It is possible to take the story of roofless buildings, grass-covered streets and redundant houses back to the decline of Roman cities and villas in Britain during the fourth and fifth centuries; or, indeed, the abandonment of the farms founded to replace them in the countryside during the Anglo-Saxon period. However, those that were deserted from around 1300 until fairly recent times hold more interest, if only because a few have left traces of their existence in the modern landscape, and some can be visited. A good example is the lost village of Godwick in Norfolk.
By the year 1100, Whilst concentrations of houses and people in villages with between 12 and 50 dwellings had developed in many parts of Britain by the year 1100, here in East Anglia most people lived in hamlets or scattered farms. Generally, villages such as these thrived through the cultivation of grain in open fields, and gradually grew in size until about 1300. Then, they began to run into trouble when the rural population fell in the 14th century. This meant that less grain was needed whilst at the same time prices dropped. This problem was made worst when the peasant occupiers tried to adjust their farming by bringing in more animals which, in turn, lead to disputes with neighbours over so called grazing rights. As a result, some families moved out and their heirs failed to take over their parents’ holdings of land. Sometimes, the balance tipped completely over to pasture, making the cultivators redundant.
It must have been from around 1380 and until the early 16th century when many villages were either deserted or reduced to a survivable level. Here, many reasons came into play. Sometimes the problems were internal, from maybe ambitious peasants who took over their neighbours’ land, drove hundreds of sheep over the common fields, and discouraged newcomers from moving in. All this made for communities to become quarrelsome and fractious, often dooming them to failure. Then there were lords of the village, or their agents such as the farmers who managed the lord’s own share of the village fields; they killed off some villages by expanding their own flocks and herds, forcing tenants out, or buying up land. In many cases, after a period of decay, the landlord removed the remaining vestiges of a once-thriving community in order to profit from the wool and meat that could be reared on the site.
The problems of outward migration, land being concentrated in fewer hands and lords pursuing higher profits only made matters worse for villages. Then, to cap it all, along came the owners of stately homes who launched their own attacks on villages which they considered to be in the wrong place. Here, the gentry were often blamed for removing villages that ‘spoilt the view’ when creating their landscape parks. However, in their defence, some of the villages that were removed were often in poor health by the time this landscaping was taking place.
Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village” published in 1770, condemned rural depopulation, the enclosure of common land and the pursuit of excessive wealth. After describing a nameless deserted village as ‘Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain”, Goldsmith then decries its current parlous state, abandoned by villagers, its buildings ruined:
“Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’
So, what remains of these deserted villages? Occasionally a ruined building marks the site. Yet these are usually part of a castle, manor house or church as they would have been the only stone structures in the village. A typical peasant house may have had a low, stone foundation wall, but was built mainly of timber and wattle and daub, with a thatched roof, which either decayed or was carried away to be recycled when the village was abandoned. Yet today all is not lost. The sites of houses are usually visible as grassed-over foundations or platforms on which the building stood. Roads and lanes as sunken hollow ways can sometimes be seen, while the boundaries of the enclosures (tofts) in which the houses stood are sometimes marked by banks and ditches.
Once the village had gone, the lord often built a mansion on or near the site. It is in the fields surrounding these mansions that you can sometimes identify the grassed-over banks and hollows of walkways, flower beds and water features which formed part of the garden that occupied the site of the village. Look closely and you might see the prospect mounds (for visitors to view the garden) or the pillow mounds for rabbit warrens. Reminds one of Godwick.
The History of Godwick:
Godwick today is a deserted village in the county of Norfolk. Its location is south of Fakenham between the villages of Tittleshall and Whissonsett. There are several hundred deserted or ‘shrunken’ medieval villages in Norfolk, but most sites have long been destroyed by ploughing, the pressures of two world wars or other agricultural uses. Only a few still have impressive surface remains; the earthworks at Godwick being one of the best preserved. It can be found in an area that became pasture in the 16th Century, not long after the last few villagers departed, and remained being grazed by sheep ever since; this has meant that the ground has never been disturbed from deep ploughing or flattened for cultivation. Today it is one of the best surviving examples in the county and the only one open to the public.
The place-name ‘Godwick’ derives from Old English and probably means ‘Goda’s farm’ and objects found in the surrounding fields suggest that the village was founded in the Anglo-Saxon period. In 1086 Godwick was held by Ralph de Tosny and he granted it to West Acre Priory, in whose hands it remained until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. It then passed between families until it was bought by Sir Edward Coke in 1590 and remained in the Coke family until they sold it to the current owners in the 1950s. Throughout the Middle Ages Godwick was a stable community, but fell out of use in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, being almost completely abandoned by 1586, when the Old Hall was built and gardens and a park laid out around it. The Great Barn was built in 1597 with the church tower converted into a folly soon afterwards. Both were an important part of a very early landscape park.
All Saints church at Godwick was abandoned when the village died but Godwick remained a distinct parish in its own right until absorbed into that of Tittleshall. To be exact, Wellingham, Tittleshall and Godwick were consolidated into one parish in 1630 and in 1845 the combined parish of Tittleshall-Cum-Godwick contained 615 inhabitants, 124 houses and 3360 acres of land – about 300 acres of which was woods and wastes – nearly all of which belonged to the Earl of Leicester (Coke). The joint benefices were valued, at that time, at £871 per annum. Godwick itself consisted of only two farms. St Mary’s church at Tittleshall sheds light on a dark history as it contains monuments to Norfolk’s famous Coke family. Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice under James I and originator of the Coke family fortune, enshrined into law in 1628 the dictum that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’.
Godwick’s decline and fall:
Whilst the 12th and 13th centuries saw a gradual increase in Norfolk’s population, with people seeking new areas to settle, Godwick’s population was never to become large, mainly because the heavy clay soils thereabout were difficult to cultivate. Then the Black Death reached Norfolk in 1349 and may have killed over a third of the County’s population. However, this epidemic was not solely to blame for the fall in numbers, either throughout Norfolk or in Godwick itself; that began in previous decades with poor harvests, agricultural problems, and a colder, wetter climate. Many village abandonments – although not Godwick – were the result of clearance of depleted villages by greedy landowners who wanted land put to grass. Others just faded slowly away, which seems to have been the case with Godwick.
It had always been a small place and, although a relatively stable community, was never a prosperous one. In 1086, only 14 peasants were recorded in the Domesday Book and the village paid a modest amount of taxation in 1334, which declined as the community continued to shrink in the 15th century. In 1428 there were less than 10 households in Godwick and by 1508 a survey showed that of 18 properties on the north side of the main street, 11 were empty and three had no land holdings attached. The same survey showed that a church lay to the south and there was also a watermill with a millpond. By 1525 only five households paid tax when the village was, in reality, already ceasing to exist. By 1595 further decay left Godwick virtually deserted. Its final stages of decay were recorded in an estate map of 1596 when only three or four houses remained and the church tower had collapsed.
The land had been bought in the 1580s by Edward Coke. By 1585 he had built a large manor house in Godwick, as shown on a map of the village in 1596; by this time there was almost nothing left of the original village. The manor house was adjoined by a huge brick barn. The barn still stands, although the manor house was demolished in 1962, but can still be seen in outline. The barn was restored and is now used for wedding receptions.
The Church of All Saints was demolished early in the 17th Century, apart from the 13th Century tower which was retained by Coke as a folly – it is the only original building left. The churchyard looks a little raised now with the village’s medieval inhabitants still buried beneath.
Again, Goldsmith words are a suitable epitaph for the demise of a once vibrant village:
‘No more the farmer’s news, the barber’s tale,
No more the woodman’s ballad shall prevail;
No more the smith his dusky brow shall clear,
Relax his ponderous strength, and lean to hear;
The host himself no longer shall be found
Careful to see the mantling bliss go round;
Nor the coy maid, half willing to be prest,
Shall kiss the cup to pass it to the rest.’
Present Site Description:
What remains of the medieval village today, consists of a long sunken hollow way running east to west with two other roads running off to the south. This defines the main village street, with the banks and ditches defining the closes in which houses stood. These well-preserved earthworks are not often seen in Norfolk, mainly because so many sites have been ploughed up in modern times. Along both sides of the street can be seen banks and ditches separating individual house plots. About ten of these still remain to be seen. The long street itself indicates that the elongated plan – the one-street village – was an established feature in East Anglia. Another recurring feature is the early modern garden visible around the existing house, with a deep hollow way and a series of rectangular enclosures. This reflects the effects of the wealthy landowner on the landscape after the village had gone.
The church ruin stands within a similar enclosure at an angle between the streets. At the eastern end of the site, the village street runs along what was a dam to hold back a millpond; a small watermill once stood at the far end. The line of the dam is now covered by farm buildings. The 13th-century church tower had been raised as a brick and flint folly when the church was pulled down in the 17th century. This folly may well have formed part of a scheme of landscape architecture for the later Godwick Manor. In 1981 a remaining part of the church tower survived a collapse and inspection of it found evidence of a Norman church amongst the rubble. Also, still to be seen on the site is a large 13th-century red-brick barn with an elaborate façade, built over the line of the street. During the reign of Charles II, 200 men were garrisoned there and although access is barred, it is possible to walk round it and enjoy its beautiful windows.
In 1585, in the middle of the deserted village, Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice and Attorney General to Elizabeth I, built a fine brick manor house. The ruins of that house, which was E-shaped with an impressive two-storey porch and windows, were pulled down in 1962. Its square outline can still just about be picked out as slight humps in the grass. It had a walled yard and entrance to the north, and around the Hall a pattern of formal gardens and enclosures was laid out. Admiral Sir William Hoste, whilst born at Ingoldisthorpe, lived as a very young child at Godwick Manor. The Manor had been leased from Thomas Coke, the eventual 1st Earl of Leicester of Holkham Hall by his father, the Reverend Dixon Hoste (1750–1805) who was rector of Tittleshall and Godwick at the time.
The Godwick earthworks are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and there is an agreement between the present owner and English Heritage over the opening and the management of the site, which is open between April and September from 9:30 am until dusk and visitors are free to wander in the daytime, though dogs should be kept on leads and the Country Code observed. On site there are information panels with displays of aerial photographs, maps and interpretation plans of this lost village. Visitors are warned that it is an offence to disturb the site or use metal detectors without the written permission of English Heritage.
So, there you have it. Amateur historians and landscape enthusiasts can freely walk in the sunken remains of the Godwick village streets, trace outlines of medieval buildings, and marvel at the spectral ruins of the church still standing.
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