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Thu 29 Oct 2020
Burton Constable's Lost Village
Philippa Wood // Curator
Curator Philippa Wood explores the secrets of the village lost in the landscape at Burton Constable - and how it came to be abandoned.

Burton Constable's beauiful Capability Brown parkland hides many secrets; perhaps the most startling of all is the entire village lost beneath its surface.

It is estimated that there are c.3000 lost villages scattered across England, mostly deserted between 1350 and 1700 through plague, enclosure of the land for parkland or agriculture or, in later periods, due to large-scale migration into urban areas as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. One of the best known lost villages is that of Wharram Percy near Malton, which was studied extensively over the span of 40 years by  archaeologists, historians and even botanists after being singled out by Maurice Beresford, one of England's key scholars on the subject.

In East Riding alone it's thought that there are around 120 Deserted Medieval Villages (DMVs). Of these 16 were lost before 1334, 32 before 1450 and 37 lost c.1450-1550. While it's uncertain precisely how and why Burton Constable was lost, studying the site through archaeological and historical research can give us some understanding of what the site was like, and why it went into a decline.

How Burton Constable Came to Be

A great deal about Burton Constable's history can be glimpsed simply in the names it has held. Burton is an Anglian name meaning a fortified settlement, a reference to the 11th Century Pele Tower that makes up the oldest part of the historic hall. In the Domesday Book of 1086 it was renamed Santriburtone, before changing once again to Erneburgh Burton when the tenant Erneburga married Ulbert, Constable for Count of Aumale. Their son was named Robert Constable I. with the names being joined to form the modern form of Burton Constable in the mid 13th century.

While isolated but defensible pele towers are fairly common further north in the Scottish borders, those further south tend to have had something there to defend. In this case, that something was a small village made up of small houses built of mud and wood (which, anyone who has ever read the tale of the three little pigs will know, requires quite some defending from big bad wolves).

The precise layout of this village is uncertain, and is likely to have fluctuated a great deal over time - the benefit of houses made from raw natural materials is that they do lend themselves to reactive shifts in purpose and design! It is likely that the administrative centre of the village was to the south of the site, nearest the hall, and that the houses would have been set out along long trackways.

While the Domesday Book of 1086 only records 1 household here, comprised of men-at-arms and therefore presumably relating to the Constables themselves, we do know that those recording the information in that book had rather varying attitudes when it came to recording the peasants who lived on these large estates - and occasionally didn't feel they were worth mentioning at all. As the Book also records 5 carucates of land here (a unit relating largely to how many teams of oxen would be required to plough it, and equating to c. 600 acres), it could be expected to have supported around 40 families.

An Earthworks Survey of Burton Constable's DMV


.. and How it Came to Not Be

Until 1336, Burton Constable seems to have lived a fairly prosperous existence. The population was stable, remaining at around 40 families, and the mill that was situated on site to grind the grain from the farm appears to have been kept busy. The landscape around Burton Constable is still deeply grooved with the ridge and furrow markings from the strip farming form of agriculture that formed the basis of almost all land management at the time, with each tenant taking responsible for a long strip of land and paying their rent with the produce.

However, from 1336 the village went into something of a decline. The village mill’s value halved, and parcels of land fell in value from 9s to 5s; at the same time, the total rents rose from £22 8s 10d to £26 13s 4d. Clearly the estate was feeling the pressure, something that would doubtless have been passed down to the cottagers and villeins who worked and lived on the land.

The increased difficulties experienced would have meant the village was in a weakened state even before the outbreak of the Plague (or Black Death) in 1348. This vicious illness saw Burton Constable's population fall steeply, making it a shadow of whaat it had once been.

Although we can't be 100% certain, it seems likely that the low population and unprofitability of the land would have made relocation of the tenants and enclosure of the village site for grazing or gardens a tempting prospect for the Constable family. In the late 15th and 16th centuries, the Constable's embarked on a grand scheme to extend the Hall to reflect their increased wealth and status, and the medieval village vanished.

The Medieval Village Today
Today, only ghostly footprints remain on the landscape of this deserted village. While the Burton Constable Foundation does hope to be able to carry out further work geophysical surveys in the future with the help of local groups such as Easrt Riding Archaeology Society, for the moment the historic village still guards its secrets well beneath Capability Brown's landscaped parkland.
1940s Aerial Photograph of Burton Constable