Why We Should Care About The Mortimer Forest

This is the first in a series of posts about the Mortimer Forest. It is the only post of the series where I will be expressing my personal opinions and explaining why I think this beautiful, historic place deserves to be preserved. Then its back to business as usual, gathering the wool that is our medieval past together, preparing it and weaving it into a narrative that tells the story of the people who lived there.

High Vinnals to Juniper Hill
View from High Vinnals to Juniper Hill


The Mortimer Forest covers an area of approximately 16km2 across the borders of Herefordshire and Shropshire. The remaining land comprises the medieval hunting parks of Bringewood Chase and Norbache Park. In the medieval period, these parks were part of a network of woodlands, other hunting parks and shoots, narrow passages for moving deer. Much of the medieval forest was held by an important March family, the Mortimers of Wigmore. They had a hand in some of the most tumultuous episodes of English history. Yet the history of the Forest which now bears their name appears under explored. David Lovelace, has written an excellent paper focusing on Bringewood Chase[1], which covers the post medieval period in detail. Therefore I plan to investigate and draw on the surviving medieval records to construct a picture of the forest, its people and its communities.

My reasons for embarking on this project are many. I have an interest in Forest Law and had been undertaking related research for a colleague. I was also looking for information about the area in the early 15th century to expand my research into the Poynings family. Finally I had discovered that despite being pretty much undeveloped since Domesday, Juniper Hill within the Mortimer Forest, is threatened with development. Any additional information I could find, may prove useful.

Mortimer Forest is known to be ecologically sensitive and valuable, supporting many rare and endangered species[2]. A recent short research trip to explore the forest and its environs, really helped me to understand the impact of the proposed development of “high end” holiday cabins with hot tubs, by Forest Holidays, a company part owned by the Forestry Commission[3], a government body which manages woodlands throughout the country. To their credit they have been restoring much of the ancient woodland within Bringewood Chase and working hard to conserve the rare and endangered fauna and flora.

From the Mortimer Forest towards Wigmore

The area surrounding Mortimer Forest is a patchwork of fields, some growing crops and others supporting livestock. The hedgerows were in full bloom, with May blossoms, cow parsley and bluebells. Dotted amongst the greenery are small communities full of black and white houses and ancient churches. Mortimer Forest, lying at its heart is the jewel in the crown. Beautiful ancient woodland and pine plantations, are criss-crossed by lanes and pathways that have been present for centuries. Sitting beneath the trees, the only sounds, I heard were a rich mixture of birdsong. The atmosphere is like an ancient church, conveying a depth of history, a sense of all that has gone before, overlaid with a deep peace. Although in truth, the peacefulness belies much of its story.

Mortimer Forest does not fulfill Natural England’s criteria for ancient woodland (8). A complex assessment involving the study of old maps, information about the wood’s name,  shape, internal boundaries, location relative to other features, ground and aerial surveys, shows changes in land use since the 17th century, which are mainly agricultural. Leaving only the  western fringes and a small area in the parish of Richard’s Castle which meet the UK government definition:

“Any area that has been wooded since 1600AD, and includes any ancient semi-natural woodland mainly made up of trees and shrubs native to the site, usually arising from natural regeneration. Any plantations on ancient woodland sites – replanted with conifer and broadleaved trees that retain ancient woodland features, such as undisturbed soil, ground flora and fungi”.[4] *

However the National Planning Framework states that “when designating conservation areas, local planning committees should ensure that an area justifies such status because of its special architectural or historic interest”[5].

I would argue that the complex history and ecology of the area now known as The Mortimer Forest and Juniper Hill is of special interest. Its sensitive ecosystem is protected by laws supporting the conservation of the rare and endangered species found there. The surviving medieval buildings, earth works and ruins in its immediate environment are protected by strict laws, which prevent their destruction.

The changes in the landscape tell an important story. Not just of the immediate area but of England and Wales. Of historic struggles between the peoples of both nations and the complex relationships between them.  The story of the people who lived through  complex and troublesome times. Who knew both security and fear. Plenty and famine. Life and death. People who adapted an ever changing world. The surviving medieval documents allow us to know some of their names. To glimpse the complex social hierarchy many of them navigated on a daily basis. To construct an impression of their families and their lives.

The proposed development will undoubtedly impact on the environment and ecology of the forest and its environs. Juniper Hill, currently a conifer plantation is said to have little conservation value in its own right. However it is a rutting ground for a rare subspecies of fallow deer exclusive to this forest. It is also part of the lands held by the Mortimers of Wigmore, which became Royal Forest by the mid-fifteenth century, with the accession of Edward IV, giving it historical worth.

In addition to the cabins, Forest Holidays, want to create tarmac hard standings for cars, which will impact on land drainage. Locally, there are many homes displaying large red placards calling for the proposed development to be halted. Their objections are not due to NIMBY-ism. They understand the land, their community and its infrastructure. Viewing the area which will be affected by the proposal, an area of high ground overshadowing the ancient woodland of High Vinnals has given me a better insight into its potential problems. The presence of the cabins will affect the rutting deer. The local infrastructure is not designed to support the extra traffic. The only road to the site is a single carriageway A road. Heavily congested in the summer, it is the main route to the nearby historic town of Ludlow.

Developing green spaces also affects quality of life and sense of wellbeing[6]. Many successful mental health programmes include the opportunity to access nature, work on the land and grow things[7]. Exercise is also known to improve physical health and aid weight-loss. As a nation we are facing a health crisis, where demand for services across the board outstrips availability. We should be jealously guarding all beautiful green space that encourages Britons to get outdoors, especially unique areas like the Mortimer Forest. We need its special combination of green space, birdsong, serenity, closeness to the natural world, and history. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to fight for these places. These special wild spaces are our legacy, in a way holiday cabins will never be.

The benefits of preservation significantly outweigh the risk of damaging the forest with development. Once damaged can it truly be restored wholly to its former glory? Can we revive the ancient species its destruction will make extinct? Essentially no. We need to reframe the questions we ask when planning such significant changes. Since the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith, we have expected nature to bend to our will. Progress and new technology are seen as the way forward. Now we are reaping the results and as outlined above, they aren’t great for us as a species.

We have a responsibility to protect a complex environment, that includes ancient woodland, wood pasture, chase, parks, common land and enclosed farmland. This does not make the area any less historically valuable than if it was wholly ancient woodland. On a positive note, the campaign to save Juniper Hill from development has really awakened interest in the history, archaeology, biodiversity, and ecology of this complex landscape, that is still to reveal many secrets. (With thanks to David Lovelace for the additional information and guidance)

 We can build the cabins, that’s a given. But it is better to ask whether we should.

Asking “Should”… provides the opportunity to ask deeper questions and arrive at a more considered response to the idea. Should… encourages us to consider the impact of damaging our environment further. It challenges us to leave a better planet for our descendants. Allows us to learn how this land benefits the local community, the nation and the world at large. Arrives at answers which put both land and communities at the heart of the decision making process.


High Vinnals, Coppicing

All images (c)Bev Newman 2018 unless otherwise stated


[1] Lovelace D (2005, 2017) Bringewood Chase and Surrounding Countryside.

[2] Walling J (ed) (2015) The Life and Times of Mortimer Forest in a Nutshell. West Midlands Butterfly Conservation. http://www.h-trees.net/pub/Mortimer%20Forest%20In%20A%20Nutshell.pdf accessed 18.5.2018

[3] Forest Holidays (2018) Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission – A deep rooted partnership. [Online] https://www.forestholidays.co.uk/about-us-for-guests/forestry-commission accessed 25/5/2018

[4] Department of Planning and Development (2018) Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees: Protecting Them From Development [online] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/ancient-woodland-and-veteran-trees-protection-surveys-licences Accessed 16.5.2018

[5] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (2012) National Planning Policy Framework 12 – Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment [online] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-planning-policy-framework/12-conserving-and-enhancing-the-historic-environment Accessed 16.5.2018

[6] The James Hutton Institute et al (2014) Green Health Information Note 7 – Contribution of Green and Open Space in Public Health and Wellbeing [online] http://www.hutton.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/projects/GreenHealth-InformationNote7-Contribution-of-green-and-open-space-in-public-health-and-wellbeing.pdf accessed 25/5/2018

[7] Natural England (2016) Green Space and Health [online]  file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/POST-PN-0538.pdf  Accessed 25.5.2018

(8) Natural England (2018) Natural Woodland Inventory https://data.gov.uk/dataset/9461f463-c363-4309-ae77-fdcd7e9df7d3/ancient-woodlands-england

(9) Walling J (ed) (2015) The Life and Times of Mortimer Forest in a Nutshell. West Midlands Butterfly Conservation. http://www.h-trees.net/pub/Mortimer%20Forest%20In%20A%20Nutshell.pdf accessed 30.5.2018




file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/POST-PN-0538.pdf Accessed 25.5.2018

Why We Should Care About The Mortimer Forest

The Abbots of Abingdon – Introduction

The medieval Abbot had a complex role. He was a spiritual father, Baron and politician. As this is such a large subject, a series of six posts will examine his functions in depth. Along the way we’ll meet some of the more interesting Abbots!

  1. Introduction – A General Overview

  2. Elections, Appointments and Interference

  3. Spiritual Role and Responsibilities

  4. Financial Acumen, Securing Lands, Grants and

  5. The Abbot as Lord of the Manor

  6. The Abbot in the Political Sphere

add_ms_49598_f099v BL Benedict with his Rule
Add MS 49598 f 99v Benedict with his Rule


Abingdon Abbey was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex in the seventh century. It had a sometimes turbulent history. The Abbot’s role expanded as the function of the monastery changed over the following nine-hundred years. In excess of fifty men held the Abbacy, some more effective than others. Case studies will be used to explore their roles, abilities and failings.

Monasticism was not a static concept. Originally monks lived solitary lives of prayer and contemplation away from society. The Rule of St Benedict, written in the sixth century, is a blueprint for life within a monastic community. A structured life of prayer, silent contemplation and work, the Opus Dei. Although cloistered, these monasteries dispensed charity to the wider world. Parts of their churches were open to the community. Many monks maintained links with their families1. The Rule provided Abbots with the flexibility to tailor it to the needs and purposes of their communities2.

Monks took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and swore allegiance to their Abbot. However St Benedict did not believe that poverty meant deprivation. The monks were well fed, and their duties not excessively onerous. The Abbot, as Spiritual Father and leader of the House was responsible for their physical and spiritual welfare. His role originally encompassed teaching, preaching, role modelling, discipline and spiritual direction. Changes in medieval society soon required him to become so much more.

As theology, religious practices and politics evolved, Abbeys and Abbots gained importance and became less isolated. The doctrine of purgatory, encouraged royalty and magnates to found and patronise Abbeys, Priories and monastic cells. The monks prayed for the souls of their benefactors and their families, living or dead, in return. Abingdon was twice created a Royal foundation34. Its two dependent priories were founded by noble families. The tiny, short lived cell at Edwardstone, Suffolk, essentially a chantry chapel5. Its monks later transferred to the larger Colne Priory, Essex. A dispute occurred in the early fourteenth century with Colne’s founding family, due the Abbot’s mismanagement.Abingdon lost control of the priory but maintained its financial interests.6

Daughter houses were not the only distant communities the Abbot had responsibility for. Some monks attended university, living in a house owned by the Abbey7. Others oversaw the work of lay brothers on the monastic farms. The Abbot needed to know his senior monks (obedientaries), well, so that men of ability and strong faith were appointed to head up these institutions. Within the Abbey he also needed trusted men to manage its various departments and ensure that the practices of the monks below them were appropriate. Should problems arise, the Abbot also had the right to remove these men from their posts. Abbots however were not autocrats. The Rule required that minor decisions were made in Chapter. Major decisions were to be taken by the Abbot and the obedientaries. Should problems arise these could be taken to the Head of the Order.

Additional 20787 f60v Monks keeping vows
Additional 20787 f 60v Monks Keeping Their Vows

Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries the monasteries grew in size and number. Many diversified,taking advantage of the strengths of the community and its environs. Abingdon operated a hospital, a school, a scriptorium and developed links with the university. Many monks studied for ordaination, allowing them to become chantry priests. The tasks of the Opus Dei shifted away manual labour. Yet across Europe communities had more mouths and were struggling to be self supporting. Monasteries began accepting lay brothers to resolve this situation. They took vows but lacked the health or education required of choir monks. The undertook the manual labour of the monastery. Some working remotely on monastic granges, they became experts on agriculture and animal husbandry.8.

Abingdon, was land rich due to the donations of its patrons9. Much was rented out, in return for rents and fines. Its income was enhanced by financial offerings,churches, gifts of jewels, precious metals, ecclesiastical garments and relics10. The relics encouraged pilgrimage, which brought in further income. The land adjacent to the Abbey was occupied by the town, providing an income from rents, mill charges and the markets and fair the Abbey was licensed to hold. Tithes and offerings provided additional food. Abingdon was refounded and rebuilt in the tenth century and building continued from this point. Its altars and shrines were richly decorated and it was well endowed with the trappings of ecclesiastical life.

The possession of land, whether it belonged to the monastery or The Abbot’s office, required him to function as a secular Baron. The Abbot’s Treasurer deputised. He employed stewards and bailiffs to manage the lands, collect rents, tolls and taxes, and maintain order. He presided over the manorial court, resolving disputes between tenants, dealing with minor crime and committing those charged with serious matters to trial by the King’s justices11. The Abbot was also required to know the law, in order to protect the Abbey’s rights to these lands and prosecute infringements. The Abbey’s relationship with the local community and its neighbouring towns often proved challenging. Especially as it jealously guarded the income from the markets and fairs12.

Another important relationship was between Crown and Abbey. As Royal Foundation, Abingdon held certain privileges. However the complex balance of personalities, benefits and inherent risks could be problematic. The Abbot was required to host the King and Court, which proved costly.13. This provided opportunities for the Abbot to influence the King, and nominate men of ability from the House for Royal service. The King also relied on high ranking church men for advice and guidance, to ensure State and Church worked in harmony.

The relationship between King and Church could be difficult. An avaricious King with little respect for the church could strip its assets. A King in dispute with Pope or either of England’s Archbishop might impose sanctions. Abingdon’s charter gave the King the right to remove the Abbot. Another clause prohibited him from interfering in elections but there are instances where Kings imposed candidates14. Regalian Rights, allowed the Crown to seize a monastery when the Abbacy fell vacant. By refusing permission for election of a new Abbot15, the monastery’s income was diverted to the Royal Treasury. The Abbey also became responsible for knight’s fees or scutage16. In times of civil unrest or dispute, the Abbot did have the option of asking for the King \to take the Abbey under his special protection. This was exercised in the early reign of Edward III17.

add_ms_49598_f118v Aetheldwold Blessing
Add MS49598 f118v.  St Aethelewold Blessing the Congregation

The Abbot also required a good relationship with his diocesan Bishop, in this case Salisbury. Bishops could refuse to consecrate newly elected Abbots. They could also order Visitations to ensure the Abbey was well run18. Abingdon held the rights to several parish churches. The Abbot was responsible for the appointment of priests and their conduct. He also needed to cultivate links with the Pope. Should problems arise with his position or his relationship with fellow senior church men, he had the right to appeal to Rome. Depending on the nature of the case, the Pope could settle matters by letters, or investigation. The Pope could also grant dispensations, these could range from reducing the rights of the Bishop to making life more comfortable for the monks. A working knowledge of canon law was also useful, although there would be specialist knowledge within the community.

In summary a medieval Abbot needed to have a range of skills. He needed to be a spiritual leader, manage the monastery and the lives of the monks within and beyond its walls. A politician with skills in negotiation, pleading cases and managing sometimes fraught relationships. Able to assess the abilities of his subordinate and delegate effectively. Good at building relationships both within and without the cloister. Careful that his personal conduct and relationships did not bring the Abbey into disrepute. He also needed to be a scholar, with an excellent knowledge of scripture. An inspirational teacher and preacher. Confident in dealing with legal matters. A mammoth task in many ways, and as the coming case studies show, difficult to wholly fulfill.

1Kerr J (2009) Life in the Medieval Cloister. Bloomsbury London pp67

2Theisin J (2015) The Rule of St Benedict, Introduction. [online] http://www.osb.org/gen/rule.html Accessed 22/08/2017

3Stevenson J (1858) Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon vol I p 1–14

4Stevenson J (1858) Op cit p255-261

5Heale M (2004) The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge p46

6Heale M (2004) op cit pp101-2

7Patent Rolls Richard II vol I, membrane 17 p487

8Lay brother (2017) History [online] http://laybrother.com/history/ Accessed 23/8/2017

9Hinde T (ed) (1985) The Domesday Book, England’s Heritage Then and Now. Guild Publishing London p32-3

10Stevenson J (1858) Op cit pp255-261, 344-7

11Straughton E & Winchester A (2017) Cumberland Manorial Records, Manor Courts. [online] http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/manorialrecords/manors/whatis.htm Accessed 23/8/2017

12Ditchfield PH & Page W (eds) (1907) Houses of Benedictine Monks, Abingdon Abbey IN A History of the County of Berkshire vol II. Victoria County History, London p51-62

13Patent Rolls 40 Henry III , membrane 12d, in Vol iv, p159

14Stevenson J (1858) Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon vol I p 463-4

15 Smith DM and London V.C.M. (2001) (Eds) The Heads of Religious Houses of England and Wales II 1216-1377

16 Roberts CJD (2014) The Constitutions of Clarendon – Clause Twelve and the Regalian Rights of the Kings of England. [online] http://conclarendon.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/clause-12-and-regalian-rights-of-kings.html Accessed 22/08/2017

17Calendar of the Close Rolls of Edward III, Vol I p203

18Kerr J (2009) op cit p 127

The Abbots of Abingdon – Introduction

Benedictine Monasticism and Abingdon Abbey

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the relationship between major monastic houses and their communities. The posts will explore monastic life, the impact of the Abbey as manorial Lord on trade and daily life, the riots of 1327 and the accounts of the obedientaries.

I would like to thank David Gladwin for his assistance in researching and developing these posts, which form part of a larger project looking at the various monastic orders in England.

VCH Abingdon Abbey remains VCH
Plan of the Remains of Abingdon Abbey from British History Online

Monastic communities originated in the Christian Church in response to the need for some men and women to seek God through a life of self-discipline and prayer. The earliest monks were solitary, desert-dwelling hermits, in fourth century Egypt. Their followers became numerous and formed communities around them for worship, protection, and mutual support. St Benedict (c.480-c.550) drew on his experience of leadership of these communities to develop his Rule. This became and remains the most influential guide to the religious life in Western Christianity.

Benedict giving his rule

Benedict understood the monastery to be ‘a school of the Lord’s service’. His Rule was written for ordinary people of varied abilities, who wished to serve God in a monastic community. He counselled moderation, aiming to build up the weak and spur on the strong. Allowing all to climb the ladder of perfection, according to their abilities. The purpose was to create a community with the following objectives:



  • Stability – all members were committed to the community.
  • Conversion of manners  – spiritual transformation according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.
  • Obedient – freedom from self-will being a pathway to God.
  • Free from worldy goods  – no personal possessions; all property is given to the community.

The Rule also provides a structure for the practical life of the community. It provides a framework for the management of the community, how to elect the abbot, appoint the obedientaries (1) and manage conflict. It also proscribes the order of daily living, the times of prayer, work and rest. The houses were expected to be hospitable, welcoming all guests as they would Christ. Benedict describes the chief task of the community as the “opus Dei,”  or Work of God. Seven ‘hours’ of communal prayer at set times through the day and night. Benedict envisaged an average  of four hours liturgical prayer, four hours of private prayer and spiritual reading, and six hours manual labour per day. Originally the communities were self sufficient, the monks working to provide for the material needs of the community. However as time passed they began to utilise lay brothers (2) and paid servants to do manual work. 

In the medieval period, monasteries had crucial social functions, spiritually and charitably. Monks were “spiritual soldiers”,  of greater importance than lay armies. Their battles were spiritual, fighting supernatural enemies, such as demons. The monastery symbolised a spiritual castle, with gatehouses and walls to keep people out. And the community in. It was expected that the nobility would found or support monastic houses. Their gifts of land and money given in return for prayer for their temporal and eternal welfare. And the souls of their dead, reducing the time spent in Purgatory. The vocation was as honourable as any secular calling, younger sons and daughters of major families were often encouraged to take holy orders. Many Abbesses were highborn women, who had been trained in estate management from childhood. For the men, their monastic education opened up opportunities to exercise the highest offices in church and state.

Charity was of great importance. Abbeys were provided a range of social services – distributing alms, food and clothing to the poor, providing medical care(3), and education (4). Monastic schools were one of the few means of social mobility.  Poor boys of ability had a conduit to the highest offices in the land. Monastic libraries preserved the knowledge of classical antiquity and the Islamic world, for succeeding generations. Corrodories allowed people to either buy themselves, or their servants a place in a monastery for their old age. This would provide them with a small room to live in, basic furnishing and access to food. This accommodation could either be within or without the monastery wall. It was a system that at times was open to abuse, with the pensioner bringing a large family along, or allowing “questionable women” to stay.

Monks writingMonasteries were hubs of daily life, their spiritual and charitable aims drawing people in. Pilgrims sought out their miracle-working relics, a mainstay of popular religion. Abingdon had a large collection of relics, including those of St Vincent of Saragossa (5). The ‘Black Cross’ of Abingdon, was believed to have been fashioned from a nail of the True Cross. Their lands and property, gave them power over the wider community. This, along with tithes and offerings gave the monastery a healthy “spiritual income”.  Its “lay income” came from its function as the manorial lord for much of the town and its environs. The Abbey controlled the trade that took place, running the market and holding it at its gates. It also ensured it was the only church in the town permitted to bury the dead. Local resentment was often aroused by the high handed actions of some of the Abbots. 

Farming was an important aspect of monastic life. Granges, or monastic farms were run largely by lay brothers who tilled the land and tended the crops. They also raised their own sheep and participated actively in the wool trade. Abingdon was no exception and as the chief landowner and controller of the market, would buy up wool from smaller landowners and tenants. This wool would then be graded and stored, ready for the fleece fair, where it would be sold at a profit. Food was also obtained from the tenants as tithes. All major monasteries had a tithe barn, where a tenth or fifteenth of all crops were collected and stored, for the use of the monastery.

Abingdon, like other monasteries employed lay workers. Through its multiple functions it inspired craftsmanship, artistic, musical and technical innovation and excellence. This was most notable during the abbacy of St Æthelwold (953-963). Joining with St Dunstan of Canterbury and St Oswald of Worcester, he led the revival and reform of English Benedictine monasticism. A great innovator, the chroniclers credit him for introducing the exemplary chant technique from the Abbey of Fleury in France. He installed an organ and founded the bells. He built a monastic church furnished with stone sculpture and gold and silver metalwork, which reflected dignity and splendour. He was responsible for civil engineering, digging a leat from the Thames to power the monastic watermill. He was also a leading statesman, scholar, and teacher.

tonsureRevival and reform were important as monastic communities sometimes lost sight of their founding principles. New stricter orders such as the Cluniacs and Cistercians developed as a result, later experiencing similar problems.  Despite the accusations of endemic corruption, at the Reformation, there is little historical evidence to support this claim. There were scandals, but they were very rare. A few religious houses could live in opulent idleness, but most were workaday communities. Period visitations from the Bishop or Archdeacon rooted out financial irregularities and inappropriate behaviour, and in extreme cases the Pope could remove an incompetent Abbot or Prior. 

The monasteries were also a source of revenue for the Crown, contributing significant sums via taxes. A “Taxiato” was also levied, when the King and / or Pope needed additional monies to fight wars or fund crusades. The monasteries also paid taxes to Rome, with significant sums leaving the country. The appointment of non-resident Abbots, often family members, by the Papacy was problematic by the early 16th century. These men had no interest in running the monastery, instead remaining in Europe and creaming off the profits. Monasteries were land rich, and litigious, often fighting law suits to keep control of properties. Not all their charters were legal, and some fell foul of the law, when this was exposed, paying heavy fines. Ecclesiastical laws gave them protection from the Common Law,  but they were subject to Forest Law. There are many record of monastic officials being imprisoned or fined in the Forest Eyre.

Henry VIII’s decision to suppress the monasteries, was in part financial. It allowed him to sell off their lands to raise revenue. The Abbot of Abingdon surrendered to the Crown without protest in 1538, when there were 25 monks left in the community. Little of the Abbey remains today, the gate house, a few walls in the Abbey Park and the market house are the final traces of a medieval powerhouse.


  1.  Obedientaries are senior monks given important roles such as sacrist, cellarer, kitchener.
  2. Lay brothers were members of the monastic community whose principle function was to work. Often low born, they were excluded from becoming full brothers.
  3. In Abingdon Abbey ran St John’s Hospital
  4. The abbey’s school later developed into today’s Abingdon School
  5. The first Spanish martyr


References and Bibliography

The Benedictines in Britain. (London: The British Library) 1980

Cox, Mieneke. The Story of Abingdon, Part I. (Abingdon, 1986)

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1992.

Haigh, Christopher, ed. The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1987

Hudson, John, ed. Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis. The History of the Church of Abingdon vol. I. (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 2007

Knowles, David. The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge: University Press) 1950

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, 1970)

Yorke, Barbara, ed. Bishop Æthelwold: His Career and Influence (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) 1988.

Benedictine Monasticism and Abingdon Abbey

Comparing Monastic and Landed Families as Medieval Wool Producers

I’ve had a bit of a health and family enforced break from blogging but have been reading and writing short posts for Facebook history groups in the interim. I mainly write posts for British Medieval History, The History Geeks Community and The Mysterious and Gory History of the British Isles.  I’ve had the opportunity to think about the focus of this blog and how I can develop it to include the research I’ve been invited to do alongside two historians, David Gladwin and Sara Hanna Black .

David and I are working on the medieval monastic orders, that had houses in Medieval England and Wales, my focus will be to take an in depth look at four monasteries,  Wigmore, Herefordshire; Strata Florida, Wales; Beaulieu, Hampshire and St Radegunds, Kent and explore how they used the wool trade to fund their activities. Wigmore and St Radegunds also tie into the work I’ll be doing with Sara, who is studying the Mortimer Earls of March. Two minor noble families have come to our attention through their marriages, the Poynings, who held lands in Sussex and Kent and the de Port/ St John family of Basing, Hampshire, who married into the Poynings and Mortimer families. Both families held lands that were particularly suited to farming sheep and through their feudal obligations served in many of the conflicts of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

Wigmore Abbey Grange, Louisa Puller, 1884, via the V&A (please click on image to be taken to V&A website for further information)


Study Plan

This is a plan for a prolonged study, and apart from the research deadlines of my partnering historians, I’m not putting a time limit on it as yet as it may expand. The posts will not necessarily follow the order of the study plan, developed to identify the areas needed to expand my knowledge, and skills, it will be revised as my research develops, to include new areas and exclude superfluous study. I’m optimistic that this will be an interesting journey, and provide a valuable resource for future studies I plan to undertake.

Please note: Some blog posts will be shared with the Mortimer History Society Blog, hosted by Sara Hanna Black.

General History

  • The economy of England under Edward I – III, Richard II and Henry IV, with specific focus on their control of the wool trade with Europe.
  • Feudalism, affinities and knight service
  • Land holdings, both secular and ecclesiastic to include demense lands, moieties and advowsons
  • Religion and medieval lives
  • Textiles and rank – using clothing and decorative fabrics to denote status, sumptuary laws
  • Climate change, murrain and plague


  • A brief history of the monastic orders with Houses in Medieval England
  • The risks and benefits of “alien monasteries” on the South Coast
  • An exploration of the effects of the changing fortunes of supporting families on monastic houses.
  • In depth study of each of the named monastic houses, focusing on their income, the use of their demense lands and the role of sheep farming in supporting their economic activities
  • The impact of laws to control the export of wool, introduced by Edward I and III on the financial stability of monastic houses.

Poynings and St John Families

  • A brief history of each family and their land holdings
  • A focused study on the effects of the somewhat turbulent reigns of Edward I – Henry IV on the fortunes the Poyning and St John families
  • The relationship between the nobility and the Church, through the actions and wills of the Poynings and St John Families and their compatriots, with a focus on Church building, chantries and pilgrimage.
  • The feudal roles of the Poynings and St John families, their relationships with their liege Lords and their role in Parliaments. This will include exploring their military roles in the wars of all three Edwards and the rebellions against Edward III and Richard II.
  • The role of marriage in expanding the land holdings and improving the rank of minor nobility.
  • Factors leading to loss of rank and titles in minor noble families
  • The role of the Poynings and St John wives in managing their husband’s estates when they are absent or deceased.


  • Transcribed primary sources, including Domesday book, Monastic Cartularies, Estate Accounts, Wills, Inquisition Post Mortems, and the various Rolls of the Medieval Kings.
  • Secondary sources including Burke’s Peerage, studies of monastic life, studies of minor nobility, texts on diverse topics including: ecclesiastical history, social history, economic history and military history and Victoria County Histories
  • All posts will include references and bibliographies plus footnotes where required.









Comparing Monastic and Landed Families as Medieval Wool Producers

The Problem with Bridget of York

  Or Why You Should Cite The Source of Images

This post has been prompted by the appearance of portrait of Bridget of York across a variety of Social Media platforms recently. The growth of social media, has widened access to history for many of us but inexperience and lack of knowledge mean that images can easily be shared without acknowledging the source. This potentially creates misinformation and can lead to problems with breach of copyright. The aim of the post is to create a case study and tutorial that illustrates the importance of citing image sources, so that historical discussion and research remains accurate, adds value,and recognises the artist, photographer or other copyright holder.



Observation of comments across a variety of social media platforms suggest that this is thought to be

“a medieval stained glass window, of Princess Bridget of York from possibly Dartford Priory.”

However there were things that didn’t seem quite right about the image and its attribution, so I began some preliminary research:

Who Was Bridget of York?

The youngest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydvil, Bridget became a Dominican nun at Dartford Priory in 1492 and remained there until her death in 1517. (Wikipedia).

A Google search for “medieval nuns stained glass” produced some images but they seemed to suggest that as Bridget was not an abbess, saint or anchoress, it would be unlikely to find her depicted in a window.

Where was the “Photo of the Window” Taken?

A Google image search for “Bridget of York, stained glass England” came up with this image and nothing else. The image was mainly linked to Pinterest pages with no sources given.

A Google search for Dartford Priory, the suggested location, revealed another problem. The priory was dissolved in 1559 and demolished, the site is now a shopping centre (Dartford Town Archive).

Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral (c) Cambridge Archaeological Society 2015

I was aware of another window that shows Edward IV and family so the search was modified to “stained glass windows daughters of Edward IV”. This is the Royal Window at Canterbury Cathedral, and depicts the York Princesses, except for Bridget. She was born in November 1480, and the window is thought to have been installed earlier that year.

What Do We Now Know?

Essentially very little, we have

“an image of unknown age, of a woman, said to be Bridget of York, in the style of medieval stained glass, made by an unknown artist, at an unknown time, in an unknown place.”

This leaves anyone sharing the image at risk of both perpetuating the stories growing up around it and breaching copyright, which potentially have serious consequences, (See Footnotes). Sharing the image responsibly, would require a little research to identify its age, original source and if relevant the photographer.


This process has been developed by trial and error and I’m always open to suggestions on how to improve and hopefully speed up my searches.

1. Ask People Who Might Know – Save Your Fingers Some Work!

I fortunately have very helpful Facebook friends who are historians and art historians (see acknowledgements), so initially I posted the image on my timeline and gathered opinions, information and suggestions of sites to search, plus further histories of Dartford Priory and Bridget’s life and verification of my suspicions about the age of the image. I then used Google as a research tool as follows:

2. Google Reverse Image Search

This can be done on mobile phones and tablets as well a pc or laptop.

  1. Open Google and search using “Bridget of York Stained Glass”

  2. Select the images tab

  3. Click on the image you want to open – the one of “our window”

  4. Right click on the image and select “search for this image on Google”

  5. Google will then bring up a list of sites, including that of the original artist, displaying the image – the site is called “Flickriver”.


A simple search discovered that the “medieval window” was actually painted by Cantacuze in 2009 as part of a series of paintings of Plantagenet woman.

Adding The Copyright Details to Posts

bridgetfinalinfoNow we have the source of the image, we need to find the following information: artists name, a date and the correct title for the image. Some sites do make this harder to find than others, which is where the problem with our painting of Bridget, might have arisen.

Finding Source Information on Flickriver:

  1. Hover your mouse over the bottom right of the portrait,

  2. Click on the ‘i’ icon that appears in the bottom right of the image, as per the diagram posted on the left

  3. Each time you post the image, credit it as follows:

Image Title, Creator’s Name (c) Date e.g. Bridget de York by Cantacuze (c) 2009.


Kings 395, f 32v. British Library

Bridget’s wikipedia entry, had an illustration, from a manuscript in the British Library but the link was broken. I eventually found it within a manuscript listed as “Kings 395” and described as a “Biblical and genealogical chronicle from Adam and Eve to Edward VI (the Longer English genealogical chronicle of the kings of England). However it is dated C 1511 with later additions before 1553. The text of the chronicle ends with Richard III on f33, but the dynastic tree on f32v contains rough sketches of Edward IV, Elizabeth Wydvil and their family, but due to the date its unlikely that the scribe saw Bridget in life.


1. Image search with Tineye – upload an image or give the URL or internet address of the image. If you want to know the URL, right click on the image and select “copy image address. Paste this into the search box on tineye and it does all the work for you. It can be installed as a browser add or used via the website https://www.tineye.com/.

2. Copyright

All images online belong to someone, be it the artist, photographer or in some instances both.

Failure to cite a source lead to anything from an easily fixed problem to an expensive legal process.

For example I share portrait of Bridget on Pinterest board and write about her on my blog but fail to share the source “Bert Bloggs Artist” emails me and askis me to either credit him or remove the image. I add “Original artwork (c) Bert Bloggs 2016, the problem is resolved. But I’m a crafter and I love the image so much I design and start selling cross stitch kits based on the image, without consulting or crediting “Bert”. He’d consult the lawyers and I’d end up with a bad reputation, huge bill and a lot of unsaleable kits.

3. Copyright, Manuscripts and Artefacts

Copyright is slightly different here, for example copyright doesn’t apply to a medieval manuscript or work of art but there are 2 things to be aware of:

Images made from medieval originals, are still subject to copyright as the image is owned by the person or organisation who made it. The British Library has an excellent guide for the use of their scanned manuscripts, which are shared under a creative commons licence: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/reuse.asp.

But if I upload my photo of Romsey Abbey’s Saxon Rood to social media, the copyright is mine, as I took the photo. So if sharing images in groups, always ask the original poster if they are happy for you to share and credit them.

4. Collections of manuscripts, artworks and artifacts, whether in libraries, universities, museums or private collections will also be governed by various policies and you should ensure you abide by them before downloading images or making your own.


I would like to thank, Jennifer Gentle, Heather Millard, Sophia Connor, Elizabeth Hopkins, Natasha Coombs and Ann Victoria Roberts for their kindness in sharing information, expertise and providing advice and opinions on the painting that prompted this post. It certainly saved me a bit of time and a few grey hairs when searching for the information I needed in order to compile it.

References And Bibliography

Cantacuzene (c2009) Plantagenet Ancestry [online] http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/plantagenetancestry/interesting/ Accessed 28.12.16

Canterbury History and Archaeological Society (2015) Royal Window, Edward IV [online] http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/royal/4590809716 accessed 29.12.16

Dartford Town Archive (undated) Dartford Priory [online] http://www.dartfordarchive.org.uk/medieval/religion_pr.shtml Accessed 28.12.16

Kings 395 (1511-53) British Library Detailed Record for Kings 395 [online] accessed 28.12.16 http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=3014&CollID=19&Nstart395

Wikipedia (2016 modified) Bridget of York [online] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridget_of_York Accessed 28.12.16

The Problem with Bridget of York

Harvest, Extraction and Uses for Tree Bast, Overview

 NB: There will be posts from time to time, that span several hundred if not a thousand years, simply because the principles of how something was achieve remained fairly constant until technological advancement drove change. These posts will mainly be about practical subjects, where processes remained valid, often until the early modern period or later.

This post provides an overview of the methods employed to extract fibres from a variety of trees and examples of the use of bast cordage. Wayland-Barber (1994) and Hardy 2008, note that string was an important aspect of human development, helping early people construct shelters, fashion nets, bags and baskets, and make attachment lines for spears. Whilst finer threads allowed the production of a rough cloth, and the development of more fitted clothing by joining hides with a needle.

Cordage is defined as “a string, thread or rope, almost indispensible in a survival situation” (Brown T 1983).Originally, cordage was made from vines, sinews and plaited or twisted grasses. However during the paeleolithic, the European archaeological record describes the emergence of cords, made by man, from the fibrous material found underneath the outer bark of a tree, the bast.

The earliest of these cords was accidentally discovered, as a fossil in clay, by Abbe Glory, who was catalouging the cave paintings of the Lascaux  Caves, France. Leroi-Gourhan (1982) analysed the fossilised rope, discovering that it was made of plant fibres, was 30cm long and  7mm in diameter, and  comprised 3 twisted cords. Bender Jørgensen (1992), identified the spun yarns or cords as s-plied, whilst Wayland -Barber (1991), thought that the that the rope itself was s plied and the cords z-plied, and likely made of bast. The significance of the s and z plying is that the cords were twisted together in the opposite direction to which they were originally spun,  as this keeps the fibres together in the finished rope. Glory theorised that the rope was a guideline used to help people navigate the dark cave system. (Wigforss 2014)

What is Bast and Where is it Found?

Cross Section of Tree, from http://www.geoffswoodwork.co.uk/timber%20growth.htm

Trees have 2 sets of tubes, phloem and xylem, that form a rudimentary circulatory system. Xylem transports water and minerals to the leaves and hardens to form the wood.Phloem transports sugars, synthesised in the leaves, around the plant and is soft, permeable and strong, making it a useful source of twine. It is harvested by peeling bark from either living trees or cut branches. It is obtained by peeling, or extracted by retting, soaking peeled bark in water until it begins to rot, or boiling the bark in lye .




Using Tree Bast


Wayland -Barber (1994) theorises that paelolthic and mesolithic women, might have first used barks from various trees to weave the baskets they needed to gather berries, nuts and seeds to support their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. From here, its possible that someone started to peel the inner bark and twist the relatively weak fibres, to make a stronger string or twine, like those seen on the string skirts of the Venus statues.

Bark is harvested by peeling long strips from either the living tree or cut branches, in Spring, suggesting that bark was possibly preserved until needed throughout the year. Brown (2013) has conducted some experimental archaeology, drying  and rehydrating bark, soaking it until sufficiently soft to peel the bast fibres from it or retting. Some barks give up their fibres more easily if  boiled in lye or  fire ash water, whilst others could be peeled and . The cordage can then be prepared for use and seems to retain its properties. Some species such as the wych elm, will produce a slime when rehydrated that is rich in sugars, this is simply rinsed off, but in the past has meant that some barks were a useful food source in times of famine.

The table below gives an overview of the trees more commonly used to extract bast from, best methods of extraction, the uses of the prepared fibre and the earliest appearance in the archaeological record. A further post will look at retting and cord making in more detail. There’s a useful video here from Ray Mears, showing the whole process of making cordage from willow

Tree Extraction Method Uses Early Example
(Tilia cordata)

This is the most commonly used tree

Peel off bark, rett, spin and twist into cords Rope / cords
pliable, low weight, water
absorbtion and extensibility. Stronger than most
European trees but does wear.  Also used as weft thread for some textiles, Budd (2007) reports spinning threads 0.7mm diameter
Mesolithic c9000BC

Used to make rough clothing – Otzi the Iceman had lime bast in his cloak. Swiss Lake Textiles also contained lime

Used until 15th C when superceded by hemp

Willow Peeling, twisting, strongest when wet Rope, extremely durable Sunken log boat
Oak  As for Lime  Rope  Ropes on viking era ships (Toddy 2005).
Elm / Wych Elm  Retting and peeling or boiling in lye / ash water  Forms cords, ropes and even fine sewing threads  Ropes on viking era ships (Toddy 2005). Used by Menomini People in N. America for twine, ropes etc.
 Peeling or retting Rope / cords
weaker than
willow (Toddy 2005)
Pine Roots  Peeling or retting Makes  strong cordage and bindings


Gathering and Using Bast  an Observation of A 20th Century, Primitive Hunter-Gatherer Tribe 

Mackenzie (1991) describes the method employed by primitive tribes in New Guinea,  for making string from tree bast as follows:

Bark was stripped from the tree, normally by men. The bark was then softened
either by immersing in water or by gentle heating over a fire. This enabled the outer bark to be peeled off, following which the bast was dried, possibly on a smoking rack. The sheets of bast fibre were sun dried for a few days then stored in the rafters and smoked until they were dry, which took around one to two weeks. They could then be stored indefinitely. Before actually working the fibres, they needed to be re-moistened. This was achieved in different ways: they could be left outside overnight to absorb dew or be chewed by women. The simplest form of string-making and the technique used among the women of highland New Guinea was to roll two fibres together on the thigh and add new fibres in when these were ending thus extending the length beyond the limit of one fibre

Wayland Barber (1994) suggests that this is how string was made in Europe until  drop spinning appeared in the Neolithic. Mackenzie estimates that it took somewhere between 60 and 80 hours to make enough string to create a bag, and another 100-160 hours to loop the string to make a bag, which according to Sillitoe (1988) implies that women spent 85% of their time engaged in these activities. This seems to suggest women spent most of their time sitting around plying cord and making bags. However,observation of cultures still employing these methods shows that these activities are engaged in “on the hoof”, hence the women are multitasking the majority of the time. Ingold (2000) suggests that as these activities are learned as a girl and as she grows and matures, they become intrinsic and automatic.


References and Bibliography

Bender Jørgensen, L. (1992). North European textiles until AD 1000. København: Aarhus University Press. IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

Brown P (2013) Wych Elm or Scotch Elm Cordage from Dried Bark [online]  http://www.badgerbushcraft.com/flora/wych-elm-or-scotch-elm-cordage-from-dried-bark.htm Accessed 26/09/2016

Brown T & Morgan (1983) Making Natural Cordage, Mother Earth News, Issue 79 [online] http://wildwoodsurvival.com/survival/cordage/men79/index.html Accessed 26/09/2016

Budd D (2007) How to Process Elm Bark, thread 9. [online]  http://www.manataka.org/page75.html accessed 26/09/2016

Hardy K, (2008) Prehistoric String Theory. How Twisted Fibres Help ed to Shape the World. Antiquity 82(316) · June 2008 Online  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247936139_Prehistoric_string_theory_How_twisted_fibres_helped_to_shape_the_world Accessed 17/9/2016

Harris S (2014) Flax fibre: Innovation and Change in the Early Neolithic A Technological and Material Perspective. University of Nebraska, Lincoln [online] http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1904&context=tsaconf

Harris, S. (2014) Sensible dress: the sight, sound, smell and touch of Late Ertebølle Mesolithic cloth types. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 24(1), pp. 37-56. [online] http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/116075/7/116075.pdf

Ingold T (2000) Of String Bags and Birds Nests IN Ingold T(ed) The Perception of the Environment London Routledge

Leroi Gourhan, A. (1982). The Archaeology of the Lascaux Cave. Scientific American Publications. IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

MacKenzie, M. 1991. Androgynous Objects: String Bags and Gender in Central New Guinea. Philadelphia: Harwood Academic.

Moonraker (2005) Bushcraft UK, Preparing and Using Bast [online] http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-5592.html. Accessed 30/8/2016

Sillitoe P (1998) Made in Nuigini.  British Museum Publications IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

Smith HH (1924) The Ethnobotany of the Menomini [online]  http://www.manataka.org/page75.html. Accessed 26/9/2016

Toddy (2005), Bushcraft UK, Preparing and Using Bast [online] http://www.bushcraftuk.com/ Accessed 30/8/2016

Wayland Barber, E, J. (1991). Prehistoric Textiles. The development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze ages with special reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

Wayland Barber, E. J. (1994) Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, W. W. Norton and Company.

Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014


The articles on this blog are researched and written by Beverley Newman (c) 2016

Harvest, Extraction and Uses for Tree Bast, Overview

Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory

The bushier seed flax plant http://www.joybileefarm.com/flax-for-herbal-medicine-and-nutrition

According to Vavilov (1987), flax was domesticated independently, in Africa and Asia, from the same wild parent plant  Linum bienne, to create the domesticated  Linum usitatissimumHe suggests that natural selection lead to the development of the long and short stemmed varieties, used for textiles and food respectively. These differences were created by the plants’ response to the ambient climate. Fibre flax, growing in the cooler North and food flax in the warmer south. Ivanov (1926) demonstrated this experimentally by moving the fibre plants south and seed plants north. The results showed that the fibre plants became shorter and bushier, with an increase in the yield of seeds and quality of seed oil. Whereas the seed plants grew taller, and were less bushy, yielding fewer seeds and a low quality oil. So this demonstrates that once cultivars were available, it was geography and not breeding that created the two forms of the plant.

Long stems of fibre flax http://www.oneinchworld.com/blog/index.php/2012/05/growing-fibers

We know domesticated flax, spread across the globe over time, and archaeological remains can help us explore the process by examining finds including: seed and pollen analysis of soil samples, and preserved flax thread or linen remnants. Breniquet (2015) says that cultivated flax was grown in ancient Mesopitamia between 12 & 8000 BC; co-inciding with the appearance of both twined and woven textiles, such as basket weaving, spinning and cloth weaving cloth. This was noted to have preceded the domestication of  wool producing animals and production of woollen textiles, which appear when settled, agricultural communities formed in the neolithic period. Evidence from Eastern European sites suggests that bast fibre textiles emerged during the late paeleolithic (Sankari 2000), whilst flax and linen are evident in Northern Europe by C4000BC. The British Museum’s collection of Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles, has given researchers the opportunity to examine and analyse these ancient fibres, with finds indicating processes for harvesting and extracting the fibres, through to spinning to dyeing and weaving (Higget et al 2011).

Although today Britain is an island, it was part of mainland Europe until rising sea levels cut it off, around 6000 BC. Whilst evidence found on the mainland, suggests that Britain did not make the transition to settled, agricultural communities until 4000 BC;  ancient plant DNA recovered from the underwater Boulder Cliff site, in the Solent, shows wheat was grown there, before it was submerged. It is thought seeds were obtained through trading goods and skills with “advanced” societies in Southern Europe (Allerby 2015). Allerby suggests that only lowland areas were actively engaged in farming at this time, but Clay (2001) notes that flax seeds and lime tree pollen were found in late mesolithic and neolithic settlement deposits in Buxton, Derbyshire, which was much further inland. However as no textile remnants have been found so there is no evidence for how flax was used.

Yet despite the evidence of the spread of cultivated flax we don’t really know how it happened. Was knowledge spread by word of mouth, trade or some form of proto-marriage, that created opportunities to share knowledge between tribal group. We don’t know who first discovered that the retted or rotted flax plant, contained a fibre that could be stripped out and used to make cloth, or why they tried to do so. Who first twisted the fibres? Invented the drop spindle and spun the fibre ever more finely? Wove with it?  Built the first looms for weaving? For a plant still used today, that lead to the development of technologies for preparing and creating textiles, created global trade, funded wars, peace, education, religions, and other important facets of later societies, it seems a pity that its origins are lost in time.

Fragment of Neolithic / Bronze Age Textile  British Museum

References and Bibliography

Allerby, R (2015) Changing Perceptions of Britain from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic Age. Warwick Knowledge Centre [online] Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/science/bouldnor-cliff/ Accessed 23/08/16

Clay, P (2001). An Archaeological Resource Assessment and Research Agenda for The Neolithic and Early-Middle Bronze Age of the East Midlands. [Online]. Available at: https://www.le.ac.uk/ulas/publications/documents/emidnba_000.pdf Accessed 23/08/16

Higget C, Harris H, Cartwright C, Cruickshank P (2011) Assessing the Potential of Historic Archaeological Collections: A Pilot Study of the British Museum’s Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles. British Museum Technical Research Bulletin Vol 5 (pdf)

Ivanov MM (1926) Variation in the Chemical Composition of the Seeds of Oleiferous Plants in Dependence on Geographical Factors IN Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 published post huomusly) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Sankari H (2000) Towards Bast Fibre Production In Finland: Stem And Fibre Yields And Mechanical Fibre Properties Of Selected Fibre Hemp And Linsehttps://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/20759/towardsb.pdf?sed Genotype,  Academic Thesis.  Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki. [online] accessed 24/07/2016

Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 ) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory