Yeoman's House, OLD-ENGLISH

The Yeoman's House

If you are working with probate records from Elizabethan and early Stuart times you might find useful the following description of the yeoman's house and household, based mainly on Mildred Campbell's The English Yeoman, first published in 1942 and reprinted several times. Almost all description from that period was concerned with homes of the wealthy, so Campbell acquired her information largely by analyzing hundreds of inventories of yeoman estates in which the goods were listed according to the rooms in which the appraisers found them. The largest collections she used were from the probate registries of Lincoln, York and Lewes but smaller ones in Bedfordshire, Norfolk and elsewhere were included.

This description will help to determine the significance of the contents of wills and inventories. A few pieces of silver, for example, a 'turkey carpet' or a large number of cheeses when placed in the context of geographic location and date, can add to your knowledge of a particular yeoman's way of life or provide at least a general answer to the question of relative wealth. Much of the information can be applied to others who were not of the yeoman class as well. A husbandman who owned many of the goods noted below could be determined to be at the upper level of his class, and perhaps even the laborer who managed to acquire a few.

The description must be interpreted broadly, of course, and allowance made for regional variations including those in architecture and availability of materials. Campbell found a marked consistency in yeoman homes, however, even though the homes of the nobility showed great experimentation during this period. Built for practicality and durability, the yeoman's house largely followed "the traditional lines of the small English house, a compact rectangular structure of one-and-a-half or two stories." The difference between richer and poorer yeoman was mainly in the number of rooms. And while there were differences in the quality of goods owned by wealthier and poorer yeomen, the inventories showed that their homes contained substantially the same kinds of items.

This period, being one of prosperity, was marked by erection of new homes and adding on to old ones, as reflected by the numerous references in wills to 'the newe parlour,' 'newe chamber,' the 'parlour I had latelie built' or the 'olde howse.' Many times the part added to had been the entire home for the parents, as in the dwelling from Walderton, Sussex, now at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. Outwardly it appears to be a 17th-century house of flint and brick construction but inside the original medieval timber-framed, open-hall building can still be seen.

An example of contemporary construction is also in evidence at the Museum. Pendean farmhouse was built in 1609 probably by Richard Clare, a yeoman farmer who purchased the property in that year. A postcard view shows the house in its original surroundings, probably looking much as it did centuries earlier.

As noted, the wealthier the yeoman, the more rooms his house might have. Thomas Austin of Farham, Hampshire, lived in a house of eight 'bayes' (rooms) including outbuildings. The home of William Cheaney, wealthy yeoman of Leftwich, Chester, was "an ancient large house of tenn bayes of building," not including several outbuildings and a barn of five bays. Overall analysis of the inventories showed that the lower strata of the yeoman group lived in 2- to 3-room dwellings, the well-to-do in 8 to 10 rooms, and most in 5 to 9 including one or two appendages such as milkhouse, malthouse, etc. (the common practice was to consider such appendages as part of the dwelling, but this was not universal). Outside this range were a few yeomen living in a 'capital messuage' or mansion house and some in poor areas living in poorer conditions than any above.

The Hall.  The main room was the hall, sometimes written as 'the bodie of the house' or 'the howse,' as it may indeed have been the entire house a generation before. The hall was the living room for the family, where they also dined and entertained guests. If the farm required them, farm servants would also be fed here. If the house had no kitchen, as many did not, cooking was also done in the hall.

The quality of hall furnishings varied somewhat with the family's wealth, but practically always included a long table with perhaps a smaller one, one or two forms (benches), numerous chairs and stools, a cupboard and perhaps a chest, and fireplace equipment including andirons, tongs, bellows, fire shovel and warming pan. If the house had no kitchen, then 'pott hangers,' 'dripping panns,' spits, kettles and pots would be among the fireplace furnishings in the hall. If the kitchen were separate, such articles would be found there, along with items such as mortar and pestle, vats, bowls, chopping knives and assorted cutlery.

For the common home, the chimneyed fireplace or grate was a great innovation of this time. Previously, fires were built either against a wall or in the middle of the hall on a stone or earthen base with the smoke venting (to the extent that it did) through a louvre in the roof. In 1577 William Harrison wrote of his older neighbors observing "the multitude of chimnies latelie erected, wheras in their yoong daies..ech one made his fire against a reredosse in the hall." Many fireplaces were a type with back and other parts of iron that could be moved, which preceded the stationary kind.

Campbell cites 'Pedlars' in Sundridge near Sevenoaks, Kent, built in 1458, as an excellent example of the earlier yeoman house with central fire. Another house with central fire is Bay Leaf farmhouse originally from Chiddingstone, Kent. A house with fire built against the wall can be seen in Poplar cottage, actually a laborer's dwelling dating from c. 1650, a remarkably rare survival. Details of the smoke bay construction and smoke outlet can be seen among photos of the cottage's reconstruction.

The more modern Pendean contains the new-style brick fireplace and chimney (mid-page) as well as furnishings typical of the yeoman house. The Museum actually utilizes these dwellings -- Walderton, Pendean and Poplar cottage -- to demonstrate degrees of socal status.

Another great innovation for the common home was window glass, found in the hall and sometimes other rooms. In 1602, Richard Carew wrote of it as "a late introduction." Pendean, built in 1609, has latticed windows but no glass. Later, in 1671, James Aubry wrote that within his memory "copyholders and ordinary poor people had none" but "now the poorest people upon almes have it." Both chimneys and window glass appear often as bequests -- a Lancashire yeoman in 1628 left the chimney in his house to his daughter, and one from Yorkshire bequeathed to his son in 1602 "all the glasse in and about my howse."

In the hall would hang whatever arms or weapons the yeoman had. The inventories mentioned bow and arrows, pike, billstaff, sword, dagger, corselet and others (no one would have had them all). In border areas a yeoman might be furnished with "a coat of plaite" or "stuffe jacket and steile cappe" but after border conflict ceased upon the accession of James I, these might remain only as mementoes.

Little decoration or ornamentation is found in the hall or elsewhere except for the tapestry or its inexpensive substitute the painted cloth, found on the walls in even the poorest yeoman homes. The woven tapestries ('carpets') were also used to cover floors, tables or chests. Wealthier yeoman might have wooden wainscoting on the ceiling and perhaps the walls as well. That too is found bequeathed as a personal possession and not considered an integral part of house.

A cupboard in the hall held mugs, bowls, platters and other serving pieces. Wooden trenchers were still in everyday use in the yeoman's house but most also had pewter. Inventories of the poorer yeomen showed 6 to 12 pewter pieces but the average and above had 40 to 50. Scores of wills and inventories show small amounts of silver as well -- a salt, a bowl and a set of spoons, perhaps, with the spoons often divided among daughters, granddaughters and goddaughters in a will. The wealthiest yeomen possessed even more silver. In the main, however, the cupboards of yeomen of the period were filled with pewter.

The Parlour and Bedrooms.   The parlour was the second most important room after the hall. It contained the "best bedd" but also served as a kind of living room, a more intimate one than the hall, where the yeoman might discuss business, marriage settlements, etc. The yeoman or his immediate family might also take meals in the parlour, particularly if there were many farm servants eating and sleeping in the house.

Bedsteads were sometimes still the homemade trestle beds put together with removable pegs, but by now joined beds and other joined furniture were familiar in most yeomen homes. In homes of wealthy yeomen or perhaps the more ordinary ones in urban areas, the bed might have had fine hangings, but ordinarily only one bed, two or three at most, was curtained at all. Such a curtained bed can be seen at Pendean (near bottom of page); another, with trundle bed (near bottom of page), at Bay Leaf farmhouse.

Some straw beds could still be found in the homes of yeomen, but most were feather beds and flock beds. Great numbers of them and their associated linens appear in wills and inventories, much in contrast to the preceding period. Yeomen of ordinary means had four or five beds as a rule, but eight to ten were not unusual. A wealthy Kentish yeoman bequeathed seven feather beds, nine flock beds and one of down.

Sheets especially abound in the wills and inventories of the time -- harden sheets, linen sheets, Holland, flaxen, hempen, canvas, and others. Even the poorest yeomen often owned six or eight pairs; ten, fifteen or twenty pairs were not uncommon. In addition to sheets were pillows, bolsters, "pillow beares" (pillow cases), blankets and coverlids. The latter was the topmost furnishing, sometimes worked with designs, especially of birds and flowers.

The chest was an important piece of furniture, the preferred storage for items needing to kept 'free from dust, out of the reach of hungry mice and prying servants,' as Campbell puts it. They were found in any room of the house, with some rooms having two or three. The chest in the master's bedroom had special significance as it held 'evidences' of his property. If he had any money, it would be hidden in a locked chest. Another chest would likely contain linens, and yet another the silver or special pewter pieces brought out for important guests or special occasions. In wealthier homes the chest might be carved to match other furniture. In kitchens and storage rooms, plain chests held foodstuffs and seeds.

Another item often found in the parlour was the spinning wheel, although the women of the household moved them from room to room as suited their purposes. In areas such as Bedford and Lincoln where both wool and flax were grown, nearly every farmer had a wheel for each fiber and often a loom as well.

Besides the parlour, other bedrooms of the house frequently had two or three beds each, and possibly one or two chairs and a chest. A number of beds beyond the needs of the immediate family were probably for the use of farm servants.

Rooms for Food Preparation.  The kitchen has been mentioned briefly as containing the fireplace furnishings, pots, vats and small utensils. A small building which stood at the Weald and Downland Museum as a small hall house dating from c. 1370 has since been identified as a kitchen or service block with open hall and upper room, built in the early 16th century and once attached to a house. The Museum has relocated and equipped it to reflect its orginal purpose.

Much of the food preparation or processing actually took place in specially equipped rooms which might be attached to the house or set apart as outbuildings in the yard, depending on local custom.

The dairy house contained such items as 'milking bowles,' 'milke tubbs,' churn, salting trough, crocks, firkins, cheese vats and presses. Inventories of yeomen of Sussex, Essex, Cheshire and other dairying districts mention enormous cheeses in both dairy house and storeroom.

The bakehouse or boulting (sifting) house was ordinarily equipped with a molding trough, molding boards, querns, boulting 'arkes,' sacks, bags and measures in various sizes. An 'ark' was a chest, box, coffer, close basket, or similar receptacle, and, especially in the north, a large wooden bin or hutch for storing meal, bread, etc.

Malthouse or brewhouse arrangements depended on how extensive the household's brewing activities were. If only a little ale were required it could be accommodated in the bakehouse or a storeroom. At the other extreme, it might require equipment as elaborate as that which one Norfolk yeoman purchased from the estate of a neighboring gentleman: Barrels, pipes, firkins, troughs, tubs, 'tumeles' with brass spouts, a horse mill with two stones and a hopper, a 'floor of iron,' iron door, coolers, 'cistern of lead.' a 'gild pott' and many small articles. Only occasionally is wine mentioned, being imported and generally beyond the yeoman's means. The usual drink was domestic in origin, mainly beer, ale, mead, cider and perry, brewed at home by the women of the house.

Many houses had one or more storerooms, perhaps upstairs, where bags of wheat or rye, flitches of bacon, etc. were kept along with odd pieces of lumber, old furniture or farm equipment and other odds and ends. An extra bed might be found here.

The Yard.  Near the house was the barn, although in parts of the north it was annexed to the house. This annex was called the 'laithe' in parts of Yorkshire, the 'garthe' or 'staggarthe' in border counties. A southern barn from the 1530's is at the Weald and Downland Museum. It was used primarily for threshing and storing crops. Stored crops along with crops in the field and livestock appear in wills and inventories and are reckoned as part of the personal estate.

In the barn or other outbuilding were one or more plows, harrows, wain or wagon, 'horse gear' and other equipment sometimes referred to as 'husbandly furniture' along with such items as salt for livestock, seed for the next year and fertilizer such as lime or marl if the farm's manure supply needed supplementing.

Items of husbandry were simple and often homemade. Chief among them was the plow, made of wood except for the iron plowshare. Design and weight varied according to requirements of the soil -- large, heavy ones for the stiff clay of Huntington, Bedford, Cambridge, etc., with smaller, lighter implements for the sandy soil of East Anglia, parts of Lincoln, and elsewhere. The same applied to harrows which were equipped with iron or wooden teeth, the latter for light soils.

Other important items were the cradle, a wooden frame attached to a scythe, and the flail. The cradle was used to get the stalks to line up in roughly the same direction with the heads at the same end, making them easier to gather. The flail was for beating the kernels off the stalks; it consisted of a wooden staff or handle, with a shorter, stouter pole or club (swingle or swipple) attached so that it swung freely. Stalks had to be struck just below the heads to avoid bruising the kernels.

A variety of small tools were also present in the barn -- adze, axe, saw, mattock, pitchfork, etc.

The wain or wagon was used for hauling. Rarely was mention made of a carriage; yeomen rode horseback, carrying the wife on a pillion seat behind.

The list of livestock might include sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, poultry, conies and bees, the type of stock and relative numbers varying with the region and the farm's main purpose. In dairying areas, farms had more cows, and while some pigs were found everywhere, many more were found in areas with oak forest where pigs could feed. Both horses and cattle were used as draught animals, but sometimes only one horse was kept for the yeoman's own needs; the necessity for supplying feed in winter tended to keep their numbers low.

Gardens were found at yeoman homes, and while not producing anything likely to appear in a will or inventory, they did produce items found in herbals. Like everything else at the yeoman's house, the garden was a practical affair, part of the goodwife's repertoire being preparation of medicinal salves, drinks, etc. not only for members of the household but for the livestock: saffron for diseases of the heart and stomach, aniseed for 'opening the pipes,' 'elly campane root' for itches and many more.

Such gardens were not without beauty, however; descriptions of the times mention such favorites as sweet williams, lupines, marigolds, hollyhocks and others.

Clothing.  Inventories rarely tell us anything about clothing, generally listing all an individual's apparel as a single item with a single value. Wills themselves can be quite detailed regarding items of dress but these are generally the 'good' clothes rather than everyday. What is known therefore comes from writings of the times, notably those of Gervase Markham -- 'The Good Housewife' and 'Cheap and Good Husbandry' among them. Markham states that clothing for the household was the province of the housewife, who 'must learne also how out of her own endeavours, she ought to clothe them outwardly and inwardly for defense for the cold and comelinesse to the person.' The wealthier yeoman might have a suit of clothes for himself and perhaps his wife's best dress made by a tailor, but everyday wear was made by the housewife or under her direct supervision.

Some linen from home-grown flax was used for clothing, but wool from the farmer's own sheep was the staple and the term 'russet-coated yeoman' well describes the farmer's ordinary dress. In any case, clothing production was costly and labor intensive, so clothes were patched and mended as long as they could still be used. Wool production, for example, involved shearing, washing, dying (either by the housewife herself or a local dyer), carding, greasing, and carding again in preparation for spinning, done on the 'woolen wheel' found in every farm household. Weaving of cloth, especially the fulling and dressing stages, was only sometimes done at home.

During Elizabeth's reign, the sumptuary laws enacted in earlier times were still in effect. Accordingly, no man below the degree of knight's eldest son could wear velvet in jerkin, hose or doublet nor any satin, damask, taffeta or grosgrain in 'Clokes, Coates, Gownes, or other uppermost garmentes,' while women below the degree of knight's wife could not wear velvet or 'embrodery with silke or Netherstockes of silk.' As a concession to the growing middle classes, however, the laws were amended 1579-80. For example, women below the degree of knight's wife were included if they or their husbands could 'dispend cc li. by the yere' as well as those below the degree of knight's eldest son's wife if their husbands might dispend one hundred pounds per year. This was not without reaction, however. A proclamation was made in Chancery in 1596 against the excess of apparel growing among all classes and deploring the 'confusyon of all degrees' that resulted from ignoring former divisions and restrictions.

Yeomen, however, were generally conservative compared to professionals and burgesses. In rural locations, custom rather than statute regulated social behavior, and Markham advised the housewife to avoid 'variety of new and fantastic fashions' and to dress plainly in garments 'comely and strong…without toyish garnishes, or the gloss of light colours.' (Eve McLaughlin has commented that the latter may have intended to steer the goodwife away from the color yellow, which was worn by prostitutes.)

Adam Martindale, a yeoman's son who entered the church, was another contemporary writer, who wrote as an elderly man of life in rural Lancashire. At the time of James I, he said, 'Freeholders daughters were then confined to their felts, petticoates and wast-coates, crosse handkerchiefs about their neckes, and white cross-clothes upon their heads, with coifes under them wrought with black silk or worsted.' Later, he admits that with or without approval of parents or neighbors, some yeomen's daughters were beginning to wear 'gold or silver laces (and store of them) about their petticoates, and bone laces or works about their linnens,' but, he continues, 'the proudest of them below the gentry durst not have offered to weare a hood, or a scarfe…noe, nor so much as a gowne till her wedding day. And if any of them transgressed these bounds, she would have been accounted an ambitious foole.'

Campbell says that women were more receptive to change in dress, possibly a result of the marrying off of gentlemen's daughters to wealthy yeomen. They would have been interested not only in their own style of dress but the husband's as well. But whatever the character of the household wardrobe, Campbell observes, the responsibility for planning and making it chiefly fell to the woman of the house.

This does not mean that there were no yeomen who took pride in fine or colorful clothes on their own account; ample evidence from wills suggests otherwise. Joseph Foster of Suffolk bequeathed in 1619 his 'fustian doublet with silver buttons on it,' a green cloak and green hose. Campbell believes that a good many yeomen of means had at least one good suit comparable to the attire of neighboring gentry, probably worn for weddings and other special occasions. Lancashire yeoman Thomas Edison in bequeathing in 1607 'my best jackitt, my best dublit, my best overhoose, and my best netherstockes,' was in fact describing the clothing in fashion among the gentry of the time.

Value.  One of the questions of greatest interest is the value of one's ancestor's estate. It is not easily answered. It must be remembered that the biggest part of the yeoman's estate -- his land -- is not ordinarily mentioned in the will or inventory as the bulk of it passed by custom to the eldest son. The value shown in the inventory, if one survives, is of goods and stock only, but that can serve as a kind of index to total wealth. The idea of wealth, however, is relative and varies with time and especially place.

To determine what 'wealthy yeoman' meant in Elizabethan and early Stuart times, Campbell studied many different documents. One was an Elizabethan benevolence list from a Norfolk hundred which included twelve yeomen among its 32 "ablest inhabitants." Most of these yeomen were described as having 100 pounds per annum in lands and "rich besides." They were assessed 20 to 40 pounds, but one, a man of 120 pounds per year who was "not Riche besides," was excused from payment. Being a wealthy yeoman in Norfolk at the time, she concludes, appeared to require a store of stock and money as well as lands generating more than 100 pounds per year.

Another document, a treatise of 1600 on incomes of various classes, said, "there are many yeomen in divers Provinces in England which are able yearly to despend betwixt 3 or 5 hundred pound yerely by theire Landes and Leases and some twise and some thrise as much." The author went on to estimate, using lists of freeholders for jury service, that there were about 10,000 wealthy yeomen and 60,000 less wealthy. A later survey from around 1700 gives a similar proportion.

In other works, a 1630 estimate put the income of Devon yeomen at 40 to 100 pounds per year. A writer in 1644 stated that 200 pounds per year was "a great estate" in Cornwall. In 1669, Robert Chamberlyn wrote that 40 or 50 pounds per year was "very ordinary," that 100 and 200 pounds apiece was "not rare" in certain counties, and that sometimes in Kent yeomen were worth 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. Richard Baxter wrote of yeomen near London who had from 200 to 500 pounds per annum in lands and who "in remote parts would passe for gentlemen of great rank."

The scale of wealth was highest around London. Demands of the growing city were such that yeomen of the home counties were saved the trouble of finding markets. In 1595, for example, deputy lieutenants for Hertfordshire complained to the Privy Council about brewers and bakers coming to greedily buy up grain at such high prices as to "do great hurt" to local markets. Farmers with grain to sell within reach of London markets could do very well indeed.

But London was not the only area with special advantages, for any area with access to coastal or river outlets for trade afforded a higher scale of wealth. Water routes were best for transporting goods, roads being expensive for long distance carriage and often barely passable besides. In addition and increasingly during the period, provisioning of expeditions for trade and exploration added important new markets for yeomen within reach of Plymouth or Bristol.

Campbell concluded that the wealthy yeomen -- those of 'the better sort' -- had incomes reaching 100 pounds a year or more and they were not rare. She next surveyed over two thousand appraisals of yeoman estates from 1556 to 1650 and arrived at an average personal estate of 160 pounds. She notes that this is somewhat lower than the actual average because wills of the wealthiest would have been proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (and although many of these PCC wills survive, the estimates do not and so could not be included). Still there were individuals in the group whose personal estates were seven to nine hundred pounds and more.

Campbell also found that the chief distinction between yeomen of greater and lesser wealth was not the style, quality and variety of furnishings but the number of rooms to be furnished. She cites four estates having at least one but not more than two posted beds with hangings, primarily joined furniture, and a good store of linens and pewter. The least of these was valued at 75li 12s 4d for the contents of five rooms and the greatest at 861li 5s 8d for the contents of eleven.

There were the usual exceptions at both ends of the scale. The 1583 inventory of Thomas Harcock of Suffolk showed his possessions to be of a distinctly lower standard than other yeomen. He had three rooms and a dairy house; a trestled bed and 'bourde bedstede' -- the type found in commoner homes before joined furniture was in general use; and furniture of a generally poor character, described as 'an ould cheste,' 'an ould churne,' 'ould cubbard,' 'ould cushions.' He had one tablecloth and only a little pewter. His livestock consisted of a sow, a 'shote,' a gander and two geese, a cock and five hens, a mare and colt, three calves and, this being a dairy area, nine milch cows. His estate was valued at 27li 0s 2d.

At the opposite extreme were yeomen homes featuring one or more articles usually found in homes of the gentry -- a desk, bookcase, pair of virginals, wicker chairs, needlework stools, upholstered chairs, 'Turkey-worke cushions' and thirty or forty pieces of silver rather than the occasional few found in most yeoman homes.

In general, yeomen of the time preferred to live simply and invest their money in land and livestock rather than furnishings. It was not until later that wealthy yeomen began to acquire more articles of adornment or luxury. This was due not only to increased desire for such things but because after the Civil War the goods of many Royalist gentry were sold to pay debts, and these often went to wealthy yeomen. Cornelius Humphrey of Sussex, who died in 1697, is one example from these later times. He had a nine-room house plus milkhouse, brewhouse, malthouse, and washhouse; the house was furnished with rugs, a desk, mirrors, '18 Turkey chairs,' curtained beds, 23 tablecloths, seven dozen table napkins, a good store of silver and more -- quite like the gentry of the previous generation.

Another indication of economic status may be had from the marriage goods of Joan Rider, daughter of a Staffordshire yeoman, who married in 1601. Couples starting out were expected to live simply and accumulate on their own. Given her father's position as a man of substance, these goods are probably the equivalent of a good start in life: a joined bedstead, press, feather bed, flock bed, two bolsters, two pillows, a quilt ('bed-hilling'), two blankets, a twilled covering, five pairs of sheets, two pillow cases, a tablecloth, six napkins, two candlesticks, nine pieces of pewter, a salt, a brass pot and brass pan, one 'knitchen' (small bundle) of hemp and five of flax. She was allowed ten pounds in ready money for other needs as they arose.

Servants.  Many yeoman wills mention servants. Great care must be used in interpreting these as an indicator of wealth, for they were generally employed, both male and female, to do the work of the farm rather than wait on the yeoman and his family. Their numbers therefore reflect the specific needs of the farm rather than wealth.

One of these needs was, obviously, the amount of work to be done, which depended on the type of farm and how labor-intensive were its particular activities. The size and nature of the household also determined need -- a small farmer with several sons and one or two daughters to help with housework, dairying, brewing, etc. might not require any outside help except at harvest and other busy times. Another consideration is the time period, for the practice of hiring by the year was giving way to the hiring of day laborers. In earlier times, feeding a few more meant nothing because there was no market for the surplus, but expanding markets and rising prices meant the more available to market, the better.

Well-to-do yeomen had several servants and could also hire by the day (or hour or piece) as needed. Yeoman wills and other documents citing three, four or five manservants are not unusual. One yeoman of Gloucestershire had eight manservants in 1608; muster rolls, however, suggest that the average for yeomen in the county at that time was 1.1.

Living in the household might be one or more 'apprentices in husbandry,' by choice or perhaps as fulfillment of a parish obligation to care for the orphaned or needy. Such apprentices would receive no wages -- just their board and a suit of clothes at the end of the apprenticeship.

It should be remembered that ordinarily the yeoman's wife did as much work as anyone; if a servant was hired it was not to relieve her but to do the work which was beyond her capacity. However, a gentleman's daughter married off to a wealthy yeoman might well have an easier life -- and a personal maid as well. But no matter how hard the yeoman's wife or daughter might work, certain tasks were considered inappropriate for their station. This included working in the fields or caring for livestock, properly the work of laborers' wives and daughters. Campbell cites a Star Chamber case in which a Berkshire yeoman's daughter complained that her stepfather gave her 'very base service to do about the husbandly and household affairs in keeping cattle, swyne and sheep' such as were 'uncomely offices' for a young girl of her degree.

And while work of the yeoman's wife and daughters was normally limited to their own households, this might involve helping with secondary activities that yeomen sometimes engaged in -- running an inn or tavern that was also the family home, tending a shop set up in or near the home or, in textile areas, weaving for the local market.

The Calendar.  When analyzing yeomen's wills and inventories the time of year should be kept in mind -- barns were at their fullest just after harvest. Some crops might be held back intentionally for late winter and early spring when prices were highest, a time when old stocks were becoming exhausted but no new crop was in. The following calendar showing the yearly round of activities was compiled by Campbell from surviving farm calendars, almanacs, diaries, etc. These varied from farm to farm and especially place to place. Activites such as sowing necessarily occurred much later in northern counties.

Plow lands, harrow, and spread with manure. Set trees and hedges. Prune fruit trees. Lop timber.

"Stir" land for wheat and rye again and sow. Sow vetches, oats and barley. Now through early May, plant gardens; trail vines to poles in hops districts; scour ditches, clean coppices.

As above, but also time for weaning sheep, and a month to watch sheep closely for 'the rot.'

Wash and shear sheep. Lime, marl and manure fields for summer plowing.

Make hay; if time before the grain harvest, get in supply of wood, turf or coal for winter.

Harvest, continuing into September. Hire extra help.

Sow rye and, a little later, wheat. Make cider and perry (apple and pear regions). Prune trees and hedges. Plant rosebushes and bulbous roots. Attend fairs throughout the fall, buying, selling and bartering stock and produce.

Slaughter animals for winter's meat. Put out straw to rot for enriching next year's fields. Bring in stock that will not winter outdoors. Cover asparagus and strawberry beds.

Plow land for beans. Finish any chores for wintering over -- gathering fuel, etc. A few days at Christmas for feasting and making merry, doing only the necessary chores and caring for the farm animals. Almost immediately the cycle begins again.


Mildred Campbell describes many other aspects of yeoman life in The English Yeoman Under Elizabeth and the Early Stuarts. The book should be available from either the booksellers listed on the Links page or through new and used book search sites such as AddAll. The latest edition appears to be 1983 from Merlin Press Limited, ISBN: 085036289X.

For more information:

Cropredy is a very detailed study of an Oxfordshire parish from 1570 to 1640 done from original sources; emphasis is on households of husbandmen. See especially Part V which includes details of homes and furnishings from wills and other documents.

Vernacular House Forms in Seventeenth Century Plymouth Colony looks at houses in old England as well as analyzing evidence from Plymouth Colony probate inventories, 1633-1685.

Huswifery examines the housewife's duties in Shakesperian times, quoting advice of the times. Interesting links.

The Housewife's Rich Cabinet reviews some of the housewifely 'stock in trade.'

The Country Husbandman includes another review of the seasonal round of farming activities.

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