TIMES REMEMBERED Danes
The Danes left us little in Hertfordshire by way of historical monuments but in place names they are remembered in such as Danesbury, Danes End, Daneswick and Danicorum (Dacorum as it is known today).
In AD 896 King Alfred the Great routed the Danes in Hertfordshire but the struggle between the Danish and English kings continued for the next hundred years until Cnut (Canute) became the sole occupant of the throne. Of a strong disposition, he proved to be a wise ruler who sent all his followers, apart from his bodyguard, back to Denmark and ruled as an English king. Under his rule and that of his successors the inhabitants of Pirton might well have imagined that they would settle down to a long period of peaceful existence again. No chance! Duke William of Normandy had other ideas and in 1066 he set about putting them into practice.
Following the defeat of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, William did not risk attacking the heavily defended city of London but made his way round it, laying waste to the countryside. Hertfordshire was devastated. Towns were burned to ashes and people slaughtered. This was the way that recalcitrant populations were brought to heel in those days and anyway, if you were a knight you enjoyed killing people. The main resistance came from the Saxon nobility. Although some continued to oppose William long after the Norman invasion, most, after being deprived of their lands and titles, fell into line.
The Manor of Pirton was granted by William to one of his supporters named Sir Ralph de Limesy. He was Flemish rather than Norman and in addition to Pirton he was granted lands in Warwickshire, Somerset, Devon and Northamptonshire. It was part of King William’s strategy to prevent rebellion that he rewarded his supporters with small pieces of land in different parts of the country. By this means he prevented discontented nobles from quickly gathering their fighting men together in order to oppose him. Of all the farmland in England he gave half to the Norman nobles, a quarter to the Church and kept a fifth for himself. As a result England was different from the rest of Europe because it had one powerful family instead of a large number of powerful nobles. In France the king was less powerful than many of the great nobles, of which William was one. He and the kings of England that succeeded him thought of England as their personal property.
In order to ensure the quiescence of the Saxon population the Conqueror encouraged his Norman supporters to build castles on the lands that he had granted them and castles sprang up throughout the country. Masonry did not appear until about 1150 and these were wooden castles, rather like a tall shoebox standing on end. Such motte and bailey castles were generally built in strategic positions, dominating their immediate locality and therefore it is not surprising to find one in Pirton adjacent to the Icknield Way. They acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences. Sir Ralph’s main estate was in Solihull so that it is unlikely that he ever lived here. Further information about Pirton’s motte and bailey can be found at the end of this volume.
It was the habit of Norman Conquest men to build a religious house near their castle and the building of our present church was commenced by Sir Ralph, probably about 1086 and completed by his sons and grandsons. It was built inside the castle enclosure and moat. Most motte and bailey castles did not last beyond the twelfth century because King Henry 11 regarded them as a threat and had them pulled down.
Although the Normans were responsible for a lot of destruction they also created some lasting monuments. The Saxon abbey of St. Albans built by King Offa was obliterated by the Norman abbot, Paul de Caen, but he created most of the edifice we know today between 1077 and 1088. Other parts were added between 12th and 15th centuries and until 1396 it was the premier abbey of England. Incidentally, one of King William’s first acts on assuming the English throne was to replace with a Norman the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, who held the manor of Pirton and had a large house at Burge End.
Naturally King William wanted to know exactly what he had gained by force of arms and to what extent it would benefit him. Thus the Domesday Survey was born and in the next article we shall see how Pirton was assessed.