Gainsthorpe Medieval Village

History of Gainsthorpe Medieval Village

Among the 3,000 or so deserted villages in England, Gainsthorpe is one of the most clearly visible and best preserved. It lies in a grassy paddock beside a lone farmhouse, and is half hidden between the Roman road of Ermine Street and an ancient ridgeway to the west, now the B1398.

Aerial view looking west of the layout of Gainsthorpe's streets and buildings, picked out by low sunshine
The layout of Gainsthorpe's streets and buildings, seen in this aerial view, looking west

Former streets in the village survive as worn ‘hollow ways’. Beside them are individual properties separated by low banks, with ‘tofts’ – frontage plots that once contained buildings and sunken yards – and garden ‘crofts’ stretching behind.

Some features of this small medieval village have been obscured by later stone quarrying but much survives. The 30 or so buildings – which are mostly one- and two-roomed houses and barns – survive as low turf-covered foundations, many with doorways clearly visible. Some properties were later combined into larger units around courtyards, indicating partial desertion of the village and conversion from arable to sheep or cattle farming.

The well-enclosed paddocks and the cattle-pond were also part of this shift to pastoral farming. The courtyard ranges in the south-west area are probably the remains of the manor homestead and its home farm, with a rectangular fish pond in the corner and the footings of two circular dovecotes similar to the one at Wharram Percy.

The village has two distinct sections, each centred on an east–west street and linked by a third street. The northern part was probably a planned extension, taking in some of the earlier crofts and narrow cultivation strips in the arable fields.

Low earthworks, showing the positions of the village's buildings
Low earthworks, showing the positions of the village's buildings

Antiquarian Observations

In 1697 the antiquary Abraham de la Pryme noted ‘the foundations of about two hundred buildings, and … three streets very fare’. His estimate seems rather generous, though much may since have been lost through ploughing and stone-quarrying.

He was also told that further buildings, including a church, had once stood further south, though no trace of these survives. The field strips that once surrounded the village have also been erased by later ploughing.

Why Was It Deserted?

As is often the case, the time of, and the reason for, desertion of the village are not known.

Some nearby villages were subject to plague, soil erosion or sand blowing, and others to deliberate depopulation in the Tudor period, when villagers were forced out by landowners converting the land to more lucrative sheep pasture.

It may be significant that the last documented reference to Gainsthorpe being occupied is less than 50 years after the Black Death had ravaged the country in the 1340s. Quite what happened here remains a mystery. In de la Pryme’s words:

‘Tradition says that the town was, in days of yore, exceeding famous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves: and that the countrey, having for a long while endur’d all their villanys, they at last, when they could suffer them no longer, riss [rose] with one consent, and pulled down the same about their ears. But I fancy the town was eaten up with time, poverty and pasturage.’

Further Reading

Leaky, K and Williams, D, North Lincolnshire: a Pictorial History (Beverley, 1996)

Watkin, JR and Whitwell, JB, Changing Faces: Man in Humberside from the Stone Age to AD 1500 (Hull, 1987)


The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history. 

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