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Medieval & Archaeology

medieval vaccary


    Years of fieldwalking looking for pre-historic archaeology by Brian Howcroft,Richard Blakeley and David Shepherd of Hebden Bridge History Soc. and Yorkshire Arch.Soc. have discovered finds at Widdop. The adjacent link lists those to date [2017] going back to Mesolithic Era;the vast majority listed on The Portable Antiquity Site. My thanks for their permission to catalogue their finds.                                                            

       There are many potsherds the earliest dated 1100-1300 but the majority 'post-medieval', pictured adjacent. Finds were located on the edge of the present reservoir, at low water,  just below the Higher Houses on the northern shoreline [and others on the southern shoreline]. Initially Brian thought the potsherds too far away from the buildings but now it's thought that constant ploughing would have gradually moved them downwards.

Widdop Res. - North Shore - Potsherds - 13-8-2013

In 2013 a number of us met to 'share'  potsherds and opinions!

To the left are a mixture of medieval and  post medieval potsherds; the oldest possible one, to the right, could be 12th century[yet to be dated]

widdop vaccary

Brian and friends discovered a linear feature indicating a large enclosure-origin as yet unknown? To the right at the northern reservoir shorline are some stone culverts- built as either  drainage or irrigation channels?

Widdop Reservoir - Culvert - 2001 scan 2 (2)
Widdop Reservoir - Culvert - 2001 scan 2 (3)

   Were my ancestors  ''free'' or ''unfree'' tenants ?

'Villeinage' and the reeve/grave


      In the later tenants ''voluntatum''/''at will'' lists of 1711-1779 the term ''grave rents'' is used. The term ''grave'' was the Old English word ''gerafe'' or ''grafe'' or ''greve''--originally Saxon--  from which the term ''reeve'' evolved. A ''reeve'' was an ''officer'' elected from amongst the ''unfree'' tenants to carry out various duties e.g. sorting out local disagreements, being involved at the manor court, collection of monies, supervising manorial work and generally being an overseer. This term being used in the tenants lists provides evidence of the medieval system of ''villeinage'' whereby such tenants were ''unfree'' and all their lives were controlled and conducted by the manor court.  Criminal acts [for and against], disagreements regarding boundaries, transferring of tenancies were all brought to the manor court for decision. A ''villein'' could not legally opt out of his tenancy or leave the manor; if a daughter was married or committed '' fornication'' a fine was paid, when a tenant died a 'fine' of the best animal was paid called a heriot. Then there were service obligations, according to each courts ''custom'', whereby work was carried out on the lords lands at harvest, ploughing etc. Hence, tenants were termed ''customary tenants'' whereby conditions of tenancy were according to the terms of the local manor court and it's particular, historical, customs or precedence.  They later became termed as ''copyhold tenants'' whose ''hereditary''tenancy rights were recorded on a roll at the manor court and gradually over the years the tenants began to ask for a copy to have written proof of their rights of tenure.

The end of 'villeinage'


History of



a ''grave'' overseeing serfs

     Why did some landlords release their ''unfree'' tenants from their ''bondage''? The whole of the Medieval system became unworkable after the Black Death of 1348. About half the population died resulting in many of the strip-fields being left vacant and unworked. Landlords were forced to turn their fields into open pasture land of complete fields for grazing cattle and/or sheep. Overall the landlords, therefore, lost income significantly and were keen to attract and negotiate terms with any surviving peasant-farmers and rather than insist upon ''bondage-services'' were glad to receive cash rents instead which gave them guarantee of income. The peasants also discovered that they could move outside their traditional ''home'' manor and that no-one pursued them to enforce the terms of ''bondage''.

      Gradually the old system of ''villeinage'' became unworkable and died out. These changes often took generations particularly in the 'conservative' north of the country and especially the Upper Calderdale which was very remote. However, there IS evidence that labour services had virtually disappeared in the Pennine areas even before the Black Death. The conditions which distinguished between ''free'' and ''unfree'' tenants gradually disappeared. By the 16th century farmers could own their own goods, animals, tools, money which is why they started to have wills. If they were thrifty enough they could purchase their own farms- many in the Wadsworth township did purchase small farms whilst still remaining on their hereditary, leasehold, farms upon which their family had lived for generations.



      The traditional Medieval 'three,open-field 'system of farming was not possible in the upland Pennines as the land was such poor quality, the weather cold and wet and remote from civilisation!   [there appears to be no sign of open-field system at Widdop]. Landlords were always looking for ways to expand their demesnes and evidence exists throughout the Pennines for the grazing of cattle  by the visible remains of 'vaccaries'.  A 'vaccary' [from the latin vaccus for cows] was an enclosure to contain principally dairy cattle and oxen, usually sited near a flowing stream with pasture and grazing land adjacent and with the option of summertime grazing higher up. It has been suggested that the local term 'tonstall', meaning a farmstead, actually meant a 'vaccary' especially as several known 'vaccaries' settlements end with 'tonstall'. There are a number of settlements in the area which end with 'tonstall', including Shackletonstall where all Shackletons originate!! A much later Savile estate survey of 1809  supports this as out of 85 acres at Widdop 34 acres [40%] were pasture and 24  acres [28%] meadowland with only 4 acres [5%] for arable.


   The first known archival reference of the place-name Widdop appears in the Poll Tax lists of 1379 in the name of the Prior of Lewes. The Priory owned the land at Widdop 'south' of the Hebden Water in Heptonstall township.  At that time Widdop, Wadsworth, was owned by the Thornhill family of Thornhill, however, it was shortly to be transferred to the Saviles of Thornhill when the last Thornhill heiress, Elizabeth, married Henry Savile in 1382. Thereafter it has remained in their ownership until sold to the Halifax Waterboard for the construction of the reservoir in the 1870's.


    The 'husbandmen' of the cattle would have needed some sort of accommodation and 'barns' nearby and thus small, separate farmsteads and some settlements of several farm [tonstalls] were established. The Savile estate rental lists  of the 16th and  18th centuries  all confirm the existence of 5 'farms' at Widdop; 2 based at 'Higher Houses' and 2 at 'Lower Houses'. The same number exist in the 1604 Savile Estate survey each with a small number of closes--4 or 5.

     The Savile estate map of 1715 clearly shows the 'Higher Houses' site had 6 buildings in total with 3 having 'barn doors'.  In 2005 I peered into one of the remaining barns at Higher Houses [ since sold & stone removed] and I was encouraged to believe it's origins may have been medieval because there was a central hearth in the floor and an additional fireplace on the end wall?

     However in [2013], inspection of the remaining barn by David Cant has dated it as typical stonework of the mid-1870's, possibly a rebuild by the Halifax Waterboard to 'service' the reservoir workforce, 'around' the remains of a previous barn. The floor does look as though purposefully built as a barn, with cattle stalls, hay-loft etc. It wasn't a 'cheap' build, therefore built for permanence. Clear evidence remains inside that the workers building the reservoir utilised the inside.

he'd very likely only be sowing oats at Widdop because the soil was such poor quality !

Widdop Pot

Archaeological finds


      On looking through the various archives I began to think what WERE my ancestors in the Medieval era? were they free? serfs? slaves?

     There were two types of tenant recorded in the 1572-1610 lists there were ''libe''---latin for ''free''; and ''ad voluntatum''-- latin for ''at will'' i.e. the tenants had no rights at all --and ''unfree''.

     ''Free'' tenants were ''free'' men who could own their own land, chattels, animals etc. but often rented land off the lord of the manor. They also had legal rights at the King's court and owed no service obligations to the lord of the manor though they would have to attend the manor court. Their rents were less than the ''at will'' tenants. There were few Shackletons, circa 4, in any of the ''free'' tenants lists.

    Most Shackletons, including my ancestors, were amongst the ''at will'' lists. ''At will'' tenants were ''unfree'' with no tenancy rights at all, nothing in writing and therefore could be evicted without any notice 'at the will of the lord'. Usually they had to carry out other labour duties and ''fines'' to the Lord of the manor. At some point prior to 1572, possibly as far back as early Medieval years, the Savile lords of the manor appear to have preferred  such duties to be converted to 'cash rents' which was the principle practise in Pennine areas from as early as 12th/13th centuries.  The annual rents were negotiated by ''agreement'' between lord and tenant—hence the term ''at will''- implying that the Lord really held the upper hand!

   ''At will'' tenants could choose what to farm on their land, expand their rental holdings, erect new buildings and intake new fields to increase acreage---all still with the permission of the lord. It looks as though by at least the 1570s some of the tenants were being given 'paper agreements' for fixed terms, usually 21 years, by ''indenture'' leases.

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