WE HAVE SEEN that the southwestern frontier of England enjoyed an almost
unparalleled peace and prosperity in the period following the Norman Conquest.
The king had established an effective system of border defense, had chosen the
able William Fitz-Osbern to develop and defend the border shires, and had
granted him a semi-independent status in performing these tasks. When this system
of defense had proven dangerous, the Conqueror succeeded in concluding an
effective and durable alliance with Rhys ap Tewdwr, the king of Deheubarth. The
wisdom of his course of action is reflected in the fact that the western frontier
of England received little mention in the chronicles of the latter years of
William's reign. The region apparently continued its recovery and development
without any difficulties or setbacks worthy of note. Were it not for the
compilation known as Domesday Book, our knowledge of this period
would be extremely limited. In the pages of Domesday Book, however,
it is possible to discern much about the somewhat peculiar society which was
evolving on England's western frontier. The ownership of most of the lands of
England changed hands during the two decades following the Norman Conquest. V. H.
Galbraith points out some of the problems which this massive transfer of wealth
and power entailed:
There were already written records in use, but the government was
still customary and oral; and it is hardly before the thirteenth century that the
government became bureaucratic in character. This is brought home
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 43
to us by the fact that the great "Honours" or complexes of land
granted by William to his tenants-in-chief seem to have been made sine
carta, that is orally and without written records. So too with justice; the
transfer of more than half the land of England to a new nobility in this
primitive fashion involved confusion, spoilation, and the seizing of land without
The problems which this situation created are readily apparent. Without adequate
records, William could have had only a vague idea of the relative strength and
wealth of his various barons or of the extent of the resources which still lay
under his direct control. Another problem lay in the great change in land values
which had occurred since the days of Edward the Confessor. Areas which had once
been populous and fertile now lay devastated and deserted, while lands once
beyond the limits of English settlement were now undergoing extensive and rapid
development. Any rational policy of taxation would have to take into account this
greatly changed regional distribution of wealth. Finally, any stabilization of
the internal situation in England involved the resolution of the many conflicting
land claims which had arisen since the Conquest. These problems no doubt weighed
heavily on the Conqueror. At the Gloucester assembly of 1085, he took steps to
solve them by ordering a complete assessment of his realm of England. The inquiry
was begun shortly after the initial order and, by the time of William's death in
1087, it was substantially completed.3
Domesday represents a unique achievement of eleventh-century
administration, and its importance as a source for modern students of English
history cannot be overemphasized.3 It must be remembered, however,
that the information presented in Domesday has distinct limitations.
Incidental references may provide valuable evidence for studies of classes and
customs in medieval England, but such references are quite fortuitous. Whatever
its original purpose and function, Domesday was certainly not
intended to provide data for future historians. What may appear to be a coherent
pattern in its
1V. H. Galbraith, The Making of Domesday Book, p. 46.
2For the conduct of the inquiry, see w. H. Stevenson "A Contemporary
Description of the Domesday Survey," The English Historical Review,
XXII (1907), 72-84.
3Useful bibliographies of the major analyses of this source may be
found in Galbraith, The Making of Domesday Book, and Domesday
Studies, being the papers read at the meetings of the Domesday
Commemoration, 1886, ed. P. E. Dove.
44 The Normans in South Wales
pages may be nothing but the personal idiosyncrasies of a particular scribe. Even
apart from these limitations, one must note that Domesday is neither
complete nor exhaustive. London, Winchester, Northumberland, and Durham are not
included in the survey. It even appears that the figures for the areas which are
covered are not always accurate. This means that statistical studies based upon
Domesday must be especially suspect and their limitations well
noted. On the other hand, one must not let the difficulties involved in such
studies halt their progress. Even the meticulous J. H. Round recognized this
necessity when he noted that "Breadth of view ... is essential in Domesday
In the pages of Domesday, the five shires of the Welsh frontier formed a
distinct region sharing certain common characteristics which distinguished them
from the other shires of England and which bound them closely together into a
unit. A number of such distinguishing features could be cited, but perhaps the
most interesting are those social classes known to Domesday as the
radmanni, radchenistri, bovarii, and hospites. These
classes appear within the Welsh frontier, and virtually nowhere else in
Domesday England. Moreover, their peculiar nature may indicate some
of the forces which were helping to shape the character of the region.
The relationship between the first two of these classes-the radmanni and
radchenistri - and the Welsh frontier is most easily presented in tabular
form. (Table 1)
Two conclusions may be drawn from this table. The first is that the terms
radmanni and radchenistri were probably regional variations of the
same appellation. Radmanni is the northern usage, while
radchenistri is the southern. The distribution of radmanni and
radchenistri within Herefordshire confirms this conclusion by repeating
the larger distribution in miniature. Both terms apparently refer to the same
status. They are drawn from the same root and have similar meanings, that of
"riding man."5 Domesday Book (folio 180) gives additional
indication of the identity of the two terms. The record states that the estate of
Leominster in Herefordshire had eighty hides and eight radchenistri in the
time of Edward the Confessor. Twenty years
4J. H. Round, "Introduction to the Worcestershire Domesday Book,"
The Victoria Histories of the Counties of England: Worcester, I,
5Sir Henry Ellis adds the information that "Rad-cniht is usually
interpreted by our Glossarists Equestris homo sive Miles; and Rad-here Equestris
exercitus." Sir Henry Ellis, A General Introduction to Domesday Book
..., II, 74, n. 2.
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 45
Location of Radmanni and Radchenistri in Domesday
Total in Domesday Book
later, the same estate had sixty hides and six radmanni. The Domesday
scribe appears to be using the two terms interchangeably in this entry.
The second conclusion which may be drawn from the table is simply that the riding
men of Domesday Book represent a status or institution almost
completely peculiar to the Welsh frontier, at least in the year 1086.
Much information concerning the riding men can be culled from the pages of
Domesday.6In fact, a reasonably detailed, although confusing,
picture of them can be constructed. The riding men mentioned in
Domesday were restricted to rural areas, where they were closely
connected with the cultivation of the soil. Unlike the majority of the
inhabitants of the border, they enjoyed free status. Domesday is
incisively clear on this point: Radchen[istri], id est. liberi homines
T.R.E. (folio 166). Together with this somewhat exalted status, many of the
riding men possessed substantial wealth.7Some variation existed, of
course, but the riding men noted by Domesday generally appear quite
well-to-do. All of these characteristics tempt one to find in the riding men a
nascent yeomanry developing along the frontier.
This view becomes somewhat difficult when one considers the obligations which
were sometimes placed on some members of the class.
6Ellis rehearses much of this information. Ibid., I, 72-74.
7Domesday Book: or the Great Survey of England by William the
Conqueror A.D. MLXXXVI, fol. 163. Here nineteen riding men hold
46 The Normans in South Wales
They were liable to quite heavy dues for the land they held,8 but such dues were
reasonable in view of the extensive holdings of those who paid them. It is
somewhat more disturbing to find that the riding men were sometimes liable for
boon work.9 Even this duty is not inconsistent with the idea of a
frontier yeomanry, although it would appear somewhat degrading to such a class.
They were subject to other exactions, however, which were so onerous as to seem
to deny the riding men the free status which Domesday ascribed to
them. The compilers of Domesday wrote, as if they were aware of the
inconsistency between the status and obligations of these men,
...Radchen[istri], id est. liberi homini T.R.E. qui tamen omnes ad opus domini
arabant, herciabant, falcabant, et metebant (folio 166). The extent of these
obligations seems to be great enough, but a later entry states, ...omne
servitum quod eis iubebatur faciebant (folio 187) .
It is clear that the riding men do not represent a rising frontier yeomanry.
Their manorial obligations were too great. It is difficult to determine what
their status was, since their obligations were simply inconsistent with the
freedom they supposedly enjoyed. This inconsistency is more apparent than real,
however, since it exists only in terms of the Norman feudal and manorial systems.
The difficulty disappears when one realizes that one is here dealing with an
Anglo-Saxon institution. The very derivation of the words radmanni and
radchenistri indicates that the origin of the institution was Anglo-Saxon.
Furthermore, the pages of Domesday preserve the personal names of
nine of these riding men. The names are definitely and without exception
Anglo-Saxon.10 Apparently the riding men formed an institution which
remained peculiarly Anglo-Saxon. In a society dominated by the Normans, it was an
institution which was fast moving toward extinction. In the riding men of the
frontier we see a moribund, not a nascent, yeomanry.
It is tempting to view the riding man as a type of thegn which had been
carried over into the new political and social structure which the Normans were
constructing in England. Domesday Book tends to support this view in
its entry for the vill of Westune in Shropshire.
8Ibid., fol. 180b. On this estate, for example, the riding men
rendered thirteen shillings six pence, plus three sextars of honey.
9Ibid., fol. 181: ... Ibi Radman secebant una die in anno in pratis
10 Ibid., fol. 174b, "Lefric"; fol. 187, "Ageluuard, Eduuard,
Brictmer, Saulfus, Aluuinuis, Godric, Aluui, Ketelbert."
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 47
This particular estate was held by six
thegns in the time of Edward the Confessor. Twenty years later it was held
by six riding men.11 In this case, at least, the terms seem to
be interchangeable. F. W. Maitland went somewhat further and suggested
that the institutions of thegn, dregn, radman, and
radcniht, all had a common origin.12 He suggested that
this origin lay in a system which St. Oswald developed, in which church
lands were granted to men to be held for three generations ("per spatium
temporis trium hominum, id est duorum post se haeredum").13 The
primary obligation of the recipients of these grants was that they were to
obey the "law of riding" (equitandi lex). The nature of this law was not
made clear, but St. Oswald's letter to King Edgar did state some of the
specific obligations which this form of grant entailed. The recipients
were to pay all customary dues to the Church and were to be subject to the
commands of the bishop as long as they held the land. The nature of these
commands was quite vaguely expressed. They were to be ready to supply
horses and hunting spears when the bishop required them, to supply all
other needs of the bishop, and to ride in his service when required to do
so. Finally, when the three-generation term had elapsed, it was to be
within the bishop's power to regrant the land on the same terms, to retain
them himself, or grant them to others. This type of grant clearly exhibits
the same combination of high status and extensive obligations which was so
characteristic of the riding men of Domesday Book.
Maitland suggested that the basic
obligations of St. Oswald's riding men were at least partly military, and
characterized the "law of riding" as a primitive law of
chivalry.14 He supported his contention by tracing the
development of the institution to the thegns and dregns of
Angevin Northumbria. In this region, the characteristic Norman system of
tenure by knight-service appeared to have been superimposed upon an
earlier semi-military system. The thegns and dregns, representatives of
this earlier system, fought in support of the king, defended the borders,
and took part in expeditions led
11 Ibid., fol. 256.
12 See F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond: Three
Essays in the Early History of England, pp. 307 ff.; F. W. Maitland, "Northumbrian Tenures,"
The English Historical Review, V (1890), 625-632.
13 Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, ed. J. M.
Kemble, Vol. VI, No. 1287, pp. 124-126.
14 Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, p. 307.
48 The Normans in South Wales
against the Scots. On the other hand, they were subject to a series of menial
obligations. They paid rent, rode on the lord's service, helped in the
cultivation of his demesne, and even paid merchet.15 Their obligations
correspond so closely to those of the riding men of St. Oswald's day, and of
Domesday Book, as to suggest that the thegns, dregns,
and riding men were representatives of the same system of tenure. If this is the
case, the basic functions of the riding men of Domesday Book were
semi-military, and they acted much in the character of a frontier militia.
This view was opposed by J. H. Round, who held that the "law of riding" did not
consist of military service, but of providing escorts and performing
errands.16 No specific evidence can be found to support either
Maitland's or Round's view, but it is difficult to believe that the riding men
were without any military function. The bearing of arms was regarded as necessary
to the status of freeman under Anglo-Norman law. one of the laws ascribed to
William the Conqueror stated, Universi liberi homines tocius regni nostri
predicti habeant et teneant se semper bene in armis et in equis.17
While it is hard to believe that all freemen were capable of maintaining a horse,
it is obvious from Oswald's letter that the riding men were expected to be able
to do so. In view of the law of the land, the riding men of Domesday were liable
to be called upon to use the spears and horses they were expected to possess.
Even apart from the law, it seems likely that these men, living as they did along
the turbulent and dangerous border, were sometimes called upon to defend their
lives and property. If the riding men of Domesday were truly derived
from those of St. Oswald's time, they possessed the horses and arms to defend
themselves and their neighbors as well. Domesday Book, however,
never explicitly states that such military service was one of their regular
functions. This should not be too surprising. Whatever Domesday is,
it is not a customal. The obligations of the English-born burgesses of Shrewsbury
furnish proof of this, as well as providing evidence of a function which may be
more than fortuitously parallel with that of the riding men.
Domesday suggests that the provision of escorts constituted one of the
major obligations of the "better class burgesses" of the town. This class was
expected to possess horses and arms. Nothing is said of the
15 Maitland, "Northumbrian Tenures."
16 Round, "Introduction to the Worcestershire Domesday Book," pp.
17 Ancient Laws and Institutes of England ..., I, 212.
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 49
military obligations of this group until the very end of the passage describing
Shrewsbury. The compiler notes, almost as an after thought, that whoever failed
to comply with the sheriff's order for an expedition into Wales, was to pay a
forty shilling fine.18 This passage was not included in Domesday
because of the importance of the military function of these armed and mounted
burgesses, but because of the possible source of revenue provided by evasion of
this service. This item of information is fortuitous, but the implication is
clear. Englishmen in Shrewsbury, possessing much the same equipment and the same
obligation of escort duty as the riding men, were regularly expected to provided
service in Welsh campaigns. It is reasonable to assume that the riding men of the
rural districts were liable to similar obligations. Whether such service was
fundamental to their peculiar tenure is somewhat irrelevant. It seems clear that
the riding men of Domesday Book constituted a group expected to
provide regular military service against the Welsh.
Despite this important function, it would appear that the riding men of the
border were declining in both numbers and importance in 1086. It is difficult to
find direct data on this point, but a number of facts lead to the same
conclusion. The distribution of the riding men of Shropshire has some relevance
here. Most of the shire was in the hands of Norman lords by 1086, but a small
group of Anglo-Saxons continued to hold about twenty-five hides in the western
highland hundreds of Conodovre, Ruesset, and Witentreu. No less than 15 riding
men, or about 9 percent of the total for the entire shire, resided within this
small district. Directly to the east lay the hundred of Recordine, a district
almost completely dominated by Norman overlords. If the popularity of the riding
men had been as great in Recordine as it was under the Anglo-Saxon lords to the
west, Domesday Book would have recorded 105 for this district. Only
11 were so reported. It is clear that conditions were such as to make riding men
rather unpopular tenants for Norman lords.
This conclusion is supported by a broader picture of the distribution of riding
men within Shropshire. (Table 2) Generally speaking, where Norman immigration was
high, the number of riding men was small by the time of Domesday. Again,
the distribution shows that the frequency of riding men was highest in the more
exposed and poorer hundreds which lay along Shropshire's
18 Domesday Book, fol. 252.
50 The Normans in South Wales
Distribution of Riding Men within Shropshire Hundred
Ratio of riding men to hides Number of
Riding Men Hides Francigenae
Ruesset 1 6.3 0
Witentreu 1 3.3 0
Derinlau 1 6.0 0
Recordine 1 9.5 11
Alnodstre 1 8.5 6
Baseherche 1 13.0 6
Patintune 1 8.1 4
western border. If the riding men did provide a mounted militia force, it is only
natural that they would have lingered longest in these districts, where the value
of such a force was the greatest.
Finally, the distribution of riding men along the entire border again attests to
he fact that they were slowly moving toward extinction under the unfriendly
administration of the Norman conquerors. The 145 riding men of Cheshire
constituted 6 per cent of the total population of the shire. The 170 who resided
in the much more populous Shropshire accounted for 3 per cent of the population.
Only 71 riding men lived in Herefordshire, constituting only 1.3 per cent of the
shire's population. One would expect that Herefordshire, with its long and
exposed border would have a relatively higher number of riding men than the
comparatively easily defended Shropshire. The fact that it did not can most
easily be explained by pointing out that because of its pre-Conquest colony,
Herefordshire had been exposed to strong Norman influences for twenty years
longer than its northern neighbor.
When one combines all of this information with the fact that the terms
radman and radcniht disappear in the years following
Domesday, the conclusion is inescapable that the institution was moribund
by 1086, probably as a result of hostile Norman influences.
Such then were the men whom the compilers of Domesday Book knew as
radmanni and radchenistri. They were free men, pledged to maintain
horses and weapons in exchange for grants of land. While often possessing
respectable wealth, they were completely bound to
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 51
the orders of their lord. Their dual character of cavalry militia and
agricultural entrepreneurs mark them as the product of a frontier environment,
one in which both characters are necessary to the development and exploitation of
the land. The frontier which produced this class was not that of the
eleventh-century Normans, however, but of the tenth-century Anglo-Saxons. By
1086, the riding men were fast passing out of existence. What was happening to
them, it is difficult to say. It is possible that their functions and possessions
in the eastern reaches of the border shires were being taken over by the
francigenae servientes who often appear on the pages of Domesday
Book Perhaps some of the riding men moved westward to continue, for a
time, an institution which had already become an anachronism.
The bovarii formed another class peculiar to the Welsh border shires at
the time of Domesday Book. Of the 737 such men listed, 733 resided
in the shires of Cheshire (172), Shropshire (384), Worcestershire (73), and
Herefordshire (104).19 Only 4 bovarii were listed outside of
these counties, all in the returns for Suffolk. Thus it is clear that the name
bovarius was restricted to those same areas along England's western
frontier in which was found the peculiar status of riding man.
Translators differ in their interpretation of the term "bovarius." Some employ
"oxman," while others prefer "oxherd."20 A moment's reflection reveals
the impossibility of the second translation. To have warranted a special title,
the bovarius would have to have been a full-time professional oxherd.
Otherwise, Domesday would have listed him by status rather than by
profession. There were simply too many bovarii listed in
Domesday for them to have found adequate employment as oxherds in
the comparatively poor border shires. Indeed, some small manors listed ten or
twelve such men.21 Whatever relation the bovarius had to oxen,
it was not that of professional herdsman. The translation "oxman" is preferable
then. It is true that
19Ellis, A General Introduction to Domesday Book, II. In
Ellis' final tabulation, he counts 749 bovarii, but an addition of the totals for
the various shires yields only 737.
20Both terms are employed in the Victoria County Histories. J.
H. Round uses "oxman" for Herefordshire and Worcestershire, while Drinkwater
prefers "oxherd" in the Shropshire volume. C. H. Drinkwater, "Translation of the
Shropshire Domesday," The Victoria Histories of the Counties of England:
Shropshire, I; J. H. Round, "Introduction to the Herefordshire Domesday,"
The Victoria Histories of the Counties of England: Hereford, I; and
Round, "Introduction to the Worcestershire Domesday."
21 For example, Domesday Book, fol. 252b and 253b.
52 The Normans in South Wales
this translation is vague, but this lack of precision allows us to
construct our own definition of the term.
A number of peculiarities may be noted
in the Domesday Book entries concerning these oxmen. In an
overwhelming number of entrIes the number of oxmen noted for a given manor
is an even figure -- two, four, six, and so forth.22 In most of those few
cases where an uneven number of oxmen are reported, the returns show an
uneven number of servi, or slaves. 23 This latter is an
equally unusual event in Domesday. Finally, there are some few
cases where the combined total of oxmen and slaves is still uneven. In
most of these instances, the entry notes that the demesne contains a
half-plough. 24 The implication of this peculiarity is
It is well known that the ploughing of
medieval England was a two-man operation, one man to handle the oxen and
the other to guide the plough. Domesday entries regularly record that the
number of oxmen, or the combined number of oxmen and slaves, equalled
twice the number of ploughs in demesne. This inescapably suggests that the
function of the bovarii was that of ploughmen. The data also
indicates that the oxmen performed much the same function as did the
slaves in tilling the demesne land, and that an oxman was often associated
with a slave in this task. This raises the question of whether the oxmen
shared the servile status, as well as the function, of the slaves.
It appears reasonably certain that,
whatever the status of the oxmen might have been at the time of
Domesday, the institution had its origins in the servile classes.
The distribution of slaves in Domesday England gives ample
indication of this. (Table 3) It was long ago pointed out that Domesday
Book clearly indicates that slavery was much more common in the
southwestern shires than it was in the rest of England. 25
Slaves accounted for about 9 per cent of the population of England at
large, but percentages ranging around 20 per cent are recorded for the
shires of the southwest.
Whatever the cause adduced to explain
this concentration of slaves, It is dIfficult to account for the
relatively small numbers of slaves
22 Out of eighty-seven such entries for Shropshire, only ten
totals represent odd numbers.
23 An example of such a case is the manor of Piceford in
Shropshire Domesday Book, fol. 258.
24 For example, Domesday Book, fol. 256 and 258.
25 F. Seebohm, The English Village Community. . . . See especially
the map facing page 85.
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 53
SERVI AND BOVARII IN THE DOMESDAY POPULATION
Servi||% of Bovarii and Servi|
found in Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire. It can be seen from the
table that much of this discrepancy disappears when one combines the totals of
servi and bovarii.26 The percentage for Herefordshire is
still unusually low, but it must be remembered that slavery was a moribund
institution under Norman rule, and that this rule had existed in Herefordshire
for fifteen years longer than the other shires under consideration. The evidence
indicates that the oxmen had at one time constituted a portion of the servile
population of the border shires. Whether they continued to do so at the time of
Domesday Book is another matter.
There exists some evidence which appears to indicate that the status of the oxmen
in 1086 was indeed servile. The most telling is found in the
Domesday description of the manor of Worthen.28 The
compiler records that there are 432 ploughs in demesne, ... et iiii servi et
.vii. villi. et viii bord. cum iii car. et iii bovariis. The entry thus
clearly states that the villeins and bordars of Worthen owned three ploughs and
three oxmen. This interpretation, however, depends upon the single stroke of the
pen which transformed the word bovarii into the ablative plural
bovariis. This is a rather weak
26 The figures presented in Table 3 are those of J. Tait,
"Introduction to the Shropshire Domesday Book," The Victoria Histories of
the Counties of England: Shropshire, I, 303.
27 See Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond, p. 35; P.
Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor, pp. 332-336. It might also be
noted that this situation is analogous to that of the riding men.
28Domesday Book, fol. 255b. Also see Tait, "Introduction
to the Shropshire Domesday Book," p. 302, n. 9. Tait accepted the apparent import
of this passage, even though he damaged his general thesis concerning the
bovarii by doing so.
54 The Normans in South Wales
foundation, and it is tempting to dismiss the passage as a simple scribal error.
In the first place, this is the only example of such an entry. Many other entries
note the bovarii in the same relative position, but the nominative form is
used and the meaning is clear. A more important objection can be raised. We have
seen that the oxmen and slaves were usually intimately associated in the
ploughing of the lord's demesne. If the three oxmen of Worthen were indeed owned
by the villeins of that manor, the demesne ploughs were left gravely undermanned,
since there were only four slaves available to operate four and one-half ploughs.
It might also be noted that the entry for Worthen is one of those unusual cases
where the combined number of oxmen and slaves is uneven. There was, however, a
half-plough in demesne. It might well be that the passage contains two scribal
errors, the second being that of writing "iiii. car et dim" for "iii. car et
dim." This would be the simplest of errors to make. Even if this were not the
case, it is difficult to believe that the villeins of Worthen held these three
oxmen as slaves. These fifteen villeins and bordars held only three ploughs among
them and hardly seem to have been wealthy enough to have afforded to keep slaves.
Even if they could have afforded such slaves, it is hard to see what use they
could have had for them. The oxmen were ploughmen, and the villeins' ploughs were
already overmanned. The bulk of the evidence points toward the conclusion that
the Worthen entry is unreliable, and that it represents a simple, or perhaps a
compound, scribal error.
Some more reliable evidence does exist in the pages of Domesday to
indicate that the status of the oxman may have been servile. Five entries record
the existence of "bovarii liberi." The obvious inference to be drawn from this
usage is that the other bovarii were not free. This conclusion is not
inevitable, however. Ten of the twelve bovarii liberi who appear in
Domesday are found in the single column which describes the Hezetre
hundred estates of Ralph of Mortimer in Herefordshire.29 Thus the
"bovarii liberi" may represent either the passing usage of the compiler or the
result of the system of estate administration which Ralph chose to employ.39 In
any event, whenever the term "liber bovarius'' appears, it is in
29Domesday Book, fol. 183b. The estates are those of
Lenhale, Litehale, and Camehop.
30Round, "Introduction to the Herefordshire Domesday," p. 289, also
Tait "Introduction to the Shropshire Domesday Book," p. 302.
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 55
servi, rather than other bovarii.31 In no case does a
liber bovarius appear in the same entry as a simple bovarius. They are mutually
exclusive. Domesday evidence shows no difference between the
so-called free oxmen and their possibly unfree colleagues. The sole Shropshire
example of a liber bovarius occurs on the estate of Ultone, and reads as
follows: "in dominio sunt ii carucae et iii servi et unus liber bovarius et vi
villani et iiii bordarii."32 Free or not, this particular oxman still
tilled the lord's demesne, and in intimate connection with a group of slaves.
It should be clear that the evidence of Domesday is inconclusive,
but tends to support the conclusion that the oxmen were of servile or
semi-servile status. J. H. Round reached the conclusion that "...Domesday uses
the terms 'bovarii' and 'servi' alternately."33 This view seems far
too extreme. Both terms frequently appear in the same entry. The compilers of
Domesday Book were intensely interested in compressing their data
and would have been more than happy to make one figure serve in the place of two
if it had been possible. There must have been very good reason for
Domesday to make the distinction as regularly as it did. Finally,
one might note that in one entry, the word "servi" is lined out and the word
"bovarii" substituted.34 It is impossible to accept Round's
contention; the evidence shows clearly that there existed a significant
difference between the status of oxman and that of slave. The nature of this
difference is a matter of some dispute.
James Tait has suggested that Domesday only uses the term "bovarius"
in reference to free men who are doing slaves' work.35 This would mean
that the oxmen were, by definition, free men. A number of objections to this
hypothesis arise. In the first place, it has been shown that the origins of the
oxmen were probably servile. They must have had some connection with the servile
classes which this view does not account for. Secondly, if the oxmen were free by
definition, it is difficult to explain how the scribe could ever have made the
slip which seems to indicate that villeins and bordars could own
31W. J. Slack, "The Shropshire Ploughmen of Domesday Book," The
Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, L (1939), 32.
32Domesday Book, fol. 255.
33Round, "Introduction to the Worcestershire Domesday Book," p.
34Domesday Book, fol. 256b.
35Tait, "Introduction to the Shropshire Domesday Book," p. 302.
56 The Normans in South Wales
oxmen. Scribal errors are rarely so blatant, or, if they are, are usually noted
and corrected. Finally, this hypothesis denies any significance whatever to those
passages which refer to the bovarii liberi by making the phrase
tautological. The evidence does not conclusively establish that the oxmen were
servile, but it does indicate that they were not free by definition.
Professor Tait made a second suggestion which appears far more tenable. It may
have been that the oxmen occupied a status lying somewhere between that of the
slave and that of the bordar. This suggestion better fits the
Domesday evidence and can easily be tested by referring to certain
post-Domesday evidence relevant to the bovarii. The Cartulary of
Evesham Abbey refers to certain bovarii residing on the abbey's
estates in the twelfth century.33 As at the time of Domesday, the abbey's
oxmen are associated in pairs and operate the demesne ploughs. The ploughs had
been worked, at the time of Domesday, by slaves.37 Evidently, as the
system of slavery disappeared, the servi tended to work up to the status
of bovarii. It is difficult to determine how great an advance this
represented, since at least some of the oxmen were still regarded as non-free.
The Liber Niger of Peterborough Abbey noted that each
bovarius on its estates was required to pay one penny if he were a
liber homo and nothing if he were of servile status.38 The
oxmen of the twelfth century were liable to quite heavy labor services, but they
had land of their own.39 This represents a considerable advance over
what must have been a servile origin. Some oxmen on Peterborough Abbey's estates
held ten acres, and one on the Evesham estate of Blackwell possessed half a
virgate. Moreover, the oxmen were closely associated with the cotarii in
some of their incidental services.40
The twelfth-century evidence shows clearly that the oxmen occupied a somewhat
vague position between the slaves and the cotarii, and that some gradation
existed among the oxmen themselves. With this information, Professor Tait's
second hypothesis becomes quite tenable. It would appear that the oxmen of the
Domesday Welsh frontier were men on their way up. They occupied a
33British Museum, MS Cotton Vespasian B. XXIV, folios 49d,
37Round, "Introduction to the Worcestershire Domesday Book," p.
38Chronicon Petroburgense, nunc primum typis mandatum,
ed. T. Stapleton,
39British Museum, MS Harleian 3,763, fols. 78d, 79.
40Noted by Round, "Introduction to the Worcestershire Domesday Book,"
p. 274, n. 7.
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 57
position somewhere between slave and free-one in which their advance in legal
status had progressed much further than the economic opportunities opened up to
them. The bovarii represent a stage in the process by which the slaves of
the southwestern shires were transformed into a free, but regulated and
exploited, rural proletariat.
An interesting conjecture may be made at this point concerning the possible
motives behind the creation of this rather peculiar status. In the official
Anglo-Norman manumission ceremonies, the slave was made free by being invested
with the arms of a free man. The climax of the ceremony was reached when a sword
or spear, the libera arma, was placed in his hands.4l It may
well be, then, that the bovarii were armed men. It is interesting to note
in this regard that the duties of the twelfth-century oxmen included the custody
of prisoners, a task which implies the possession of some arms at
least.42 The evidence is not conclusive, but the possibility exists
that the bovarii were men who combined the arms of a free man with the
duties of a slave. Armed men would have been of considerable value along the
thinly settled and dangerous frontier. At the same time, unarmed men would have
represented an actual disadvantage, since their neighbors would have had to
protect them. It is only reasonable to assume that the lords of the border became
aware of this situation and took steps to make the slave capable of defending
himself. This required granting him his freedom along with his arms. The measure
of freedom granted was as small as possible under the circumstances. The result
was the creation of a new, and rather anomalous, class-the bovarii.
The last of the classes we will consider, the hospites, is also the least
numerous. It deserves an attention, however, far greater than its number would
appear to warrant. According to the compilations of Sir Henry Ellis,
Domesday Book notes only seventeen hospites, all located in
the counties of Cheshire (3), Shropshire (7), and Herefordshire (7).43
An indeterminable number of additional hospites are mentioned in
Domesday, but their presence is unrecorded by Ellis. It may well be that
he ignored these additional entries because of his erroneous conception of the
nature and function of the hospites.
41Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, I, 212, 254.
42British Museum MS Harleian 3,763, fol. 78d for Omberly
Manor, fols. 66, 66b for Blackwell.
43Ellis, A General Introduction to Domesday Book, II,
430, 454, and 481.
58 The Normans in South Wales
Ellis defined the word "hospites" simply as "occupiers of houses."44
Whatever its rationale, this confused definition obscured for Ellis and some
others who followed him the fact that the essential function of the
hospites lay in their relationship to the land.
The few Domesday passages which mention the hospites do not make
this function clear. Some facts, however, do emerge. All of the hospites pay a
money render to the lord of the manor. The only hospites reported for
Cheshire resided on the estate of Hantone. The estate was of a considerable size,
containing 232 hides. The three hospites appear to have been the sole
inhabitants of the vill, and they were without possessions (nil habentes).
Despite this, Hantone was judged to be worth two shillings and a sparrowhawk
annually.45 This render must have been a heavy burden for the hospites who
paid it. In Shropshire, two hospites paid four shillings and eight pence
to the lord of the manor of Letone,46 while a single hospes located at
Etone made an annual render of two shillings.47 A group of four hospites
on the manor of Colesmere paid forty pence,48 and the seven hospites of
Herefordshire, all located at Letune, paid a total of five shillings
For what were these men paying? The answer to this question is found in the
Domesday entry for the manor of Hope in Herefordshire, which states:
"here there are men paying ten shillings and eight pence ...pro suis
hospitiis."50 The nearby estate of Lyonshall reported the same
situation. Certain men here paid an annual render of one hundred pence for their
hospitality, as long as they wished to have it (quamdiu ipsi
voluerunt).51 Although the status of these men is not stated, it
seems clear that they were hospites, and that they paid for their hospitality.
Their annual render, then, was a rent.
Domesday gives little clue as to the holdings of the
hospites, and is content with merely noting the rent due. Only two of the
eight passages dealing with the hospites mention their possessions at all.
One credits seven hospites with one plough, and the other notes that
44Ibid., II, 94.
45Domesday Book, fol. 264.
46Ibid., fol. 259b.
47Ibid., fol. 259.
48Ibid., fol. 259.
49Ibid., fol. 184b.
50Ibid., fol. 184b.
51Ibid., fol. 184b.
Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier 59
a group of three had no possessions at all.52 It is dangerous to draw
any conclusions from such a small base of data, but it would appear that the
possessions of the hospites were few.
The salient characteristics of the hospites to be drawn from
Domesday may be easily summarized. In the first place, they were
confined, at least in name, to the western frontier of England. They appear to
have been more or less free agents, able to withdraw from their manorial contract
at will. They probably possessed little in the way of normal agricultural
equipment. Lastly, despite their apparent poverty, these scattered groups were
expected to pay substantial rents to the lord of the manor on which they were
It is difficult to determine from what pursuits they drew the profits to pay
these rents. It is tempting to view them as some sort of industrial workers, but
there is nothing in the evidence to support such a view. One group, at least,
possessed a plough, suggesting that they were engaged in agriculture. Moreover,
if the hospites were industrial workers, we should expect part of their
render to have been paid in kind, similar to the blooms of iron demanded of the
miners and smelters of the Forest of Dean. In view of the evidence, it is most
reasonable to assume that the hospites were agricultural workers and that
their rents were for the use of the land. Their negligible equipment makes it
difficult to believe that they were engaged in normal agriculture. It seems most
likely that these men were engaged in developing assarts and were paying for the
privilege of doing so. This pursuit required little in the way of normal
agricultural equipment. After human labor had cleared the land, extremely small
teams, often not employing the customary oxen at all, were sufficient to till the
light forest soil.53
The bulk of the evidence, scanty as it is, supports the conclusion that the
hospites were settlers who were allowed to assart waste land in exchange
for a yearly payment. As time passed, many of the hospites no doubt
increased their stock and moved up into the class of liberi homines
encountered in later compilations. Some others must have failed to develop their
assarts to the point where their profits justified their rents. These either
moved on to new lands or re-
52Ibid., fol. 184b, 164.
53See D. M. Stenton, English Society in the Early Middle Ages,
1066-1307, p. 125.
60 The Normans in South Wales
mained where they were, to swell the ranks of the bordarii and
In some respects, the hospites appear to have been a response to the
peculiar frontier conditions existing along the Welsh border. The region was
land-rich and people-poor. Manpower was at a premium, both to defend the land
against Welsh attack and to develop the agricultural potential of the region. The
lords of the border were no doubt anxious to gain some revenues from the
long-devastated estates which lay under their control. It is clear that these
lords were willing to offer comparatively easy terms to such men as were willing
to settle these estates and provide these revenues. Moreover, there is no
indication that the hospites were unfree. They must, therefore, have acted to
swell the ranks of the fighting men available to defend the region. The Welsh
frontier was an area where a man could establish himself with a minimum of
capital, and it is apparent that the hospites were just such men.
A frontier is, almost by definition, a land of opportunity. It is an area where
undeveloped natural resources await only the investment of human labor to yield
great profits. Population density, however, is always low on the frontier, and
labor is always in short supply. As a consequence, the relative value of each
individual is greater here than in less dangerous, more fully developed and more
densely populated regions. In this sense the individual is exalted on the
frontier; the scope of his activities is greater, his tasks more challenging, and
his rewards commensurately greater.
The Welsh border of 1086 was such a frontier. We have observed the processes of
immigration and development in full course, leaving their mark on the pages of
Domesday. We have also seen the opportunities which awaited the
immigrants. For the riding men, the frontier was a place where they might for a
time retain a privileged status which was quickly passing out of existence. For
the adventurous members of such classes as the villani, bordarii, and
cotarii, it was a place in which to try their luck as hospites, and
to carve new and broader fields out of the wilderness. For the less adventurous,
the frontier promised freedom from many of the burdensome manorial obligations
which blocked the individual's path to personal development. For the slaves, the
frontier had a dual aspect. Although it promised arduous labor, here the slave
could expect to escape servile status and move up to the slightly higher status
of bovarius. On the
61 Social Classes on the Domesday Frontier
merchants and artisans of England and Normandy saw a growing market in
the west, and found a large measure of freedom under an appreciative
government and the liberal laws of Breteuil. The Welsh frontier of 1086
was a land of opportunity for all classes; it had something for