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The Ancient Tenements

The Ancient Tenements

During the 1200’s the country saw a marked increase in the size of its population which meant there was a greater demand on the food resources until there came a time when enough food was not being produced. This in turn lead to farmers looking at cultivating land that previously would have been deemed unthinkable and of these the upland areas of Dartmoor were one.

In 1239, King Henry III granted the Forest of Dartmoor and the Manor of Lydford to Richard, the Earl of Cornwall, this meant that no longer was it regarded as a Royal Forest but became a chase. Confusingly, the term ‘Forest’ was and is still used to describe the chase, which was divided up initially into 3 quarters (later 4). In 1240 the bounds of the ‘Forest’ were set out and a perambulation of its limits were carried out. At about this time the first of the Ancient Tenements was established which also coincided with the increased pressure on food supplies. John Somers Cocks (1977, p.96) considered that there are two pieces of evidence for this date, firstly the document of 1260 which was a petition to Bishop Bronsecombe of Exeter. This petition came from the inhabitants of two of the earlier tenements of Pizwell and Babeny and was asking permission to use the nearer church of Widecombe as opposed to Lydford. The Bishop consented to this request and official dispensation was given in a document called, ‘The Ordinacio de Lydford‘ which was dated the 20th of August 1260, (Woods, 1996, p.35). Therefore if this document records the ancient tenements of Pizwell and Babeny they must have been in existence by that date which can be considered as firm dating evidence. Somers Cocks’ second piece of dating evidence is more tenuous insomuch as he states: ‘Of the many sites of Farms founded from about the 11th century and abandoned by about 1300, none has been discovered within the Forest, though the territory would seem perfectly suitable. Clearly some policy must have up until then prevented what surely otherwise have been attempted.’ From the period between 1260 and 1563 there were 17 tenement groups established but then within these were several individual farmsteads which brings the total to 34 or 35. Below is a table showing the tenements, their first recorded mention, name and OS grid reference, (all dates taken from Gover et al. 1992/1998).

Modern Name Earliest Recorded Date Earliest Recorded Name Number on Map OS Grid Ref
Babeny 1260 Babbeneye 10 SX 67190 75183
Pizwell 1260 Pushylle 5 SX 66815 78458
Huccaby 1296 la Woghebye 12 SX 66270 73128
Warner 1301-2 Walna 1 SX 6715? 8030?
Dunnabridge 1305 Donebrugge 16 SX 64230 74293
Brimpts 1307 Bremstout(e) 11 SX 66795 73863
Runnage 1317 Renewych 4 SX 66805 79153
Hexworthy 1317 Hextenesworth 13 SX 654?? 728??
Merripit 1344 Meriput 3 SX 65808 79133
Lakehead 1347 Lakehevede 7 SX 65??? 74???
Bellever 1355 Welford 8 SX 65305 77293
Sherberton 1358 Sherborne 14 SX 64583 73363
Dury 1390 teram de Dury 6 SX 66145 77893
Riddon 1488 Riddon 9 SX 67595 76351
Hartiland 1521 Herterland(e) 2 SX 64438 79523
Princehall 1521 Prinshill 17 SX 62555 74238
Brownberry 1563 Brembery 15 SX 64702 74451

If these tenements are plotted on a map it soon becomes obvious that there are two clusters that are centred around the East Dart and West Dart valleys and can be considered to be located in the best and most favourable parts of the Forest of Dartmoor -see below:

Ancient Tenements

If these locations are plotted on an OS map it soon becomes obvious from the surrounding prehistoric features that medieval man was not the first humans to settle in the area. This also indicates that the area was capable of providing food supplies from both arable and grazing land. A document dating from 1300 which described the manor of Lydford notes that there was a village (ancient tenements) with 25 villeins that held 12 ferlings of land. By 1345 this had increased to 44 tenants and 23 ferlings or in other words both the number of tenants and ferlings had doubled in over 45 years, (Havinden and Wilkinson, 1977, p.150). The authors suggest that, ‘the average size of the Dartmoor ferlings was about 32 acres‘ and that the ferling was a, ‘word related to a furlong – the long furrow (of 220yd) which the medieval ploughman drove with his ox-team‘, (p. 148). But here is a problem, the Domesday measurement of the furlong, sometimes known as the Domesday measurement – a ferlinus, equates to a quarter of a virgate which in turn is a quarter of a hide. A hide is defined as roughly 120 acres, therefore a virgate being a quarter of a hide is 30 acres which means if a furlong is a quarter of a virgate then this only comes to 7½ acres?

There is a tithe case dating from 1702 which Burnard (1986, pp.35 – 36) mentions which further shows the privileges and duties the tenement tenants enjoyed:

On these tenements there are several ancient houses, on each of which said thirty five tenements several parcels of waste ground, enclosed chiefly with stone walls many hundred years since, as it appears by ancient deeds and writings related to the same, according to the ancient use and custom of the Forest. The heir of each and every of the said tenants, on the death of each of the said tenants, and every purchaser that shall purchase the inheritance of any such ancient tenements, have by the custom aforesaid liberty to enclose eight acres of the said waste or forest ground…. paying one shilling yearly fro the same to her Majesty’s use… which said eight is commonly called the newtake… The enclosing of such newtake doth generally cost such taker £20, and doth not yield above 20s, per annum when enclosed… The tenants collect and gather the rent, and pay it at Exeter. They attend the three weeks court at the Castle of Lydford. They must assist in the drives of the east, south and west quarters four days in the year, each finding a man, horse, and servant at their own costs, save only a halfpenny cake each forest man or driver hath according to the said custom. They likewise drive all the colts, one day in the year to one of her Majesty’s pounds, and some are driven as much as twenty miles. They attend three times a year at Lydford Castle Court to present all matters and misdemeanours and things presentable in the Forest. They present all estrays at the next law court… By ancient and long accustomed law and usage of the said Forest, there are only three sorts of people that have a right to depasture their cattle on the said Forest of Dartmoor; that is to say, forestmen, to wit, the occupiers of the said thirty five tenements, their predecessors and successors, who are at present Queen’s immediate tenants…‘.

So what type of farming was going on in the early days of the ancient tenements? We know that there was a buoyant livestock industry on Dartmoor from a document of 1340 which states that the forty four tenants depastured 4,700 oxen and 37 steers on Dartmoor, (Burnard, p. 35). But it is suggested that the fields of the tenements were, ‘as islands in the sea‘ because these enclosures were surrounded by cornditches which separated them from the ‘sea of rough pasture‘, upon which the livestock grazed, (Fox, 1994, p.154). But how do we know that the farmers were growing crops in these fields? Once again Fox notes that there is documentary evidence in the form of an account dating from 1304 which records a mill that was newly constructed at Babeny. It also states that the mill was built at the tenants expense apart from the timber which came from the King’s wood and that in order to remain autonomous from manorial extortion paid 33s 4d annually for the privilege. It is plain to see that if there must have been a significant degree of arable farming taking place for such an expense to be met. Further evidence for the mill exists in the modern landscape as many of its features are still visible, English Heritage list the site as being, ‘medieval 1302 – 1303‘, (ADS Record ID – NMR_NATINV-442466).

Today many of the ancient tenements are still working farms; Babeny, Pizwell, Huccaby, Dunnabridge, Brimpts, Runnage, Merripit, Sherberton and Dury. Other such as Brownberry and Warner have long gone and Hexworthy has now grown into a village.

As with virtually every aspect of Dartmoor the ancient tenements have been the subject of various letterbox series over the years as can be seen from a few examples below.

Ancient Tenements

Clearly there is much more related to the ancient tenements such as their individual histories, tenants etc but that information would easily fill a website of its own. Therefore this has been a brief look at the history of the tenements and their development.

Ancient Tenements

BURNARD, R. 1986. Robert Burnard’s Pictorial Records. Exeter: Devon Books.

FOX, H. 1994 Medieval Dartmoor as Seen Through the Account Rolls, Devon Archaeological Society, No. 52.

GOVER, J. E. B., MAWER, A. and STENTON, F. M. 1992. The Place-Names of Devon – Vol. 1. Nottingham: The English Place-Name Society.

GOVER, J. E. B., MAWER, A. and STENTON, F. M. 1998. The Place-Names of Devon – Vol. 2. Nottingham: The English Place-Name Society.

SOMERS COCKS, J. 1977. Saxon and Early Medieval Times. In C. Gill, ed. Dartmoor – A New Study. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

WOODS, S. H. 1996. Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Tiverton: Devon Books.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. Michael French

    Re italicised paragraph. (Burnard). The persons entitled to graze their livestock on the Forest were the occupants of the Ancient Tenements (Forestmen) and the ‘Venville’ Men, ie, those of the Commons of Devon, who paid their dues to the ‘quartermen’.

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