The Winscombe Project

On January 18th, Theresa Hall gave a very detailed and interesting illustrated talk about the Winscombe Project which was started by Mick Aston.

She began by explaining the differences between this project and the one previously done by them at Shapwick.  In contrast to Shapwick, which was a nucleate settlement ie one village, Winsombe was an area of dispersed settlements. The medieval records show there to have been between 18 and 22 difference hamlets and a landscape which was more pastoral than arable. Although Shipham is listed separately in the Domesday book, it is thought that it was originally part of Winscombe since Shipham church paid money to Winscombe church every year in lieu of burial rights.

Theresa went on to explain the topography and geology of the area. Half of Winscombe is nestled within the Mendips and is a mix of different topography namely marsh , highlands, and some arable farm land.  In terms of the Geology there are two ridges of limestone hills, Mercian mudstone and ridges of Dolomitic conglomerate which run east to west through the valley and there is marshland in the north. There are several routes through the Mendips and it is probable that Winscombe was one of the main ones and therefore of importance.

 Pre-history and history: Looking at what they found.
A Paleolithic axe was found at Sidcot Playing Fields, which was about 250,000 years old. When, what they thought was a Neolithic hand axe was found in a garden in Sidcot about a foot below the surface, they were quite excited but, on examination by the Stone Axe group , this was found to be an adze and there were no adzes in Neolithic times. Even more intriguingly, it turned out that this one came from Polynesia. A second one was then found near Sidcot school with some medieval pottery nearby, but this was another Polynesian tool. They can only surmise that perhaps the school had a sort of cabinet of curiosities which was then broken up and dispersed.

They have found some Neolithic bits and pieces, but nothing really exciting.Nothing was found from the Bronze Age and little from the Iron Age, although they did find a possible iron age shard in Barton. Since the Banwell Hill Fort dominates the area they had expected to have found more than this and although it is thought that there may have been hut circles in the area they have, so far, got no evidence for this.

Wint Hill is near the parish on the north side of the valley and the major Roman find there is the Wint Hill Bowl dating back to the 4th century, originating from Cologne, which was found in the 1950’s. There are photos of the excavation in KJHL. The photographs show some skeletal remains, which were rumoured to have been put down a well by a suspicious farmer. Some of these bones are conserved in the museum and carbon dating suggests that some were from 430-610 and some from 660-810. They had presumed the bones were Roman but they are later than that and extend over a considerable time. It is suggested that they may be part of a Dark Age cemetery and that there might have been a monastic site in the vicinity of Banwell before the Saxon Minster was there, so there may have been a cemetery of an earlier British site on the hill . When the Church was built in Banwell the cemetery would then have ceased to function.

Roman remains associated with that settlement continued down the hill into the valley and were discovered when a pipeline was put in. There were several Roman buildings going down the hill alongside the pipeline and there are also bits of Roman pottery found at Barton and on the site of Star Villa, which is now in Shipham parish. On the Sandford side of the hill not much has been found but some fields have the name Blacklands which is a name associated with Roman times. They conclude that the Roman were in the area, but can not be more specific than that.

Winscombe is first mentioned when King Edgar (959-975) granted 15 hides at Winscombe to Aelfswith. She was the wife of Aeltheah who owned much of the land in Wessex, and was a kinswoman of the previous King Eadwig, In other words they were an important and wealthy couple. Although they might never have gone to Winscombe they could have had an estate there which they could have used if the King was travelling around his kingdom and was, for example, visiting Cheddar or Banwell.   Aeltheah had a brother who was a monk at Glastonbury Abbey and the couple gave lands to the Abbey which included Winscombe, so that from this time Winscombe belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. The Domesday map shows the Banwell estate which belonged to the Bishop of Wells and it is thought that Winscombe was perhaps carved out of this estate. Theresa said that there is evidence that this estate changed ownership several times.

There are no parish boundaries for Winscombe and no charter boundaries although there are two nearby. Compton Bishop has one granted from the 10th century and Banwell from 1068. This latter included Sandford, yet Sandford was part of the Church lands belonging to Winscombe and therefore belonged to Glastonbury. They think that this might perhaps be because Harold had seized Banwell (which belonged to Wells) and he might have arbitarily decided to take Sandford as well, but it does go back into the hands of Glastonbury later.

At Domesday, much of Winscombe belonged to Glastonbury but there were also people holding knights fees. There is an area around Woodborough of 2 1/2 hides belonging to Roger de Courseulles who also held Shipham. In the north of the parish in an area around Shipham and an area around Nye there is 1 hide and 1 virgate of land held by Ralph Tortemain or Crooked Hands, who held other lands as well. Another half a hide for land at Barton was held by a man called Pipe and, as this is the only land that he owns at Domesday, it is thought he was maybe living there. Both Roger de Courseulles and Ralph Tortemain had their main residences elsewhere.

In 1197 following the death of the Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop Savaric takes over Glastonbury Abbey as well as being Bishop of Wells. Although this had been allowed by the King the monks were, apparently, not happy. In 1215 they went to the Pope and petitioned for the lands to be given back to them and the Pope agreed. Despite this the Bishop decided to keep four estates at Blackford, Winscombe and 2 others. Later, Bishop Jocelin re-arranged the cathedral Chapter and he gave Winscombe to the Dean and Chapter of Wells and it stayed with the Dean and Chapter until the 18th century when parts began to be sold off. Had it stayed in the hands of Glastonbury then it would have gone into private hands at Dissolution.

Following the retention of land by Bishop Savaric the monks of Glastonbury continued to take court action against the Bishop over the lands he had retained.  This is evidenced in an account of a duel recorded by John Seldon who wrote a book in 1610 about dueling in which he quotes a deed which refers to the battle between the Abbot and the Bishop over the land. The Abbot appointed a fighter to act on his behalf who was given 10 marks of silver with a further 5 more promised if he won the battle. The account states that on the day of the duel the opponents were barelegged, bareheaded and bared to the elbow and held a red staff of an ells length. We don’t know who represented the Bishop nor do we know who won but it was presumably the Bishop’s man as Winscombe remained with the Dean and Chapter.

There was one tenant of Roger de Courseulles in the 13th century, Henry Lovestheft, who belonged to the Bishop’s Court and he apparently gave some land away to Woodspring Priory, some to Minchin Buckland and some for the building of St Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol. Although he was only the tenant of the land one can only assume that he did this with permission.

A lot of work was done by Maria Forbes and Mick Aston.
Various surveys were translated including surveys of the Parish dated 1572 and 1650 of the Dean and Chapter lands.   A survey of the Manor of Sandford which was done in 1540 for the Seymours was translated with the help of Frances Neale. Martin Ecclestone also translated the Court rolls and Compotos rolls

Within the Compotos Rolls and court rolls from 1360-1540 there are all the inhabitants on Dean and Chapter land listed by their status. These followed a pattern, so every year you can follow the inhabitants through time ie 1290-1640. The place they lived in is appended to the names of the people so that many of the people listed can be traced through time. As Theresa pointed out, this is easier where there are separate hamlets rather than a village. They hope that test pits on these houses might reveal status changes through looking at the pottery that comes out of the pits

She then went on to describe some of the articles that have been written about the project, which include one that Mick Aston wrote about farming within the Parish and one about the woodland. There is an interesting reference in the woodland records which states that in 1342, 5s 6d was paid for the bark of 16 oak trees which went to St Cuthberts Church in Wells and there are references to this being carted there. This wood can now be found in the chancel roof of the church.

They also looked at various maps of the Parish although there are not a huge number of them. There is a 1792 map of Winscombe made by William White for the Dean and Chapter of Wells. Interestingly this has lots of blanks on it which refer to the parts that the Dean and Chapter didn’t own. These are the areas which equate to those held by the Knights at Domesday so, for example, an area of Sandford which is blank is thought to be the lands held by Ralph Tortemain.

Theresa showed a map of Sandford, done by Mick Aston which shows the land not owned by the Dean and Chapter. This was land owned by individuals who clearly had strips of land intermingled with strips belonging to the Church.   Theresa pointed out that this might be important in understanding the development of the parish.

Edward Seymour the brother of Jane Seymour, owned Sandford Manor which was part of the Cheddar Estate. He had to go to law to get it, however. It had been previously been owned by the Lisle family and, at this time, held by Arthur Plantagenet the illegitimate son of Edward IV. Apparently Edward thought the land was rented by Arthur who thought differently and the matter went to Cromwell to adjudicate. It took 8 years to settle with Cromwell deciding in favour of Edward once Jane became queen.

Theresa showed a slide of Nye Farm which is on one of the islands in the marsh which belonged to Edward Seymour.   There was a moated site at the end of the island which was the main residence of whoever was renting Sandford manor. They have found some earthworks at this site which they will investigate in due course.

A map found in a house in Wells shows Woodborough Common with winding gears drawn on it and it is thought that this was drawn up for the Dean and Chapter when they gave the right to mine to someone who lived in Shipham. They have found some lead weights there of the sort associated with mining.

Theresa showed more maps drawn by Mick Aston. One of the green shows a tiny remnant of land which has been cut off by railway line and appeared not to be owned by anyone. This has now been claimed by the Parish Council and now forms a little orchard garden.

There was also a map of the Lynch from the air. They have found evidence of burials at the western end and at the centre of the Lynch there was a windmill dating back to the 13th century.  Various other aerial maps have been done.

Another map drawn by Mick Aston is a reconstruction, which shows how meadowland could have been reclaimed from the marsh.

Building surveys were done by The Somerset vernacular group, which has looked at more recent houses.   As well as vernacular building there are a lot of Victorian villas, probably because Winscombe was thought to be a healthy place to live. Of particular interest is West End Farm in Barton which has a cruck beam that dates back to 1278. This is the date of the first the compotos rolls and it is thought that this is the earliest vernacular building in Somerset still lived in.

Geophysics has been done and James Bond has done earthwork surveys.
They have done little field walking because of the amount of material it creates although they did look at a field at Max Mills and found some Roman bits.

Test pitting was the main technique they used..

At Tower House they found a lot of roof tiles. In the historical record this area is called Ford and there was free tenant called William Ford recorded, who farmed there.

They have done a total of 189 test pits of which 29 were in Sidcot. They have found some medieval bits from the central area and some smithing remains outside the meeting house. There were 2 smiths in the parish, one in Winscombe and one, who was a free tenant, in Sidcot.

29 have been done in Barton, the main arable area, but these have not revealed very much and not as much as in farms in the hamlets. An orchard site in Barton has revealed some jars and some Saintonge ware which is an import from France and usually only found in cities or on manorial sites, not in rural areas

Other test pits were done at the Lynch around the site of an old windmill.

At Woodborough Mill they have found some medieval material. The Mill was owned at this time by Henry Lovestheft who gave some land to the Church and was allowed in return to get the right to take the water from a spring which, when diverted, added to the water going to his mill. This water would have gone naturally to Max Mill. There was a 17th century court case because the owner of the Mill had a tenant at the time who had allowed a wall to fall into disrepair and this meant that the water then went to Max Mill. Although the people at Max Mill were quite happy about this there were clearly several arguments and threats of violence over the water, which culminated in the court case. Although we don’t know the result of the court case we can assume that Woodborough Mill won as they had the documentary evidence to support their case

Theresa went on to talk about the settlement of Wyke, the site of which is unknown. Mick thought he’d identified it in one of the fields in the Parish and they have done 3 test pits there. Although they have found no pottery, one pit showed evidence of something industrial and was, perhaps, an iron working furnace.

The Court area. In the test pits they have found fine ware from the 13th and 14th century, and coarse ware at the farm end. Outside the court they found no pottery. In the compotos rolls the people who have tenements are nearly all cottars so were presumably servants of the Court rather than farming for themselves.

To finish, Theresa described a Christmas card sent by James Bond to Mick Aston which imagined them in the future doing some penetrating analysis from their armchairs based on the whole landscape being digitised thus saving them all from going out into the cold and wet. An interesting thought!!

There are a lot of articles written about the Winscombe project written by Mick Aston and ones published by SANHS.

This is a link  to Mick Aston’s site

There are also several articles published by SANHS – just go to the SANHS site  and put winscombe project in the search box

Liz Friend



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