The medieval survivor in a modern business park
Exiting the M5 at junction 9, on your way to explore the medieval town of Tewkesbury, you will find yourself driving through a suburban landscape of business parks and light industry. You might hurry past, eager to visit the famous abbey, but hidden amongst the offices and warehouses on this low-lying part of the Severn vale are fragments of Tewkesbury’s medieval past, and one such site was investigated by our field team at Cowfield Farm.
Cowfield was an 18th-century brick farmhouse, but it was surrounded by an earlier moat, and redevelopment plans following a fire in 2004 gave us the opportunity to delve into its forgotten past.
The farm’s origins lie in the 12th/13th centuries when the original farmhouse was built within a rectangular enclosure. Although no building survived, enough rubbish was found in the enclosure ditch to suggest the location of a farmhouse. To the south was a sheepcote: a long, narrow building for housing sheep, but documentary research carried out as part of the project suggests the main role of the farm was as a specialist cattle establishment known as a vaccary.
The earliest documentary reference to Cowfield dates to 1535 when it was part of a freehold estate belonging to Tewkesbury Abbey, and it is possible that this relationship existed from the farm’s inception and that it was built for the abbey, so they could earn payment in kind and cash from their tenants. Vaccaries typically encompassed meadows, drier pasture, hayfields, and the home farm which would have included the farmhouse, a cowshed, and other buildings. During this period, cattle were primarily for dairying, but older animals and bullocks from Cowfield would have been driven to Tewkesbury to provide meat for the urban population and the abbey monks.
The original farmhouse was demolished and a new one was built with stone foundations and surrounded by a substantial rectangular moat, 65m by 35–55m across. Little of the new farmhouse survived, but a large corner stone suggests it was a quality house and the typical plan of this period was a rectangular building divided by a central passage, with service rooms to one side and a hall and sleeping chamber to the other. North of the moat, a large aisled building built over the original farmhouse was probably a cowshed and may have included rooms for dairying, and this too would have been a quality build, the overall farm being grand enough to reflect the status of the estate owners: the monks at Tewkesbury Abbey.
The tenant farmers had employed labourers to clean the moat out on occasion, and whilst this made good sense in terms of maintenance, it means we have lost evidence to date the moat’s earliest origins. Remarkably though, a wooden bridge across the moat partially survived and was dated by dendrochronology to the mid 15th century, although the moat and new farmhouse could be earlier.
That the farm tenants were successful is suggested not only by the quality of their house, but also by some of the finds: a ceramic dripping tray was used for roasting meat, emulating elite dining habits, whilst a pilgrim badge depicting the archangel Michael defeating the Devil in the form of a dragon, speaks of a long spiritual journey, possibly to Mont St Michel in France.
The Cowfield farmers were the middling rung of peasant society, legally free and holding land as tenants of Tewkesbury Abbey. A copper-alloy book fitting was probably lost when one of the monks took stock of the farm, and one can only imagine his reluctant journey back to the abbey as he prepared to confess his loss!
Further insight into the lives of these long-forgotten Gloucestershire farmers comes from an unusual pottery vessel which may have been used to serve hearty, easy to eat food, such as soup to a new mother – a reminder that this was a family farm, occupied for generations, and whose inhabitants would have included parents, two or three children and any surviving grandparents, as well as labourers and servants, the latter perhaps the children of poor families employed on a bed and board basis as an early form of poor relief.
Further insight into daily life here is provided by documentary sources which suggest that medieval cattle farming was gendered, with men having responsibility for draught oxen and women looking after cows and calves. Oxen, particularly valuable animals, may have been kept within the moated area overnight – nitrogen-loving plants growing near the moat suggest the presence of livestock.
However, although moats provided security in an age before regular police forces, they also presented a range of visual statements, readily understood by a population who were mostly illiterate but could ‘read’ the material culture and constructed landscape around them with ready fluency. Present around the grandest castles, moats were copied further down the social scale, aggrandising the houses of the lesser gentry and wealthier peasants as status symbols.
Some moat symbology is less obvious to modern minds, a reminder of the ‘otherness’ of this historical period. Moats restrict outsiders’ access to people living within the platform, and the extent to which visitors would have been allowed to cross the bridge or then to progress further and enter the house, within which were rooms with greater or lesser degrees of privacy, would have been a readily understood acknowledgement of their status.
Moats also provided physical and metaphorical barriers around female residents, an important consideration in a society where inheritance was patrilineal and so female fidelity had to be protected and seen to be protected, and so here we have the lady of the house protected by a virtuous belt of water, whilst women and girls from labouring families worked the ruder agricultural landscape beyond.
Later developments saw the medieval house and barn demolished before the brick farmhouse was constructed in the mid 18th century. This new house stood until the fire in 2004 brought an end to nearly nine centuries of farm life on this part of the Severn vale.
A full report on the site is available on our Reports Online page.
Senior Publications Officer
The project was funded by Robert Hitchins Ltd.