In the absence of written records, fixing the date of the founding of a village is never easy. We certainly cannot assume that the site was continuously occupied from the Bronze Age, through the Iron Age and Roman times. A hoard of Iron Age bars, the basic working material for tools and weapons, was found in 1856 near the Wyche, and it is now known that the Iron Age communities were far more widespread, numerous and advanced than had previously been realised. J. & M. West1 estimate the Iron Age population of Herefordshire at 30,000. The Romans too are known to have been near here, at Stretton Grandison for example, where there was a fort and settlement, as well as the Roman road cutting straight across country from the south-east. Recent aerial photographs have revealed the existence of a Roman marching camp in the neighbouring village of Cradley, created by troops in transit, when they made a defensive rampart around their camp for the night. Also Roman coins have been found in the parish, but neither they nor the Iron Age bars are sufficient evidence to assume continuity of occupation during these years, though some day, excavation may reveal the presence of people living in this area at the time. Lacking archaeological evidence of this, we must look for indications of habitation during the Anglo-Saxon period.
The village itself has an Old English name, and Rowburrow and Bagburrow take their names from the Anglo-Saxon ‘bearu’ - a wood. Names ending in ‘ley’ (from ‘leah’) such as Netherley, Overley and Farley suggest that the village was probably founded during these years. The names signify clearings made in the forest by the settlers, Netherley the lower, and Overley the higher clearings and Farley the fern clearing on the high ground of Mathon Park.
The reasons for the choice of site are not hard to see. The soil is fertile, and due to the streams, springs and wells, water is pure and abundant. Some householders still use the wells which have served for hundreds of years. Serious flooding is rare, so that dry sites for houses could readily be found. William Cobbett2 had a great deal to say about how much better off labouring people were in well-wooded districts like Herefordshire where wood was easily available for fuel. But he could also have pointed out the benefit of a good water supply, rather than having to walk to a distant well or pond, where both supply and cleanliness were of doubtful value.
The church contains Norman work of the 11th Century, and though there is no church listed for Mathon in Domesday Book, a priest is mentioned, which is usually taken to mean that there was church. Also it has been suggested that the remains of an apse3 were found below the present chancel. If this is so, it may be that a previous Christian or pre-Christian building existed on this site.
In 1086, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Mathon was one of the many manors owned by Pershore Abbey. The abbey had been re-founded as a Benedictine Abbey in 972 and land in Worcester and Gloucester was given to it by a charter of King Edgar. This charter was signed by the king, by Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury, Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester, and Oswald, Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester. The abbey had a stormy early history, having been plundered by the Danes and damaged by fire. In spite of these hardships, the black-gowned monks led their lives of poverty, obedience and chastity, worked in garden, field and mill, built churches, and acted as missionaries to convert the heathen. They travelled around the countryside preaching the gospel, often in the open air at preaching crosses. There is a stone near the South Porch of the church, said to be the remains of a preaching cross4, and this may be where the monks held their service before the church was built, having made the long journey from Pershore through the wild heavily forested country. The magnificent yew tree which stands close by certainly dates to mediaeval times. King Edward I encouraged the planting of yews in churchyards.
The ecclesiastical parish boundaries were laid down before the Conquest. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury began to divide the country into dioceses and parishes in the 7th Century. Mathon’s boundary started from the hills and followed the stream westward down the hillside by the edge of Park Wood, along the course of an ancient track which Brian Smith5 says has been used since Anglo-Saxon times. It came from the river crossing at Clevelode and the Rhydd, along Wood Street, and over the hills and down the Purlieu Lane into Herefordshire, the line of an old salt road. The boundary crosses Brockhill Road and continues still by the stream and through the woods to cross the Mathon-Colwall road. At certain places as was the custom, the 1904 6 inch Ordnance Survey map shows prominent trees, usually oak, no doubt for their longevity, to mark the boundary at that point. At its other extremity as the boundary returns to the hills, it includes the district which was known as Mathon Urban, now West Malvern.
In 1014, Ethelred II granted to Earldorman Leofwine 4 mansae (lodges) in Mathon, “free from every yoke of service, three things excepted, to wit, national military service, the construction of fortresses and the building of bridges”. Unfortunately there is no information on the boundaries of this estate, but we do know that it was of 4 hides (480 acres).
Domesday Book gives the first solid information about the parish. We know that much of the land belonged to Pershore Abbey, that there was a priest, a reeve6 and a smith. The infamous Urso d’Habitot, ancestor of the Beauchamps and Sheriff of Worcester for 20 years, held three virgates of land (90 acres). He had stolen so much church land that Ealdred, Archbishop of York said of him “Highest thou Urse, have thou God’s curse”. This land was in Doddingtree hundred.
One hide was in Radlow hundred in Hereford. Before 1066 this land had been held by Alfward and Merwin, thanes of Earl Oda, but after the Conquest, they lost their freedom and the land was held by Aethelhelm and Odo, the tenants of Drogo, son of Poyntz and Roger de Lacy respectively.
Walter Ponther (or Poer) held a virgate of land (30 acres), all of which was waste. Victoria County History7 considers that this is Farley manor in Mathon Park. William Power, a member of this family, was presented at the Assizes in 1274 for making a warren in Farley, and in 1287 the Earl of Gloucester sued him for enclosing a park there to the detriment of Malvern Chase. William was able to show that his father, also William, had made the park, and that the father of the Earl had given him deer to stock it, but by 1287 they had all been eaten by wolves. This was apparently a late date for wolves to be found in England, so perhaps the deer had also suffered from two-legged predators.
Domesday Book has another entry, under ‘Bagburrow’, which concerns Mathon. Some entries in Domesday cannot be directly related to existing villages. At the time that the report was made, what William’s officials were describing was a loosely knit farming district of houses and farmsteads. This is exactly what Bagburrow was and still is. The land was the property of the Canons of Hereford and was in Winstree hundred. There were 5 hides, 2 mills, and a share in a salt house in Droitwich. The share in the salt house, a very valuable perquisite, is considered to have been obtained by manors which provided firewood for drying the salt, and so obtained the supplies essential to health and for the preservation of meat for winter.
In all Domesday Book lists three water mills in the parish. One mill, represented by the present Mill House, was working in the 19th Century, and a mill house and mill stone are also in existence at Hall Court, an 18th Century house which stands below Bagburrow Hill and only a quarter of a mile away from the Mill House. Another mill site can be identified below Warner’s Farm at Horsehole, where the 1840 map shows a field named Mill Field, and part of the stream Old Mill Race. Similarly near Old Country Farm, there is a field named Mill Meadow. The mill was a most important part of the medieval economy. The lord insisted on having all corn ground at his own mill, and taking his quota, while the miller was suspected of doing the same without official blessing.
The little streams which mark the parish boundary, or which drove the mills, now look too small and weed-choked for their task for most of the year. In medieval times, they were kept thoroughly weed-free, in accordance with their importance to the farming system of the time. The mills themselves were very small. Professor Hoskins8 has compared their power to that of a small motor car but as he says, they were the only medieval tool which did not rely solely on human or animal muscle power.
At this time, there seem to have been, in the parish, 17 villagers, or villeins, and 16 small-holders or bordarers. It is thought that the villeins farmed about 30 acres each and the bordarers 5 acres. They all had duties to perform for the lord of the manor, in this case represented by the reeve, who allocated the daily work. Ploughing the lord’s land, washing and shearing sheep, carting loads or manure and harvested crops were typical tasks, and very irksome they must have been to men who had been free before the Conquest and now had to leave their own land to work for the lord.
The open fields of the village can still be identified from the 1840 Tithe map. They lie between Church Farm, Moorend Cross, and the Old Country Farm, and are named Red Field, Broad Field and Butt Field. These are the fields where the villagers had their strips of land, scattered throughout the field so that each had his share of the best soil. Each man’s long strip of half an acre or acre was called a ridge or land and was turned by the plough into a raised rounded shape and separated from his neighbour’s by a ditch to drain off the water. For several days a week, he worked under the direction of the reeve, on the church land, and the first vicar, Thomas de Badminton probably worked beside him. The meadows for hay or grazing were shared out in a similar way. It seems likely that Red Field, the largest of the three, (60 acres) would have been used for arable crops, the others for hay or grazing. The villagers ploughed with their ox teams, gathered their crops at harvest time, and from them paid their tithe to the parson for the maintenance of the church. In 1840, Red Field was still divided into strips, and although the owners were still large farmers, one or two smallholders still owned land there9.
Mathon is one of the parishes where there were those officials known as ‘radmen’ or ‘radknights’10. They were found mainly on the Welsh border, and were of superior status, owing light services to the lord, as carriers or mounted escorts.
There are several ‘hollow ways’ in the village, unmade roads where the surface has been carried away as mud on the wheels of waggons, the hooves of horses, or men’s boots. Some of them appear on the 1840 Tithe map to have been of equal importance to the roads which were later surfaced and became our modern lanes. One of these hollow ways runs from the village street by the house called “Parker’s” heading directly up Rowburrow Hill in the direction of West Malvern. This is by village tradition, a salt way. Another, called ‘Quab Lane’11, starts near the back entrance of Mathon Court and goes north-west to Overley Cottages and Netherley Farm, passing through the small field called Nobody’s Acre, which from its name, must have been disputed land at one time. At the edge of the field is an imposing hedgebank, which may have been a farm or estate boundary. Another hollow way leads from Warner’s Farm to the stream near Horsehole, which was for many years, the site of a smithy. It is not hard to imagine the horses being led down the lane to drink at the stream and be shod. From the same place, yet another hollow way leads from the stream up the hill to Red Field.
Leading from the church car park is the hollow way known as the ‘Roman Road’. It begins in a southerly direction for a quarter mile, then meets a footpath from Moorend Cross which continues over the stream and up the hill to Warner’s Farm. The hollow way is so straight and broad for the first quarter mile, that it is easy to see how it acquired its name. It is certainly a very ancient track, and only excavation could determine its age. It leads directly to Red Field, the village arable field, to which heavy loads of bulky manures had to be transported, and harvested crops brought to the village, so it is not suprising that the wagon wheels cut deeply. After meeting the footpath from Moorend Cross the hollow way continues south as a wide and much over-grown ditch along the edge of the open field. It could possibly in the past have been a much more direct route to the important farms at Southend, South Hide and Old Country. One of the largest farms in the parish, Shipping House, mentioned in the 14th Century12, was situated at South Hide, and was owned by the Cliffe family, until it was burnt down in the 19th Century.
Church Farm and Moat Farm were moated sites. These are not uncommon in England, and are found as frequently in East Anglia as in the West Midlands so there is no connection with marauding armies of Welshmen. However they may have been useful against some of the thieves and vagabonds who were common in these lawless times. The sites are usually associated with heavy land and the moats may have been helpful for drainage purposes. It has been suggested that they were popular amongst prosperous farmers who wished to copy the nobility with their moated castles - a mediaeval status symbol. They were mostly made in the 13th Century and it is thought that few were constructed after 1500.
After the Norman Conquest, King William seized for his own use great areas of forest in which he and his nobles could enjoy the hunting of the deer which was their delight. Severe laws applied to these forests, and anyone harming the king’s deer was subject to death or mutilation. Farmers living in the forest area must not allow their hedges to grow higher than the armpit of an inspecting verderer, nor could they drive off the deer which jumped the hedges to feast on their crops. The gathering of wood for fuel or building was strictly controlled as was the grazing of farm animals in the forest. Dogs were inspected, and “such dogs as are found that may or will not be drawen through a strap of 18 inches and a barleycorn in length and breadth shall be hombled”. Part of the foot was cut away so that the dogs might not injure the deer by clawing them.
In 1290, the Red Earl, Earl of Clare, Hertford and Gloucester married Princess Joan d’Acres, daughter of Edward I, and received as part of the honour of Gloucester, a gift of Malvern Forest and the smaller forest of Cors adjoining it. As only the property of the king could be described as a forest, they were immediately disafforested and from that day ranked as chases, but unhappily for the inhabitants forest laws were still enforced. The chase was said by the monk, William of Malmesbury to be “so much overrun with wood as to be a wilderness”. Its boundaries are not known in detail, but we are told that it extended in length from the River Teme in the north, to Cors Forest in the south, and from the River Severn on the east to the top of Malvern Hill on the west. The administrative headquarters of the chase were at Hanley Castle. Soon after the land was acquired by the earl, a great quarrel broke out between him and the Bishop of Hereford about their boundaries, and the earl caused the ditch known as the Shire Ditch or Red Earl’s ditch to be made along the crest of the hills to divide their lands and to mark the boundary between the shires. It is said that he made the ditch on the slope of the hill in such a way that the deer could readily leap over it into his land but only with great difficulty jump back into the Bishop’s. Mathon was one of the thirteen parishes with land in the chase, and the forest laws must have restricted the breaking of more farming land and house-building for hundreds of years. However, as people always have, the villagers must have learned to make the best of it. They were able to gather fallen wood for fuel, and they had rights of grazing for their cattle on the common land in the chase. For this the Townships of Mathon and Colwall gave 8 quarters of oats and all the customary tenants did 383 bendrips in Autumn (extra reaping for the lord of the manor).
In 1327, Edward III, a boy of 15, who depended on his mother and her lover, the scheming Marcher lord, Mortimer for guidance, needed to re-coup his finances after an unsuccessful campaign against the Scots. He ordered a tax to be collected which was called the Lay Subsidy, and we gain a valuable glimpse of the village from the people who paid it.
|Lay Subsidy Rolls||Edward III 1327|
|De Rogero de Hanley||XIId.|
|De Stephano att Well||XIId.|
|De Willelmo Le Blake||Xd.|
|De Alicia Farleye||XIId.|
|De Johann Le Mercer||IIIIs.|
|De Ricardo Hug||IIs.|
|De Galfrydo Dobyn||VIIId.|
|De Johanne Le Blake||Xd.|
|De Ricardo in the Home||Xvd.|
|De Willelmo Hed||IIs.|
|De Johanne atte Egge||Xd.|
|De Henrico atte Toune||XVIIId.|
|De Ricardo de Bictheleye||VId.|
|De Adam de la Mor||IId.|
|De Willelmo de Putlewyke||VIId.|
|De Willelmo de Farleye||VId.|
|De Ricardo atte Mulle||XIId.|
|De Johanne de Blake||XIId.|
|De Willelmo Fabro||VIIId.|
Unfortunately these records are not considered reliable as a population guide, since so many people were too poor to pay the tax, and others avoided paying, a situation which six hundred years later still seems oddly familiar. It is interesting to note that there are two people named Farley. Farley juxta Mathon, to give its full name, was a manor in the Mathon Park area. By 1840, it had almost disappeared - all that remained was a pound in which stray animals were kept until claimed. This was located on Harcourt Road, opposite Mathon Lodge.
Ricardo in the home was the owner of the farm at Ham Green, and Henrico atte Towne held Town House Farm, Ricardo atte Mulle was the miller, and Adam de la Mor farmed Moorend. Johann Le Mercer was the wealthy man of the village, having paid 4 shillings tax. He owned a virgate of land in Farley in 1305. There was obviously a range of wealth in the parish. Galfrydo Dobyn seems to have had a descendant who in 1684 witnessed William Cliffe’s will. His name was Robert Dobyns. If it is the same family, this is an exceptionally long time for a family to survive in a parish, the more usual period being 3 or 4 generations. It is probably the same family that gave the name to the present Dobbin’s farm and to the fields called Dobbins meadow and Lower Dobbins on the Tithe Map. Willelmo Fabro was the Smith, that vital member of every community until 1900, at least.