We see society as a grouping that holds individuals together and cements relationships between them. In England and the Anglicised areas of eastern and south Wales, the basic unit of society was the lordship and the manor. The manor, comprised 'demesne' lands, 'anciently and time out of mind' reserved to the lord's use, freehold ten­ancies and 'customary' land. Freeholders enjoyed a secure title, the rights to sell, lease and bequeath their land, and the protection of the common law. They held around a fifth of the land in many areas, and still more in some. The lord's demesne had formerly been cultivated by serf labour. By 1500, it was usually leased out to tenants for periods of years or ‘lives’ in return for an initial 'entry fine' and an annual rent negotiated at the time of the granting of tenancy. Customary lands, in contrast, passed by 'admission' and 'surrender' in the manor court, on terms, which were subject to the 'custom of the manor'. In the central Middle Ages, such land had been held by unfree serfs or 'villeins' - 'at the will of the lord and according to the customs of the manor' — in return for the perfor­mance of labour services on the demesne and the payment of various customary dues. By 1500 serfdom was largely, though not entirely, extinct as a legal status. Some customary tenants remained tenants at will, holding property from year to year, with no legal rights beyond that of harvesting a growing crop if required to relinquish their tenancy. Most, however, were 'copyholders', holding land by virtue of a copy of the entry on the manor court roll recording their admission to the tenancy. Their common designation covered a bewildering profusion of actual terms and condi­tions, which varied according to the customs of individual manors. All copyholders paid an entry fine and an annual rent. But some manors accorded rights of inheritance, while others granted land only for years or lives. On some, entry fines or rents had become fixed. On others they remained 'arbitrary' and renegotiable when the present tenancy expired. The extent of the proprietary rights enjoyed by such tenants thus differed greatly. A copyholder of inheritance, with a fixed fine and rent, was vir­tually as secure as a freeholder. Others might be much more exposed to the estate-management policies of their landlords — though rarely to the extent that was prevalent in Scotland. The rents and obligations owed by tenants were as variegated as their forms of tenure. For freeholders they were negligible, involving only a small payment in 'recognition' of a lord's jurisdiction and the obligation of 'suit' at his court. English leaseholders paid money rents based on an assessment of the current value of the land. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries leases were generally long and their terms were gen­erous.

By the late Middle Ages, Halesworth’s manorial structure was evident in three manors, Halesworth Manor itself, which comprised a large proportion of the urbanised centre, Dame Margery’s Manor, which consisted of only a few tens of acres and was probably taken out of Halesworth Manor and subsequently merged back into it, and Rectory Manor. The latter comprised most of the urbanised land to the north of the river. Its lord was the Rector of Halesworth and its revenues went to the Church. This may have originated in the 40 acres of land held by Ulf the priest at Domesday. It appears that most of the parish was, from early times, freehold land.

The manorial system of urban Halesworth survived into the 20th century. The records of the transactions of the court of Rectory Manor from the 18th and 19th centuries have survived, from which it can be seen that its system of fines and admissions was a financial and administrative burden to the tradesmen of Halesworth north of the Thoroughfare. An example of what they had to contend with may be seen in the following extract of the minutes of the manorial court held in 1734. It records the transfer of a tenancy from John Hawks to Thomas Brown for which the latter had to pay a fee to the Lord of the Rectory Manor, even though the Manor did not own the property. It also records that this particular manorial tenancy had been transferred to John Hawks from Nathaniel Short. The actual passage of the tenancy to Thomas Brown involved Edmund Brown, a tailor, who was granted the legal right to transfer the premises to Thomas Brown.

A general Court Baron there hold for the said Manor the thirteenth day of June in the year of our lord one thousand seven hundred and thirty-four before Thomas Betts Esq. Steward there.

  • Homage; John Schimming and James Woolnough sworn.
  • At this Court comes here into court John Hawks in his proper person, and doth surrender into the hands of the Lord of the said Manor, by the said steward, by Thomas Rodd, all that copyhold messuage or tenement situate and lying and being in Halesworth late in the tenure and occupation of Nathaniel Short, together with a curtilage to the same- belonging to which premises the said John Hawks was admitted tenant to him and his heirs at a Court here held for the said Manor the nineteenth day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and twenty-four upon the surrender of Robert Bartrup- to the use of Edmund Brown of Halesworth in the County of Suffolk, Taylor- and of his heirs and assigns for ever, who being present here in court in his proper person- puts himself in Favour with the Lord and prays to be admitted Tenant to the premises so surrendered as aforesaid. To which said Edmund Brown the Lord of this Manor by his said steward- doth grant and therof deliver seizin by Thomas Rodd to hold those premises with the appurtenances unto the said Thomas Brown, his heirs and assigns of the Lord at the will of the Lord- according to the custom of the said Manor by the rents and customs and services thereoftofore due and of right accustomed, and he pays to the Lord his fine and is admitted Tenant.

The manorial system of Halesworth lasted well into the 20th century where it was part of the financial burden of the town’s businesses and a measure of the continued obsession with land, which fostered the careers of several of the town’s attorneys. As late as 1939, Kelly’s Suffolk Directory states that “William Ram Esq. is lord of the manors of Halesworth and Dame Margery’s (about 250 acres) and the Rector is lord of the Rectory manor (about 40 acres). The land is held by a number of owners”

'Neighbourliness' was another keyword of sixteenth-century social relations, expressing a critically important social ideal. The relation­ship which it defined was based upon residential proximity, interaction of a regular kind, and a degree of consensus regarding proper conduct among neighbours within local communities. Communities were, as one contemporary put it, 'the first societies after propagation of families wherein people are united ... in ... the mutual comforts of neigh­bourhood and intercourse one with another'. Such focused interaction and consensus were created partly by institutions, not least, as we have seen above, those of lordship. The sense of collective identity of rural communities was derived in part from the inhabitants' common relationship to a lord, and it was further elaborated in the formulation of local custom. Custom, it has been said, 'presupposes a group or community within which it is practised'. Moreover, it helped to constitute such groups, expressing a ‘community of interest’ among neighbours, defining their relationships not only to the lord but also to one another, and con­tributing to the formulation of a sense of place and of an individual’s identity within that place.

All this was evident in the ways in which the institutions of lordship and tenancy were also institutions of self-regulation within the tenurial communities to which most people still belonged. It was perhaps most visible nationally in the organisation of common-field agriculture. In this system each tenant held parcels of land scattered in strips across great open fields, while further enjoying access to certain collective 'use rights' - to common pasture on the fields after harvest and on areas of permanent common grazing land, or to the resources of food, fuel and materials provided by the woods, common and 'waste'. The system had many variants within the common need for the cooperative organisation of husbandry. From the time of the first records of land use, the open-field system was not dominant in Suffolk. Some authorities believe this implies very early enclosure. Others take its absence as evidence of continuity from the Saxon settlement; in other words open field agriculture was never fully adopted.

Lordship and neighbourhood were also of relevance to town society. Lesser towns were often 'seigneurial boroughs' governed by seigneurial courts and owing their fee farm to their lord. Neighbourhood was as characteristic of urban streets and parishes as of rural communities. Towns, however, were also distinguished by their relative independence and distinctive institutions. Urban autonomy had developed from the basic right to hold markets and to possess institutions of self-government by a process of slow accretion. Inevitably, it varied in its extent. But it could produce a strong sense of civic independence, especially if a town had achieved the accolade of incorporation, which conferred legal iden­tity as a corporate body.

Within that collective identity, the urban community was comprised of a variety of component groups. Its core members were the citizens or burgesses who possessed the ‘freedom’ of the place, and the members of the craft fellowships. The latter were companies or guilds, which had evolved from loose associations of men with a common occu­pation into 'organised communities with exclusive rights', controlling the affairs of particular trades. These two categories overlapped. Citizenship was the prerequisite for full participation in the economic and political life of the town. It could be acquired by various means — including pat­rimony, marriage, purchase or 'redemption' and apprenticeship. ‘Citizenship’, however, was usually contingent upon membership of a guild. Variations in the size of citizen bodies tended to depend upon whether the franchise was available only to independent masters, or was extended also to journeymen who had completed their apprenticeship. All in all, the guilds promoted a powerful spirit of fraternity and mutual responsibility, which reflected medieval ideals of association. Such values were shared by the rulers of the towns, whose exercise of authority was informed by notions of stewardship and obligation to the wider community, and who sought to harmonise the economic interests of potentially hostile groups in the general interests of 'amity, love and quietness'. Nor were they alien to the poor. Late-medieval urban society, it has been said: ‘while undoubtedly stratified, resembled a trifle rather than a cake: its layers were blurred and the sherry of accepted values soaked through them'.

Throughout discussion of local economic institutions and relation­ships a particular idiom recurs in the terminology of the records: one of 'kindness', 'friendship' and 'fraternity'. Neighbours were enjoined to live in 'kindly intercourse' and 'friendly unity', guild members to be 'brothers', 'sisters' and 'friends'. This was in fact an idiom of kinship, invoking the affective bonds of family relationships. Forms of economic association thus overlapped conceptually with those of kinship, and this fact inevitably raises the question of the significance of kinship in the economic relations of the time. In one respect, kinship was of fundamental significance in transmitting property between the generations, and facilitating the entry of the young into independent adulthood. But what of the broader roles of kinship, and in particular those of the net­works of kinfolk, which extended beyond the nuclear family household?
Throughout Britain, bonds of kinship also had a significant role in the 'social uplands' of the aristocracy and gentry. In provincial society, both intermarriage among the landed families of a county or region, and the establishment of cadet branches, created series of overlapping networks of connection, which were bound together not only by neighbourhood, but also by blood. Such net­works could involve extensive mutual co-operation. This can be seen in the acquisition, management and defence of property, where a trusted core of 'friends' within the gentry community acted as patrons, go-betweens, executors, arbitrators, witnesses, trustees and, if necessary, armed supporters.

Urban kinship could provide a bond of solidarity in both political and economic affairs. Leading citizens were frequently closely interlinked by blood and marriage. In trade, relatives provided an 'operational extended family' of trusted individuals with shared commercial interests, who provided credit, advice, support and contacts. Much the same could be said of the leading members of the church, and professions such as the law. Thus to get on in Halesworth, membership of one ‘party’ or another was a great advantage.

Economic networks
The particularity of happenings in Halesworth derived in part from the distinctiveness of its customs, institutions, expectations and patterns of relationships. But it was also shaped by the manner in which they were linked into larger worlds.

For analytical purposes, four overlapping spheres of commercial activity may be distinguished. The most basic of these involved the intensive small-scale dealing, which took place among the inhabitants of an immediate locality. In rural society this commonly involved a kind of quasi-commercial extension of neighbourliness, well documented in those numerous minor transactions - often involving credit - which are recorded in wills and inventories. In the towns too, a good deal of the busi­ness of small tradesmen was conducted with fellow townspeople within what remained highly localised markets. And, as in the countryside, Halesworth’s urban inventories and court records indicate that many of these trans­actions were conducted on credit or 'trust', in a manner that created a complex web of economic interdependence among known individuals extending up, down and across local societies, which were more diverse but no less intimate than their rural counterparts.

In all likelihood most small husbandmen and tradesmen conducted the greater part of their commercial dealings within such contexts. A second sphere of activity, however, was that comprising rural/urban and inter-urban trade at the level of the district, 'country' or sub-region. Despite their elements of autonomy, rural and urban economies were in no sense separate spheres. It is helpful to think not of town and country, but rather of interconnected socio-economic areas that were centred on a town. All towns depended on the countryside for supplies of food and raw materials and for much of their custom. Country-dwellers needed the towns as trading forums for their produce and as suppliers of specialist manufactures and services. More­over, similar reciprocities existed between urban economies, or rather between those town-centred socio-economic areas. In both instances, the vital unit of analysis is that of the country town and its hinterland, or 'market area'.

All market towns were essentially part of the countryside, which they served and from which they gained most of their living. They varied nonetheless in both their size and their significance in the structuring of commercial activity within their 'countries'. The smallest have been aptly described as 'market villages' i.e. villages with an overlay of urban activities, and as 'foci in time', briefly galvanised into activity on their market days. Nevertheless, they performed a vital role in binding the settlements around them into larger economic units. Regular use of those markets for the exchange of small surpluses provided them with several points of entry into the larger economy of the district. Moreover, such periodic influx from surrounding villages meant that even small towns were able to sustain a range of specialist activities somewhat greater than that represented in the average rural settlement. In a survey of occupa­tions in the Babergh Hundred of Suffolk in 1522, for example, the twenty-seven villages had between two and fourteen male occupations each. The small towns of Boxford, Nayland, Lavenham and Long Melford, however, had between eighteen and twenty-seven. Sudbury, the most significant market town of the district, had forty-nine. Sudbury provides an example of what have been termed 'district market towns': places with a more extensive role in articulating the pat­terns of exchange of an area. Some simply provided more services than any rival. Some had developed a degree of specialisation in addition to their general trading functions. This is the pattern that singled out Halesworth from this time.

Land ownership
The tithe system from time im­memorial had caused much friction between church and congregation. The harvest song—

  • ' We've cheated the parson, we'll cheat him again, For why should the Vicar have one in ten?'

expressed a sentiment as old as Anglo-Saxon England.

The tithe was levied from the tenant farmer, very often in kind: the tenth sucking pig went to the parson's table; the tenth sheaf was carried off to his tithe barn. Long before the Reformation it had been a cause of friction and bitterness, Chaucer had praised the good parson who did not 'cursen for his tithes,' that is, excommunicate the recalcitrant tithe-payer. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 laid this ancient grievance between the rural laity and their priests to rest. It stopped payment in kind. Tithes were commuted for a rent-charge on land. In 1891 it was made payable by the landowner, no longer by the tenant farmer except perhaps indirectly through his rent. The squires, who were socially and politically allied to the parsons, did not object to paying tithe as strongly as their tenants. The Commutation Acts gave temporary peace to the country­side. It was only later, when after 1918 so many cultivating farmers bought their own land and having become landowners found themselves directly chargeable with tithe, that a fresh agitation arose leading to fresh concessions at the expense of the Church.

At the time of the legal process of Tithe Apportionment in Halesworth, nine people owned most of Halesworth’s agricultural land (Table 1). George Parkyns of Chediston Hall was one of the town's greatest landowners. He was also by far the greatest landowner in Chediston, where he exercised his role as lord of the manor from the imposing residence of Chediston Hall.

Table 1 Halesworth land holdings in Tithe Apportionment: 1842

Size (a.r.p.)
Size (a.r.p)
Charles Woolby

Charlotte Hart
John Crabtree


William Woodyard
James Johnson

George Parkyns
Chediston Hall
Various occupiers



Jacob Pattison

Stephen Newson
George Suggate

Rev. Blois Samuel Turner
Harley Archer

James Crickmer
Anne Cole

William George

James Punchard
Rev. Jeremy Day
Day's Farm
Martin George
Other land owned




Isaac Butcher

Such was the hold that the territory of Blything had on its people through the socializing of its primary production and route ways that had been carved out of a primeval ecology of wet valleys and upland forest. This provided a rich heritage of natural resources that Halesworth gathered from its rural neighbours.