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Biggleswade in 1086

Domesday Book was commissioned by William the Conqueror (1066-1087) at Christmas 1085. It was designed to show who held every piece of land in the newly conquered Kingdom of England. It was known colloquially as the Domesday Book because it was seen as being as final as the Last Judgement and as difficult to conceal things from. The book does not cover the whole country - Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland, and Westmorland were omitted and London and Winchester likewise, along with some other towns. A separate book, called Little Domesday covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk and, despite its name, it is actually bigger and more detailed than the Great Domesday Book containing the other counties.

The land tenure in Biggleswade was not quite straightforward. There was one major holding, a holding elsewhere which “belonged” to Biggleswade, and holdings in Holme and Stratton. The largest holding, in Biggleswade itself, comprised ten hides and was held by Ralph de l’Isle. The holding included seven villagers, ten smallholders and three slaves, twenty people. This number represents the heads of household. To get an idea of the total population it is probably necessary to multiply this figure by a factor of at least four suggesting a total population to somewhere around eighty. The holding also included two mills (perhaps two separate mills or one mill with two pairs of grinding stones) on the River Ivel worth forty seven shillings, windmills would not be known in England for about another century.

In 1066 the manor had been held by Stigand, Harold’s Archbishop of Canterbury. He was deprived of his archbishopric by the Pope in 1070 and died in 1072. Two freemen had also held half a hide between them. In 1066 the holding had been worth £10 but this, unusually for Bedfordshire, had risen greatly to £15 by the time Ralph acquired it and was worth £17 in 1086.

Domesday Book also notes that one and a half virgates in Old Warden “lies in Biggleswade”, perhaps as an outlier surrounded by the rest of Old Warden, perhaps as land on the boundary between the two parishes close to the Great North Road (today’s A1). It was also held by Ralph de l’Isle and Domesdqy notes that the then holder “was able neither to sell nor to give without licence from the holder of Biggleswade”.

Holme was divided into eight small holdings. William d’Eu had three virgates and his tenant, remarkably, seems to have been an Anglo-Saxon, the vast majority of whom were deprived of their lands and tenancies; his name was Wulfric. In 1066 an Anglo-Saxon woman, Aelfeva, a follower of a thegn named Askell, had held the land and it had been worth twenty shillings. This had declined to twelve shillings when William acquired it and had risen to sixteen shillings by 1086. Many Bedfordshire holdings declined in value after 1086 and it is hypothesized that this was because of William I's armies moving through the county to put down rebellions elsewhere, living off the land and despoiling it as they went.

Hugh de Beauchamp, later created Baron of Bedford, held one virgate, tenanted by a man named Mordwing. It had been worth five shillings in 1066 when held by a freeman of Askell's and was now worth three shillings.

One of Bedfordshire's other major landowners, Nigel de Albini (or d'Aubigny) of Cainhoe held one hide and half a virgate, tenanted by Fulchere de Paris and this holding included a slave. In 1066 a man named Saemer, a follower of Leofwin (a thegn of King Edward the Confessor's) held the land and it was then worth thirty shillings, which had sunk to ten shillings by the time Nigel acquired it; however, good husbandry had raised this to fifty two shillings by 1086.

Walter of Flanders held one hide in Holme, seemingly without a tenant. The holding included three smallholders and had belonged to two freemen in 1066 when it had been worth twenty shillings. The value had dipped to sixteen shillings by the time Walter acquired it but had been restored to twenty shillings by 1086.

Ralph de l'Isle also owned two hides in Holme to go with his Biggleswade holding. This included six villagers and had also belonged to Stigand in 1066 when worth forty shillings, three freemen had also held two virgates. By the time Ralph acquired it the holding was worth thirty shillings but this had risen again to forty by 1086.

Countess Judith was a niece of William the Conqueror had had been married to Anglo-Saxon Earl Waltheof, who was executed for treason in 1076. She had two small holdings in Holme. Fulchere de Paris was her tenant for half a hide and a villager. This land had been held by Alwin "King Edward's man" in 1066 when it had been worth ten shillings but by the time Judith acquired it the value had fallen to seven shillings, which it remained in 1086. Judith had a further virgate tenanted by two unnamed men. In 1086 a man named Godwin (probably not the powerful Earl, father of King Harold) had held this virgate when it was worth five shillings, the same value as in 1086.

The final piece of land in Holme was held by a reeve of King William named Alwin, who also held land in Tempsford, Sutton and Edworth. Reeves oversaw manorial estates on behalf of their owners though here Alwin seems to be holding the land as a tenant and not as an official. This one and a half hide parcel had belonged to two beadles, (a local officer whose function varied in different areas but could include rudimentary law enforcement), called Aelfric and Leofmer in 1066 when it had been worth twenty shillings, the same value as in 1086. Alwin had two villagers with the holding, were these Aelfric and Leofmer or their descendents?

Stratton was divided into four holdings. The ubiquitous Fulchere de Paris held one hide, one and a half virgates from Walter Giffard. The holding included one villager and five smallholders and had been owned by three freemen in 1066 when it had been worth thirty shillings; by 1086 it was worth twenty eight shillings, which it had been when Walter acquired it.

Another Walter, Walter of Flanders, held one hide and one virgate along with three smallholders. This land had been held by Leofwin, a thegn of King Edward's and officially lay in Langford rather than Biggleswade. It was worth ten shillings, which it had been in 1066.

Ralph de l'Isle's fourth and last Bedfordshire holding lay in Stratton. It comprised four hides, ten villagers and two smallholders and had been worth one hundred shillings when held by Stigand in 1066. This had fallen to £4 by the time Ralph acquired it but was £12 by 1086, the result, presumably, of very serious attention and work.

The final piece of land in Stratton was three and a half virgates held by Countess Judith and her tenant, the busy Fulchere de Paris. One villager and five smallholders lived on the holding which in 1066 had been held by Alwin ("King Edward's man", presumably not the same Alwin as the king's reeve noted above) and had been worth twenty shillings. By the time Judith acquired it the land had fallen in value to eight shillings, a level at which it remained in 1086.

The total number of people, not including the overlords and tenants, mentioned in Biggleswade, Holme and Stratton comes to 28 villagers, 28 smallholders and 4 slaves - 60 people suggesting a population of around 240, a good sized number for 11th century Bedfordshire.