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Without the help of written records, it is almost impossible to reconstruct how or even whether land was controlled and divided up in the Dales in early prehistoric times. No doubt Mesolithic hunter-gatherers had their own territories or favourite hunting grounds. Neolithic farmers who spent time and effort clearing trees and stones to make fields would obviously consider the land to be theirs for as long as they wanted to use it. For the moment we can speculate no further.

The trackways we find among the late prehistoric co-axial field systems of Swaledale and Wharfedale may be the earliest evidence for land holding and division since they possibly form boundaries between community or family held farm land. Bronze Age barrows such as the one near Cray may have been sited on upland territorial boundaries. What we do know is that during the Iron Age, society becomes much more hierarchical and this probably extended to the way land was divided up and owned. Archaeologists believe that during this period, farmers paid tribute or tax to local tribal chiefs. These chiefs exchanged goods from the local farms for materials from outside the territory, for instance, cattle hides might be exchanged for iron. This would then be redistributed within the local area. The chief also offered protection to his ‘subjects’ and they in turn might have to fight for him during times of war. Fortified hill top enclosures such as on Ingleborough and How Hill, Downholme may have been the focus for such tribal territories.

Following the Roman conquest, farmers had to divert their surpluses to paying taxes. How land was owned is again open to speculation. The rich farmland around the Roman villa at Gargrave may have been worked by labourers employed by the villa owner or the owner may have rented it out, we don’t know.

It is not really until the later Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian settlement that we start to get an idea of land tenure. From place name evidence it seems that during the Anglo-Saxon period, estates were not generally bought and sold. They might be inherited or they might be granted to tenants for life long service and returned to the donor on the tenant’s death. There are relatively few personal place names from this period because such estates would not be named after mere tenants. By the 10th century this had changed, and individual owners were acquiring small private estates all over England. This was probably under the influence of the Anglo-Scandinavian settlers. Their place names are frequently based on personal names and it seems that they viewed their estates as being their own private property.

When the Normans arrived, they found a well-established countryside with landlords owning estates upon which a peasant population eked out a living in return for services and labour. The collection of Anglo-Scandinavian carved stones at Burnsall suggests that the village was the site of a well-established estate by the 10th century. The owners of the estate would have commissioned the carved crosses and hogback tombstones as symbols of their land owning wealth and power. The Domesday book records the names of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian landlords who had to give up their land to their conquerors. Anglo-Scandinavian names like Thorr, Bjornulfr and Drengr were replaced by the Norman Osberne de Arches and William Percy.

The Domesday Book gives us the first clear look at how the land was divided and run. Nominally the whole country belonged to the King, but he awarded great swathes of territory to his warlords. Much of the Richmondshire part of the National Park fell under the control of Count Alan, whose seat of power was Richmond Castle. The Anglo-Saxon Earl Edwin however, managed to retain some of his lands in Craven. The new landowners then awarded land to their followers.

The administrative and economic centre of each parcel of land was the manor although in the North of England, the main building block of the countryside was the vill or township. Township communities formed the social and agricultural focus. One manor might be made up of one or several townships. Some archaeologists believe that townships are the direct descendants of Roman or earlier estates but that remains to be proved in the Dales.

On the lower, better quality land of the valley bottoms in the Dales we find village settlements. These villages came about in part because of the communal system of farming that seems to originate in the late Saxon or early Norman period throughout England. Around a typical manor would be two or more open fields divided into individual strips but farmed communally, all the strips in one field lying fallow for instance while those in another were used for growing a crop. In order to create and then work these open fields, people often lived in nucleated settlements at their heart. Of course a village might belong to more than one manor as in the case of Kettlewell which was divided between two brothers in 1293. Above and around the open fields, townships had communally grazed but carefully regulated pastures. Land on the moorlands above these was also grazed communally but with fewer regulations as to how many animals an individual could have.

Historians in Hebden have reconstructed the open field system that probably once operated around their village in Wharfedale. They assume that here as elsewhere, the lord’s land (demesne) was farmed by his peasant tenants. In return for their labour, they were allowed to farm their own strips of land. Usually the lord appointed a reeve to organise the complicated operation along with the peasants themselves. Disputes were settled by the lord of the manor or his steward at the manor court. The long narrow strips of land tenanted by each peasant were scattered throughout the open fields as were the lord’s. It is likely that this was to give everyone a fair share of poor and good land although the lord no doubt had the best. A rare survival from Grassington in Wharfedale has allowed historians to reconstruct in detail the communal open field farming system that operated here. A survey of the manor was carried out in 1603 and lists the individual strip holdings, 864 in all, of the tenants. These were scattered through three open fields, West Field, Sedbur Field and East Field. They also shared the grazing rights on the Common Pasture and the Out Moor.

The communities that farmed Hebden and Grassington’s open fields were probably well-established by the Norman conquest, but elsewhere in the less hospitable uplands there was what the Normans called ‘waste’. By the 13th century, large parts had become royal hunting forest or free chase granted by the king to Norman lords. Here communities were thin on the ground. In the Forest of Wensleydale for instance, there were just 29 houses at Bainbridge, probably for forest employees. Within the forest, deer were protected by law and the scattered farming communities that existed were not allowed to interfere with them even if the deer damaged crops. Deer for hunting and providing venison and timber for houses were just a part of the forest’s uses. The Norman lords exploited the land directly by developing large-scale cattle farms (vaccaries) such as on the Barden Estate or they took a cash income from peasants by selling summer grazing rights on the fells or allowing them to create new settlements from the 13th century onwards.

The colonization of these upland areas gathered pace through the 13th and 14th centuries helped particularly by the economic drive of new monastic owners. Norman lords granted large parts of their fell and moorland waste to monastic houses like Fountains and Bolton Priory for the sake of their spiritual health. Huge sheep farms were created and farmed by lay brothers located at a series of granges such as that originally at Kilnsey. Up to three-quarters of the land now in the National Park may once have belonged to monastic houses. Fountains controlled a million acres in Craven alone.

From the mid-14th century, Scottish raids and the rising cost of labour led to the leasing and subdivision of both the lay vaccaries and the monastic granges. Fountain’s grange at Kilnsey was leased to a tenant from 1363. A rent paying tenant community arose based in hamlets and small villages. This change was accelerated by the Dissolution of the monasteries where King Henry VIII seized monastic estates and then sold them to their original tenants or new landowners.

During this same period, long established manors were also subject to change. Feudal service was replaced by money rents and the communal system of farming was gradually eroded away. In Hebden, the manor was sold to its tenants in 1589 and the open fields were divided among the new freeholders. Grassington’s fields were sold to their tenants soon after the 1603 survey was carried out. By the 17th century in Wensleydale the open common fields in the valley bottom were almost all completely enclosed, but many of the small meadows and pasture closes created were still shared by neighbouring farmers. On the valley sides, the large enclosed pastures were also still shared. Inhabitants of townships were awarded the right to graze a certain number of animals on these pastures. This was known as stinting. The commons and wastes on the tops were unstinted although some rules still existed to prevent overgrazing. Usually farmers were only allowed to graze the number of stock they could support over the winter on the hay grown on their enclosed meadows.

Historians have investigated the history of landholding in Wensleydale in detail. The tenurial arrangements that underpinned this farming system in the 17th century were complicated to say the least. In 1658, a large holding (originally part of the Lordship of Middleham) was sold off in small parcels to occupying tenants or neighbouring freeholders. Elsewhere in the Dale, wealthy families hung on to their estates, leasing land to small tenant farmers with just a handful of freeholders scattered about. At the start of the 18th century about a fifth of the land in the townships of Wensleydale was owner-occupied, the rest being let to tenants under a mixture of rentals. The Manor of Wensleydale for instance had a mixture of: customary leases (40 year, perpetually renewable); 2,000 year leases (fixed ‘ancient rents’ granted for a capital sum at the outset) and short leases (annual or half-yearly renewal). Such arrangements were hard to shift and customary tenant-right was a powerful force throughout the Dales. With perpetually renewable leases, decision-making power lay in the hands of the farming community not the landlord, who only retained the mineral and hunting rights to his land. Only where rents were not subject to manorial custom could they be easily raised to more economic levels.

In Wensleydale and throughout the Dales an important shift came about in 1909 when the government of the day introduced land value duties on unearned income from land ownership. Those with large estates began to sell individual farms to their tenants and by 1980 45.5% of the land in Wensleydale was owner farmed. In the parts of the Dale that were sold off to freeholders in the mid 17th century this figure rises to over 50% whereas in those parts originally controlled by a small number of wealthy families the figure was just one third owner farmed in 1980. By 1996, government census data for the whole of the National Park showed that owner farmers formed 57% of the total.

Today [2004], falling agricultural incomes are leading to the amalgamation of smaller family farms into larger units, but ancient customs still survive. Open upland grazing is still stinted in many communities and the estates bought during the 17th century to support Fountaine’s Hospital in Linton are still producing an adequate rental income for the almshouses nearly 300 years later.


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