Hangleton and its Medieval Village

The medieval downland village of Hangleton was situated just above the village of Hove about two miles from the sea, with an estimated population in the early 14th century of approximately 200. Hangleton’s nearest towns were New Shoreham (4.4 miles) and Lewes (10.5 miles) and it was presumably to one or both of their markets that the villagers bought their surplus produce for sale. The manor of Hangleton formed part of the Fishersgate Half Hundred, together with the neighbouring manors of Aldrington and Portslade, situated within the Rape of Lewes (Figure 1). The lords of the manor from 1291 to 1446 were the de Poynings, a Sussex gentry family with lands in Sussex, Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk.

Figure 1. Map showing location of Hangleton (Holden)

Figure 1. Map showing location of Hangleton (Holden)

A medieval village uncovered

The village site was excavated between 1952 and 1954 by Eric Holden and John and Gillian Hurst when plans for additional housing, overspill from Hove, threatened to (and subsequently did) remove all traces of the village for good (Holden, 1963; Hurst, 1964). In total the remains of 12 building groups (20 buildings) were excavated, covering a period from the 13th to the 15th century. These were spread out in a linear development away from the village church along two tracks, track 1 which corresponds to what is now Hangleton Way and track 2, which has disappeared (Figure 2).

Figure 2. General plan of excavations (Holden)

Figure 2. General plan of excavations (Holden)

The remains of two ‘longhouses’ were found, measuring approximately 40ft by 20ft, each divided internally into three rooms. All the other buildings were less than 30ft long, some with two rooms, some with one. The remains of six ovens were found, two within what otherwise appear to be living houses, three in separate outshuts (two in one outshut and one in another) and one within a freestanding kitchen. The pattern of building combined with the dating of pottery sherds suggested that the period of densest occupation was from c.1250 to c.1325 and that the population of Hangleton contracted substantially at some point after that.

The Museum’s cottage

The Museum’s cottage is an amalgam of two buildings (buildings 3 and 11) because no house was sufficiently well preserved to allow for reconstruction on its own evidence. Both of these buildings contained two rooms, an inner room with a large domed oven and an outer room with a hearth cut into the chalk floor. There has always been some debate about their function: although they have been interpreted as living houses the possibility exists that they were free standing kitchens or bakehouses. The structure of the buildings also remains conjectural. When Holden excavated the site he found the remains of timber post-holes below the flint walls in building 3 and concluded from this that a 12th century timber framed building was rebuilt with flint in the 13th century. The Museum’s cottage was therefore built with flint walls to a height that seemed to be consistent with the amount of tumbled flint that was discovered. However, the possibility exists that the timber frame was not replaced but was simply underpinned with a flint footing when the wooden post-holes rotted. If this was the case the infill could either have been flint or wattle and daub. Alternatively, a timber frame could have been encased in flint walls.

Medieval settlements

The location of the Museum’s cottage suggests an isolated building, set away from its neighbours and without any associated agricultural buildings. In fact the cottage would have formed part of a nucleated village (as can be seen in Figure 2) in a pattern of settlement found in other medieval rural communities. A typical medieval nucleated village plan consisted of a street with peasant holdings or ‘tofts’ arranged on either side. The regularity of some medieval settlements with each house occupying the same sized piece of land along a street or a green suggests that they were the result of a deliberate planning or re-planning by the lord. Other settlements were ‘polyfocal’; that is, small groupings of holdings in close proximity to each other, representing a more organic development. The plan of Hangleton uncovered during excavation, although incomplete, indicates that the village fell in the latter category.

The typical toft would include a separate living house, a building for animals (e.g. a byre or sheepcote) and a barn or granary for crop storage grouped around a yard. A living house might be divided into one, two, three or more rooms separated by screens and walls. The hall was the main social space in a house and might serve numerous functions, including eating and sleeping. Chambers were used primarily for sleeping but might also be used for storage. The number of people accommodated within these small buildings can only be guessed at: the average peasant family size was approximately five but actual family size would have varied enormously depending on wealth (wealthier households tended to have a larger number of children), survival and position within the life cycle (e.g. young, old): the poor widow in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale lived in her ‘narwe’ (i.e. small) two-roomed cottage with her two daughters. Kitchens were usually freestanding buildings or, as in Hangleton, outshuts attached to living houses.

The medieval church of St Helen’s, Hangleton

The medieval church of St Helen’s, Hangleton, parts of which date back to the 11th century

Hangleton’s peasant community

Hangleton’s peasant community would have been diverse and contained within it its own social gradations. The most important of these was the division of the peasant population into free and unfree tenants (or freeholders and villeins), the principal distinction being that the former were protected by common law and the latter were not, but were instead subject to the control of the manorial lord, and required to provide labour services in exchange for holding their land. But whilst unfree status was viewed as inferior, there was no direct correlation between wealth and land tenure: unfree tenants could hold more land and thus be wealthier than their free neighbours. So there was also a social division within the peasant community based on wealth. The relative wealth of the Hangleton villagers can be assessed from their tax assessments but it is reflected too in the archaeological evidence. The two largest buildings excavated at Hangleton – the ‘longhouses’ – rather than being used to house both people and animals were more likely to have belonged to more substantial peasants, one of whom may have been the village reeve.

Farming and the peasant economy

At the start of the 14th century the area of coastal Sussex in which Hangleton was situated was one of the wealthiest regions in England. The primary crops were wheat and barley but this part of Sussex was also the country’s leading legume producer, grown both as an animal feed and as part of the peasants’ staple diet. More intensive agriculture made possible by the elimination of a fallow period on the best arable fields meant that sowing rates were higher than elsewhere in England. A system of sheep-corn husbandry allowed sheep farming to coexist with the extensive cultivation of grains. The sheep were penned in folds on arable overnight so that their dung and urine would ‘tathe’ (i.e. manure) the ground before being returned to their sheep walks during the day. As a food animal sheep were kept more for their milk than meat but it was as a source of wool that they gave their best returns. The majority of Sussex wool and wool-fells were exported through Shoreham, Chichester and Seaford, with more eastern ports such as Pevensey and Winchelsea playing a lesser role. The Hangleton flock may have been relatively small in comparison with other coastal Sussex manors – possibly about 400. In contrast we know that in 1340 the neighbouring communities of West Blatchington and Patcham were pasturing 1000 and 2000 sheep respectively. The chalk downland above the village is covered with a mantle of clay with flints making it difficult to cultivate, and indeed excavations carried out there in 1989 and 1990 in advance of the construction of the A27 Brighton bypass found no evidence of medieval cultivation. It is probable that this area was used as sheep pasture with crops grown on the light chalk soils to the south of the village (Gardiner, 2002).

Sheepfold from the Luttrell Psalter

Sheepfold from the Luttrell Psalter. England, before 1340. Reproduced by permission of The British Library, further reproduction prohibited.

A fairly crude estimate of the average size of peasant holdings in Hangleton can be made on the basis of the number of peasant-owned plough teams recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086 (five plough teams ploughing an average of 100 acres each a year). On this basis each householder held approximately 11-12 acres of land, a figure which correlates almost exactly with the amount of land needed to feed a peasant family of five (estimated at between 10-12 acres). In practice of course the size of individual peasant holdings would have varied widely depending on wealth. Production on the peasant holding, whilst inevitably on a small scale, could nevertheless be quite diverse. Peasant livestock in Hangleton included cows, sheep, chickens, geese, pigs and bees. We know that the villagers of Hangleton grew flax used in the manufacture of linen cloth and hemp, used to make canvas, coarse cloth and cordage. Based on what is known about crop production on peasant holdings elsewhere it is probable that they also grew onions, leeks, peas, beans and vetches.

Ploughing. From the Luttrell Psalter

Ploughing. From the Luttrell Psalter. England, before 1340. Reproduced by permission of The British Library, further reproduction prohibited.

Whilst most of this would have been for household and livestock consumption any excess would have been available for sale, boosting the peasants’ cash income. Peasants were only partly self-sufficient and what they were unable to produce themselves – things such as ironwork, pottery and textiles – had to be bought. In addition they needed money to pay rent and taxes. Income could also be generated from by-employment such as some sort of craft or industry. The main evidence for by-employment in Hangleton is the ovens which were almost certainly used for baking bread for sale outside the village and may in addition have been used for drying barley malt for ale brewing. In the late 13th and 14th century ale production was largely a domestic activity undertaken by women to supplement the household income.

Mill from the Luttrell Psalter

Mills were vital in early communities for producing flour for breadmaking. From the Luttrell Psalter. England, before 1340 Reproduced by permission of The British Library, further reproduction prohibited.

A deserted medieval village

In 1300 Hangleton appears to have been a thriving community of approximately 200 people, making a living predominantly from agriculture. By 1340 the village was in trouble. In that year the villagers of Hangleton told tax assessors that many lands in the parish were barren and uncultivated and that they were unable to live by their lands and tenements alone (the implication being that they were obliged to seek some kind of supplementary employment in order to make ends meet). Even allowing for an element of exaggeration intended to reduce their tax burden the complaints of the villagers point to some kind of economic crisis. So what had happened? There are two interrelated explanations. Firstly, the period c.1275 to c.1315 was characterised by rapid population growth putting increasing pressure on land. During this period peasant holdings tended to become smaller as land was subdivided to accommodate adult children. The effect of this was to create a large class of impoverished smallholders, with insufficient land (perhaps as little as one acre) to support their households. The second explanation is the agricultural crisis of 1315 to 1322, which saw a succession of poor harvests caused by wet weather and accompanied by disease among sheep and cattle. It is estimated that in some parts of the South East crop yields fell during these years by as much as half and the resultant famine may have increased mortality by between 10% and 15%. Food prices soared and opportunities for casual employment decreased as producers (both large and small) tried to cut production costs. The combination of these factors may have spelt disaster for Hangleton: villagers’ holdings were too small to support their families and they were unable to afford the additional food that they needed.

Medieval bread oven

Medieval bread oven. Smithfield Decretals. England early 14th century. Reproduced by permission of The British Library, further reproduction prohibited.

But this was disaster on a small scale in comparison with what was about to befall them. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in England, wiping about between 40% and 70% of the population. In Hangleton the population may have fallen by about 60%, leaving a post-plague population of between 65 to 80 people. The immediate consequence of the reduced peasant population was that there was more land available for the survivors. In Hangleton two 14th century buildings, possibly barns, were built over the remains of four earlier living houses. These were replaced at a later point, possibly in the late 14th century, with a farm complex comprising a living house, freestanding kitchen, both with tiled roofs, and barn (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Interpretation plan of areas 9 to 12 (Hurst)

Figure 3. Interpretation plan of areas 9 to 12 (Hurst)

It is this farm complex that may hold the key to understanding changes in the size and social composition of the village. Whereas c.1300 there was a sizeable community of peasants, most of whom were small landholders, by the late 14th century the village was more sparsely settled with larger and wealthier peasant landholders, whose social status may have been reflected in the increased sophistication of their buildings. This explanation, whilst only partially supported by the evidence, would nevertheless be consistent with the general trend in landholding elsewhere in the country in the post-Black Death period. The population of Hangleton continued to decline and by 1428 when there were just two householders the village had effectively ceased to exist.


Gardiner, M, ‘Excavations at Hangleton’ in D Rudling (ed), Downland settlement and land-use: the archaeology of the Brighton Bypass (London, 2002), 87-9.

Holden, E W, ‘Excavations at the deserted medieval village of Hangleton, part I’, Sussex Archaeological Collections 101 (1963), 54-181.

Hurst, J and Hurst D G, ‘Excavations at the deserted medieval village of Hangleton, part II’, Sussex Archaeological Collections 102 (1964), 94-142