Book one 750-1539. Chapter three: Feudal landscape

  • Posted on: 24 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

When one gazes on the parish countryside of today, one may be sure that there are several features upon which the people of the feudal period also gazed with some speculation, and perhaps conjectured upon their origin. One such feature is the Devils Dyke which lies between Lower Beech Hyde and Marford, and is part of the boundary between Sandridge and Wheathampstead. Excavations have revealed quantities of pottery and other relics which are believed to belong to the first century before Christ. Nearby is a smaller earthwork known as the Slad, nowadays partially filled with water. It is believed that Julius Caesar, when fighting the chieftain Casslvellaunus in B.C. 54, attacked and carried his enemy's stronghold1 which was bounded by the Devils Dyke and the Slad. The whole character of the former Dyke is so closely identified with that of Beech Bottom Dyke

that no one would hesitate to attribute both to the same authorship.2

Beech Bottom stretches away from the Harpenden Road in a north-easterly direction; after a mile it fades out. The dyke is no less than one hundred feet wide from lip to lip, and still in its partially filled state, reaches a depth of thirty feet. The excavated earth was piled partially on both margins. It was clearly intended by its constructors to serve as a boundary and a traffic barrier rather than a military work. It would mark the northern boundary of a tract of relatively open land lying between the parallel valleys of the Ver and The Lea.3

Another feature, which would be visible to the eyes of our predecessors, is the Roman road from Verulamlum to Colchester. It ran through the entire length of Sandridge parish from a south-westerly direction, following the line of the present road over Coleman Green, and crossing the river Lea at Waterend.

Roman soldier

Much water was to flow along Isaac Walton's beloved gentle Lea from the time of the building of the dykes to the first recorded references to parish land. Robert de Gorham, eighteenth abbot of St.Albans (1151-1166), being of a generous nature, assisted Laurence, abbot of the impoverished abbey Westminster, and gave many gifts to him. The latter showed his ingratitude by stirring up strife over territory on the borders of the two abbey estates

between the river at Marford and the land of Sandrugge, and over other lands and possessions, thus raking up petty quarrels which had been laid to rest.4

The quarrels between the two overlords of the adjacent parishes of Sandridge and of Wheathampstead, which was to last for a great number of years, had thus begun.


The greatest strife over boundaries was to come two and a half centuries later. Lying between Sandridge and Wheathampstead, a mile north of Sandridge church, is an uncultivated area, known as Nomansland. Such lands were usually dedicated to the devil, and it was considered dangerous to break them up by means of cultivation5. This common lay between the domain of the Abbey of St Albans, namely Sandridge on the south, and that of Westminster Abbey on the north. Both abbots claimed it, although its name implies that it was extra-parochial, and it was a source of frequent disputes between them. The right to erect gallows was one eagerly sought for, and firmly held, not because people particularly wanted to hang one another, but because the erection of the gallows established in time rightful ownership. About the year 1417 Richard Wyth, bailiff of the Abbot of Westminster, erected a gallows on Nomansland to the injury of the manor of Sandridge and the Abbey of St Albans. The gallows stood there unmolested for ten years as an indication of the ownership of Westminster. The year following the gallows were hewn down by swords and axes, no one knowing by whom, or so, at least, the chronicler says. Immediately John Wyth, the bailiff of Westminster, re-erected them, and the abbot of St Albans, having taken legal advice, had them pulled down once more. In this his servants and tenants were assisted by some Wheathampstead folk who happened to be passing. But the parishioners of Wheathampstead apparently had misgivings as to their imprudence in supporting St Albans against their own overlord. When Rogation-tide, the recognised time of beating parish boundaries, was upon them, they at about seven o'clock in the morning "In fear of their skins", stealthily made perambulation of the disputed territory, leaving as a sign of their activities a small piece of wood fashioned as a cross lying on the ground. The next day the abbot of St Albans, considering this a piece of sharp practice by the Wheathampstead folk, sent out his own servants to reconnoitre; they returned reporting that they had seen no one except a few fellows lurking behind hedges, and had met with no opposition. Whereupon Sandridge led by the vicar, beat the bounds properly, according to their claims. They sang hymns as they went, and chanted the Gospel of the day and returned unmolested.

In July 1428 a shepherd of Wheathampstedbury died suddenly on Nomansland while lending his sheep. The vicar of Sandridge claimed the body for burial on the grounds that the soil belonged to the abbot of St Albans. But the people of Wheathampstead seized the body, bore it to their church and buried it in that churchyard even while litigation was pending between the two abbots, the body having had no inquest held over it by the coroner. The next year an understanding was reached John Fray, Baron of the Royal Exchequer, with the clerk of the cellarer, made a tour of the boundaries; on the following day at about three hours before supper there was an assembly of the steward of St Albans Abbey, a lawyer of St Albans living at Sopwell and general adviser to the Abbey, the abbey cook, the bailiff of the abbot of Westminster and also the steward, and several tenants of both parties. A description of the bounds was read according to the evidences of Westminster, and John Adam, "an exceedingly old man far advanced in years" bore witness that the said heath was common land of both parties and not of one only.

If the land in question was in fact common to both abbeys, one would assume that neither would claim the right to erect gallows upon it, but sooner or later the abbot of Westminster had the audacity to erect another gallows upon Nomansland. These were promptly cut down by Robert Belamy, a Sandridge farmer, and Matthew Bepsette, a domestic servant of the abbot of St Albans. The two men also carted away the materials. This took place on 14th November 1434, and the dispute arising therefrom lasted nearly six years. An attempt to settle it by arbitration proved fruitless, because neither abbot would yield his claims. The abbot of St Albans put the blame, if any, for the destruction of the first gallows on a notorious robber called William Wawe. The other gallows he had removed because they were on his land. The abbot of Westminster said that they were on his land, and complained that the Sandridge men had forced an innocent Wheathampstead man called John Plomer to assist them in their dirty work by threats of mutilation and death. Arbitration having failed, the abbot of Westminster sued the abbot of St Albans for £50 damages, though he admitted that the actual materials of each gallows only cost two shillings. A preliminary enquiry was held at St Albans in the Crown Court of Pleas, during which Matthew Bepsette felt it necessary to explain that his name was neither Bibsette nor Pipsed; so the Court decided to call him Matthew and leave it at that. The case was finally disposed of by the Court of Marshalsey at Westminster in July 1440. The jurymen, after taking the usual oaths, declared that Robert Belamy, Matthew and their accomplices were in no way to blame, in that they cut down, broke up, and carted away the said gallows.6


The countryside then did not have the appearance of a patchwork quilt as it has today. The land was not fenced off by hedges and ditches. There was regular rotation of crops arranged by the bailiff, and each Villein would have a narrow strip In the wheat area, and the right of grazing in a third area, which for that year was left fallow. The corn and the hay were protected from the animals by moveable hurdles. All the corn had to be ground either at the Abbey mill, St Albans on the river Ver, or at the abbot's mill at Sandridge, which must have been on the Lea. And thus life continued for one century more.

It was in April 1538 that Richard Boreman, a native of Stevenage, took up his duties as the forty-first and last abbot of the great Benedictine monastery of St Albans, which had dominated the religious, economic and social life of the neighbourhood for over seven hundred years. The year after his appointment the abbot granted a lease of Sandridge vicarage to John Bigges and Joan his wife for fifty years7, which means that in return for a capital sum paid to the abbot, Mr. and Mrs. Bigges would receive the £8 a year which was the vicar's income and allow him just enough to live on. The abbot was overburdened with the king's taxes, and at last when the crippling taxation could no longer be paid, he was obliged to surrender the monastery with all its revenues, including the manor of Sandridge, into the hands of the king. The king kept the manor for some months, but in 1541 he conveyed it to Ralph Rowlatt, a London goldsmith and banker. Thus the era of secular rule had begun.

  • 1. Caesar Commentarii de Bello Gallico 5. 21.
  • 2. R.E.M. and T.V.Wheeler, Verulamium, p.19.
  • 3. Wheeler, Verulamium, p.18.
  • 4. Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani 793 - 1411. 1. 134. Compiled by Thomas Walshingham.. Three volumes.
  • 5. G.L.Gomme, The Village Community, p.115.
  • 6. Registrum Abbatiae, Johannis Whethamstede 1451-1464. pp.6,14,15,24,35. Registrum Abbatiae, Willelmi Alban 1465-1472. pp.127-143,213-220.
  • 7. The Victoria County History Of Hertfordshire. Volume 2. 437.

Historic Sandridge by Edward Giles and Richard William Thrale, with sketches by R. Giles. Published 1952. Reproduced with the kind consent of the late Richard Thrale.