The fields continued to be farmed in the same medieval way for many years, despite the changes going on around them. The greatest upheaval came in the 13th century, when Braunton was divided into separate manors and sub-manors.
The Norman Feudal System
Under the Norman feudal system, most landworkers were made bondsmen instead of free tenants. This meant that they had land apportioned to them, the amount according to their rank in the eyes of the lord of the manor. The lord would have at least 500 acres for himself.
Next in order of importance came freemen, who were those who had particularly pleased the lord. They would have about 100 acres (the area thought necessary to support a man and his family) and owed the lord very small dues. Next came socmen, who were free but owed various dues in the form of produce and service to the lord.
Generally greatest in number were the next class – villeins. They were the main class of landworker, who were bound to the land and could be sold with it. The dwelling place of villeins gave rise to a term we know today –village. They each held thirty acres of land, in addition to a share of the meadow and communal grazing. Villeins had extra responsibilities and this often meant working the land around the manor house – although a villein could send a son or hired help as a substitute if necessary.
Lower in the social scale were bordars or cottars, who lived in cottages. They owed less but were only given five acres. Below them were slaves, who had no legal rights and no landholding – the Domesday Books suggests that there were 25,000 slaves in England in 1086. It seems however that Braunton was lucky and that most tenants here were freemen.
The Great Field
Gradually, the tenants organised the area known as the Great Field and by the mid 1500s it was no longer worked communally, but had been divided into individually-managed strips. First the field was divided into blocks of furlongs, which were given names to identify them. Examples include Bowstring, Pitt, Higher and Lower Thorne, Gallowills and Lime Tree. The names have evolved over the years but even today they are still used and can be found on maps. The edges of the blocks were left untouched, to provide space for the plough to be turned without trespassing on a neighbour’s land.
Next, each block of land was divided into narrow strips, each of which covered an acre. The strips were separated by a mound of earth, which was created by turning the plough shears in. These were known locally as landsherds and at the end of them were placed smooth boulders, known as ‘bond stones’, to mark ownership of the strips.
The strips that each tenant owned, if they owned more than one, were scattered over the Great Field so that all had an equal allocation of fertile or stoney ground. The strips that belonged to the Courtney family, who held the Earldom of Devon for many years, are a good example because they owned some in nearly every furlong block.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to turn back time and see the mesmerising patchwork of strips laid out before you, planted as they once were with red clover, wheat, rye, peas, beans, potatoes, turnips and vetches? Wouldn’t it be lovely to watch the whole village community turning out together to bring in the harvest, when there was a bumper crop of barley and the danger of approaching autumnal rain?
Local tithe maps, dating from 1841, are available here – see the right-hand side of this page. They are provided in two parts, Part 1 being the western half of the parish and Part 2 being the eastern half. The full map shows the two halves stitched together. They are fascinating maps and, among many features to be found on them, careful study of the area we now know as Braunton Great Field reveals that there were once a great many agricultural strips surrounding our modern day ‘Field’, which have since succumbed to modern development. The maps also show the controversial location of the chapel at St Hannahs, a village at the south end of Braunton Burrows, which disappeared beneath the sand many years ago.
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A great deal of interest has centred on Braunton Great Field over the years and a report about it was undertaken by the Exeter Museum Archaeological Field Unit in 1994. View the complete Great Field Management Study here (pdf, 9.57mb).