Problems identifying villages – the cases of Roel and Manless Town

This week’s blog looks at issues with identifying deserted villages with two examples of complex cases – Roel and Manless Town – both in Gloucestershire.

Lists of deserted medieval villages are compiled from a variety of sources and evidence. Sometimes there is a range of documentary sources recording a settlement with a specific name and listing villagers, tax payments, land under plough, duties owed etc. On some occasions there may be extensive earthworks signifying former houses and route ways. Matching both these sets of evidence can on some occasions seem fairly simple – the existence of a church, the presence of the place-name still in existence for a farm, or the settlement is clearly recorded on a map. However even the most straight forward of cases can become more and more complex once the intricacies of the evidence are explored. One example that demonstrates this is Roel located in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. A different dilemma is faced by the site of Manless Town also in Gloucestershire where local legend and more than 5 different place-names make the settlement difficult to identify in the documentary records.


The village of Roel has been the subject of in-depth study combining the archaeological and documentary evidence to good effect (Aldred and Dyer 1991). It was this research that uncovered the complex development of Roel and its neighbouring village, Hawling. Part of the settlement of Roel is still visible with a row of at least six crofts aligned to the east of a north-south hollow way with another fainter three crofts to the south. To the west of the hollow way the modern farm complex of Roel Farm sits over the site of the manor house, church and vicarage. However this is not the entirety of settlement evidence for the village of Roel as further crofts, located 2km to the south, to the north of Hawling village have now been identified as part of Roel settlement, named Roelside (Aldred and Dyer 1991).

Earthworks at Roel Farm. Copyright Google Earth
Earthworks at Roel Farm. Copyright Google Earth

It is thought that Roel developed as a secondary settlement of Hawling, originating as a woodland hamlet (Aldred and Dyer 1991). The church is recorded as a subordinate of Hawling in 1174. Domesday records a minimum population of 21. In 1294 28 tenants are recorded as owing services with 31 tenanted yardlands. In 1327 13 people are assessed (Franklin 1993: 68). In the fourteenth-century taxations it is included with Hawling. A below average amount is paid in 1334. The documentary evidence suggests there may have been as many as 30 households in the early fourteenth century classed as the settlement of Roel.


The physical evidence at Roel Farm, the traditional site of Roel, does not suggest many more than nine house plots  – and no where near the 30 households suggested above. Hence the further evidence of settlement to the north of Hawling was investigated. These earthworks had been considered to be evidence of settlement shrinkage at Hawling as they form a continuous extension to the village, just separated by a stream. The documentary evidence, however, has confirmed this area once formed part of Roel village, named Roelside (Aldred and Dyer 1991). Further analysis of the documentary evidence shows that the split between the two areas of settlement, always recorded singularly as ‘Roel’ saw around a quarter of the population located at Roel and three quarters at Roelside, 2 km away (Aldred and Dyer 1991).

Earthworks at Roelside, Hawling, Gloucestershire. Copyright Google Earth
Earthworks at Roelside, Hawling, Gloucestershire. Copyright Google Earth

Roel and Hawling

So the documentary evidence tells the tale of a single settlement unit of Roel. And tradition therefore equated that with the settlement evidence at Roel Farm. But in fact the settlement of Roel was actually formed of two separate groups of dwellings 2 km apart – Roel and Roelside. Roel was always the smaller of the two, but seen as the centre of the settlement, with the manorial centre and church. Roelside sat cheek by jowl with the village of Hawling, so much so that only a stream separated a villager of  Roelside with a villager in Hawling. The decline of the village of Roel effects not only the settlement at Roel Farm but also the settlement at Roelside, where as Hawling survives.

Roel declines in the later middle ages, with 15 tenants recorded in 1355 (Aldred and Dyer 1991). As the number of tenants decreased, land was engrossed into larger units, but these were not successful and the tenants left. By the 1460s the last tenants relinquished land (Aldred and Dyer 1991).  Roel and Roelside seemed to decline at the same time. The decrease in the number of tenants appears as a result of outward migration, possibly due to poor yields, rather than forced eviction. It is postulated that the reason that Hawling survived but Roel became deserted can be seen in the diversity of social structure present at Hawling and better agricultural production.

Manless Town

The settlement in the fields known as ‘Manless Town’ to the south of Birdlip also pose an interesting question – what is the name of this settlement? The remains of a medieval settlement and a Roman site can be seen on either side of the Climperwell to Caudle Green road but linking these remains to a documented settlement is not easy (Smith 1998). The archaeological evidence is not clear cut – and the Roman nature of some of the remains is debated. In 1962 trial trenches were placed across the site to test for remains below the surface (Wingham and Spry 1993). These revealed a range of features including stone walls and rubble surfaces however there has been disagreement over their interpretation with the original excavator favouring an interpretation in the Roman period, and later authors suggesting a medieval date (Wingham and Spry 1993).  In 1992 the remaining earthworks were plotted and field walking produced medieval pottery dating to the twelfth to thirteenth centuries as well a range of Roman material (Smith 1998).

Manless Town settlement. Copyright Google
Manless Town settlement. Copyright Google

The physical evidence suggests medieval settlement and the name ‘Manless Town’ lends credence to the idea of a deserted settlement. However the first known reference to this field as Manless Town was in 1622 (Jurica 1981). The settlement has also been recorded as Haywick, Munley Towne, Old Mondley, Longlorn Town and Keywich as will be shown below (Newbury 1993). It is therefore unclear as to the original name of the settlement, and hence difficult to trace any taxation records or indications of the size or wealth of any population.

The name Manless would suggest a deserted settlement and local legends would seem to confirm this, but it has also been suggested that the place-name originates from a manorial name (Smith 1964). The documentary evidence proposes a range of names and stories. In a hand written document dating to 1677 there is the record of ‘a place called Keywich, where there was a market… ye men of which place being destroyed was called Munly Towne’ (Newbury 1993: 35). In 1731 a survey map includes the text ‘A patch of Plumb Hey within the ruins of Old Mondley formerly a Market Town and a Roman Station was Sacked and Burnt in the Wars of King John…’ (Newbury 1993: 33). On a ‘Survey of Lands in Brimspfield’ dating to the late eighteenth century a note records ‘stood Longlorn Town, which was destroyed in the reign of King John, then and still traces of Foundations to be seen and it has since that Time been called Manless Town’ (Newbury 1993: 33). In 1779 it is recorded as a hamlet by Samuel Rudder but with the caveat ‘if a place can be called so with no house in it’ (Rudder 1779: 310). He also mentions that the original name for this area was Haywick, the location where a weekly market was held in the reign of Edward III, but the men of the settlement were all killed and since then it has been known as Manless Town. So here we have the blame placed at the feet of King John, possibly Edward III and ideas of the settlement being destroyed and the men all killed. We have different names for the settlement given by each map or author. Unfortunately no further evidence for the settlement has been forthcoming and it remains one of those sites which has little documentary evidence although the earthworks and archaeological finds do suggest medieval occupation. The presence of a later sheepcote over the earthworks, may suggest the fate of the settlement was  a little more mundane that the antiquarian reports of mass killings, and the fate may have been similar to other small settlements in the area which were gradually depopulated of people and repopulated with sheep.


So what do the examples of Roel and Manless Town tell us about the study of deserted settlement? With Roel it indicates that the documentary evidence for a settlement may represent physical evidence across a wide area and that the earthworks next to a continuing settlement may not necessarily represent a contiguous part of that settlement. With Manless Town we have been shown that clear physical evidence and tales of deserted settlement may not lead to an easily identifiable settlement in the documentary record. Identifying deserted settlements on the ground is one thing – linking these remains to the documentary record is another challenge.


Aldred, C. and C. Dyer 1991. ‘A Medieval Cotswold Village: Roel, Gloucestershire’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 109: 139-170.

Franklin, P. 1993. The Taxpayers of Medieval Gloucestershire. Stroud: Alan Sutton

Jurica, A.R.J. 1981. ‘Brimpsfield’, in N.M. Herbert (ed.) A History of the County of Gloucester. Volume 7: 140-150. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newbury, J.R. 1993. ‘Map and Documentary Interpretations in Brimpsfield Parish’, Glevensis 27: 33-35.

Rudder, S. 1779. A New History of Gloucestershire. Cirencester: S Rudder.

Smith, A.H. 1964. The Place-Names of Gloucestershire Part 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, N. 1998. ‘Manless Town, Brimpsfield: An Archaeological Survey’, Glevensis 31: 53-58.

Wingham, H. and N. Spry 1993. ‘More Recent Views on Manless Town, Brimpsfield SO 928 116’, Glevensis 27: 26-32.

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