Congleton in Domesday Book

William the Conqueror spent Christmas 1085 at Gloucester and there, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘he had much thought and deep discussion with his council about England [and] how it was occupied or with what sort of people.’ England was under threat of invasion from Denmark and the king needed an audit of the resources available to him and his barons. The findings of the inquiry he set in train were written up in Domesday Book. It is in this work that we find the first reference to Congleton in historical sources.

The settlement had been granted by William the Conqueror to the earl of Chester, as had almost all of the land of Cheshire. It was held of the king by Earl Hugh ‘the Fat’ of Avranches in 1086. He in his turn had granted Congleton to one of his men for service. It is this man, Bigot, who is named as the immediate lord in Domesday Book. His land is described thus:-

The same Bigot holds Congleton. Godwin held [it in 1066]. [There is] one hide gelding there. There is land for 4 ploughs. There are there 2 [ploughs] with 2 villagers and 4 bordars. [There is] wood there 1 league in length and 1 in width and there are 2 enclosures. It was waste and so he found it. Now it is worth 4 shillings (DB i, 266d).

Bigot was a Norman who came from Les Loges, Calvados, arr. Vire, cant. Aunay-sur-Odon, and was in all probability a member of the family of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk and lord of Les Loges. Bigot also held Farndon, Lea, Thornton, Mobberley, Norbury, Alderley, Siddington, Rode, Sandbach, Sutton, Wimboldsley, and Weaver from the earl and was one of his honourial barons, that is, principal tenants.

The account of his land in Congleton is, to say the least, laconic. There was 1 hide of land, but the qualifying statement ‘gelding there’ indicates that this was no measure of physical extent. It was rather a tax assessment, something like a rate. Congleton got off lightly in 1086. Nor does ‘land for 4 ploughs’ indicate the amount of arable land; it was an estimate of how many ploughs there could be on the land that paid the geld. The fact that there were in reality only two ploughs suggests some degree of under-exploitation and Domesday provides an explanation. Congleton had been waste when Bigot acquired the estate and it is therefore likely that it had been devastated by the Normans in 1070 following the revolt of the men of Chester in 1069.

Bigot does not seem to have lived in Congleton; his principal residence was probably in Farndon. The village appears to have been managed on his behalf by the two villagers, with the 4 bordars acting as ploughmen for their lord. These the 6 recorded inhabitants, however, do not represent the complete population; they are merely those who were attached to the fiscal land. There must have been many more who are not recorded because they did not pay the geld. Some, indeed, are hinted at in the text. The enclosures, or ‘heys’ as they were known, were deer traps, and, manned by huntsmen, they were often the focus of settlement; the two Congleton heys may well represent Eaton (part of the Congleton fee in the later Middle Ages), Dane-in-Shaw, Mossley, or other lost nuclei. Many who made a living from the chase, and more generally the surrounding woodland, probably escaped the notice of the Domesday inquiry. The commissioners were primarily concerned with the land that each lord held and what profit he made from it. Bigot received 4 shillings per year in addition to whatever food rent he might demand. The rest was immaterial. We are left with the impression that Congleton was, as far as its lord was concerned, primarily a hunting lodge within a wider estate.

That estate was probably of recent origin, early eleventh century if not post-Conquest. There is evidence, however, that up to the Norman Conquest Congleton had always been of subordinate status. It had been held ‘on the day on which King Edward was alive and dead,’ that is, on 5 January 1066, by a certain Godwin. He can presumably be identified with the free man Godwin who was the predecessor of Bigot in Alderley and as such he would have almost certainly been a thegn of Earl Edwin, the lord of Farndon before the Conquest. Otherwise the name is so common that it is impossible positively to identify other lands he might have held. Significantly, however, a Godwin does appear as the holder of Davenport (in Swettenham) in 1066. By 1086 this estate has passed to the lord of Astbury Newbold, the centre of a large parish that encompassed not only Davenport but also Swettenham, Buglawton, Church Lawton, Brereton, and Congleton. In 1086 there were still a number of tenurial links within this complex of villages that indicate that the whole had formerly been constituted as a single estate. Astbury, a name meaning ‘eastern fortified place,’ had presumably been the site of the lord’s residence as it was its ecclesiastical centre. The remaining settlements were ancillary.

The role of Congleton is not known, but Davenport, a name signifying ‘market on the Dane,’ was clearly the location of its market. How long this market survived it is impossible to say; it is not mentioned in Domesday Book, but there again markets very rarely are. In functional terms, however, it must be seen as the predecessor of Congleton that had become the market on the Dane by the time it was granted its first charter c.1272. If the Godwin who held Davenport was the same Godwin who held Congleton, then perhaps we can perceive that the transfer had already taken place by 1066. Does the town of Congleton have its origins in the late eleventh century? If so, Domesday Book portrays a settlement that was about to assume a wider role than it had hitherto enjoyed.

ã David Roffe, 2000.