History of Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village
The village of Wharram Percy, in the Yorkshire Wolds, was continuously occupied for about 600 years. Probably founded in the 9th or 10th century, it flourished between the 12th and early 14th centuries, when members of the noble Percy family lived in the village. But by the early 16th century it was almost deserted, as a result of gradual abandonment and forced evictions. The ruined church is the last standing medieval building. Around it are the grassed-over foundations of two manor houses and about 40 peasant houses and their outbuildings. Since 1948 the settlement has been the focus of intensive research, which has made it Europe’s best-known deserted medieval village.
Middle Saxon Settlement
The village’s origins are much debated. Some experts believe that a scatter of small buildings with sunken floors – some possibly enclosed by earthworks – represents an early village, which can be dated by the presence of mid 7th-century artefacts.
Others argue that these buildings were temporary huts erected by lowland farmers who drove their sheep on to the Wolds to graze in summer and autumn, and that the existence of an annual livestock market here eventually prompted the establishment of a permanent settlement in the 9th or 10th century.
Late Saxon Occupation
At some point between 850 and 950 a major reorganisation of the landscape, encompassing agreement of parish and field boundaries, led to the foundation of the village proper, with a wooden church on the green. According to Domesday Book, Lagmann and Carli were the two main pre-Conquest landowners, and Ketilbjorn held a smaller portion of land. These men, whose names indicate that they had Viking ancestry, perhaps rebuilt the church in stone.
The Rise of the Percy Family
By 1086 William the Conqueror had confiscated Wharram and had granted Lagmann and Carli’s holdings to Osbert the Sheriff. Ketilbjorn’s land was perhaps given to William de Percy, an important Norman baron, from whom the Percy Earls and Dukes of Northumberland, with castles at Warkworth, Alnwick and elsewhere, were descended.
The Percys who acquired the lordship of Wharram were a minor branch of this family, and their main landholding was in Bolton Percy, south-west of York. By 1176 one William Percy had acquired half the large landholding of the Chamberlain family (which had belonged to Osbert), making him the major owner in the village. The building of the South Manor, the foundation of the adjacent planned row of peasant houses, and improvements to the church all probably represent signs of the Percys’ growing ascendancy.
It was probably Peter Percy I who then demolished the South Manor and built the North Manor, together with two more rows of houses, increasing the number of properties to about 40. This suggests a population of perhaps 200. The extent of the village’s arable land in 1267 was the same as that recorded in Domesday Book.
The North Manor was enlarged and improved, perhaps by Peter I’s son Robert Percy III, with the addition of a small hunting park, which is mentioned in the 1320s.
A Steep Decline
Misfortune struck the Percy family in the early 14th century. In 1315 Robert III’s son Peter Percy II died young, leaving no male heir. Raids by the Scots in 1319–22 – they burned seven farmsteads in nearby Thixendale – perhaps worsened the unsettling situation for the village, because by 1323 two-thirds of its land was uncultivated, plots were unoccupied and the two watermills disused.
Peter II’s elder daughter, Eustachia, was made a royal ward, which allowed the Crown to control the estate until she reached the age of 14 in 1327. She was then married to Walter Heslerton (from the nearby village of that name), with whom she had a son, Walter Heslerton II.
Although by 1334 there were still at least 18 households in Wharram Percy, including the manor and the parsonage, it ranked 33rd of 50 local villages in a tax assessment, its valuation being about half the average.
In 1349 the Black Death killed Walter Heslerton I. Walter II, still a minor, could not inherit the estate, and the Crown was again able to take control of it by claiming that Eustachia was mentally incapable. The population was perhaps reduced from about 67 to 45 by the plague.
On Walter II’s death in 1367 the estate reverted to a distant relative, Henry, of the more illustrious Percys of Spofforth. After this the Percy family no longer lived in the village. By 1368 the buildings of the North Manor were dilapidated and considered worthless.
Yet 30 houses were now occupied, the land which had been left uncultivated in 1323 was in use again, one of the mills was working profitably and both millponds generated an income from fishing. Though there were fewer households in the late 14th century, they were doubtless better off, as shown by the excavated large peasant longhouse overlooking the church.
At least one-third of the villagers had evaded paying the harsh poll tax imposed in 1377, prefiguring the widespread support in Yorkshire for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
In about 1400 the Spofforth Percys exchanged Wharram for a manor owned by Baron William Hilton. Baron Hilton replaced the upper storey of the Wharram church bell tower and added the family’s coat of arms, but he may never have lived in the village, and certainly did not by 1406. When he died in 1436 at least 16 houses were occupied.
The End of Village Life
Over the course of the late Middle Ages, the rising price of wool – the raw material for England’s increasingly profitable export of woollen cloth – induced many landowners to switch to sheep farming, converting arable land to pasture. This sea change spelled disaster for many small English communities that had lived by the plough.
A testimony referring to the eviction of four families from Wharram and the destruction of their houses by Baron Hilton in about 1500 was long thought to mark the final act of depopulation. It was, however, apparently part of a longer process, for there seems to have been a sharp decrease in the village’s population after 1458. This may have been caused by evictions that went unrecorded, although a few houses continued to be occupied after 1500 by smallholders and shepherds.
Baron Hilton finally converted the last arable strips to pasture in 1527, which suggests that some had been ploughed until that year when a decisive switch to sheep farming took place. In 1543–4 John Thorpe of Appleton kept 1,240 sheep under the care of just two shepherds on Wharram’s former arable fields. In lawsuits of 1555–6 relating to the rebuilding of the vicarage after a fire, none of the witnesses lived in Wharram.
In 1573 another William Hilton sold the manor. It then passed through several hands until the 6th Baron Middleton, whose successor still owns the site, bought it in 1833.
A ‘chief messuage’, or principal farmstead, recorded as mainly farming sheep in 1605, may equate to one of the best-preserved (but unexcavated) medieval longhouses. Its disappearance soon after 1636 marked the indisputable end of village life.
By 1674 a new farmhouse had been built; its adjacent farmyard was rebuilt in 1775–1800 and the farmhouse was replaced in 1807. This building was demolished by 1845, together with most of the farmyard, but in 1850 its southern range was converted into labourers’ cottages, which were occupied until 1976.
The names of the fields that covered the site of the village in the late 18th and 19th centuries – Water Lane, Towngate and Town Street – attest to a continued folk memory of its existence.
The Archaeological Project
The site of the village was mapped by the Ordnance Survey in 1850–51, resulting in some perceptive observations and interpretations of the earthworks. Modern research into Wharram began with the visit by the economic historian Maurice Beresford in June 1948, followed immediately by JK St Joseph’s aerial photography. Excavations took place every summer from the 1950s until 1990, and a book drawing together the many years of research was published in 2012.
Analysis of the skeletal remains from Wharram Percy, an invaluable resource for understanding medieval life, continues to provide a wealth of insights into the lives and beliefs of the villagers. Most recently, researchers believe they have discovered evidence of belief in the living dead.
READ MORE ABOUT WHARRAM PERCY DESERTED MEDIEVAL VILLAGE
About the Author
Alastair Oswald, a former Senior Archaeological Investigator at English Heritage, is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Wharram Percy.
1. See C Stoertz, Ancient Landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds: Aerial Photographic Transcription and Analysis (Swindon, 1997), for an overview of these settlements, and the landscape context of the Wharram example; PA Rahtz and L Watts (eds), Wharram IX: The North Manor Area and North-west Enclosure (York, 2004), 19–103; S Roskams, ‘The 2005 excavation of the north-west enclosure’, in Wharram XIII: A History of Wharram and its Neighbours, ed S Wrathmell (York, 2012), 57–62; M Atha and S Roskams, ‘Prehistoric and Roman transitions at Wharram Percy’, in Wharram XIII, 63–82.
2. S Wrathmell, ‘Early Anglo-Saxon grazing grounds’, in Wharram XIII, 82–96.
3. S Wrathmell and E Marlow-Mann, ‘Characterising Middle Saxon Wharram Percy: the structural evidence’, in Wharram XIII, 118–35.
4. P Everson and D Stocker, ‘Wharram before the village moment’, in Wharram XIII, 164–72; S Wrathmell, ‘Wharram before the village moment: a response’, in Wharram XIII, 172–3.
5. P Everson and D Stocker, ‘Why at Wharram? The foundation of the nucleated settlement’, in Wharram XIII, 208–20.
6. M Beresford, ‘Documentary evidence for the history of Wharram Percy’, in Wharram I: Domestic Settlement I: Areas 10 and 6, ed D Andrews and G Milne (London, 1979), 5–25; D Roffe, ‘The early history of Wharram Percy’, in Wharram VIII: The South Manor Area, ed P Stamper and R Croft (York, 2000), 1–16; S Wrathmell, ‘Lordship, local administration and ecclesiastical provision in the Late Saxon period’, in Wharram XIII, 180–96.
7. D Stocker, ‘Pre-Conquest stonework – the early graveyard in context’, in Wharram XI: The Churchyard, ed S Mays, C Harding and C Heighway (York, 2007), 284–7; Everson and Stocker, ‘Why at Wharram?’, 212.
8. Roffe, op cit.
9. S Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors from the 12th to the 15th centuries’, in Wharram XIII, 228–9.
10. P Everson and D Stocker, ‘Who at Wharram?’, in Wharram XIII, 262–77.
11. J Parker (ed), Feet of Fines for the County of York, from 1246 to 1272, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, 82 (1932), 98–9, first discussed in Beresford, op cit, 17–19, and most recently by Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors’, 229–30.
12. Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors’, 225–6.
13. A Oswald, Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village, North Yorkshire: Archaeological Investigation and Survey, English Heritage Archaeological Investigation Report Series AI/19/2004 (2004), fig 50.
14. Roffe, op cit, 3, and Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors’, 230.
15. Rahtz and Watts, op cit, 3–4; reassessed by A Oswald, ‘A new earthwork survey of Wharram Percy’, in Wharram XIII, 26–31.
16. Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors’, 235; Beresford, op cit, note 11.
17. Beresford, op cit, 5–25.
18. Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors’, 235–6.
19. Prompting a rebate of one-third of the tax collected in 1352: Beresford, op cit, 11–12.
20. Wrathmell, ‘Lords and manors’, 236.
21. As suggested by the village’s tax return that year: Beresford, op cit, 13.
23. IS Leadam (ed), ‘The inquisition of 1517: inclosures and evictions, edited from the Lansdowne MS I 153, part II’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, new series 7 (1893), 247 (subscription required; accessed 8 January 2014); Beresford, op cit, 6–7.
24. S Wrathmell, ‘Farming, farmers and farmsteads from the 16th to 19th centuries’, in Wharram XII: The Post-medieval Farm and Vicarage Sites, ed C Harding, E Marlow-Mann and S Wrathmell (York, 2010), 1–3.
25. Wrathmell, ‘Farming’, 1.
26. Ibid, 2–3.
27. S Wrathmell, ‘The rectory, chantry house and vicarage from the 14th to 19th centuries’, in Wharram XII, 17–22.
28. North Yorkshire County Record Office, ZAZ 10; discussed in Wrathmell, ‘Farming’, 3.
29. Wrathmell, ‘Farming’, 4–5, 10–15.
30. RT Porter, ‘Cartographic evidence for the post-medieval farmstead, cottages and vicarage’, in Wharram XII, 27–8.
31. Ordnance Survey, first edition 6-inch map, 1854, sheet 143.
32. Oswald, ‘New earthwork survey’, 26–31.