The English Village, Their Evolution

If you have had the chance to walk around an English village, it may have struck you as a curious blend of both our contemporary age and that of history, with the latter being the presence most emphatically felt.

If you were walking around, without a plan and out of mere curiosity, you would be naturally drawn around the village’s grid and come across much that would give you cause for questioning. Many villages in England try to keep their heritage intact and integrate modernity into the age-old structures that have supported communal life for centuries.

Unlike the modern city, where historical points of interest are often delineated in such a way as to make a show of them, the modern village lives with its history in an intimate manner. What an idle walker meets in the village is an archaeological view of English habitation, a particular bond between a people and the land.

Beck Isle Cottage, Thornton-le-Dale
Beck Isle Cottage, Thornton-le-Dale, Yorkshire.

English Village

Of course, it is impossible to speak of the English village as a whole, and indeed much would be lost if a general scheme could be laid out for the English village, as they, each in their own way, contain an interesting part of history that has been formed by planning and chance.

However, some hints and clues can help unlock the past, some features of village life that cross-country trade and interaction caused to become general.

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It is beyond the scope of this article to track the history of the English village in its entirety, indeed there have been many book-length historical studies on the subject.

Shedfield common
The common of Shedfield, Hampshire.

The rich and rewarding history of the political, economic, and social elements that make up the English village, the particular and the general, cannot here be elucidated in full. Instead, a cursory and respectful look, as if flying over in a plane, will hopefully be enough to get the curious out on their own expedition.  

Earlier inhabitants often give hints of land use and so influence the next generation, or conquerors, in how they will manipulate their surroundings and so it is often a difficult line of inquiry to establish these “beginnings” of a social arrangement.

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Village common
Originally in medieval England the common was an integral part of the manor, and was thus legally part of the estate in land owned by the lord of the manor, but over which certain classes of manorial tenants and others held certain rights.

Open Field System

It is with that in mind that we should approach the first, as we know them now, “English Villages”. Many English villages can be traced back to the 10th century, and they emerged from an alteration in the social and economic seam.

Smaller communities, and isolated farmhouses, began to merge for the sake of farming and working together. This is particularly true when the “open-field system” of farming became popular around some parts of England.

Whether out of force or desire, the merging of peoples began, and the land of the open-field system fostered an area for productive growth; more food, greater communicative links, and a strong social sense of community; tools could be shared, families could interact, a common land for grazing and fuel was maintained.

Back Lane
Back Lanes can be found in place names in many villages throughout the country.

It is thought that these original English villages, being built by the Anglo-Saxons, were modelled on a northern Germanic system that had developed a particular long-term strategy for a successful spot: close to means of communication, in valleys, navigable parts of a river, but not so close as to be inundated with the winter floods.

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The settlers also had to take into account what basic materials could be found nearby as trading, at first, could not always be depended on. This gave a distinctive quality to each village depending on where it was located.

Back Lanes

A map of one of these medieval villages would show you that individual homes were clustered around a place of social or economic significance: a church, a manor house, or a mill. It may also be apparent that the overall structure of the village resembles a ladder, with the side rails being the main roads, and the houses situated along the rungs.

Back Lane.
Another name for Back Lane.

Over time, this map may have added more ladders as the need to accommodate a higher population grew, until it capped the whole lot to make a gridded square.

The progression of the village defined how the village would arrange itself; how it would accommodate the greater need for space. If we glance at the map again, and if the map has been diligently labelled, we might find words such as “back lanes” or “burgage plot”.

A burgage plot was a rented property with a long and narrow plot of land attached to it, usually cordoned off by walls – this is what usually faced a main street. The burgage plot was owned by a lord and the tenant paid rent in money instead of labour. In a minor but nevertheless vital way, the burgage plot was integral in the evolution of the village.

Burgage plots
The property owned by a burgess in a medieval town. As burgesses congregated around the marketplace (see markets) and main streets, space at the front was at a premium. Burgage plots are therefore characteristically long and narrow, with a row of outbuildings stretching to the rear of the house and shop. The pattern of burgage plots is often evident from old maps and sometimes can still be discerned on the ground. Credit: Herefordshire County Council

Burgage Plots

They were important to the medieval boroughs for the very reason that the tenants of the burgage plots had to pay rent to the borough and so helped bring in revenue. This was especially important to the boroughs that were consolidating a form of self-governance.

In many villages today, and in the “old towns” of cities, passageways often trace the way of old burgage plots. The back lanes are the roads that “capped” off the ladder shape structure of the early villages.

The back lane seems to implement an intuitive part of human psychology: it cordons off the open fields from the village, a direct stamp between the natural lay of the land and the cultural centre.

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On the other end of the burgage plots, running parallel to the main street, the back lanes not only provided the separation between field and village but also created service roads for the delivery of goods.

In contemporary villages that have expanded, back lanes still survive to this day in the form of a street name.

Wickham Square i
Wickham Square in the 1920s. It is the second biggest village square in England. In 1269, the Lord of the Manor, Roger de Scures, was granted a royal charter by Henry III to hold a market ‘every week on Thursday’ and an annual fair ‘for ever’. To this day a fair is held every year on the 20th of May.

Village Squares

As the village continued to evolve and industries thrived other notable features began to appear. For example, the village square. Village squares, as the name suggests, is an open space in the village which was, and still might be, used for a market.

A manorial lord would request a royal grant to hold a market or a fair in their village to bring in revenue and needed appliances. A great example of this is Wickham Square, Hampshire, which is mentioned in the Royal Charter of 826, and is the second largest medieval market square in England. 

This royal assent would distinguish a village from others, and, on the social level, create a ground for cultural intercourse. The cultural aspect alone was reason enough to apply as the intermixing of cultures via professional and non-professional traders helped to fuel the expansion and popularity of a village.

Once a market town had gained the right to hold a market, a royal charter stated that any villages within a day’s ride were not applicable for that valuable grant.

High Street

It is from this commercial expansion that another kind of street would spring. Although its name would take much longer to develop, the “high street”, which anyone with experience in an English city, town, or village will recognize. With the rapid increase of commercialism during the 17th century, the high street began to develop its signature stamp as the place for shopping.

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The “high” in high street denoted a sense of superiority and was first used on roads that had been significantly improved.

The high street would reach its apotheosis in the Victorian era, and although there has been a sense of decline in recent times, by out-of-town shopping centres and the pandemic, the high street is still characteristic of the retail district of villages across England.

The Village Pond

So far we have been confined to the perspective of what a map of a village may tell us. However, what else might there be, perhaps unlabelled, in the village that we can still find today? A significant feature of many villages was, and still is, the village pond.

The village pond can boast that it has its foundation at the very beginning of the English village (The oldest recorded pond is dated from 825 CE, on Milk Hill in Wiltshire).

Ashmore village pond
Ashmore village pond, Dorset. The pond or “mere” gave the village its original name of “Ash-mere”

The village pond was part of the commons and played an important part in the social scene.

Its uses were numerous: washing clothes, soaking cartwheels, a watering hole for cattle, and also for keeping fish – Pisciculture was enthusiastically taken up in the medieval period.  

If you were to follow the flock of animals up the hills and downs that surround the village, you would usually find another kind of pond. These kinds of ponds, known as Dew Ponds, are still prevalent today. These ponds were made by lining a hole with clay or powdered chalk and filling it with water and letting it dry out. This would ensure that the lining was impermeable when the rain fell and captured it.

Upper Class

Chanctonbury Dew_Pond
Dew Pond in Chanctonbury

Returning to the village, there are still remnants of an earlier age that still subsist quite comfortably in our times. One only need to look at the names of certain houses to feel the history of the place. A manor will usually be a site of historical significance, but village homes often have specific names to reflect its owner.

This idea or fashion for naming one’s house is still prevalent. A quick look at common house names will reveal their dreams of rural origins: The Cottage, The Willows, Woodlands, and Ivy Cottage. The naming of manors was important to the upper class and so the vogue began with them, usually the name related to their heraldry.

The English village continues to be a microcosm of English history, and that is why inhabitants continue the efforts to preserve this heritage (some villages even have restrictions on what changes can be made to a house, or what colour the house can be).

It is a living atmosphere that gives meaning and represents a specific way of life; a singular way of habitation.