Outlying parts of the Liberty: Introduction

Page 383

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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The liberty covered c. 10,000 a. around the built-up area of the town, and comprised the outlying parishes of Lexden, Greenstead, Mile End, Berechurch, and St. Giles's, besides the substantial extramural parts of St. Botolph's, All Saints', St. Mary's-at-the-Walls, and St. James's, and smaller, detached, parts of other intramural parishes. All were merged into Colchester civil parish in 1897. (fn. 1)

South-east and south-west of the town, until the 19th century, was the arable which was probably once the common fields of the borough. Most of it was cultivated by burgesses throughout the Middle Ages, and most of it lay in the parishes of the intramural churches. (fn. 2) In the early Middle Ages much of the pasture in parts of the liberty further from the town was organized into dairy farms or wicks. Canonswick (later Canwick or Cannock) in West Donyland, which belonged to St. Botolph's priory, was recorded in 1160, and an unnamed wick in 1196. (fn. 3) Bury St. Edmunds abbey had St. Edmund's wick in Mile End by 1180, and Braiswick in Mile End and Lexden was recorded in 1257-8. (fn. 4) The wealthy burgess Adam Warin at his death in 1382 held Braiswick and two other wicks, Oldwick and Cuntingswick, both probably in Lexden, the latter near the road to Botolph's bridge. Tubswick in Mile End was named for Richard Tubbe, its holder in 1296. (fn. 5) The occupants of five wicks were assessed for subsidy in 1301: Battleswick in the south-east of the liberty, St. Botolph's wick (Canonswick), St. John's wick (Monkwick or possibly Middlewick), another unidentified wick in Donyland, and Arnoldswick in Lexden. By that date all were mixed farms. (fn. 6)

In the early Middle Ages much of the area north of the town was woodland, perhaps divided in the Anglo-Saxon period into Cestrewald, the borough's wood, to the north-west and Kingswood to the north. (fn. 7) Kingswood remained woodland and wood pasture throughout the Middle Ages, and regular grants of timber were made from it in the 13th century. (fn. 8) As late as 1698 the area, then called Severalls, was 'a sort of deep moor ground and woody'. (fn. 9) Cestrewald was cleared in the 13th century, as was some woodland in Greenstead and part of Shrub wood on the border with Stanway in the south-west of the liberty. Further woodland in Mile End and Greenstead was cut down in the 14th century, but much survived into the 18th century. (fn. 10)

As late as 1774 Colchester was surrounded by heaths which provided rough grazing. (fn. 11) They included Kingswood heath (the former Kingswood), Parson's heath and Rovers Tye heath in Mile End, the small heath at Old Heath, Black heath in West Donyland, and Lexden heath. The Mile End heaths were commonable by all burgesses, but Lexden heath and the heath and marsh at Old Heath were commonable only by the tenants of Lexden and West Donyland and Battleswick manors respectively. All were inclosed in the early 19th century. (fn. 12)

The parish boundaries within the liberty were complex and generally did not coincide with the manorial or estate boundaries. In the accounts which follow, detached portions of St. Botolph's and All Saints' parishes have been treated with the neighbouring parish of Greenstead. The area south and south-east of the town, comprising Berechurch and St. Giles's parishes with parts of St. Botolph's, presents particular difficulties; it is treated below under the heading of West Donyland, the name used for it until the 19th century. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries most of the land in the ancient liberty has been absorbed into the built-up area of Colchester; that process is described above with the history of the borough. (fn. 13)


  • 1. F. A. Youngs, Guide to Local Admin. Units of Eng. i. 135.
  • 2. Above, Common Lands.
  • 3. Colch. Cart. ii. 306; Feet of F. Essex, i. 10.
  • 4. B.L. Lansdowne MS. 416, ff. 48v., 49v.; Feud. Docs. of Bury St. Edmunds, ed. D. C. Douglas, pp. 143-4; Feet of F. Essex, i. 227.
  • 5. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr21, rot. 51d.; ibid. St. John's abbey ledger bk. 212v.; Morant, Colch. 46-7.
  • 6. Rot. Parl. i. 253, 256-7, 259.
  • 7. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xi. 111-12; below Lexden; Mile End (Manors).
  • 8. e.g. Close R. 1231-4, 38, 54, 98, 468; 1254-6, 140, 320; 1268-72, 31, 49, 197, 345, 445, 459, 473, 529; Cal. Close 1296-1302, 350.
  • 9. Journeys of Celia Fiennes, ed. C. Morris, 143.
  • 10. P.R.O., E 32/13, rot. 27d.; E 32/16, rott. 29, 41d.; E 32/299, no. 7; Essex Map (1777), sheet IX.
  • 11. Essex Map (1777), sheet IX; Essex Heritage, ed. K. Neale, 253-4.
  • 12. Below, Mile End (Econ.), Lexden (Econ.), West Donyland (Econ.).
  • 13. Above, Modern Colch. (Town Devt.).