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Medieval Village

What's in a name? Did you know that Burton Constable literally means 'Fortified Settlement [of the] Constable"? The word Burton is of Anglian origins, meaning that it was brought in by the Germanic tribe called the Angles in the 5th Century, who founded the ancient kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, giving their name to England and the English.

Originally just called Burtone, when William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book following his victory in 1066, the site housed a small village with cob built houses made of mud, wood and straw, interspersed with dirt tracks. This tiny settlement in the middle of the East Yorkshire was fortified by the presence of a nearby stone tower to defend against marauders amid troubled times. Over the years this tower became part of the structure of the grand Tudor manor house as the hall expanded, where it still forms a part of the structure today. Following several name changes according to the whim of it's inhabitants (to Santriburtone in 1086 and Erneburgh Burton in 1190), the Hall eventually became known as Burton Constable in the mid-13th Century following the marriage of Erneburga to Ulbert, Constable for Count of Aumale in 1190.

How Many People Lived Here?

The Domesday Book records c. 40 families living here. In 1293 the village was home to 15 cottagers (vassals to their liege lord but with a certain degree of independence) and 21 villeins (who had very few rights of their own). This number appears to have remained stable for some years.

Why was Burton abandoned?

Determining the exact cause for a village's loss is often difficult - vast numbers of these Deserted Medieval Villages lie hidden beneath the turf of England; nearby Wharram Percy in the Yorkshire Wolds is perhaps the best known instance. Most such sites were abandoned due to the enclosure and the rise of pastoral agriculture, which replaced the traditional method of 'strip farming' where each villager would farm a long narrow piece of land and supply food to the manor, keeping only a little for themselves. Another major influence of course was the Black Death, a devastating plague which came to Burton Constable in 1348.

The Black Death came to Burton at a time when the village was already struggling; the land's value was falling, the village mill's value halved and rents were rising. The two factors combined to see the village's population fall steeply; it seems likely therefore that when the Constable family extended the Hall in the late 1400s they saw it as an opportunity to clear and enclose that land for their leisure gardens, moving the tenants to another estate.

The wood and mud materials used to make thehouses in these small villages would have disintegrated quickly without proper upkeep, vanishing into the landscape. If you stand today and look across North Park you can still see the ghosts of the houses and trackways that once bustled with people and animals, where the air would have rung with hammering and clattering sounds of everyday life. Today, all is silence, birdsong, and the lowing of the sheep or cattle that so frequently displaced these small and fragile settlements

Burton Constable Hall c. 1685

Change, Change and Change Again


The physical landscape we live in forms a vital role in understanding the history it hides. While some are easy to see, like the deep ridges and furrows in the parkland that betray the past existence of strip farming on the site, others have almost vanished to the naked eye.

The parkland around Burton Constable has seen many changes since the Medieval village was deserted, many of which leave some visible trace upon the landscape.

We know that in the 1600s a small moat-like water feature was placed in the parkland where the village once stood; at the same time the Hall’s actual moat was partly filed in (leaving only the modern North Pond to reveal its existence) and a stables was built between the moat and the house. A little later a gatehouse and wall were added to the front of the Hall creating a grand courtyard, with this shown in a painting of the house from c. 1685

The early 18th Century saw further changes still with a fashionable geometric garden put in to the North West of the Hall, sadly lost even before the end of the century as part of William Constable’s ‘vast Improvements’. Capability Brown’s time at the Hall in the later 18th Century saw all formal gardens removed, and saw the landscape broken up with tree clumps (make [them] large and massy, for small clumps are like pimples on the face of the earth”). Brown also advised that more of the medieval moat should be turned into a Ha Ha, allowing unbroken views from the Hall while stopping the livestock wandering from the Park onto the tempting lawns and gardens.

Ongoing Investigation

The site has seen various periods of archaeological investigation over the years, with the creation of detailed topographical drawings and the capture of aerial photographs, as well as the more closely restricted investigations by geophysical survey and (while unavoidable work has been scheduled) excavation of notable features. The Burton Constable Foundation has been engaged in non-disruptive investigation with the East Riding Archaeological Society for several years, with a talk on the site’s history scheduled by the group for 2021.

This historically important landscape is closely controlled, however, and protected from interference. The fact that the land has never been ploughed means that the physical features remain remarkably undamaged, while the fact that no high-value finds are present mean that the site is largely safe from destructive illegal activities such as nighthawking. Today, visitors are welcome to explore the site, and to draw their own conclusions from the hints revealed by this complex and intriguing site – which doubtless still has much to reveal.

Burton Constable Hall c. 1940s