A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PARISH




Information for this section is mostly taken from 'Blockley Through Twelve Centuries' by H E M Icely (revised by Jeremy Bourne). This book is available through the Society - see Publications.

Jeremy Bourne has kindly provided scripts from several of his talks on local history, these have been invaluable. Information and drawings of the church come from 'The Building of Blockley Church' by R A Smeeton (out of print).






(THIS SECTION IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the main incursions into this part of Britain came from the Angles. The village name suggests that one of these tribesmen named Blocca, established a Lea - pasture for grazing his animals, here in the 8th century. The valley would have been an excellent place to settle, it had a good water supply and was close to the old Roman road, the Fosse Way.

The early settlement clearly prospered, with a growing number of wattle and daub cottages scattered along the brook, and eventually a small church was built. Bloccanleah had become by the ninth century a centre of Christianity in the largely pagan Cotswolds. A monasterium had been founded here with a group of missionary priests and deaconesses charged with converting the heathen folk in the area.

The first written evidence of the valley and village of Bloccanleah is in a charter of 855, from Burgred king of the Mercians, who needed to raise money to pay off marauding Danes. He made a deal with the Bishop of Worcester, who was granted the village to add to his estates at nearby Batesford, in return for three hundred silver shillings. Thus the parish became the property of the Bishops of Worcester for the next six hundred years.


 

The village flourished during the next few centuries, mainly due to the Blockley brook, a never ending flow of water from many springs rising in the hills to the South of the valley. The Domesday book records no less than twelve water mills in the valley. This must have made it a bustling centre for the surrounding farms and villages, contributing a considerable income to the Lords of the Manor, the Bishops of Worcester.

The invasion of 1066 was less traumatic here than in other parts of England as the Bishop of Worcester, St. Wulfstan, was the only Saxon bishop to stay in place rather than being replaced by William. According to the  Historian, William of Malmsbury,  Wulfstan visited the manor in about 1060 or 1070  to celebrate the Easter Mass. He found the local priest to be lazy, disrespectful and neglecting the church. In a rage the Bishop cursed the unfortunate man, who fell down, apparently dead. However, Wulfstan relented and prayed to God to forgive the priest, who instantly came back to life a reformed character. The story is interesting from the point of view that the village and church was important enough to the Bishop to make the journey from Worcester to celebrate Easter, the principal Christian festival of the year. 

The present church which dates from the Norman period appears to have been built on top of the original Anglo-Saxon church. A good deal of the Norman structure from around 1170 has survived later rebuilding.

The Domesday Book in 1086 has many of the usual listings of land, ploughs and cattle, serfs and villeins; however, the  mills and their water supply were to become increasingly important over the next centuries as the working heart of Blockley. The manor was a significant and profitable part of the estates of the Bishops of Worcester, valued at half as much again as Chipping Campden. They built a residence, probably on the site of the present Manor House, adjacent to the church. This house must have been large, as it had to accommodate the Bishop and his considerable retinue when he stopped here on route to London.




Throughout the Middle Ages, the main source of the prosperity of the Cotswolds was the production of woollen cloth. The high ground above Blockley would provide grazing for the sheep, and some of the water mills were used for fulling – the various processes for finishing  cloth. 

The lower end of the valley around Paxford was devoted to strip farming, producing the grain which would be transported to Blockley for milling. In a survey of all his manors, ordered by Bishop Giffard in 1299, one of the listings is Snugborough Mill, on Blockley brook to the north of the village, which was engaged in both corn milling and Fulling. The survey lists pasture for 110 cattle and 1600 sheep, the cow pastures were on the ground now known as Pasture Farm and the sheep would have been on the uplands above the village.   The Bishop's  Demesne comprised 785 acres of arable land, including 220 acres in Paxford.


The manorial survey gives us an illustration of how the feudal system worked in a society like Blockley in the 13th century.

 At the top of the pyramid were seven Knights of Fee, members of the military elite, who had a duty to provide an armed and mounted man for the Kings army as well owing fealty to the lord of the manor, the Bishop.

Next came seventeen Free Tenants, land-holders who paid rent and were subject to court service. 

Third came the Customary Tenants, small farmers who had a share of the strips of farmland in the common fields and the right to graze animals on the common land. They paid rent and had to provide a fixed number of days per year working for the Lord of the Manor, whose permission had to be obtained for his sons to leave the village or his daughters to marry.

The fourth group were the enchelondi, small-holders who had to give two days work per week as directed by the Lord’s Bailiff.

At the bottom of the list were the cottagers, who, in exchange for a patch of ground to grow vegetables, had  to undertake numerous heavy and menial tasks on Lord’s estate.



Living in such a wealthy parish did not benefit most villagers at this time as the appointment of a rector for the parish, who drew tithes and other benefits from local folk, fell either to the bishop, or directly to the Pope. It was a common practice to bestow the position as a form of remuneration to a chosen official who was free to appoint a substitute priest, generally at a pittance, to take his place. As a result, much of the wealth of the village was siphoned off to an absent rector who never set foot in the parish. Between 1294 and 1332, for instance, five rectors were appointed by the Pope: two Italians, two Frenchmen and one English. The Bishops of Worcester eventually secured the right to appoint the rectors, and the future vicars of the parish were provided with a good 'living' - accommodation and income from a share of the tithes and various taxes paid to the bishop.

The  Black Death was at its height in Worcestershire in the summer of 1349. In common with most of Europe, around half of the village's population would have been wiped out, including, it seems, the vicar, as a new incumbent John Bevent was appointed in August of that year. One of the effects of the plague was the passing of the old feudal system; the labouring classes benefitted from the shortage of farm workers, and they were now more able to travel and seek higher wages. The changes in farming, with an increase of livestock production over grain crops, would have improved the diet of the common folk, resulting in better health and a general increase in life expectancy.

Over the centuries, the owners of the Northwick estate were to become increasingly important to the village. Northwick Park was originally part of the Bishop of Worcester’s estates. From the late 14th century, the Childe family emerged as the squires of Northwick and remained the most important family in the district until 1682 when Sir James Rushout (1644 – 1698) purchased the estate for the sum of £14,000. The Rushout family were descended from Flemish Huguenots, protestants who fled from  religious persecution in Europe in the late 16th century. The Huguenot immigration brought many new skills to Britain including silk weaving, and the silk industry was to transform Blockley over the next two centuries.


The powerful Rushout family had extensive connections in shipping and the East India Company, as well as involvement in the new silk industry. One reason which may have  attracted them to Northwick was its proximity to Blockley with its established mills and water supply, ready for conversion to silk ‘throwing’. This was one of the processes in the production of silk yarn from the skeins of raw silk imported from China and Turkey. Each week, ox carts from Coventry delivered the skeins to the mills, where the silk was processed into various grades of thread and wound onto bobbins, ready to be transported back to the Coventry weavers who produced the silk ribbon so prized by the fashion trade.

The old water mills began to be converted to silk throwing from the late 17th century. In 1688 a lease was granted to Edward Whatcott which included 'a Water Mill used as a Spinning Mill'. The shell of the mill still survives, much rebuilt at Mill Close. The Whatcott family prospered and eventually took up residence in the Manor House adjacent to the church. The silk mills became the main employers in the village and by 1824 there were eight mills in the valley, employing around 300 women and children with perhaps another 3000 or so outworkers working from home within a ten mile radius of the village.