Contrasting Communities :

English Villagers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries .

Margaret Spufford




Spufford in her acknowledgements states that she owes all her training in her craft to H.P.R Finberg . She quotes from him , that we should " not ose sight of the human person ". She notes that we have plenty of studies about landowners , tenants , village economies etc , but not many about how the villager thought or felt . She tries to portray the villager as a person who has reations to changes in his parish . In her study she avoids considering the villagers as a political animal . She also had no time to read comparative studies such as Ladurieís of Languedoc . Although she writes that he walked the same road as her . She attempts a general survey of the contry of Cambridge , excluding the Isle of Ely and another survey on that part of the Diocese of Ely , which lay within Southern Cambridgeshire and impinged on the parishonersí lives .

She attempts toset detailed studies of the economy , social structure , opportunities for elementary shcooling and religious beliefs of 3 contrasting villages; Chippenham ( chalk ) , Orwell ( spring line and clay uplands running down to the river ; and Willingham ( fen ) .

Part 1 : People , Families and Land

Chapter 1 : The Peopling of a County


A)Medieval overpopulation and the great decline:


In the late thirteenth century Cambridgeshire was the most thickly populated of the counties , covered byy the hundred rolls and ranked 11 th in prosperity . Still highly populated in the 1330ís , but a slump began by 1341; Chippenham dropped by half , between 1279 and 1377. Decline took place in the 3 villages , yet despite this Cambridgeshire was one of those counties with fewest deserted villages .

B) Population changes , 1524 , 1563 , 1664:

In 1524 Cambridgeshire was still one of the most densely populated areas in the country . The larger villages were found on the fen edge and in the fen itself , --- over 100 taxable people ; of the smaller villages --- 50 lay on the heavy clays in the west . Yet these densities , low by Cambridgeshire standards were the norm for England as a whole . Into the sixteenth century -- population rose most dramatically on the fen edge and chalk ridge , provided a livelihood for smallholders and squatters ----- transformation of the fen was one of the most significant in the county .

C) Rapid population growth in the fens --- Willingham

Only part of the county where the population did not fall between 1524 and 1563 ------ became most densely populated in the county . Was also a stronghold of congregationalism --- ĺ of the population . Also there was much mobility among the people of W. In the 6 generations from 1575 - 1720ís --- comparison of family names . Also more immigration than out . Fens villages had very high densities of population .


Stagnant Population on the Clay-Orwell

Villages on western clay plateau which were more densely populated than the fens in 1500 were shrinking . Orwell dropped by 13 % . Emmigration outweighed migration . Orwell was a stronghold of dissent , Congregationalists and Muggletonians : -- neglected marriage and baptismal registration but not death regs. However , despite irregulatities of this nature, evidence points to emmigration from clay regions , rise of population on chalk ridge in the south , and the fen-edge . If a nationwide similar analysis of the hearth taxes was carried out, Cambridgeshire would still appear thickly populated but the social structure of the villages would bring its overall prosperity down , compared to other counties in the South East .


Prosperity and Social Structure in the 1520ís


Manorial fragmentation meant that the gentry in the county were minor . Their tenants were not over prosperous by South East standards . Using the subsidies returns for 1524 and 1525, -- in terms of the nos of taxpayers , the county was on a par with the rest of the East Anglia region , but in terms of taxation raised , only the river valley , south of Cambridgeshire was on a par . However , if you do not inlcude the wealthy in the taxation of the counties , Cambridgeshire did very well in taxation raised . The proportion of the wage-earning population in Cambridgeshire in 1524 - 1525 was very high --- high population density and high demand for seasonal labour . ( 1524 - 1525 is the ony taxation return for the sixteenth century for which most of the returns survive ) . 53% of Cambridgeshireís population were waged , 1% not reached in England as a whole until 1690ís , and 25% had between £2 and £4 in goods , very wealthy yeomanry .


Prosperity and Social Structure in 1660ís

The 150 years after 1524 was the age of the engrosser on the corn - growing uplands , also the age of fragmentation . Analysis of the hearth tax are guides to wealth . It was possible to relate 100 inventories for Cambridgeshire during 1661 - 1670 to the appropriate hearth tax, to cross-check a manís wealth at his death and the size of his house judged by the number of hearths .

The fens ( Willingham ) had a high percentage of middlingly prosperous paying tax on 2 hearths . The chalk ridge had over 50 % paying tax on 1 hearth . However, there existed large enough numbers in certain hearth groups who financially could be in the group above them .


Chapter 2 The Disappearance of the Small Landowner

Sixteenth century --- market value of foodstuffs rose , --- grant benefit to yeomanry with a freehold : yet the agricultural labourer suffered . Proportion of landless labourers increased

Aswell . End of seventeenth and beginning of eighteenth century , was a critical period for the small farmer, --- were reduced dramatically by 1760 . Prices rose due to population

growth and bad harvests of the 1550ís and again in 1620ís . Government enclosures and agrarian risings were common in 1550ís . A run of several years of disasters drove small farmers out of business . In the latter half of the seventeenth century the constant rise of prices eased off but price fluctuation was a major problem for the small farmer . There was also a change to crops like turnip , clover and seed rape .

The following chapters examine the actual changes in land distribution in the 3 Cambridgeshire villages from 1550 - early 1700ís . Analysis of sources such as parish registers , estate surveys , field books , maps , court rolls and wills will be used . An ideal study would be one of contrasting neighbourhoods , each one spanning over a group of parishes but this ws an unrealistic objective for Spufford due to limitations of documentation and time .

Chapter 3 The Reality ---- the small landholder on chalk -- Chippenham

A) Sources , fields , crops , stock and population

Chippenham lies in the North East of Cambridgeshire . Manor of Chippenham was bought by Sir E. North and was surveyed in 1544 . --- 1,964 acres of open-field arable , alone . Ended up in the hands of E. Russel , ( Lord Orford ) , who commissioned a magnificent estate map . Sources include court rolls , wills ( very few ) . Parish regs are mutilate and patchy . 1544 --- 63 houses with a population of around 250 - 300 . One hundred years later -- 67 houses and population between 270 and 330 --- no real change . The land is chalk with some peat fen to the north . Fields are freely drained . Field system was complex , --- 8 fields in 1544 and a simple rotation . Two large areas of common . In 1500 and 1600ís sheep farming was a manorial monoply and farmers kept cattle and pigs .

B) Land Distribution

The changing size of landholdings is amazing during this period . Holdings were grouped in Ĺ yardlands ( 15 acres ) . In 1279 half the tenants held a Ĺ yardland , only 10% of the land was freehold . Over the next two centuries , the pressure on the land relaxed and the ambitious sought to increase their farms . By 1544 , only 10 acres of free land was in peasant handsand copyhold tenures were the norm . There was an increase in the size of landholdings , a rise to yardlands , yet a dramatic drop in the number holding land . There was also a rise in those holding houses and no land indicating a rise in labourers . The small farmer had been squeezed out . The process was completed by 1696 when Lord Oxford brought up the last of the copyhold land in the village . However , interestingly the economic position of yeomanry flourished . By 1712 ĺ of the people had a house and a couple of acres . Death inventories showed that " luxury goods of a century before had reached the poor " .

C) Inheritance Customs

Eamining wills showed how fathers granted small pieces of land to some sons in an attempt to provide for them while most of the land went to one son . However , this made the engrosserís task easier , as it weakened farm units . Money left as dowries also weakened the tenement . The disappearance of middle size farms and economic forces driving these people into the wage-labourers ranks was stranger than the attempts of the community to provide land for its sons .

D) Widows

The men provided for their widows in a different way to how they provided for their sons . Three-quarters of the wills left the wife a life interest in the house and land , usually left the holding until the son was 21 years old and then a house room after that .


Between 1560 and 1636 holdings of 15 to 45 acres disappeared . There was a growth in those holdings over 50 acres and cottagers . Men were forced to emigrate . Economic factors were the reason for the disappearance of the small farmer , --- bad harvests . Those with more land and surplus crops bought up the peasantsí lands . They found themselves in trouble long before the general down-turn of the economy in the seventeenth century .

Chapter 4 Small Landowner on Clay Orwell

A) Sources , fields , crops and stocks

Lies in the south - west of Cambridge . Both geographically and socially it is strongly contrasted with Chippenham . Soil is clay and is heavy and badly drained . Documentary sources are inadequate . Fields were divided into a 3 course system , River , Out lands and High Fields . Barley and oats were the main crops , followed by wheat and peas . Chronic shortage of meadow and pasture . Whole cattle herd was about 160 head .

B) Distinguishable due to its amount of freehold land , -- about 400 acres around 1600 . Similar changes took place in land distribution as in Chippenham in relation to the small to middle size farmer , -- squeezed out, also probably due to population rise and economic factors brought on by bad harvests . Engrossing probably started spontaneously and then the landlords got in on the act with a purpose .

C) Inheritance Customs

By again looking at wills it was possible to study inheritance customs . It seems that the men of Chippenham were divided down the middle whether to leave all the land to one son or not . Either way they tried to take care of the other son financially or by stating that the son who inherited the land make a cash payment to the other son or sons , usually at age 21 .

D) Provision for Women

Women did not inherit land unless there were no sons . Daughter inherited dowry at 18 and boys at 21 . Dowry received was later linked to provision made for wife . Wills provided for widows with extreme care . After son reached 21 the widow received a room . If a widow remarried , as was common , she had to still provide for her sonís future .

Chapter 5 Landholder in the Fens Willingham


A) Sources , Fields , Crops and Stock

In physical and development terms it is a complete contrast to Chippenham and Orwell . 4,500 acres and only 1,200 acres were arable . This was even less than Orwell , which had a community Ĺ the size . Village economy --- was not based on arable . Main manor was held by the bishop of Ely and then in 1600 by Sir Miles Sandys . Land , however , had been leased to tenants since the fourteenth century slump and now he wanted to return to direct demense farming due to price rises . Found it hard to identify what land was actually his .

The community was accustomed to self-government , and controlled the fens themselves and resented Sir Miles when he arrived , who in turn complained to the queen . Trouble also broke out when he tried to enclose sections of land . The dispute was solved in 1602 where some enclosure was allowed but Sir Miles had to forego rights in some areas . Neither side was truly happy with the arrangement . Sir Miles was financially ruined by his involvement in drainage schemes in the 1640ís and large areas of the estate were sold cheaply to the tenants. A superb series of estate surveys survive for Willingham . A series of wills and some inventories survive for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries .

The system was a simple one with 3 fields and arable distributed among the 3 of them . Barley was main crop followed by wheat and meslin . There was around 1,000 sheep kept . The tenants were mainly involved in cattle grazing , which were bred in the demense . In the mid seventeenth century there was a herd of horses and cattle of over 1,000 head .

B) Land Distribution

Different from the other 2 villages and also changed between 1575 and 1700 . Typical holding was still the Ĺ yardland . In 1575 there were 76 tenants of houses , with or without land . Sixty - seven of these held under a Ĺ yardland , however , there was the enormous acreage of Fen . A half yardlander in Willingham was a wealthy man , as can be seen from their wills . However , labourers knew real poverty in Willingham as well . Between 1603 and 1700 there was a large amount of fragmentation , there was a rise to 153 tenants . There was a drop in the numbers of entirely landless and rise in the numbers of small farmers , i.e the large farm did not develop in Willingham . This fragmentation involved 3.4 of the copyholds and all but one the freeholds . The original twenty-eight Ĺ yardlands were now divided between 76 tenants .

C) Causes of Breakdown

1575 - 1603 --- not generally due to bad harvests : i.e could fall back on beef and dairy . Bad harvests only had an effect if they were concurrent over three years . Also fragmentation was not related to incidents of tenure or rise in rents , --- different from the other two villages. Also in Chippingham and Orwell attempts were made to enlarge the demense whereas in Willingham the demense ended up on the market . In Willingham -- small farmers only , sold in times of real distress and then only small parts of their land as the Fen allowed them to still eke out a living .



Inheritance Customs:

Similar to Orwell and Chippenham where father tried to keep most of his farm intact and provide younger sons with cottages or fragments of land , and these were more viable option in Willingham than in the other two , and had a more lasting effect and probably encouraged an increase in population . Inmigration and the break up of the demense were probably other reasons .

Provision for Women:

Demographic structure was very different form Cambridgeshire and Orwell , --- six men died childless and between 1575 and 1603 the 37 men who died left very young families , not due to late marriage but early deaths --- proximity to fens did not lead to longevity . The norm here was to leave the holding to the widow until the child came of age but there was no provision made for her after that --- ( would probably be dead anyway ) .

Conclusion to Part 1:

In the fen parishes there was a great increase in the number of tenants with small but viable holdings of between 2 and 16 acres . The tenant of 15 acres was a wealthy yeoman , mainly due to the size of commonage -- grazing . Also fragmentation of lands to younger sons created new families , ( viable land ) , unlike in Orwell and Cambridgeshire whree this land was often engrossed . Also allowed for in-migration .

In upland areas the manorial arable holdings were no longer a viable economic unit in the price rise of the eighteenth century --- engrossing movement and disappearance of small landowner . Half yardlander disappeared when prices wree at their highest ---- bad harvest .

Problems are in the sources , court rolls , surveys , registers , cash throws doubt on the other ; only the wills are reliable .


Part 2 Schooling of the Peasantry

Chapter 6 a) A view of schools and masters

If a man was educated , then he was no longer totally exposed to the influence of his parish priest or minister who was in turn influenced by his patron . The villager became freer of the world of religious dispute and conviction of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries . In general , only the children of labourers had the time to go to work as larger farmers needed their sons on the farm . Looking at uni students from the better county and Isle of Ely , she found that a county man had better chances than fen people , however , this is not a good yardstick of literacy .

At present a study is under way by the Cambridge Group for the history of population and social structure . They are using wills in their study of literacy , although using oneís ability to sign oneís name as a yardstick for literacy does pose problems . Until this work is complete , it is premature to give any conclusive statement on literacy .




b) Schools and School Masters in Cambridgeshire


Studies of diocesan records show reference to school masters . Schools were of the grammar, English type . Many of the masters were young men doing a short spell of teaching after graduation before moving on . The areas best served were the thickly settled edges of the fen: The western clay plateau and the poverty-stricken chalk uplands were relatively unprovided for .



Chapter 7 Elementary Ability to Write: Willingham and Orwell


Willingham farmers , although possessing smaller amounts of land were men of substance: 1593 --- endowed a school by public subscription . One hundred and two subscribers raised £102 .7s 8 . The half yardlanders wre so prosperous they could afford to donate upu to 2 years rent . Only residents of Willingham could attend and then only if they subscribed -- the poor were free . From 1600 up to 1700 , of the two hundred and two wills made , only 31 were signed , the rest were marked . Twenty-one of the signatories were yeomanry ; -- link between prosperity and elementary ability to write .

Orwell , however , was a smaller village by half and also suffered from migration . The number of wills doesnít show a close link between prosperity and elementary ability to write . Probably the number of wills were too small a grop for statistical analysis . Therefore a comparative study with Milton was on farming like Orwell . Only a few wills survive and they point to the same conclusions as Willingham .

Chapter 8 The Importance of Reading

Sources include signatories of wills , bonds of credit and inventories . Also evidence in letters of admonition by Baptists and Quakers to erring members . The business of elders of the congregation was carried out by letters: dissenting opinion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spread by the printed word and helped bring about conversion even at the lowest level .


Part 3 Parishoners and their Religion



Chapter 9 Dissent before and after the Commonwealth

This is even more difficult to research than education and even moreso to assess the extent or importance of religious convictions on peopleís lives . 1676 -- 4 % non-conformist in Cambridgeshire , --- typical of the country as a whole . The 25 villages in southern Cambridgeshire all played a part as centre of dissent , and some more so than others . Congregationalists were by far the strongest , 700 of them ; and Presbyterians , the weakest which reversed the national trend . ( Francis Holcroft -- congregational church; Henry --- Baptist church ; Mary Fisher , Eliz Williams and James Parnell --- Quakers ) .

Puritan ideas did exist in families of low stock before the 1650ís --- 1640 -- petition made against Dr Wrenn , Bishop of Ely --- organised by hundreds and over 100 from one village . Nonconformity played a strong part in the same villages in 1640 as in 1676 .

Chapter 10 View of the Laity of Diocese of Ely

A) Liturgical change in the Reformation


Alteration of language , actions and position of church furniture , all caused varying degrees of disturbance amongst the laity during this time e.g Anglicans were unhappy over the disappearance of the early celebration of communion in favour of a parish communion .

Communities were similar to rural Catholic ones in South West Ireland , where the ritual of the churchís year and the season demands of hte land often mirror each other .

The changes began in the diocese of Ely around the 1540ís and culminated in the 1640ís . There is little evidence of reaction to the early changes but there is plenty to show the depth of feeling among peasantry concerning alterations in liturgy and sacraments in the 1630ís , e.g yeoman and husbandry were prepared to forego communion as they would not approach the new railings around the alter . Bishop Goodrich ruled from 1534 - 1554 and he enforced hte Henrican Reformation , --- proclamation of royal headship of church --- Bible of the " Greatest Volume " attack on image worship . Enslish Prayer Book ; destruction of alter , reintroduction of mass and reabolition 6 years later .

The records in Orwell donít allow the descent of reformed opinions to be traced . It can be traced in Willingham through wills .

B) Search for Puritanism and Early Separation


Seventeenth century confromists theory is that the roots of their beliefs ran back to forebears in sixteenth century and Robert Browne --- study of visitations conducted by Bishop Cox of Ely to see if there is any evidence of this . Spufford , very tediously , goes through numerous cases and examples to show that in the late 1580ís Puritans , who wanted reform , filled a high percentage of lay parochial offices and --- visitations drawn up on hte presentations they made are unrevealing for that reason . Visitation records are no guide to opinions of the laity, basically because the laity had a formative hand in their composition .


Chapter 11 Fragmentation and growth of sects


A) General Baptists:

Records of Baptist church of Fenstanton are the principal source for Baptist history under the protectorate . First members were baptised in 1644 , starting with Rebecca Dene , whose husband Henry Dunne , led the baptist church in Cambridgeshire . The main period of Baptist evangelism was the early 1650ís , ( Fenstanton Records ) . 1654 --- H. Denne went on a preaching tour , however , the messengers tended to stay with those already converted and not try to convert new disciples . By mid 1650ís it was felt that the church was established enough to record births and marriages and have quarterly meetings of the elders .

Most of their pastoral work was with converts lost to other sects . Denne wanted all the members to be familiar with scriptural arguments against Baptist position . Most common friction was with the Quakers over the spirit within .

B) Quakers:

Officially reached Cambridgeshire in 1653 when Mary Fisher and Eliz Williams arrived . James Parnell would be the principal Quaker apostle in Cambridgeshire . However , studies of Baptist records of Denneís tour show that spiritual seeking and unrest was widespread before 1653 and the quaker position was already reached before the official arrival of the Quakers . Quakerism took off and first persecutions against them were recorded in 1655 . They began to supply their own spokesmen .

Many Quaker converts came from the Baptists . Major hostilities between the two started in 1655 and led to public debates between Parnell and the Denne church . Quakers were often put on trial for witchcraft .

C) Congregationalists:


Strongest desenting group in the country: --- combination of Calvinism in the Presbyterian mould combined with their own ideas on church government , --- appealed to Cambridgeshire farmers . However , sources of their growth are few , even a lack of information in Baptist and Quaker records . Certainly did not arrive before 1662 .

D)Restoration and Persecution:

Restoration brought an end to the period when dissent could manifest itself in freedom . Quakers suffered the most --- refusal to accept the oath , and they had suffered persecution before , due to charges of superstition and witchcraft . Baptists collapsed in some areas and survived in others . Congregationalists suffered least as they had no qualms about taking the oath .

Chapter 12 Possible Determinants of Dissent

A) Spread of dissent in Corn Growing and Fenland Communities Orwell and Willingham


Two economically contrasting villages: in Orwell , most of the dissenters were congregationalists . By looking at hearth taxes Spufford determine the economic position of the dissenters . Overall non -conformist opinions got a strong foothold in both fen and upland regions . However , in Orwell it was across the economic board , but in W illingham it was predominantly in the relatively comfortable and substantial middle section of this village community .

B) Influence of Lordship

Both Orwell and Willingham were minus a resident landlord . Ths effect of this on a communityís beliefs has to be considered . Landlords could and did interfere with the spread of separatist opinions . Dissent seemed to flourish where there was no lordship or where large villages , with dense populations , were subdivided and the lordship was weak .



C) Influence of the clergy

Connection here is that instead of the priest influencing the flock , they often had their own opinions formed on him and his teachings . In parishes that later dissented , 14 clergy were deprived on the complaints of their parishoners . Note: also a close correlation between the availability of schooling and dissent .


Chapter 13 Reality of Religion for the Villager

A) Wills and Their Writers --- Orwell , Dry Dayton and Willingham


In making his will a man would generally make a bequest of his soul, which was a statement of his religious beliefs as Catholics and Protestants had different beliefs regarding the soul . A lot of wills with statements in between canít be classified . However , the writer is very important as they often asked the dying person several questions and interpreted the answers in accordance with their own personal beliefs , so they might give an innacurate picture of the will owner but a good one of the writer . Some writers could write several wills over the years and their opening statements often showed a change in their beliefs .

(examples of the above from the villages named )

B) Opinions of hte Testators: Willingham , Orwell , Chippenham

Willingham --- reformed principles wree early received and became paret of life of the laity . Personal faith in the mediation of Christ and redemption through him had percolated down through Western society .

Orwell --- Protestant wills not found until 1569 but there was strong protestant feeling prior to this .

Chippenham --- Elizabeth was in power five years before first protestant will appeared and alal C wills after this were protestant or neutral .

The wills show personal feelings but show nothing of the religious history of the place .


Dissent and separatism were rooted in C after the restoration . The workers of Baptist , Quaker and Congregationalist faith did not initiate it , only fortered it . Puritanism wa also a grass roots phenomenon amongst the very humble which pre-dated the commonwealth .

We canít prove much from the wills as they were written by locals . We know villagers had religious convictions but we canít account for them . No single social background is common to all communities .

Manorial fragmentation , schools , clergy , all played a role . No dererminism , economic , social , educational or geographical will fully accounts for the existence of religious convictions .