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Enclosure of Burton's open fields

Joan Shaw

An open field system of agriculture was in use in much of England throughout the Middle Ages. Each settlement or parish was supported by two or three open fields, each man being given a certain number of strips or plots and grazing on the common land for his livestock, in return for money or service. The fields were privately owned – often by the Lord of the Manor – but they were regulated communally.

The primary reason for enclosure was to improve efficiency by reallocating the scattered strips to form large new enclosed fields for the sole use of individual owners or their tenants, and the most contentious aspect was often the loss of common land with long-established grazing rights.

A deed in the local record office from about 1660 talks about 'the late enclosure of Burton', so we can safely assume that by then the process was complete; we can also safely assume that it began many years earlier; possibly as early as the twelfth or thirteenth century.

The Cistercian abbey at Garendon was founded around 1133 and wealthy landowners bestowed generous gifts of land and property to endow a chantry priest to pray for their soul. We don't know when Garendon acquired their land at Burton on the Wolds, but to the east of the village is the site of one of its granges or farms, and Burton was by far its biggest estate.

Garendon derived most of its revenue from sheep and cattle farming. At Alton (a deserted settlement near Ravenstone and Coleorton in north-west Leicestershire) it had 360 acres where it grazed 440 sheep, 20 pigs and 21 head of cattle. At Heathcote in Derbyshire, where its estate was also 360 acres, it kept 600 sheep and 19 head of cattle, and at Goadby Marwood it had 500 sheep on 770 acres. Garendon Abbey held 1,440 acres of land at Burton, so it is reasonable to assume that here too there were large flocks of sheep.

To begin with, most of the abbey's land would have been in pockets scattered around the open fields, but we are on fairly safe ground in thinking that from an early date the abbot would have been involved in wheeling and dealing, trading with his neighbours in order to consolidate his holdings and enclose the large pastures that he needed to graze his sheep and cattle.

Many Leicestershire villages were completely lost due to such large-scale ventures. In 1518 Ralph Shirley held the Manor of Burton (he probably rented the Grange as well) and Ralph Shirley was another enthusiastic sheep farmer and encloser. He was responsible for destroying the little Wolds village of Willowes:

'Doom fell upon the little hamlet of Willowes, in its remote hollow in the Wolds that look across the vale to Brooksby, on a December day of 1495 when Sir Ralph Shirley turned all the arable into sheep and cattle pastures and "thirty persons departed in tears and have perished"', wrote W.G. Hoskins in his essay 'The Deserted Villages of Leicestershire'.

Whether the abbot of Garendon was Lord of the Manor of Burton we don't know, but he undoubtedly had the biggest say in the administration of the local fields and there would have been very little opposition to his plans.

There is no indication that Burton ever became a deserted village, but we have an idea of what things would have been like while the parish was under the monastery's control because in the same essay Dr Hoskins talks about Launde Abbey's great enclosure at Whatborough, which covered 408 acres and was under the care of a single shepherd.

As far as we can judge, the land used by Garendon and its successors for grazing was mainly to the east of Burton. Perhaps, had Henry VIII not dissolved the monasteries, the abbot would have continued his programme of closures across the parish because he also had land in the open fields to the west, between the village and the river, but, instead, this field appears to have continued in use for many more years, possibly until the middle of the seventeenth century.

We have no early maps or plans showing the open fields of Burton, but George Farnham transcribed several old documents relating to the parish and published them in his Medieval Village Notes, and these identify some of the areas.

In 1434, William and Thomas Burton of Loughborough acquired 4 acres of land which was in seven separate plots, one being on Nettylgorefurlong and one on Odthornfurlong, both in the Burton Field, and in 1438 John Smyth of Cotes bought two acres of land in Burton 'on a certain wong called Bandale'; this adjoined the abbot's land. Bandale extended into Cotes and although we know several other names, it isn't always possible to distinguish between land lying in Burton and that in Prestwold and Cotes. There was a wong called Brookfurlonge which butted on to Mantelcrofte 'next to the highway on the west' and a wong called Sorefurlong, next to Crokestones which was probably on the bank of the river. There are references to Wymyswoldgate and Walton Gate; perhaps these stretched along the parish boundaries, and Burton Botham would have been a low-lying area of Burton.

Burton, Cotes and Prestwold were enclosed by the middle of the seventeenth century. Since all had a dominant landlord, enclosure may have been gradual over several years, but is likely to have been reasonably straightforward. The surrounding parishes of Hoton, Wymeswold, Walton and Barrow retained their open fields for much longer, and were enclosed under the terms of successive Enclosure Acts: Wymeswold in 1759, Hoton 1760, Barrow 1761 but Walton not until 1796.

A coloured version of the 1759 Enclosure Award map for Wymeswold prepared by Alec Moretti and now in the WHO archive.

Principal source

Wallace Humphrey Garendon Abbey – a study of the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary, Garendon. East Midlands Studies Unit, Loughborough University, 1982.


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