2.4 The Hundreds
The socio-political system of Hundreds imposed on the English landscape was first described in detail by William the Conqueror's commissioners, the legati, who were given the task of accounting for every acre of land in England. England in 1066 was the most efficiently organized state in Europe. It was very much larger than Normandy, which was about the size of East Anglia; and though much smaller than France, it was more closely knit, and both the power and the wealth of its monarchy greater than that of France. This administrative structure is, in fact, largely known to us from Domesday itself. On almost every page evidence is found of the vitality of the shire, with its shire court and its royal sheriff to direct the justice done there. Still more remarkable, and no less vigorous, is the court of the smaller divisions of each shire into Hundreds or (in Danish districts) Wapentakes. Some of these, but no more than a small minority, were before 1066 in 'private' hands, such as the eight and a half Hundreds of the liberty of the abbot of St. Edmund's Abbey. These, too, had their courts of justice, and their royal bailiffs, and already both shires and Hundreds were quasi- communities, with their suitors and, as it were, their collective personality, testifying to the intensity of local life.
In some counties, for a variety of historical reasons, there were other subdivisions, such as the 'lathes' of Kent and the 'rapes' of Sussex, which were further subdivided into hundreds and are therefore comparable with the 'ridings' of Lindsey and Yorkshire and their wapentake subdivisions.
Hundreds and wapentakes had courts, hence the references in Domesday Book to declarations made by these bodies. The incidence of such references varies sharply from county to county. To judge from the two Ely satellites the hundredal juries were made up in 1086 of four foreigners and four natives. For example,in Staploe Hundred in Cambridgeshire we find Nicholas of Kennett, William of Chippenham, Hugh of Exning, Warin of Soham (the foreigners), Robert of Fordham, Ordmer of Badlingham, Alan of Burwell and Aelfric of Snailwell (the natives) in Staploe Hundred, Cambridgeshire. Two of the most striking features of the arrangement of manors within fiefs in both volumes of Domesday Book are that manors in the same hundred or wapentake are grouped together and that there is a consistent order of hundreds or wapentakes. A consistent order of this kind is a characteristic of the majority of Domesday counties and at least one example occurs in every circuit. This phenomenon is crucial, for it suggests that the Domesday raw materials were drawn up, or at least reviewed, hundred by hundred and wapentake by wapentake.
The division of the counties into Hundreds - perhaps originally representing a hundred hides or family holdings - dates back to at least the 10th century, and some may be based on even older land units. Above the level of each individual vill, the hundred was the basis of all public administration in medieval England, judicial, fiscal and military. Each hundred had its own court, second only to the county court, presided over by a hundred bailiff. These courts dealt mainly with public law (folk right) and were originally known as 'moots' or 'things'. The names are derived from Old English (ge)mot and Old Norse *ing, both terms meaning an assembly or meeting. Most of the Suffolk hundreds take their names from the original open-air meeting-places of their Anglo- Saxon courts. These were held at prominent or well- known features in the landscape - such as fords, meres and mounds. Meeting places at fords are implied by Lackford, Wilford and Mutford ('moot- ford') ; at lakes or meres by Bosmere, Bradmere and Hartismere ; the head of a stream - Blackbourn ; a bridge -Risbridge ; mounds - Thingoe ('thing-mound') and Babergh ; a hill - Claydon ; a promontory - Colneis; and a tree - Thedwastre. The stow or meeting-place of Stow Hundred was probably at a crossing of the river Gipping at present-day Stowmarket. Hundreds named after settlements were limited to Ipswich, Parham and Hoxne. The last was annexed to an episcopal manor at Hoxne - hence its Domesday name of 'Bishop's Hundred'. Older 'folk' names seem to lie behind Blything ('the people of the Blythe'), Lothing (the Domesday name of Mutford Hundred, possibly meaning 'Hluda's people') and Lothingland ('the land or island of Hluda's people'). Thredling was formerly a third (Old English thridling) of Claydon Hundred. Rather curiously, Loes means a 'pig-sty' and Plomesgate 'gate at/near plum trees'. Some meeting-places were central to their hundreds, but others, like Lackford and Wainford, were on the borders. By the 18th century many hundred courts were held in inns: for example the Blackbourn court was held in the Cock Inn at Stanton.
2.4.1 Domesday
The Domesday Survey was put together and hammered out in sessions of each county court, reinforced by the testimony of the relevant Hundreds and representatives of each village in the Hundred. The Survey reveals that this testimony of the Hundred was everywhere given by a sworn jury, which spoke for the whole Hundred. It is unlikely that the Normans, whose prime object was to ascertain just who held what land and how before 1066, should have thought up and then imposed on men of middle rank in society, some of them English, a new and strange machinery of the Hundred. One is tempted to wonder whether both the 'reeve, the priest and six men from each village' and the sworn jury of each Hundred do not both go well back into the Anglo- Saxon past. However that may be, Domesday Book richly illustrates the often heated debates which attended the proceedings of the Survey as much of which must have been in English as in French.
Beneath the shire and the Hundred was the village, the basic unit of early agriculture, and, the towns apart, the source of all wealth. The normal village had its lord and its halimote, and the village community cultivated the land according to the open field system, the ploughed land being divided between the lord's demesne and the tenants' strips. In the time of Edward the Confessor, these ceorls or churls were, nominally free, but Domesday records many slaves (servi). Nor were they a homogeneous body, for they are separately recorded in three main categories of villeins, bordars, and cottars. But while the village community answered for village arrangements through its reeve, priest, and six men, more often than not the village was divided into two or more separate estates, called in Domesday 'manors' or mansiones.
Such was the local structure of society, which was linked to the king's household, itself itinerant, from the early eleventh century by what was later called a chancery' department, where the 'king's priests' issued to the shire courts vernacular writs sealed with a two- faced wax pendent seal. Royal interests were represented in these nerve-centres of local life by the king's sheriffs who transmitted to the royal Treasury at Winchester the fines of justice, the fixed county 'firm', and the many other annual tenders or customs due to the Crown. The chief bureaucratic was the geld, whose origin lay in the first Danish invasions. It was assessed, at variable amounts, on every hide, which was traditionally the acreage needed to support a family. An eighth-century document, the so-called Tribal Hidage, sets out the total assessment of whole tribes and peoples, but by the eleventh century every village had its separate assessment. The normal Domesday entry begins with the name of the village and the number of hides for which its owner answered, and the whole system was already so ancient that this fixed village assessment was in fact often quite arbitrary. This village hidage assessment was the basis not only of geld collection but of the whole pre- Conquest military organization-the fyrd. The 'hide' in short dominated Old English local arrangements, and Domesday Book affords endless material for its further study. But more important for the Domesday student is the introduction of knight service into England from the moment William conquered the country. Mercenaries apart, the backbone of his armies were the mailed, mounted knights; and to enable his Norman vassals to provide an army in England, he gave them the lands lost by English thegns, who were almost entirely superseded by foreign barons, the greatest of whom were created 'earls'. The total lands of each baron wherever situated were treated as a single whole, his barony, in return for which he provided a quota of knights. There thus came into existence a great nexus of Honorial Courts in which William's vassals judged their own sub- tenants, among whom the tenant-in-chief distributed part at least of his quota of knights owed to the Crown. But these new franchise courts did not exempt the new baronage from their suit to the county courts, which remained the active centre of local justice and administration.
The local administrative background sketched above explains 'the mode of execution' followed by the Domesday Commissioners. It was as a matter of course carried out in the county court, where the lands of land-holders were gone over Hundred by Hundred, village by village, so that when completed every hide, indeed every acre of land in England, had been accounted for. That this was the procedure followed by the legati on each circuit is not in doubt. But the method employed to arrive at the facts must not be confused with the resulting local return, whose objective is clearly set out on the first page of each county in both Great Domesday (Vol. I) and Little Domesday (Volume II), which was in origin just one of these local returns. The purpose of the Survey was simply to obtain a detailed return of the rents and resources of first, the king's own demesne lands, followed by that of his archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, and other tenants-in-chief-whose names are set out in a numbered list at the head of each county. From the return, both the sheriffs of the separate counties, and the king's chamberlains at Winchester could see at a glance the wealth of the royal demesne and that of his tenants-in-chief in each county. For while England retained both for justice and taxation its immemorial administration by counties and Hundreds, we have no written record before Domesday Book of the wealth of the king's fighting force of feudal 'barons'. Accordingly, the legati collected the facts by the ancient machinery of shire, Hundred, and village- but made out their return to Winchester in what we now call a feudal form. In so doing they brought into English law the new legal doctrine that every acre of English land was either held by the king himself as demesne, or held directly from him by named tenants- in-chief.
2.4.2 Terms of reference
In the customary and aristocratic society of the eleventh century, kings were under no obligation to explain their intentions to any wider circle than that of their direct vassals. The Domesday Survey was undertaken as a result of the 'deep speech' that William I had with his 'witan' at Christmas 1085, and the legati, barons, or commissioners who executed it acted under his personal orders and were responsible to him alone. To think of them as 'civil servants' is an anachronism, since the lesser functionaries who actually did the work were the servants of the king's domestic household, identical in kind with those of the great tenants-in-chief on whom he depended. The recorded Survey, Domesday Book, was therefore not yet a 'public record', but a record of the king's household: and it is therefore no matter of surprise that our three original manuscripts-the two volumes of Domesday and the Exon Domesday-make no mention of the authority for, or the occasion of, their compilation. We are left to disentangle the procedure used by the legati simply from the final document which emerged. Yet the legati must have had some written terms of reference to justify their actions to all concerned, and by almost incredible good fortune this document was preserved and remains the vital key to the whole operation. It was, of course, in Latin, and translated runs as follows:
Here follows the inquest of lands (inquisitio terrarum), as the King's barons made it, to wit: by the oath of the sheriff of the shire and of all the barons and their Frenchmen and of the whole Hundred, of the priest, the reeve (prepositi), six villagers (villani) of each village. In order, what is the manor (manslo) called ? Who held it in the time of King Edward? Who now holds it? How many hides ? How many ploughs on the demesne ? How many men ? How many villagers ? How many cottars ? How many slaves (servi) ? How many free men? How many socmen? How much wood? How much meadow ? How much pasture ? How many mills ? How many fish ponds (piscinae) ? How much has been added or taken away? How much, taken together, it was worth and how much now. How much each free man or socman had or has. All this at three dates, to wit, in the time of King Edward and when King William gave it and as it is now. And if it is possible for more to be had than is had.
Here then, we have Domesday Book in a nutshell, and before it was made. From it we may even anticipate the form as well as the content of the Survey. The legati thought in terms of the county, which was the unit of their inquiry, and the county court was the scene of their proceedings. The procedure was to be that of the 'sworn inquest' conducted in a reinforced county court at which each Hundred would corporately supply the detailed statistics of ownership of all its constituent villages, and the priest and the reeve and six men from each village would be there to check its accuracy. In theory at any rate, the proceedings would be oral, the spoken word, and each 'baron' and each of his Frenchmen (which seems to refer to their sub-tenants) would agree to the statement made of his holding. Within the Hundred, the basic unit was the village, but as the ownership of many villages was divided between several manorial lords, the legati were instructed to list separately all manors (maneria, also called mansiones) which seem to have meant separately farmed estates. But these terms are French in origin and since we know little about them before 1086 we should not be too meticulous in attempting to define them. On the strength of these terms of reference we can dismiss the view, once held, that the legati toured the shire to gather the verdicts of each Hundred. Finally, with the hindsight afforded us by Domesday Book itself, we can define exactly the meaning of the all- important question 'Who holds the manor ?'. For the legati, the holders of land (tenentes terras) were the tenants-in-chief, the king's immediate vassals. They assumed-and this assumption is first known to us from Domesday Book-that all manors, indeed every acre of land in England, was 'held' either by the king or by a tenant-in-chief. The terms of reference in short look forward to Domesday Book in exactly the form in which it is cast. The Normans were never so feudal as when they arrived in England, and they silently imposed upon an England, the more developed, purely contractual conception of the fee (feodum), the 'barony' or the honour, held directly of the Crown in return for a quota of knight service and the tangled customary renders to the king as they had obtained in Normandy- reliefs, wardships, marriages, and voluntary aids (auxilia). Such was to be, and was, Domesday Book, which, as a register of tenants-in-chief, has nothing as such to do with geography, or for that matter with military service, or with the assessment or collection of geld. All these things were well known to the king. The sole purpose of the Survey was Domesday Book, a fact-finding sworn inquisition intended to portray the new feudal set-up of England as seen from the king's point of view and that of his supporting magnates: a summary, in short, of the wealth of all England and the details of its ownership. Such a far-seeing act of statemanship required, according to medieval ideas of legality, the endorsement of all who would be affected by it in the future.
2.4.3 Boundary changes
From the 13th century onwards the rise of royal justice undermined hundred and county courts, and both were largely superseded by the establishment of Quarter Sessions in Tudor times. However, Petty Sessions continued to be held within hundreds until the 19th century. In 1894 District Councils, the modern successors of the ancient hundreds, were set up and, until 1974, often bore the same names.
In 1086 the Domesday survey listed 25 hundreds in Suffolk, but by the 19th century the number had been reduced to 21 (Table 1). Between 1850 and 1925, particular with the growth of the urban hundreds of Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, there was a considerable rearrangement of parish boundaries. This is reflected in a decrease in the areas of most of the hundreds, the only exceptions being the deeply rural communities of Thredling, Stow, Cosford, Thingoe and Thedwastre
Table 1 Areas of Hundreds 1855 (Whites Directory 1925)
Acres 1855
Acres 1925
1855 ratio to Thredling
Bury St Edmunds
Wangford (Wainford)
Mutford & Lothingland
Bosmere & Claydon
For largely fiscal reasons some hundreds like Babergh were rated as double hundreds, and others like Cosford as half hundreds ; Samford was the only one regarded as a hundred and a half. The two hundreds of Blackbourn and Bradmere, already inseparable in 1086, were united to form a double hundred by 1100. Claydon was dismembered in the 12th century when one third became the half hundred of Thredling ; the remainder was united with Bosmere in the 15th century. Comprising the parishes of Akenham, Barham, Claydon, Helmingham, Henley, Swilland, Thurleston, Westerfield and Whitton. The half hundred of Parham was absorbed into Plomesgate by 1240, which comprised Blaxhall, Dunningworth, Parham, Tunstall and Wantisden. The two small hundreds of Mutford and Lothingland were united in 1763. The two original hundreds were divided by Oulton Broad and Lake Lothing. Exning was part of Cambridgeshire in 1086 , but was drawn into Suffolk in the 12th century as a half hundred, before becoming a detached portion of Lackford. In fact, several hundreds, particularly in the east, had detached portions. Kelsale was an isolated part of Hoxne, while Butley, Kenton and Woodbridge were detached parts of Loes. At the time of Domesday, Aldringham was part of Hoxne, Gedgrave part of Loes, Alnesbourne part of Carlford, and Diss in Norfolk was part of Hartismere.
The ancient boroughs were largely outside the hundredal organisation. In 1086 Ipswich was separately rated as a half hundred. Bury St Edmunds was also a distinct entity, unspecified, but it must once have been in Thingoe Hundred as the mound of Thingoe lay on the outskirts of the medieval town. Sudbury was a detached part of Thingoe in 1086, but was later assessed either with Babergh or separately.
2.4.4 Other territorial systems
Superimposed on the Suffolk hundred system were two major Liberties or Franchises - areas where royal jurisdiction was delegated to a monastery. The Liberty of St Etheldreda, then called Wicklaw, was granted in 970 by King Edgar to St Etheldreda's abbey at Ely. When in 1109 the bishopric of Ely was founded, the Liberty was transferred to the Prior and monks. After the dissolution of the abbey in 1540, the Liberty was granted to the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral.
The territory that comprised the Liberty of St Edmund had formed the dowry of Emma, wife of King Canute, and was granted by her son, Edward the Confessor, to St Edmund's abbey at Bury in the early 11th century. At the dissolution in 1540, the Liberty reverted to the Crown and was subsequently, in Elizabeth's reign, granted to Sir Nicholas Bacon. The area of the Liberty later became the county of West Suffolk, and survived as a distinct administrative unit until 1974.
The remainder of Suffolk, called the Geldable or 'taxable', remained under royal jurisdiction and, because of its small size, shared a sheriff with Norfolk. Suffolk did not have a sheriff of its own until 1576. The Geldable had a northern capital at Beccles and a southern one at Ipswich. Beccles served the hundreds of Blything, Wangford, Mutford and Lothingland, while Ipswich served the remaining hundreds of the Geldable. When royal taxes were due, the Geldable paid half while the two Liberties combined to pay the other half (Bury paying two parts to Ely's one).
Within these three major units were several smaller, often fragmented, feudal liberties : the Honours of Clare, Eye and Haughley, the Liberty of the Duke of Norfolk, and the Bishop of Norwich's Liberty of Elmham. The first was centred on Clare castle and extended into Essex. It passed into royal hands in 1460 and was annexed to the Duchy of Lancaster by Queen Mary, together with the manor of Mildenhall and the borough of Sudbury. The Honour of Eye was closely connected with the Earls and Dukes of Suffolk, and had jurisdiction over scattered lands in east Suffolk. The Honour of Haughley only had importance in the early medieval period. The Duke of Norfolk's Liberty was created as late as 1468 and extended into Norfolk : it included Bungay but not the important castle at Framlingham. The Bishop's Liberty was based on ancient episcopal estates in South Elmham and lasted until 1536.