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Wroxhill Custumal

This page was contributed by Dorothy Jamieson who transcribed and translated this custumal. 

Wroxhill Manor grew out of an estate in Marston Moretaine held in 1086 by Hugh de Bolebec from Walter Giffard. The Bolebec family died out in the male line in 1165 on the death of Hugh de Bolebec II, leaving two daughters, Isabel and Constance as co-heiresses. Isabel de Bolebec married Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and in 1253 when a custumal for the manor of Wroxhill was compiled their son, Hugh de Vere, the 4th Earl of Oxford, was the overlord.  The customal is now held by Bedfordshire Archives as part of the Duke of Bedford’s archive [reference R Box 100]. The name Wroxhill survives today in the names of Roxhill Road, Roxhill Cottages, Roxhill Manor Farm and Lower Roxhill Farm. A full translation of the customal is available to download. 

A custumal was a form of survey which was in use until the 14th century, but in the mid-thirteenth century there was a change in land management and measurements of land begin to appear in estate accounts.  

The custumal says that Richard and Mabel de Specheley held Wroxhill manor from Hugh de Vere, earl of Oxford, for one knight’s fee and had inherited it. As Mabel is mentioned specifically in the document, it is likely that the inheritance was hers. The detailed contents suggest that this was the first custumal for which they had been responsible, but the early history of the manor is unclear. The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire does not mention the de Specheleys; members of the de Merston family held land in Marston Moretaine in 1202-3, 1212-13, 1231-2 and 1305-6 and perhaps until 1345, but it seems probable that this was separate to Wroxhill manor.  

Measures of land were very variable. At nearby Cranfield some virgates contained 48 acres, but some others were much smaller. In this custumal some lands were not measured at all and others were measured in virgates or acres; these measures may not have related to size, but to the quality of the land and its expected yields. In many cases the sizes of holdings held by tenants can only be estimated from the amount of the rents paid, making it impossible to calculate the area covered by the manor. 

The list of the tenants and their holdings seem not to be in any logical order but may represent the positions of them from east to west, or perhaps to and from the manor house.  

Contents of the Wroxhill custumal 

The document begins with a list of 18 tenants and their holdings for which they paid cash rents, boon works and in some cases payments in kind. Most of them would have been unfree. One tenant held his land ‘without socage’ that is without a requirement for military service, and six tenants held by socage lands that had recently been bought from elsewhere.  

The custumal also held information about the taxes paid by the lord of the manor, Richard Specheley. He owed the earl of Oxford one knight’s fee a year for the manor, a tax named ‘travellers’ tolls’ and a tax to the king named ‘suit of county and hundreds.’ 

Variations in sizes of holdings 

Because of the missing and variable sizes of virgates and acres it has not been possible to estimate the sizes of the manor or of the land-holdings within it, but it is clear that there were significant differences in the sizes of holdings. 

In the thirteenth century the lands on a manor could be divided into three types. The lord of the manor had his demesne lands, or home farm, consisting of some strips in the common fields, meadows, pastures, enclosures and woodlands; some of his tenants would work in his fields for an agreed number of days at busy periods as part of their rent and food was often provided by the lord while they worked. There would be lands free of rent on the manor, the tenancies of which could be proved by some sort of document or charter. These could be sold or inherited. On some manors the holders of these ‘free’ lands paid a small annual fee to keep animals on the commons. The rest of the lands were described as ‘customary’ and granted ‘at the will of the lord.’ These tenancies were less secure, and were for short periods or at most, for the period of the life of one tenant. They were usually held by villeins, that is unfree tenants, who were tied to the manor of their birth.  

Were the tenants free or unfree? 

The custumal lists a wide variety of holdings of different sizes and tenants whose free or unfree status is often unclear, but their payments in terms of cash, work on the lord’s demesne land and elsewhere, and payments in kind are precisely defined. More than one hundred names are listed; some of them almost certainly had their capital messuages elsewhere and did not live on the manor. 

It can be assumed that most of the free lands are not mentioned in the custumal as their tenants paid no rent, but in addition to information about villein, or unfree, tenants and their holdings it includes information about free men including those who were expected to work outside the manor for the lord (foreign service) and those who held parts of a knight’s fee

The de Specheleys enlarged their manor by buying six additional parcels of land. These holdings are measured in virgates and acres; no details of rents paid are given, nor are customary services performed but they were said to be held ‘by socage’ meaning that the tenants were liable for military service. These lands and their tenants were probably free.  

John Hermer was required to provide a horse, and another was said to hold his lands without ‘socage,’ that is free of military service. Holdings held ‘without socage,’ were often free and could usually be sold and inherited.  

The custumal begins with an entry for Manasses of Houghton. His holding was extensive, for he paid a rent of 22s a year; only one other holding being more expensive. He seems to have belonged to a different manor, suggesting that he was a free man, but he may have been unfree as he was expected to pay: 

for two (days) boon-works loaned out for ploughing, in return for food provided by the Lord and for two days held for reaping in autumn. Namely one day's boon-work with one man and another with all his family by way of payment. 

Perhaps he was free, but held some unfree lands as part of his holding. Two other tenants were expected to pay the same boon-works, but they paid less for their holdings, which must have been smaller.  

Two widows, Beatrice and Aveline, held three virgates of villein (unfree) land for 25s a year and a series of customary services:  

namely for two ploughing days with their ploughs  for food provided by the lord and for 3 boon-work days in autumn for reaping, namely two days boon-work with two men and a third with the whole family. and in June boon-reaping with their carts if they should have them for taking hay, for one day, and they shall come for lifting the hay in the meadow and for carrying grain in autumn they shall come with their carts for one day and all this shall be done for food from the lord, and they are held by paying feudal aid, at his will.  Also they are not able to marry their daughters outside the fee, without the will and permission of the lord. 

These women were villeins, that is unfree, despite being prosperous enough to together pay the largest amount of rent on the manor. Free women would not have to ask for the above permission. 

Other villein tenants paid little rent but were required to carry out heavy boon works and/or a variety of payments in kind. Gilbert Cruce paid four shillings a year for sixteen acres and in addition to his boon works, which included a man for threshing apples: 

he owes at Christmas  6 hens and one cock and 1 cake, and at Easter he will send 40 eggs and one goose haunch and the same at Michaelmas and he seeks merchet for his daughter and  permission  if he wishes to  sell a horse. 

Thomas son of Constance was also expected to thresh apples, which may have been grown on Applerayhill. 

Richard Blundus held 12 acres and  

rendered 5 shillings and 2 hens and one cock and one cake and 25 eggs and all other customary services.  

Joanna the widow held 1 messuage and three acres of land and  

rendered 4 shillings and all customary services …..  except for eggs and various cakes.  

Cakes would have added interest to a basic diet. They would have been sweetened with honey; fruit, spices and perhaps wine could have added interest to flour, oats and breadcrumbs. 

Nine tenants were expected to perform ‘homage.’ Most seem to have been sub-tenants of a Robert of Wroxhill on land which had been purchased from Robert the Freeman. It is not clear what this entailed; it could have simply been an obligation to attend the manor court. They all paid varying sums of rent, between 2d and 2s 4d a year and two of them also provided boon works of two men in August or autumn. They may have been villeins, but this is not clear – the word villein only appears twice in the custumal.  

Foreign service and knights’ fees 

Claricia and Johanna Hervey held some land for which they paid 2d a year and ‘one farthing for foreign service.’ Foreign (or forinsec) service was a requirement to work for the lord outside the manor. Originally it involved military service, and this may still have been the case here. Five men in the vill were also required to perform ‘foreign service’ which was not given a monetary value, and may not have been paid to the tenants’ immediate lord and lady, Richard and Mabel Specheley, but to Hugh de Vere the earl of Oxford.   

A memorandum near the end of the document notes ‘that Wroxhill holds the manor from lord Hugh de Vere, earl of Oxford for one knight’s fee'. This fee was at first was an obligation for a knight to perform military service to his immediate over-lord as part of rent for his holding. In Bedfordshire, by the thirteenth century these holdings had often been divided up and the obligation commuted to a money payment but this document suggests that Richard de Specheley had some responsibility to serve in the earl of Oxford’s private army.  

At the end of the document is a list of tenants holding knights’ fees, mainly in Oxfordshire, which add up to 11¾ fees in all. Clearly these are not part of the manor of Wroxhill, and may be a list of tenants of the manor of Whitchurch which formerly belonged to Hugh de Bolebec. A near illegible note near the end of the document also list ten knights’ fees "of the fee of the marshall” elsewhere in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Place names mentioned in this list  Millend, Calverton, Hintes, Bicester, Berkhamstead, Linford, Crown Hill, Bechampton, Leckhamsted, Lillington Dayrell, and Stokes. 

The manorial landscape and buildings 

There is no mention of a church. There was a chapel at Wroxhill dependent on Marston church, first mentioned in the 1280s which was still in use when Henry Vlll passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534. It seems likely that this chapel would have been in existence in 1253.  

The custumal makes little reference to buildings. Eight messuages and seven tenements were mentioned, which would all have contained houses and farm buildings, but there may been more held by free men on free lands and not mentioned in the custumal. There was a courtyard belonging to William le Ram, a hall belonging to Faux Mayse, and presumably a mill, as there is a mention of Millend, and perhaps other buildings at town’s end. 

Landscape features mentioned in the text include at least two headlands, probably raised boundaries in the open fields, and one Dole field; tenants may have drawn lots for strips in this field for periods of one year. It is very likely that apples were grown on Applerayhill, as two tenants were expected to thresh apples as part of their rents. A hoehill was also mentioned. It is not clear what all the names of the open fields were, or how they were used, but there was a West Field and a T field. Nineteen butts (possibly a strip of land or a ridge) are recorded in the document, twelve of them on Rolea. Other features such as Millea, BideWell, Chilowe, Hykende Wustonslade, Chalnecroft were also mentioned, but no further details of them were given. 

The development of family names 

Spellings of some names are irregular and the document shows that family names were not always used at this time. The document names more than 100 different people, thirty-one of whom probably lived outside the manor.  They include three priors, the head of the house of St. John in Bedford, and nineteen who were said to be ‘of’ different places such as Cranfield, Weedon and Wootton. A further six names at the end of the document were people from outside the manor who held knights’ fees from the earl of Oxford. 

Of the remaining seventy-eight people who probably lived on the manor fifty eight had family names or nick-names, fourteen just had a patronym (“son of …"), and the family names of three men and three women were not recorded. Some historians estimate populations of manors and settlements by multiplying the number of names recorded by 4.5 so these seventy-eight people give us an estimated population of about 350. 

However this quite generous number presents us with a problem; the custumal lists very few buildings. Did many of the estimated 350 villagers live in hovels for which they paid no rent, or on smallholdings on larger land-holdings, or on free lands which were not mentioned in the custumal? We may never know. 


The custumal contains a wide diversity of entries and demonstrates the importance of rents, boon works and payments in kind to the lord and lady of the manor, Richard and Mabel Specheley. 

We must remember that the custumal’s aim was ‘to set out the theoretical obligations of the tenant: what he actually rendered was not necessarily the same’ [P. Harvey, Manorial Records]. This document makes it clear what services the de Specheleys and the earl of Oxford expected to receive from their tenants, but does not include any evidence of what they actually received.