Sunday, March 7, 2010

Maigno Le Breton

The post Norman Conquest period is the beginning of recorded history for Wolverton Manor, as it was for so many parts of England. For this we can thank William's taxation register known as the Domesday Book.
The manor was in the hands of three Saxon thegns. They were dispossessed and the whole manor, as well as various other estates in Buckinghamshire were given to a man known as Maigno, which in Old French meant "great" or "big". Modern French would use "grand'. We could perhaps think of him as Magnus.
From the grant of land he was clearly an important member of William's invading army and must have contributed a number of troops. His landholding in 1086 was assessed at providing 15 knights under his feudal obligations to the crown, which probably meant that each knight would bring a number of foot soldiers - which may have added up to more than a hundred men.
Maigno chose Wolverton as his centre. He may have liked the naturally commanding position above the River Ouse where Holy Trinity Church now stands and where he built his castle. It is possible that he saw its possibilities when he came through Buckinghamshire with William's invasion in 1066. From Hastings, the army marched north, crossed the Thames at Wallingford, and continued to Wolverton and Hanslope, generally laying waste, before they turned south to London.
We know little about Maigno. We could estimate his birth as circa 1040 - which would have made him about 25 when he invaded England. He might have been a younger son attracted by the opportunity of gaining land through invasion. Who he married and when, we don't know. We don't know how many children he had. His heir was called Mainfelin and it is not at all clear whether he was a son or a grandson.
Maigno's dates are an estimated 1040 to 1114 - a long life certainly. Mainfelin's dates are 1090 to 1155, again a long life, but this takes us through 115 years in two generations - possible, but a bit of a stretch. Some historians have accepted Mainfelin as Maigno's son and he may well have been a late son born when Maigno was 50, but I think we should be open to the possibility that he may have been a grandson.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The saxons on the Manor

One of the great "what if" questions of English history relates to the Norman Conquest of 1066.  The outcome of Harold's engagement with William hung by little more than a Bayeux tapestry thread and could have gone either way. In the end William was the lucky one and with Harold dead the English lacked the leadership to withstand William's eventual triumph. Would English history have turned out differently. I suspect it would and this is apparent in the microcosm of the Wolverton Manor.
At the time of the conquest it was in the hands of three thegns Godwin, Tori and Alvric. After the conquest the whole manor was under the control of one man. And this was repeated across the country. It is estimated that in the last days of Anglo Saxon England there were about 4000 thegns. William replaced all these with fewer than 200 lords of his own.
Anglo Saxon England was in many ways a more equal society. I don't want to use the word democratic because it does not apply in any modern sense but people then did have more of a voice in community affairs. The council, witan, was a feature at all levels of society, and, as can be seen in this Wolverton example, the presence of three thegns within the manor meant that no one of them could become too powerful. The Norman centralization of power was the significant revolution of 1066 and has had its long term  impact to this day. The Normans largely married amongst themselves and held themselves a class apart from the natives they had subjugated. In my view this is the origin of our English obsession with upper and lower classes - not a feature of Anglo Saxon society.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


We don't know much about the man who gave his name to Wolverton - in fact we don't know anything other than his name. But the name can tell us something.
The Wolf was much admired by the Saxons, possibly because of its ability to hunt effectively in packs - a shared characteristic - so it is a popular name in these times. "Here" (pronounced Hair) was one of the Anglo Saxon words for army. The other was fyrd. In the Anglo Saxon Chronicle the word "here" tends to be applied to the invading Danes and the "fyrd" is the local militia. We might deduce that "here" is used in the sense of a marauding army, so we could translate Wulfhere as Wolf (chief of) the marauding army. Wolf the Marauder perhaps.
There was a Wulfhere who was a king of Mercia, and quite a successful one too and he has given his name to some other Wolvertons, but our Wulfhere, although a chief of sorts, was nowhere near as mighty.
Wolverton's name develops from Wulfhere's ing tun. An ing is a meadow or grazing land. A tun is an enclosure. So the ing tun is an enclosed or hedged field. This probably indicates that Wulfhere had sufficient status to own cattle and to arrange for them to be enclosed and protected.
Wulfhere's ingtun becomes Wolfrington and then Wolverton.
This explained, the next question is why would this be important enough to assign a name that would still be important 1500 years later? Well if Wulfhere was a chief then those who depended on him for protection would come to his tun to pay their various tributes. Thus the tun became an important centre.
Many of them, like Wolverton and its neighbour Calverton, lost importance over the ages and Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell became more significant trading centres.
As we know some tuns became larger market centres in the middle ages and the word became town - which we today associate with an urban centre.
Town life started in a field!

Monday, March 1, 2010

In a Manor of speaking

Over the next week or two I am going to look into the history of the Manor of Wolverton. Tomorrow I'm off to Aylesbury to look at some transcripts of manorial documents and next week I'll probably go to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to inspect the real thing.
I don't think I quite realized just how important this manor was. Certainly the wealth it generated was significant. From 1713, when Dr John Radcliffe purchased the Manor, it was producing an annual income of £2,376 - apparently sufficient to support the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Radcliffe Library and the two Radcliffe Observatories - all significant Oxford institutions - for the next 200 years.
The Manor, at least from the time of the Norman Conquest, and probably before, was defined by Watling Street to the west, the River Ouse to the north and Bradwell Brook to the east and south - about 2500 acres in total of very good farmland.
Prior to 1066 it was shared between three Saxon thegns, but they were dispossessed and the entire manor was given to Maigno le Breton, together withn some other estates. He established himself and his family here and first under the name de Wolverton and later under the name Longueville, the family held it until 1713 when it was sold to Dr Radcliffe. He died shortly after and since then it has been administered by Trustees.
From the coming of the railway in 1838, parcels of land were gradually sold off, but the Trustees still retained the largest part of the land and an interest in the administration of it. In 1970, this came to an end with the arrival of Milton Keynes Development Corporation. The Radcliffe Trust now retains only Wolverton Mill.