A Brief History of the Early Development of Hatfield c.700AD - 1500AD

By Joseph Curtin

An Extract from the Domesday Book:

The land of the Abbot of Ely. In Broadwater Hundred the Abbot of Ely holds Hatfield. It is assessed at 40 hides. There is land for 30 ploughs. In Demesne (land owned by the Lord but not attached to his estate) are 20 hides and there is (land enough for) 2 ploughs and (land enough for) 3 more ploughs can be made (brought into use). There is a Priest with 18 villeins (peasants) and 18 borders who have (land for) 20 ploughs and 5 more can be made. There are 12 cottars (farmers)and 6 serfs, and 4 mills, worth 48s. 4d. There is 10 ploughs (worth) of meadow for the pasture of cattle, woodlands for 2000 pigs, and from the customary dues of wood and pasture 10s. In all it is worth £25 and was worth £30 in the time of King Edward.

The Brief History of Hatfield, c. 700AD – 1500AD

Hatfield was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Haethfeld – the cultivated land on the heath – and it may be claimed with the same authority for the town of Hatfield that it has been a place of some importance for as long as the history of England has been recorded.

Situated some five miles from the Roman city of Vemlamium, it was probably the site of the villa of a wealthy colonist, and in the nineteenth century there was discovered, close to the dairy and kitchen gardens of Hatfield House, a bath of Roman origin. No further trace of this early settlement has been found, although it may still be under the house itself.

A church council 680AD

It is possible that the site of the present Church was originally the place of pre-Christian worship, such sites having often been chosen for this reason by early Churchmen. The spur of land on which the Church stands would have been visible for many miles from the heath land which stretched away westward. It is impossible to say at what date a Church was founded on the site, for though a Church council was convened at Hatfield in 680AD by Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, it is considered by some to be of the Hatfield fond in Yorkshire, as Egfnd, King of Northumbria presided over it. Regardless, it is safe to say that by 680AD, some form of Church would have been erected there.

But however uncertain the earliest date may be, it is definite that in 970AD King Edgar presented the property to the Monks of Ely – this at the time when he refounded the Abbey of Ely, dedicated to the Saxon Princess & Saint Etheldreda. It is possible that the King thought by this gift to compensate the Monks in some measure because according to the Charter it was given “because, since the countryis wooded, the brethren can find timber for the fabric of their Church and wood sufficient for their other purposes”.

From this time dates the dedication of the Parish Church to St. Etheldreda. The Monks first abode in Hatfield was not by the Church, but in the low, marshy ground close to Mill Green, where the marshes would give them some natural protection and where they would have the advantage of the river Lea to turn their mill.

Herds of swine, sheep, goats and oxen

Soon after the Monks were given Hatfield, there is mention of herds of swine, sheep, goats and oxen, the early economy was flourishing. We do not know when the first settlements were established on the hillside where Fore Street now runs, but many of Hatfield’s place names are characteristic of early Saxon place names & the names of single families who probably established farms in clearings in the Parish early on. Some names are Harpesfieldwhich suggests that the old road from Green Lanes to Roe Green Lane was the line of a Saxon route or ‘Herepaeth’ leading down to the valley of the Colne towards Harefield in Middlesex.

The next mention of Hatfield comes in the Doomsday Book (see extract) which tells us that Hatfield is the property of the Abbot of Ely and there is as much land as can be ploughed with 30 ploughs. There was a parish priest, eighteen villeins,twelve cottages, and six serfs. There are fair mills and enough acorn and beech trees in the Great Wood to feed two thousand hogs.

Some of the oaks standing in the Home Park may have been those to provide food for the large herds of swine which roamed beneath their shade, the possession of which must have been a very valuable addition to the income of the Monks.

The Bishop’s residence

But within a very short time from this date the Monks were to cease to be the Lords of the Manor as in 1108AD, Henry I converted the Abbey of Ely into a Bishopric (a region run by a singular Bishop), and for four hundred years Hatfield became one of the residences of the Bishop of Ely.

One of these Bishops, Cardinal John Morton (Bishop 1479 – 1486) was the builder of the present Hatfield Old Palace. Morton’s Palace is a good example of earth brick construction, as in some parts of Britain brick building was not common, but in Hatfield local workmen had a tradition of using them. It is interesting to note that Morton’s Palace is one of the earliest undefended dwellings in and around Hatfield.

There was of course an older Palace before Morton’s. In 1396 this was very dilapidated, and a surveyor called it beyond repair; however, oak shingles were nailed over the whole of the east face of the building, which must have been timber framed and very extensive since six oaks were felled to provide the shingles and 19s 6d wages paid for cutting them up. Singles were pinned across the laths and attached to the building then the roof was retiled with local tiles at 4s 6d per 1000. Other repairs were done at the same time costing 2s 8d for six and a half days work, and the grange and the gamer were also repaired, all before Morton’s more modern Palace was built.

The Great Wood

The Great Wood has already been referenced to as a source of timber for house building and we may suppose that all Hatfield’s houses were timber-framed with plaster panels. The first mention of bricks being made in Hatfield is in 1470, but tiles had been made here well before they were used in the repairs referred to. Licences to dig clay in the Great Wood for pottery and tile making were granted during the fourteenth century. Pottery, of course, was made here from much earlier times and at the place where Bernard Potter lived in 1221, broken pieces of pottery dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have been found; Bernard lived on the edge of the Great Wood and no doubt had to apply for a licence just as his successors did.

During the next two centuries, the people of Hatfield were concentrating on bringing some of the woodland into cultivation. The best farming land is in the northern half of the Parish from Cromer Hyde across to Hatfield Hyde. This land, then, was the easiest and thus the earliest to be cleared from woodland and here we find large, level, hedge-less fields.

The open fields

These big fields were shared out amongst the townsfolk, who held communal land of 40 acres, although it was normally shared by two families.

Up to 1603 when the Cecil’s first came to Hatfield, the farmland of the town was largely managed by the open-field system. The crescent of land from Withy Mill to the Rectory lay in several large fields, in each of which nearly all the farmers and small-holders of the town had unfenced strips of land. After the harvest was taken, the stubble in each field was grazed by the animals of all those who held land in it, and in the year when the field lay fallow between crops it was also grazed in common. The greater part of what is now Hatfield Home Park was a wider stretch of unfenced land, cultivated in long strips on which the townsfolk worked day by day.

Open fields at this time also covered other large areas of Hatfield but these were not enclosed till later. Stockbreach common, for example, was a large open field stretching between St. Albans Road, Lemsford Road and Welfield Road. A lane running behind right of way is still called Common Road, and the rights of way themselves provided access to the field after the small part of it between Common Road & St. Albans road had built over it.

The Cecil family

With the coming of the Cecil family many changes were made in Hatfield. New farms were made in the south-east of the Parish, where the land was poor, and the fields had names like “Long Pain” & “Kill Devil”.

The process of clearing forest which was nearing completion in the thirteenth century had begun long before the conquest. Some idea of how far it had progressed can be seen by looking at the Domesday Survey, but a second version survives which gives slightly more information about the Abbot of Ely’s properties. The whole Manor was rated at forty hides. This was a large sum compared to other manors, and it can be supposed that the manorial economy was highly profitable, especially when we learn that the Abbot received yearly revenue of £25 from Hatfield. This figure was only worth £11 between 1514 – 1603.

Rising population

In 1396 the man who leased or farmed the manor of the Bishop paid the sum, and found it difficult not to be in arrears. The fourteenth century was a period of economic recession throughout the century, a state of affairs made worse by the Black Death of 1349 (in which probably a third to half the population died, a state which was very serious compared to the rising population). In 1086 the population was about 300; in 1221-51 it was 600 (122 – 129 tenants listed) & by 1663 the population had doubled to about 1200.

There were two surveys of Hatfield in the thirteenth century for the Bishops of Ely, in 1221 and 1251. Being just thirty years apart they give the names of two successive generations of Hatfield residents at a time when surnames were coming into use. The duties of the tenants are carefully described. At this time money rents were just becoming customary; the tenant normally owed labour on the Lord’s land, or other services in return for his holding.

The tenants described in these surveys are listed according to the geographical order in which their holdings lay, and so it is possible to give some description of Hatfield’s properties at this time. In the south-east of the Parish, Walter Tofyner in 1251 held thirty acres of assartland (land cleared of woods and brush) at Newgate Street. Three acres held by Roger of Essendon in 1221 had fallen to John de Canvil by 1251; they remained with the family for several generations and formed the basisof Camfield Place. Next in the list are two acres belonging in 1221 to William de Wile and in 1251 to John de la Wyle; this was Wild’s Hill by the sixteenth century and it Wild Hill today.

Hatfield names

The names of households in Hatfield during the first half of the thirteenth century give us some interesting information about the development of names. Some of the Christian names appear completely modern: William, Roger, John & Richard. A few old English names are found: Sigar, Daric, Edwe, Edred, Ailmar, Otwy, Ingeleth, Aildred and the female name Aildich. None of these appear later than 1221, and none appear with any sort of surname.

This was an age when the need for surnames was just being felt. One of the best born families in Hatfield, which arrived with the Conquest, still had no surname in 1251, until about that time one ‘Symon’ gave his name, not only to his family but to his property: Fitz-Symon of Symandshide. About ten other tenants were called by a single name but with a patronymic e.g. Symon-son-of-Adam, but all women are referred to as such – Roysia-daughter-of-Geoffrey. Notable exceptions to this rule were usually those who were better off, including Audrey de Bassingbum.


The next class of names are derived from occupation. Bartholomew de Barre was keeper of the gate of the Great Wood at Bell Bar. His son, William de Barre, inherited his name but not his job which went to his other son John of the London Bar. Some such occupational names seem to refer to individuals only, like Adam Sacristan (literally meaning to care for the sacristy of the Church and its contents), Hugh Plowman; others are inherited like Gibbert Cooper son of Simon Cupre. William Forester, who succeeded to the job of sergeant of the Foresters after John Forest, may have been a relative or merely the new forester.

Clearing the forest

These thirteenth century surveys give us a picture of the natural forest of Hatfield being cleared for agriculture. As in the case of Walter Tofyners’ holding, which in 1221 was virgin forest, but in 1251 it was a farm. Most of the outlying areas of Hatfield were occupied by farms or larger estates that were earthed out of the forest in this way. Astwick Manor may have been one of the earliest of these as also was Woodhall Manor, which belonged to the Bassingbums’ through the Middle Ages. Holwell was also an early manor, and at Hatfield Hyde there was in the thirteenth century a distinct settlement of small holders with its own group of open fields. Lemsford Village and Roe Green were similar settlements of very early date. At Roe Green there was an open set of fields on the level land to the North West of Roe Green Lane, outside the Parish boundary, as well as the fields on the hillside up to Downs Farm. The first settlement of the two estates of Symondshide and Durantshide (Brocket Park) was at the Conquest, when a Norman soldier called Robert installed himself there. Many of the larger estates in the Parish acquired manorial status and became sub manors to the Chief manors of Hatfield, holding their own manor courts to manage their affairs.


There were three administrative authorities – the vill, the hundred and the county. Men of each vill were sworn into the ‘tithing’ (a group of ten households), within which each man bore responsibility for the good behaviour of all ten households. It was compulsory for every male over the age of ten to belong to a tithing, though this did not apply to Knights, Feudal Lords or Clergy. Each tithing group was headed by a ‘tithing-man’ or ‘capital pledge’, which was responsible for notifying offences. This system was incorporated into the manorial system so that the tithingswere responsible to the manor-court. The court Baron was concerned with free tenant’s affairs, the customary court with these of the villeins or bond tenants. The Court text and View of Frankpledge were concerned only with juridical not administrative matters although in practise most of these functions were carried out by whatever court happened to be sitting, so that the entries relating to free and unfree property, administration and judicial are often made in the same roll. The rolls are in Latin up till about the seventeenth century.

The manor court

Bad ale and high prices

The manor court had to enforce regulations about the quality and price of goods sold in the village such as bread & ale. These regulations were called assizes, and to help enforce the assize of ale the court appointed an ale taster, John Berne was chosen for this office in 1484. Three years later we find that seventeen villagers – all women – had broken the assize of ale by either selling inferior quality product, short measures or charging an excessive price. In the same year the ale tasters John Young & John Daper were each fined 3d because they made the assize badly.

Offences against the various assizes were numberless, but this is not surprising since cases of a similar nature are reported in newspapers today. In 1482 the roll records that John Denny, a fisherman, sells at an excessive price – fined 2d. In the same year John James & John Turner were fined 4d each for making bad quality shoes, and again in 1487 John Jenys and William Gerard were fined 8d each for using bad leather to make shoes with leggings and other leather goods. In 1483 Alice Basset was fined 2d for selling candles of bad weight to the grave damage of the neighbours. Records such as this go to show that low-level crime was as comparatively wide-spread as it is in some areas today, with knowledge of illegal practises recorded and referred to as future ‘precedents’.

Hedging and ditching

One of the primary functions of the manor court was to manage the agricultural life of the community, and in the court rolls we find a number of cases dealing with hedging and ditching and the prevention of private encroachment on the common rights. In 1483 “William Pegen has a ditch not cleansed between Auncells and Pegeaus for a space of 12 perches, to be amended before the next court under penalty of 12d”. The Lord of the Manor himself was not immune from this kind of supervision, as there are entries about uncleared ditches belonging to him. Other obstructions were dealt with similarly: “Philip Mevy has branches of trees growing in the lane called Ded Lane for the space of 16 perches. Ordered to be amended before Michaelmas under penalty of 40d”.


Even more serious was the protection of crops growing in the un-hedged open fields. There were many animals loose in the parish to find what grazing they could, and the ‘wild’ beasts in the Lord’s Park had to be kept in. In 1482 the Court noted that “John Fysbhe does not repair the Lord’s pales towards the Great Park at Potwellgrave, containing 42 woods, and is ordered to repair the same before Easter under penalty of 40d”. John is fined because he had not repaired the palings and had several warnings. “William Feld has badly repaired the Lord’s pales towards the Great Park at Bowstyle containing 40 woods”. Straying animals could cause a lot of damage in an open-field farming community, so the manor court appointed an official called the Pinder – to catch and impound them in a village pound. In 1482 the court rolls records: “Seven stray sheep that have come into the manor are to be proclaimed by the bailiff as strays”. “Thomas Wallrot broke the pinfold of the Lord Bishop and took away a bull impounded there without permission – fined 6d”.


A common thief and strumpet

The court also dealt with crimes of violence. In 1483 Thomas Trotte and Robert Nelseam, millers, were fined for assaulting Richard Fygges with a ‘daggario’ and drawing blood. Cases of immorality and theft also appear. In 1483 Johanna Downe is reported to the court as a common scold or scandal monger, to the great danger of her neighbours, and it ordered to amend her ways. By the next year the neighbours have had enough of her and the Jury says that “Joan Downe is a common thief and strumpet to the common injury of all the neighbours. Therefore she is ordered to quit the town before the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Summer-time) under penalty of standing in the pillory”.

Markets and fairs

The right to hold markets and fairs was one of the most highly prized privileges of the Middle Ages, and this right, once established, was jealously guarded. The earliest evidence of the privilege with regards to Hatfield is a royal licence of 1226, granting to the Bishops of Ely for their manor of Hatfield, the right to hold a yearly fair for four days – on the vigil and feast of St. John the Baptist and to two days following (23rd – 26th June) and a weekly market on Thursdays. Nearly a century later this was changed to the vigil and feast of St. Etheldreda and the two days following (16th – 19th October) and market day changed to Tuesday.


It might here be said that the fairs held at Hatfield, and elsewhere in the eastern counties on the feast of St. Etheldreda (Audrey), gave a new word to the English language. So many cheap and poorly made items traded hands at these fairs, that the word “tawdry” – from Audrey – was coined for any goods of poor quality.

This page was added on 25/02/2011.

Comments about this page

  • You should change Doomsday to the correct spelling Domesday Book.

    By Timothy Francis (12/03/2019)

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