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Settlement And Colonisation

Aston-on-Trent is first recorded in 1086 in Domesday in the form Acetum, the East farm. Although it was a single settlement, there were two estates there, one a Berwick or outlying farm of the royal manor of Weston, and the other a tiny estate held by Henry de Ferret. The original settlement probably dates back to the early days of the Anglican invasion in the mid 6th century. Its name East Farm suggests a very early relationship with Weston, the West Farm. They were possibly twin settlements. The lie of the land suggest however, that Weston, nearer the river but sheltered from it by a slight bluff, was a better site for original settlement and that Aston on Trent was probably colonized from Weston.

The main village of Aston on Trent lies along the 125 feet contour. The low lying land to the east and south between the village and the river must have presented considerable difficulties to the early settlers and it seems likely that they first cleared the slightly higher land north and west of the village for their arable/. The belt of arable lying between the lower marsh and meadow and the higher moor and heath cannot have been large.

Both settlements must have suffered during the first wave of Danish occupation after the battle of Repton in 873, and probably also during the later Anglo-Saxon counter campaign which resulted in the capture of Derby in 917 by Aethelfraed, Lady of the Mercian’s, daughter of Alfred the Great. This was followed by the campaign of Aethelfraed’s brother Edward the Elder, to secure his northern borders. He strengthened Derby and built new forts at Nottingham and Bakewell to control the lines of possible Norse and Northumbrian invasions. Great tracts of land flung across Derbyshire were reserved to the crown for strategic purposes, as lines of supply and defence.

These in the later forms of royal manors could still be traced in mid and north Derbyshire as late as 1066, but only fragments then remained of the line along the river Trent. This was split up probably before the end of the 10th century. Even so, as late as the mid 17th century there were three chains of manors along the Trent. Starting in the east with the manors of the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, in whose diocese Derbyshire lay, and then, interlinked the manors of the king and Earl of Alfgar. Earl Alfgar was head of one of the two most influential families in pre- Norman England, and head of the only family to have held high office in England before the Danish conquest.

He was the third of his family to be appointed Earl of Mercia, a post that gave him almost regal powers throughout the Midland where lay his vast inherited estates. Very few men outside the families from which the Earls were appointed were able to acquire more than tiny estates of one or two manors. It is probable that Earl Alfgar’s string of manors along the Trent were originally given to the family by the Crown for strategic reasons. It was almost certainly strategic reasons that William 1st took these Trent manors held by the Earl Alfgar into his own hands, adding them to those held by Edward the Confessor. 

In 1086 Aston on Trent was a Berwick of the Royal manor of Weston, formerly held by Earl Alfgar. The Earl’s estate was assessed to the gold at 10 carucates and 2½ bovates, a bovate being the eighth part of a carucate, and a carucate being the land which could be tilled by eight oxen in a normal farming year, usually reckoned to be 120 acres. At the conquest the 1066 the manor was reckoned to have enough land to support a many ploughs as the gold assessment indicated. As the gold assessment was fossilized, dating from the late 10th or early 11th century there can have been little or no colonization for several generations.

By 1086, the picture had changed. There were three ploughs in demesne, on the lands retained by the Crown for its own use, and a further 12 ploughs shared by 24 villeins or peasant farmers, and six borders or small peasant farmers. These villains must have had substantial farms of three or four bovates each, very large by the standard of the day. There were also four Censaril, tenants, who paid money rents totalling 16s. Money rents in 1086 indicated a high degree of personal freedom. The Censaril were probably equivalent to the free men recorded by Domesday in other counties. They were rare in the extreme in Derbyshire. These few tenants were probably active colonists on a fairly big scale. There were two churches and a priest, a mill rendering 19s 4d yearly, a fishery and ferry rendering 13s 4d yearly. 51 acres of meadow and pasture one league in length by three furlongs in breadth. In 1066, the whole lot was worth £8 yearly and doubled to £16 in 1086.

It is clear that this entry for Weston manor covers land and other hereditaments in the hands of the king, his peasant farmers and his tenants as formerly held by Earl Alfgar throughout the settlement of Weston, Aston, Shardlow and Wilne. From architectural traces in the present churches of Weston and Aston, it is obvious that they are the two Domesday churches of the royal manor. The ferry is known to have been at Wilne later in the middle ages, and it is extremely unlikely that its site has been changed. Landing stages, rights of access and roads, one established, are not easily moved. It had probably linked Wilne with Earl Alfgar’s estate across the river at Castle Donington for many years before it was recorded in 1086. The fishery obviously ran the length of the river, and the meadow and pastures were far too expensive to have been confined to the settlement at Weston. 

Domesday shows three other estates in the area. One in the Kings hands inherited from an unknown source consisted of two thirds of two carucates in Weston and four bovates in Smalley and Kidsley. This was not valued. It is likely that for administrative purposes it was managed with the main royal manor, and silently included in its value. There was a small estate at Aston on Trent and Shardlow, berewicks of outlying farms of the manor, held off the King by Octabrand. It had probably long been a separate though dependent estate for it was assessed in the gold at six and half bovates. Colonization was very much in hand, because although the Domesday value was only 5s, Octabrand had one plough in demesne, and his four villains and two borders shared another between them. 

The rich meadows and pastures of the little settlement had obviously been reserved for the Crown because Octabrand’s estate had only four acres of meadow and no pasture. The third estate was a manor held by Henry Ferrers, the Kings close friend. Before the conquest, Octabrand had held it assessed at one carucate in the gold, together with five acres of meadow. At the conquest, it was worth 6s, but in 1086, its value had increased to 8s. It was apparently in Ferrers own hands, but possibly Octabrand managed it for him. It has been suggested that the lost manor of Nero or marsh lay in the Weston on Trent / Aston on Trent area. This had been a tiny manor assessed at four bovates in the gold, with enough land for four oxen at the Conquest when Levenot held it. In 1086 it was waste and in the hands of one of the Kings thane. Its site has never been located. 

In 1086 therefore Aston on Trent lay in at least two manors, one belonged to the king and the other to Henry Ferrers, and a sub-manor held from the king by Octabrand. Octabrands hall and the farmsteads of the peasants and possibly one or more of the censarii formed a single nucleated settlement. Their arable lands must have lain intermingled in the great village fields, and the meadow of the two manors and sub-manor was probably intermingled. The pasture was reserved for the crown. The meadow and pasture were even then much more valuable than the arable. 

The land in Aston on Trent held by Ferrers and Octabrand cannot have been vastly inferior to the lands of the crown scattered through Weston, Aston on Trent and Shardlow yet the value of Ferrers one carucate and 55 acres of meadow was 8s, the value of Octabrands two carucates and four acres of meadow 5s and the value of the crowns 15 ploughs, 51 acres of meadow and great stretch of pasture £13.19.4d after providing a priest and two churches. Even if it seems likely, Octabrands land in 1086 was very newly colonized and still requiring much work to bring it into full production the value of the arable carucate was very much less than that of the meadow and pasture. These figures make it plain that the doubling in value of the manor of Weston between 1066 and 1086 was not simply due to the extensive colonization of arable land. Meadows and pasture were either being increased or more intensively developed.