Life in Forncett in the Middle Ages


The May meeting of Forncett History Group was held at the village hall as a joint event with the Friends of St Peter's church. The Friends provided refreshments (tea, coffee and wine) before the talk. Entry was free and the audience was encouraged to make donations to support the ongoing restoration programme at St. Peters.

Our speaker was Marilyn Tolhurst who is an expert historian and lived at Riverside Cottage in Low Road, Forncett St. Mary, back in the 1970s. Marilyn's beautifully illustrated talk was entitled "From the Conquest to the Black Death – Life in Forncett in the Middle Ages".

Medieval history is a topic that we rarely cover in the History Group. Marilyn gave us a real feel for what life in Forncett would have been like from the time of the Norman conquest when Roger Bigod, a Norman knight and supporter of William the Conqueror, was rewarded with a substantial estate in East Anglia that included the parish of Forncett.

Marilyn told us about the remarkable work of the American woman, Frances Gardiner Davenport, who, in 1902, studied the manorial records of Forncett and published a detailed analysis of them in her book "The Economic Development of a Norfolk Manor" (1906). She described the medieval manor house that the Bigods built in Forncett St Mary and the lives of the freemen, sokemen and bondmen who laboured on the land. Beautiful illustrations taken from the Luttrell Psalter helped to give us a view of the harsh lives of the men and the women in the village.

The last of the Bigods was Roger Bigod (1245-1306), 5th Earl of Norfolk, who died without heirs; and after his death his estates passed to the crown. The original manor house was probably then abandoned and progressively fell into disrepair.

In 1349 the Black Death (bubonic plague) arrived in East Anglia, having originated in Asia some years earlier. Within a very short time, half the population of Forncett had died. Houses and land stood abandoned and some men were prosecuted for looting. Although the pandemic in England had largely finished by early 1350, the economic, social and political effects of the Plague were profound. There was a shortage of farm labour and to prevent a consequent rise in wages King Edward passed a law fixing wages at pre-plague levels. These conditions ultimately led to the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 and the abolition of serfdom by 1400.

Marilyn concluded by describing the significant part that the devil played in people's lives, being widely depicted in medieval illustration and considered to be responsible for many misfortunes, e.g. the souring of milk! 

The devil sours the milk.

Her final image was of the historically-significant alabaster tomb of Thomas and Elizabeth Drake in St. Peter's church. Thomas Drake died in 1485, which is also the date of Henry VII's victory at the Battle of Bosworth, and which is, by convention, considered to mark the end of the Medieval period.

Detail from Drake's tomb in St. Peter's church

Around fifty people joined us at the village hall and after the talk there were lots of questions and many complimentary comments, all suggesting that the audience had really enjoyed their evening. Gilly Barnes gave a vote of thanks and reminded us all of the progress being made at the church with the recently-awarded Heritage Fund Development Grant. The evening raised £183 for the Friends of St Peters.

The rapt audience in the village hall