Skip to main content area


Cookie settings
Main Content Area

The Medieval period

An overview

The beginning of the medieval period is often dated to the Norman Conquest of 1066, an event which opened up England to new forms of culture, government and society. The England that the Normans found themselves faced with was very different to the lands that they had just left. The Normans quickly established themselves as feudal lords of a countryside that had very few towns and a widespread population. As soon as they had settled they began to found towns, villages, churches and castles. These developments organised the country and enabled the Normans to introduce control to a conquered territory.

Herefordshire and the Border lands had been unsettled before the arrival of the Normans, with the region being an attractive proposition for both the Saxons and the Welsh. The Normans had to contend with these Border skirmishes as well as trying to consolidate their existing holdings in the county.

Until the 1060s the Welsh had the advantage. They were led by two fearsome men, Gruffydd ap Rhydderch and Gruffydd ap Llewellyn; the latter raided Herefordshire as far as Leominster, until he was slain by Harold Godwinson and his half-brother Tostig.


In response to the uneasiness of the Border area, the Norman lords - notably William Fitz Osbern - began to build castles on their lands, in order to create a system of control and demonstrate their power to their opponents. The first castles were built at Ewyas Harold, Richards Castle and Hereford, all three being built before 1066. The Norman lords were eventually forced to flee Herefordshire after Earl Godwinson's supporters rallied against them. 

This was not to be the last of the Norman presence in the county, for in 1066 they conquered the whole of England up to the Welsh border. Being unable to break into Wales and perform a complete take-over, the Norman lords used the Marches as their base for operations into Wales. One of the problems facing them in their attempt to conquer Wales was the difficulty of maintaining any political control that they had achieved. After a rebellion led by Eadric the Wild, King William created a system by which the counties of the Marches were governed as semi-autonomous earldoms. These new earldoms were based around the three Marcher towns of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. The land within each of these was further divided between appointed Norman lords, so that the whole of the Marcher area became a series of miniature states. In each of these lordships one or more castles were built, and these became the centres of administration for each lordship. 

The areas of Wales that had been conquered became known as the "Welsh Marches" to distinguish them from unconquered Wales, pura Wallia or "Wales proper". Wales proper was still ruled under the native "law of Howel", while the Welsh Marches were ruled under the "Customs of the March" and the rest of England was under strict royal control.

With the autonomy that they had been granted the lords of the Welsh Marches were able to rule supreme in their own area. They had jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases of any sort except for treason. They established their own courts, executed the sentences, and collected the fines themselves.

The Marcher lords had the right to impose forests and forest law (banning others from hunting in their forests). They were also able to establish their own boroughs and grant charters. There were no limitations on their castle building and they were allowed to wage their own private wars.

It was this ability to put up castles without royal approval that was paramount to the success of Norman control in Herefordshire. Castles were something of a new phenomenon to the people of Herefordshire (and indeed England). Despite their courage and determination not to be governed by the Normans, they could only put up the feeblest resistance to this new style of warfare and government.

The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the power that the Normans held over the natives a few decades after the Conquest:

"They greatly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle work; then when the castles were made they filled them with devils and evil men. Then both by night and by day they seized those men whom they imagined had any wealth and tortured them. They were hung by their thumbs or by their head and coats of mail hung on their feet. They put knotted strings round their heads and twisted them till it went to the brains." Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Peterborough Manuscript, 1137, translated and edited by Michael Swanton, J.M. Dent, 1997, p. 264

In England the greatest concentration of earth and timber castles is in the Marches, with several hundred recorded examples; of these, over 120 are found in Herefordshire. The more significant of these castles were later rebuilt in stone, thus improving their defensive capabilities. Many of the castles built in Herefordshire led only a short active life and were abandoned for smaller, more comfortable moated manor houses nearby. They had sufficiently performed their function of administration and oppression, and as the Norman control of England became more settled their purpose as the centres of districts became less necessary.

The Norman conquest of England and the redistribution of land caused William the Conqueror to order a survey of ownership to be undertaken 20 years after the initial conquest. This survey was called the Domesday Survey.

The village and borough

The building of castles in areas which had otherwise been unorganised and scarcely populated had a knock-on effect on the society of medieval England. Small villages and boroughs began to grow up around the castles, taking advantage of the protection they offered and the economy that they created. Examples of these in Herefordshire include Kilpeck and Richards Castle. Before the Norman invasion, English society had mainly consisted of small self-sufficient family groups and trade between different groups was uncommon. 

As castles were built people began to relocate and settle within the immediate area of the fortification. Soon small economic units had been formed. The castles themselves provided sellers with a market to trade to, and as more and more people moved into the vicinity of each castle, and merchants went about their daily business, these small trading groups became important economic centres.

The role played by these towns in the formation of a stable environment did not go unnoticed by the Normans. In the unstable Marches the creation of new towns was undertaken on a greater scale than anywhere else.

At the time of the Domesday Survey all of Herefordshire's towns were agricultural manors, with only Wigmore being a borough, but there were many more borough foundations created throughout the medieval period.

The most natural place for these towns to develop was in the shadow of the mighty Norman castles, which were still responsible for the administration and protection of the area. Mainly these new boroughs were populated by people from the surrounding area, however the Domesday Book of 1086 also provides evidence that there were many Norman settlers in the country, with Herefordshire and the Marches having the highest concentration of foreigners.

Not all boroughs were successful. When the threat of Welsh attacks subsided and castles were no longer needed for their military function, many of the towns that had developed around them quickly realised the need to adapt themselves to a more economic function. Those that didn't - such as Richards Castle and Kilpeck - soon found that the market for their goods, i.e. the castle, had disappeared and the towns themselves soon followed.


The construction of castles and the creation of villages and boroughs in post-Conquest Herefordshire had an effect on the appearance of the county's landscape. Large tracts of woodland were cleared to make room for these new communities, as well as for the new religious foundations.

The arable open field system had been adopted throughout the Marches and Herefordshire. This involved two or three large fields surrounding a settlement. These fields were divided into long narrow strips which were allotted to the villagers. These strips alternated between arable farming (crops) and fallow (land that is fertilised and left uncultivated for a season to allow it to regain its nutrients). However, this system was adversely affected in the 14th and 15th centuries by a number of factors, mainly a deterioration in the climate, failed harvests and the Black Death. The open field system was abandoned and replaced by enclosed pastoral farming. This system involved regular-shaped fields that were marked by boundaries, either woodland, ditches or hedges.

One trade which prospered in Herefordshire and the Marches during the Middle Ages was wool. Herefordshire and the Border lands had large areas of open moorland with fertile pastures ideal for the rearing of sheep. There was also a plentiful water supply for the treatment of wool. Hereford in particular was able to benefit from its ability to trade in both Marcher and Welsh wool. For example, many of the timber-framed buildings and market halls that can be found at places such as Ledbury and Pembridge were built out of the proceeds of wool. The breed of sheep that flourished at Leominster, the Ryeland, produced wool known as "Leominster Ore" and a street name Ryelands Road still exists in the town today. 

The success of the wool trade in Hereford is reflected in the almost continuous work that was carried out on the cathedral in the 14th century, as well as the restoration of the city's churches and the foundation of a grammar school in 1384. This school still exists, and is now known as Hereford Cathedral School.

The historian William Camden, who was writing about Herefordshire at the end of the 16th century, reported that "for the three W's, Wheat, Wool and Water it yieldeth to no shire of England".

However this trade was not enough to sustain the whole of the county. In many areas the decline in arable farming led to a number of deserted and shrunken settlements, although much of this decline happened in the post-medieval period.

The main reason for the decline in the population of settlements was the Black Death of 1348-9. Over half the clergy in Shropshire and Herefordshire died during the epidemic, probably due to their close proximity with the infected and dying. In Hereford, so many of the clergy died that unusual arrangements had to be made for the canons to take the services.

Religion and the church

Another major change in society that came about because of the Norman invasion was the church. Before 1066, the Anglo-Saxons had begun to introduce monasticism into England but the spread of it was somewhat limited. Having been preoccupied with the skirmishes over the Border, the development of parish churches in the county was slow. The Anglo-Saxon religion had first been introduced into Herefordshire in the 7th century.

The earliest foundations belong to the Benedictine monastic order and were in existence by the beginning of the 12th century. The first of the Cistercian houses in Herefordshire was at Abbey Dore in the south-west of the county, founded in 1147. Abbey Dore was very prosperous and had 17 associated granges, nine of which were in the Golden Valley.

Ecclesiastical centres had been established and, as well as the important religious site at Hereford, a monastic site had been set up at Leominster. The religious institution there was very important. It consisted of some 80 hides (a measurement of land) and is recorded in the Domesday Book as one of the largest manors in England. The Benedictine Priory was established here in 1125, when Henry I granted Leominster to the Abbey of Reading.

There are no well-preserved monastic sites remaining in the county, and the historical landscape of today misrepresents the religious structure of the county in the medieval period. During the medieval period there were over 20 religious communities, representing 11 religious orders.

Throughout the Middle Ages there were continual battles between England and France. These caused a patriotic backlash against the religious orders set up by the Normans. Much of the property of these religious orders was seized between 1390 and 1460 and given to schools and colleges. Henry VIII's Dissolution of the major houses between 1536 and 1539 was the death of many of the smaller priories. Flanesford Priory near Ross-on-Wye was one of the first to succumb, having been weakened by the plague. Even the more successful priories such as Wormesley and Aconbury were dissolved by 1539.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2002]