Making a living in medieval Rickmansworth

Dr Heather Falvey

Heather Falvey, chairman of Rickmansworth Historical Society, has provided this extract from her book The Medieval Wills of Rickmansworth.You may see a number of similarities between modern Rickmansworth and that of five hundred years ago. Numbers in brackets are references to the wills quoted in the book, and have been left intact.There are, of course, no photographs of the time!

It is difficult to know exactly what was happening with regard to agriculture in and around medieval Rickmansworth, both because it was (even then) in a ‘transitional zone’, neither part of London nor deep in the heart of the countryside, and because there is little direct evidence of the nature of agriculture and animal husbandry in the parish. More is known about farming practices in the parish the second half of the sixteenth century because there about 145 probate inventories dating from 1545 to 1599: these value the crops, whether on the ground or in the barn, and also animals, as well as farming equipment and household goods. Since it is unlikely that practices would have changed much in the intervening years, the following is a summary of findings based on 20 wills with accompanying probate inventories from the years 1546 to 1588.[1]

In the later sixteenth century Rickmansworth inhabitants were not dependent on one particular crop or type of animal for their livelihood. They were engaged in mixed husbandry: the fertile crop-growing land was surrounded by meadows and woods, both of which provided the means to support the rearing of animals, for sale or for their own use. Wheat and oats were grown in similar quantities, barley slightly less. Wheat was used primarily for bread-making and was sometimes grown together with rye, this mixture being known as maslin, which was also ground into flour. Most of the barley grown would have been used in the production of ale, with harvested barley converted to malt. Oats, and peas, were used as fodder crops. The large quantity of oats produced by Rickmansworth inhabitants in the sixteenth century reflects the importance of horses and stabling to the local economy. Many roads linked Hertfordshire and London, so there was much demand for stabling in the county. The sporadic use of the More by its wealthy owners – Archbishop Neville from about 1460 to 1472, Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520s and Henry VIII in both the 1520s and 1530s – would have resulted in many people requiring temporary local stabling facilities, and fodder, for their horses.[2]

A handful of the wills published here give some hints about farming activities. That of Richard Belche, drawn up in 1528, is very informative.[3] Although Belche does not give his status, he seems to have been farming on a reasonable scale, having both livestock and crops to bequeath.

To Johan my wyff all my houshold stuff, oon fylde of whete called long fylde, five acres of wh wootes [oats], half of all my barley that is or shalbe sowyn this yere, oon horse, four kyen, ten yowys with ten lambys, four hogges. To my moder a cowe, a hog, a busshell of whete & a busshell of malt. To my broder George all my horssys not before bequethyd and my carte with the pertenances to the same.

Several testators bequeathed malt, such as John Elverede (16) and Thomas Daye (27a&b). The presence of two ‘maltmen’ – John Tyler (25) and Thomas Botervylde[4] – indicates that malt was produced in quite large quantities. All but one of the testators who bequeathed quantities of grain specified whether it was wheat, barley (or malt) or oats; only William Crek (53) bequeathed unspecified grain.

Several wills mention sheep and/or cows. That of William Gybbys (79) has many bequests of sheep: six to each of his nine children, 32 to three named servants and nine to godchildren, that is, 95 sheep in total. He also bequeathed three cows, including one cow of ‘brendyld’ colour. Since he also bequeathed five bushels of wheat to specified recipients, one bushel to the rood and one bushel to each of the lights in the church (number not specified), it is clear that he had been farming on a large scale.

Much of the large area of woodland mentioned in Domesday was still in existence and it would have been important to the inhabitants for pasturing pigs. The trees belonged to the lord of the manor(s), the abbot of St Albans, and provided two products to sell: timber, from the trunks of timber trees, for making beams and planks, and wood, produced by coppicing and pollarding and the branches of felled timber trees, for fencing, wattle-work and, most importantly, fuel. Manorial tenants may have had the right to gather fallen wood and, by the sixteenth century at least, tenants were renting some of the woodland.[5] Richard Over’s will (149), which is a combined testament and will, is one of the few that provides details of landholding and the rights and responsibilities that went with it:

I will that Letice my wife shall have my tenement in which I dwell called Selmyns, with all the lands, meadows, pastures and feedings, with all the appurtenances of the tenement for the term of five years after my death peacefully, without interruption or impediment by anyone, & my aforesaid wife shall pay, or cause to be paid, annually to the lord the rents & services that ought to be paid for the tenement & its appurtenances, and to do no waste in the woods or underwoods, namely, in ‘le heggerowes’, and that she will mow [damaged] of the tenement, & I will that she have sufficient, that is, ‘fierbote hechebote & stakebote’[6] to support [damaged] hers [&] mine & to sufficiently repair & maintain the aforesaid tenement [damaged] & after the aforesaid term of five years is complete, I will that my son William have [the aforesaid tenement and its appurtenances] called Selmyns, holding to him & his heirs forever.

The rivers in the area contributed to the local economy in many ways. They provided fish, power to mills, and water for crops and animals and for such processes as dyeing and tanning. In 1407 Simon Canoun, the first testator, had been granted a section of the river called ‘Pyghtellesburne’ to make a sluice for catching fish, probably part of the river Gade as it flowed through Croxley moor.[7]

At the beginning of a few of the probate documents the person’s occupation is clearly stated, for example, John Tyler ‘maltman’ (25), William at Welle ‘Wolman’ (74) and Robert Marchand (93) ‘bocher’. In another set of wills that I have co-edited occupations only seem to be given to distinguish men of the same name,[8] so, frustratingly for local historians, it was not usually necessary to give the testator’s occupation. Nevertheless, some information about occupations and trades is available for Rickmansworth parishioners. While it is possible that the ‘maltmen’ John Tyler and Thomas Botervylde were maltsters, that is, they made malt from barley for the brewing of ale, it is more likely that they were traders in malt because supplying malt to the medieval London market was a specialism of Hertfordshire.[9] As a ‘woolman’, at Welle would have bought wool from graziers and sold it to a cloth-maker or cloth merchant.[10] As a butcher Marchand would have dealt with both the slaughter of livestock and the preparation of animal flesh for food.[11] Richard Yan (7) described himself as ‘farmer (firmarius) of Crokeslee’, meaning that he was the lessee of the manor of Croxley, paying rent for it to the abbey of St Albans; he was therefore the tenant of what is now Croxley Hall Farm.

Also from the text of their wills we know a little about other people with specific occupations. In 1441, Thomas Roos (35), who lived in Batchworth, indicated that he was a weaver: he left ‘all his equipment pertaining to the art of weaving’ to his son Henry. In 1463 Richard Vale (75) left to his servant John Quyntyn[12] all his instruments, or tools, pertaining to the craft of milling; perhaps he was the miller at Mill End. In 1530 John Hede (234) rented land called ‘Stockers’ and a mill at Batchworth. Roger Adam (81a & b) had ‘Merceryware’ in his shop. In its broadest sense ‘mercery’ was ‘all merchandise except the weighty or bulky commodities such as victuals, corn, wine, metals, wool and wood’.[13] In the fifteenth century the Mercers’ Company of London supervised, amongst other commodities, the trade in the luxury cloths of silk and linen, and the cloth of mixed linen and cotton called ‘fustian’, but mercers dealt in all manner of goods. Provincial mercers stocked the cheaper goods – only a few dealt in silk – mostly fustian and linen and sometimes the poorer substitute hemp cloth. Linen and its substitutes were a very important part of their stock, especially bedding and furnishing items.[14] Presumably Adam did stock some high-end goods since he was owed money by Archbishop Neville, probably for purchases for the More. Rarely for Rickmansworth wills, Adam’s will also mentions particular items of bedding. The last will published here is that of Thomas Spenser (248), who described himself as a baker, and had a bakehouse and a shop of some kind.[15] After the death of Spenser’s wife Anne, his son Charles was to have

"... all the Implements of my bakhowse, that is to saye, Troves, bordes, brake and a furnyshe (furnace) sett with a panne, the coborde, the table and forme in the hall, A cownter in the Ware shoppe, a brasen morter."

[1] Based on the analysis in H. Falvey, ‘Rickmansworth and Croxley: a community in south-west Hertfordshire during the mid-sixteenth century’ (unpublished dissertation, UCICE, Advanced Certificate in English Local History, 1996), chapter 3, ‘The community at work’.

[2] Wolsey’s visits to the More are discussed above. Regarding Henry VIII, for example, between 28 July 1522 and 23 September 1530, Henry VIII visited the More on 10 occasions (1 visit before Wolsey took it over and 2 after Wolsey’s last visit but before his death). Calculated from ‘The itinerary of Henry VIII’, in N. Samman, ‘The Henrician Court’, pp.333-392.

[3] Two hundred and fifty years later James Belch was a tenant farmer at Loudwater, Chorleywood, with a very mixed farm of livestock and arable produce.

[4] See below. Botervylde (spelled various ways) was mentioned in 4 wills (25, 46, 51, 71.)

[5] Falvey, ‘Rickmansworth and Croxley’, p.28.

[6] See the Glossary for these terms.

[7] BL, Add MS 6057, fol. 25r.

[8] H. Falvey and P. Northeast, eds., Wills of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury, 14391474: Wills from the Register ‘Baldwyne’, Part II: 1461-1474 (Suffolk Records Society, vol. 53, 2010),

[9] B. Campbell et al., A Medieval Capital and its Grain Supply: Agrarian production and distribution in the London region c.1300 (London, 1993), p.30. Thanks to Prof Mark Bailey for this information and reference.

[10] See N. Amor, From Wool to Cloth: The triumph of the Suffolk clothier (Bungay, 2016), chapter 3, ‘Wool and the wool trade’.

[11] Definition 1a of ‘butcher’ in the OED.

[12] The word used here is ‘fa[mu]lo’, from famulus; slightly different in meaning from serviens.

[13] A. Sutton, ‘Mercery through four centuries 1130s-c.1500’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 41 (1997), pp.100–125, p.100.

[14] Sutton, ‘Mercery’, p.125.

[15] A ‘shop’ was frequently a workshop but here it seems to be retail premises.