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Wilshamstead 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.

Roughly half of Wilshamstead, three hides, was owned by Countess Judith, niece of King William the Conqueror, in 1086, who also owned neighbouring Elstow. Her manor was called Wilshamstead, or Winessamestede, and the nuns of Elstow Abbey held it from the Countess; Judith had founded the abbey. The manor contained eleven villagers, eleven smallholders and a slave for a total of twenty three. These would have been heads of household, so to arrive at a true figure it is necessary to multiply this by a factor of at least four.

In 1066 the land had been worth £10, 10 shillings and had belonged to eight freemen “they could grant and sell”. When Judith acquired the manor it had fallen in value to 45 shillings, around a fifth of its value. Judith’s husband had been Earl Waltheof who had been executed in 1076 after leading one futile rebellion and being implicated in a second. A theory as to why some Bedfordshire manors decreased so greatly after 1066 is that they were predated upon by Norman armies moving to crush revolts. The proximity of Wilshamstead to a major road, the modern A6, as well as its connexion with Waltheof would have made it a natural target for such predation. By 1086 the manor, no doubt by careful management, had risen in value to £7 6 shillings.

A place called Westcotts has two entries in Domesday Book. The greater part of it, another three hides, was owned by Nigel de Albini. It seems reasonable to equate Westcotts as being the western neighbour of Eastcotts, suggesting that it comprised roughly the eastern half of the parish of Wilshamstead, perhaps including Littleworth, but not the village itself. Nigel’s holding had five villagers and eleven smallholders. There was woodland for a hundred pigs to graze. In 1066 the manor had been owned by seven freemen and had been worth £6. By the time de Albini acquired it the manor had sunk to a value of forty shillings, a third of its previous value, but by 1086 it had risen to sixty shillings.

A small piece of land at Westcotts was owned by a man named Ordwy. His is an Anglo-Saxon name suggesting he was one of the few native Englishmen to keep his land holding after the Norman conquest and land-grab. He had been Edward the Confessor’s man in 1066 when his holding, one virgate, had been worth ten shillings. Now, as King William’s man, his holding had been halved in value. The holding included one smallholder and one slave.

This gives us a total of sixteen villagers, twenty three smallholders and two slaves. This suggests a total population of over one hundred and sixty people, making it a very large population for the date.