Medieval I: Landscape & Gardens

However much the landscape had developed in the period before the Norman Conquest, the face of England was really shaped during the period of sustained demographic expansion that followed it.

The mere at Framlingham Castle, Suffolk

The mere at Framlingham Castle, Suffolk

A GROWING POPULATION

The population of England at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 was probably about 2.5 million. By 1300 it may have reached 5 million, and England was overpopulated in relation to its productive base, with farmers in many districts eking out a living on tiny holdings.

More land was brought into cultivation, and new settlements came into existence. As the wooded ‘wastes’ steadily shrank, manorial lords ensured that some portions were fenced off for their own private use, as deer parks or as woods, which were managed intensively through coppicing.

The king made his own provision in this respect, designating tracts of land as ‘forests’ within which special laws, intended to protect and encourage deer for the royal hunt, were zealously enforced. Many royal castles such as Peveril in Derbyshire and Pickering in Yorkshire owed their popularity with medieval kings to the quality of the local hunting.

View of Richmond Castle and the surrounding town, North Yorkshire

The medieval town of Richmond, North Yorkshire, was the centre of the prosperous Swaledale wool industry. Its regular plan, preserved in the modern street layout, suggests that town and castle were laid out together in the 11th century.

PLANNED VILLAGES

The farming landscape was probably mainly shaped by peasant communities. The regular layout of some villages, though – often still discernible today – may be the consequence of deliberate replanning in the later 11th or 12th centuries.

Such villages are a particular feature of Yorkshire, where they may have been established following the ‘Harrying of the North’, the scorched-earth policy adopted by William the Conqueror in response to the threat of Scandinavian invasion in the winter of 1069–70.

But such settlements are also found more widely and may – like the highly regular arrangements of holdings in open fields which also appeared at this time – indicate the increasing involvement of local lords in the activities of their farming tenants.

Manuscript illustration detail from the Luttrell Psalter showing peasants gathering in the harvest

This early 14th-century manuscript detail shows peasants gathering in the harvest. The crops appear to be planted in the traditional ‘strip’ formation, a common feature of the medieval rural landscape.
© British Library Board (Add. MS 41230 f.172v)

TOWNS, CASTLES AND CHURCHES

Lords certainly appear to have taken a major role in founding new towns. Often their decisions displayed more optimism than economic sense, and many such towns did not prosper.

The fortified town laid out in the 12th century beside Skipsea Castle in east Yorkshire, for example, now survives only as a complex of earthworks in an empty field. But others flourished, like the one founded below Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire, in 1071.

The hand of lordship – secular or ecclesiastical – remains most visible in the landscape in the form of castles, monasteries and abbeys, moated sites and especially innumerable parish churches, most of which have their origins in this period.

Aerial view of Roche Abbey and the surrounding landscape, South Yorkshire

Aerial view of Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire, and its surrounding landscape. Many Cistercian monasteries like Roche accrued great wealth through sheep farming, acquiring vast tracts of land in the process.

DESIGNED LANDSCAPES

One important new feature of the period was the appearance of elaborate ‘designed landscapes’ around great castles and palaces. These involved areas of water, planting and parkland carefully laid out to appear pleasing, especially when viewed from the principal rooms of the residence, or from the approaches leading up to it.

Of particular note are the large lakes or ‘meres’ created – or adapted from natural features – beside castles such as Kenilworth in Warwickshire or Framlingham in Suffolk.

Claims for these early ‘landscape gardens’ may have been exaggerated. It is possible, for example, that lakes functioned mainly as large fishponds, their scale and location reflecting an interest in displaying status rather than aesthetic taste.

But however we interpret them, they clearly show the scale with which, at the highest social levels, landscapes could now be consciously manipulated.

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