Book one 750-1539. Chapter two: Feudal life

  • Posted on: 24 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

The earliest record which gives one the best impression, both of the parish and of the life which the parishioners led, is given by the [Domesday survey][1

The abbot himself holds Sandridge, it answers for ten hides. There is land for thirteen ploughs. in the demesne are three hides and there are two ploughs, and a third could be made. There, twenty-six Villeins have ten ploughs. There are two cottagers and one serf, and one mill worth ten shillings. Meadow for two ploughs. Pasture for the cattle. Woodland for three hundred pigs. Its total value is eighteen pounds; and the same in the time of King Edward. This manor laid and lies in the demesne of the church of St. Alban.

Such is the description of Sandridge in the year of our Lord 1086, the abbot, Paul de Caen, being the fourteenth. A hide was a measure of land as much as would support one free family and dependants, perhaps about 120 acres1. it seems that the home farm, worked by the abbey, consisted of three hides with two ploughs, and that the twenty-six tenant farmers had seven hides and ten ploughs between them. The cottagers were perhaps small holders and the serf a man whose service was attached to the soil. it is evident that the area of ten hides does not include the woodland, and probably not the pasture or meadow either. The word hide survives in our parish in the names of Beech Hyde, Simonshyde and perhaps Cheapside.

The feudal overlord of the manor was entitled to many privileges and dues. Thus from the abbey records one learns that Geoffrey de Gorham, sixteenth abbot of St Albans during the period 1119-46, gave all the cheeses and gifts which were due annually, from the manor of Sandridge to the kitchener of the abbey2. Extortion was not uncommon. The thirteenth century opened with the reign of John, who signed Magna Carta in 1215 and died in the following year. He required money for the French wars and also for the wars against his own nobles, and in 1209 he went about extorting money from the monasteries, one of the victims being Robert de la Marc of Sandridge, who had to pay thirteen marks3.

Later in the same century we have the remarkable case of William Merun who fought for four years against Roger de Nortone, twenty-fourth abbot of St. Albans. Merun claimed to be a freeman, and he therefore declined to perform the usual services appropriate to a Villein. But the abbot insisted that he really was a Villein and proceeded bit by bit to confiscate his property. On the Monday before Palm Sunday A.D.1270, he sent four servants, John of Walkern, Galfrld of Sandruge, Henry of Tyngewik, and William le Baker, who seized three oxen and four horses and drove them off to the abbot's manor of Sandridge. William promptly complained, but he got no redress; instead the same men came in August and seized two more oxen and a cow, and in the late spring of 1271 they came and look four more oxen and four more horses. Still William Merun would not give in and admit that he was a Villein, so on a Sunday in August the same men made a raid on his house, broke the doors and windows, seized the furniture, arrested Merun himself and placed him in the Sandridge lock-up. The arrest was reported to the Viscount of Hertford who came in person to see Merun and bailed him out. William appealed to King Henry III and he claimed the return of all his animals, £40 damages for their seizure, and a further £100 damages for the attack on his house and person.

In due course the King ordered the travelling judges to try the case, and so at last it came to court. The abbot disclaimed any responsibility for the arrest of William's person, saying that he was not even in England when it happened, but as regards the seizure of the animals, he said it was justified by the fact that William would not perform the labours of a Villein. William on the other hand said that he was a Freeman and that he would establish his freedom before Mr. Richard Stanes, one of the King's Judges, by the witness of soldiers, lawyers, and other Freemen.

I hold my land free

he said,

but I am willing to pay five shillings and three pence per year to be free and quiet from all secular service.

Both parties agreed that it was simply a question of fact. Was Merun a Villein or a Freeman? Merun felt sure that if a proper search was made in the record of the rolls, his name would be found among those of the Freemen. Time was allowed for this search and the case was again brought up at Canterbury on 3rd February 1273. When the time came poor William had failed to establish his freedom and so he did not put in an appearance at Canterbury, and the abbot's attorney triumphantly claimed him as the abbot's Villein. But the new King Edward I wanted to make quite sure that his claim was really just, and he ordered the minutes of the case to be sent to him. Perhaps he suspected that there was good reason why William failed to reach Canterbury. Travelling would be neither cheap nor easy when all his horses had been seized. So the King allowed both parties to come before Parliament fifteen days after Easter in the year 1274.

At Westminster the abbot once more claimed William to be his Villein, and William was required to attend on the morrow if he wished to say anything against the abbot, and it was agreed that if he did not appear on the morrow judgement would be delivered. On the morrow William Merun was publicly proclaimed, but he did not come. Enquiries were made about the investigation of the rolls before Mr. Stanes in the time of King Henry. It was declared that William was deprived of liberty, that he did not hold his land free, and his goods were not free but were at the disposal of the abbot. And it was declared that the land remained the villeinage of the abbot permanently, and likewise that the said goods were permanently the goods of the abbot. Therefore the Abbot Roger, when making fresh arrangements for his lands and tenements, enfeoffed Hugh the Son of Walter of Sandrugge, in accordance with the usual obligations of service4.


The feudal manorial system was simple and crude, providing the overlord with absolute might. There was the lord of the manor, in our case the abbot of St. Albans, who by means of his bailiff worked the home farm. Then there were the Villeins, bound to the soil and sold with their families along with the land when the manor changed hands. The Villeins could not move away if they wished, nor could they strike. They had to work on the lord's farm so many days in the year and supply their own oxen for the plough. In return for these services to the lord they received, not a money wage but strips of land of their own on which they worked during their free days, when the lord had no claim on them. The Villeins also shared with the lord the use of the village meadow and pasture and the surrounding woodland and heath where the pigs were turned loose. Such places as these would be Barnet Wood, now Bernard's Heath, and No Mans Land. Then, beside the bailiff and the Villeins, there might be in the village one or two free men who held land from the abbot, not for service but for money rent, and this was what William Merun claimed to be. The manor and its people could be sold or exchanged like so much merchandise. In 1331 abbot Richard de Wallingford granted Sandridge manor to Robert Albyne of Hemel Hempstead for his life, rent free for fourteen years and then for a rent of thirty quarters of wheat and thirty quarters of oats. Together with this grant there was an income from half the fines and from half the heriots5, the latter being a type of death duty to the overlord. Under abbot Michael de Mentmore, 1335-49, there was a reorganisation of the Abbey charities. The small tythes of Sandridge were transferred from the abbey almoner to the abbey infirmarer, and the great tithes were also transferred from the almoner to other offices6.

The appalling plague of the Black Death in 1349 altered the way of life for Sandridge to a great degree. This plague, which swept into Europe from the east, was more destructive even than modern warfare, for in one year it reduced the population of England from about four millions to about two millions. It left no village or hamlet untouched, and some places were completely wiped out. Among the victims were the abbot of St. Albans and three vicars of Sandridge in quick succession. The social consequences of the Black Death were far-reaching. The market value of labour was suddenly doubled and the bailiffs were hard put to it to find enough workers. The free man struck for higher wages and the Villein struggled against the demands of the bailiffs for his services.

Gradually he was led on to demand his full freedom, the right to take his labour where he would, to plead in the king's court even against his own lord, and to be free of irksome feudal dues.7

The lowly classes no longer passively accepted their lot as inevitable, and were beginning to think for themselves.

Subdued discontent burst out into open rebellion with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Wat Tyler had died in London at the hands of its Mayor. The Hertfordshire rebels, assembling in what are now the grounds of St Albans School, attacked the abbey and threatened to burn the manor of Kingsbury and the grange of St. Peter. They obtained from Thomas de la Mare, the thirtieth abbot, a charter granting a common of pasture, rights of way, fishing and hunting, and the right to grind their own corn on their own hand mills, and the rights of self government without the interference of the abbey bailiffs8. In Sandridge there was a sequel to the revolt, and to this movement towards personal freedom. The records of the abbey tell how certain persons who alleged that they were relations of John Biker, recently hanged in the insurrection at St Albans for his manifest crimes, coming by night to the farm in Sandridge, erected before the gate a certain banner, rather like the one the insurgents erected while they were raving; and they appended a pyx by a cord of flax and a certain letter with tax of £21 to be paid at Canterbury on a certain day. And if they were not paid what they asked they threatened to seize goods on the manors of Astone and Wyncelowe. They hung up in various places small flaxen garments half burnt, and they scattered in the neighbourhood of the manor of Sandridge balls made of the stalks of flax, as a sign they would burn the farm if the abbot did not satisfy them. The abbot and his council were amazed al the presumption of the men; and especially since neither the abbot nor any of his household had had any quarrel with John Biker, who had been hanged by the King's Court.

At the next council it was decided that money ought not to be sent to Canterbury on account of these threats, for if it was done it was certain similar threats would be made in future. It was therefore decreed to wait in silence and see what the enemies would do. For a time the monastery property received no injury; it was on St. Alban's Day, early in the morning, however, when the household were occupied at St Albans, that these devilish men came and set light to the building where the pigs were kept, and owing to its age, it was soon burnt to the ground. Then the fire spread to the great barn, which had recently been rebuilt and was almost full of corn, barley and oats a large part of the building was consumed, and wheat laid waste. But certain neighbours running to the spot, were the cause of the greater part of the house being saved from the flames, The sacrilegious incendiaries got away and lay hidden; it was impossible to know who perpetrated so great an evil9. Thus ran the monks' account of the encounter, and thus is illustrated the gradual development of personal liberty. More and more people were gaining a form of independence during the following decades, but the number was still trivial. A few of these fortunate folk are mentioned in the abbey records:

14th May 1486. The lord abbot liberates makes free from every yoke of service, villeinage or bondage, William Nasshe and Robert Nasshe, recently natives of the demesne of Sandrugge, with all their descendants whether born before this, or to be born hereafter.”;10

26th Nov 1483. The lord abbot, under his seal and under the seal of the abbey liberates and frees from every yoke of service villeinage and bondage and makes free Philip Nassh with all his descendants already born or to be born hereafter.11

The above records may be compared with the attempt of William Merun to free himself two hundred years earlier. The slow struggle for liberty was beginning.

Another form of violence, only on a far greater scale, was to plunge the inhabitants of Sandridge into the very centre of the most hateful type of strife, That of civil war.

The quarrel between the two noble families of Lancaster and York came to a climax in 1455 with the Wars of the Roses. The first battle of St Albans was the beginning of this War, but the only concern here is not with the national events, but with the second battle of St Albans six years later. The record of the battle is so different from the wars of our own time that it is almost refreshing to recall it. In February 1461…

King Harry, a prisoner with his lords, went out of London and came with their people to the town of St Albans, not knowing that the people of the north were so nigh. When the king heard of their proximity, he went out and took his field beside Sandridge, in a place called No Mans Land.12


Such a move gave Warwick four days in which to prepare his defences against the Queen, who was coming south by Watling Street. He drew up his forces in three bodies facing north west; the left wing occupied Bernard's Heath, the centre Sandridge valley, and the right was placed upon Nomansland13. A strong body of archers was stationed on the west-side of St Albans. The countryside was full of woods and hedges affording shelter for the archers, while the sunken rood through Sandridge was a formidable obstacle for the attacking forces. In addition to trenches and other earthworks, Warwick used defences, which had not been used in Britain before; cord nets of ninety-six square feet were designed to stop infantry attacks but to allow the passage of arrows. All the defences were useless however, for owing to inferior scouting,14 the whole force was outflanked.

The Queen's army passed through Redbourn and attacked St Albans up Fishpool Street, which was defended, and up Catherine Street, which was not. A fierce battle raged in St. Peters Street and the Yorkists were driven out to Bernard's Heath and there,

amid the falling snowflakes, the combat went on for hour after hour, maintained on either side with that deadly animosity and bloodthirsty doggedness inseparable from civil wars.15

Warwick at first made no attempt to relieve his hard pressed left wing with his main body of troops lying idle at Sandridge. Instead he withdrew this main body to join the right wing on Nomansland, where the captive king was sitting under a large oak tree. The vacillating Warwick then decided to meet the victorious Lancastrians on Dead Womans Hill. The battle was not then lost, but treachery sealed the fate of the day. A Kentish squire, commanding a section of the right wing, went over to the Lancastrians with the whole of his force. The cry of "treason!" passed along the line, and sent the already demoralised soldiery into blind panic. At Nomansland Warwick managed to rally some of his forces and succeeded in effecting a more orderly retreat. Instead of the thirty thousand men, Warwick was left with four thousand shattered wretches under his banner, The King, having been reunited with his Queen and son, upon whom he conferred a knighthood, proceeded to the abbey. Thus was the second battle of Sandridge, the first occurring on 22 May 1455.16

This visit of King Henry VI was, until recently the only recorded visit of the reigning sovereign to Sandridge; but on 20 July 1952 Queen Elizabeth II passed through the parish and village on her way from St Albans to St. Paul's Walden.

  • 1. Concise Oxford Dictionary.
  • 2. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 1. 74. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 3. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 1. 297. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 4. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 1. 459-464. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 5. Calendar of Patent Rolls 5 Edw. III, pL2. m.31.
  • 6. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 2. 314. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 7. [G.M.Trevelyan]23, History of England, p.237.
  • 8. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 3. 330. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 9. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 3. 361-363. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 10. Registrum Abbatiae, Willelmi Alban 1465-1472. 55.
  • 11. Registrum Abbatiae, Willelmi Alban 1465-1472. 263.
  • 12. English Chronicle, edited by J.S.Davies, p.107.
  • 13. C.H. Ashdown, Battles and Battlefields of St Albans, p.15. But Colonel Burne in a recent work, The Battlefields of England, p.95, places Warwick's left wing in Beech Bottom till it withdrew to Bernard's Heath to meet the outflanking movement.
  • 14. W.Gregory, Chronicle, p.213.
  • 15. Sandridge Church by C.H. Ashdown, F.R.G.S., in the Sandridge Magazine, March 1915, p.18.
  • 16. The document incorrectly states "in B.C.54".

Historic Sandridge by Edward Giles and Richard William Thrale, with sketches by R. Giles. Published 1952. Reproduced with the kind consent of the late Richard Thrale.