Patrick Darby has transcribed and translated the surviving Dulwich court rolls from the first half of the 15th century. We can now compare these with those which he translated from their original Latin from 100 years earlier. The 14th century rolls were discussed in two editions of the Dulwich Society Journal in the Spring and Summer of 2017 and these can be read online by going to the journal archive on the Society’s website. The court rolls are kept at Dulwich College.

The rolls record the affairs of the manor of Dulwich, which was owned by the Priory (later Abbey) of Bermondsey from 1127 until 1531. From them we can gain a picture of life in medieval Dulwich, discover who the inhabitants were, learn the names given to their fields and roads, understand how law and order was maintained and obtain a unique glimpse into a Dulwich of 700 years ago.

Interestingly, we can discover the similarities we share with our forebears, as today we grapple with the Covid pandemic as they had struggled with life after the Black Death of 1348-50. As we noted in the articles compiled four years ago, that pandemic not only caused a massive death rate of between a third and a half of the population of Surrey and London which would have included Dulwich, but we can see that it resulted in a serious labour shortage. Today’s virus has caused its own labour shortage among some of the workforce. Seven hundred years ago, without the benefit of vaccines, the mortality rate was far higher and the labour shortage affected agriculture. This led to the break-up of serfdom or villeinage where the individual was bound to his lord of the manor for labour and in return received accommodation and a small plot to work for himself.

This upheaval of the existing structure of England took several decades to make itself fully felt - today we are seeing a change in the way people work but at a faster rate. By comparing the evidence of the court rolls now translated with those a century earlier, i.e. before the Black Death, we can see that a completely new structure had emerged. Interestingly, it was to the great benefit of the agricultural worker of that age. Will post-Covid deliver benefits to workers today?

By 1435 the population of Dulwich had recovered beyond its pre-pandemic level with around 170 names in the documents, suggesting that the population might number over 500 thereby exceeding by some 50 persons the 14th century estimated total. What was markedly different was that Dulwich’s society was now clearly divided into four different levels. While a hundred years earlier a handful of peasants might have gained their freedom and paid rent, by the early fifteenth century a large element were copyholders, meaning that they had an open-ended right to remain in their crofts or holdings and paid rent to the Priory. Previously they had worked as a direct labour force for the manor for 264 days a year plus occasional boon work. On the remaining days, including saints’ days they cultivated their own smallholdings. Thus the copyholds now passed down through the families or were sold on. Upwardly mobile families might own several copyholds. Although most were of 2 - 4 acres, a number were of 10 - 30 acres. A termination fee called a heriot was payable to the Abbey when death or infirmity ended a tenure, even if passed down to an heir. This was assessed according to the area of the land and took the form of a payment of a farm animal, although if no animals were kept, the payment was converted into a cash sum. Similarly, an entrance fee was payable by the incomer even if it was the heir of the copyholder. Widows could, and did, inherit and run the small holdings. In some cases there are descriptions of the copyhold as consisting of strips measuring 1- 2 acres in part of a larger field. This evidence supports the belief that the common field system may have persisted in Dulwich for longer than previously thought.

Just as earlier, the customs of the manor were enforced. The copyholders and also wage labourers who hired themselves out to the Abbey formed what was called a tithing. The tithing was responsible for the fair and orderly management of local society; its members were responsible for each other’s conduct. Local officials like the head borough, the ale-taster and the constable were elected out of the tithing at the manorial court. The name Court Lane suggests that Dulwich’s manorial court met there, probably at the Abbey’s demesne farmhouse (later named Court Farm). The Abbey’s steward, whose name was John Sturmy, would have presided at the quarterly manor court, held on a saint’s day which was a holiday. Also present would have been the bailiff, John Houchyne, a clerk who compiled the rolls, and sometimes the beadle, the reeve and the reap master whose responsibility it was to ensure that labour service at harvest time was carried out. On occasions the office of woodward is mentioned, whose task it was to maintain the valuable Dulwich wood and keep out intruders. Everyday life therefore was carefully regulated by an established bureaucracy.

The second level of Dulwich society at that time was formed by those individuals who rented land, with or without buildings, from the Abbey or from absentee leaseholders. They might also be copyholders and members of the tithing. These were farmers, and the word ‘yeoman ‘ occurs in the rolls. It is clear that a number of farmers also had land in adjacent Camberwell, Peckham or ‘Southlambethythe’. The Dockyng family, who are described in various documents as ‘tile-makers’ may indeed have carried out that trade in Dulwich but they were also small-time farmers. The same may also be said of John Casinghurst and John Colcok who were fined frequently for digging turfs on the lord’s land without licence. They were probably business partners or employees of Simon Dockyng at the tile kiln, so it is very likely they were actually digging clay for tile manufacture. The Casinghursts would be a presence in Dulwich for the next 200 years when their descendants were friends of Edward Alleyn. Other family connections are inscribed in the parchment of the court rolls. One example is that of an old lady, Elena Edys who found her house and 30 acres too much for her to manage in 1429. She had inherited it from her father Richard Berlyng whose name appeared in the 14th century court rolls, and so William Lane and his son Richard took over the property on behalf of his other son Thomas.

The third level were the large-scale farmers who ran very big numbers of sheep. While some are described as ‘citizens and butchers of London’, others are not and indeed all might well have been engaged in the important wool trade. As we saw from the 14th century documents, the production of wool and cloth were the mainstays of Dulwich’s, indeed England’s economy. London was now the major centre for wool and cloth production and dominated the trade in the south-east. It was the crown’s cut from the export of wool which helped it pay for the Hundred Years War which was being fought on and off throughout this period.

While small holders might well have kept a score of sheep or so, and probably combined with neighbours to transport their wool to the Staple at Westminster, where according to the historian John Stowe, writing in 1598, there were at the time no less than six ‘wool houses’ i.e. warehouses, the main players in sheep rearing and wool production were Thomas Haukyn and Richard Baker of Peckham. with flocks, numbering 600 sheep or William Ingolf, Robert Goodsone, John Hyndefot and Christina Knyght who had 300 sheep while William Haukyn’s flock numbered 400, and Cecelia Horley had 200. John Laweman and John Brutone also had 160 each. All were fined on frequent occasions for putting too many sheep to graze on the common. These are large numbers of animals to handle. The usual practice was to graze 10 sheep per acre, so we are talking of large acreages of the manor being taken up with sheep grazing. Indeed, there might well have been others involved in sheep farming but the people mentioned all ‘overburdened the lord’s common pasture more than they ought above the common extent to serious damage’. As some did it on more than one occasion they must have thought the fine was worth the risk. William Haukyn was fined by the court for over loading the common pasture with 240 sheep for a period of over 3 months in November 1438. Cheekily, Richard Depeham illegally made a droveway for his sheep without getting a licence. He too was fined. The question arises, were these farmers grazing their own sheep for wool or meat or were they providing temporary grazing for other, more distant farmers who were driving their animals to market?

The Knyght, Haukyn, and Sampsone families were all connected with the London meat trade and were members of the Butchers’ Company. London’s livery companies were (and are) close-knit and as part of this fraternity Thomas Haukyn and William Knyght provided surety for a fellow butcher who was accused of misappropriating various monies. Fortunately for them the defendant was cleared of the charge. The Knyght family have the distinction of having their name perpetuated; 700 years on, Knights Hill off Rosendale Road, bears their name

Sir Robert Denny

The last level of Dulwich’s society was made up of an emergent class in London; that of property investors and financiers. They grew out of the guilds and companies which controlled London’s trade, manufacture and government. They were largely an absent one, only turning up at the manorial court to confirm a property deal. Instead, they sub-let their Dulwich holdings. However, Sir Robert Denny does appear to have resided in Dulwich towards the end of his life. He was not exactly an asset. Born around 1354, he came from a family of fishmongers of comparatively modest means. However, inheritances of property in London from his relations on his mother’s side, later added to by his marriage to a comfortably off Cambridgeshire widow, allowed him to enjoy an income from property and land and represent Cambridgeshire in Parliament. Now a man of position, he inhabited the ranks of landed knights and esquires and embarked upon a new career as a soldier and attained knighthood before 1387. He then enlisted as one of a contingent from East Anglia in the naval force commanded by Richard, Earl of Arundel.

Denny was considered a man of aggressive disposition, prone to violent outbursts on occasions. In 1392 he was granted absolution by a bishop for having assaulted a priest, though he was required to perform a suitable penance. Five years later, on a royal commission to arrest William and Robert Clipston and find the whereabouts of their goods which were then to be confiscated, Denny far exceeded his authority, threatening the lives of the accused men. Although the Clipstones complained of their treatment to the king, Richard II, Denny was nevertheless given another royal commission a month later to seize the Clipstone possessions. To cover himself from any recriminations he purchased a royal pardon. However, he was not yet finished with the Clipstones and in 1404 Denny accused the jury which exonerated them, of being bribed. Three years later, Denny’s son Thomas lay in ambush and killed one of the Clipstones with a blow to the head with his sword. He too purchased a royal pardon.

After 1400 Denny switched his interests away from East Anglia towards the south-east and when his step-brother, Thomas Stanmere, also a fishmonger, died in 1401 Sir Robert,Denney inherited Stanmere’s leases and properties in Stockwell, Camberwell and Dulwich. He had a further black mark against his name when he failed to honour a bond of 200 marks (worth £84,000 at today’s value according to National Archives) payable at the Staple at Westminster to William Weston. Weston acquired Denny’s Dulwich property in part payment but was still struggling to get back the balance of this debt in 1419, after Denny’s death.

William Weston

William Weston, a draper, on the other hand was London’s model citizen personified. Nothing is known of him until 1396 when through his wife, Joan, he acquired on his marriage, a house and shops in Southwark, a property portfolio which he subsequently added to with acquisitions of land and tenements in Dulwich, Camberwell and Lambeth. Although little information on his business affairs has survived, he was clearly a rich and successful man. It is known that in 1415 he became one of the major suppliers to leading members of the royal army. He was relied upon to outfit the men with liveries and cloth and Weston may have made a small fortune out of the war. Although he only attended parliament in 1416, it was as an enthusiastic supporter of the war with France and its continued hostilities. He was not, apparently, patronised by the crown until 1421 when he supplied the Wardrobe with cloth. His main customers were the baronage and gentry. He was warden of the Drapers’ Company on two occasions and made a huge donation to the building of Drapers’ Hall which was begun in 1419. For almost 25 years Weston played a full and active part in civic life. When he died in 1428 his Dulwich property consisting of over 50 acres and several houses passed first to his wife and after her death to his sister Agnes.

Robert Clopton

By the 1430’s, when Robert Clopton appears on the scene, a changed economy gave less scope to ambitious men to acquire great wealth as London politics became less turbulent. London now tended to be governed by a group, headed by one of their leaders, rather than a leader assisted by his fellows. Robert Clopton, alderman of Lime Street ward, was such a man. He was an alderman from 1434 to 1448, although his last known attendance of a meeting of the court of aldermen was in October 1446. His earliest documented position of responsibility was as commissioner to collect a parliamentary subsidy in 1434. In 1435 he was elected one of London's sheriffs and from 1437 to 1439 acted as a city auditor. He represented the city at the parliament of 1439/40.

By 1441 he was prominent enough to be elected mayor, the same year that the building of the Guildhall, which still stands, was completed. However, there are indications his mayoralty ran into problems. It began inauspiciously with a disturbance at his election, caused by some of the skinners and tailors, who had wanted another alderman to be chosen. By coincidence, over 350 years later, Thomas Wright who built Bell House in College Road had his procession through the City after his election as Lord Mayor of London in 1785 also marred by some rival livery companies. For Clopton, in November 1442, after the end of his term, he found it advisable to obtain a pardon ‘for all trespasses and contempts’. committed as mayor between 28 October 1441 and the same date the following year, and of any legal actions that might be brought against him in the king's name, stemming from his activities as mayor. In April 1445 he, described as king's serjeant and alderman, obtained a royal exemption from being obliged to serve in any office, although whether this is connected with his difficulties as mayor or with the onset of old age is unknown.

Like many of his fellows, Robert Clopton was a relative newcomer to London, hailing from Cambridgeshire, where he held property. He later acquired more in Middlesex and Kent. Although the Dulwich court rolls describe him as a ‘baker and citizen of London’, more accurately he was known in London as a draper, which meant he was active in the international cloth trade. He therefore must have known William Weston, a fellow draper. His connection with Dulwich dates from 1435 when he turned up at the manorial court meeting and acquired from William Haukyn, a member of the Butchers’ Company and Dulwich resident, a house and 30 acres of land. Clearly there was as much networking in livery circles then as there is today! Clopton persuaded the manorial court to grant him a tenure of 18 years. Perhaps he fancied the idea of settling down here. Robert died in early 1448.

Everyday Life in Dulwich

There appears to have been little oversight by the Abbey of the management of the demesne farm and lands. As a consequence, the ditches for which the farm manager was responsible were often blocked causing flooding of the surrounding land, roads and paths. The ditch along Crokestrete (Croxted Road) and opposite Myllewardeslond was blocked a length of 20 perches (130 metres) and the lord’s farmer was ordered to ‘make amends before the next court. This he signally failed to do and the fine rose by 6s8d (£214) each time. So the concept of paying for an offence promptly is not new. This same ditch, which over its length was the responsibility of more than one farmer was constantly causing trouble. John Wynter also neglected to scour it and was fined. He also had land near Half Moon Lane between Myddelfielde and Blaunchysdoune where again he allowed his ditch to remain unscoured so causing flooding. By this time his fine had risen to 20s (£643). Not only that but he also allowed ‘the public footpath towards the church to be overgrown with bushes to the nuisance of the neighbours’.

It is clear that Dulwich’s local inhabitants tried their luck when they thought they would not be caught for causing infringements of local law. In the autumn of 1438 Simon Dockyng carried away 100 bavins (bundles of underwood from the woods or the common, for fuel), probably to fire up his tile kiln. Word must have got around that Thomas Gryme, the woodward, was absent because Thomas Ingolf took 3 horse-loads, Richard Ode 4 cartloads and John Longe took one, all without procuring a licence. However, someone noticed and at the court held on the Thursday next before the feast of St Andrew the Apostle in the 17th regnal year of king Henry the sixth (27th November 1438) they were fined a total of 20 shillings ( the equivalent today of £643). On another occasion, Thomas Gryme ensured that the half dozen inhabitants who gathered acorns and then sold them on, almost certainly to the legion of local pig breeders, were summoned and subsequently fined. Another regular misdemeanour dealt with at the court was the offence of brewing and selling ale ‘by false measures’. Women, as well as men, feature as ‘common huxters of ale’ and were just as culpable as their male counterparts; so Lucy Brutone, Olive Cartere, Joan Bryght and Joan Dockyng all had to pay the usual 1d fine. In contrast the only case of false measures in bread was recorded, when George Wylsone’s ‘bread pastry’ let the side down. Everyone living in Dulwich in a copyhold had, in addition to paying rent, to provide workers at harvest time to the lord of the manor i.e. the Abbey’s demesne farm. The number of men to be supplied and the days they would work depended on the size of the copyhold. For some reason, perhaps an argument with the manor’s farm manager resulted in multiple absences being noted by the Reap Master at the Bid Reap in 1440. Altogether five farmers failed to bring their men and were fined accordingly.

In contrast to the previous century, there were no acts of violence recorded although there were several accusations of bad debts. The lending of money was now common. The solitary mention of any serious crime is in regard to William Wedone who abandoned his 13 acres and house before he died. The reason for his flight became clearer when it was found that ‘Richard his son and nearest heir of full age has been indicted, arrested and convicted of a ‘hanging felony at Radynhe ( Reading). The affair of his abandoned farm was finally settled when his daughter Agnes Laccine took it over.

It is worth noting that all the fines levied at the manorial court were subject to a percentage being deducted for the benefit of the crown and that the Court of the Exchequer which oversaw this process was an extremely efficient tax collecting body with a sophisticated system which ensured that all manors paid up. So no change there to HMRC!

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