Boarhunt Hall House and its Origins
The medieval hall house from Boarhunt in Hampshire has been tentatively dated to the late 14th century on the basis of comparison with similar Hampshire houses that have been dendro-dated (dated by tree-ring analysis) and the distinctive seesaw marks that occur on all the timbers. When the house was rescued in 1971, in an advanced state of decay, it consisted of a timber-framed structure containing two rooms: a two bay cruck hall, and a room – possibly a service room – under the hipped end. It had brick walls, of several different dates, and a thatched roof.
An upper floor had been inserted over the hall and a large brick chimney serving two ground floor hearths and a bake oven had been built in the lower end of the hall. The service room was still open to the roof, and the rafters and thatch battens were heavily sooted from the original open fire. Although only about 30% of the original timbers survived, the reconstruction of the medieval hall house was considered worthwhile since the building was small and simple and the remains well distributed throughout the frame. Elements of the building as it has been reconstructed remain speculative, however, notably the location of the doors and windows and the dimensions of the room at the hall’s upper end (usually described as the ‘chamber’ or ‘solar’).
Boarhunt lies on the northern slope of Portsdown approximately four miles north of Porchester (separated from it by the M27). It now forms two settlements, North and South Boarhunt, separated by the river Wallington. North Boarhunt, running northwards along Trampers Lane, is the more populous part. South Boarhunt consists of a few scattered farms, the church of St Nicholas and the former manor house (Manor Farm). During the medieval period Boarhunt was divided into at least three manors, West Boarhunt, Boarhunt Herberd and Boarhunt Herbelyn, with a possible fourth manor of East Boarhunt. West Boarhunt, which appears to have been roughly coterminous with the parish of West Boarhunt, was the principal manor.
In around 1190 the manor was given to Southwick Priory, a house of Augustinian canons, situated approximately two miles away. In 1369 the Priory also acquired the neighbouring manors of Boarhunt Herberd and Herbelyn. The hall house was situated a short distance from the church and manor house, in what is now South Boarhunt but was previously the manor of West Boarhunt. The area around Boarhunt is classic ‘woodland’ or ‘wood pasture’ landscape – meaning an area of land characterized by a mixture of pasture, woods, arable and heaths, with some edged fields. ‘Woodland’ was distinct from ‘forest’, which referred to an area subject to forest law. Forests, like the Forest of Bere, were reserved to the crown or its lessees and were used for deer ranching, hunting and timber. Woodland settlements tended to be dispersed rather than nucleated and this was the case in medieval Boarhunt, with the population thinly distributed throughout the parish. In this sense it was not a ‘village’ at all, but should be described as a settlement or a community.
The pre-Black Death Community
In the first half of the 14th century the population of Boarhunt may have been in the region of 160 to 180 people. The majority of these would have been villeins or unfree tenants (also known as customary tenants or serfs). ‘Unfree’ refers both to personal status and to tenure. Unfree status was inherited through the male line and unfree tenants were (in law, at least) effectively chattels of their lord: they could be bought or sold along with his other property and evicted from their land at will. In return for holding land, unfree tenants were required to provide labour services, which were meticulously set out in manorial surveys or custumals. Peasant holdings were uniform in size: a virgate (usually c.30 acres but in Boarhunt probably closer to 20), 1⁄2 virgate (c.10 acres), 1 farthingland (5 acres) or 4 acres. Most peasant holdings in Boarhunt consisted of five acres or less of land.
Farming and the peasant economy
The arable field system in West Boarhunt consisted of a combination of open common fields, and closes – enclosed parcels of land bounded by ditches and hedges. Each tenant probably held a mixture of land, some interspersed with other tenants’ lands in the common fields and some enclosed. The crops on the demesne lands were wheat, barley and oats grown in a three-course rotation – that is, the arable was divided into three courses with each used in turn for winter and spring grains and then fallowed. On the neighbouring manor of Boarhunt Herberd beans, peas and vetch were also grown. The crops the tenants grew were much the same: 16th century probate inventories record wheat, barley and oats, rye and peas.
The seigneurial sheep flocks were pastured together with the tenants’ sheep on the downland on the north side of Portsdown. In 1421 John Borewell was presented in the manorial court for killing a sheep worth 14d with his cart on ‘Portesdon’. In the mid 15th century the priory was maintaining a flock of approximately 300-350 sheep in West Boarhunt – a small flock in comparison with those on the manors of the Bishop of Winchester, which could number up to 2000. In 1450-1 the Priory also had 12 oxen, 12 cows and 12 bullocks. The number of oxen suggests that the canons were still using oxen for ploughing, and possibly for hauling as well. The cows were probably used for milk, which was used to make cheese and butter. The tenants would have kept a variety of livestock, depending on their wealth and the size of their holdings. They paid pannage for the right to let their pigs forage in the woodland, the amount determined by the age of the pig: 2d for a one-year old pig down to 1⁄2d for a weaned piglet.
It has been suggested that this part of Hampshire was a consuming rather than a producing region, meaning that it had little surplus produce to export and external trade links were weak. Tenants holding less than 10 acres (the amount of land needed to feed a peasant family of five) can only have survived by hiring themselves out as wage labourers and most tenants probably supplemented their income with by-employment such as brewing, baking, dairying, and small-scale industrial activities such as potting. The overall impression of Boarhunt in the late medieval period is of a poor, woodland area with a relatively weak rural economy and little rural industry.
The Black Death and its Aftermath
Hampshire was one of the earliest points of entry for the Black Death in the summer of 1348. It was at its most virulent during the first six months of 1349, after which plague mortality abated. Nationally it is thought that the Black Death killed between 40% and 70% of the population, and some communities were wiped out altogether. In so far as it is possible to ascertain, Black Death mortality in Boarhunt may have been relatively low, at 25%. The population of Boarhunt seems to have recovered fairly quickly so that by the end of the 14th century it was almost the same as it had been before the Black Death. The century and a half after 1350 was a difficult time for landlords. Faced with a shortage of tenants, increased tenant mobility and agricultural depression, they were forced to try to make customary tenancies more attractive, by ‘improving’ holdings (for example, by adding more land), lowering entry fines and reducing or removing labour services. This period witnessed the gradual decline and ultimate disappearance of villeinage both as a form of unfree tenure and as unfree personal status.
In Boarhunt by the end of the 14th century traditional villein labour services had been commuted to cash rents and by the early 15th century the majority of tenants were personally free, although some land was still held by villein tenure. The standard peasant holdings of the pre-Black Death period disappeared as peasants took advantage of the reduced population to acquire vacant holdings.
The ready availability of land meant that tenants abandoned less desirable holdings and allowed the buildings that were surplus to their requirements to fall into ruin. The new mobility of the population is reflected in the fact that much of the population increase in Boarhunt in the late 14th century was the result of inward migration.
All of these changes presented Southwick Priory with ongoing problems, as they sought to enforce traditional custom through the manorial court.
To illustrate some of these problems, we can look at the activities of John and Simon Roche, a father and son, as they are recorded in successive court rolls from 1413 to 1420. John Roche or his father may have been a post-plague migrant to Boarhunt. Roche’s opportunism meant that he was able to acquire a mixture of customary and free land in different parts of the manor. In 1396 he is described as holding three (customary) cottages, for which he paid 2s 3d every quarter year. At the time of his death he was holding a messuage (a house) and three acres of villein (or customary) land from the Priory in joint tenancy with his son, Simon, and a tenement (a complete peasant holding, with house, land and any outbuildings) in free tenure from Richard Russell, which may have been where he lived.
In 1413 he was fined in the manorial court for allowing his ‘tenement’ to fall into ruin and ordered to repair it before the next court. In this and subsequent entries it is likely that the ‘tenement’ that is being referred to is the messuage with its three acres. The fact that he was failing to maintain it suggests that it was the land attached to the holding he was interested in, and not the house itself, which he did not need. In 1414 he was fined 3d for allowing the ditch (in front of his tenement) to overflow onto the highway and was again ordered to repair his tenement before the next court. In 1416 John Roche died and the court roll recorded a fine of 6d against him because his tenement (i.e. his messuage) was in ruins. In 1418 Simon
Roche was fined 3d for failing to repair his tenement, and ordered to repair it before the next court on pain of a 20s fine. The same court roll records that he surrendered a cottage with five acres of customary land lying uncultivated into the lord’s hands. In 1420 and 1421 Simon Roche was again fined for failing to repair his tenement. After this the court roll series ends so he disappears from view.
Across the country the combination of falling grain prices and rising labour costs meant that many manorial landlords abandoned direct cultivation of the demesne in the late 14th century.
Southwick Priory kept the manorial demesne and its mill in hand for as long as possible but it was unable to resist the economic pressures of the post plague years and by c.1450 both were being leased to farmers.
The greater survival of peasant houses from the period after 1350 reflects the rising wealth of the peasant class in the post plague period. Although documentary evidence for medieval peasant housing on the manor of West Boarhunt is relatively sparse such evidence as does exist is consistent with what we know about peasant housing on the better documented manors of Titchfield Abbey, most of which lay within a few miles of Boarhunt. Peasant houses on the Titchfield manors were of two or three bays, divided internally into a hall, a chamber or solar at the upper end and (for three bay houses) a service room at the lower end. Many dwellings had a barn, usually a detached building, and they might also have a detached bake house.
In probate inventories that survive for Boarhunt from the late 16th century the room described as the ‘kitchen’ was clearly the service room at the lower end of the hall, and it was used for storage and possibly for food preparation (including dairying). Cooking and eating took place in the hall. The chamber or solar was where the family slept, and stored their linen, clothing and valuables.
The relative poverty of Boarhunt is reflected in the fact that in the second half of the 16th century tenants were still living in traditional two or three bay houses, like the Boarhunt hall house.
Who lived in the Boarhunt hall house?
The short answer to this is that it has not been possible to identify any of the occupants of the hall house. The documentary sources surviving for the medieval period only identify peasant holdings by the name of a previous tenant. In a minority of cases the tenant’s name has survived in a modern place name but in most cases, including that of the hall house, it has not. Later records are similarly unhelpful.
Although the hall house is numbered on the 1839 tithe map, it has no corresponding entry in the accompanying schedule. This is because it formed part of a large parcel of lands owned by Thomas Thistlethwaite for which tithe payments had at some previous date been merged. Moreover, as patron of the church, Thistlethwaite owned all the tithes. The omission of the house from the 1841 census (which listed all residential dwellings) would suggest that at this date it was not being used as a domestic residence.
However, whilst the medieval occupants remain unknown, it is possible to say with reasonable confidence that they were likely to have been customary tenants, probably men like John and Simon Roche, who had benefited from the post-Black Death conditions and acquired a number of holdings, which could have included a mixture of free and customary land.
- Dyer, C., Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520 (London, 2003).
- Roberts, E., The Hall House from Boarhunt (report commissioned by the WDOAM, 2000).
- Roberts, E., Hampshire Houses 1250-1700: Their Dating & Development (Southampton, 2003).
- Watts, G., ‘Medieval tenant housing on the Titchfield estates’, Hampshire Studies 57 (2002), 53-58.