Loosemore of Devon - Chapter 2


Devon was only thinly populated during the Romano-British period which ended with the departure of the Romans early in the 5th century AD.  From roughly 600-200 BC the indigenous inhabitants were a tribe called by Latin writers the Dumnonii, ‘the people of the land’, of whom the ruling classes were Celtic and the lower classes probably of non-Aryan origin.  Their territory covered the greater part of Devon and Cornwall and they continued to govern throughout the Roman period.  The kingdom of Dumnonia, from which the name Devon is derived, may well have reached an accommodation with Rome, for there is little evidence of Roman occupation west of the Exe, suggesting that the Romans had entered into a convenient alliance with Celtic Dumnonia.  With the departure of the Romans in AD 411 native rulers took over again, and in their final phase the Dumnonii held undisputed sway over the whole of the south-western peninsula until the Saxon kings of Wessex and Sussex ousted them from Devon early in the 8th century.

Devon had been more populous, and its cultivated area greater, in the Romano-British period than subsequently, for we know there was considerable migration of Britons from south-west England across the Channel to Armorica, which in consequence became known as Brittany.  These migrations most probably reached their peak in the first half of the 6th century, though their cause is not clear.  By the 7th century, then, much land had gone out of cultivation and reverted to waste, though some signs of older cultivation must have been apparent to the Saxon settlers of the 7th and 8th centuries by contrast with the untouched moor or virgin woodland.  The Saxon settlement of Devon is therefore to be thought of less as a conquest than a relatively peaceful penetration of largely uninhabited country, though some important pitched battles certainly took place between the newcomers and the old British (Celtic) Dumnonii rulers. [1]

Saxon Chronology

The chronology of the Saxon settlement of Devon remains a matter of considerable uncertainty; debate, even disagreement, continues among scholars.  Hence the following summary is presented without comment, as being a probable ‘best guess’.

A group of Anglo-Saxon peoples—Jutes, Saxons and Angles—who originally came from central Europe before colonising its northern parts around modern Jutland (Jutes), Holstein (Saxons) and the Baltic area of Germany east of the lower Rhine (Angles), invaded Britain and northern France during the approximate period AD 550-620.  The West Saxons, who eventually gave their name to the kingdom of Wessex, settled north and south of the Thames with their head-quarters at Dorchester, Dorset. [2]   After occupying Dorset these West Saxons commenced their advance into Celtic Dumnonia with a victory at the modern Bindon, just east of Axmouth, between Lyme Regis and Seaton.  After further battles in 658 at Pinhoe near Exeter, and in 661 at Posbury, south-west of Crediton, their line was pushed westwards across mid-Devon until in a decisive battle in 682 Centwine drove the Britons in flight as far as the sea. [3]   Much has been written on the meaning of this phrase but it is now presumed to indicate a drive to the Atlantic on the north Devon coast, establishing a frontier probably as far west as the river Ottery, below the high ground of Bodmin moor, before the end of the 7th century.  Thus, most of Devon was in Saxon hands by the third quarter of the 7th century, leaving only the southern fringe from the Teign to the Tamar; by 712 it too had been over-run.  The Saxon conquest, or settlement, of Devon was thus complete in the comparatively short time of 50-60 years. [4]

The northern thrust left behind it many place-names ending in -cote (cottage) and -worthy (worpig, farm), as in Upcott, Nethercott, Esworthy, Pinkworthy, all of which are found today in Oakford parish.  There can be little doubt that the whole Witheridge plateau over to and beyond South Molton was included in that Saxon advance to the Atlantic south of Barnstaple and Bideford.  Yet the fact that fewer than one percent of the place-names of Devon are pre-English (i.e. pre-Saxon) should be regarded not as evidence of a wholesale extermination of the Celtic inhabitants but more probably of Saxon settlement in what was largely an uninhabited region, though one still bearing many marks of former habitation and tillage.  However, at least one example remains of a Celtic presence in the area of immediate interest, in the parish names Morchard Bishop and Cruwys Morchard, both derived from the old British mor-cet or ‘great wood’.  The name by itself aptly describes the wooded, mostly uninhabited, nature of great stretches of the country some one and a half millennia ago.  It also illustrates the fact that in old Celtic names the base element, mor, precedes the adjunct, by contrast with Saxon names (Chap.1, page 7).

And so the English came to Devon.  They brought with them their own social structure and customs, living out their lives in a perpetual struggle for survival against hardship and privation.  Early in the second half of the 8th century Devon became one of the seven shires of Wessex although its territorial boundaries were not fixed for another 150 years.  Confusion was finally ended by the English king Athelstan (925-940), eldest grandson of Alfred, who decreed that the boundary with Cornwall should be fixed on the Tamar. [5]

As if the combination of natural climatic elements, a rugged, untamed countryside, and the strains of a frontier-like existence were not difficult enough, much of the eastern and southern coastal regions of England suffered additionally from plunder and pillage by marauding Danes during the 9th century.  Devon escaped their initial attentions, apart from the capture of Exeter in 876, but several areas were severely mauled in later attacks, after which the south-west was left more or less in peace from these raiders for nearly a century.  Finally, however, the Danes returned, always to plunder, never to settle in Devon, until in 1016 the shire passed with the rest of Wessex into Danish rule under Cnut.  Even then much of the west country must have escaped the invaders’ notice so that English society developed comparatively peacefully over the 400 years from the first settlements until the Norman conquest.  It is worth noting that this period is longer than that which separates us from the time of Spanish Armada.

Pre-conquest society in Devon

We owe much of our knowledge of Saxon social organization to Ine, king of Wessex from 689-726, whose Laws reveal a complex social order. [6]   In Wessex, as in Kent, the free peasant landholder or ceorl formed the basis of society.  With no claim to nobility he was yet subject to no lord below the king.  He was an independent person with many rights, and the law protected the honour and peace of his household.  He owed personal service in the fyrd or national militia, but it is as the independent master of a peasant household that he stands out most clearly in early West Saxon law. [7]

Ceorls were the people responsible for the first wave of colonization in Devon.  They led a continual struggle for existence against unprofitable soil and scrubland which would spread again over cultivated fields on any slackening of effort.  It was by individual enterprise that those poor lands were brought into cultivation; innumerable isolated farmsteads bearing Anglo-Saxon names remain as memorials to the process.  The tendency was for land to be divided into large regiones or estates, each with one or more small villages as its focus, surrounded by a scattering of farms and cottages whose boundaries were indicated by a bare reference to a few well-known features of the countryside: a wood, tumulus or stream. [8]   During the 10th century these large regions within a shire were subdivided into districts known as Hundreds.  The Hundred first appears during the reign of Edmund (939-946) and was originally a unit of taxation, answering for 100 hides to the king’s geld (national tax).  The earlier regiones soon lost their identity as the process of fission into smaller vills or estates destroyed the unit, or much reduced it in size, but the Hundred remained an important administrative unit for many hundreds of years.  It has been defined as

a major division of a shire with jurisdiction over a rural area for the preservation of order and the punishment of petty crimes, with the obligation to meet at frequent intervals (originally every few weeks) and the right to hold regular markets…As shires were divided into hundreds so hundreds were sub-divided into…units known as tithings or townships. [9]

At some stage during this period we may surmise that a distinct topographical feature in Oakford tithing was maintained continuously in cultivation for sufficient time to be spoken of locally as the pigsty [or perhaps a shelter for pigs or their swineherd] on the moor: hlosemor, or Loosemoor in its modern form.  The poor soil and bleak climate characteristic of the high wet moors of north Devon must have made the area relatively immune to consolidation into large estates, probably accounting for Reichel’s description of Witheridge Hundred, our centre of immediate interest, as a hundred of small thanes.  He observed that at the time of Domesday, with the exception of Bishops Nympton and Kings Nympton, Chulmleigh and Cruwys Morchard, there was hardly an estate which can have aspired to the status of what is now termed a manor.  Nearly all were smallholdings in the range 50-150 acres. [10]

Inevitably this picture of an early society of free small landholders owing service to no one but the king gradually changed, as a response to the effect on individuals of the environmental and personal pressures to which they were subjected daily: English peasant life drifted from freedom towards servitude.  Even before the country was ravaged by invading Danes the smallholder was subject to economic stress and insecurity, through plague which destroyed his cattle, poor harvests, and bands of raiders attempting to compensate for their own losses.  He would naturally seek protection from larger landowners, who would demand fealty and service in return.  This tendency began to accelerate from the time of Alfred (871-899) when it became customary for lords to receive title to their lands by royal grant.  The Saxon lords, known as ‘thegns’ or ‘thanes’, were retainers of noble birth and hereditary rank who marked the creation of the first non-royal lordships, an intermediate class between the king and his ordinary subjects which the Normans later developed into the full panoply of feudal society.

Ceorls, required to provide service to their lord, became even less able to maintain their own independence, with the result that large landowners tended to swallow their smaller neighbours.  The villani as a social class, so common by the time of the Domesday survey of 1086, was the direct outcome of this drift during the later stages of pre-Conquest Saxon rule.  In the century or so before the Conquest this same trend of social development even threatened the independence of the lesser thanes, leading to a gradual accumulation of estates by a small number of powerful families.

Domesday and beyond

The aftermath of the Norman conquest saw profound changes in the principles underlying land tenure although the practical consequences affected upper levels of society to a far greater extent than the majority of ordinary people, the peasants, who made up roughly 90% of the population.

King William I, through his great land survey of 1086 summarised in Domesday Book, formalised the trend noticed in late Saxon times of giving permanence to land holdings by a royal grant or charter.  He asserted the principle that the king was the absolute owner of all land in the kingdom.  He granted large tracts of land to his chief followers, the barons, often dispossessing those prosperous Saxon thanes who held earlier title.  Those who obtained a direct grant from the Crown were required to take an oath of fealty to the king and to provide a certain number of knights (horse soldiers) for his army.  These tenants-in-chief then granted smaller estates, or manors, to individual knights in return for military service.  This parcelling of the country into relatively small judicial units—for the lord of a manor had absolute power over his land, including the right to a manorial court to try minor offences—is definitive; the Domesday Book has been regarded as the foundation of all land tenure.  Knights or sub-tenants made land available to the smaller men, the peasant class of villeins and bordars, who held it on condition of performing various services for their lord.  Below them were the serfs, who were usually land-less.  Thus, every holder of land except the king held it of some lord whom he was bound to serve and obey.  The lord, for his part, was obliged to protect and maintain the means of livelihood of ‘his’ men. [11]

The peasant class of smallholders lived on individual holdings varying in size from a few acres up to as much as 30-50 acres or more, working the land mainly or entirely with the labour of their families.  The primary object of growing crops and rearing animals was to provide subsistence for the family.  To such people it mattered little whether their lord was a Saxon thane or a knight, often Saxon, owing allegiance to a Norman baron.  But we must beware of assuming that the Normans introduced a ready-made social structure embodying all the features later found in a full feudal society.  They brought with them no clear-cut scheme of social relationships appropriate to the peasantry of a conquered country.

The Domesday survey refers to ordinary people, the peasants, under three headings: villani, bordarii or cottarii, and serfs.  At a later time the term villanus became restricted to the unfree section of the manorial peasantry but in the 11th century it meant no more than ‘villager’, carrying no implication of unfree status.  It included minor ceorls who had slipped in the social rankings as well as the freeman planted by his lord on a portion of his manor.  Many peasants who in 1086 had been holding land directly of the king, or as voluntary dependants of other magnates, are classed in Domesday as villani on the estates of Norman lords.  On the other hand most of the bordarii or cottarii were cottagers occupying no more than about 5 acres, much less that the minimum necessary to support a family.  They were dependent for their livelihood on payment, often in kind, for services provided to their lord; they were of a lower order, and servile.  Serfs generally owned no land and were little better than slaves.

The land-holding of a freeman was not necessarily greater than that of a servile villein but he was distinguished by the terms of his tenure, being free of the burdensome restrictions under which the unfree laboured.  Chief among these were the requirements to provide service on the lord’s demesne lands, often as much as 2-3 days per week; payment of a fine on marriage; payment of a further fine, the ‘heriot’ (often his best beast), by his estate at death; prohibition from leaving the manor except by permission of his lord and payment of a fine; mandatory use of the lord’s mill and bread oven, for a fee; and so on. [12]

It has been shown elsewhere that the boundaries of the seven Domesday manors forming most of the present Oakford parish can be identified with reasonable confidence but only if it is assumed that little or no ‘waste’, or unenclosed common land or woodland, lay between them.  This assumption is subject to uncertainty since it requires that the average area of one ‘ploughland’, a unit quoted in the Domesday survey, was 135 acres, substantially greater than has been proposed elsewhere in the literature.  One authority states very clearly that

whatever the size of the ploughland may have been in other counties, in Devon it was roughly 64 acres, or 80 acres including roads, hedges and waste. [13]

Whichever view is correct, there can be no doubt that the largest of the seven manors in 1086 was Alforda, the modern Oakford.  This was probably the reason why it eventually gave its name to the parish.  In the words of the Devonshire Domesday Book of the Exchequer it had

…land for fourteen ploughs.  In demesne are four ploughs, and [William] has two serfs, and twenty villeins, and seven bordars, with nine ploughs.  There is a mill returning thirty pence, and a hundred acres of wood, and twelve acres of meadow, and eight acres of pasture …it is worth six pounds …13

Perhaps somewhere among those twenty villeins was the head of a family which within the next 150 years or so would adopt the name Loosemore.

We may now make an educated guess at the population of the parish of Oakford in 1086.  For example, we know from Domesday Book that the seven manors held a total of 44 villeins, 16 bordars and 8 serfs, in addition to the seven lords or their resident stewards.  Making reasonable assumptions about their marital status and taking the average family to have between 2 and 3 children leads to a grand total for the parish in the range 240-295 people.  Similar estimates have been made for several neighbouring parishes which will figure in our story of the Loosemores, leading to totals in the same general range, though details of the calculations have not been included in the present account.

At this time the total population of England was no more than 1.75–2.25 million people, of which Devon held a mere 60–80,000, fewer than live in present-day Exeter. [14]   Hoskins, in his monumental account of the county, paints an evocative picture of life in Devon in the late 11th century.  In the countryside were vast uncolonized stretches between the villages.  After three or four hundred years of occupation and hacking at the surrounding waste, as long a time as separates us from the Tudors, the villages of Domesday Devon had cleared a few hundred acres around about them.  A mile or two away, smaller groups of families lived in hamlets which had split from their parent village a century or two earlier.  Deeper in the woods, or high up on the moorland edge, were hamlets and single homesteads of even greater age.  Villages were small and isolated, linked to each other by tracks or roads which were little more than bridle-paths.  There was no industry in Devon other than the small household activities such as pottery and clothmaking; there was little or no mining; trade was negligible.  About half the county lay waste in moorland, woodland, heath and marsh.  Large areas were completely uninhabited.1

The 12th, 13th and early 14th centuries saw immense changes, comparable in magnitude and kind only with those of the 19th century.  This was the second great age of colonization, exemplified by the spread of settlement and of cultivated areas in the countryside, with the creation of new towns on a considerable scale.  Thousands of new farms came into existence: nearly all of the thousands of place-names on the modern 1 inch O.S. map of Devon would have been found on a map drawn in 1350.  Much, perhaps all, of this colonization was the work of free peasants, armed with a charter from the lord of their manor granting them a piece of territory within specified boundaries.  As has already been mentioned, many Domesday freeholders may have been disguised under the general heading of villani, but the majority of these medieval freeholders originate in the century between about 1150 and 1250.  No doubt many of them took over a tract of the manorial outfield that had already been cultivated intermittently from earlier times, sometimes the result of post-Conquest attempts to extend the frontier of a village but often a residual clearing from Saxon times. [15]

The cultivated area in Devon as indicated by the various place-names in Domesday amounted to barely half the total.  Even excluding the desolation of Dartmoor the remainder was waste: uninhabited moorland, woodland, heath, almost all of which was technically part of the royal forest which covered most of the south-western peninsula.  The term ‘forest’ was not restricted to heavily wooded areas but referred to all land subject to the royal forest laws, which prohibited assarting (the right of enclosure), hunting, pasturing, etc.  The inhibiting effect of these laws on the development of small communities struggling to achieve a unity beyond individual estates is illustrated by the earliest mention of Oakford parish or tithing, as distinct from the manor.  This is thought to be in the Great Roll of the Pipe for the first year of the reign of king John, who acceded to the throne in May 1199.  Here the villata de Acford is stated to have owed a forest fine of half a mark (3s.4d, or 16½p), which the following Pipe roll records as having been paid at Michaelmas 1200.  The Pipe Roll for 3 John records another fine imposed on Acford, this time as large as 35s. (£1.75p), collected by the deputy sheriff of the county. [16]

Colonization in the county must have received a major stimulus when in AD 1204, by a charter of date 18 May, the men of Devon agreed to pay king John 5000 marks to have the county disafforested, up to the ‘regards’ of Dartmoor and Exmoor which remained part of the forest.  These ‘regards’ were the districts bounding a royal forest which were subject to periodic inspection to confirm that the forest laws were not being transgressed by illegal hunting, pasturing or tillage.  Disafforestation did not imply the act of felling trees but simply relief from these laws.  Item 3 of the charter made it lawful:

…to those who shall please without the aforesaid bounds to assart, make parks, take all kinds of venary, to have dogs, bows and arrows and all kinds of arms, and to make deer leaps, except in the metes of the aforesaid moor… [17]

It is not clear what administrative arrangements were necessary to organize the payment of this very large sum, equivalent to over £3330, perhaps because no relevant documents have survived.  The literature is silent on the matter, surprisingly so in view of the fact that only one of the 16 Lay Subsidies levied nationally in the period 1290–1332 raised more than £1017 in Devon, while of the seven between 1301 and 1316 Devon’s contribution averaged only £727.  But the financial obligation placed on the county by the charter was no mere legal fiction.  King John, desperate for money to support major expeditions in defence of his French possessions, made strenuous efforts to raise funds from all available sources.  The Pipe Roll for 6 John (1204) contains an introductory statement that

The men of Devon render account of 5000 marks for the disafforestation of Devon in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the King which they have from him and in order that they may be discharged from all dues of the forest which have not yet been settled.  And if the Bishop of Exeter, the earl of Devon or anyone else wish to participate in the aforesaid fine of 5000 marks the same which pertains to their holdings must be accounted for to the said men in the aforesaid fine.  And they may not have any licence from them.  For which they must pay 1000 marks per annum. [18]

The Pipe Rolls record that instalments of about £600 were received by the royal Treasury in every year from 1204 up to and including 1208, the final £134 being debited to the account of the bishop of Exeter who failed to inform the Devonians of his intention to hunt in the forest, as he was required to do. [19]

On the other hand the king was slow to keep his side of the bargain.  We are told that the Charter was not put into operation until the boundaries of the forest were settled by perambulation in 1242 to define the limits of Dartmoor and Exmoor.  The basis for this statement is obscure.  It first appeared in 1906 and was repeated in Burnard’s well-respected account of the ancient population of Dartmoor published the following year.  It received no mention by other acknowledged authorities and must be regarded as not completely proven. [20]   Yet there is no doubt that on 10 October 1239 Henry III did grant the forests of Devon to his brother Richard, earl of Cornwall, and it is not unreasonable that shortly afterwards the boundaries should have been defined in order to specify exactly the scope of the royal gift, whether or not there had been an earlier survey.  In any event we may safely assume that the disafforestation became effective some time between 1204 and 1242, leaving the way open for widespread assarting of hitherto unenclosed land, subject only to agreement with local lords.

For this reason it would occasion no surprise if the place- and associated family-name Loosemore made their first appearance in official records at about this time.  In the next Chapter we shall find that it was so.


[1] Hoskins, Chap.III passim;

[2] F M Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, 1971, Chap.I passim.  I have borrowed extensively both from him and Hoskins for this chapter.

[3] B Thorpe, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 2 vols., 1861, I, 62; transl, ii, 34.

[4] J J Alexander, TDA, lxiv, 1932, 75-112 and 169-172; G E L Carter, TDA, lxiv, 1932, 519-538; W G Hoskins, Univ. Coll. of Leicester, Dept. of English Local History, Occasional Papers, No.13, 1960.

[5] Hoskins, 10.

[6] B Thorpe, ed., Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, i, 1840, 103-151.

[7] F M Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, 1971, Chaps. IX, XIV.

[8] W G Hoskins and H P R Finberg, Devonshire Studies, 1952, 289-333.

[9] J J Alexander, TDA, lxxi, 1939, 117-8.

[10] O J Reichel, TDA, xxx, 1898, 391-433.

[11] J J Alexander, TDA, lxxi, 1939, 311-319.

[12] J F C Harrison, The Common People, 1984 (p/b), Chap. I, especially 30-31.

[13] Bentley p15 for the seven manors of Oakford; VCH Devon, I, 1906, 386 & 402 for a ploughland of 64 acres.

[14] Hoskins, Chap. IX, passim.

[15] Hoskins and Finberg, op. cit., 321-2.

[16] PRS, New Series, x, 1933, 193;  xii, 1934, 228;  xiv, 1936, 224;  xv, 1937, 25.

[17] O J Reichel, TDA, xxxiii, 1901, 603-639 for the charter of 1204;  E T MacDermot, The History of the Forest of Exmoor, repr. 1973, p22 for ‘regards’.

[18] I am grateful to the late Rupert Seacome for this translation from the Latin text.  The Bishop sought permission to hunt in the forest of Devon and Cornwall but, ‘if he ever paid the amercement, his hunting cost him dear, for he was fined 500 marks for not informing the knights of the shire of the fine he had made for the privilege’, see PRS, New Series, xxii, 1944, introduction page xxiv.

[19] PRS, New Series, xviii, 1940, 85; xix, 1941, 22, 24; xx, 1942, 141; xxii, 1944, 181, 185; xxiii, 1945, 66, 68; xxiv, 1946, 90, 92; xxvi, 1949, 166.

[20] VCH Devon, i, 1906, 399 and R Burnard, TDA, xxxix, 1907, 198-207 for 1242 as operating date for the 1204 charter.  No mention in G J Turner, Selden Society, xiii, 1901, cvii; J F Chanter, TDA, xxxix, 1907, 267-301; O J Reichel, TDA, xxxiii, 1901, 605.