The Ancient Soke of Greetham

It is probable that sometime between the Legions leaving Britain and Christianity arriving in the area that the main focus of administration for the South Riding moved ten kilometres inland from the Hub to Greetham with a sub centre just two kilometres north of the Hub along the Bluestone Heath Road at Calceby. Today Greetham is very quiet with the main reason for visiting being the extensive views that can be enjoyed in most directions from it fine ridge location.

The Terrace and Joll’s Lane.

The village is perched on a continuation of the Roach Ridge and overlooks the whole of Lower Lymndale and much of Hill Wapentake. The name ending in ham suggests that this was a very early Anglian settlement and to reinforce this supposition by the time of the Domesday Book it had become the centre for jurisdiction of most of Hill Wapentake and beyond to the coast, which can just be seen on a clear day in the distance. A thousand years ago and even further back in time (though no one is sure how far) Greetham was the centre of a soke, which happened to be not just the largest soke in Lindsey but possibly in the whole of the East Midlands or the Danelaw’s Five Boroughs with the possible exception of Drayton which had jurisdiction over most of the northern Fens. Before the Norman conquest its lord of the manor was Earl, and briefly, King Harold. These lands were at the time some of the most heavily populated and exploited land in England. Another big landowner was Ulf Fensic, an enterprising Dane, whose lands after the Conquest were given to the influential Gilbert of Ghent showing graphically the reorientation of the economy and potential trading partners from Scandinavia to the Low Countries.

Penguin Classic DB Complete Translation:

All this land or Sokeland belongs to Greetham. All together (there are) 131 carucates to the geld. (There is)  land for 144 ploughs. (There are) 376 sokemen, 148 villans, 168 bordars, having 156 ploughs.  Add to this churches, at least 20 salt pans, many hundreds of acres of woodland pasture and scrub and significantly thousands of acres of meadow. During the medieval period Greetham hosted an annual fair and regular markets.

Although Harold’s many estates are enshrined in the Domesday Book they were his only very briefly bestowed on him after he became king. In the 1050s he was even exiled for a time and his father Sweyn started life as a mere thegn in the south of England who had gained power and influence under the patronage of King Cnut. In Lindsey in particular the changes of regimes and ruling lords happened at regular intervals as shown in the Lindsey timeline. Between the leaving of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans the province had been at first independent then vied for by the Northumbrians and Mercians with the latter eventually gaining ascendency over much of England for a time.  The Danes then conquered most of England only for the land to be slowly wrested back by Wessex although the Danelaw remained semi autonomous.  The Danish King Cnut then succeeded in conquering the whole of England. After his sons ruled briefly control returned to the Saxon king Edward the Confessor. Even the Romans had only a light touch on the area of Lindsey east of the River Bain. Apart from the early introduction of new roads and taxation they mainly ensured a long period of stability and prosperity.

All Saints Greetham entrance.

This trend inevitably meant that each change of lordship would only have had a superficial effect on the peasantry who would have carried on their traditional ways of working the land unless a new ruler introduced a key piece of technology to make life easier, although these were few and far between during this turbulent time in history. The development of the Viking longship was the exception. For 250 years these sleek ocean going vessels made the Humber a main maritime highway connecting economically the growing towns of York, Lincoln and Nottingham with the rest of northern Europe and even beyond.

The lords that the people of Lindsey had to contend with were not only regularly changing but were also distant in the case of the South Riding very distant. As long as these lords were assured of deriving a descent revenue from their lands they were not too concerned how people spent their little free time. This was all to change not immediately after the Norman conquest but nearly a century later with the influx of a new austere religious movement from France that would impact on folks everyday lives. Evidence from the DB shows clearly that a county already dominated by monasteries such as Huntingdonshire had a much tighter control on the peasantry with less than one percent recorded as sokemen compared to Lincolnshire’s roughly 50 percent. (See Candlesby & Other Sokes Blog.)

Despite a further regime change with the Norman conquest Lindsey for a time seems to have carried on as usual and many parishes even prospered. This was in direct contrast to what happened across the Humber when in 1069-70 Yorkshire and beyond was left devastated after William the Conqueror’s infamous Harrying of the North. Parts of the North Riding of the county where left as wasteland until the economy was rebooted by the springing up of monasteries across the land during the first half of the twelfth century.

The most dynamic order where the Cistercians, founded in land locked Burgundy, with a rigid constitution, the backing of the Pope and a corporate like energy and ambition. For a time monasteries were being founded almost as fast as out of town shopping malls these days. Rievaulx was the first Cistercian monastery in the north and from here and Fountains Abbey other monks set out to found others across England with Revesby, Kirkstead and Louth Park being founded in quick succession on different sides of the Wolds. Within a few decades the Cistercians had founded fifty religious houses across Britain. North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire had nine each with Lindsey having a further three Premonstratensian houses who were closely affiliated to the Cistercians. Both regions had been heavily settled by Danes so possibly it was a concern that pagan practices had not fully died out that inspired this imposition of some many devout and driven monks.

The main focus of monastic development in Lindsey was around the edge of the Wolds where they were often bequeathed large tracts of lands. It was as if each wapentake was assigned one making it appear systematic. In the case of Revesby Abbey, just a few miles south of Greetham in the wapentake of Bolingbroke, this included a large area on the flanks of the Wolds running down into West Fen. In time it was as if monasteries had taken over from the ancient sokes which had provided that long standing connection between wold and coast. Whether this was by design or accident it would have been very disruptive and disturbing for the local population especially among sokemen who feared for the loss of their rights and freedom and prompted many to move to the growing towns of Lincoln or Boston or the expanding parishes on the Fens. Sheep gradually replaced people on the Wolds. This was part of a fundamental economic shift from trading generally with northern Europe via the Humber to Boston quickly becoming the major port trading mainly in wool to the Low Countries.

All Saints. Rebuilt but with some ancient remains.

Initially it would have brought a stimulus to the economy of the area but after the traumas of the Black Death Revesby and many other abbeys struggled to survive in a very different post plague world. In fact there was a general reversal of fortunes for much of Lincolnshire during the next few centuries resulting in a lot of villages being deserted on the Wolds. This and the demise of east coast ports like Grimsby, Saltfleet and Wainfleet plus the incipient rise of manufacturing towns anticipating the Industrial Revolution in counties surrounding Lincolnshire meant that there was a minor diaspora of folk out of the county in search of work in the newly emerging cities of Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield.

On his journey through the East Midlands in 1724 Daniel Defoe passes through “the ancient, large and populous town” of Leicester and carries onto Lincoln which he describes as “an ancient, ragged, decayed and decaying city; it is so full of ruins of monasteries and religious houses…”

It was only a few decades before Tennyson was born that Lincolnshire’s fortunes improved with firstly the draining of the Fens followed by a demand for food from the fast growing industrial towns. However it was only during Tennyson’s lifetime with the advent of steam to make draining the Fens fully effective and the railway to connect the county with the rest of the country and most importantly its capital that prosperity returned.

However in slumbering little Hill Wapentake, tucked away in the heart of the Wolds, remarkably many of these events had passed it by. No monasteries were ever built there and turnpike roads only skirted round it while the noise of steam engines to drive trains and pump the fens dry was not heard in these parts. Tennyson’s childhood world remained little changed. Roads were improved and a bridge built over the River Lymn and eventually threshing machines could be heard in Autumn to speed up the harvest. So as the Industrial Revolution spread noise and grime elsewhere the river Lymn continued to flow clear through the dale and fresh clean air still blew over the Wolds and in Tennyson’s favourite season a blaze of flowers bloomed in the meadow and a chorus of birds sang in the woods and hedgerows.

Apart from brief spells away at Cambridge and on vacation Tennyson spent his first 28 years in the dale before finally leaving Somersby for good in 1837. The move closer to London was at first a depressing phase in his life but this was to finally change for him in the 1850s when he found fame and fortune in a city where there were changes taking place at a speed that the world had never seen before. The price to pay for this brave new world for many was overcrowding, pollution and a drab tedious existence. While Tennyson’s contemporaries, such as I K Brunel, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, where showing the way forward Tennyson was a necessary counter weight holding on to the past. It was his evocative picture of an unspoilt rural world inspired by his own childhood and although romanticised it seems it was this that people yearned for.

Seventeenth century Beech Farm.

Incredibly somehow Tennyson’s valley still retains a feeling of having changed little since his day. It remains quiet with mostly empty roads, farmhouses and farm buildings are mainly Victorian often successfully hiding drab grey modern additions and the River Lymn still meanders between leaning alders overlooked by wooded hills. Even wars passed it by although casualties could not. Lincolnshire is still called bomber county but no airfields were built within the bounds of Hill Wapentake. It has also escaped industrial development but here to casualties could not be avoided as the effects of an industrialised world still impact on wildlife populations mainly through the post war imperative to grow more food followed by agricultural mechanisation and  spraying resulting in less birds, flowers and footpaths.

The biggest impact of this was felt on the chalk wolds just to the north while the more complex geology of Lymndale saved it from the worst excesses of prairie agriculture. Once again the area around Tennyson’s birth place of Somersby came away relatively unscathed. Sufficiently so that it is possible to believe that after 200 years the poet would still feel at home here where he grew up and developed his love for nature and the outdoors. Yet there is a much deeper sense that little has fundamentally changed even over the 2000 years since the Romans arrived. Even in pre Roman times, unlike much of the rest of Britain, no Iron Age hill forts were built in the area despite a geography that lends itself to their construction. This implies that a more stable even co-operative kind of society had developed on the east coast of Britain at this time. This could have involved the seasonal movement of livestock so that coastal resources could be exploited during summer while the Wolds offered shelter in winter with the intervening woodlands also offering useful resources.

A form of this lifestyle still existed at the time of the Domesday Book with soke centres like Greetham and Gayton based in the Wolds with lands stretching all the way to the coast. There is evidence in the Fens of drove roads and salt ways stretching back to the Bronze Age and the first evidence of salt production near Tetney dating back to 2,000 BC with its production only ceasing in nearby Marshchapel in the sixteenth century over three and a half thousand years later. The many long barrows discovered by aerial surveys on the Wolds proves that the area was already well settled and farmed by the Neolithic period some 5,000 years ago.

Such a connection and continuity of annual summer movements to the coast has to make one consider whether the popularity of a seaside holiday is more than just a jolly getaway but is answering a much deeper calling. Is this why people of the east find the wide open spaces of sand sea and sky invigorating even though they are often swept by keen coastal winds while people of the south find this difficult to endure?

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