Currently Completed Counties – Dorset

The next county review takes a look at the settlements listed in the 1968 Gazetteer in Dorset. In 1954 Beresford lists 13 clearly identified deserted sites in Dorset as well as listing a range of decayed churches (Beresford 1954: 347-349). In the 1968 Gazetteer, 42 settlements are listed. There are notes in the Medieval Village Research Group Annual Reports from the late 1980s of a Dorset county list of deserted and shrunken settlements being compiled. In 1988 it was noted the list totalled 254 separate sites (Higham 1988: 15). Since this point there has been continuing work on deserted settlements in the county. A detailed summary of ‘Lost Villages’ was published by Ronald Good in 1979. This divides settlements into various groups: those classed as deserted villages (43 sites); those now represented by country houses (26 sites); those represented by farmsteads (90 sites); existing villages which have changed (31 sites); and villages submerged by modern buildings (47 sites) (Good 1979). The total list of settlements reaches 237, excluding a complex landscape of settlements at Milborne St Andrew, an increase of 195 since 1968.

Deserted settlements in Dorset listed in 1968
Deserted settlements in Dorset listed in 1968

One clear source for the study of the landscape of Dorset has been the volumes published by the RCHME which reviewed known earthwork remains (available from British History Online). This has provided an excellent corpus of surveys published between 1952 and 1975. Sites with earthwork surveys include: Bardolfeston, Bingham’s Melcombe, Little Piddle and Milborne Brook.

Bingham's Melcombe  Copyright English Heritage (RCHME 1970)
Bingham’s Melcombe Copyright English Heritage (RCHME 1970)

Unfortunately Dorset does not feature heavily in recent reviews of medieval settlement in the South West (e.g. Rippon and Croft 2007). One reason for this may well be due to its variety. The pattern of settlement in medieval Dorset is not a unified picture and hence generalities are difficult to tease out. As Taylor noted ‘It is the variety of landscape in Dorset which gives the county its great charm and which has resulted in the equally varied landscape history’ (1970: 21). In places the chalklands take on a more nucleated pattern with villages and open fields, in other areas such as the heathland, a dispersed pattern of farmsteads and enclosed fields prevails (Taylor 1970). The divide between the Central Province and South East province identified by Roberts and Wrathmell cuts through Dorset following very much this geological divide (Roberts and Wrathmell 2000). Many of the early identified deserted settlements have been found in the chalklands, and there is little evidence of desertion outside this zone (Taylor 1970). In some cases clusters of deserted settlements can be seen along chalk valleys. However more recent work and re-evaluation of the definition of settlement may well change this picture.

Deserted settlements in Dorset as classified by the website
Deserted settlements in Dorset as classified by the website

Dorset includes a range of deserted sites from small hamlets, to large medieval towns, to sites that may never have developed in the first place. A clear example of a deserted town is that of Milton Abbas, where the landowner, Joseph Damer, removed more than one hundred homes, three inns and a school to ensure an uninterrupted view from his new home (Good 1979). The town of Gotowre on the other hand may never have actually developed. Edward I planned a town which was ‘to lay out with sufficient streets and lanes, adequate sites for a market and church, plots for merchants and others in a new town with a harbour in a place called Gotowre’, however it is not clear to what extent the order was ever carried out (Bowen and Taylor 1964).

A small number of excavations have take place at sites in Dorset. The village at Holworth was excavated in 1958 by Philip Rahtz using the open area methodology. This allowed the ephemeral remains of the structures to be identified. A trial excavation in 1936 had already uncovered pottery and stone work. One of the seven clearly defined tofts formed the focus of attention in 1958 (Rahtz 1959). This uncovered pottery dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century and a longhouse was revealed that was divided into three parts with rubble floors. Only small scale test pitting has been undertaken at the other sites in Dorset such as Bexington and Blackmanston.

It is clear that the 42 sites currently listed on the Beresford’s Lost Villages website are the tip of the iceberg of deserted settlement in Dorset and it is hoped that future updates on the website will be able to provide a fuller picture.


Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Bowen, H.C. and C.C Taylor 1964. ‘The Site of Newton (Nova Villa), Studland, Dorset’, Medieval Archaeology 8: 223-226

Good, R. 1979. The Lost Villages of Dorset. Wimborne: The Dovecote Press.

Higham, N.J. 1988. ‘Research in 1988. i. Fieldwork’, Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 3: 14-18.

RCHME 1970. An Inventory of Historical Monuments in the County of Dorset. Volume Three: Central Dorset Part 2. London: RCHME: 171-172.

Rippon, S. and B. Croft 2007. ‘Post-Conquest Medieval’, in C. Webster (ed.) The Archaeology of South West England: 195-207. Taunton: Somerset Heritage Service.

Roberts, B.K. and S. Wrathmell 2000. An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England. London: English Heritage.

Rahtz, P.A. 1959. ‘Holworth, Medieval Village Excavation 1958’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 81: 127-147.

Taylor, C. 1970. Dorset. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Currently Completed Counties – Cheshire and Cumberland

Welcome to the blog highlighting the website ‘Beresford’s Lost Villages’ and the material that can be found there, continuing the review of the counties were it has been possible to provide full descriptions of all deserted villages listed in the Gazetteer of settlements in 1968. This week we look at two northern counties that were both highlighted in 1971 as needing further local research to provide a real picture of the nature of deserted settlement in the area – Cheshire and Cumberland (Beresford and Hurst 1971).

Only four settlements in Cheshire and eight settlements in Cumberland appear in the 1968 Gazetteer.  In both counties there is also a clustering of sites into regions where some fieldwork had been undertaken. For Cumberland it is a little confusing why some of the earlier work in the county had not been used when compiling the list. For example in 1963 William Rollinson published a paper entitled ‘The lost villages and hamlets of Low Furness’ (Rollinson 1963). This suggested at least five lost settlements in this one small area. It also explored theories from the 1770s onwards as to why these settlements disappeared including tidal inundations and monastic developments.

Deserted villages in Cheshire recorded in 1968

Since 1968 a number of surveys have taken place as well as a consideration of the nature of settlement in these counties during the medieval period. In 1975 the MVRG noted that over the last four years much work had been undertaken on Cheshire with the documentary sources but that fieldwork needed to be done (Dyer 1975). Work by a number of individuals including D. Sylvester had noted the dispersed nature of settlement in a number of townships (Dyer 1975). It is now clear that this is a much more widespread pattern and that Cheshire as a whole had a great deal of dispersed settlement so the exact nature of the village and settlement make-up is difficult to reconstruct. Many of the settlements that become classed as deserted may not have been large nucleated entities in the first place. Many townships by the nineteenth century still contained no nucleated settlements (Edwards 2007). The main concentration of nucleated settlement in Cheshire is located to the west of the central Cheshire ridge (Dyer 1975).

A similar pattern can be seen in Cumberland. With many of the sites identified in Cumberland it is questionable whether there was ever extensive nucleated settlement at these locations. The documentary record is patchy, but those settlements with records seem to have declined in the fourteenth century. Analysis of the general settlement pattern over much of Cumbria has also highlighted the high percentage of dispersed settlements consisting of single farmsteads or a couple of dwellings (Newman 2006, 2009). The landscape of the area is varied though and in some areas classical nucleated settlement can also be found. This pattern seems to have a long history. Not only does this make understanding the true pattern of desertion across the county difficult, there is also the issue that it can be difficult to identify medieval dispersed settlement as they are ‘more easily rendered ‘invisible’ by later land use’ (Newman 2006: 121). The Research Agenda for the North West has prioritised the investigation of evolution of dispersed settlement and to investigate the ways settlement expanded into marginal areas in the Medieval period (Newman and Newman 2007).

Deserted villages in Cumberland
Deserted villages in Cumberland

With this dispersed nature of settlement in both counties, it has led to many of the settlements listed in 1968 being now classed as doubtful deserted medieval settlements as it is unclear whether a nucleated settlement ever existed at that location. One of the key challenges with these regions is the patchy existence of medieval taxation documentation – often key to plotting the existence and development of medieval populations.

The palatine of Cheshire was exempt from most medieval taxation so few records appear after the Domesday Book until the sixteenth century. Cumberland in some periods belongs to Scotland, at other times it is exempt from taxation due to Scottish raids and troubles. Cumberland was not recorded in the Domesday Book, however a small number of places are recorded in the Domesday record for Yorkshire, but this is limited to just four places (Faull and Stinson 1986). In 1334 there is no Lay Subsidy for Cheshire and for Cumberland there was no tax due to recent devastation by the Scots so Glasscock (in his publication of the Lay Subsidy) has substituted this with the 1336 tax figures allowing some indication of the presence of settlements (Glasscock 1975: xxiii). It is suggested that due to ongoing devastation from the Scots the payments are probably low (Glasscock 1975: 36).  In 1377 no writ was issued for the Poll Tax in Cheshire. In 1379 commissions were supposed to levy the tax, but this was cancelled and they were asked for an offer of aid instead (Fenwick 1998: xxi). The Crown confirmed Cheshire’s immunity from parliamentary taxation in 1381 (Fenwick 1998: xxi). Although Cumberland was taxed in the fourteenth century there has been limited survival of the documents for the whole of Cumberland. Only one nominative list has survived from the 1377 Poll Tax (Fenwick 1998: 90). While this membrane is in good condition, it refers solely to Carlisle and does not refer to any of the deserted settlements. There are no surviving records for 1379 or 1381. Again in the sixteenth century no Lay Subsidy was required in 1524, 1525 or 1543 for both counties (Sheail 1998: 3).

Overall these two counties are representative of a situation outside the main ‘planned’ landscapes of central England. The nature of dispersed settlement, but also very variable local settlement patterns, results in a different type of challenge when trying to evaluate the extent and nature of settlement desertion. Much work has already been done tackling these regions and it is anticipated that once the Beresford’s Lost Villages Website Project moves into the next phase of updating the 1968 county lists, that these two counties will see a dramatic increase in the number of settlements recorded – although the number of ‘nucleated’ settlements may be limited and more evidence of deserted hamlets may well be apparent.


Beresford, M.W. and J.G. Hurst (eds) 1971. Deserted Medieval Villages: Studies. London: Lutterworth Press.

Dyer, C. 1975. ‘Research in 1975: Cheshire’, Medieval Village Research Group Report 23: 7-10.

Edwards, R. 2007. The Cheshire Historic Landscape Characterisation Final Report. Cheshire County Council & English Heritage Unpublished Report.

Faull, M.L. and M. Stinson 1986. Domesday Book: Yorkshire Part Two. Chichester: Phillimore.

Fenwick, C.C. 1998. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381: Part 1: Bedfordshire-Leicestershire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glasscock, R.E. 1975. The Lay Subsidy of 1334. London: Oxford University Press.

Newman, C. 2006. ‘The Medieval Period Resource Assessment’, Archaeology North West 8: 115-144.

Newman, C. and R. Newman 2007. ‘The Medieval Period Research Agenda’, Archaeology North West 9: 95-114.

Newman, R. 2009. A Guide to Using the Cumbria Historic Landscape Characterisation Database For Cumbria’s Planning Authorities. Cumbria County Council Unpublished Report.

Rollinson, W. 1963. ‘The Lost Villages and Hamlets of Low Furness’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society 63: 160-169.

Sheail, J. 1998. The Regional Distribution of Wealth in England as Indicated in the 1524/5 Lay Subsidy Returns: Volume One. London: List and Index Society.

Currently completed counties – Cambridgeshire


This week’s post looks at the list for Cambridgeshire. A total of 15 deserted settlements appear on the 1968 Gazetteer. In 1954 Beresford had published a list of 13 settlements, however one of these, Silverley, was dismissed by the time of the 1968 Gazetteer.

Deserted settlements in Cambridgeshire listed in the 1968 Gazetteer
Deserted settlements in Cambridgeshire listed in the 1968 Gazetteer

In 2009 Susan Oosthuizen published an updated list of settlements in Cambridgeshire (excluding the Isle of Ely) (Oosthuizen 2009). This made a clear distinction between deserted and shifted settlements. This added a further 43 deserted and 24 shifted sites to the list. Here Oosthuizen considered issues of distribution of settlement and causes for desertion. She noted that the boundary between the Central Province of settlement characteristics and the Eastern Province, suggested by Roberts and Wrathmell (2000), runs through the region. In the Central Province (mainly west of the River Cam), settlement is mainly characterised by nucleated settlements, with evidence of polyfocal settlements in some areas (Oosthuizen 2009: 14). On the eastern side of this boundary and the River Cam is a landscape characterised by more dispersed settlement. Anyone interested in the Cambridgeshire landscape is pointed to the work of Oosthuizen, not only on deserted settlement but also a wide variety of landscape features. It is clear once the Beresford’s Lost Villages website project comes to review settlements identified since 1968 that there will be many additions to the Cambridgeshire list.

Classification of deserted settlements in Cambridgeshire
Classification of deserted settlements in Cambridgeshire

Much of the early work has originated from the Continuing Education section of Cambridge University. One well studied settlement is that of Clopton. Here an early study of the site gave a full account of the surviving historical evidence and the enclosure of the common lands in the early sixteenth century (Palmer 1933). Excavations in the 1960s revealed a range of evidence including the church, churchyard with nearly 100 burials excavated, as well as building structures (Alexander 1968). Other excavations in Cambridgeshire include those at Childerley which revealed evidence of house platforms and pottery as well as showing that although damage had occurred during ploughing some remains were still intact (RCHME 1968).

Great Childerley in 2008. Copyright Google Earth
Great Childerley in 2008. Copyright Google Earth

A number of surveys of deserted sites have been undertaken during extra mural courses since the 1970s. These included work at Castle Camps (Taylor 1973) and Croxton (Brown and Taylor 1993). These two surveys give contrasting examples of desertion.


Alexander, J.A. 1968. ‘Clopton: the Life-Cycle of a Cambridgeshire Village’, in L.M. Munby (ed.) East Anglian Studies: 48-70. Cambridge: Heffer and Sons.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth Press.

Brown, A.E and C.C. Taylor 1993. ‘Cambridgeshire Earthwork Surveys VI’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 82: 101-111.

Palmer, W.M. 1933. ‘A History of Clopton, Cambridgeshire’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 33: 3-65.

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

RCHME. 1968. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire: Volume I. West Cambridgeshire. London: RCHME: 44-47.

Roberts, B.K. and S. Wrathmell 2000. An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England. London: English Heritage.

Taylor, C. 1973. ‘Cambridgeshire Earthwork Surveys’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 64: 35-43.

Why did settlements become deserted? Part Two

Following on from last week and the natural forces and forced eviction that has seen the end to some settlements, we look at a further range of reasons for desertion.

Sudden events
As well as the whims of local landowners, there are occasions when sudden events have seen entire villages depopulated. One clear example of this is the village of Boarstall in Buckinghamshire. Here in 1645 the Royalist garrison housed in the local manor destroyed the village and church to avoid them being used by the besieging Parliamentary forces (Porter 1984). The houses were burnt within two days and the church had been demolished before 26 July giving us a rare example of a dated desertion to the actual day. However the population did not disappear, they were redistributed throughout the parish (Broad 2010).

Other sudden desertions may be a long time in the planning. One such example is Derwent in Derbyshire which was destroyed in the 1940s with the creation of Lady Bower Reservoir. In years of low rainfall remains of buildings can still be seen (Sidebottom 1993).

However some stories of rapid desertion may not be that clear cut. Rowley in the East Riding of Yorkshire is well known for the story surrounding the seventeenth-century incumbent Rev. Ezekiel Rogers (Cooper 1908). He went to America in 1638 and founded Rowley, Massachusetts, and some have claimed that the parish registers show that many of parishioners went with him and depopulated the village (Pevsner and Neave 1995, Beresford 1952). However it is now known that many of the people that went with Rev. Rogers were from further afield, and the size of settlement at Rowley was probably always small (Allison 1979).

Economic decline
On some occasions a once prosperous settlement witnesses a rapid economic decline, often at the benefit of a neighbouring settlement and this resulted in depopulation. At Linslade in Buckinghamshire, the settlement known as Old Linslade saw a decline after a ban was issued by the Bishop of Lincoln (Powell 1925). A holy well in the town had been attracting pilgrims, but the reporting of false miracles led to the ban being issued by 1299 and the pilgrims stopped coming and the town declined, being replaced by the neighbouring settlement at a new location. Prior to this an extensive settlement was present. At Domesday the manor included a minimum population of 33. It was a thriving settlement of borough status, and in the late thirteenth century it became a market town with a market and fair granted in 1251 (Letters 2003).

On some occasions the weakening of a settlement due to a number of factors will result in economic decline and desertion. At Seacourt in Berkshire, the vill’s 1334 Lay Subsidy assessment seems low, perhaps suggesting contraction before the Black Death. The estimated desertion of the site by c. 1400 is supported by a letter dated 1439 which notes that the church had collapsed and only two buildings remained occupied in the village. It has been suggested that Seacourt’s decline could be linked to the rising prosperity of nearby Oxford (Wilson and Hurst 1961).

Absent settlements
Sometimes a settlement may appear in the documentary records, but never really existed. This could be due to the nature of settlement in the area – a cluster of small farmsteads or buildings given a collected name in the taxations records, but no central, nucleated settlement existing. Henny in Cambridgeshire is mentioned in Domesday and papers of Pembroke College but it is unclear whether there was ever a settlement (Beresford 1954). Hughenden in Buckinghamshire was recorded in a range of taxation documents but there is no evidence of settlement at the manor site and it is suggested to have always been dispersed settlement (Ellis 1925).

Sometimes a settlement was planned but was never developed. One such example can be found in Dorset at Gotowre. No such settlement appears in the local area, and the only place-name evidence is to Goathorn Pier and Point suggesting an area of landscape rather than settlement. However it is mentioned in the plans of Edward I in 1286 (RCHME 1970, Good 1987). It is stated that the plan was ‘to lay out with sufficient streets and lanes, adequate sites for a market and church, plots for merchants and others in a new town with a harbour in a place called Gotowre’. It is not clear to what extent the order was ever carried out (Beresford and St Joseph 1958, Bowen and Taylor 1964). Four months later a charter was granted to the burgesses of Nova Villa (Newtown) for a weekly market. After this though, no further references are found to the Gotowre or Newton (Beresford and St Joseph 1958). It is suggested that this settlement was never established.

Long slow decline
Settlement desertion was all too often a long drawn-out process – resulting from many of the aspects discussed above. One example that illustrates this is Eske in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It seems to have been a settlement of just below average size based on the 1297 and 1334 subsidies (Brown 1894). A charter of c. 1280 notes at least 10 tofts, (Poulson 1840), whilst 63 tax payers were recorded in 1377 – again indicating a just below average, but certainly sustainable village. There is no evidence of tax relief during the fifteenth century. In 1458 at least seven holdings survived, but by the 1524/5 Lay Subsidies Eske was grouped with Routh in the taxation records, as it was again in the later seventeenth century. It has been suggested that depopulation accompanied the enclosure of Eske’s common fields in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, but the final decline of the settlement appears to have been a drawn out process (English and Miller 1991, Allison 1989). The present Manor House is thought to date from c. 1680, probably a re-build of the nine-hearth house present in the Hearth Tax of 1672. The year before five one-hearth dwellings survived in addition to the manor house (Allison 1989). In 1786 the manor contained just three farms, reduced to two by 1788, and the township had only three buildings in the 1841 Census.

Eske village: Google image from 2003
Eske village: Google image from 2003

However – not all deserted settlements may mean that population disappeared. Changing settlement patterns can also mask shifting populations. Many of the records used to plot the fortunes of a settlement such as lay subsides, poll taxes, hearth taxes and census records may be recording parishes and townships which may have included a multitude of settlements, not just a single village. Movement within this zone, which may see the complete desertion of one settlement, may result in no drop in recorded population as they are redistributed between other places. For example a single nucleated village may be replaced by a single farmstead, and many other smaller farmsteads in the area, with no real reduction in population. Also communities affected by the factors outlined above may not become completely deserted but shrink or migrate as population continues but in another settlement format.

As can be seen from the last two posts there are a variety of reasons for settlement desertion – and there are many more than have been described here.

Allison, K.J. 1979. ‘Rowley’, in K.J. Allison (ed.) A History of the County of York East Riding Volume 4: 140-154. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Allison, K.J. 1989. ‘Eske’, in K.J. Allison (ed.) A History of the County of York East Riding Volume 6: 278-81. London: Oxford University Press.

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

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Beresford, M. and J.K. St Joseph 1958. Medieval England: An Aerial Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bowen, H.C. and C.C Taylor 1964. ‘The Site of Newton (Nova Villa), Studland, Dorset’, Medieval Archaeology 8: 223-226.

Broad, J. 2010. ‘Understanding Village Desertion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, in C. Dyer and R. Jones (eds) Deserted Villages Revisited: 121-139. Hatfield: University of Hertford Press.

Brown, W. 1894. Yorkshire Lay Subsidy Being a Ninth Collected in 25 Edward I (1297) . Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 16.

Cooper, A.N. 1908. ‘How Rowley in Yorkshire Lost its Population in the 17th Century and How Rowley in Massachusetts was Founded’, Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society 15: 85-100.

Ellis, G.A. 1925. ‘Hughenden’, in W. Page (ed.) A History of the County of Buckingham Volume 3: 57-62. London: The Catherine Press.

English, B. and K. Miller 1991. ‘The Deserted Village of Eske, East Yorkshire’, Landscape History 13: 5-32.

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

Letters, S. 2003. Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516: Part 1. London: List and Index Society Special Series Volume 32.

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

Porter, S. 1984. ‘The Civil War Destruction of Boarstall’, Records of Buckinghamshire 26: 86-91.

Poulson, G. 1840. The History and Antiquities of the Seigniory of Holderness, Vol. 1. Hull: Brown and Sons.

Powell, D.L. 1925. ‘Linslade’, in W. Page (ed.) A History of the County of Buckingham Volume 3: 387-391. London: The Catherine Press.

RCHME 1970. An Inventory of Historical Monuments in the County of Dorset. Volume Two: South-East Part 2. London: RCHME.

Sidebottom, P. 1993. ‘The Derwent Cross Shaft: Discovery and Excavation 1991’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society 17: 9-18.

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.

What are deserted medieval settlements?

Beresford’s Lost Villages website is compiling descriptions for all the known deserted settlements in England. In past posts we have looked at the progress made so far on a number of counties. In this post we examine what actually is a deserted medieval settlement?

These are settlements which appear in documentary sources such as the Domesday Book, medieval tax records and maps, but have since seen a dramatic decline in population to the extent that at some point they have been classed as deserted. They can also be areas that show clear evidence of former settlement in the form of earthworks, building remains or abandoned churches. The reasons for desertion are varied, whether from land exhaustion, coastal erosion, a change in land use or the whim of wealthy landowners. Over 3000 such sites have been identified across England.

Hound Tor on Dartmoor - walls of long house
Hound Tor on Dartmoor – walls of long houses

These sites were often termed as Lost Villages in the early days of investigation, but then the term Deserted Medieval Village or DMV became more popular. By the 1980s the term Deserted Medieval Settlements was adopted to show that all types of settlement including hamlets and farmsteads needed to be considered and not just villages. On the Beresford’s Lost Villages website we use the original term ‘Lost Villages’ as it has been funded by a generous bequest by the Late Maurice Beresford whose pioneering 1954 publication led the way in identifying and locating these settlements.

On the ground these settlements may have left no trace to the naked eye – completely ploughed-out or landscaped in later years. Sometimes tell-tale humps and bumps may signify past settlement. These may be hiding stone walls of houses in areas where there was a ready supply of building materials. Sometimes the humps and bumps represent route ways – often termed hollow ways, that have been produced by years of passing people and animals. Boundaries between properties and buildings may also be shown by the presence of ditches and banks.

Here are some examples of deserted medieval settlements – their evidence and how they have been identified. All three of these sites are under the guardianship of English Heritage and can be visited. A later post will explore in more detail why settlements became deserted.

Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire

This is probably the most well known deserted settlement, due mainly to the research and excavations carried out for over 40 years. The presence of a settlement here was known from the presence of the settlement in the taxation records, and the location of a parish and a church. There are also clear earthworks visible at the site. The site is publically accessible, with access off the B1248 Beverley to Malton road. A car park is situated 750m from the site, with a walk to the site down a steep slope. A guide book for the site is available from English Heritage or from one of the other English Heritage properties close by, such as Helmsley Castle (Oswald 2013).

House sites at Wharram Percy
House sites at Wharram Percy

A sizeable village was once present. In total there would seem to be around 40 peasant house plots at Wharram, but it is unsure if all would have been occupied at the same time. A roughly north-south hollow way is bounded on either side by the house plots. Two manor house sites have been uncovered; one that was abandoned in the thirteenth century, and indications are that the northern one was abandoned some time in the fourteenth century. At the south of the village is the church which was in use until 1949. To the south of this is the mill pond. Close to the church are the only surviving buildings – a row of three cottages, which were finally vacated in the 1970s. The excavations at the site have revealed an extensive occupation from at least Roman times.

Wharram Percy and St Martin's Church
Wharram Percy and St Martin’s Church

Wharram Percy was mentioned in the Domesday Book and 30 people were taxed in 1377. A record of tenant holdings from 1368 also records 30 farmhouses and cottages in the village (Wrathmell 2010). By 1435 only 16 households are recorded showing the decline of the settlement had begun (Wrathmell 2010). Further reduction in population is noted in the 1517 enquires that took place across the country into the enclosure of farmland. These record that after 1488 four cottages at Wharram had been removed (Wrathmell 2010). It has been well established that the fate of Wharram was the conversion of arable land to pasture. Over time more and more land was removed from arable production. A legal case that was heard in 1555 helps date the final stage of conversion to 1527 (Wrathmell 2010).

There are many resources on Wharram including the series of 13 volumes publishing the results of the excavations. For more detailed information on Wharram, see the pages on the Beresford’s Lost Villages website including a full consideration of the evidence and the site’s connection with Maurice Beresford or the detailed record for Wharram in the listing of villages in the East Riding of Yorkshire. More information on Wharram Percy can also be found in the History and Research section on the English Heritage website.

Hound Tor, Devon

The site of Hound Tor is probably one of the most well known settlements on Dartmoor. The location of the village is between Hound Tor and Greater Rocks lying on a gentle slope. The village can be accessed by parking on a minor road to the south of Manaton, followed by a half-mile walk. The village itself consists of about eleven buildings located within an enclosure (Beresford 1979). Full excavation of the site was completed between 1961 and 1975. The buildings would appear to consist of eight houses and three corn drying barns.  Three of the houses are clear longhouses with cross passage ways.  The remaining buildings are smaller and may represent smaller houses or out buildings. The buildings are clustered together and have small enclosures, possibly gardens close to the longhouses. There is no discernible plan to the settlement and it is suggested that although there is evidence of rebuilding, the settlement plan reflects the original layout of the settlement (Beresford 1979).

Corn-drying barns at Hound Tor
Corn-drying barns at Hound Tor

The village itself seems to have developed in the middle of the thirteenth century and then became deserted in the middle of the fourteenth century (Beresford 1979). More recent pottery analysis has suggested that the settlement was still occupied into the late fourteenth or maybe early fifteenth century (Allan 1994). Unlike other deserted sites on Dartmoor, documentary evidence exists for Hound Tor including an entry in the Domesday Book with a population of six recorded. Hound Tor or its residents appear in documents throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Beresford 1979).

The reasons for desertion are not completely clear but there is evidence to suggest this was due to climate change (Beresford 1979). As Hound Tor was one of the highest villages above sea level on Dartmoor, there is a claim that the changing climate would have affected these sites earlier and more deeply. There is evidence for bad harvests but there are also good harvests mixed in with those years. Pollen analysis does show a change from arable to pastoral activity in the fourteenth century which may have been a contributing factor (Austin and Walker 1985).

For more information on Hound Tor see the History and Research section on the English Heritage website

Gainsthorpe, North Lincolnshire

The first aerial photograph of a deserted village was published by O.S.G. Crawford in 1925 of the site at Gainsthorpe in Lincolnshire (Gerrard 2003). Here clear earthworks of the settlement can be seen with route ways and building outlines.

Gainsthorpe Village earthworks
Gainsthorpe Village earthworks

The site is located off the A15 just to the south of Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire. The site is not sign-posted from the A15, but can be found on Gainsthorpe Road which is sign-posted for Cleatham. There is a sign from this access road. There is a short walk down a farm track from the car park.

The aerial photograph of the site was initially taken as it was thought to be the location of a Roman fort. However when he publishes the picture, Crawford draws on a seventeenth-century account of the site by Abraham de la Pryme (Crawford 1925). In 1697 De la Pryme gives the account of the remains of the settlement, describes foundations of buildings, streets and a possible location of a church. He recounts local tales that the town was ‘exceeding infamous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves; and that the country haveing for a long while endur’d all their villanys, they at last, when they could suffer them no longer, riss with one consent, and pulld the same down about their ears’ (De le Pryme 1870: 127-128). He does continue suggesting that a more likely explanation was ‘the town has been eaten up with time, poverty, and pasturage’ (De le Pryme 1870: 128). A much more likely reason for desertion.

Gainsthorpe Village
Gainsthorpe Village

For more information on Gainsthorpe village see the History and Research section on the English Heritage website.

Deserted settlements are found throughout the country and can illustrate how people in the past coped with change. Often these settlements are not deserted overnight, but long-term changes to population and land use see dramatic reductions in the number of people living at the settlement.


Allan, J. 1994. ‘Medieval Pottery and the Dating of Deserted Settlements on Dartmoor’, Proceedings Devon Archaeological Society 52: 141-148.

Austin, D. and M.J.C. Walker 1985. ‘A New Landscape Context for Houndtor, Devon’, Medieval Archaeology 29: 147-152.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth 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.

Crawford, O.S.G. 1925. ‘Air-Photograph of Gainstrop, Lincs’, Antiquities Journal 5: 432-433.

De la Pryme, A. 1870. The Diary of Abraham de la Pryme, the Yorkshire Antiquary. Durham: Publocations of the Surtees Society 54.

Gerrard, C. 2003. Medieval Archaeology: Understanding Traditions and Contemporary Approaches. London: Routledge.

Oswald, A. 2013. Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village. London: English Heritage.

Wrathmell, S. 2010. ‘The Desertion of Wharram Percy Village and its Wider Context’, in C. Dyer and R. Jones (eds) Deserted Villages Revisited: 109-120. Hatfield: University of Herefordshire Press.