One of the ecclesiastical stone fragments found in the gardens.
If you're a regular reader of The Plot Thickens you'll know Waterfurlong lies near the lost hamlet of Bradcroft or Breadcroft. Very little is understood about the settlement and we have been working with historians Professor Alan Rogers and Professor David Roffe to try and piece the jigsaw together.
Domesday expert David Roffe believes Bradcroft can be traced back to Saxon times and may even have pre-dated neighbouring Stamford. Bradcroft formed part of the ancient royal estate of Roteland, from which the shire of Rutland later emerged. This vast estate once belonged to Edward the Confessor's Queen, Edith of Wessex (after whom Edith Weston was named), and included Oakham and many other important manors. Confusingly, St Peter's parish in Stamford also fell in Roteland and paid different taxes to the rest of the town.
Alan Rogers suggests we imagine two busy roads intersecting half a mile west of Stamford. Running north to south was Ermine Street, still in use centuries after the Romans had departed. Running east to west was an ancient route from Stamford to Tinwell and on to Hambleton near Oakham. This could well have been the footpath that nowadays forms the top lane of Waterfurlong gardens. At some point the
crossroads became known as Bradcroft, from the Old English 'brad', meaning broad and 'croft', meaning clearing - so a broad clearing around a crossroads in what was then Rockingham forest.
Today Hambleton is tiny and comparatively remote, but in medieval times it was one of the most prominent places in Rutland, with an estimated population of 750. Divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower or Nether Hambleton, it had three churches, 45 ploughs at work, a busy weekly market and an annual fair. The ruins of Nether Hambleton now lie deep beneath Rutland Water.
Since time immemorial crossroads have been natural gathering places - sites for meetings, markets and law courts. Rutland established its most easterly law court at Bradcroft and it was an important one, hearing cases from as far away as Greetham, Whissendine and Ashwell. Felons who received the death-sentence were dragged to the gallows at Tinwell; those meted out lighter punishment were often gaoled in Oakham Castle.
Medieval court-houses needed two things on their doorstep - a church or chapel where oaths could be sworn on holy relics and a reliable supply of freemen to act as jurors.
We have a reference to the chapel at Bradcroft and suspect
we have now located its site. Two adjacent gardens have
yielded some beautiful pieces of carved ecclesiastical stonework and a large stone lintel. It is possible these were removed from derelict buildings like the Austin Friary or St Peter's Church, but the fact both gardens contain old yew trees suggests otherwise.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE YEW TREES
Where there is a cluster of yew trees, there is often the remains of an ancient church. The Druids regarded the yew as sacred, growing it close to their temples and using it in cremation rites, and the early Christians often built their churches on these same consecrated sites. Yew
is the longest-lived of our native trees and it is not uncommon to find specimens that pre-date the Norman Conquest - dendrologists report one yew in Wales as being more than 5,000 years old. In 1656 a clergyman wrote: 'Our forefathers were particularly careful in preserving churchyard Yews which by reason of their perpetual verdure were emblematical of the immortality of the soul'.
But yews had practical uses as well. Yew wood was perfect for making archers' bows but the trees are toxic to livestock and had to be grown somewhere out of reach of grazing animals. The churchyard offered a safe location. In 1307 Edward I found another reason for ordering yews to be planted in churchyards - they helped to protect churches from storm damage. Across Britain yews and churchyards are inextricably linked.
We know the land on which our gardens sit was farmed after Bradcroft disappeared and no-one would have planted poisonous yews on agricultural land. It is more likely that the trees or their forebears were long-established and that fear of disturbing an ancient sacred site prevented people from felling them.
THE MEDIEVAL VILLAGE AND VILLAGERS
Over time a small settlement grew up around Bradcroft's court-house. Medieval property transactions record several houses and a large dovecot supplying meat for the winter months. The occupants probably earned money acting as jurors and witnesses to oaths, although their main occupation seems to have been milling and baking. We know there were at least two watermills because records show these were washed away by floods in 1483.
There are references to the settlement extending north to 'the King's highway' (what is now Tinwell Road) and east to 'le grene dyke' (what is now Waterfurlong), with residents owning and farming various parcels of nearby land.
If we move forward in time and look at the 1842 tithe map (drawn up some thirty years before Enclosure), it shows much of the land on the west side of Waterfurlong still divided into long arable strips typical of the medieval ridge and furrow system. The corresponding strips south of the Millstream were pasture. Perhaps Bradcroft's houses sat on what are now the Waterfurlong council allotments and those gardens closest to the road, with villagers growing their crops and grazing their livestock to the south of the settlement.
It feels quite magical to know the names of villagers who cultivated the land we now garden 800 years ago - Richard Tastard, William Pert, Agnes Trille, Hugh Alryth, William Edelyn, Cecelia Maturneys, John Jakes, Peter de Nousle and the wonderful Everard le Wikked, among others.
Wealthy merchants like Terricus of Cologne, William Browne and Damisona, widow of Roger Bonus, also had property and other holdings in Bradcroft, as did Amabil le Venur, prioress of St Michael's (the nunnery across the river) and Lady Lucy Humet, whose husband Richard was Lord of Stamford.
In the 15th century one of Bradcroft's mills was owned by Richard, the third Duke of York (1411-1460). Richard was a great-grandson of Edward III and England's wealthiest magnate. In 1448 he adopted the surname 'Plantaganet' to emphasise his royal descent and was a leading player in the Wars of the Roses. He was killed at the Battle of Wakefield and buried at Fotheringhay. Richard was succeeded by his son, Edward, who was proclaimed king a few weeks later, thereby establishing the York dynasty.
Richard, Duke of York from a 15th century frieze
Rarely is only one factor involved in the abandonment of a village. Bradcroft's demise probably began in the 14th century. First it would have been hit by a change in climate when the 'Medieval Warm Period' came to an abrupt end. Four centuries of hot, dry summers and mild winters
(when England was balmy enough to be a significant wine-producer) were replaced by year upon year of drenching rain and bitter winter cold. Then came the scourge of the Black Death, in which more than a third of the population died. There were few people left to work the sodden land and by 1350 grain rotted and fields fell fallow.
Of course, many settlements survived these catastrophes but Bradcroft's proximity to the Millstream made it susceptible to repeated flooding and, as previously mentioned, at least two of the watermills on which it relied were eventually washed away. Meanwhile, 15th century land-owners began to realise that a better return could be made on wool than on grain. Labour shortages had pushed up wage rates and land that had previously been tilled by six men needed only one shepherd and a dog if turned over to pasture. There was no financial incentive to rebuild Bradcroft's lost mills.
Nearby Stamford's wealth had become concentrated in the hands of a few individuals like wool-merchants William and John Browne, the town was in general decline and its western suburbs in particular were rapidly falling into disrepair. In March 1462 the church of St Mary Bynnewerk was amalgamated with neighbouring St Peter’s ‘on the petition of the parishioners who were so few, insufficient and poor that they could no longer repair the church (which was stated to have been ruinous for a long time) nor provide for the cure'[ie pay for a priest]. St Peter's, probably once the town's most important church, did not manage to cling on much longer and was itself absorbed into All Saints. The Austin Friary's heyday as an international centre of learning had long since passed and when it fell victim to Henry VIII's dissolution in 1538 only five impoverished brethren remained.
With fewer and fewer local cases to be heard and bad weather hampering judges' and witnesses' travel, we can surmise that the Bradcroft court became unviable. The hamlet's residents were left with little employment, the constant risk of flooding and consequent disease and increasing isolation from Stamford. We begin to understand why they were forced to abandon their homes. By the early 16th century we find no more court cases, no more property transactions, and references dwindling to the occasional repair of a gate here or a barn there.
200 years later the once-thriving settlement lived on only as a vague memory passed down the generations and in the name of Breadcroft meadow.
Our explorations continue ...
With grateful thanks to Professor Alan Rogers, Professor David Roffe and John Hopson, Honorary Archivist at Stamford Town Hall.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019