The village of Osbournby is situated in the wapentake of Aveland in the Kesteven division of Lincolnshire. Straddling the fen-edge, the area is one of the most distinctive in the whole of the county. Some thirteen miles by seven, it encompassed at least 39 communities in the High Middle Ages, of which 37 are recorded by name in Domesday Book, and its rich resources of upland, skirt, and fenland supported a large population until the advent of factory farming in the present century. Despite such wealth and consequent early exploitation, the study of the origins and development of settlement in the region is not a simple task for the history of Lincolnshire is poorly documented before 1086. The paucity of evidence has long been attributed to the destruction of monasteries in the Danish conquest and colonisation of the Northern Danelaw in the ninth and tenth centuries. This is clearly an over-simplification. Foundations like Peterborough were undoubtedly extinguished in the 870's. But religious life did continue. There was evidently a community at Bardney in 909 when Edward raided the site and removed the relics of St Oswald to Gloucester, and small, probably secular, colleges of priests, such as Winghale and Bourne, may have been common in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. But foundations of this type were not rich, for the relative freedom of society in the North did not provide the resources for, or encourage the endowment of, large houses. As largely family monasteries or collegiate eigenkirchen, they left little documentation relating to their own estates and failed to become the repositories of local record. Thus, there are only some twenty or so references to fen-edge estates in the Anglo-Saxon period, and merely two authentic charters survive from before 971.

None of these refers to Osbournby. The first notice of the settlement in the sources is to be found in Domesday Book. In 1086 Osbournby was divided between two tenants-in-chief. Gilbert de Gant, in succession to Ulf Fensic, held 4 carucates of land, 16 sokemen, 8 bordars, and a church in the soke of his manor of Folkingham. The remaining two carucates of the vill formed a separate manor which had passed from a certain Alfric to Guy de Craon by the time of the survey. There were 5 villeins, 3 bordars and a sokeman there, and Guy as lord enjoyed the soke of a further 6 bovates in Dembleby, 4 carucates and a church in Haydour, and half a church and a priest in Scot Willoughby 'who belonged to Osbournby'. Neither entry provides unequivocal evidence for the form of settlement in the eleventh century, much less that of an earlier period, and the later history of the village does little to elucidate the problem, although the fact that the church of today belonged to the Gant fee throughout the Middle Ages may suggest that there was already a settlement cluster on the site of the present village in 1086. As a survey of estates and their issues, Domesday Book is of little use for the reconstruction of local topography. Its description of estate structure, however, is unparalleled. The complex patterns of tenure that it preserves frequently retains vestiges of earlier territorial organisations. It is the inter-relation between the two holdings in Osbournby and the surrounding estates that provides the clue to the development of the settlement.

The fen-edge estates between the Slea and the Bourne Ea exhibit a distinctive structure that marks them out from the surrounding districts. To the north and south manors tend to form discrete blocks of territory which often coincide with vills or groups of vills. The manor and soke of Ruskington, for example, extended into twelve contiguous vills in the wapentake of Flaxwell. The area between the two rivers, by way of contrast, is characterised by great complexity. Most vills were divided between a large number of lords in 1086. Osbournby is unusual in only encompassing two estates: the name Billingborough, for example, identifies five holdings and Bourne no less than six. But few of these holdings were constituted as separate estates. Most manors consisted of a demesne closely associated with the lord's hall, and a number of often widely dispersed satellites which are identified as berewicks or, more usually, sokelands. Much of the dependent lands of Guy de Craon's manor in Osbournby. for example, were some three miles from the caput and were physically detached from it.

This pattern of interlocking interests is probably unparalleled outside of certain areas of Lindsey and East Anglia and has been seen as a direct function of the right of an Anglo-Scandinavian peasantry to free commendation. The Lincolnshire Domesday portrays a society in which sokage tenure predominates, and it is argued that the fundamental bond between the sokeman and his lord was simple soke. Thus, it is said, over 50% of the population in the county owed custom and suit of court in person at the manorial caput but were otherwise free to dispose of their land as they saw fit. This freedom is directly related to the colonisation of Eastern England by bands of free Danes in the ninth and tenth centuries. It is supposed that there was a mass migration of settlers who swamped the existing population and pushed settlement out to the limits of cultivation with the creation of new villages which bear distinctive Danish names. The newcomers therefore imposed their own culture and society upon the region and bequeathed to their descendants an unrivalled freedom to choose their own lords. The dispersed form of many manors and large sokes, then, is said to be an essentially Danish phenomenon which attests to a web of personal relationships forged and reforged in the period of social upheaval and internal colonisation of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries.

This argument has carried much weight in the past for there can be no doubt that there was a certain degree of fluidity in tenurial relations in the eleventh century. Thus, the estates of Barton-upon-Humber and Barrow probably acquired the sokeland they possessed at the time of Domesday between 991 and 1066. But it would be a mistake to ascribe this fluidity to the freedom of the sokemen for, without doubt, his right to the free disposal of his person and land has been greatly exaggerated. Recent research has cast doubt on his liberty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and it is clear from Domesday Book that his obligations to his lord were not confined to the payment of suit of court in the eleventh. Thus, fourteen sokemen and three bordars in Morton and Hanthorpe were in the soke of Gilbert de Gant's manor of Edenham. Nevertheless, Oger the Breton still derived a profit of 40 shillings per year from them. Such rights, distinguished simply as terra, land, are consistently contrasted with the receipt of mere soke throughout Domesday Book, and there is a considerable body of evidence to demonstrate that they amounted to personal services and, above all, a food rent or farm which were rendered by the sokeman. Similar dues were owed from dependent thanelands and unfree tenures elsewhere in the country, and, as the major source of manorial income, it is extremely unlikely that they were unilaterally alienable by the tenant in Lincolnshire. Indeed, by and large, internal manorial structure remained remarkably stable between 1066 and 1086 - it was groups of sokemen, parcels of land, that were moved from one manor to another rather than individuals - and the round sums at which estates were valued at both dates hardly suggests the addition of discrete renders from a mobile population. Although personally free, sokemen clearly did not have an unequivocal right to the free disposal of their land.

It is rather from the lord that the impetus to change came. The great complexity of tenurial relationships on the fen-edge often conceals an underlying sub-structure that suggests that many manors came into being through the ordered division of larger estates. The wapentake of Aswardhurn, for example, like Aveland, displays a highly fragmented pattern of tenure in 1086. but most of the area had clearly belonged to Sleaford at an earlier date. In 1086 the manor enjoyed the soke of tenements in the settlements of Ewerby, Howell, Heckington, Quarrington, Laythorpe, and Evedon and constituted a typical large soke of a type which is found in almost every wapentake, or pair of wapentakes, of Lincolnshire. This dispersed pattern of tenure is substantially reflected in the structure of the king's manor of Kirkby Laythorpe and Colsuain's manor of Ewerby (table 1) and is vestigially found in three other estates. Individually the structure of each appears to be ad hoc. But as a group the interlocking of appurtenances can hardly attest to the right of free commendation by the sokeman for the seemingly independent elements share a common structure. The pattern is clearly ordered and must almost certainly indicate that a large estate, centred on Sleaford and possibly Kirkby, had been divided element by element to form the smaller manors. Such a division can only have been effected by a lord who was free to dispose of his interests within each and every part of the estate.

Table 1: the soke of Sleaford and related estates.

Bishop of Lincoln

The King



1. M Sleaford


1. M Kirkby


3. S Burg

5. M Burg

2. S Ewerby


1. M Ewerby


3. S Ewerby Thorpe

1. M Ewerby Thorpe


3. S Howell

4. S Howell

3. S Howell

2. S Howell

4. S Heckington

5. S Heckington

2. 2M Heckington

6. B Heckington

5. S Quarrington

6. S Quarrington


6. S Laythorpe


4. 2M Laythorpe


7. S Evedon

2. B Evedon

5. Evedon

4. S Evedon

NOTE: M=manor, B=berewick, S=sokeland. The numbers indicate the order in which the entries appear in Domesday Book.

The same process can be observed throughout the Northern Danelaw and indeed is occasionally documented. The archbishop of York's Nottinghamshire manor of Laneham possessed appurtenances in the same vills as the king's soke of Oswaldbeck in 1086 and, according to a thirteenth-century source, had formerly belonged to the larger estate. The rights of the crown were probably finally relinquished by a writ of 1065 whereby Edward the Confessor granted all the soke to the archbishop. As a result of such grants, the lord of the new estate generally enjoyed all of the rights over his men that had formerly accrued to the larger manor. Referred to as 'sake and soke' and comprising the dues implied by soca, that is jurisdiction, as well as terra, these usually included a portion of demesne land and extensive dues from tributary tenants such as the profits of justice, labour dues, a food rent, often commuted to an annual monetary render by 1066, possibly some military service, and ecclesiastical tithe.

The process is akin to booking, that is the permanent alienation by charter of lands and dues to an individual or corporation by the king. Not all Lincolnshire manors were directly created in this way for some clearly owed their existence to the internal management of bookland estates. Thus, a large number of Domesday entries indicates that many, probably most, manors were held by tenants in 1066 who enjoyed the rights of terra (but rarely soca) for a term of lives in return for the payment of a farm, the value of the estate, to an overlord who possessed sake and soke throughout extended groups of manors. Such groups are frequently derived from a single grant of land out of a large soke like that of Sleaford. All of Roger de Bully's manors in the Nottinghamshire wapentake of Oswaldbeck in 1086 seem to have formerly been part of the royal estate of the same name and had come to the tenant-in-chief through a single predecessor despite a multiplicity of pre-Conquest tenants. But the form of many attests to much reorganisation of dues. Once land was booked, its lord was free to dispose of it at will. The structure of individual manors and groups of manors was therefore subject to change.

It is clear, then, that many eleventh-century manors owed their existence to seigneurial or proto-seigneurial initiative. Many of the complexities of estate structure on the fen-edge can be understood in these terms. The possibility of estate formation related to independent assarting of heath and reclamation of fenland cannot be entirely discounted. But the widespread evidence for the fragmentation of large estates throughout the area suggests that booking was the more important mechanism. The process was almost certainly responsible for the emergence of Osbournby as a discrete entity. In 1086 two thirds of the vill, as calculated by assessment to the geld, belonged to the soke of Folkingham. This estate was one of the largest in eleventh-century Lincolnshire, extending into at least 23 vills. In the immediate vicinity of Osbournby, tribute was rendered from sokeland in Aswarby, Scredington, Threckingham, Stow, Billingborough, Birthorpe, Walcot, Pickworth, Haceby, Dembleby, Scot Willoughby, and Oasby. Various other estates, however, were located in these vills, but their structure nevertheless mirrored that of the soke. Thus, the Craon manor in Osbournby, held by Alfric in 1066, had soke in Willoughby, Dembleby, and Haydour next to Oasby and may itself have been a subsidary element in a more extensive group of manors for the same Alfric held a manor in Haceby which had soke over land in Haceby and Horbling which was held as a manor by Waldin the Breton in 1066, and an estate in Swaton which passed to Colsuain. Not all of the Domesday manors in the vicinity can be related to Folkingham in such a neat way. But similar patterns of tenure can be identified to the south (table 2), and the phenomenon is common enough to suggest that the estate had formerly encompassed a large discrete territory at some time before the Conquest.

Table 2: the soke of Folkingham and related estates.

Gilbert de Gant

Guy de Craon


24/79 S S.Willoughby

57/17 S S. Willoughby


82 M Folkingham



83 B Cranwell



84 S Honington



85 S Oseby




21 S Haydour


86 S Lavington



87 S Pickworth



88 S Haceby

18 M Haceby

46/1 M Haceby

89 S Dembleby

16 S Dembleby


90 S Osbournby

15 M Osbournby


91 S Threckingham



92 S Stow



93 S Walcote



94 S Billingboro'



95 S Birthorpe



96 S Laughton


18/21 S Laughton


20 M Avethorpe


97 S Aslackby

22 S Aslackby



23 S Sempringham


98 S Pointon



99 S Ingoldsby



100 S Hough






101 S Kirkby



102 S S.Willoughby


46/3 M S.Willoughby

103 S Aswarby



104 S Scredington



105 S Helpringham



Burton Ped.



Something of the organisation of this soke probably survived into the eleventh century in the ecclesiastical provision of the area. Although tithe was usually alienated when land was booked, or at least was soon appropriated to the new estate, the rights of the mother church often remained intact. St. Wulfram of Grantham, for example, enjoyed parochial dues from an area which extended beyond the bounds of the late eleventh-century manor. This in itself may merely indicate the importance of the foundation as a focus of local piety. However, the fact that its parochia encompassed estates which interlock with the soke of Grantham suggests that it reflects something of the organisation of the estate before its fragmentation. The survival of such an early feature is almost certainly directly related to the tenurial history of the church. In 1086 it was held by the Bishop of Salisbury of the king as lord of the manor, and it seems likely that it had been removed from the land market at an early date, and its tithes were therefore not alienated with the other interests of the soke. There is no comparable evidence for the early history of the church of Folkingham. Nevertheless, it is significant that, despite complex estate structures in 1086, most of the churches in the vicinity of Folkingham belonged to the Gant fee. The church of Osbournby, for example, was in the soke, and rights were still retained by its lord in the neighbouring parish of Scot Willoughby, even though the land did not belong to the estate. This pattern suggests that ecclesiastical dues were in some way reserved to it from an early date. Whether there was an important minster church at Folkingham, as at Grantham, cannot now be determined. But the extent of the parishes associated with the manor may, then, reflect the bounds of the former estate at an earlier period.

Both estate and ecclesiastical structures, then, indicate that Osbournby had probably belonged to Folkingham at some period before the Conquest. There is, of course, no unequivocal evidence to demonstrate when it achieved some independent existence. But the name itself may provide a clue. Osbournby, 'Osbern's settlement', is a Danish form and is of a type that has been assigned to the earliest years of the Danish colonisation. As such it cannot be earlier than the late ninth century when the Vikings first came to Lincolnshire. But the fact clearly tells us little about the origins of settlement: the excavation has demonstrated the existence of occupation in the area in the Middle Saxon period, and Osbournby is therefore unlikely to be a Scandinavian assart. It may merely attest to the renaming of an existing estate or even settlement. But, in common with similar names in the area, the compounding of a personal name with a habitative element probably indicates the emergence of an unprecedented identity at that time. It was Osbern's interest, as opposed to any one else's which distinguished a ninth- or tenth-century settlement in the territory of the later Osbournby from neighbouring estates. The chronology of the place-name may therefore indicate when the settlement, or part of it, was detached from Folkingham.

The penumbra of similar names on the periphery of this estate implies that many holdings were created within its territory at the same time. It is unlikely, however, that the process was ad hoc as has been argued. As we have seen, the pattern of fragmentation as portrayed by Domesday Book, clearly points to an ordered division. Just why an estate was dissected element by element is not clear. The phenomenon may indicate, however, that the original grant was of a portion of the dues of an estate which were initially collected in the lord's court in Folkingham. Only later was this interest given a territorial definition. If a ninth or tenth-century development, Danish settlers, then, must have ultimately derived their lands from the lord of Folkingham. It is probably unlikely that they ever enjoyed the degree of freedom of tenure that is so often ascribed to them.

As an element in a larger estate, little more can be said about Osbournby in the pre-Danish period. Its relationship with the estate centre, however, was probably of a well-defined type. Folkingham is an early Saxon place-name and was almost certainly a nucleus of some local importance from the pagan Saxon period. But there is no unequivocal evidence to ascertain its early extent or function. Its Domesday Book form probably owes much to tenth- and eleventh-century estate management, for sokes were not fossils but vital institutions even as late as the thirteenth century. Thus, Cranwell, Kirkby Laythorpe, Silk Willoughby, Hough and Brandon, and possibly Honington were remote from the caput and were probably recent additions to the soke. All can be better understood as elements taken out of other large estates. The remaining eighteen settlements, with the addition of the interlocking elements, constitute a fairly discrete territory which may be of greater antiquity. Large estates were common in early England. Characterised by an often standard number of settlements which each had a specific function and overall a balanced economy, they provided for the upkeep of the king by rendering a food rent, often divided into units of one night's supply. Such estates emerged in the tenth and eleventh centuries under the name of shire, soke or lathe, as tributary estates bound together by soke dues. Folkingham, in common with other large sokes, conforms to these characteristics. It cannot be said with certainty that it was composed of a standard number of settlements. In Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire a pronounced duodecimal system is apparent which clearly pre-dates Domesday estate structures and is probably essentially Middle Saxon in origin. In Lincolnshire vestiges of a similar organisation are apparent (table 3).

Table 3: soke centres and their appurtenances.

Manor B & S

Manor B & S

Grantham 18

W. Halton 6

Kirton 24

Belchford 12

Gayton 9

Bolingbroke 17

Horncastle 15

Edenham 11

Sleaford 6

Ruskington 12

Waltham 13

Doddington 6

Greetham 35

But the total for Folkingham, although suggestive, is derived from analysis rather than documentary authority. However, the estate was almost certainly royal before the Danish colonisation of the East Midlands. Stow-by-Threckingham, within its bounds, was the site of a monastery which was entrusted to St. Werburg by King àthelred of Mercia in c.700, while Sempringham, possibly the site of another pre-conquest religious house, belonged to the royal foundation of Peterborough. Folkingham, then, was probably an estate of some considerable importance in the Middle Saxon period, and the settlement at Osbournby may well have been one of its members.

© David Roffe, November, 2000.