Britain 1200

By Mason, Emma | History Today, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Britain 1200


Mason, Emma, History Today


Emma Mason argues that rising population brought with it a surprising degree of movement, politically, geographically and socially.

IN THE YEAR 1200 Britain was in the middle of a spell of warm weather that had begun c.AD 900 and lasted to c. 1300. This made possible the cultivation of land on higher ground, beyond the margins of previous habitation. Mixed farming was usual in lower-lying lands, though in much of Scotland, Wales and the north of England a pastoral economy predominated. Large areas of Britain were still covered by forest, and summer pollen counts were higher than they are today. Air quality was good, since industrial processes were minimal.

Throughout Britain, as over much of the European mainland, the population was steadily rising. This rise had been evident from the early eleventh century, and was to continue until around 1300, so that England's population doubled between c. 1086 and c. 1300, after which a decline set in. In AD f 200, the population was still below the peak of 3 million (or more) which historians have suggested for c. 1300. The populations of Wales and Scotland in 1200 were sparse, probably well under half a million in each case.

Increased demand for corn -- bread was a major part of the diet even for the better-off -- led to the ever-greater urgency for land clearances to bring new land under the plough. In eastern England, extensive drainage projects were undertaken in the Fenlands, and land along the Lincolnshire coast was slowly but steadily reclaimed. Such activity can be approximately dated by the first mention of new place names in charters or other records, which indicates that drainage and reclamation were well under way in these areas by AD 1200. Drainage was also in progress in the Romney Marsh, and in the marshes of the south-west around Glastonbury.

Large tracts of woodland were also being cleared. The Norman kings had appropriated great swathes of woodland, heathland and cultivated land to create royal forests, which were initially hunting reserves. The total area afforested was still increasing in the earlier part of the reign of Henry II (r.1154-89), but in his later years he permitted a limited amount of disafforestation (reducing the legal status of forest to that of ordinary land). Petitioners were now allowed to make assarts (clearances), at a price determined by the crown. Henry's sons, Richard I (r.1189-99) and John (r.1199-1216), both permitted extensive disafforestation, sometimes making grants to an association of knights and freemen of a particular area who clubbed together to raise the `fine' demanded by the king in return. Disafforested land was usually cleared for corn production, although lords were also soon petitioning the king for licences for deer-parks of their own. Wolves and foxes were hunted under licence, and pheasants were preserved. Clearances of moorland were also under way in the north and the far south-west, with settlement steadily rising to higher contours. Land clearance here was initiated both by manorial lords and by peasants on their own initiative.

Population growth also led to the foundation of new settlements. Hamlets, often started by squatters, were established as marginal lands came into agricultural use. New towns, on the other hand, were founded by kings, nobles or bishops on sites that had potential as seaports or river ports, or which were at the intersection of major land routes and waterways. They were usually set out on a grid-plan, with provision for a market place, and for the town's defences.

Not all aspiring towns were viable. Although many lords attempted to develop one of their manors as a market-town to profit from local tolls and stall-rents, competition was strong and many markets had only a small catchment radius. The viability of a settlement might depend on its situation on good lines of communication, such as a Roman road or a ford on a river capable of taking shallow-draught boats. …

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