In the last issue of the Journal, Dulwich’s Manorial Court Rolls, which are kept at Dulwich College, helped us speculate on the everyday life of our predecessors in this place. We know their names, their work and even a little about their leisure. In this article we examine the second half of the 14th century.
The fourteenth century was divided by a cataclysmic event - the arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348-9. Historians are certain that mortality in Surrey and London was high, about a third succumbing to the disease in the former and halving the population in the latter. It is clear that Dulwich did not escape this catastrophe and so we can expect that the population shrank from approximately 400-450 persons before the Black Death to 250-300 afterwards.
There is a long-held tradition in Dulwich that the dead were buried in pits at the extremities of the manor. The three sites identified are; the small triangular field which is now the beer-garden of the Fox on the Hill pub on Denmark Hill, the lower end of Long Meadow at the foot of Gipsy Hill and Horniman’s playpark opposite the museum. Significantly, the routes to all three sites were served by tracks or roads in medieval times, the two southernmost sites would then have existed on what was the edge of Dulwich Woods. To the north, much of Denmark Hill was also a forested ridge. The recent excavations in Charterhouse Square and Smithfield in connection with the Crossrail project have revealed burial pits from the mid-14th century with bodies laid in careful order.
There are no court rolls surviving for the second half of the fourteenth century. One possible explanation might be that they were destroyed during the Peasants Revolt in 1381 when peasants bound by feudalism marched in large numbers from Kent to London, destroying the records of the manors they passed through. Whatever the explanation for the absence of any court rolls, there are, however, two lists of ‘common suitors’, or freemen which survive. These relate to individuals who took out leases on farms and small-holdings in Dulwich. One dates from 1376 and the other from 1398. By comparing the names on these lists with the earlier court rolls, we can see that the Black Death had a dramatic effect on Dulwich. Some families disappear altogether. The entire, large and extended Atte Styghele (At-the Stile) family vanish from the pages of subsequent documents, as do the Gerardes who had been in Dulwich since the beginning of the 13th century. The Bussh, Phelyp and Brand families survive, as do the Brounyngs, and the Wodeseres. John Boloyne - the ruffian of 1334 no longer appears, but the Berlyng family, one of whom Boloyne attacked, does. Of the 42 names on the 1376 list only twelve appear on the pre-Black Death rolls. The 1376 list also shows who replaced who on some of the tenancies - so we can see that the Morkyn family had either died out or moved away.
The high death rate threw manors and estates which relied on feudal law to function into disarray. The Statute of Labourers enacted in 1351 attempted to address the problem of labour shortage and subsequent rising wage demands by restricting wages for labourers to pre-Black Death levels and stop the movement of labourers to work on other manors. However, the shortage of labour was such that wages rose and people moved. The two documents, supported by a small number of other documents in Dulwich College archives make clear that a number of farms were being leased out to non-resident investors who appear to bring in their own labourers.
Soon after the Black Death, King Edward 111, with the aid of his son, the Black Prince, resumed his war against France. The new campaign, which resulted in great success at the battle of Poitiers had obliged the king to raise large sums of money to maintain his army. The great religious houses were a particular target and those of the Cluniac order, especially so. Bermondsey Abbey, which owned the manor of Dulwich, was controlled by the French abbey of Cluny, to which it sent money raised by its estates such as Dulwich, would have been a particular target.
In Dulwich, the reduced workforce of villeins, also requiring more careful supervision, would have further stretched the resources of Bermondsey Abbey. It must have needed ready-money quickly because six months after the victory at Poitiers,on 21 February 1357, Bermondsey Abbey decided that instead of administering Dulwich manor itself, it would lease it for a guaranteed annual payment. The individual to whom the manor was leased was Thomas Dolsely (also spelt Dolesely, Dolsaly, Dosell and Doleshill). Dolsely was a wealthy London merchant dealing in pepper, spices and drugs. His business premises were in the vicinity of Soper’s Lane (now Queen Street) in near the Walbrook. He had been a member of the fraternity of Pepperers since 1346, a year after it was founded. It would soon after become the Grocers’ Company, one of London’s wealthiest livery companies. In 1353 Thomas Dolsely was elected warden of the company. In the same year he was also elected by the Commonality to attend Parliament on behalf of London. Election as an alderman, representing Cordwainers’ Ward followed two years later, and in September 1356 he was elected Sheriff by the Commonality. In 1357 he would again be elected as one of the City’s members of Parliament.
Dulwich was not the first monastic manor Dolsely acquired. In 1354, in partnership with Richard de Causton, Dolsely paid 40 pounds to King Edward for the right to lease the manor of Wadley in Oxfordshire from the abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Stanley. He also leased the manor of Bretinghurst which was located in East Dulwich and Peckham Rye, parts of Camberwell, Peckham and other parts of Dulwich.
Thus, Dulwich acquired a new landlord. Dolsely was clearly an able and influential man. His abilities were recognised by the Lord Mayor, Henry Pycard and he was given a number of important assignments. One was to be a signatory to a receipt for the sum of 300 golden florins, a silver cup and a gold ring offered in ransom by a Burgundian knight, Thomas de Voudenay, captured at Poitiers. The transaction shows the speed in which important prisoners of war were dealt with in medieval times. De Voudenay was captured on 19th September 1356; the ransom was paid through an intermediary, a merchant from Lucca and the deal done just over three months later on Christmas Eve.
As Sheriff, Dolsely’s duties were varied; he was required to arrest a group of presumably dangerous men coming to London from Haverfordwest, plead with the King’s ministers to reduce the City’s war subsidies and try to get repayment of the huge loans made by London’s merchants for various military excursions The City had lent the King huge sums for him to pursue campaigns in Scotland, Gascony, Brabant, Flanders and the siege of Calais. Dolsely argued that the Black Death had reduced the number of merchants able to pay subsidies by a one third. He was also involved in drawing up a proclamation in 1363 which sought to restrict increasing wage demands and other rises in costs. Not only were the prices charged for building materials, wine, corn and firewood pegged but even the amount paid to a cook to make a rabbit pie was regulated.
Thomas Dolsely appears to have continued his aldermanic duties for some years before his death in 1370 and what is surprising is that so much of the City’s time was taken up in planning matters which still occupy us in Dulwich today - the inconvenience to neighbours caused by defective or inadequate rainwater drainage or other contentious issues like encroachment or, obstruction. One case which will certainly strike a chord in modern Dulwich is the case of someone who had ‘dug a cellar 12 ft long and 8ft deep’ beneath his neighbour’s garden ‘without a stone foundation or support so that the earth falls and sinks into it’. The council gave the usual period of 40 days to put the matter right.
When Thomas Dolsely died in 1370 his lease of the manor of Dulwich ended and it reverted to Bermondsey Abbey. Until 1531, when the Abbey leased the manor to Sir John Scott (the Abbey surrendered its lands and buildings at the Dissolution of the Monasteries six years later), the Abbey’s steward administered Dulwich’s farms and copyholds. Whether there were still tenants held in feudal bondage after the end of the 14th century or whether all the farms were leased out, we do not know. What we do have is a further list of common suitors dated 1398, individuals who rented their farms and smallholdings. There are no pre-Black Death family names remaining, unless we include the miller (Mulward or Melewarde ) although this migfht simply refer to his occupation rather than the continuity of the family name. Instead we have new families and possibly new tradesmen like the Dockyngs who were tile-makers and may have established the tile factory at what is now Pond Cottages.
Patrick Darby makes the important point, that the two lists of common suitors, dated 1376 and 1398 contain useful pointers on which family succeeded another in leasing Dulwich’s farms.
The hard life led by the Dulwich’s inhabitants, villeins or even freemen, in the the fourteenth century is likely to have been similar to that expressed by William Langland, the earliest English poet:
....and the poor in their hovels, overburdened with children and rack-rented by landlords. For whatever they save by spinning they spend on rent, or on milk and oatmeal to make gruel and fill the bellies of their children who clamour for food. And they themselves are often famished with hunger, and wretched with the miseries of winter - cold sleepless nights , when they get up to rock the cradle cramped in a corner, and rise before dawn to card and comb the wool, to wash and scrub and mend and wind yarn and peel rushes for their rushlights...(Piers Ploughman C text, book X, line 71)