The Conquest

In the middle of the 11th century, King Edward the Confessor lived a life of piety and spurned the Saxon warlike ways.  He preferred the culture of Normandy and so the Normans became very influential in the English court. William, a Norman, believed that Edward had appointed him his successor but in 1066 when Edward died, the Saxons attempted to retake control and appointed Harold their king.  William found no shortage of French barons willing to help him contest the throne by force. Everyone knows what happened next!

When William's army marched on London it is widely reported that he laid many lands waste and subsequently gave possession of lands and positions to his followers.  However, there is no evidence for this locally.   


William wanted to know the taxable value of his newly-conquered land and in 1086 ordered the Doomsday survey.  At the time Mere was a royal hunting estate so did not pay taxes to the King. For this reason it was not included in the survey although the two small estates outside the royal estate (Zeals parish and three small holdings in Mere) were included. The recorded lands in Mere were held by Godric the huntsmen (whose duties would likely have been in the Forest of Selwood), Ulvric and Ulnod. These names indicate that the land remained in the hands of the Saxons. 

At the beginning of the medieval period the community was large enough to support its own church. The foundation Charter for the cathedral of Old Sarum of 1091 listed the properties of the newly-formed diocese including 'half of the church of Mere' (the other half being held by the King).

The implication of this is that the parish must have been reasonably substantial but not large.

In 1243 Richard, Earl of Cornwall ( the younger brother of Henry III), was granted the Manor of Mere and in 1253 the King gave him permission to build a castle on the summit of what is now called Castle Hill. 

The castle was built in anticipation of the troubled period that pitted the barons against the king.  A castle would require a large support system - food, fuel, horses, tradesmen, etc.  Mere probably grew to be a good-sized village to support, and profit from, the castle. But the town street plan did not develop around the castle as happened in Devizes. So we can be fairly certain that Mere was already developed at the time of the building of the castle. 

It is from this period that Mere began to take on the aspects of a small town. There were two corn mills and a fulling mill by the early 14th century, which would indicate that woollen cloth production had started by the late 13th century. The Earl of Cornwall used the manor as a stud farm for his war horses and also created a deer-hunting park. This would have created a number of royal servants and retainers alongside the farmers, labourers and the increasing number of manufacturers and tradesmen. The downside was that no activities were allowed in the hunting park that might disrupt the deer or hinder the hunting.  So, for instance, farming would not be allowed.

But where farming was allowed we know that oxen, cattle, sheep, pigs and fowl were kept, wheat and oats were grown and cheese and butter were made.

By 1398 the castle began to fall into disrepair and stone from its walls was used in several Mere houses of this period. The Grange is the only surviving building thought to date from this period. By 1660 when John Aubrey the historian visited Mere there was nothing of the castle to be seen.

By 1408 Henry, the Prince of Wales, held Mere and he was granted a Wednesday market and two annual fairs; one in May and another in August. The May fair and the market survived into the 18th century. 

Much fine building was done during the late 14th. and early 15th. centuries. The Parish Church was enlarged with chantries either side of the chancel, a house provided for the three Chantry priests (The Chantry built 1424).  The new Woodlands Manor (c.1370-80) which had a chapel on the upper floor, a vicarage (now The Old Rectory), and a deanery in Castle Street (now demolished) all built at this time.

The Grange in Water Street is probably a 15th century building and was the residence of the bailiff of the Duchy of Cornwall. 


Mere shows all the signs of a typical medieval communal village:

  • developed meadowland
  • common fields
  • extensive common pasture
  • a nucleated village
  • strong overlord

In medieval times most villages grew higgledy-piggledy from a collection of farmsteads.  But the major villages in the royal and abbey lands seem to have been planned.  Mere is a nucleated village and shows signs of planning - there is a main east-west road with parallel back roads.  The houses fronting the main road sit on plots which are a uniform width and run the full length between the main road and the back roads.

Outside the village we see scattered farms which grew into the small hamlets which surround Mere.  The holdings recorded in Doomsday grew to form the estates and manors of Zeals and Woodlands.

The overall picture not of prosperity.   Harvest failures were not uncommon; on average every seven or so years.  It is quite possible that the population level of the peasantry was, like that of wild birds today, determined by the severity and frequency of these regular failures.  In this respect things did not begin to improve until the opening up of the transport system and the ability to move food between regions.

But trade did not bring just food and goods  ......

Rising (and falling) Population

The growth and decline of population.  

Image: D Stokes (based on Domesday data and John Hatcher, Plague, Population and the English Economy, London 1977)

The Black Death spread from the East to Sicily, then up through Italy and across the continent to reach England 1348.  By the time it petered out in September 1350, approximately one third of the nation had died of plague.  

We have no records of these years or statistics for mortality in our area.  Mere may have been badly affected since it was often visited by travellers on the Salisbury to Wincanton road.

There were land shortages in the early 14th C but after the Black Death there was suddenly more land than people to farm it and many holdings became vacant thus strengthened the hand of the peasants.  In 1378 the 'Confederation of serfs' was formed, which preceded the large insurrection of 1381.


The Administrative System

During Medieval times, Mere continued to be owned and managed by the Duchy. Peasants paid various taxes to their lord, the Duchy, together with a tenth of their produce.  Peasants were also required to work typically 2 days a week on their lord's lands.

At the beginning of this period old Salisbury (Sarum) existed as a heavily defended hilltop settlement topped by a Norman castle; by the end of the period it has been rebuilt as a walled town adjacent to the new Salisbury cathedral down in the Avon valley. The importance of intermediate towns such as Wilton and Shaftesbury continued throughout the whole period.

In the nearly thousand years from Saxon times until the dissolution of the monasteries, the subsistence of daily life remained almost unchanged for peasants. Yet during medieval times there were important structural changes. The building of the castle transformed Mere from just a small agricultural village to a small town. The biggest change experienced by the peasantry was probably the decay of the feudal system.  Slavery (serfdom) was eliminated; many peasants became leaseholders and payment of rent replaced the need for compulsory work on the Duchy lands.  As the powers of one lord waned, that of another sort of lord took its place - a church was built and a vicar appointed.


1. Historical Atlas of Britain, Falkus and Gillingham. p167