. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beresford, G. 1979. ‘Three Deserted Medieval Settlements on Dartmoor: A Report on the late E. Marie Minter’s Excavations’, Medieval Archaeology 23: 98-158.

Beresford, M.W. 1952. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire Part II’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 38: 44-70.

Beresford, M. 1953-4. ‘Glebe Terriers and Open-field Buckinghamshire, with a Summary List of Deserted Villages of the County: Part 2’, Records of Buckinghamshire 27: 4-28.

Beresford, M.W. and J.K. St Joseph 1979. Medieval England: an Aerial Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bond, E. 1866. Chronica Monasterii de Melsa. Volume 1. London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer.

Dyer, C. 2010. ‘Villages in Crisis: Social Dislocation and Desertion, 1370-1520’, in C. Dyer and R. Jones (eds) Deserted Villages Revisited: 28-45. Hatfield: University of Hertford Press.

Ellis, D. and L.F. Salzman 1948. ‘Houses of Knights Hospitallers: Preceptory of Shingay’, in L.F. Salzman (ed.) A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2: 266-269. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

English, B. 1991. ‘Ravenser Odd’, in D.B. Lewis (ed.) The Yorkshire Coast: 149-155. Beverley: Normandy Press.

Goldsmith, O. 1770. The Deserted Village. London: W. Griffin.

Good, R. 1987. The Lost Villages of Dorset. Wimborne: The Dovecote Press.

Keeling, S.M. 1982. ‘Shingay’, in A.P.M. Wright (ed.) A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 8: 124-127. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, R. 2010. ‘Contrasting Patterns of Village and Hamlet Desertion in England’, in C. Dyer and R. Jones (eds) Deserted Villages Revisited: 8-27. Hatfield: University of Hertford Press.

Jones, R. and M. Page 2006. Medieval Villages in the English Landscape: Beginnings and Ends. Macclesfield: Windgather.

Leadam, I.S. 1897. The Domesday of Inclosures 1517-1518. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Mawer, A. and F.M. Stenton 1925. The Place-Names of Buckinghamshire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neave, D. and S. Neave 2008. A History of the County of York East Riding Volume 8. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer: 173-215.

Oosthuizen, S. 2009. ‘The Deserted Medieval Settlements of Cambridgeshire: A Gazetteer’, Medieval Settlement Research 24: 14-19.

Pevsner, N. and D. Neave 1995. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. London: Penguin.

Pevsner, N. and E. Williamson. 1994. The Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire. Penguin Books: London.

Postan, M.M. 1966. ‘England’, in M.M. Postan (ed.) The Cambridge Economic History of Europe Volume 1: 548-632. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

RCHME. 1968. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire: Volume I. West Cambridgeshire. London: RCHME: 210-229.

RCHME 1970. An Inventory of Historical Monuments in the County of Dorset. Volume Three: Central Dorset Part 2. London: RCHME.

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