Points of reference

What are the horizons of history?  We’re all familiar with the watershed between ‘Prehistory’ and ‘History’ – the survival of written records – but there’s a more recent horizon of around 200 years in the British Isles.  It’s the advent of accurate large scale mapping. Landmark Solutions will sell you ‘Highly accurate georeferenced data’ back to 1841, thanks to the innovative 19th century work of the Ordnance Survey and Tithe Commissioners which consistently maps onto modern cartography and aerial survey data.  Before that watershed it can be more difficult to overlay hand-drawn maps of variable quality onto modern maps or GIS.  I have collaborated with Jeremy Murfitt of Everything is Somewhere Ltd to this for clients.  But what if there are no earlier maps extant? 

It was a rapidly changing landscape that was recorded by the Ordnance Survey and Tithe Commissioners in the nineteenth century.  Many old landmarks (particularly in the English Midlands) had been lost through enclosure of  open-field arable and common pastures. How do we ‘find’ points of contact between our world and the world of our ancestors?

Did this cross fragment at Elston come from the lost mediaeval Hospital of St Leonard at East Stoke?

It can be done. Di Ablewhite asked for my help hunting the site of a lost mediaeval chapel at East Stoke. There were no reliable maps before about 1800, by which time the chapel had vanished. Our collaborative research suggested that many other buildings had also disappeared, as East Stoke had become a closed village which was deliberately shrunk and depopulated by its Lords. The earliest reliable map was a later copy of the 1795 enclosure map, showing only the radically new divisions of landownership radiating from a core of ‘ancient inclosure’, and all numbered to a lost key.


Remarkably, we succeeded in our Quest.  What were the clues that helped us?

Metes and Bounds in surveys and terriers told us firstly where there had been a road called Spittle Gate and that it ran roughly east-west (the Chapel had belonged to the mediaeval hospitSlide15al of St Leonard so this was a pointer), and secondly located Chapel Close at the town end of an arable furlong and near a fork on the road to Leicester.  It was adjacent to open-field strips called Butts, which are often trapezoid or triangular in shape – just as you might find at a fork in the road.



Root of title is a valuable tool. It’s the old Lawyer’s approach, finding evidence for how a property descended in a family, or was bought and sold.  If a local historian claims that a certain old building was a manor house or a chapel, I want to know how it passed into its present-day ownership. Land has never changed hands lightly; there are stories of rakish aristocrats betting away this or that farm or village, but in practice it was never that easy.  Transactions leave traces.

Legal liabilities can be as good as DNA.  Things like Quit rents that were fixed in (say) the 14th century and continued to be paid until the 20th, always for the same piece of land.  Our mediaeval hospital had been re-endowed as almshouses by Queen Elizabeth, and its land was charged with a rent to support the residents.  The land had been divided up between two daughters (that’s the old English Common Law custom) but this incumbrance had run with old house on the site of the Hospital.


Acreages often stay the same for centuries, particularly house curtilages or homesteads with their yards, gardens and orchards.  This homestead was consistently 3 acres 1 rood 4 perches in every deed and other document, and was still close to this measurement in Lloyd George’s Domesday in 1910.  These Valuation Office map and Field books are an unrivalled and comprehensive source for every inch of the United Kingdom.

Archival research There is never an alternative to reading the documents; never completely trust a card index or online archive catalogue.  We discovered a fifteenth-century survey of St Leonard’s Hospital in the Warwickshire Record Office, indexed under a different village called Stoke in Nottinghamshire: this unexpectedly told us that the chapel had three altars, chambers with chimneys (which were falling down), a dovecote (which had already crashed to the ground), and barns (empty and roofless).  One of the objections to the likeliest site for this extensive complex was that it had at one time been the Rectory of the Church; I was able to strike out this objection after reading the Faculty – a kind of ecclesiastical planning permission – for building this Rectory in 1805 (preserved with the Archdiocesan Archives of York at the Borthwick Institute).  It was indexed ‘Faculty for Rebuilding’, but close reading of the original and its bundle of correspondence revealed that the older Rectory had been too small and the neighbours troublesome, and so a new site had been found and a new Rectory built.

Technology Triangulation isn’t just about surveying: if you have two points of evidence you can draw a line to find a third.  So while I was in the archives, Di was surveying our sites with Alan and Celia Morris.  Using resistivity they located a circular feature which might have been the dovecote which had collapsed in the 15th century. Impossible to verify without excavation of course, which would be controversial on a battlefield site…. (and there’s another problem).


Question received wisdom What the Archbishop of York’s Faculty didn’t tell us is that the new site was ‘brownfield’. Contemporary grumblings hinted that some ancient inclosures had been thrown into the 1795 allotments by the Enclosure Commissioners.  The inclosure map therefore overrepresents the size of the open field arable and underplays the size of the mediaeval village with all its tofts and crofts, its Church, not one but two Manor Houses, Rectory with farmhouse, Chapel, and Hospital.  Is this significant?  Yes, here it is, because the 1795 map is the only written evidence battlefield historians have got to locate Stoke Field – the site of Henry Tudor’s thrashing of Yorkist insurgents in 1487.  I believe they have misinterpreted the location and the character of the landscape and settlement (and possibly thereby of the battle as well) by seeing only the shrunken closed village of the nineteenth century.

Question everything: especially if it is in print, even on a map.




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