For a history student with an interest in medieval life our trip to Billesley Trussell proved an intriguing and useful experience. However, upon our arrival at the site we were stood looking at a bumpy field whose historic relevance was well hidden from my archaeological amateurish eyes. Yet with further investigation and some helpful hints from Professor Muller, our medieval expert, we were soon able to piece together and understand the historical importance of the site and uncover clues concerning the settlement which once existed there. This is seen in the surviving earthworks at Billesley Trussell which provided us with a wealth of information concerning the layout of the village and the activities which would have occurred there.
But before I talk to much about this it seems important to make reference to the surviving eleventh century All Saints’ Church which once served the village of Billesley. The Grade I Listed building which despite being altered and remodeled in the later half of the seventeenth century still contained an abundance of medieval information in its existing architecture. Examples of this were seen in the church’s exterior walls which are riddled with well preserved Herringbone brickwork (yellow circle) which is an excellent illustration of pre twelfth century stonework.
The Herringbone zig zag pattern is accompanied with normal stone work broken only for a late thirteenth century gothic doorway, some large classical windows and another blocked doorway dating from the seventeenth century. The whole ensemble creates a tapestry of varying stone works used for the church’s development and maintenance through the ages. Its historic display continues inside with two spectacularly well preserved twelfth century stone carvings which were discovered during the 1980’s restoration work and are now exhibited on the east wall of the vestry. One depicts a soldier in a kilt, a snake, a dragon and a bird, all surrounded by wonderfully twisted foliage and the other is part of a stone cross which shows a carved figure of Christ holding the hand of another person. As well as the church’s historic structure other information is available from its existence. One of these, is its geographical location at the top of the field in constant view of those living in the settlement and a stones throw from where the old manor house would have been. It is no secret that religion and the church played a huge role in medieval lives and the All Saints’ Church’s elevated site is no coincidence as it highlights this importance and the constant intimate relationship shared between the settlement and its church.
The church’s historical significance could be stretched further with analysis of the preserved skeletal remains of medieval inhabitants which are buried. From this, information could be attained concerning the dietary conditions, age and health of Billesley Trussell’s rural population and in addition the survival of burial goods and artefacts could provide information about medieval funeral practices and material culture. However, with exhumation firmly off the cards we turned our attention to the main site of the settlement where an abundance of information could be sourced from the surface.
Despite my earlier ambiguity towards the field’s historical value, it turned out that before us was a series of coherent and logical earthworks which when analysed more carefully were capable of accurately mapping out Billesley Trussell’s medieval settlement. The bumpy terrain was transformed before us into a system of house enclosures, (tofts, indicated by red circles) and the allotments associated with dwellings (crofts) defined by the banks and ditches either side of a flat strip of the field, which was orientated east to west, and would have served as the main street (yellow arrow). Already from this information a regular row plan can be used as a classification for the villages form, and an idea of the size of each holding can be attained, as well as the cramped proximity of neighboring houses. Upon further investigation parch marks, created by the browning of grass where the roots lie above stone remained showing us the materials used for peasant houses and also indicated a rough blueprint where the walls would have been. From this it can be seen that some of the houses are of two cell construction and others appear to be long house type structures. The conclusions drawn from this show that the peasants at Billesley Trussell would have lived in stone houses either side of the road with neighboring houses within a few meters of them. The whole arrangement would have meant a very tight community with everybody knowing everybody closely. From the archaeological evidence it has been estimated that even at its peak Billesley Trussell would only of had around 100 inhabitants. Whilst the tofts outlined the presence of buildings, the crofts, which lay behind the housing sites, indicated small enclosures, which were around 30 meters long, and would have been used by the peasants to grow vegetables and perhaps keep some chickens.
The majority of agricultural work took place on the south side of the field and from the existing landscape medieval ridge and furrow cultivation can be seen. The ridge (blue arrows) and furrows (purple arrow) would have been used to grow crops such as wheat and barely and their layout is significant in highlighting medieval agricultural techniques. In the south-west corner of the field long strips of ridge and furrow can be seen running parallel to the main street behind the tofts and crofts. They are approximately 5 meters wide and 100 meters long running in a slight ‘S’ shape which indicates where the plough would have turned around at the end of the row. The raised nature of the ridge allows for boarders to be seen between each row and would have served irrigational purposes to prevent flooding the crops. At the west end of the ridge and furrows there was a small stream where rainwater would have run into due to the slight gradient of the field providing further irrigation and also providing a water source for the population, livestock and crops in hot weather. It is not sure whether this stream existed prior to the ridge and furrow formation, or whether it occurred as a result of their position. The ridge and furrows are again evident at the top of the field and are located to the south of the moat, yet they are notably shorter and run in north to south rows. This is perhaps to maximise the land potential or again for irrigational purposes with a slight gradient shift in this top corner of the field.
Whilst plenty has been established surrounding the living standards and agricultural lives of the peasants, not much has been mentioned about the manor house, but its existence is clearly evident. The horseshoe shaped moat which is still their today would have encompassed the manor on an island roughly 40 meters by 30 meters. Located at the top of the field the lord would of had a view over the whole village and been able to monitor proceedings. The moats purpose is not obvious as it is too small and shallow to act as a defensive aid but perhaps would have served for a water source or purely as an aesthetic reminder of status. The small size the manor at Billesley Trussell further eludes to the small size of the settlement.
With no more than one hundred residents living in Billesley even at its peak, it is no surprise that little remains of it today. The settlement, as with so many in the middle ages, was impacted greatly by the Black Death. The fourteenth century was very much the beginning of the end for the village during which it saw a string of bad harvests and two devastating outbreaks of the plague. These factors brought about rapid population decline and changing agricultural methods which saw labour intensive crop farming replaced by the more viable pastoral farming and were instrumental in the decline of hundreds of rural settlements and it is thought the same fate happened in Billesley. By 1428 there were only four people recorded as living in the village, and around sixty years later it was listed as deserted. Despite the sad end which befell Billesley Trussell, the site still provides useful and informative clues surrounding the daily lives of peasants and the proceedings of a rural medieval settlement.