Aerial image of the earthworks at Little Oxendon in Northamptonshire
Archaeology Listed places

7 Abandoned Villages That Can Teach Us About Medieval Life

Explore the spaces in which medieval people farmed and made their homes in the English landscape.

In the medieval countryside, people lived in a variety of settlement types.

These ranged from individual farms and hamlets of a few households to much larger villages. There were also temporary or seasonal abodes in outlying places associated with activities like summer grazing of the uplands.

Villages were the most distinctive aspect of medieval life. The archaeological earthworks that remain help us experience the spaces in which medieval people farmed and made their homes in the English landscape, telling us much about their everyday lives.

Most of these villages were deserted or shrank in the 14th and 15th centuries, often because of a shift from arable farming to sheep rearing, which needed a smaller labour force.

Here we look at seven abandoned medieval villages.

1. Little Oxendon, Northamptonshire

Little Oxenden AP, earthworks of an abandoned village.
Little Oxendon. © Historic England Archive.

Little Oxendon displays the classic layout of a medieval village. The long groove running left to right formed the main route through the settlement. The large rectangles on either side are called crofts, representing gardens used for growing vegetables. Within these are smaller rectangular earthworks called tofts, which were walled plots with a house and perhaps a barn standing within. The large rectangle in the centre may have been the manor house or chapel.

 2. East Matfen, Tyne and Wear

Aerial photo of earthworks in green fields
East Matfen. © Historic England Archive.

Surrounding the deserted village of East Matfen are the undulating lines of medieval ploughing, known as ridge and furrow.

 3. Clipston, Northamptonshire

Clipston medieval village remains and ridge and furrow
Clipston medieval village remains and ridge and furrow. © Historic England Archive.

Although Clipston is still occupied, many abandoned features surround the current village. This image shows crofts, tofts and extensive medieval ploughing.

4. Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire

Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire. Aerial view of the medieval village.
Wharram Percy. © Historic England Archive. PLB_N070612.

The most famous and one of the best preserved British deserted medieval villages, Wharram Percy is a nationally important scheduled ancient monument.

5. Kirby, Northamptonshire

Aerial photo of earthworks at kirby grounds
Kirby grounds. © Historic England Archive.

Crofts, tofts and a buried fish pond are all that remains of the lost medieval settlement of Kirby.

6. Gainsthorpe, Lincolnshire

Aerial photo of earthworks in a green field in Gainsthorpe
Gainsthorpe. © Historic England Archive.

The complex of grassy humps and bumps at Gainsthorpe clearly show domestic buildings, trackways, dovecotes and a fishpond. Legend has it that the village was demolished because it was a den of thieves, but the real reason for its abandonment remains uncertain.

7. Hound Tor, Devon

Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village, Manaton, Devon.
Hound Tor Deserted Medieval Village, Manaton, Devon. © Historic England Archive.

Four 13th-century stone farmsteads are the only remains of this isolated Dartmoor hamlet, on land first farmed in the Bronze Age.

Further reading

16 comments on “7 Abandoned Villages That Can Teach Us About Medieval Life

  1. Reblogged this on starryblackness and commented:
    I love these photos from a time lost. If pictures can paint a thousand words, these photos just ask me one: Why?

  2. Thank you for posting this history lesson, we need to be reminded of where we came from and how we got here.

  3. Very atmospheric places to visit and ponder the past… Love the aerial photography. Thanks

  4. Some great glimpses of everyday life showing up in those photographs – particularly Gainsthorpe, and Wharram Percy.

    I’ve visited Faxton, also a deserted medieval village, and also in Northamptonshire, and it was surprising at just how many clues were left there for the eye to see.

    What made Northamptonshire villages so desirable to leave?

    • Interesting that someone has heard of Faxton, my father was born there in 1925 before moving to Brixworth as a child.

    • scrimmers

      Faxton wasn’t fully deserted until the 1930s. I commend the booklet “the deserted villages of Northamptonshire ” published by Leicester University in the 1960s…there are hundreds of shrunken, deserted and moved villages in the county. Many due to enclosure, some due to the big house wanting a better view…

  5. Wonderful!

  6. Wow, amazing photos and fascinating history! I love features on aerial archaeology.

  7. If anyone has any further information or enlightenment on these abandoned villages or know about the ordinary peaple who lived and worked there I would welcome hearing from you.

  8. Reblogged this on redmarine754.

  9. In the early 13 hundreds there was a famine and the black death arrived. This ment up to 50% of the population died. The upside of this was that if you survived your services were now in demand and many villages were left empty as workers left for better wages. The villages were then levelled for grazing as this was less labour intensive.

  10. Wonderful photos! Can anyone comment on whether recently tilled fields hide additional parts of these villages and if more recent landholders have consciously preserved these remains or left them unbothered by chance?

  11. Caroline Hobbs

    After going to Wharram Percy I think it would be a better visitor experience if the signage were clearer and had aerial photographs showing where you are as well as information about each house if known…its hard on the ground to orientated oneself or know what you’re looking at. A beautiful walk but probably not suitable for people with walking difficulties as it’s quite a distance and steep in bits especially where the path goes down to the church.

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