Monastic Granges of Derbyshire - Discovering the past from landscape clues

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 September 2019

Hanson Grange

Hanson Grange

sue woore mary wiltshire

A recent book by local authors Mary Wiltshire and Sue Woore looks for clues to the county’s past in the landscape and its place-names.

Book coverBook cover

When looking at maps of Derbyshire it is noticeable that farms with the name Grange crop up throughout the county. The authors of a recently published book have been looking at these in detail to discover which of them had their origins in the monastic expansion of the medieval period. The Cistercian order of monks were the first to establish a system of farming with agricultural units separate from their monasteries. These became known as 'granges', derived from latin grana meaning grain. Other orders of monks followed suit and the practice spread.

Not all farms in Derbyshire with the suffix 'grange' have monastic origins. The term persisted over a number of years and was sometimes adopted at the end of the 19th century to add status to farms of more humble origins. The authors of the new book have endeavoured to sort the wheat from the chaff using many documentary sources to validate their findings. The result is a gazetteer of 41 granges with good evidence for their monastic allegiance and four more deemed to be of medieval origin but with less secure documentary support. In all cases the authors visited the sites and looked at landscape features such as boundary walls and banks to see if these too gave clues to the early origin of these farms.

A cluster of grange farms are found on the limestone upland of the White Peak at Hanson, Newton and One Ash for example, and another cluster on the rich clayland around Derby in Alvaston, Osmaston, Thulston and Trusley. In the High Peak granges are found within the boundaries of the old Royal Forest of the Peak such as Crookhill and Abbey Bank in the Upper Derwent valley. Others stand alone in the moorlands, Harewood Grange in Beeley parish and Strawberry Lee near Totley on the outskirts of Sheffield and a single grange was found in the south of the county at Seal.

Wherever the granges were located a good water supply was necessary for farming to take place and the authors enjoyed tracking down many springs, ponds or access to rivers which the farms adopted for this purpose. Some granges had fishponds or 'coneygreys', rabbit warrens, to supplement the diet of the monks and lay brothers living there.

The pond at Seal GrangeThe pond at Seal Grange

These grange farms were to generate profit for the mother-house (monastery, abbey or priory), with wool being the major money earner. The surplus of the farm produce was sent for use by the larger body of monks or nuns living at the mother-house. In the case of the upland farms this would have been wool, but grain, horses, oxen, goats and pigs are all mentioned in surviving monastic documents. Other sources of income could have been from woodland, lead, stone or charcoal. The addition of a mill would also have been an economic asset as the monks could charge the local population for its use.

In Derbyshire some of the landholders, following the Norman Conquest, became founders of new religious houses, Henry de Ferrers at Tutbury in 1080 and a member of the Curzon family at Breadsall around 1200. These major families and many of their under-tenants made gifts of land and endowments to monastic establishments, both as a lordly duty and to secure the spiritual protection such gifts were deemed to give to the donor and members of his family.

The few Derbyshire abbeys had granges in the county, but the overwhelming number were established by distant monasteries, reflecting the fact that Norman lords held land and property throughout the country. Dunstable in Bedfordshire had extensive holdings around Bradbourne, and Bicester in Oxfordshire a small plot near Wirksworth, now known as Steeple Grange. This diversity of influence beyond Derbyshire has been one aspect of the research that intrigued the authors.

Pilsbury dew pondPilsbury dew pond

The establishment of these farms within a medieval manorial system was not altogether an amicable process. In a number of instances small pre-existing settlements seem to have been deserted following the grange's arrival. Both at Smerrill near Youlgreave and at Conksbury near Over Haddon a number of house platforms have been identified that predate Smerrill Grange and Meadow Place Grange respectively. In other cases it is possible that small settlements started up because of the need for labour on the grange farm in times when the population had declined following the Black Death. On many occasions disputes between the distant monastic house and the local church led to lengthy lawsuits over the payment of tithes, often lasting many years.

Although in Derbyshire no medieval monastic grange buildings survive, extensive archaeology took place some years ago at Roystone Grange and it is possible to walk through this valley and appreciate the remoteness of the site. Smerrill Grange and the associated earthworks in the field beside it are alongside a quiet lane between Middleton by Youlgreave and Elton, another very pleasant area to walk in. In the Dove Valley a walk around Pilsbury is a must. The grange stood where Parks Barn is marked on the OS maps, just south of Pilsbury, with a lovely spring at Ludwell, curving boundary walls, dew ponds and sheepfold all to admire. For the more adventurous a hike over the moors to Strawberry Lee is well worth the effort as the enclosed fields around the site of the farm stand out so clearly from the surrounding heather-covered moors. For those living in the south of the county exploring around Seal and Seal Woods is interesting, although The Grange is set off the road and not on a public footpath. Wherever you go in the county the medieval landscape is there to discover if you know what to look for.

The site of Aldwark GrangeThe site of Aldwark Grange

Monastic granges of Derbyshire

by Mary Wiltshire and Sue Woore, ISBN978-1-5272-3551-9, is available through local booksellers or on line from for £15.99. It is well illustrated with colour photos throughout and maps of each grange. A comprehensive Introduction describes the general history of monastic granges, to set those here in Derbyshire in a wider context. Brian Rich has contributed an Appendix exploring routes taken by out-of-county monastic houses to reach their Derbyshire granges and considers the use of pre-existing track ways and river crossings.

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