2 Early days

In his book, "Lincolnshire and the Fens", Mr. M.W. Barley gives a summary of the research which had been carried out by 1951 into the peopling of Lincolnshire, which was for many centuries the home of the West family. The area had its very early settlements down to the time of the Roman invasion but it did not assume any great importance until the coming of the Angles, who have left as their memorials place-names such as Healing, Hinting, Steeping and Spalding. It seems likely that the chief points of entry for the English invaders were the Humber and the Witham and that the first comers pushed inland, leaving the peopling of the line of the Wolds and the Cliff by a regular pattern of villages to a movement by younger sons among later generations of English settlers. In the ninth century, these communities experienced the danger and destruction which their ancestors had brought to the Britons. The Saxon monasteries of Bardney, Barrow and Partney disappeared without a trace. The end of the warfare brought a division of the land among the Danish settlers, who took over the English farms and villages, making them their own. Not all of these Danes were warrior Vikings; there was, indeed, a popular migration of farmers and their wives, though the Danes kept a military organisation in being for purposes of defence. At first, the Danes avoided the Fens, which contain very few typical Danish place-names, but in course of time approached them more closely.

F.M. Stenton, in his introduction to "The Lincolnshire Domesday", points out that in the time of William I, Lincolnshire was one of the richest counties in England. It had not been affected by The Harrying of the North, and the preponderant number of free peasants, registered by Domesday as sokemen, could transmit their independence to their successors. Stenton quotes many characteristics of the Domesday records in Lincolnshire denoting the overwhelmingly Danish element, in particular, the constant use of the duodecimal system of reckoning. His own conclusion is that Lincolnshire was largely settled by Danes themselves among the remaining English and was not a case of the establishment of a relatively small number of Danish chiefs over an alien English subject race. Stenton gives his conclusion in Vol.l9 of The Lincoln Record Society, 1924 (p.xx).

The Lincolnshire sokemen as a class had inherited their independence from their predecessors, the Danish invaders of the ninth century, and the facts which have just been quoted are in their way evidence of the thoroughness of the Danish settlement. The existence of a large class of peasants who maintained their personal independence with a very modest agricultural equipment proves that this settlement was not merely the establishment of a few Danish chiefs over a subject English population. It was also the settlement of a Danish army among the people whom they had conquered.

Of the relative freedom and independence of the Lincolnshire sokeman he is equally emphatic. There is still unresolved argument over the significance of the Manor in the organisation of the country generally, but Stenton is of opinion that in Lincolnshire in 1036 it meant nothing more than the dwelling place of some theyn or other important person and that it did not necessarily imply seignorial rights. (p.xxiv. Ibid)

For the Lord's rights over his sokeland were far from amounting to ownership. In the twelfth century, and probably also in the eleventh, he held a court for men who dwelt upon his sokeland, did justice between them, in money or in kind. He may sometimes have required them to assist in the repair of the house which was the centre of the manor, and there is good evidence that before the Conquest they had helped him to perform the military service which was due from the estate.


In Sibsey, where we have the first evidence of ancestors of the West family, at the time of Domesday there were 51 sokemen, 16 villains and 10 bordars. There also, Ivo Taillebois, nephew of the Conqueror had a team of oxen and demesne land. Sibsey already had a church and 120 acres of meadow, which was unusually large for a fenland parish. For our purpose, the important point is the preponderance of sokeman, for there was an essential difference between sokemen and villains which Stenton notes. (p. xxvi).

The sokeman must have enjoyed a much wider freedom of alienating his tenement than can have belonged to the villain. Here again, it is necessary to invoke later evidence to explain the terminology of Domesday, but on this point the later evidence is conclusive. Wherever there is adequate later material for the history of a district where there were many sokemen in 1066, the successors of these sokemen can be seen alienating their land by written instrument .... These men cannot have acquired during the twelfth century a power of alienation which did not belong to their predecessors in 1086. The eleventh century was a time of general depression for the peasantry, a period in which ancient liberties were often lost. As a class, the Lincolnshire sokemen were fortunate in retaining an exceptional measure of the liberty which they had inherited from the time before the Conquest. The power of alienation was perhaps the most notable sign of their inherited independence.

The Wests could, of course, just as easily have descended from the villains of Sibsey as from the sokemen. The name is quite undistinguished. There were Danish farms named Wickenby (the farm of the Viking), Somerby (the farm of the summer warrior), and Westlaby (the farm of the west traveller), but it can be nothing more than conjecture that the Wests were descended from a Danish "west-traveller". All that can be said is that they first appear in a predominantly Danish area and that three centuries later, Robert West of Sibsey paid 18d to the Lay Subsidy of Edward III in 1382/3. It is almost certain that the Wests held land in Sibsey in the intervening centuries.

The popular view of the fen dweller, expressed by Macaulay as a "half savage population" and Samuel Smiles as "an amphibious race largely employed in catching eels", dies hard. "Fen dodgers" of both the near and distant past have been described mainly by "upland" men or by writers who have gathered their information from a safe distance. They have invariably been described as a wild and lawless race, confirmed by their isolation in their resistance to all kinds of improvement. Research of various kinds has corrected this view. H.C. Darby in "The Medieval Fenland" shows very clearly the intricate and detailed organisation of life in the fenland villages - their causeways, waterways, drainage, intercommoning among the villages, rights of turf cutting, reed cutting, salt production and fishery - all of which demanded and received constant local regulation. Of course there were constant breaches of the regulations and interminable squabbles, but these were not peculiar to the fenland but to an age which lacked adequate machinery of enforcement.

Yet Darby insists that all these things were really "extras" and that the real work of the fenman was agriculture. A study of extant documents, confirmed by aerial photographs, leads him to the conclusion that in the course of the 250 years after Domesday, the fenland had become the wealthiest part of Lincolnshire - and that its wealth was based upon agriculture. He says (p.141)

Comparison of the Domesday statistics with those of the early fourteenth century brings out a remarkable change in the circumstances of the Fenland. The data for Lincolnshire are particularly clear. In 1086, the prosperity of the upland was many times that of the Fenland. By 1332, the situation was reversed, and the greater part of the Fenland seems to have been many times as prosperous as that of the upland. The Fenland is seen to have gained relatively very considerably indeed. This relative gain can hardly be explained in terms of deterioration of the upland; it must therefore have been due to actual improvement in the fen - an improvement that is measured clearly enough in the contrast between these two sets of data. One point must be mentioned - the greater part of the Lincolnshire Fenland was silt; and the prominence of the silt area of Norfolk Marshland is no less outstanding.

Speaking particularly of the Lay Subsidy of 1332 (p.137), he concludes, "It is evident that the Fenland villages of Lincolnshire ... were large, scattered and prosperous communities", and in a footnote to p.141, he adds, "The Poll Tax Returns of 1377 confirm the superiority of the Fenland over the upland in Lincolnshire."

The Danish Invasions left large pockets of population In various parts of Eastern England, not least in the fen areas of Lincolnshire. There is, of course, no means of proving that a family with such an undistinguished name as West is of any particular origin, but as Wests who are sokemen are found among predominantly Danish populations, it is fair to assume that the family is Danish in origin.

There has been no inspection of early documents to establish the continued presence of the West family in the fenland areas of Lincolnshire during the three centuries that followed the Norman Conquest, but there was a Robert West of Sibsey who paid 18d to the Lay Subsidy of Edward 111 in 1382/3, and Pishy Thompson in The History and Antiquities of Boston, 1856, notes on page 557,

The parish of Leake was taxed £21 to a subsidy of a tenth, by Edward III (Subsidy Rolls) and again £20 - 14 - 4 1/2 to a subsidy of a fifteenth in the same year. It is evident that these subsidies were levied upon different persons or different species of property, or upon varying assessments, for the subsidy of a fifteenth amounts to nearly as much as that of a tenth. The fifteenth was levied upon 164 persons. In the list are found the names of Tonnhyrd (Tunnard), Brett, Bussy, Harrald, Thorald, King, Meres Hart, Ermyn, Munk, Palmer, Graves, Wayte, West, Fendyk, Cullyour, Spencer, Sherman, Hundegate, Grimescroft, Chapman, Pynson, Godwin, Elred, Gerard, Clay, Clement, Hook, Bandrick, Leek, Moss, Pedwardyn, Pyndar and Turner.

The family name also occurs quite regularly in the Fines and Concords relating to the sale of land, but there has been no inspection of these at the time of writing.

3 The Wests of Sibsey

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