Settlement desertion

There are many deserted settlements in Buckinghamshire, particularly in the north of the county. Archaeologists usually call them deserted medieval villages but many of them were not abandoned in the medieval period. Many historians used to think that because the Black Death killed so many people in the fourteenth century, many villages became ghost towns. However, recent work shows that there were many different reasons why villages could be abandoned. 

Aerial photograph of Burston deserted village


Burston, Aston Abbots

Burston village, though part of Aston Abbots, was listed separately in the Domesday Book. There were several landowners and tenants. Alan and Aelmer were tenants of the Count of Mortain, a new Norman nobleman. Other farmers holding land here were Thurstan, William and Reginald. There were also eight villagers, five smallholders and two slaves in the hamlet. This is probably an underestimate of the population as women and children were not counted. There were seven divisions of land, three hides (enough land to support a family) and four virgates (about a third or a half of a hide).


Here is an aerial photograph of the earthworks of the medieval village at Burston and your teacher will give you a plan. Can you see seven divisions of land within the village to correspond with the division of the fields? One is shaded in red for you, colour the others in different colours.


The villagers didn’t have a church so walked to Aston Abbots every Sunday to worship. They ground their corn at the windmill on Burston Hill to the west or Windmill Hill to the north, both about half a mile away. Can you see the roads through the settlement on the plan of the earthworks? Colour the roads in brown.


Henry VIII’s right hand man Cardinal Wolsey started an investigation in 1517 after lots of people in England complained that landowners were enclosing their land for sheep and evicting their tenants. In Burston he found that one John Swanfield had destroyed 8 ploughs, cleared 400 acres of land and evicted 60 people when he inherited the manor in 1488. It went on to say:


“From that time tears and wretchedness caused them to remove from that place and the said town, hamlet and manor of Byrdeston was now totally and wholly used and had for the pasture of sheep”


What does this quote mean? Tick one of the following meanings:


1. The villagers were quite happy to leave the village and went without a fight.

2. The villagers were very unhappy about being evicted.

3. The villagers had turned into sheep. 

Boarstall Tower



All that is left of Boarstall now is the gatehouse of the manor house, part of the moat and a few large farmhouses. The only marks of smaller houses are the confused jumble of earthworks in nearby fields. The village was depicted in a plan of 1444 known as the Boarstall Cartulary, which you can find on the internet. This shows the gatehouse and manor house, church and village with open fields of ridge-and-furrow surrounded by the trees of Bernwood Forest. The commander of the Royalist garrison at Boarstall destroyed the village and the church in 1645 during the Civil War. Why do you think he did that? Tick one answer below:


1. He didn’t like the people in the village and wanted to punish them.

2. He needed to knock them down because they were too close to the house.

3. All the villagers had left because of the fighting anyway and he didn’t need the empty buildings.


When a house was fortified, the commander needed to knock down all the buildings that were too close because they may provide cover for an attack. The commander of Boarstall, Sir William Campion, waited until after the third siege to knock down the houses. Why do you think he waited so long? Tick one or more answers below:


1. He didn’t want to upset the people in the village because they might start helping the enemy.

2. He needed the buildings to house his soldiers who couldn’t all stay in the manor house.

3. He wanted to prove how dangerous it was to keep the houses by going through several sieges.


That’s right, all of them are correct! It was no good upsetting the ordinary people as they were paying taxes to support the army and could also start helping the Parliamentarians if they were really unhappy. In fact, he asked permission from the king before doing it. Also, his soldiers also didn’t want to have to stay in cramped quarters in the manor house and so he wanted to keep some houses for them to stay in. They would only all get inside the moat when they were being attacked. Sir William also managed to prove the need to destroy the houses and the church by going through several sieges so in the end everybody knew the houses had to go. How do you think the people felt on losing their homes?


“we dispearsed soe that we are alltogether in a confusion.” (original spelling) 

Aerial photograph of Dadford deserted village



Stowe parish is now mainly taken up by the landscaped gardens looked after by the National Trust. There used to be three villages in these grounds. Do a search on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal for deserted settlements in Stowe parish. 


Stowe itself was a village. It may have been destroyed during the Civil War, like Boarstall, as the owner, Sir Peter Temple, was able to enclose the fields by 1649, suggesting there were no villagers there to work the open field system any more. It was the Temples of the eighteenth century who expanded the gardens, taking in outlying villages.


One of the villages was called Dadford. There are still a few houses there but this village used to be much bigger. In this aerial photograph you can see the ridge-and-furrow of the open field system now enclosed by later field boundaries.


Boycott village now only has a manor house that was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. In 1755 it was described as a ‘decayed hamlet’. What does this mean? Tick one answer below:


1. It smelled like a rotting vegetable.

2. Only pigs lived there.

3. It only had a few people living there.


It would be very easy to argue why villages should not be swept away just to make way for a landscape garden, so you have to come up with an argument why they should. Imagine you are Sir Richard Temple in the eighteenth century and you have been challenged by a farmer from Stowe, Dadford or Boycott village. What would you say to them to justify you evicting them from their house to enlarge your gardens?  


Lockington, Saunderton

The village of Lockington was not deserted until some time in the nineteenth or twentieth century. There are records of Lockington in the parish registers of Saunderton from 1674 until 1969. It is not shown on any maps today but there are two maps, one drawn in 1788 and one in 1825, that show it. Your teacher will give you copies of those maps. See if you can find Lockington.


This village was not deserted until relatively recently. Can you think of any reasons why a village might have been deserted in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries? Tick the answers below that you think most likely:


1. People have been moving abroad a lot more.

2. People have been moving into the towns from the countryside.

3. Houses weren’t built very well then and started to fall down, so people moved out.

4. Everyone died from the Black Death.

5. The men were killed in the First and Second World Wars and the women moved.

6. Lots of people lost money in the 1930s and had to move where there was work.


The two world wars saw the death of lots of men in the country but it is unlikely to have affected where their mothers and wives lived, unless they had to go to the towns for the work. The Black Death wasn’t around in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so that is not a factor. People have only started moving abroad a lot in the late twentieth century so this was probably not a factor in the earlier period. Houses were built well and you can see lots of houses dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in each village and town, so this was not a factor in the desertion of Lockington either.


During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were problems with money, especially in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1930s during the Depression and lots of people had to move to find work. Also, agricultural tasks were being done by machines instead of people. This often meant leaving the countryside to go to the towns.


Finally, mark each of the deserted settlements on the map of deserted settlements in Buckinghamshire attached to this page.


Go back to find more Changes in the landscape.