Manorial Freedom in Suffolk

Manorial Freedom in Suffolk

Framlingham Castle rebuilt by Hugh Bigod 1160s

From here Queen Mary was released from detention with assistance from the Burgesses of Sudbury. For which they received Royal chartered Incorporation with full Borough Freedom.

Suffolk is an ancient rural county that retains many features relating to its East Anglian historic traditions. From early times there was widespread freedom among the peasantry of East Anglia that did not occur elsewhere in the country. We are mostly familiar with the establishment of ‘Borough Freedom’ created by King Alfred the Great resulting from the defences against Viking attacks. However, at much the same time, East Anglia had developed in such a way that early Scandinavian regulations must have influenced local custom. The vast majority of peasantry were ‘free’ of onerous duties normally required by the seignorial lords in control of the other counties in England.

What do we know about the nature and traditions of this county, its geography is sometimes dismissed as flat and monotonous. It is in fact, gently undulating and has clearly defined geographic regions. The clay levels of ‘High Suffolk’ are at its centre, Sandlings to the east and Breckland with fens to the northwest. Major river valleys are those of the Stour, Gipping and Lark. The Waveny and Little Ouse valleys shape the east-west routeways across the south, middle and north respectively.

Germanic settlers were arriving via the ‘Saxon Shore’, and from Roman times continued at irregular periods until the Danish Viking invasions and the settlement of the ‘Daneland’. Towns and markets developed from defensive boroughs to become Mildenhall, Newmarket and Sudbury to the west, governed to some degree by the powerful Bury St Edmunds monastery. The major ports were Ipswich and Dunwich, among the richest in the country, The other early towns included Stowmarket and to the east were Beccles and Framlingham.

In early times, Suffolk as elsewhere in Britain was an agricultural economy, the towns were small by modern standards developing in the river valleys and generally unplanned. Early planning related more to their defences. Later developments would open areas suited to regular markets and fairs. Suffolk has an ancient history of administration, with twenty-five hundreds by the end of the 11th century. The Crown, in early times, granted special privileges and obligations of a number of hundreds into the hands of two great monastic landlords. Eight were in West Suffolk, including the very large hundred of Blackbourne.

Effectively, most of medieval Suffolk was administered under the Liberties of St Edmund and St Ethelreda (west and east accordingly). Suffolk Society, in the early ages was dominated by a relatively small group of landlords and ecclesiastics engaged in agriculture. By the later medieval period there were many ‘lesser landlords’ and tenanted land holders. Interesting are the large numbers of declared ‘freemen’ within the population. This is also typical among the people of wider East Anglia. The aristocrats held large estates with considerable powers. Hospitality was a key feature of medieval lordship. Dame Alice de Bryene’s household in Acton consumed over 20,000 lb of meat with 1,600 poultry in one year. Elizabeth de Burgh at Clare was equally extravagant, with wine from the Rhineland, salmon, and swans for entertainment in the 1330s.

The most powerful among the aristocrats were the ecclesiastics rather than the laymen. Landed estates held by the abbey of Bury St Edmunds dominated West Suffolk and the landed holdings and judicial liberties of the prior and convent of Ely in East Suffolk provided similar control. Estates of the earls (later dukes) of Norfolk held a major presence. The balance of lords was moderately wealthy along with the several farmers of minor aristocracy. Below these are a wide range of free peasantry. In 1086, freemen were the largest category of landholders in Suffolk, recorded as c45% of tenanted population in the county. This compares with a national average of 14 per cent. By around 1300, free tenures comprised at least 80 per cent of tenanted land with freemen at about the same proportion of all tenants.

Perhaps the exceptional growth may be partly explained by the conversion of the large pastures of the monastic period, into arable tenures. Fragmentation of free holdings through sale and inheritance distribution appears common during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Typically, an individual freeman might simultaneously be a tenant of a number of different lords and or a subtenant of lesser freemen for other land. It is worthy of noting that around half of the cultivated land surface of Suffolk became ploughed for grain.

Documents refer to the freeholders as ‘freemen’ ‘sokemen’ and ‘mollmen’. Some held land in return for performing an office for their lord (a form of sergeantry) while most land was on socage tenure. Some freemen sought to supplement their holdings by acquiring villein land where they would render rent and services for the tenure. Freemen were charged accordingly – a small rent for their own land and higher fees for socage and villein. Some freemen would sublet to other tenants.

Freemen held additional inherited rights to access woodland for timber, turbury rights to take peat or turf from common land. They may have fishing rights and grazing rights, toll and tallage clearance and access to other facilities that were customarily free. In medieval Suffolk, as elsewhere, the protective status of people’s rights was critical. The system of villeinage required that peasants would normally be tied to requirements and duties of the ‘seigneurial’ lord of the manor in return for his protection. There were customary fines, for example, ‘childwite’ or ‘childwit’ was a fine levied by the lord on a reputed father when an unmarried unfree woman gave birth.

‘Merchet’ was a mark of serfdom that excluded freemen from being subject to a fine of childwite. Villeinage (rented) land is strictly subject to personal dues including merchet, chevage, childwite, tallage and capitage. Capitage being an annual fee for living in a place not owned by their lord. The villein would also be subject to paying a ‘heriot’ demanded by the lord on the death of a villein. There were regular duties required to be performed for the lord in return for his protection. This would include what is commonly called the week-work and could be as much as three or four days in the week working on the lord’s demesne. The Freemen were exempt from these duties and the above conditions.

This manorial freedom is not to be confused with borough freedom although it has many similarities and emanates from the customary practices of the period. The many freemen of medieval Suffolk are ostensibly freeholders of small holdings. In East Anglia in general, many were born free and have inherited property alongside other villeinage tenure, rented property, coupled with their valuable customary rights over common land use. This fragmented situation appears to be confined to practice in Norfolk and Suffolk or East Anglian specifically. It dates back before the Norman invasion. Interference with customary freedoms reached a height following the ‘Black Death’ epidemic and contributed to the pressures of the Poll Tax giving rise to the ‘Peasants Revolt’ June 1381.

Interestingly, on the subject of Borough freedom, Lavenham may be an example of a non-corporate town without free borough status that became the wealthiest town in East Anglia alongside Dunwich in wealth. Ipswich had great importance as a capital town with an early Gild Merchant that traded with the Continent. It is also interesting to be aware that some villeins were able, despite being unfree, to gain wealth through sub letting manorial land. NB Any individual known to claim that they were a ‘freeman’ when they were not, received very heavy penalties for contempt. Recognition of ‘Freedom’ has always been of prime importance in medieval England.

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