Chobham, Egham and Chertsey show all the signs of a typical medieval communal village:
extensive waste for common pasture
Patterns of Habitation
There appear to be two patterns of habitation in medieval Chobham; farming in open common fields and the cultivation of enclosures of the waste.
In the Village
In medieval times most villages grew higgledy-piggledy from a collection of farmsteads. But the major villages in the Chertsey Abbey lands seem to have been planned. So Chertsey, Egham and Chobham are all nucleated villages and show signs of planning.
It is possible that Chobham was a craft rather than an agricultural centre. We know that flax and silk weaving were practised in the village and it may be that Chobham developed as a weaving centre.
Outside the Village
Away from the meadows and common fields, we see scattered farms cultivating surrounding fields often enclosed from the wasteland. Naturally, the best land – nearest the well-watered valleys was enclosed first. The Abbey owned the waste but since it did not generate any income the Abbot encouraged enclosure which allowed him to levy taxes.
The overall picture is not of prosperity. The 1334 lay subsidy assessed wealth in Surrey as being average for the S.E. of England, but wealth in NW Surrey was only about 20% of the county average – as low as that on bleak Dartmoor. Thus the picture we have is of villagers just surviving on their small packets of land: the bigger farmers struggling on marginal soils. And harvest failures were not uncommon; on average every seven or so years. It is quite possible that the population level of the peasantry was, like that of wild birds today, determined by the severity and frequency of these regular failures. In this respect things did not begin to improve until the opening up of the transport system and the ability to move food between regions.
But trade did not bring just food and goods ……
Rising (and falling) Population
The Black Death spread from the East, to Sicily, then up through Italy and across the continent to reach Surrey in autumn 1348. By the time it petered out in September 1350, approximately one third of the nation had died of plague.
We have no statistics for mortality in our area. Egham, being on a highway, and judging by the turnover of vicars in this period, suffered severely (2 p125). Chobham, isolated on the heaths, was probably less affected but probably not untouched since we know that the vicar, Robert de Nywenham probably succumbed since he was replaced during the Black Death.
The Abbey still continued the tax on death (heriots) and had difficulty housing all the animals it received as a result. It is believed that there were land shortages in the early 14th C; suddenly there was more land than people to farm it and many holdings became vacant.
The growth of population in Surrey Heath.
Image: D Stokes (based on Domesday data and John Hatcher, Plague, Population and the English Economy, London 1977)
Subsequent epidemics of bubonic plague occurred in 1360-2, 1369 and 1375, leading to a further fall in population. In the next 100 years there were at least a further 13 major national epidemics. But perhaps of even greater significance was the the fact that the plague became endemic, flaring up in local outbreaks. (1)
The decline in population strengthened the hand of the peasants. In 1378 the ‘Confederation of serfs of Chobham, Thorpe and Egham’ was formed, which preceded the large insurrection of 1381. The words “long rebelliously withdrawn the customary services due to the Abbot” and “bound themselves by oath to resist the Abbot” are recorded. In 1381 the tenancy record books at Chertsey Abbey were burned by peasants wishing to erase records of their duties to the Abbey.(2 p129,184)
The Administrative System
During Medieval times, Godley Hundred (Surrey Heath, Chertsey and Egham) continued to be owned and managed by Chertsey Abbey.
Almost the only written record we have of events in Chobham during medieval times comes from the records kept by Chertsey Abbey. Click on the ‘Administration’ page in the left top margin to read the record of the monks activities.
Peasants paid various taxes to the Abbot together with a tenth of their produce. They were also required to work 2 days a week on the Abbot’s lands.
The Manors and Estates
In Domesday only two men, Odin and Corbelin, warrant a mention due to the amount of land they held – 60% of the total value. During medieval times similar holdings grew to form the estates and manors of Aden, Stannards, Pentecost and of course Chobham.
A fuller description of the development of our manors can be read under the relevant headings in the ‘by subject’ section of this site.
In early medieval times, monks from the abbey travelled out to chapels to perform religious duties as required.
Later, churches would be built, or chapels promoted to the status of churches. A church differed from a chapel in that it would have its own clergyman, a vicarage for him to live in and land for him to work – the glebe land. The vicar would have responsibility for the souls of a defined area – thus the concept of a parish was born.
A fuller description of the development of our church and parish can be read under the relevant headings in the ‘by subject’ section of this site.
In the nearly thousand years from Saxon times until the dissolution of the monasteries, there cannot have been much change in the lives of villagers. The biggest change was probably the decay of the feudal and manorial system. Slavery (serfdom) was eliminated; many peasants became landholders and payment of rent replaced the need for compulsory work on the Abbot’s lands. And, of course, they obtained their own church and a vicar to meet their spiritual needs.
1. Historical Atlas of Britain, Falkus and Gillingham. p167
2. Chertsey Abbey: An Existence of the Past. Lucy Wheeler. Pub: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co. 1905
5. Chertsey Cartulary SRS XII ref: 1286
6. Bisley Bits, Rev’d J Cater, 1892