History of Stourton Caundle

Sir Ivo FitzWaryn

By Richard Miles

Lord of the Manor from 1369 to 1414

Let’s return to the subject of Dick Whittington and his Cat”and its relevance to the history of our village. In particular in Part 2, I asked the question, “Was the name ‘Cat Lane’ chosen in recognition of the role that cats played in trying to keep our village safe following repeated outbreaks of the plague in the 14th/15th Century?

The pestilence had dealt several cruel blows killing several members of the Haddon and Fitzwaryn families, who at the time were lords of the manor here. From 1348 onwards, bubonic plague had become a reality for everyone, rich or poor, young or old, generation after generation, and it was far, far worse a threat than the coronavirus we are all having to deal with at present. Whole communities were wiped out including many villages here in Dorset, e.g. Holwell village used to lie alongside the medieval church at The Borough.

Medical knowledge in those days was virtually non-existent and treatments, such as blood-letting, were more often likely to render patients’ weaker and less able to fight off any disease. When the plague first arrived, people were terrified as its cause was unknown and so they attributed it to supernatural forces or the wrath of God. We now know that the disease involved the bacteria, Yersinia pestis and would have been controlled by good hygiene measures.

Keeping pet cats as mousers had become popular in Europe by the time of the first plague. However some believed that cats harboured fleas, and so helped to spread the plague. Cats were outlawed in many parts of Europe, and large numbers were killed. At one point in the Middle Ages, there were barely any cats left in England. A few people however, especially those living in rural areas, continued to use them to keep down rats and mice and it was subsequently noticed that these cat owners often seemed to be immune to the pestilence.

Sir Ivo died on 6 September 1414, another casualty of the plague, and Richard Whityngton was one of the executors of his will. It is very significant that Sir Ivo stipulated that “the sum of £2 was left to mend the way between the lordship of Caundle (our village) and Lydlinch”. This strikes as a rather strange bequest. So which route did the way follow linking our village with Lydlinch back in the 15th Century?

Nowadays, Cat Lane heads up the hill to Brunsell Knap Farm. In the oldest map we have dated 1709 there are two routes: the older route continued almost straight on and eventually served some 10 or more strips of land that ran down to Caundle Brook. Some of the best land for cultivation occupied this area, which was alluvial and geologically speaking comprised fertile river terrace deposits. These strips are the remnants of the medieval strip field system, which were typically 1 furlong (220 yards) in length (the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting) and 1 chain (22 yards) in width. So for centuries, villagers would have set off in the morning along Cat Lane to reach their place of work.

The 1798 Estate map, which predates the Battle of Waterloo, also shows this earlier route accessing the strips above the brook. Note that what is now Waterloo Lane was the main Sherborne to Blandford road and its continuation to Jubilee Oak actually bypassed the centre of our village, so it is likely to have been built to avoid the centre of the village, by instead passing across high ground. As a main link road, it does not appear on a detailed map of c.1564 and so probably postdates this map. The most direct route to Lydlinch follows field edges on the 1798 plan and is shown as the red dashed line on this and on the modern map, largely following the contour of the land. It is this, I suggest, that was the route that was refurbished thanks to Sir Ivo’s legacy.

Also, it appears that the name Warr Bridge is a misnomer and that in 1709 it was called “Wall Bridge”, the word ‘Wall’ being visible on the map. By 1798 more fields had been enclosed and the one next to the bridge is called “Walbridge”. Strangely, a second field called “Walbridge” is located further up Waterloo Lane and this could explain that the route to Lydlinch tracked across this land prior to enclosure.

Stourton Caundle was an important place in the time of the Domesday Book (1086) comprising some 45 households and Sir Ivo considered it his home, despite being eventually buried at Wantage. His wife died earlier in 1414, both victims of a new wave of the plague, and in his will, in their memory, he instructed that his household was to remain at Caundle for six months after his death. This suggests that he and his wife, although spending much of their later life in London where they eventually caught the plague, retired to the village along with their retinue since he believed isolating there would safeguard people.

So there you have it – our village was the site of several battles to defeat the plague in the 14th/15th Century, and maybe it remained relatively isolated from the pestilence, safeguarded in part by having plenty of cats to keep vermin at bay? Cats by then had acquired a bad reputation, also associated with witchcraft, and the village may have been at odds with others in the district. In yesteryear, when few read the written word, people would have always referred to fields, bridges and lanes by their names. Surely if Caundle Haddon was one of the more remote places of some notoriety that kept their cats, the people would wish to mark Sir Ivo’s legacy in some way, so why not christen the repaired route to Lydlinch, with the name, “Cat Lane” in memory of his legacy and the advantage that cats had provided over the years? The Cat is indeed celebrated in the tale of Dick Whittington and maybe for good reason!

Richard Miles