Winsham cartoon village map showing the church, primary school, jubilee hall and community shop with fields, cows and sheep. Created by Bethany Fowler as the header banner for the Winsham Web Museum.
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Early History

Orginally published Jan 2021
Last updated Jul 2021

Winsham Before the Conquest

Early settlers must have found Winsham a very attractive site - a valley slope facing south and sheltered from the north by a high ridge (Windwhistle), with a river for water and fishing. There would have been thick woods with plenty of game for hunting: bear, deer, beaver, lynx, otter, hare (but no rabbits then) and numerous birds. In other words, a comfortable place with plenty to eat. Proximity to the sea was an advantage, for even in early times there was trading of hides, metals and pottery. We have no evidence of Winsham itself being inhabited at any time before the Saxon period, but our knowledge of events in the south west taken from Roman historians, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a yearly record kept by monks) and other primary sources, enables us to speculate soundly about what life must have been like here. As the Celtic tribes expanded westwards across Europe, driving out or absorbing indigenous people, they began to farm. They cleared trees for long-term settlement and enclosed fields, to reduce reliance on hunting, and planted crops. Some small fields in Somerset and Dorset have the same boundaries today. Many of our familiar wild plants provided food and were used in healing.

Nettles, for example, can be woven into a textile as well as eaten, though clothing was mainly plaid-style woven wool, dyed with plants such as madder.

The Romans

The Romans had their eyes on Britain for some time, as a source of tin, copper, silver, hunting dogs and slaves. When Claudius wanted to add lustre to his reign he sent his commander Vespasian (later Emperor himself) to conquer it. They landed in 43 A.D. and within a year had reached Maiden Castle, where they heavily defeated the local tribesmen. This is near enough for people living here to be aware of the powerful enemy approaching them. Whether they were Durotriges (of Dorset) or Dumnonii(of Devon) they must have seen the well-equipped and highly-disciplined troops, with their red tunics and glittering bronze armour, marching west to establish the fort at Isca (Exeter). The tribes frequently took refuge at one of many nearby hill-forts such as Lewesden, Waddon and Pilsden.

As the Romans established control, the people of that Winsham must have been aware of the building of the great road, the Fosse Way, that linked Isca with Lindinis (Ilchester) and Aquae Sulis (Bath), and runs past present day Street Farm (hence its name).  As the Roman occupation became more peaceful and permanent, huge villas were built, and local people would have worked for these landowners as farm workers, as slaves stoking the hypocausts, or even, if they learned Latin, as administrators. Many women became "wives" of the army veterans who were granted land after 25 years' army service.

After the recent (2001) finding of a previously unknown villa at Lopen, with its beautiful mosaic pavement, and the already recorded villas at Whitestaunton, Wadeford and South Chard, who knows what treasures are still hidden underground? Simply ploughing a field or excavating for a new building can lead to amazing discoveries. When the Roman armies were withdrawn at the beginning of the fifth century, the way was open for another invasion: in this part of the country by the Saxons. They were resisted by local warlords who had been raised in a Romano-British culture; some saw themselves as champions of Christianity against Saxon paganism.

The origins of the King Arthur legend come from this time (much embroidered in later centuries) though, despite the claims of Tintagel, Cadbury and Glastonbury, no-one has proved that such an individual ever existed. What we do know is that the Saxons eventually made their homes here and built a settlement. Winsham is a Saxon name, meaning the holding or homestead of some one called Wine. The local pronunciation of the village's name ("winsome") is therefore more accurate than the commoner "win-sham". There was a Saxon church, though unfortunately none of it remains. 

The Arrival of Christianity

How Christianity reached Somerset is unknown: traditionally the era began with the arrival of St. Augustine in Canterbury (597 A.D.) sent by Pope Gregory, but the Celtic church is much older. Our nearness to Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, makes it possible that Celtic Christian influences came long before. Of course, if the legend of Joseph of Arimathea planting the Glastonbury Thorn is to be believed, then it was heard of even before that!   Stories apart, Saxon society was established and continued until the Norman Conquest over five hundred years later. It was a severely structured society, with the thegns (thanes) who were the large landowners, at the top, and the ceorls (churls) at the bottom. Everyone knew their place within the hierarchy, whether they only tilled their small patch of land among the common fields, and did two or three days work-service a week for their overlord, or whether they were craftsmen in the village: smiths, wainwrights (wagon-makers), potters, for example. The origin of so many modern surnames is obvious. A higher position might be that of the miller, or of the reeve (the village's chosen spokesman). Justice was administered by the "hundred" courts, in a complicated system of fines, such as the wergild (price of a man) in cases of murder, and of trial by ordeal, where God gave the verdict through water or the healing of wounds. Barbaric perhaps, but accepted.

The Vikings

By the end of the eighth century, a new threat arrived: Viking incursions. Originally the Vikings were looters and raiders, carrying off cattle, slaves and anything else valuable. We have no evidence that they ever came this far inland, but news of their raids must have instilled fear all over the country.

Winsham is not far from the coast, north or south, and Somerset and Dorset were especially vulnerable to invasions from Ireland, where Dublin was a strong and rich Viking settlement. Excellent sailors, they dominated the shores of southwest England for many years, making lightning raids from their long ships. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records just how near they came, for example:

875 A.D. ... Ealdorman Eanwulf with the Somerset men, and Ealdorman Osric with the Dorset men, fought against the raiding-army at the mouth of the Parrett. (Burnham-on-Sea).

876 A.D. .... the raiding-army stole away from the West-Saxons into Wareham, and then from Wareham to Exeter. They met a great storm at sea, and 120 ships were lost at Swanage.

The Saxons of Winsham cannot have been unaware, or unafraid, of such events, even if they heard of them weeks later. Uncertainty and rumour would have made things worse.

By this time, of course, King Alfred was marshalling opposition in this part of the world. Elsewhere the Vikings (or Danes) had begun to seize land and settle down, not just raiding in the summer. After some failures in battle, Alfred withdrew to Athelney to shelter and recoup his forces. Athelney (on the present A361 near Burrowbridge) is less than twenty miles from Winsham: is it possible that men from Winsham were sent to join his war-band? A difficult journey across the undrained marshes of Sedgemoor, but some may have thought it worthwhile.

By the year 1000, Danish kings ruled most of England, but in the southwest loyalty was still to the Cerdingas, the descendants of King Cerdic. These died out with Edward the Confessor, and the struggle for the throne began. Were people here aware of Harold Godwinson's ambition to be king? He rode to Bristol to cross the Irish Sea to ask for Danish help, fighting the battle of Porlock on the way back. But we all know what happened to him at Hastings in October 1066, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Normans

How long would it have taken for the inhabitants of eleventh century Winsham to hear of that battle far away in Sussex? With none of our rapid methods of communication, weeks, possibly months. But eventually they would have heard that a new king, William 1, had been crowned in Westminster Abbey (that symbol of Edward the Confessor's piety) on Christmas Day 1066. Only slowly, as they continued to till their fields, take care of their stock, and struggle to survive the winter, would they have realized that a totally new era was beginning. But in 1086, when strangers came to collect information for the great survey, later known as the Domesday Book, it became clear that a tighter and more oppressive regime had arrived. William had said, in announcing his tax survey of his whole realm, that "not an ox or a sheep shall escape the net" and how much more did this apply to the human inhabitants of England.

The Manor of Winsham was not the same as the present parish: Street, Leigh and Whatley were separate manors, "held" i.e. tenanted by different overlords. The whole purpose of recording the landholding in such detail was of course to exact taxes ("geld") according to the value of the land. The Bishop referred to is the Bishop of Wells. Hides and carucates are measures of land...."Osmund holds of the Bishop, Winesham. Elsi held it in the time of King Edward, and gelded for ten hides. The arable is sixteen carucates. Thereof in demesne are four hides and there are three carucates, and twelve servants, and fifty villeins, with nine ploughs. There are two mills of twenty shillings rent, and six acres of meadow. Wood half a mile long and a furlong and a half broad."

The money collected went  to funding William's court and his army, which for some years was putting down rebellions and fending off the Welsh. To show their strength, the Normans also spent huge sums building churches and castles, many of which survive today. The only castle in our area was Croft Castle, near Crewkerne, which unfortunately does not survive. Baldwin de Redvers (earl of Devon) or perhaps his father Richard built it in the early 12th century. It was at "Castle Hill", just off the A30 on the Hinton St. George road.

The day-to-day life of the village changed little: it was, from our point of view, a hard and narrow existence. Every man had to do "landservice", working on the lord's acres as well as cultivating his own strips. Houses were mostly single-room structures made of straw and mud on a wooden frame, where cooking, eating and sleeping all took place. There would have been very little light (rush candles and the cooking-fire) and clothes were minimal for keeping out the cold. Food was limited to local produce; the only drink was ale. No one could leave the manor without permission, and knowledge of the outside world almost non-existent. Manors had to be self-sufficient except for materials such as iron and salt.

The Normans imposed harsher rules than had prevailed in Saxon times. Kings and nobles were obsessed with hunting, so Forest Laws were imposed; no peasant, however hungry, could take game, and even dogs were cruelly punished if found chasing deer. Fines were heavily exacted for a wide range of crimes, and there were death duties to pay even for the poor. The Church itself changed. Norman bishops gradually replaced Saxon ones, making a distance between Church and people. Celibacy was strictly imposed, so that priests had to send away their wives.

Three languages ran in parallel at that time: English, French and Latin. Latin was the language of the Church and the law, the two most powerful institutions after the military. No peasant could read or write and of course there were no printed books. Stories from the Bible (the Vulgate then) were interpreted through sermons and crude drama - these must have made a huge impression on the hungry imaginations of the time. (It's significant that our word "lewd" derives from "lay" - anyone outside Holy Orders was presumed ignorant and coarse.)

French was the language of the nobility and secular power, and remained so for three hundred years. It was Norman French, a distinct dialect, which is why our rich modern English often has two words each developed from separate French sources.

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was the language of the peasants. It was the language of everyday life, and over two hundred of our commonest words today are almost unchanged from it: come, go, eat, drink, king, house, etc. It's often observed that we have different words for farm animals and their meat, the former from English, the latter from French (cow - beef, sheep - mutton). which seems to demonstrate that the English tended the animals while the Norman overlords ate them!

The Medieval Period

During the Middle Ages (a period we loosely define as 1100 to 1500 AD) a society based on a strict ladder of obedience, loyalty and service continued, but gradually people's horizons expanded. Trade, travel, and wars are the engines of change. The crusades, for example, took many Englishmen into contact with an exotic culture, which, however much they despised it as "infidel", was more advanced in medicine, astronomy and technology.

The most conspicuous event of the twelfth century near Winsham was the building of Forde Abbey, for this was the age of the great monasteries. Any man plodding behind his wooden plough, or woman spinning on a distaff in her doorway, must have seen ox-carts bringing in huge quantities of stone, and heard the ringing of axes as timber was felled in the surrounding woods. Abbeys had a wide influence, employing local people as lay-workers, promoting scholarship, and attracting travellers. Although set up to provide an enclosed monastic space, they were a link with the outside world.

In the thirteenth century two events took place that figure large in history books, but would have made little impact on local people. One was the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 by King John, the other the setting up of the first "parliament" by Simon de Montfort in 1258. These are hailed as major steps towards democracy, but at the time only represented the struggle for power by the nobles against the king. Later in the century, however, Edward 1 summoned two representatives from each shire and each borough (town) to Westminster, and this was the beginning of the House of Commons. The reason of course, was to raise taxes from his wars against Wales, Scotland, and France.

We cannot know if any local men were "conscripted" for these wars, under the system by which all lords had to provide a quota of fighting men, but if they were outstanding bowmen they may have been. If so, let’s hope they were not captured and had their forefingers cut off to prevent them firing a bow again. (This practice gave rise to the rude two-finger gesture still current today.)

Although the vast majority of people lived and worked on the land, towns were becoming richer and more important. Men who could no longer make a living in their village might move to a nearby town to learn a craft. Towns could run their own affairs, hold their own courts and impose their own taxes, once they have received a Royal Charter. Chard received its charter in 1280 AD. The markets in towns, and some villages, were the centre of the wool trade, and wool was the staple of English trade throughout the Middle Ages. It would be a common sight at shearing time, to see trains of wagons or pack-ponies carrying the wool to the east and south coast ports for shipping to Flanders. At other times of year merchants would be travelling to inspect flocks and make deals with their owners. The long-staple wool of England was highly prized. 

In the fourteenth century came the devastating Black Death. This swiftly spreading incurable disease killed about a third of the population of Europe. It was a lucky village that escaped, and some were wiped out altogether. By reducing so drastically the number of labourers, the Black Death had profound results. Workers could demand payment in coin, breaking the bonds of landservice, and they began to travel widely in search of work. A stirring of awareness of their new power, and anger at the imposition of a universal Poll Tax, led to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. Men from Kent and Essex marched on London under their leader, Wat Tyler, who boldly made demands of the king himself (the young Richard II. Although Tyler was killed (by the Mayor of London) and Richard rescinded most of the concessions he had made, the Revolt struck an indelible blow for social equality. However long the news took to reach the West Country, its implications could not be ignored.

At the same time, Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, whose Prologue describes a spectrum of various occupations of men (and some women) in the England of his time. Witty and entertaining, Chaucer’s range of characters also demonstrated the corruption and self-interest that were leading to huge social change. In particular, the Prioress, Friar and Monk are not paragons of holiness, but pre-occupied with status, wealth and pleasure - emblems of all that was wrong with the Church.

Most significant of all is that Chaucer wrote in English. He spoke and wrote in French also, but English was no longer confined to the peasant class. It was expanding, absorbing many French words, to produce almost the richness and subtlety it has today. Diverse dialects still existed, but Chaucer's English was that of the merchant class and of London, which predominated and became Modern English.

Clearly many people could now read, and books and pamphlets could be copied and circulated. Reading is usually a private occupation, nourishing individual thought, and especially in one's own language, it is a threat to authority. The Church felt this most of all. John Wycliffe, was a contemporary and known to Chaucer. He began distributing pamphlets attacking the abuses of the Church (such as "indulgences") and even questioning its most vital doctrines. When he produced the first complete Bible in English, it was plain that a revolutionary movement in religious thought was taking place: the trend towards the rule of individual conscience, and the undermining of the rule of Pope and priest, in other words, the beginning of Protestantism. As Wycliffe's humble "hedge-priests" roved the countryside, they were the forerunners of that maelstrom of change, the Reformation.

Throughout the fifteenth century, England continued to fight expensive wars. Kings struggled to hold on to English possessions in France, but where Henry V succeeded, later rulers lost everything except Calais. Wales was united under Owen Glendower, but was finally forced to submit to English rule. At home, the Wars of the Roses (the dispute over which noble house would claim the throne) was not really resolved until Henry Tudor defeated Richard III) at Bosworth. All this unrest meant high taxes, a huge demand for fighting men, and an even harder life for ordinary people in typical English villages.

Ironically, just as Henry Tudor was about to establish the dynasty that would give comparative stability to England for the next hundred years, and introduce the increased trade, exploration, cultural advance and national pride that we associate with the sixteenth century, a new device had been set up in London that would transform life radically and for ever. This was the printing press.

Caxton's first innocent publications, like "Stories of Troy" and "How to play chess" led to profound changes in society. Knowledge was no longer the prerogative of an elite: even the humblest had the incentive to learn to read. Printing stabilised the language, including spelling, cutting through social and geographical boundaries. It made possible on a wide scale the forward march of that most subversive of forces, the spread of ideas.

Domesday Winsham

See the glossary at the bottom of the page

The Domesday book was commissioned in December 1085 by William the Conqueror, who invaded England in 1066. The first draft was completed in August 1086 and contained records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees (the border with Scotland at the time). 

The survey was conducted upon William's instructions approximately 20 years after the invasion. The Saxon Chronicle records that it took place in 1085, whilst other sources claim 1086. In either event it forms a remarkable written record of the state of the nation so soon after the invasion. The whole exercise was conducted in less than a year and is now held in the Public Record Office. 

One of the regional versions, from Ely Abbey, tells us what the Commissioners were to ask. These questions appear to form the basis for the whole survey and were:

It was called the Domesday Book by the landowners because it was the final authoritative register of rightful possession in the land, by analogy its judgement was as final as that of Domesday. Each manor is listed with it's owner, with other details and in particular relates values of those manors before, during, and after the invasion.

The Domesday survey was far more than just a physical record, it was a detailed statement of lands held by the king and his tenants and of the resources that went with those lands. It recorded which manors rightfully belonged to which estates, thus ending years of confusion resulting from the gradual and sometimes violent dispossession of the Anglo-Saxons by their Norman conquerors. It was moreover a 'feudal' statement, giving the identities of the tenants-in-chief (landholders) who held their lands directly from the Crown, and of their tenants and under tenants. 

The Manor of Winsham

The Manor of Winsham, which was 10 hides (1200 acres), was held by the Canons of Wells Cathedral in Saxon times. It was seized briefly by Harold II but reverted back to the Canons after the conquest. Winsham was mentioned in Domesday Book as Winesham meaning 'Wyna's settlement' from the Old English wynes and ham.

The entry in Domesday for Winsham reads :-

Osmund holds WINSHAM from the Bishop. Alfsi held it before 1066; it paid tax for 10 hides. Land for 16 ploughs, of which 4 hides are in lordship; 3 ploughs there; 12 slaves;

50 villagers with 9 ploughs & 6 hides. 1 pigman who pays 12 pigs.
2 mills which pay 20s; meadow, 6 acres ; woodland ½ league long and 1½ furlongs wide. 2 cobs; 15 cattle; 13 pigs; 270 sheep.

The value was £6; now £10

Also at the time of Domesday two Barons, William de Mohun and William d'Eu, were Tenants in Chief holding lands in parts of what is now Winsham parish.

William de Mohun

Bringing many knights and men-at-arms to the Battle of Hastings, William de Mohun (Moyon) held 55 lordships in Somerset, with his seat at Dunster Castle. His grandson, William would become the first Earl of Somerset. William was from Moion near St.Lo in Normandy. 

Lands he held in Somerset included :- Adsborough, Alcombe, Aley, Allercott, Avill, Bickham, Bishop's Lydeard, Bratton, Brewham, Broadwood, Brompton Ralph, Broomfield, Brown, Cheriton, Chubworthy, Clatworthy, Combe Sydenham, Cutcombe, Dunster, East Lydeard, Elworthy, Hartrow, Heathfield, Holford St.Mary, Holnicote, Kilton, Knowle, Langham, Leigh(Milverton), Leigh (Winsham),Luxborough, Minehead, Newton (Bicknoller), Nunney, Oatrow, Old Stowey, Poleshill, Quarme, Runnington, Shotmansford, Staunton, Stocklinch, Stoke sub Hamdon, Street, Tolland, Torweston, Westowe, West Quantoxhead, Willett, Woolston.

Lands held by William d'Eu in Somerset included :- Chilton Cantelo, Hinton Blewett, Hinton St. George, Laverton, Tickenham, Whatley (Winsham),Yeovilton.


AcreMeasurement of land used in Domesday mainly for pasture, meadowland and woodland, which varied from region to region.
CarucateMeasurement of land in Danish countries, the equivalent of a hide. Used in Domesday for tax purposes.
FreedmanA former slave, now of similar status to the lower class of peasant.
Freeman(liber homo and sochemann) - the two Latin terms have similar meanings; a villager of higher class than a villanus, with more land and obligations; a soke man, for example, was liable to attend the court of his soke.
FurlongA quarter of a virgate, or a measure of length, originally Roman, commonly 220 yards, similar to the modern furlong used in horse racing.
Hide120 acres, although this could vary, and sometimes was apparently around 240 acres. Domesday hide values were not real measurements of land, but figures on which tax (geld) was based.
LeagueThree miles.
LordshipLand help and farmed by the tenant-in-chief himself, or by the under-tenant himself (or herself).
MillA watermill. There were no windmills in England for another 100 years.
PloughIn Domesday the word implies a plough team with its eight oxen and the plough itself. The measure of a carucate was originally the amount of land which such a team could plough in one day.
SlaveA man or woman who owed personal service to another, and who was un-free, and unable to move home or work or change allegiance, to buy or to sell, without permission.