The Way of the Dead: Land, Class and Architecture

This summer I stayed on Dartmoor for a fortnight, and while there I visited the small village of Lydford. Walking from one end to the other in a few minutes, I found it hard to believe that a thousand years ago this was one of the four administrative centres for what is now Devon – second only to Exeter in population, more powerful than Barnstaple and Totnes. But while these estuary towns expanded with Britain’s maritime empire and the industrial revolution that brought the railways carrying goods and people to and from London, Lydford, located high up on the edge of the moor, declined. Today it has a population of just 450. But once it was the most important and feared town on Dartmoor, casting a shadow over its residents even darker than those that still fall on a winter’s night. I returned to the village and the surrounding area several times during my stay, and reading about its history got me thinking about the ongoing relationship between land, class and architecture. For though many things in this country have changed almost beyond recognition over the last millennium, this relationship has not.

It has become an orthodoxy these days to locate wealth and power in the immaterial world of the stock exchange, of financial markets and the long lines of numbers telling us how much we collectively earn or owe, save or spend, as though the hedge-fund managers have convinced us that these abstract figures have a material referent in the world outside the markets of international capital. But as our current housing crisis is showing, real power still resides with the owners of the land on which all but the most wealthy of us must pay all our lives to live; and those we pay are still overwhelmingly the descendants of the same class that has owned the land since the Norman Conquest nearly a thousand years ago. To understand how this state of dispossession can be the inheritance of the British people and – more to the point – how we must go about overthrowing it, it is important that we locate the current exercise of power by our ruling class within the material history of its acquisition and retention. In this history, Lydford played a small but important part.

1. A Saxon Town

On the western edge of Dartmoor, about seven miles north on the old road from Tavistock to Okehampton, on a promontory of land between two fast-running streams, lies the village of Lydford. The etymology of the name is contested. Some say it is from the Anglo-Saxon hlid, meaning ‘cover’, and refers to the Lyd River, which rises on the moor to the east, and as it runs south of the settlement is all but covered by the bedrock through which it has cut a path over the millenia. Here the once-famous Lydford Bridge looks down onto the rocks 100 feet below. Others say that it derives from hild – as in the Scandinavian women’s name Hildegaard – meaning ‘battle’, which the river does as it noisily fights its way south through the Lydford Gorge. But whatever the origins of the name, it is undoubtedly the defensive position presented by the meeting of the Lyd to the south and its unnamed tributary to the west that led to the settling of the town in the angle between them.

It is possible, therefore, that Lydford was once a Roman fort, an outlier of their most south-westerly encampment of Isca Dumnoniorum (modern-day Exeter); and there are traces, too, of an even older, Bronze-age fort in Lydford Forest, on the far side of the stream. But Lydford first entered the historical record in the Burghal Hidage (composed 911-919) during the Anglo-Saxon colonisation, when Alfred the Great divided the old Saxon Kingdom of Wessex into four fortified settlements or burhs. For the safety of their inhabitants, no village or farmstead was settled more than twenty miles from a burh – from which we get the name of our current administrative division of land into boroughs. In Wessex these were Escanceaster (Exeter) to the east, Halwell (near Totnes) to the south, Pilton (near Barnstaple) to the North, and to the west, facing the Cornish Britons they had driven into the toe of Britain, Lydford. To complete its defences, the Saxons built ramparts above the already high river banks; and to the north-east, where the town opened onto the moor, they raised a stockaded bank of earth between the two, effectively enclosing the town on its promontory.

During the brief reign of Edward the Martyr (975-978), a Royal mint was founded in Lydford – one of four in Devon – producing coins struck from locally-mined silver between the late-10th and early-11th Centuries. Judging by the horde in the coin museum in Stockholm, it seems most of these ended up in the hands of the Danes, who extorted a levy or Danegeld from the Saxons. In 991 alone, Æthelred the Unready paid 22,000 lbs of gold and silver to the Danes to dissuade them from invading – unsuccessfully, it turned out, because in 997 Lydford was sacked by Viking raids, its inhabitants robbed and killed, their homes burned to the ground.

2. The Norman Prison

Worse was to come, however. Twenty years after the Norman Conquest the Domesday Book of 1086 recorded that 40 homes in Lydford were demolished by King William the Conqueror, presumably in retaliation for whatever resistance to the invaders the residents put up. In 1068, employing a tactic used by every invading army from the legions of Julius Caesar to the international property developers of today, they had erected a rampart topped by huge posts enclosing the west corner of the town. With the already existing defences this formed a ringwork enclosure within which five timber and mud-wall buildings represented the first Norman colonisation of Lydford.

By 1195, however, following widespread lawlessness and disorder across the region, and with the town in economic decline, this Norman fort had been abandoned and – on the direct order of the recently returned King Richard I – replaced by a far more formidable and lasting structure. Built in the very centre of the town, on the high street running roughly south-west to north-east along its centre, this was the Norman keep. A square building 52 feet on its sides and two or three stories high, the slate and granite walls were (and still are) up to 11 foot thick on the ground floor. The entrance to the keep was on the first floor, where a door in the north wall faced a rectangular bailey 60 yards long by 40 yards wide. This was protected by raised ramparts topped by a defensive wall and an outer ditch that on its north side ran down to the stream.

In the 1260s, however, under Richard Earl of Cornwall, the second son of Edward II, Lydford keep was rebuilt. The top floor or floors were demolished and remade better and slightly thinner, though still wide enough to contain the staircase that runs through the north wall to the upper floor and from there to what were most likely the crenellated ramparts around the double-pitched roof. The arrow slits in the bottom walls were filled in with stone, and the entire ground floor was buried in a mound of earth, giving it the appearance of a motte-and-bailey castle. By then this was an antiquated design, but still heavily symbolic of Norman authority and power. The original keep had been divided on its ground floor by an internal cross-wall that runs north-south, with the slightly larger side to the west; and the eastern side was now subdivided into two small rooms by a short wall running west-east, giving the ground floor three rooms, one large and two smaller. This subterranean level now became a true dungeon, lightless and airless, into which prisoners were dropped into the smallest room through a trapdoor in the floor above.

The entrance level, whose wooden floorboards rested on the internal shelf formed by the thicker walls below, was also used as a gaol, with access to a privy in the north corner of the west wall. This floor was also divided into two and later three rooms on the same plan as the ground floor. On the floor above, reached by stairs through the wall to the west of the entrance, was the courtroom, with the residence of the constable of the keep partitioned off to the east. Of superior construction and with ceilings twice as high, this level had two privies built into the north corners of the west and east walls – the latter allowing the judge to urinate on any prisoner below unfortunate enough to be using it at the same time. It also had a central fireplace, most likely in a dividing wall running north-south that was rebuilt in the 18th Century. At this time the arrow slits on this floor were widened into windows, and benches built into the walls behind them.

There exists today a widely-held misconception that a castle is built to protect those over whom it stands guard, which in this case was the residents of Lydford. In reality the exact opposite is true. A castle, and especially a keep, is not a weapon of defence but of offence, built not to protect the people but to threaten and control them. Rather than keeping attackers out, it is primarily designed to imprison people within its walls; as proof of which, the door to this keep was barred from the outside. That said, the keep and bailey were also designed to resist any thoughts of liberating its prisoners in the minds of the townsfolk; and on every floor a number of arrow-slits built into the walls allowed defenders to shoot crossbow bolts at would-be attackers with relative impunity. Although two of these slits open onto the bailey to the north in case its defences were ever penetrated, the majority open to the south and east – which is to say, onto the town itself and its people. In times of civil unrest or even rebellion, this is where the lord of the manor, constable of the keep, bailiff, sheriff, gaolers, judges, executioners, rector, clergymen and any passing nobility would hide from the anger of the people – before setting their men-at-arms on them in bloody retaliation, with raised taxes to follow.

Referred to in contemporary documents as a domus firme ad custodiendos prisones (strong house to watch over prisoners) and the castelli de Lideford (Lydford Castle), and paid for by Crown revenues extracted at the point of a spear from the labourers of both Devon (who paid £32) and Cornwall (£42), the keep primarily served as a courtroom and prison for those same labourers who broke the laws of Forest and Stannary under Charter to Richard I. It would go on to serve this function for the next 600 years, until it was finally superseded in 1809 by the Dartmoor prison in Princetown.

Founded as a small settlement in 1785, Princetown was named after the Prince of Wales by his obsequious secretary, Thomas Tyrwhitt, Lord Warden of the Stannaries and Rider of the Forest of Dartmoor. Hoping to curry favour and funding for his new development – from which, like all property developers, he planned to raise revenues for his own pocket – this is a model of ‘patronage’ that survives to this day in the public funds handed out to housing associations and private developers by government ministers, city mayors and council leaders alike. The Princetown development failed, however, and the prison blocks that were built in their place to hold French and American prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars were left to ruin when the wars ended in 1816. But in 1850, under the reign of Queen Victoria, they were repaired to imprison those subjects of Her Majesty who could no longer be transported to Australia in large numbers, where 164,000 convicts would be sent in the 80 years between 1788 and 1868 (over 2,000 every year). Today, Princetown is still a prison, with a recent history of rebellion, overcrowding, budget cuts, bad food, violence, murder, suicide and Human Rights abuses of its 600 inmates. Let to the Ministry of Justice for a tidy sum, Dartmoor prison is part of the holdings of the Duchy of Cornwall, whose unique constitutional (and tax) status I while return to later.

3. The Laws of Extortion

‘Stannary’ comes from the Latin stannum, meaning ‘tin’, the mining of which in Devon is first recorded in the 1st Century B.C. By the latter half of the 12th Century, a hundred year after the Norman Conquest, Dartmoor was the largest producer of tin in Europe. Stannary laws, therefore, which landed those who broke them in Lydford gaol, referred to the collection of taxes levied on each block of finished metal pounded and smelted from the ore. The blocks were all tested by an assay master who chiselled away a coign, from the French for ‘corner’, before giving it an official stamp, thereby giving rise to the term ‘coinage’ to describe the process and ‘coins’ to its product. These taxes were finally abolished in 1838, and in 1896 the Stannary court that had enforced their collection went with them; but in the intervening centuries the Norman keep served as both court and prison.

To earn himself incarceration in this dungeon, a man or woman had only to fall into debt, fail to pay whatever taxes the Parish Church, Lord of the Manor, Earl of Cornwall, and King of England levied upon him, resist the men-at-arms who came to collect it, carve off his own coinage from the metal he mined from the earth, or trespass upon the land of another mine owned by the descendant of a close friend of William the Conqueror. Few prisoners ever emerged from its walls. The conditions in the gaol were such that many prisoners preferred execution to rotting in its pits. There is no record of what those handful of working men and women of Dartmoor Forest who lived to tell the tale experienced in the damp underground cells, where rats swam in the rising water whenever the rain fell – as it often does in Dartmoor; but in 1508, during the reign of King Henry VIII, Richard Strode, the Member of Parliament for Plympton Erle in south-west Devon, was incarcerated within its walls for three weeks. He had had the temerity to complain that the Dartmoor rivers were becoming contaminated by the tin mining. In response, the Stannary courts at Lydford, Barnstaple, Totnes and Exeter each fined him £40 and then threw him into the prison at Lydford. According to his own account, he was imprisoned in one of the undergound pits. His gaoler was bribed to keep him in leg-manacles and fed on a diet of bread and water, presumably to hasten his end; but a counter-bribe by the wealthy Strode – who was himself a tinner – brought him healthier fare. Strode later described the keep as ‘one of the most hanious, contagious and detestable places in the realm’; but thanks to a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer he was eventually released, and in 1512 Strode persuaded his colleagues to pass the Privilege of Parliament Act that grants MPs impunity from prosecution for Parliamentary activities.

For those who didn’t have Strode’s connections or riches, this didn’t stop ‘Lydford Law’ becoming a bi-word for summary justice. In his 1644 ballad A Lyford Journey, William Browne of Tavistock wrote:

I oft have heard of Lydford law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
     And sit in judgement after.
At first I wonder’d at it much,
But since I find the matter such
     As it deserves no laughter.

In the same year, the third of the English Civil War, the doomed King Charles I appointed the Royalist turncoat Sir Richard Grenville – another bloody Norman – to secure the tin supplies of Cornwall and Devon to finance the Royalist campaign. In the course of doing so Grenville used his position to extort money for himself, arbitrarily imprisoned numerous men, and summarily executed many more. One of these was an unnamed man who was hanged at Gallows Hill, a raised mound to the east of the town of Lydford.

After the West Country Rebellion of 1685, the keep was the site of one of the ‘Bloody Assizes’ which, under ‘Hanging Judge Jeffries’ – the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench – condemned around 1,400 rebels to be burned at the stake, hung from a gallows, transported to the West Indies as cheap labour, or just left to rot in dungeons like Lydford gaol. After his bloody task was completed, George Jeffries was rewarded by King James II, who made him Lord Chancellor and elevated him to the peerage as 1st Baron Jeffries ‘for the many eminent and faithful services to the Crown’. I’m happy to report that after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Jeffries – who was arrested, disguised as a sailor, in a Wapping pub – was himself incarcerated in the Tower of London (another Norman prison) where he died the following year. His remains, recovered by his family and interred in the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury in the City of London, were destroyed when his tomb took a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during the Blitz. Sometimes ‘the revenge of history’ really is more powerful than the most powerful General Secretary.

4. The Laws of the Land

Besides breaking the laws of Stannery, residents of Dartmoor could also be imprisoned for breaking the laws of the Forest. A forest, from the French word forêt, was a Norman invention. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon weald, meaning ‘woodland’, a forest was (and largely still is) a legal term denoting uncultivated land set aside for hunting by the Norman feudal nobility. A mixture of open woodland, heath, pasture, commons, farms, villages and towns, the Royal Forest of Dartmoor was also, however, subject to the Rights of Common that gave leasehold farmers or commoners with land adjacent to the forest certain rights. These included the right to cut peat for fuel; to take stone from the moor for building; to cut bracken, fern and heather for thatch and animal litter; to graze pigs, sheep and cattle on its land; to collect fallen timber and kindling for firewood; and from 1219, under writ of King Henry III, to burn such wood into charcoal for the furnaces of the tin miners. In 1337, under Edward the Black Prince and the first Duke of Cornwall, the rights of pasturage were limited to between sunrise and sunset, with those farmers found trespassing after dark subject to a fine of 3d, the failure to pay which would, once again, land them in Lydford prison.

To get an idea of how the feudal system worked in practice, let’s look at the manor of East Lydford in Somerset – not the same place as its namesake in Devon, for which I can’t find the same details, but representative of revenues from land ownership after the Norman Conquest. In 1066, the year of the Conquest, East Lydford was held by Alward, a thegn or aristocratic retainer of King Harold II. By 1086, however, it was held by Roger de Courcelles, and rated for geld – or land tax – at 4 hides. A hide, from the Anglo-Saxon hid – which shares its root with hiwan, meaning ‘family’ – was a unit of land measurement originally intended to represent the amount of land sufficient to support a household. This was traditionally taken to be 120 acres, but was in fact a measure of value and tax assessment, including obligations for food rent (feorm), maintenance and repair of bridges, roads and burhs, manpower for the army (fyrd) at a rate of one armed soldier from every five hides, and, eventually, the geld or land tax. In 1086, under King William the Conqueror, the hidage assessments were recorded in the Domesday Book, and there was a tendency for land producing £1 of income per year to be assessed at 1 hide.

In the manor of East Lydford, 3 hides and half a virgate (a quarter of a hide or roughly 30 acres) were held in demesne – that is to say, retained for the owner’s own use, but which 6 serfs were obliged to work with 2 ploughs. The remainder of the land, 3½ virgates, was tilled by 6 villeins (from which we get the word ‘villain’: feudal tenants entirely subject to the Lord or the Manor, to whom they paid dues and services in return for land) and 3 bordars (a lower class of serf in the hierarchy of the manor, holding around 1-5 acres). They did so with 1½ ploughs, although there was land for 5 ploughs. Only 40 acres of meadow are mentioned in the Domesday Book, but the number of stock – 1 horse for riding, 6 cows, 13 pigs and 160 sheep – suggests a large amount of unrecorded pasture, probably on Lydford moor. The income from the whole manor at the time of Domesday was valued at £14 5s, with the principal coming from leasing summer and winter pasture to tenants. For those too young to remember, there were 12 pence (d) in a shilling (s), and 20 shillings in a pound (£). In 1394 there were twelve tenants, comprising one freeholder, one holding a virgate, three holding ½ a virgate, five holding a fardel (around 10 acres), one holding ½ a fardel, and one holding a single close. In 1398 one of the tenants – a nativus or serf born into bondage with the land – had his daughter sold for £1. The following year – possibly fearing the same or simply to escape the brutal conditions of their bondage (for ‘who would fardels bear,’ as Hamlet soliloquised, ‘to grunt and sweat under a weary life?’) – two other nativi fled the manor – a crime which could, and most often did, land them in a prison like that in Lydford.

To return to our town in Devon, the deer in Dartmoor Forest were at all times off limit to the Anglo-Saxon commoners, being the exclusive preserve – along with boar, wolves, hare and rabbit – of the Norman nobility, who retained – and largely retain still, along with their fox-hunting rituals – the freehold on the land. The punishment for poaching was to cut off the offender’s hands, castration, blinding or hanging – though to a serf with a starving family this was sometimes worth the risk. From these Sumptuary laws came the clear division within the English language between pig and pork (from the French porc), lamb and mutton (mouton), cow and beef (boeuf), and deer and venison (venaison): the first, Anglo-Saxon term, denoting the animal the peasants farmed; the second, French term, denoting the meat only the Normans were permitted to eat.

5. Class War on Dartmoor

But the Normans didn’t have it all their own way. In 1514, with England’s coffers emptied by Henry VIII’s invasion of France the previous year, the Lydford keep was attacked ‘unlawfully and riotously, in the manner of an invasion’ by John Thomas Coole and fourteen other men, who broke through into the bailey and, under the nose of the bailiff, drove off forty oxen and steers and ten geldings. These had been taken from the same John Coole in lieu of taxes on their tin mining – no doubt increased to pay for the King’s war games with his French cousins. Coole and his men were declared outlaws and subsequently lived on the moor, avoiding capture by the authorities and living off cattle rustling until they were pardoned in a general amnesty in 1523. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

The most famous outlaws to defy the tyranny of the nobility, judiciary and clergy were the Gubbins. This may have been the family name of the gang leaders, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘gubbins’ refers to miscellaneous items, paraphernalia, odds and sods; but also worthless sharings of fish, from the 16th-century ‘gobbon’, meaning a piece, slice or gob, which was in turn derived from the Old French word gobbet, which was a piece of flesh or food. But it can also refer to something unspecified whose name is either not known or has now been forgotten, much like the meaning of the word itself. This band of outlaws – the Gubbins – who have passed into local legend and were recorded in several fictional accounts during the 19th Century, apparently lived during the 16th Century in Lyford Gorge, which runs south from the village for several miles. Almost impassable in places except to those who knew its ways well, the gorge still contains several caves in which hunted men could shelter. Men-at-arms in armour had little chance of penetrating its depths, and little incentive to brave its slippery paths, raging cauldrons of water, precipitous cliffs and easily loosed boulders, not to mention the deadly arrows of the outlaws who sought refuge from the King’s laws in its lawless depths. As William Brown wrote in A Lyford Journey:

And near hereto’s the Gubbins cave,
A people that no knowledge have
     Of law, of God, or men:
Whom Caesar never yet subdued;
Who’ve lawless liv’d, of manners rude;
     All savage in their den.

The reference to Caesar suggests that the Gubbins may even have been Britons, who in the eyes of the Normans were even lower down the social scale than the Anglo-Saxons. But for a testimony of the class hatred felt by Church, Crown and State for these outlaws, perhaps the most eloquent account is that written by Thomas Fuller, Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge University, in his History of the Worthies of England (1662):

‘The Gubbings land is a Scythia within England, and they be pure heathens therein. It lyeth near Brentor, in the edge of Dartemore. It is reported that some two hundred years since, two strumpets being with child, fled hither to hide themselves, to whom certain lewd fellows resorted, and this was their first original. They are a peculiar of their own making, exempt from Bishop, Archdeacon, and all authority either ecclesiastical or civil. They live in cotts (rather holes than houses) like swine, having all in common, multiplied, without marriage, into many hundreds. Their language is the drosse of the dregs of the vulgar Devonian; and the more learned a man is the worse he can understand them. During our Civil Wars, no soldiers were quartered amongst them, for fear of being [drawn and] quartered amongst them. Their wealth consists in other men’s goods, and they live by stealing sheep on the More, and vain it is for any to search their Houses, being a work beneath the pains of a Sherriff and beyond the powers of any constable. Such their fleetness, they will outrun many horses; vivaciousness, they outlive most men; living in the ignorance of luxury, the Extinguisher of Life, they hold together like burrs; offend one, and all will revenge his quarrel.’

I particularly like ‘drosse of the dregs of the vulgar Devonian’, an epithet worthy of our Latin-quoting, pickaninny-calling Foreign Minister in its contempt for the working class. But still more do I like the information that these outlaws ‘held together like burrs; offend one, and all will revenge his quarrel.’ Denigrated here as characteristic of unthinking nature – burrs, swine and the incestuous – this is the very model of working-class solidarity in the face of the class war waged against them. By the middle of the 17th Century it seems the clan had ceased to exist, either converted to Christian servitude by Jesuit priests hiding in the gorge from Cromwell’s Roundheads – too scared, as this account records, to venture in – or hunted down and killed by Restoration Cavaliers looking for someone to blame for their exile from power. But according to the 1851 census there were still nine families named Gubbins born in the Tavistock area alone, most of which were agricultural labourers and miners; and apparently residents with this family name live in the Parish of Lydford today.

6. The Way of the Dead

On all this the church in Lydford looked unmoving. A Saxon church had been founded at the south end of town in 641, dedicated to Saint Petroc, a missionary who had arrived from Wales via Ireland in the 6th Century and set about colonising what is now Cornwall and Devon with the dictates of Saint Patrick. For several centuries after the Norman Conquest the church rector had a French name, and dutifully served his Norman paymasters, absolving the constable and his gaolers of their many and bloody sins, preaching duty, forbearance and servitude to the poor – who paid one-tenth of their produce in tithes to the church under the loving prodding of a soldier’s polearm, promising them escape in the afterlife from the earthly tyranny over which the Church and it patrons of robber barons presided. But perhaps the most revealing image of the contempt in which the Church held the common people, serfs, villeins and bondsmen that were regarded as little different to the cattle that came with the land, is that of the path or way after which this article is titled.

Called the ‘Lych Way’, from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘corpse’, the Way of the Dead led to the Church of St. Petroc in Lydford from the Ancient Tenements in Dartmoor Forest, which lay along the West Dart, East Dart and Wallabrook rivers on the far eastern side of Dartmoor. To give you an idea of their size, a document from 1300 notes that one of these tenements housed 25 villeins with 12 ferlings of land. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon furlang, meaning the long furrow a Medieval ploughman could dig with his oxen, a firling is a quarter of a virgate, or roughly 7½ acres. Granted grazing rights in the forest, many of these farmsteads still survive today in the farms and hamlets of Babeny, Bellever, Brimpts, Brownberry, Dunnabridge, Dury, Hartyland, Hexworthy, Huccaby, Lakehead, Merripit, Pizwell, Prince Hall, Riddon, Runnage, and Sherberton. Despite their distance from Lydford to the west, they fell within its parish boundaries, which meant that parishioners had to travel on foot across the moor to their parish church of St. Petroc. Today the Lych Way still survives and can be followed between Lydford and Bellever, 12 miles away over the moor. This was one of the closest tenements to Lydford; others, such as Hexworthy on the far side of the West Dart, were a further 3 miles away, which meant adding 6 miles to the journey.

Undoubtedly the harshness of their lives made the farmers of Medieval Dartmoor tougher and more enduring than anyone alive in Modern Britain, but it still seems incredible that this journey could have been completed in a single day without leaving the parishioners exhausted. Dartmoor is a raised plateau of rolling hills and tors with the occasional steep river valley to cross; but its surface is an uneven bog of grass tussocks and marsh through which even a well-worn path requires careful passage. And yet throughout the year and in all weathers, the tenant farmers and miners, their pregnant wives and labouring children, had to walk over hill and heath, around woods and across streams, through mud and snow, in howling wind, burning sun and pouring rain, rising hours before dawn and returning long after sunset, there and back for between 24 and 30 miles – and this on their so-called ‘day of rest’, all in order to consume a wafer of wheat-paste for their famished stomachs and have their parched foreheads dabbed with water by a priest whom their labour kept in a soft bed in the rectory just across the road, dressed in fine-woven gowns and warm furs against the cold, fed on a table stocked from the animals they themselves raised and farmed by the sweat of their labour, supplied through the wombs of their women and the lives of their children, and which the church stole from them in the tithes it collected under the shadow of the gallows.

In 1260, nearly 200 years after their subjugation by their Norman overlords, and around the time the second keep was being built with their taxes, Walter Branscumbe, the Bishop of Exeter, graciously granted his impoverished and exhausted ‘flock’ – as the Church likes to call us – permission to undergo his cult’s bizarre rituals in the church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, which lies in a valley on the eastern side of Dartmoor Forest. Funerals, however, still had to be conducted in the parish church of St. Petroc. The reason for this was simple. No Lydford rector was willing to relinquish the additional revenue this ritual allowed the Church to extract from the poor. Those fortunates who had escaped forever the tyranny of Church and aristocracy therefore had to be carried, on backs or in carts, across the moor to be laid – for a price – in the graveyard at Lydford. It was this that gave its name to the final journey every tenant on Dartmoor would make, The Way of the Dead.

As an illustration of the fees extracted from this shakedown of the bereaved, in 1747, when a certain John Weeks was found drowned in the West Dart River, four men were each paid 1s 6d to watch over his body the first night; three men were paid the same the next night; and an allowance of 1s 6d was set aside for the fuel consumed during their watch. In addition, the Lydford coroner was paid 13s 4d to establish that John Weeks was not a suicide, which would have removed him from the church racket; to which end one John Elliott was paid 2s 6d to testify to a story about how he had slipped and fallen into the Dart, rather than thrown himself in. A further 2s was paid to one John Potter for dragging the bier and digging the grave. And, finally, the Rector, Hugh Tonken, was paid 6s – four times the night watch – for performing the funeral rites. Under the direction of the Church of St. Petroc, therefore, and the orders of the Norman prison, the death of a commoner generated £1 15s 10d for the town worthies. Based on the relative value a wage labourer would use to buy a commodity, that’s equivalent to about £3,379 in today’s money. Not bad for a corpse. Who says the dead can’t pay?

And the living too. A survey of the Borough of Lydford made in 1650 and preserved in the Office of the Duchy of Cornwall records that:

‘The Quit Rents, or Rents of the Assize [i.e. the Lydford court], of the said Borough doe amounte to yearly the sum of £3 1s 4d; part of which said Rents (viz. £3) is paid to the Rector of the Parish of Lidford in lieu of all the tithes of the Forest of Dartmoore.’

As if this wasn’t enough to fatten their already bulging wallets, the dispensation granted by His Grace to attend mass in Widecombe only extended to the Ancient Tenements. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, when new tenants settled to the south, they applied for but did not receive this ecclesiastical indulgence, and so had to march the 30 or more miles to Lydford and back every Sunday to receive the bread and water sacraments. And every tenant of Dartmoor, no matter where they settled, was still required to walk to Lydford prison three times a year when the Stannery and Forest Court sat in judgement over misdemeanours both ecclesiastical and civil. And, of course, it was here that the Rector conducted the marriages and other state-sanctioned extortions by which the Church locked its ideological and economic manacles around the limbs and minds of the poorest members of the English population. That we continue to participate in and indulge these practices today, and permit the continued existence of the evil institution that supports and perpetuates its power over our class, is not the least barrier to overthrowing the oppression and power of the ruling class.

7. A Royal Tax Haven

In 1239 King Henry II gave Dartmoor Forest, including Lydford town, to his brother Richard, the 1st Earl of Cornwall. This turned Dartmoor from a ‘forest’ into a ‘chase’, which meant that the King could keep beasts of the chase on another man’s land as well as his own, with the power to hunt them over that land, and that such game was protected even from the owner of the land. It also meant Dartmoor fell under the jurisdiction of Common Law and the four Manor Courts, one of which was located in Lydford prison, thereby greatly increasing its power.

However, in 1300, on the death of Earl Richard’s son Edmund, the 2nd Earl of Cornwall, who had no male heir to inherit, the estate reverted to the Crown. Then in 1337, by Great Royal Charter, King Edward III gave the whole estate to his own son, Edward the Black Prince, and raised the Earldom to a Duchy. Under this charter the manors of the Earldom passed to the Duchy, and its severance from the Crown afforded the Duke certain rights and responsibilities in the county of Cornwall which continue to this day, including the right to appoint the county’s Sheriff, and, of course, to the profits from the county courts, the stannaries and the ports. Ever since its creation, the Duchy of Cornwall has been a source of revenue for the Crown Prince and heir apparent, who inherits it at birth, and who since 1301 has traditionally been given the title of the Prince of Wales, accurately reflecting his royal role as invader, coloniser and thief. But it is also a right of passage to the Prince’s accession to Thief in Chief, or the King of the United Kingdom as he will one day be known. Demonstrate to his sovereign that he can keep the local people under his heel, extract the maximum amount of surplus value from their labour without starving the population that produces it or driving them to rebellion, send the proceeds of their labour back to the crown – and one day, when the heir apparent accedes to the throne and breeds more thieves to rule over and steal from us, his own son will do the same for him.

Little has changed since those days. Today the Duchy totals 135,000 acres, nearly half of it in Devon, but with other large holdings in Cornwall, Herefordshire, Somerset and almost all of the Isles of Scilly. The consent of the Prince of Wales is still required before Parliament can even debate a draft bill affecting his prerogatives or interests – including, therefore, his hereditary revenues, personal property and other interests in the Duchy of Cornwall. And the property of anyone who dies in the county of Cornwall without a will or identifiable heirs, as well as assets belonging to dissolved companies registered in Cornwall, pass to the Duchy. Lydford remains in Royal possession as part of the estate, and even today the Duchy office at Buckingham Gate in London contributes to the salary of the Rector of Lydford Church out of its huge income from the estate.

In 2013 the current incumbent – His Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George (née Mountbatten-Windsor), Prince of Wales, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight of the Order of Australia, Companion of the Order of Canada, Queen’s Service Order, Privy Counsellor, Aide de Camp to Her Majesty the Queen, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland – received a private income of £19 million from his financial investment portfolio, farming, residential and commercial land and properties in the Duchy of Cornwall. In the same year the estate was valued at £763 million. Clearly short of a bob or two, in addition to this private income he also received £1.1 million from the British taxpayer. Out of this income Prince Charles covers the costs of 125.5 full-time positions, plus 8 personal staff, including secretaries, chefs and stable staff, 15 estate, farm and garden staff, and the 10.5 full-time staff waiting on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry – a total of 159 full-time servants for him and his two brats.

Although Prince Charles has paid income tax on his Duchy of Cornwall income since 1993 – having deducted amounts which he considers to be ‘official expenditure’, which includes the salaries of his 159 staff – the Duchy is treated as a crown body by the UK government, and is therefore exempt from paying either corporation tax or capital gains tax. I repeat, this is an estate valued at £763 million. At the same time, it is regarded as private for the purposes of transparency, and the official expenditure of the Prince of Wales is not audited by the National Audit Office. And ever since the Sovereign Grant Act was passed as law in 2011, revenues from the Duchy of Cornwall will pass to the heir to the throne regardless of whether that heir is the Duke of Cornwall. Now you know why the coat of arms for the Duchy of Cornwall is sable with 15 bezants, or gold coins, arranged in rows of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

8. Our English Heritage

In 1932 the Duchy of Cornwall transferred the keep in Lydford into the guardianship of the Office of Works. It is now under the management of English Heritage, which calls it a ‘Castle’ and maintains the immaculately cut lawns that cover the motte and ramparts. Sitting atop its grass-grown mound looking down onto the pretty Church of St Petroc, Lydford Castle can seem like a picturesque place, romantic even in the late evening sun. In the church a rather nice booklet compiled by the Rector and titled Lyford Lives – purchased for £1.45 or simply pocketed for free – does its dutiful best to whitewash the bloody deeds and extortionate functions of both buildings with a nostalgic, ecclesiastical and royalist account of history. But stand on the keep’s entrance floor as the sun sets and look down into the windowless pit into which prisoners were thrown, and the horror and power this building exerted over the population of Dartmoor for six centuries begins to materialise out of the rising dark. This is architecture as weapon in the class war; architecture as threat of retribution; architecture as corporal punishment; architecture as safety deposit box for theft; architecture as symbol of aristocratic power; architecture as embodiment of the king’s divine right over his subjects – their bodies, their labour and their lives in saecula saeculorum; architecture, above all, as ownership of the land, from which all other power and rights derive.

Today, just 0.3 per cent of our population – 160,000 families – owns two-thirds of the 60 million acres of land in the United Kingdom, making us second only to Brazil as the country with the most unequal land distribution in the world. More than a third of that land is still owned by the Royal family and the aristocracy. Those who own it, who inherited it from their fathers and will bequeath it to their sons, are mostly the descendants of Normans, or at least Anglo-Normans – the Beauchamps, D’Arcys, FitzWilliams, Harcourts, Lyons, Mandevilles, Percys and other inbred aristocrats from the ninety or so families that tied their banners to William the Bastard’s mast and fought with him at the Battle of Hastings, then administered the feudal system he enforced on England when they won. Under the Norman yoke, half the country was placed into the hands of 190 aristocrats, and a quarter of it was owned by just 11 of them. But that wasn’t the end of the theft.

Until the 13th Century, common waste, moor, woodland and pasture, though belonging to the lord of the manor, could not be taken out of common. But as the demand for land by the sons of landless farmers increased, so the lords became more tempted by the prospect of more rent. In response, in 1235 the Statute of Merton, agreed between King Henry III and the feudal barons of England, made it legal for parts of the waste to be enclosed on the condition that there was sufficient land remaining for the commoners to pasture their oxen and stock. Enforcing this conditional clause, however, was all but impossible for an illiterate and impoverished peasantry.

The so-called Tudor Clearances that began in the late-15th Century were similarly driven by the profits of aristocratic landowners. A declining population meant there was a smaller workforce of agricultural labourers to till the soil, and as a result land values fell. With wool at a premium and requiring relatively less labour, sheep farming offered greater profits to landowners. In order to enforce enclosure of common land, lords increased rents to evict commoners from their homes, and harsh penalties were introduced against anyone who continued to use their lost rights of common. The poverty and suffering among the common people that followed led to a series of rebellions, including Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1459; Robert Kett’s Rebellion of 1549; the Midland Revolt of 1607, in which thousands of Levellers pulled down hedges and fences and filled in ditches; and the actions of the Protestant radicals during the English Civil War, when enclosures were ignored and freehold land reclaimed, cultivated and built on by the Diggers, who in their manifesto wrote:

‘The earth (which was made to be a common treasury of relief for all, both beasts and men) was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made servants and slaves; and that earth, that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.’

Finally, between the mid-18th and late-19th Centuries, the Parliamentary Enclosures saw 5,200 enclosure bills enacted in law, enclosing 6.8 million acres of land in England alone and another 1.7 million in Wales. The primary justification for this was that the common open-field system of farming, which had been around for nearly a thousand years, was unable to adapt to modern farming methods, and that enclosure would improve agricultural yields. Not only that, but it would morally improve the feckless and idle tenant farmer by driving him into wage slavery in the factories of Britains rapidly expanding textile industry. Writing in 1758, on the very cusp of the Industrial Revolution, the agriculturalist Thomas Hale argued that:

‘The advantage that a poor man has by keeping two or three sad creatures of cattle of any kind upon the common land, are not nearly equal to what he and his family would find by being sure to know where to get constant employment as labourers. The privilege is indeed a source of idleness: and that can never be for private or public advantage.’

In reality, the motivation for land enclosure wasn’t public advantage but private profit. In his excellent article ‘A Short History of Enclosure in Britain’, which was published in The Land in 2009, Simon Fairlie writes about why small holdings and allotments cultivated by spade at the turn of the 19th Century, despite being more productive than large farms cultivated by the plough, were nevertheless enclosed by large landowners. It was generally acknowledged that rural labourers could not live and support their families on their wages alone, and relied for their subsistence on access to enough land to keep a cow and cultivate a garden. Not only that, but those with access to the tiny amount of land required to do so hardly ever needed to apply for so-called ‘poor relief’ administered by the ever-generous Church. So what possible reason could there be for further enclosure of common land?

In response to these arguments, economists advising the Whig government of the day, drawing on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) – just as monopoly capitalists blabbing about a free market continue to do today – argued that nothing should be allowed to hold back the ‘invisible hand’ of economic self interest, and that the only way to alleviate the poverty of the poor was by increasing the nation’s capital – what we would now call its Gross Domestic Product. More specifically, landowners pointed out that following enclosure rents always rose – even to three or four times as much – not from any improvement in the land but from the eviction of commoners. A similar thing happens to land prices today when secure tenants are evicted from the council homes that were rather inconveniently built on it. But while rent contributes to GDP, it is an unreliable indicator of productivity.

To take an example, even if twenty 5-acre farms, each cultivated by a family of commoners, were more productive than a single 100-acre farm cultivated by machinery-operating rural labourers, this would not mean that the landowner would get more rent. Since each of the 5-acre farms might support a family, the surplus it generates for tenants to pay in rent would be relatively small. The single tenant farmer, by contrast, hiring zero-hour labourers as and when he needed them, might have a lower overall yield from his 100-acre farm, but he would have a larger net profit; and it was from that profit that the rent he paid the landowner was derived. The less productive large farm may produce a smaller yield, and therefore contribute less to national productivity, but the profit to the landowner is greater. Even with the so-called ‘poor rate’ he would have to pay in taxes to support the twenty families driven off the land and into the workhouse as a result, it was more profitable for landowners to enclose the commons, evict the commoners and rent the privatised land to single tenants of large farms. The use value of the land for the cultivation of crops, or even as homes for the rural labourers that produced the food, was subordinate to the profits the owner of the land extracted from its exchange value. The same economic logic and class relations apply to the programme of estate demolition that today is replacing hundreds of thousands of council homes across England and Wales with high-value properties for capital investment. Their use value as homes for those in need of housing is almost nil; the profits they yield to developers, investors and landowners is enormous.

As a result of this long history of theft, today the Duke of Northumberland – whose ancestor, John Dudley, had revived the Statute of Merton in 1550 when he led the government of the young King Edward VI – owns 130,000 acres; the Duke of Westminster owns 133,000 acres – the most lucrative of it in Mayfair and Belgravia; the Duke of Atholl owns 146,000 acres; and, of course, the Dukes of Cornwall and Lancaster – better known as the Prince of Wales and his mum – own, respectively, 135,000 and 45,500 acres, with the Queen also owning an additional 74,000 acres from the estates of Balmoral, Delnadamph and Sandringham. In Scotland – where the Highland Clearances, like the Tudor Clearances before them, evicted tenant farmers to make way for sheep – things are even worse, with a mere 432 landowners – among them the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry with 240,000 acres – still owning half the privately-held land. Outside the Royal family, Britain’s 24 Dukes own nearly 1,150,000 acres of land, all of it held in trust, which means the recipient avoids paying inheritance tax – as the 7th Duke of Westminster recently demonstrated when he paid zero tax on his £9 billion share of the Grosvenor estate. And no list of England’s great thieves would be complete without the Church of England, which still owns 105,000 acres of rural land in England and Wales and a property portfolio worth almost £2 billion. Finally, the Crown estate – which is inherited by our reigning monarch – in addition to an urban portfolio worth £9.1 billion, 15,500 acres from the Windsor estate and 287,000 acres of agricultural land and forest, also owns 55 per cent of the UK’s foreshore plus the entire seabed out to the 12 nautical miles limit – some 23.6 million acres in total. Valued in 2016 at £12 billion and producing a £304 million net revenue profit – 25 per cent of which will be paid to the UK monarch for the next 10 years to cover the costs of refurbishing her London residence – there really is no other organisation in the world that resembles the Crown estate as a legal entity.

As I said at the beginning of this article, to understand how this state of dispossession can be the inheritance of the British people we must situate the current exercise of power by our ruling class not in some unassailable right of inheritance, but within the violent and bloody history of its acquisition and retention – militarily, legally and politically. More to the point, it is in the face of this enforced expropriation of our putative birthright from the population of our disunited Kingdom that the tinkering of parliamentary politics with property relations is most clearly revealed as the ineffectual irrelevance that it is.

The Way of the Dead is the path of the landless over the land that has been stolen from them, and the poor have walked it since the concept of owning land first emerged in the Neolithic in response to the invention of animal husbandry and agriculture, which reached these isles around 6000 years ago. But the wholesale theft of the land a thousand years ago by our current ruling class represents a level of dispossession unparalleled in our history – with which, nonetheless, the huge majority of the sleepy, docile, subservient and loyal subjects of Her Majesty appear quite content. This is our English heritage. But until we take this land back the only way we can, the claims of equality of rights and opportunity under the laws of this stolen land are as meaningless and empty as the promises of salvation made by the rectors of Lydford Church to the rent-paying tenants of the Duchy of Cornwall.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Architectural drawings by Geraldine Dening.

My thanks and acknowledgments to Tim Sandles, whose Legendary Dartmoor has been a source of information and pleasure throughout the writing of this text. And although I don’t share his understanding of history, Canon Martyn Batemen’s Lydford Lives has also been useful. In addition to Simon Fairlie’s article, my account of the history of enclosure – including several quotes – is drawn on the potted history contained in John Wright’s always fascinating A Natural History of the Hedgerow (2016).

4 thoughts on “The Way of the Dead: Land, Class and Architecture

  1. A good read. Thanks 🙂 “A castle, and especially a keep, is not a weapon of defense but of offence, built not to protect the people but to threaten and control them” – so true. As a writer, I need to remember this.


  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    A long read but well worth the effort if you want to understand where we are today in terms of who owns the land in Britain and how it impacts upon our lives. There’s a lot of useful historical background in this piece and it makes you realise that when it comes to the ownership of vast swathes of this country, things haven’t changed for centuries…


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