Monday 25 October 2021

Old Days of Eton Parish - Eton Before and After the Norman Conquest


In all the books published about Eton, the great College and School naturally form the absorbing centre of at-traction. Very little attention has been paid to the history of Eton itself, and yet there is much about it which many would like to know. It would be interesting to trace its first beginnings, as a town and parish; to discover what people first settled there, what their occupation was, and what brought them there.

It would be a matter of interest, to find out whether the place was inhabited at all in the days of the ancient Britons, or only in the days of the Anglo-Saxons or the Normans; whether the first settlers were Christians; and, if so, what spiritual provision was made for them.

But we have to curb our curiosity. The materials to help us to any complete knowledge are somewhat scanty and uncertain. Eton seems to have no Roman or British remains, nor any buildings old enough to throw light on those very remote times. Buckinghamshire is not like some counties, fortunate in possessing the records of ancient chroniclers.

Until about the year 1030, no written records are forthcoming, and for many years later only sundry scraps of information are available.

But something may be learnt from the study of names and existing customs; enough at any rate to form strong circumstantial evidence.

First, as regards names, there is hardly any trace of Danish influence in this corner of the county, but the neighbourhood abounds in names with the well-known Saxon termination of 'ham' or 'home.' Burnham, Farnham, Wexham, Cippenham and many others will at once occur to our readers. Another common sign of Saxon settlement is the termination ' ton,' as in Upton, Horton, Cole Norton, and Eton itself. We shall see presently how this throws light on its early history.

Field Map by H. Walker 1839

Then within the limits of the parish itself, many of the old names of the fields bear distinct witness to Saxon origin. A glance at the map of Eton Parish reveals several: 'shot' (e.g. two acre shot), butts' (e.g. wheat butts), Mill ‘furlong' or furrow long, ‘ward,’ ‘croft,' even 'acre' itself, are Saxon words; and what we still call 'eyots' and ‘weirs' were Saxon terms too, though ‘weir' had then a wider significance, and was used also for wattled baskets and other such contrivances for catching fish.

Further we find the same evidence accorded by certain institutions and customs, which, although slightly modified and altered in name under Norman rule, were undoubtedly Saxon, and were firmly established before either Danes or Normans appeared.

There are three such in Eton. The first of these is the existence of Common lands, of which Long Common and Little Common are samples. These commons take us back to the times of the earliest settlers, when, besides the wooden hut and the enclosed plot of ground (described as a 'close,' see map for many examples) which each settler cultivated as his private holding, there were certain pasture lands or woods which the community or tribe shared together, and into which they could turn their cattle or pigs under certain agreed conditions.

But apart from these Common lands, which of course exist in most parts of England, much of the meadow and cultivated land in Eton is open and unenclosed, and subject to what are known as Lammas rights.

These rights entitle householders, according to their rate, to graze so many head of cattle on these fields from the 1st of August to the 31st of October.

This too is an institution which has come down from the seventh century. The name Lammas ' has its origin in the first day of the grazing season, viz. Lammas Day. It is derived from Hlaf-masse, Loaf-mass, or Bread-feast. The day was observed in Saxon times as a day of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest; a loaf made of the new corn was offered at the Mass, as even in those days the Holy Eucharist was popularly called.

These Lammas rights have been jealously guarded by the inhabitants both in ancient and modern times. But for these, much of the open land in Eton would long ago have been in the hands of speculating builders and covered with bricks and mortar.

It is said, by good authorities, that the open or Lammas meadows were generally in old days allotted to tenants in strips, ' butts ' or shots ' as they were called. Another glance at the map shows how this custom prevailed as regards both meadow and plough land, and how in several instances the old names are preserved. It is also interesting to know that to this day very many of these old divisions of the land are still in use, and parts of fields are leased as separate holdings, although there is no visible boundary mark.

There is also a third institution closely connected with the two already mentioned, namely the Manorial system.

It is doubtless the case that the term ' Manor,' as well as most of the quaint old-world names connected with it, are of Norman invention, and the whole Manorial system with its Courts was developed somewhat under Norman rule but the best historians seem agreed that the system itself existed in substance in Saxon times and is hardly distinguishable from it. The lord in those days was called 'thegn' or 'thane,' the 'manor' was then the 'ham' or 'tun' (the township), or in Latin villata 'rendered in French ville.'

Many ratepayers, in response to a formal summons, attended a Court Leet, or General Court Baron, and a View of Frankpledge,' held by the Lord of the Manor or his steward in the dining-room of the Manor House of Eton; but it is as likely as not, that, in obeying this now very occasional summons, they have little realised that they were taking part in proceedings which were going on a thousand years ago, and some four or five hundred years before the College was founded.

Nowadays the Court and its jurors are only concerned with such small matters as the swearing in a new Bailiff or appointing someone to the office of Hayward, or possibly the amending some by-law or fining some offender for the breach of the same, but in early days this Court was of real importance to the whole village community. It was part of their system of local government.

The assembled freemen or land-holders met under their thegn or reeve, and determined whether some would-be settler should be admitted to the privileges of the Manor or Township, and what strip of land should be allotted as his holding. The jurors had to witness every surrender of land and every new tenancy, and to see that the terms were duly carried out. They were sureties responsible for the general good conduct of all on the Manor and for the good order kept. Some of what we now call petty police cases were brought before the Court, and the local Court assisted the Court of the Hundred and the Shire Court in enforcing their regulations.

Many other matters also were managed by the Court, as e.g. the keeping up of fences and dykes, the arrangement of crops, etc., to be planted in particular fields.

But what concerns us now, is that the existence of these three institutions is circumstantial evidence for there having been a settled population in Eton in Anglo-Saxon times. Moreover, the fact that a large portion of the land held by the Lord of the Manor is subject to Lammas rights, and that his Court is still charged with the due maintenance of both Lammas and Common rights, seems to show that these rights were fully established in the parish before Norman days and were accepted as part of the territorial system which prevailed throughout Wessex.

In other words, we may safely infer that Eton begins its history somewhere far back between the seventh and tenth centuries. At any rate, long before the Conquest we may picture in the higher ground of the parish (perhaps near the Manor Farm, Eton Wick, or in Northfield near Cole Norton) a cluster of small homesteads, occupied by agricultural folk who lived for the most part a peace-able life, who ploughed with their oxen their own strips or plots of land, or at stated times worked on the land of their thegn. These would meet together in their little community to discuss and settle matters which concerned their common benefit, and, at long intervals, would be called to arms by their thegn to join in resisting the inroads of some marauding foe.

It may be conjectured that this colony was known as Cole Norton or North tun; 'town' or 'tun' in Anglo-Saxon being the name given to the enclosure or hedge which surrounded the homestead of the thegn and his dependents.

But what of the town of Eton itself? Old maps and engravings, as well as information which belongs to the time of the Foundation of the College, make it clear that the river and its tributaries present a very different appearance to what they did even in the fifteenth century. The main stream has considerably shifted its course. Several of the streams have been diverted, some have disappeared altogether. Going back still further, we may conjecture something of this sort. If we could have taken a bird's eye view of the southern corner of the parish nearest the river, or even if we could have looked down on it from the chalk hill on the Berkshire bank, which in later days was crowned with the Round Tower, we should have noticed several intersecting streams and a cluster of islands, and especially a stream of some width flowing out of Cuckoo Weir stream and passing along the lane  on the north side of South Meadow into Barns Pool, re-entering the main stream to the left of the College Eyot.

On the principal island thus formed, we may conjecture that one of the early warrior-chieftains chose a sited for his homestead which would command the river and be secure from sudden attack, while his retainers built their log huts or cottages round him, protected by his fenced enclosure or tun; and out of this small nucleus the ' town ' little by little grew.

In old documents Eton is very variably spelt. It most often appears as Eyton, sometimes as Eiton, in Domesday Book it is Ettone, and we sometimes find Etone or Eaton.

The first spelling suggests that the name properly signified the Island Town, or the Town on the Eyot, and that this name was in course of time extended to the rest of the parish.

When the parish first appears in the pages of chroniclers, it was in the division of Bucks which was known as the Hundred of Burnham, but it seems to have been afterwards, either wholly or in part, transferred to the Hundred of Stoke.

Most of the land in very early days was probably, like the country on the opposite bank of the Thames, thickly wooded, but by the time of the Domesday Survey, taken by the order of William the Conqueror in 1086, Eton already was a place with some resources and importance of its own.

The land had been largely cleared and was partly in pasture and partly cultivated, although there were still woods and copses large enough to feed 200 swine on mast and acorns. There were two water-mills valued at a rent of 20s. in the money of that day. One is supposed to have stood at Cuckoo Weir, and what is known as Deadman's Hole may have been caused by the washing of the mill-stream. The other mill stood in what is now the Playing Fields, perhaps near the gate which now opens on to the College Eyot. There were also large fisheries, yielding a rent of 1000 eels.

In the time of Edward the Confessor, 1050, there was an ancient Saxon Palace at Old Windsor (near the Priory). It was here that the royal family resided; hence the property acquired by the King in the neighbourhood. The Manor of Eton was one of such holdings. It belonged to his wife, Queen Eddid or Eadgyth, and on her death (1075) reverted to the Crown. A little later, the Conqueror granted it to Walter son of Other, who was appointed Warden of the Forest, and also was the first Governor or Constable of the Castle Keep, which was just then erected on half a hide of land in the Manor and Parish of Clewer, as a suitable military post to command the neighbourhood.

This Walter, who afterwards took the title of Baron Windsor, had on his Manor fifteen 'villeins,' tenants under their lord of strips or portions of land and working between them six plough teams, also four 'bordars' or cottagers, who held their cottages and gardens on condition of supplying the lord with poultry and eggs. He had besides attached to his land four servants or serfs. The two mills, some of the fisheries, and woodlands mentioned above, belonged to this Manor.

There was also a second Manor in this parish held of the King by Walter son of Pont; he had thirteen villeins, five bordars and seven servants, whose lands were not geldable, i.e. not subject to tax. He had two fisheries and 148 acres of pasture land.

In addition to some rent, these thegns had to aid in building forts and castles and maintaining bridges in their jurisdiction and to provide a certain number of men for the King's army.

The building of the Keep was followed by the building of some other parts of the Castle, and Henry I. is said to have held a Courts there for the first time in 1110.

What communication there was between Eton and the Castle, except by ferry, is uncertain. But, as for many years yet there was no town on the Berkshire side of the river, we may presume that the presence of the Court and garrison helped considerably to the development of the trade of Eton. At any rate it had become sufficiently large and prosperous for a weekly market, which was held on Mondays. For this, King John granted a charter to Roger de Cauz in 1204.

Of the two manors mentioned above, one only survives under the designation of the Manor of Eton cum Stockdales and Colenorton. From the titles of its Courts and their powers, it would seem to have been a Manor of consider-able importance in the neighbourhood. The other Manor is represented by what is now Crown land and by what was in later years acquired by the College.

OLD DAYS OF ETON PARISH by The Rev. John Shephard, M.A. was published in 1908 by Spottiswoode and Co Ltd. The text is has been copied from the original book that is now out of copyright.


  1. Extremely interesting, very well explained

  2. Great read, very clear in explanation of Lammas, Common and Manorial lands in Eton and Eton Wick