Domesday Book: The Walsall and Bloxwich Question

With the possible exception of Magna Carta, few historical documents have embedded themselves in the national psyche in quite the way that Domesday Book has. Held at the National Archives, Domesday has reached almost biblical status in the way that local historians use it to prove their village existed in the late 11th century and just what was there at the time; however, inclusion isn’t ‘special’ as there are around 13,500 entries in Domesday and nor does exclusion mean that a place didn’t exist.

Domesday Book (National Archives)

Domesday Book
(National Archives)

As most people tend to look at Domesday simply for their entry, they don’t tend to question the document as a whole: the truth is that it is filled with errors, omissions and inconsistencies so the whole thing can be somewhat bewildering at best. It would be churlish to suggest that I am rubbishing the document, of course I am not, but some general understanding of the book is needed to give context to an entry because what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. I have therefore decided to dust of my various texts on the book (see bibliography), re-read them and then write two articles covering some of the local places within the mighty tome. The first article will give my suggestions on the Wyrley entry and the second at a later date, if I ever get over the first 🙂 , will look at the absence of Walsall and the strange position of Bloxwich. Both articles will be preceded by the same general outline to the Book, so they make more sense if you only read one of them; but please remember scholars have built careers on this topic alone and I am just giving a superficial outline of how I understand it.

Background to the Staffordshire Domesday
The Domesday Book was compiled on the order of William I (known as the Conqueror or the Bastard). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places this order to Christmas 1085, when William held court at Gloucester. Because of the depth of the inquiry the book later became known as the ‘Domesday Book’, referring to a biblical doomsday or the day of judgement, but it wasn’t called this at the time. The project was known as the ‘great description of England’ (although parts were not covered) or the ‘Book of Winchester’ (where the royal treasury was situated). The book was primarily completed within a year, but left abandoned at the death of William in 1087. The rapidity with which the exercise was completed showed the sophistication of both central and local government at the time.

So what is it? The Chronicle’s entry smacks of Saxon oppression: ‘[William sent men] into every shire [to] find out how many hides there were… what land and cattle the king had himself… what dues he ought to have… how much land his archbishops had, his bishops and his abbots and his earls, and what or how much everyone who was in England had… so very narrowly did he have it investigated that there was no single hide nor yard of land, nor indeed … one ox or cow or pig which was left out… and these records were brought to him afterwards’. The book is more than a tax document and more than a list of landholders: with William facing problems in England, France and attacks from Scandinavia, it seems to me that it is an account of the resources of England available to a new regime. It must be remembered that the under the Norman system, all land was held from the king.

The entry in the Chronicle (Bodleian Library)

Part of that entry in the Chronicle
(Bodleian Library)

How was the survey carried out? Well it isn’t known for sure, but there must have been a huge collaboration between local and central government. Method and terminology seem to indicate shires were grouped into circuits, however there is disagreement as to the number of circuits and even to which circuit Staffordshire was included. On top of this there were differences in the reporting from shire to shire.

If the slightly later Ely survey is anything to go by then central government took the form of a team of esteemed commissioners, likely with no connection to the circuit and shires they were assessing; local government likely took the form of the shire and hundred courts, supported by lords, stewards and priests. The survival of the Exeter (Devon) and Little Domesday (East Anglia) suggest that the returns supplied to the commissioners were originally more detailed and then condensed down into an incomplete final version, which is the actual Domesday Book.

After the shire, the next level of arrangement was by major landholder or tenant-in-chief (bottom-left corner of the photo below) . Only 17 are listed in the index for Staffordshire, however the 17th entry is for ‘odd possessions’. In the index the king leads the way, followed by the clergy and then the lay tenants.  Arrangement then continues with possessions listed by each hundred. A hundred was possibly an ancient boundary, encompassing 100 or 120 hides of land, which would support 100 families (and provide 100 men for military service). Staffordshire has 5 hundreds; in 1086 Great Wyrley, Rodbaston and Cannock were in the Cuttlestone hundred and Lichfield, Norton Canes, Little Wyrley, Walsall, Wednesbury and Bloxwich were in the Offlow hundred .

Staffordshire Domesday, opening folios. (Palmer & Slater, via Open Domesday)

Staffordshire Domesday, opening folios.
(Open Domesday)

The final method of arrangement was not by the village or hamlet, but by the manor. A village could be split between more than one shire or more than one landlord: Willenhall is a good local example, being split between the king and the Canons of Wolverhampton. So what do we mean by a manor? This is difficult. A manor is the economic, legal and administrative centre of an estate, ran by a ‘lord’ or his steward, and assessed for tax. That estate can be a single hamlet or village and have its own entry in Domesday; equally it could also be the centre of a group of ‘manors’, which then become sub-manors or berewicks and appear under the Domesday entry for the chief- manor: Norton Canes and Wyrley appear under Lichfield for example and, bizarrely, Bloxwich appears under Wednesbury.  Saying that, a sub-manor to one chief-manor could be massively greater in size than that of a chief-manor elsewhere.  Confused? No, then I clearly didn’t explain well enough 🙂 .

The Ely survey, as well as the Domesday itself, gives an insight into the questions asked by the commissioners: the name of the manor, who held it at the time of King Edward the Confessor (Harold being seen as a usurper), who holds it now, how many hides there are (measurement of land for taxation purposes, but varied enormously between 40 and 120 acres), how many ploughs are held by the lord and how many belonging to the peasants (a plough-team would consist of 8 oxen), how many unfree peasants there were (villeins, cottars and bordars, depending on status), how many slaves, how many freemen and sokemen (free, but owed some dues to the lord), how much woodland, how much meadow, how much pasture, how many mills, how many fisheries, how much had been added to or taken away from the estate, what it used to be worth in the reign of Edward and what it is worth now. Finally, it was also to be noted whether more revenue could be extracted.

Staffordshire is shown up in Domesday book as an economically backward county with few landholders; indeed, Slade wrote of it as ‘primitive [and] poor’. Staffordshire is a big county yet covers only a few pages, which shows just how sparsely populated it was at this time;  in fact there are only two other shires in England that have smaller sections within Domesday, those being Middlesex and, not surprisingly, Rutland.

By 1086 the 100 – 120 hides per hundred, mooted by early Domesday scholars,  seems to have become corrupted. Further, various scholars have claimed that these hides were originally (very late Saxon period) arranged in 5-hide units (or multiples): Willenhall being a good local example where the king had 3 hides and the Canons of Wolverhampton had 2. Attempts were made to trace these units in 1919, with varying degrees of success in my opinion.

Domesday entry for Willenhall. (Open Domesday)

Domesday entry just for King William’s land within Willenhall.
(Open Domesday)

I mentioned errors, omissions and inconsistencies before, so really I need to give a few examples. Regarding omissions, nationally you wont find London, Winchester or Bristol in the Book, whereas locally there is no Tamworth (despite being the ancient capital of Mercia) and famously of course, Walsall. Slade says, ‘many villages of today are not in the survey’, so on a smaller scale, Darlaston and Moxley are examples of such. Examples of inconsistency are legion. One question asks about the amount of pasture within a manor – yet there is not one acre listed in the whole of Staffordshire. If we look at local manors and their sub-manors, then sometimes the returns for the sub-manors are listed with the sub-manor, sometimes in the main manorial return and sometimes both.

Walsall, Bloxwich and Wednesbury in Domesday 
There is no greater insult levelled at a Walsallian than by a Bloxwegian nonchalantly pointing out that Walsall isn’t in Domesday (yes, I really said that 🙂 ). The inference is of course that Walsall didn’t exist, but this is nonsense; Walsall is one of a myriad of places, such as Tamworth, Burton and the royal land in Wolverhampton that are simply not included. We know all the places that I mention in this article are defined in some form in the Saxon period simply because they have Saxon place-names; mind you, this does not mean to say they were occupied although those with personal names incorporated into them suggests they were. Often names are ambiguous due to changing spellings over time, but generally there is broad agreement from authors such as Ekwall (Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names) and Duignan (Notes on Staffordshire Place-Names).

  • Bescot: Beorhtmund’s small dwelling
  • Bloxwich: Blocca’s village
  • Darlaston: Deorlaf’s settlement
  • Moxley: Mocc’s low (burial site)
  • Pelsall: Peol’s nook or Peol’s land between two streams
  • Rushall: Rush pasture
  • Shelfield: hill with plateau
  • Walsall: Wale’s or the Welshman’s valley/hill/nook
  • Wednesbury: Woden’s hill/fort

As it isn’t in the Book, the first definitive record of Walsall in historical documentation, according to the Victoria County History, is when King Henry II granted the manor to Herbert le Rous (or Ruffus) in 1159. This would then make it a royal manor prior to 1159. One historian, Erdswick, claimed that Walsall was held by William FitzAnsculf in 1086, but while FitzAnsculf held surrounding land to Walsall there is no evidence at all that he held Walsall.

There is an argument however that the confirmation of the will of Wulfric Spot (1004) contains a reference to Walsall. Wulfric was clearly a nobleman in Mercia, descended from an esteemed line (including Wulfun, after whom Wolverhampton was named). The confirmation of his will by Aethelred II shows not only his wealth and array of landed estate, but that he was the founding-father of the abbey of Burton-on-Trent; indeed, he was buried there. Tucked away on one line is a reference to a place called Walesho; this he bequeathed to Morcar, a thegn of the king and related by marriage to him.  Ekwall defines Walesho as Walsall in his work, but it isn’t certain and I have to say I am doubtful – I think it is Wales in north Derbyshire and close to many of the other land gifts to Morcar. Anyway, it does need to be stated. What is clear is that Morcar was murdered in 1015 and his lands seized by Aethelred. This would mean that Walesho, wherever it was, was in royal hands in the early 11th century – giving some support to Walsall perhaps.

Confirmation of the will of Wulfric Spot, 1004 (Staffordshire Record Office)

Confirmation of the will of Wulfric Spot, 1004
(Staffordshire Record Office)

If we turn to the royal lands in Staffordshire listed in the Domesday Book, we have a somewhat messy and confusing return. Wednesbury, Bloxwich, Bescot and Shelfield (and Walsall) are in the Offlow Hundred, yet they appear in the king’s Seisdon Hundred section. While this is an error, one must accept that the border areas between Hundreds were quite fluid and Wednesbury could be construed as being in the borderlands.

The first entry we are concerned with is Bescot. Bescot is, according to the Book, its own chief manor and it is described as being of 1 carucate and waste. I struggle with this entry. Despite the assessment for all other royal lands in Seisdon and Offlow being in hides, Bescot uses the carucate. Generally the carucate is seen the Danelaw version of the hide, but back in 1919 Charles Bridgeman suggested it may mean a ‘conjectural’ assessment; this may mean nobody actually assessed it and that it was sort of an approximation – its actual size could be a lot smaller. It is also possible that this land is a new assessment in some way.

Original thoughts saw ‘waste’ as being land that had been devastated by the Norman ‘harrying of the north’, but this a little too simple in my opinion. The definition should be widened to one of land that is, or appears to be, unproductive to some degree and this could be for a number of reasons: it may include land exempt from taxation because it is not tenanted, land deliberately left fallow or land that has been turned into ‘forest’ under William’s new forest laws. We have course no idea as to why it is ‘waste’.

Bescot (Bresmundescote) is listed separately and is waste. (Open Domesday)

Bescot (Bresmundescote) is listed separately and is waste.
(Open Domesday)

My final concern is one of its detachment; why is this unproductive royal estate described as a chief manor while the equally unproductive royal holding of Shelfield (1 hide) is attached to Wednesbury and is at some further distance? I suppose it is possible that the Bescot return was in fact the return for it and for Walsall; I really cannot accept this, as both would need to be ‘waste’ and share a maximum of a carucate between them. The only way I can see this working is if Bescot is a potential new assessment (old place, just never assessed before) and as such, isn’t formally linked to a larger manor.

Let us turn to the Wednesbury entry. The Book states that the king holds Wednesbury with appendages, but as with other of the king’s returns that use the term ‘appendages’ it doesn’t name them (the main manor simply adds them to its total). It gives a 3 hide assessment, then the 9 potential plough-lands, the number of plough-teams (8 in all), the population (16 villians, 11 boardars and 1 slave), the fact there is a mill, an acre of meadow and a 2 x 1 league portion of woodland. A value for the manor is omitted, as is the ownership back in 1066.

Wednesbury and Bloxwich entry in Domesday Book. (Open Domesday)

Wednesbury and Bloxwich entry in Domesday Book.
(Open Domesday)

What I have a problem is what follows underneath, as again it is inconsistent. Bloxwich is described as a ‘member of this manor’ and has been crossed through by the scribe to denote a manor/sub-manor level. Bloxwich has no individual totals, so it is assumed they form a part of those for Wednesbury. Strangely, the only thing it mentions is a portion of woodland – 3 x 1 furlongs in size. Why is it that this one feature is singled out to make it worthy of separate inclusion, it could have been added to the Wednesbury woodland as with the other totals? Further, Shelfield is then described (although not crossed through as a manor/sub manor) as being of ‘1 waste hide belonging to the same manor’. Why is it not crossed through, when other ‘waste’ manors are? There are of course no answers for these questions.

The next place I want to look at is Pelsall. Pelsall was granted to the Canons of St Mary’s in Wolverhampton back in 994, by Wulfrun. In 1086 in has its own entry despite being just half a hide. The Canons still own it, but it is described as  ‘waste’. Their chief holdings are over by Wolverhampton, Wednesfield and Willenhall, so it simply may mean the Pelsall was not tenanted at this stage.

Domesday Book entry for Pelsall (Open Domesday)

Domesday Book entry for Pelsall
(Open Domesday)

The final entry I want to look at is for Rushall. In 1086 the land is held by William FitzAnsculf, however, as his main holdings were over by Wombourne, he sub-let his holdings over by Walsall. He held substantial areas around what is now the Walsall Borough area: Aldridge, Gt Barr, Perry [Barr] and Little Barr. Rushall is interesting, as it is a single hide with 6 villains and 2 bordars. Its resources are quite considrable; having a mill, an acre of meadow and 5 x 2 furlongs of woodland. It was let by Thorkil of Warwick, but in 1066 it was held by Vithfari of Bobbington and he had rights to collect money that otherwise would have been rendered to the king.

Domesday Book entry for Rushall (Open Domesday)

Domesday Book entry for Rushall
(Open Domesday)

I have inflicted all these entries on you so you can appreciate where I am coming from when I give my opinions on Walsall in the Domesday book. So, what are the possibilities as to where Walsall could be?

Well the first answer is that it was missed out deliberately, possibly for one of several reasons. The first is to keep its wealth secret, but I struggle with this as it was king’s land and half of the point of William undertaking the survey was to appreciate what he had just as much as others. Another possibility is that it was deliberately omitted as it was going to be assessed as a ‘town’ at a later date, like Tamworth. This too I don’t accept, mainly as the sub-manors of Bloxwich and Shelfield are pinned to Wednesbury and they really have no natural affinity to it. In my opinion, if Walsall was left out in order for later assessment then Bloxwich wouldn’t appear either.

The next possibility is that Walsall was ‘waste’. Again, I can’t accept this, after all, if Pelsall has its own entry at just half a hide of waste, why isn’t Walsall in? Then again, as I keep pointing out the Book is filled with inconsistencies.

Next we have the possibility that it was totally omitted by accident, likely at ‘scribe level’ when the returns were being formally compiled. I think this is one of two possibilities that seems to have some mileage in it. I would base my argument for this on the fact that the whole Staffordshire Domesday return seems hurried and somewhat chaotic that could easily have resulted in the ‘loss’ of the Walsall return and the shunting of its sub-manors onto Wednesbury.

Alas, this possibility also has a problem. When Bridgman and Mander did their ‘Staffordshire Hidation’ in 1919, they looked at recreating the 5-hide (and multiples) units of taxation believed to have been in existence prior to Domesday. I actually agree that 5-hide units do seem to be prevalent, but I am not completely won over as to their arrangement of these units and the number of them; they admit themselves that it is just educated guess work. They do however get close to the 120 hides that were believed to make up the Offlow Hundred, however, how missing places like Tamworth fit into their calculation isn’t clear. What this means is there isn’t much room for manoeuvre. They place Wednesbury and its sub-manors (4 hides) with Rushall (1 hide). If you add in Bescot (as a hide) and Pelsall (half a hide), take up all the spare hides as Walsall’s assessment, then you may get a roughly 10 hide-unit covering from Wednesbury through Bloxwich, Pelsall and Rushall, then down to Walsall. This is strained to say the least.

Moving on from this is the possibility that it was omitted in name only and that the return is actually there. This would mean that the Wednesbury entry includes Walsall, though it is omitted as a sub-manor, or indeed, the opposite is true and Wednesbury is the sub-manor and Walsall is omitted by error as the name of the chief manor. As stated, Bridgman and Mander place Wednesbury and its sub-manors (4 hides) with Rushall (1 hide) to create a 5 hide-unit, leaving Bescot unattributed to any group. Further, they generally describe this 5-hide unit as that of Walsall. For this to work there needs to be some connection between Walsall, Wednesbury and Rushall – and there is.

I am well aware of dangers of using evidence from the early/mid 13th century to support that from the late 11th; equally I am aware of using ecclesiastical evidence in support of what would be a secular issue, but never the less this needs to be put forward. In 1225, Ruffus, Lord of the Manor of Walsall, gifted the church of Walsall, with its chapels, to the Abbey of Halesowen. In 1248, a confirmation from the Bishop of Lichfield names these chapels as Wednesbury and Rushall. In his History of Wednesbury, Ede argues that this chapel status was far from clear cut, with good reason; whatever the truth, it does suggest there was some affinity between the places.

At the end of the day, I am not completely satisfied with any answer: lets be honest, if it had been that simple a Domesdayologist would have published and you would have been spared this article. After the painful misery that I have been through with these Domesday articles I can only say three things. First, I hope I have shown that the returns for the whole of Staffordshire are a mess, filled with errors and inconsistencies and modern interpretations and explanations are also problematic. Second, I favour the 5 hide-unit including Rushall but not Bescot. I think that the name of Walsall is omitted by accident, but its return is incorporated into the Wednesbury one. Either Walsall or Wednesbury was the chief manor, with the other subject to it – although it isn’t clear which is which. Later, Wednesbury goes its own way, as does Rushall.

The third thing? I never, ever, ever want to look at that Book again.

My thanks to

Professor John Palmer and George Slater and the Open Domesday Website –
National Archives
Bodlian Library

Domesday Book, Staffordshire: ed John Morris, Phillimore.
Staffordshire Domesday: CF Slade, Staffordshire County Council
Domesday Studies: Ed JC Holt, Boydell Press
The Domesday Book- A Guide: Weldon Finn, Phillimore
An Introduction to Domesday Book: Weldon Finn, Greenwood
Staffs Historical Collections, 1919: Staffordshire Hidation, Bridgeman & Mander, Wm Salt Arch Soc.
Staffs Historical Collections, 1919: Notes on 1916 vol, Bridgeman, Wm Salt Arch Soc.
Staffs Historical Collections, 1916 : Early Staffordshire History, Wedgwood, Wm Salt Arch Soc.
A History of Walsall: F Willmore, Solar Press Ltd
A History of Wednesbury: J Ede, Kynoch Press

  1. Flanders Field says:

    Another really good article, I understand that that you do not want to see the D B again but I for one am glad that you spent all that time on it, it certainly would have been beyond my capabilities to dig as deeply as you have. Many thanks.

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