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Biddenham 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.

There are no less nine entries for Biddenham in the Domesday Book and the land was divided between six different overlords. The Bishop of Lincoln (at the time Remigius de Fécamp), held one hide and one virgate, tenanted by Ernwin the Priest. The holding included one villager (or, rather, one villager and his family) and a mill which paid 25 shillings per annum. The value of the entire holding “was and is” forty shillings. Before the Norman Conquest Leofric, “the Bishop of Lincoln’s man” held the land but could not sell or grant it without the bishop’s permission. In fact there was no Bishop of Lincoln until the diocese was created in 1072. The previous diocese covering the area was at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Perhaps Leofric held onto this small manor for some years after the conquest, at least until 1072 or later.

The abbey of Saint Edmund in Bury Saint Edmunds in Suffolk held half a hide, tenanted by Ordwy of Bedford, a Burgess of Bedford who also held land from the burgesses in Biddenham (see below). This holding also included two slaves and was valued at six shillings. The Domesday Book noted that Wulfmer, a priest of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) held this land “he could grant to whom he would. But Ordwy took it from him when he was reeve of the borough [of Bedford], for a forfeiture; he now says that he holds it from the Abbot of saint Edmund’s, but the men of the Hundred state that he has appropriated it wrongfully”.

The Burgesses of Bedford held four separate piece of land in Biddenham. Ordwy held a hide and the third part of half a hide from the King. The small manor included two villagers and one smallholder. The value was ten shillings. Before the Norman invasion he had held half a hide and a quarter of a virgate and could grant it to whoever he liked. He also held one virgate in pledge “and still holds it”. Since the conquest he had bought one virgate and another quarter part of a virgate. He was obviously hungry for more land, as his appropriation of Wulfmer’s holding and his purchases after the conquest show,

Oscar of Bedford held one virgate from the King worth two shillings. He was a rare case, as he was the same man who had held the land before the Norman Conquest. Burgess Wulfmer (presumably a different man to Wulfmer the priest) held two parts of a virgate valued at twelve pence. Like Oscar, he had held the land before William took the throne in 1066. The final piece of land held by burgesses of Bedford was a hide and a quarter of a virgate held by a burgess named Godwin. This land was valued at ten shillings. Before 1066 Godwin had held half a hide and he bought the rest after the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Book notes: William Speke also claims from him one virgates and the fourth part of one virgate, which was delivered to him; but he lost it later”.

Saint Paul’s church, Bedford was overlord of two pieces of land in Biddenham. One was leased by Canon Osmund of Saint Paul’s and comprised three virgates. A villager and a smallholder lived on the land and it was valued at ten shillings. Domesday Book notes that a man named Leofgeat the Priest held the land as alms from Edward the Confessor and later from the Conqueror “when he was dying this priest assigned one virgate of this land to Saint Paul’s church, but Ralph Tallboys added the other two virgates to this church as alms”. The other piece of land owned by the church, one virgate, was leased by Canon Ansfrid and was valued at three shillings. A woman named Merwen had held it before 1066. Domesday Book suggests that it was then given to William I’s follower Ralph Tallboys. Certainly it was he who gave it as alms to the church.

Hugh de Beauchamp, later created Baron of Bedford by King William II (1087-1100) had one hide in Biddenham, held by Serlo de Rots. The small manor included a smallholder and a slave and was worth ten shillings. Before the conquest the land had been held from Queen Edith by Alfsi of Bromham.

Serlo de Rots also had the biggest single in Biddenham, four hides less one and a half virgates held from William Speke. This manor included six villagers, two smallholders and two slaves as well as a mill worth ten shillings. It was the only holding to show a change in value between 1066 and 1086. In 1066 it had been worth forty shillings. This was halved by the time Speke acquired it but had risen to forty shillings again by the time of Domesday Book. This reduction in value of Bedfordshire manors is seen as the effect of William’s armies moving north to crush rebellions, despoiling the countryside as they went. Clearly Biddenham escaped relatively lightly. In 1066 Speke’s manor had been held by eleven freemen who could grant or sell their land at will. The Domesday Book comments: “William says he has this land in exchange for Toddington”.

It is interesting to note that two holdings, Speke’s and Ernwin’s had a mill. This would have been a watermill since windmills were unknown in England before the last quarter of the 12th century. Clearly both these holdings would have abutted the River Great Ouse and one of them may have been in the vicinity of today’s Bromham Mill though there is no way of knowing for sure.

The total number of people mentioned as living on the various holdings (excluding those people holding them as they may have been absentees) is nineteen (nine villagers, five smallholders and five slaves). As mentioned above, these are just the heads of households so to account for dependants the number probably needs to be multiplied by a factor of at least four, suggesting a total population of around eighty people, a reasonable size for the day.