The village of Cheveley has 10th-century origins. It developed during a period of wider village nucleation across England. Saxon farmsteads conglomerated in the centuries either side of the Norman Conquest. Small settlements grew, and were reorganised and planned out in more orderly ways (see CA 368). Today Cheveley is located in eastern Cambridgeshire, close to the Suffolk border and about 5km south- east of Newmarket, but during the medieval period it lay some 13km from the south-east edge of the Fens. This wetland area has now been largely drained, but the medieval Fens were a network of marshes, waterways, valuable fertile reclaimed land, fisheries, and salterns. As for the site investigated by Headland Archaeology (ahead of a housing development by Lightdoor Ltd in 2015), this spot would, during the medieval period, have lain on the southern edge of the village beside the road that led into the high street.
Domesday records indicate that Cheveley was a good-sized ‘woody township’, with a manor making up the larger part of it. This estate was split between several different tenants-in-chief during the 12th century, and it is not clear exactly who owned the excavated land during the medieval period. The candidates are all key players in historical events of the time, though: they include the de Vere family, the Breton de Dinon family, and the Bishop of Ely.
Smiths and their resources
The post-Conquest period saw a marked increase in the use of iron, which was employed in the building trade for nails and other fittings, not least in the many large Norman construction projects that were ordered at this time. Horseshoes also came into regular use, while the increasing human population required ever-greater quantities of agricultural tools and knives. This demand for iron from all levels of society meant that the smith held a position of great responsibility, forming a link between the peasantry and the ruling classes. By the 13th century, most villages had their own blacksmith – probably, at this time, a part-time role, with the bulk of their stock production undertaken during quiet spells in the agricultural year. It is possible that they were only called into service when the need arose, either in the form of large orders from wealthy clients; when ploughing or harvest season required tool repairs; or on demand according to local need, such as farriering the horses of passing travellers. These individuals most probably combined their smithing service with small- scale farming.
The Cheveley smithy’s location, on the edge of the village but on the main road, is typical for sites of this kind. The smoke and noise emanating from the smithy, not to mention the considerable fire-risk attached to them, ensured that they were relegated to the village boundaries. At the same time, it would have been located near and accessible to potential customers from the village, as well as those travelling into or out of the settlement.
The fact that Cheveley is described as ‘woody’ is key in terms of it supporting a smithy. Wood was a vital resource for the iron industry, as charcoal was needed in large quantities to fuel smelting furnaces and forges, to the extent that this industry has often been blamed for deforestation. Recent studies, however, have suggested that the charcoal needs of iron-making were actually met through careful woodland management – for example, using large oak branch-wood, rather than felling whole trees, which allowed regeneration. Water was also very important – and probably not hard to come by on this clay-rich site, where drainage appears to have been the more pressing issue.
Iron, of course, was the other major resource needed, and this would have come from two main places: bar iron from iron-smelting centres, and scrap iron collected from the local area and from other work at the smithy (for example, from discarded horseshoes). Iron-smelting was generally a more specialist process, and was undertaken close to sources of iron ore. The main centres of iron-production in medieval England were the Forest of Dean and the Weald of Kent/Sussex, but local smaller-scale iron-smelting was probably practised too, sometimes by blacksmiths themselves. What, then, did the Cheveley smithy look like?
The remains of the smithy
The excavated remains were well preserved, if a little battered by time and plough. This latter activity had removed all the floor deposits and no in situ metalworking hearths were discovered, but the smithy’s footprint was uncluttered by earlier or later remains (other than a handful of late Saxon finds which presumably relate to agricultural activity at the edge of the then village). This suggests that it had been built on an essentially ‘green field’ site, and reverted to empty land after it was abandoned. All that remained were foundation trenches, a series of post-holes, and a few pits to mark the smithy’s outline; above that, we might imagine a building made of wood, wattle, and daub, most likely with a roof of thatch and a floor of clay or beaten earth.
The smithy appears to have had two incarnations: hints of an earlier, probably rectangular structure could be discerned, though it was largely obscured by the later construction. This second phase was built approximately 5m further to the east and featured a southern extension; the two parts of this later building might represent a building and yard, or a dwelling and workshop, though it is not clear which is which. Meanwhile, other ditches around the building derive from various phases of drainage, and land- and stock-management.
Unmistakeable evidence of the building’s use scattered the site – together with domestic refuse like pottery, cereal grains, and animal bone, there were quantities of industrial waste (iron slag, fired clay, charcoal), as well as ironwork and tools. Iron slag is formed from a combination of hearth lining, fuel, and iron which collects to form a ‘slag mass’ or ‘slag cake’ that solidifies when the hearth cools. Sometimes the nature of the slag can indicate if it derives specifically from smithing or smelting, though often it is more ambiguous. At Cheveley, the types of slags found suggest smithing was undertaken at the site, though the absence of evidence for smelting does not necessarily indicate that this activity was not carried out too.
The other debris was typically fragmentary and valueless – it is likely that anything of value such as iron tools or larger pieces of scrap iron would have been taken when the site was abandoned, though two stone tools that had been used for sharpening were left behind: a hone stone and a piece of broken quern stone that had been used for sharpening points. Among the ironwork, we found standard medieval iron products like a barrel padlock and slide key, horseshoe nails, a broken knife and buckle, and several woodworking nails, while a fragment of strip with a short, pointed tang might be a part-forged object.
Patterns in the waste
When the distribution of all this material was plotted out across the site, the difference between the locations of the smithing slag and the smithing products was particularly striking. The largest concentration of slag was found towards the north of the site, mostly in a very tight cluster at the north-western corner, about 18m away from the smithy structure. However, the majority of everything else – including the domestic midden, the ironwork and the sharpening tools – was found scattered in and around the smithy itself.
From this, it seems likely that the initial processes of forging and shaping iron were undertaken at the north-west of the site, possibly in the open or in a structure that stood just outside the excavated area. A large ferrous anomaly was noted during earlier geophysical survey close to this slag dump (also, unfortunately, just outside the excavation area), which was written off at the time as probably modern but, in retrospect, it may mark the location of the furnace or a large dump of material related to it. It is noteworthy that the only iron object found at this northern end is the partly forged object.
Keeping the heavier aspects of the industry away from the domestic space would have limited the potential damage that might be wreaked by unruly sparks from the forge. Processes undertaken at the structure, on the other hand, clearly included sharpening and possibly also cold-working, copper-plating, and perhaps related crafts such as creating, decorating, and fixing handles and scabbards. It would have been best to undertake these tasks away from the heat, smoke, soot, and noise of the forge, and it is also probable that some of the jobs were undertaken by the women and children of the household in conjunction with childcare and general domestic activities. The structure was most likely used for farriering, too – the two horseshoe nails found there provide a clue, and this building would also have been the better place to display stock and serve customers.
Anarchy and abandonment
Activity at the site was dated using the types of pottery recovered from the smithy remains, and by radiocarbon dating a handful of the cereal grains. Both of these strands of evidence suggest that the site was occupied from c.1100 to c.1220, with a period of abandonment in the 1140s and 1150s. The date of this latter episode is most striking, as there was one event that engulfed the Fenlands in 1143 and 1144 that might account for it: the period that has become known as ‘the Anarchy’.
It began during the bitter and prolonged conflict for the throne after the death of Henry I in 1135. The forces of the Empress Matilda (Henry’s daughter) fought those of King Stephen (his nephew) across England, each striving to secure the succession for their leader. Cheveley lies in a part of the country that was predominantly loyal to Stephen’s claim, and Nigel, the Bishop of Ely (one of the possible landowners of the site), was initially staunch to this cause. In 1139, though, Nigel rebelled against him in favour of Matilda, and fled west as a wrathful Stephen moved against him. Nigel had a strategic refuge at his disposal: the Isle of Ely was an area of relatively dry land at the heart of the Fens, which housed a monastery and cathedral. Access to it was gained via a series of causeways, and if care was taken to guard the ends of these, it was easily defendable.
Stephen attacked Ely in 1142, aiming to disperse Bishop Nigel’s followers on the Isle. To this end, he sent one of his followers, a man called Geoffrey de Mandeville, into the Fens. It was a move he would come to regret. De Mandeville was arrogant, ambitious, devious, violent, and dangerously charismatic – he was also brother-in-law to Aubrey de Vere, one of the other possible landowners of Cheveley. His venture into the Fens was needlessly destructive, and Stephen ultimately had to rein him in to protect the monks. De Mandeville, meanwhile, was playing both sides in the civil war against each other to increase his own power and wealth.
By 1143, Stephen had had enough. De Mandeville was arrested and forced to relinquish his castles in Essex and London, including the Tower, but the disgraced nobleman did not go quietly. That autumn he retaliated, seizing the Isle of Ely and setting it up as his stronghold. From there, he went on to plunder, ravage, and burn the surrounding area, including Ramsey Abbey, Cambridge, and St Ives. He initially particularly targeted sites with royal connections, as well as strategic locations around the edges of the Fens, at the ends of the causeways. As mercenaries and malcontents flocked to his banner and his supplies ran low, the need to feed and reward his followers took precedence and he systematically plundered the entire area. This reign of terror would be only brief, though, and De Mandeville himself came to a violent end: King Stephen built castles at the southern end of the Fen causeways to trap the rebels, and it was at one of these, Burwell, 13km north-west of Cheveley, that de Mandeville was killed by an arrow shot from the castle in September 1144.
Contemporary accounts of the de Mandeville rebellion tell of the devastation and depopulation that accompanied it. In his classic 1892 account of the events, J H Round recounts how de Mandeville’s men went door to door disguised as beggars to discover who had anything left worth stealing. Any households identified would then be visited by armed men in the dead of night, the residents dragged from their beds and tortured until they revealed the locations of these possessions. A smithy would no doubt have had resources worth stealing – could this be how the Cheveley site came to be abandoned? There are no overt signs of violent destruction, but archaeological evidence in the form of burnt structural remains would be largely indistinguishable from some of the domestic and industrial waste that was found. Livestock would have been carried off, and any dead would either have been removed elsewhere for burial, or their remains scattered by animals, leaving no trace for us to see today.
As a happier alternative scenario, smiths would have been much in demand during the years of conflict, both for forging and repairing weapons and armour, and for making nails and other fittings for the rapidly constructed castles in the area – perhaps the smith was pressed into the service of either King Stephen or de Mandeville? It is also possible that, after repeated military incursions into the Fens, the smith saw the danger that he and his family were in and abandoned his feudal allegiance, offering his services within the safer setting of castle walls.
Even if, by good fortune, the village and smithy escaped destruction by fire and sword, the devastation to surrounding lands, destruction of the harvest, and resulting famine and depopulation would have rendered it uninhabitable for a time. This might explain the site’s abandonment in the mid-12th century.
Evidence for the end?
Excavated evidence indicates that the site was reoccupied, probably in the 1160s or 1170s, when a new structure was built over (but slightly offset from) the original – the second phase of the smithy that was identified by Headland Archaeology. This building was occupied for only a couple of generations, until around the 1210s or 1220s. Why it was abandoned a second time is unclear, though there are a number of possibilities. The smith may have moved due to drainage issues on site, or to allow the woodland to regenerate, or because better accommodation was provided elsewhere by the manor. There was a possible population decline in the early 13th century, which may have reduced the demand for iron. However, again, political events may have had a hand. The Cheveley de Dinan manor had passed by marriage to Richard Marshall, and when Marshall fell out with Henry III in 1233, the king ordered all Marshall’s English manors and castles to be destroyed, rather than simply seized as was the norm. It is possible that destruction was once again visited on Cheveley.
The remains uncovered at Cheveley suggest the smithy was dismantled at the end of its life rather than being left to decay in situ. Everything of value, including structural timbers, tools, and scrap iron were taken away. But while the traces left behind were valueless to the inhabitants who discarded them, they are of great value to archaeology, helping us to piece together a story of industry, destruction, and survival across a war-torn century in rural Cambridgeshire.
Author Julie Franklin discusses this subject in more detail on the latest episode of the PastCast. Click here to listen.
J Franklin (2020) ‘Iron in the time of Anarchy: excavation of a 12th-century village smithy at Cheveley’, Proceedings of the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society CIX: 121-148.
O H Creighton and D W Wright (2016) The Anarchy: war and status in 12th-century landscapes of conflict, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
J H Round (1892) Geoffrey de Mandeville: a study of the Anarchy, London: Longmans, Green & Co.
R F Tylecote and I H Goodall (1981) ‘The medieval smith and his methods’, ‘The medieval blacksmith and his products’, in D W Crossley (ed.) Medieval Industry, CBA Research Report No.40, London: Council for British Archaeology, 42-62.
ALL images: courtesy of Headland Archaeology. Illustrations: Beata Wieczorek-Oleksy.