THE MEDIEVAL POTTERS OF RINGMER

by

John Bleach

Introduction

We know (or think we know) a considerable amount about various aspects of Ringmer pottery production during the medieval period.  We have a good idea of what sort of pottery was made, we can locate with a fair degree of certainty the area of activity of the industry in the parish, we can make a reasonable statement on the duration of the industry, we can make informed comment on the market area of the pottery, we know how many potters there were at various times between the late 13th century and the early 16th century but …….who were they?  It is the object of this short paper to attempt to answer that question in respect of a 20 year period from about 1285.  Firstly, however, a brief review about what is known of the Ringmer pottery industry may not be out of place.


i) The Pottery

During the last 15 years numerous sherds of locally produced medieval pottery have been recovered from various sites on and around the village green.  The evidence of these thousands of fragments suggests that cheap domestic ware was overwhelmingly the major produce of the Ringmer kilns particularly during the 13th and 14th centuries (1).  Chimney pots (2) and tiles were also produced.  Tile fragments have not been found in anything like the quantity that domestic ware has been but they were probably produced fairly regularly as an early 14th century manorial document makes specific mention of the making of tiles (3).  Very little pottery that can be definitely dated to a time before 1200 or after 1400 has been found but evidence from other sources suggests that it was being produced (see iii below).

It would seem then that the Ringmer potter directed his attention for at least 200 years and perhaps much longer largely to household utensils such as cooking pots, jugs and bowls.

ii) The Location

A recently published sketch map shows the locations of possible medieval kiln sites and areas associated with the word ‘pot’, e.g. Potters Field and Crockendale (4).  Two or three possible kiln sites are not marked, viz. at Lower Barn Farm, at the main entrance to the grounds of Delves House (5), and in the vicinity of Norlington Villas in Norlington Lane (6).  These sites together with those shown on the map are all on gault clay.

This soil, as doubtless many local readers are aware, is not easy to work, and it is likely that the clearing and colonization of it occurred at a considerably later date than the creation of the Anglo-Saxon settlements of Wellingham, Norlington, Ashton, and Middleham with Gote (7).  The fields on the north side of Bishop’s Lane, perhaps the major area of potting activity, were probably cleared from the north, i.e. from Norlington.  It is fairly certain from evidence of later deeds and maps that the medieval open field system of Norlington extended as far south as the northern hedges of Bishop’s Field, Kiln Field, etc., a boundary that can still be traced on the larger scale O.S. maps.  This boundary also marks the junction between the gault clay and the easier to work lower greensand and head clay deposits.  It seems reasonable to suggest therefore that the Norlington open field extended as far south as the land remained relatively easy to cultivate and that beyond was the heavy and intractable gault on which oaks flourished.  It would have been largely wasteland which would have been cleared and colonized as need dictated.  Over what period of time this process occurred we do not know but it might have been in progress by the late 11th century as there is a possibility that there was potting activity in the area at that time (see iii below).

iii)     The Duration

Until very recently there has been no solid evidence that pottery production in Ringmer predated the early 13th century.  In the light of work published earlier this year, however, it is not known that pottery was made in Ringmer as early as the first half of the 12th and possibly in the second half of the 11th century.

The evidence does not come in the form of pottery but in that of charcoal deposits, presumably the remains of firing fuel, found in a kiln context.  Examination of the finds using the carbon – 14 dating technique produced the following result (8):

Sample 1 1090  + or -  60 years
Sample 2 1070  + or -  70 years
Sample 3 1210  + or -  70 years

Just how long pottery continued to be made in Ringmer is not clear.  As has already been mentioned very little (if any) pottery has been found that can be dated confidently to the 15th century.  Documentary sources, however, do mention potters throughout the 15th and into the 16th century (see v below).  Form the 1530’s potters seem to disappear from the record to be replaced during the latter half of the 16th century by brick and tile makers (9).

Perhaps the decline of the potter and the rise of the brick and tile maker is reflected in two references to what may well be two members of the same family.  In 1452 a commission was given to the sheriff of Sussex to arrest amongst others John Jelot of Ringmer, ‘potter’ (10).  In 1534-35 Wm. Aderolde, master of works at Lewes Priory bought 350 brickstones and 115 ridge tiles from John Gillott of Ringmer (11).  John Gillott would probably not have described himself or been described as a potter.

iv) The Market

For the whole of the period of the suggested possible duration of the industry, Lewes, some three miles distant, was one of the most important marketing centres in Sussex.  Late 11th century references point to it being an established trading centre with a daily market (12).  In the early 16th century in terms of the wealth of towns based on taxation returns, Lewes ranked second to Chichester in the county (13).  Though liable to the fluctuating fortunes bound to be met with during the intervening 450 years, there is little reason to doubt that its position on the major east-west routeway in the county and on a navigable river within a few miles of the coast maintained it as an important market centre.  Given this it seems not unreasonable to suppose that much Ringmer pottery was marketed in Lewes – we may perhaps visualise the potters bringing their wares into Lewes by packhorse or cart and setting up a stall in the market there much as the medieval potters in and around Oxford must have done (14).

Another factor that may well have had some effect on the marketing possibilities of the pottery was the situation of Ringmer in relation to the weald to the north.  Throughout the medieval period Ringmer was part of the manor of South Malling.  This estate, owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, stretched from the River Ouse at Lewes to the Sussex-Kent border at Wadhurst.  North-south communications within the estate seem to have been very important (15) and it is quite possible that passage through the weald, notoriously difficult at certain times of the year, was relatively easier within the confines of the estate.  Thus Ringmer pottery may have had less difficulty than might be expected in gaining access to the increasingly populous Wealden area of the estate.  As an aid to trade during the 13th century regular markets were being set up throughout the county and by the end of the century every other day was market day somewhere on the estate – Uckfield on Monday, Ringmer itself on Tuesday, Mayfield on Thursday and Wadhurst on Saturday (16).

From at least the later 11th century therefore, Ringmer pottery had an urban market outlet on its doorstep and to this was added during the 13th century a number of markets in the weald to the north.  Obviously opportunity for marketing the pottery was not lacking.

It is difficult to say whether these opportunities were taken, though finds of Ringmer pottery in Lewes and a number of the Ouse valley settlements do tend to substantiate the suggestion that Ringmer pottery was marketed in Lewes (17).  No pottery from sites to the north has been identified as having Ringmer origins (18).  This perhaps indicates that Ringmer potters did not look to the wealden market.  There may have been no need for their product – the evidence of place names suggestive of pottery production, viz. ‘Potter’s Green’ in Buxted and  ‘Crockstead’ in Framfield, both of which have 13th century associations (19), leads one to suspect that the weald to the north of Ringmer might have been self-sufficient in the cheap domestic earthenware that most households used.  On the other hand it might indicate that none of the pottery finds in the area have been closely studied by anyone familiar with Ringmer ware.  Most of the Lewes and Ouse valley finds were identified by people very familiar with Ringmer ware and therefore able to make the connection.  More work needs to be done on pottery found in this area of the weald before any conclusions can be made on this matter.

A further problem is met with on learning that Ringmer pottery has also been found at Michelham Priory and Battle Abbey (20).  Does this suggest a trading area to the east?  In the opinion of the writer – probably not.  The location of these finds can be explained perhaps by reference to the perambulations of medieval prelates.   Remember that Ringmer was owned by (and in the diocese of) the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Bear in mind that medieval prelates regularly travelled round their sees with their households (which would include a kitchen (21) staying a week here, a fortnight there etc.  Bear in mind also that the Archbishop of Canterbury would not restrict himself to his own see but would often visit others within his province.  Using the evidence of dated letters (22) a reconstruction of the itinerary of one such archbishop, John Pecham (1279-92), can be made for a two month period of the summer of 1283 with interesting results.

May 13             Mortlake (Surrey)

May 21-28        Slindon (one of the abp’s West Sussex estates and a peculiar of the diocese of Canterbury).

May 29             Nytimer (in Pagham) (Ditto, as Slindon)

He is then lost sight of for 16 days but presumably passed through South Malling and Ringmer on his way to:

June 15                       Battle

June 16                       Michelham

June 17                       Bexhill

June 18                       Battle and Bexhill

June 19                       Michelham

June 22 to July 12      South Malling

July 15                         Mayfield

July 21                         Otford (Kent)

Other medieval archbishops doubtless pursued similar itineraries and I do not think it too far fetched to suggest that Ringmer pottery might well have been carried to such places as Michelham Priory and Battle Abbey by the attendant household.  Indeed it would not surprise the writer if, upon close inspection of any pottery round at the sites, some from Ringmer is discovered at archiepiscopal residences such as Mayfield, Slindon, Croydon and even Canterbury itself.

Pottery found at Selmeston and Hangleton has been tentatively ascribed to the Ringmer kilns but these identifications are by no means certain.

Any conclusions drawn about the market area of the pottery from the finds mentioned above must be unsatisfactory – all that might be said is that, apart from the immediately local market of the hamlets within Ringmer parish (this much I think can be assumed), the potters would look to Lewes as a regular market outlet, and perhaps to the occasional sale to restock the earthenware needed in the archbishop’s travelling kitchen when it was in the area.

v) The Potters – how many?

The figures in the following table, with the exception of that for 1403/4, have been gleaned from the Sussex Record Society (SRS) vol. 57, Victoria County History (Sussex) (VCH Sx) vol. 2, and two articles by W.H. Legge that appeared in “The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist (Reliq).  The figure under 1403/4 is taken from a ms. (manuscript or manorial document?) in the Gage collection of archives in the custody of the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO).

c

1285

5+(?) (Note 1)

SRS 57

1305/6

8

SRS 57 p.138

1349

6

VCH Sx 2, p.251

1388

3

ditto

1395

4

ditto

1396

1 (Note 2)

ditto

1403/4

6

ESRO Gage Box 11/3

1427

7

Reliq. Apr. 1902 p.80

1435

7

Reliq. Apr. 1902 p.81

1440

3 (Note 3)

ditto

1457

0 (Note 4)

VCH Sx 2, p.251

1485

7

ditto

1516

5 (Note 5)

Reliq. Jan. 1903 p.4

1517

0 (Note 5)

ditto

1530

7

VCH Sx 2 p.251

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Note 1    See suggested identification of potters in vi below.

Note 2   Document records that three potters died this year.

Note 3   Document records that four potters have died.

Note 4   Document records ‘because they are dead and no one has taken their place’.

Note 5  Document of 1517 records that nothing is received from the five potters of Ringmer ‘because they are dead and no one fills their place’.

The manorial documents from which most of these figures are derived recorded, inter alia, the total Michaelmas rent from potters for licence to dig clay in the Broyle.  Each potter paid 9d for the licence, thus their total number is easily calculable.  The table then records the number of potters who paid 9d at Michaelmas for licence to dig clay in the Broyle.  As Le Patoureol points out, “in so far as they are concerned with the potter at all, manorial documents are interested in him as a consumer of clay” (23).  These “consumers of clay” might well have employed others to assist them, as it were, in the consumption.  The table therefore does not necessarily tell us how many people were actually involved in the production of pottery at the given time – those figures might have been greater.

It does, however, point not only to the fluctuating fortunes (due as much perhaps to periodic outbreaks of disease as anything else) but also to the resilience of the industry.  As least twice there were no clay payments made and on at least one occasion only one payment was made.  On four occasions the documents speak of numbers of potters dying and not being replaced, and yet within a few years of each occasion six or seven potters are recorded as making clay payments.  Unlike the thirteen strong community of potters at Hanley (Worcs.) that was wiped out by the Black Death and did not revive (24), the Ringmer community, though it did not escape, very obviously survived the vicissitudes brought about by the famine and disease which made such regular inroads into the medieval population.  Factors that may have been instrumental in its survival include the low clay payment that was stationary for more than 200 years (by the early 16th century the 9d payment must have been considered a snip), the accessibility and market opportunities of Lewes, and perhaps successive lords of the manor in whose interests it was to have a supply of earthenware readily available at one of the furthest points of their regular perambulation route.

vi) The Potters – some individuals

This section is based largely on the two published manuscripts that between them form one of the major sources for the history of medieval Ringmer, viz. a custumal of c1285 and a rental of 1305/6 (26).  The period covered by these documents, in terms of the duration of the industry, is very short, and obviously they cannot show such things as, for example, family involvement over a period spanning a number of generations.  They do, however, afford a glimpse of the potters and their land holdings a this period.

The major parts of both the custumal and the rental are given over to listing the tenants of the manor, their land and the rent and services owed to the lord.  The tenants holding land in Ringmer are in four sections, each section relating to one of the settlements within the parish, Wellingham, Norlington, Ashton and Gote and Middleham.  Within each section the tenants are listed according to the type of land held, i.e. free land, customary land and cottar land.  The documents also contain what might be termed summaries in which special payments by certain tenants along with their services are recorded.  It is here that reference to potters is usually found.  Armed with the information from the summaries it is possible to refer back to the main body of the text of the documents and identify at least some of the potters and their holdings from amongst all the other tenants.

As if to thwart this intention the 1285 custumal contains the following note which is incidentally the earliest known documentary reference to Ringmer potters – “but note that there is not reckoned in this roll thus far the rent of the potters nor their hens or eggs.  But Stephen the clerk will inform us of these matters” (20). {Hens and eggs were common form of payment for certain ‘rights’ in the medieval period – the 1285 custumal records for example show that the customary tenants of Wellingham “must give 1 hen at Christmas and 5 eggs at Easter which are called foresters-hennum for which they shall have their common in the Broyle” (p.90).} Since there is no further mention of potters or their rents in the roll it seems likely that Stephen the clerk did not inform the relevant persons.  Why? – we do not know.  The 1305/6 rental is better informed.

“For 8 potters at Michaelmas, 6s.  And at Christmas, 400 eggs.  And at Easter, 400 eggs, and each of them shall reap 3 roods of vetches and they must hunt.  They shall have clay for the making of tiles and loppings from fallen trees in the wood”.

The rental also notes that at Christmas and Easter “the potters’ hens increase and decrease” (27).  This seems to be a recognition of the fact, borne out by the table in v (above), that for whatever reason the number of potters varies from year to year.

Can this information about special payments etc. be matched up with any of the tenants, their holdings and land rent that appear in the main body of the text?  Archaeological evidence suggests that one of the major areas of activity of the potters was on the gault clay outcrop immediately to the south of the Norlington open field and north of Bishop’s Lane.  It is known from later documents that most of this area was freehold of the manor – thus it seems reasonable to begin searching for potters amongst the free tenants of Norlington.

There are some 25 free tenants holdings in Norlington, about a third of which are no more that very small amounts of recent assart (28).  Of the more substantial holdings it is noticeable that a few of them have two characteristics that are not associated with free tenant holdings anywhere else in Ringmer.  Firstly that they pay rent at one term of the year only (Easter) and secondly that they owe a reaping service.

Almost without exception the free tenants of Ringmer pay their rent at two, three or four terms of the year.  Also by far the majority of them do not have to do any agricultural services.  Thus to find a number of free tenants only paying rent at one term of the year and owing a reaping service is, to say the least, unusual.  But what if they were potters?  The payment of the Michaelmas clay rent would, as it were, balance the rent paying formula of these holdings.  They would be falling in line with numerous other free tenant holdings in Ringmer that pay rent at Easter and Michaelmas.

The reaping service, though it is not known why it was imposed, would be in line with the known reaping service of the potters.  It is worth noting that the crop to be reaped was a legume – there were very few other tenants, free or customary, in Ringmer who reaped legumes as a service and there is nothing to suggest that any of these others were involved in the production of pottery.

It does not seem unreasonable to suggest therefore that the Norlington free tenants listed in the table below were in some way involved in pottery production.  The table also gives information from the 1305/6 rental (29).

Tenant

Rent

Reaping

Requirements

Acreage

Easter

Michaelmas

1285

1305/6

1285

1305/6

1285

1305/6

1285

1305/6

A

5

5

9½d

9½d

-

-

1a

1a

B

7

9d

9d

-

-

3r

3r

C

6

7

10d

10d

¾d

¾d

½a

½a

D

5

5*

10d**

10d

-

-

2a

2a

E

1

1

5d

5d

-

-

1a

1a

F

-

2***

-

4d

-

3d

-

1a











*           And one croft – not recorded in 1285

**         And two ploughshares at Christmas – not recorded in 1305/6

***        “in Aleynescrofte” – this holding is not recorded in 1285 with a reaping service.

Tenant Key:

A          Wm. Bysshop 1285 and 1305/6

B            Thurgod Kempe 1285 and 1305/6

C            Alexander Sire 1285,Wm. Burdon “for a tenement that belonged to Alex. Syre” 1305/6

D         Wm. .Eselin, neif, 1295, Wm. son of Wm. Eselin, 1305/6

E          Wm. son of Philip de Middleham, neif, 1285 and 1305/6

F          Robert ater Rede 1305/6

As with the table in section v (above) the number of tenants listed here is almost certainly not a full complement of these involved in pottery production.  There were probably others and one that perhaps can be identified in 1285 is Thomas Figul’, i.e. potter, who appears in a list of names of “cots (coteriis) of freemen” in Norlington (30).  Probably Thomas was a tenent of one of the free tenants listed above.  There may well have been others like him but they cannot be identified from the material to hand.

Most of the changes that occurred between 1285 and 1305/6 are those that might be expected, i.e. change of tenant.  One major change, however, is the addition of a two holding to the list, viz. Robt. Ater Rede  “in Aleynescrofte”. (The apparent increase in size of the holdings of Thurgod Kempe and Alex. Sire/Wm. Burdon is explicable in terms of scribal error.  It is quite possible the meadow mentioned in the description of the holding in 1285 may have been counted twice in 1305/6).

Robert’s two acre holding of 1305/6 was held by Alexander Shrippe in 1285 for 7d p.a., paying 4d at Easter and 3d at Michaelmas.  There were no services due from the holding in 1285.  There is nothing to distinguish it from numerous other free tenant holdings in Ringmer and it was probably an ordinary agricultural holding.  By 1305/6 it had acquired a reaping service.  It seems likely that at some point between 1285 and 1305/6 the land had, if not changed the use to which it was put, an additional use which demanded the imposition of a service.  Given the possible location of the land (later deeds suggest that it may have been a part of that which became Kiln Field) and the use to which so much of the adjoining land seems to have been put, it is not unlikely that this additional use was connected to the production of pottery.

If the use to which this land was put has indeed changed even if only in part from agricultural to the manufacture of pottery it could be that it reflects a period of relatively prosperity for the potters – with this possibility in mind it is worth noting that in 1305/6 there were eight potters mentioned in the manorial documents, the highest number ever recorded.  Since the highest number of potters recorded after this date is seven it may be that Robert’s holding represents what might be termed a marginal potter site, and that when demand for pottery could be met by the kilns on the regular potter holdings this land reverted to an agricultural use.

How the holdings acquired various amounts of reaping service is not at all clear.  The total service in 1285 was 21 roods and at three roods to the potter this suggests a total of seven potters.  This accords well with what might have been, with the exception of 1305/6, the full complement of potters.  Further information from later manorial court rolls might throw some light on this.

There is no obvious relationship between acreage, rent and service due.  However, the two tenants described as neifs had, on the one part a very heavy service, and on the other part a relatively high rent.  Whether these heavier service and rent obligations had anything to do with their status as neifs is impossible to say.

These very few men then are some of the Ringmer potters.  With the exception of Robert ater Rede they were probably not wealthy or locally important people.  Mostly they each held a few acres of land, some of which was doubtless put to agricultural use, and they paid around 1s 6d p.a. for their land and their clay licence.  They were, however, not the poorest people in Ringmer by any means.

Robert ater Rede, on the other hand, may have been one of the wealthiest.  He seems to have held land in Ashton and Gote and Middleham as well as in Norlington, one of the very few free tenants to hold land in more than one of the settlements (31).  His Norlington holding may well have been the area around Delves House which was the nucleus of what was to become the manor of Delves.  He may not have been a potter in “Aleynescrofte” for very long but there is plenty of archaeological evidence that the area around Delves House was much utilised for pottery production in the medieval period.  Thus it may be that he was a potter of a rather different standing to the others.

Postcript

It is perhaps fitting that the rediscovery of the knowledge that there was pottery production in Ringmer in the medieval period should be down to one whose occupation was that which took over from pottery making in the 16th century – brickmaking (32).  The story of this industry in Ringmer would make an interesting paper in a future issue of this journal.

References

1         See for example L(ewes) A(rchaeological G(roup) Newsletter no. 37 refers to an excavation in 1973 and the recovery of a “huge amount of 13th century pottery”. (I am grateful to Monica Maloney for drawing this reference to my attention.)  Also – Hadfield, J.I. “Excavation of a Medieval Kiln at Barnett’s Mead, Ringmer, East Sussex” S(ussex) A(Archaeological) C(ollections) 119 (1981), 89-106.

2         Hadfield, 101 – 2   Dunning, G.C. “Medieval Chimney Pots” in “Studies in Building History” (ed. M. Jope).  (London 1961)

3         Sussex R(ecord) S(ociety) 57 – “Custumals of the Archbishop’s Manors in Sussex” (ed. B.C. Redwood and A.E. Wilson), 138.

4         Hadfield, 90

5         O.S. map with sites marked by E.W.O’Shea of the L.A.G. (unpublished)

6         Ex inf. Vic. and Sheila Gammon.

7         Brandon, P. “The Sussex Landscape”, 87-8 (London 1974)

8         Hadfield, 105

9         Victoria County History (Sussex) 11, 253

10     Calendar of Patent Rolls 1446-1452, 537 (London 1910)

11     Public Record Office SC6/H VIII/3527. (I am grateful to Judy Brent for drawing this reference to my attention.)

12     Domesday Book f.26a (Sussex section translated and edited by J. Morris and published by Phillimore of Chichester, 1976) and Victoria County History (Sussex) vol. 7, 31 citing SRS 38, 7-9.

13     Cornwall, J. “Sussex Wealth and Society in the Reign of Henry VIII”, 16, in SAC 114 (1976)

14     Map showing the earthenware stall in Oxford market in Salzman, L.F. “English Industries of the Middle Ages”, 327 (London 1964 reprint of 1923 ed.)

15     SRS 57, 35-7

16     Uckfield – SRS 57, 95.  Ringmer – C(alendar) of Ch(arter) R(olls) II, 268.  Mayfield – C.Ch.R. II, 38.  Wadhurst – C. Ch.R. I, 432 and SRS 57, 95.

17     Hadfield, 104 and the references given there

18     Hadfield, 104

19     Mawer, A. and Stenton, F.M. “The Place Names of Sussex” II, 391 and 393.

20     Ex inf. Anthony Streeten.  Reports are forthcoming: Michelham in SAC – Battle as part of the report of the recent Dept. of Environment excavation there which may appear as a Research Report of the Society of Antiquaries.

21     For an account of one such journey in 1290 of Richard Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford see Moorman, J.R.H. “Church Life in England in the Thirteenth Century”, 187-191 (Cambridge 1955).

22     Martin, C.T. “Registrum Epistolarum Fratris Johannis Peckham, …” Rolls Series no. 77 in 3 vols. (London 1882-6), letter nos. CCCCXXV-CCCCLVIII

23     Le Patourel, H.E.J. “Documentary Evidence and the Medieval Pottery Industry”, 113, in Medieval Archaeology 12 (1968), 101-125.

24     Le Patourel,  108

25     SRS 57

26     SRS 57, 116

27     SRS 57, 138

28     SRS 57, 99-100

29     SRS 57, 101

30     SRS 57, 101

31     SRS 57, 127 and 129

32     For the first published notice see The Antiquary 19 (June 1894), 236.  The opening sentence attempts to associate the finding of the pottery production site with a rather better known aspect of Ringmer’s past. “In a large field at Ringmer, Sussex (almost close to the house in which Gilbert White lived and wrote), and known, if not from time immemorial, for at least more than 200 years, as the ‘Potter’s Field’, there have just recently been discovered ……”.