Abandoned medieval village of Onley


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
To the east of Onley Grounds at NGR SP5125170608.


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
To the east of Onley Grounds at NGR SP5125170608.
West Northamptonshire (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Abandoned medieval village of Onley, first documented in 1272.

Reasons for Designation

The medieval village site at Onley, first documented in 1272, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Survival: for the well defined settlement earthworks and the associated ridge and furrow depicting the form and plan of the settlement and its associated agricultural practices;

* Potential: for the stratified archaeological deposits which retain considerable potential to increase our understanding of the physical characteristics of the buildings and settlement. Buried artefacts will also have the potential to increase our knowledge and understanding of the social and economic functioning of the settlement within the wider medieval landscape;

* Documentation: for the high level of historical and archaeological documentation pertaining to the settlement’s evolution;

* Group value: for its proximity to other related contemporary scheduled monuments, including the medieval village of Fawcliff at Braunston Cleves (NHLE 1006618);

* Diversity: for the range and complexity of features such as building platforms, crofts, trackways, moated manorial centre and ridge and furrow which, taken as a whole, provide a clear plan of the settlement and retain significant stratified deposits which serve to provide details of the continuity and change in the evolution of the settlement.


The village, comprising a small group of houses (tofts), gardens (crofts), yards, streets, paddocks, a manor and a church, sometimes a green, occupied by a community devoted primarily to agriculture, was a significant component of the rural landscape in much of lowland medieval England, much as it is today. The Introduction to Heritage Assets on Medieval Settlements (English Heritage, May 2011) explains that most villages were established in the C9 and C10, and exhibit a variety of plan-forms, from the highly irregular at one extreme to planned villages with tofts and crofts running back from a main road, often linked with a back lane around the rear of the crofts, and typically having a church and manor house in larger compartments at the end of the village. In recognising the great regional diversity of medieval rural settlements in England, Roberts and Wrathmell (2003) divided the country into three broad Provinces on the basis of each area's distinctive mixture of nucleated and dispersed settlements; these were further divided into sub-Provinces. The Northamptonshire settlements lie in the East Midlands sub-Province of the Central Province, an area characterised in the medieval period by large numbers of nucleated settlements. The southern part of the sub-Province has greater variety of settlement, with dispersed farmsteads and hamlets intermixed with the villages. Whilst some of the dispersed settlements are post-medieval, others may represent much older farming landscapes.

Although many villages and hamlets continue to be occupied to the present day, some 2,000 nationally were abandoned in the medieval and post-medieval periods and others have shrunken. In the second half of the C20, research focussed on when and why desertion and shrinkage occurred. Current orthodoxy sees settlements of all periods as fluid entities, being created and disappearing, expanding and contracting and sometimes shifting often over a long period of time. Abandonment may have occurred as early as the C11 or continued into the C20, although it seems to have peaked during the C14 and C15. In the East Midlands sub-Province, Roberts and Wrathmell identified that the sites of many settlements, most of which were first documented in Domesday Book of 1086, are still occupied by modern villages, but others have been partially or wholly deserted and are marked by earthwork remains. Research into Northamptonshire medieval villages highlights two prevalent causes of settlement change, namely the shift from arable farming to sheep pasture in the C15 and C16 (requiring larger tracts of land to be made available for grazing), and the enclosure of open fields from the late C16 through to the mid C19 for emparkment or agricultural improvement. Despite the commonly held view that plague caused the abandonment of many villages, the documentary evidence available confirms only one such case in Northamptonshire, the former settlement of Hale, in Apethorpe.

Recent attention on the evidence for medieval agricultural practices, typically found in the hinterland of the settlements, has highlighted the survival of the earthwork remains of ‘ridge and furrow’. The Introduction to Heritage Assets on Field Systems explains that the origins of ridge and furrow cultivation can be traced to the C10 or before. By the C13, the countryside had acquired a widespread corrugated appearance as settlement developed into a pattern of ‘townships’ (basic units of community life and farming activity). The cultivated ridges, individual strips known as ‘lands’, were incorporated into similarly aligned blocks known as ‘furlongs’, separated from each other by raised ridges known as ‘headlands’ which, in turn, were grouped into two, three or sometimes four large unenclosed ‘Great Fields’. These fields occupied much of the available land in each township but around the fringes lay areas of meadow, pasture (normally unploughable land on steep slopes or near water) and woodland. The characteristic pattern of ridge and furrow was created by ploughing clockwise and anti-clockwise to create lines of flanking furrows interspersed with ridges of ploughed soil. The action of the plough, pulled by oxen, takes the form of a reversed ‘S’-shape when seen in plan. The furrows enabled the land to drain and demarcated individual farmer’s plots of land within the Great Fields. The open-field system ensured that furlongs and strips were fairly distributed through different parts of the township and that one of the Great Fields was left fallow each year.

It is believed that before 1272 the national taxation records for Onley were recorded under Barby. Onley itself is first mentioned by name in documents in 1272 when it is recorded that George de Cantelupe held Onley, together with the manor of Barby. At Onley there were 13 virgates (the amount of land that a team of two oxen could plough in a single annual season) in villeinage (owned by the lord of the manor but in tenure to a peasant farmer). The land at this time was valued at 9s per annum. In 1345 there is reference to ‘tenements in Onle’ indicating that the village was still in existence at this time. Thereafter there is no indication of its status until the early C18 when it was described as ‘a hamlet of seven shepherds' houses’ (Bridges 1791). By 1841, 19 people lived in the area, in five scattered farms, similar to today.

The date of the enclosure of the common fields of Onley is unknown. Ridge and furrow of these fields exists on the ground or can be traced on air photographs around the site of the deserted village and in the north and west parts of the land attributable to the latter. The amount of surviving ridge and furrow has been significantly reduced since 1981 when the settlement was surveyed (RCHME 1981). The site of the village of Onley is largely covered by narrow ridge and furrow, probably of late C18 or early C19 date.


PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS The abandoned medieval settlement of Onley lies within the parish of Barby, close to the county boundary between Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. The settlement is situated on the flat, north western part of the parish, at c88m OD. It covers an area of c28 hectares. The monument includes the earthwork and buried archaeological remains of the medieval village of Onley including hollow ways, tofts, crofts, fishponds and ridge and furrow.

DESCRIPTION The remains lie on either side of a small south-west flowing stream, the north-east part of which is now in a culvert and visible only in wet weather. In the southernmost field a series of rectangular scarped closes lie on either side of an irregular hollow way or main street which, in places, is over-ploughed by later narrow ridge and furrow. South of this hollow way a second runs west to the stream. At the northern end, the main street curves north-west to meet the stream. From the curve in the hollow way another runs east. Towards the northern edge two short hollow ways run to the north-west, over the current line of the stream and are still visible west of the stream.

To the north-west of the main hollow way are at least six long embanked closes, former crofts and tofts, but all are over-ploughed by later ridge and furrow and the house sites are difficult to distinguish although recent aerial photographs (English Heritage 2013) indicate the high level of survival and archaeological potential of these remains. To the south-east of the hollow way is a further series of closes, these do not appear to have been ploughed but no definite platforms are visible. Further south-east narrow-rig covers the area but a narrow, long low scarp suggests there may have been crofts here at one time.

To the north of the east to west aligned hollow way, in the north-east quadrant of the scheduled area, is another series of closes, most of which have faint traces of later ploughing within them. These closes are bounded on the north by another hollow way which is the largest feature on the site, being up to 2.5m deep in places. Though the hollow way has certainly been used as a street it is also the line of the original stream and must have been used as a watercourse when the village was occupied, as the water to the fishponds to the east is believed to have run along it. Immediately north of this hollow way is a long rectangular area bounded on the north by a narrow ditch beyond which is an area of narrow-rig ploughing. This area has been completely ploughed over at some time, but light scarps indicate that it was formerly divided into crofts of various sizes.

To the east are two fishponds of irregular shape, separated by a degraded dam up to 1m high at the west but c1.5 m high at the east. The ponds are cut into the adjacent ground and the scarps along their east sides are up to 2m high. The southernmost pond has traces of later ploughing within it and the adjacent medieval ridge and furrow to the east appears to overlie its eastern edge.

On the north-west of the stream is a large area of land covered with narrow ridge and furrow and bounded on the north-west by a broad ditch or hollow way. In this area, distorted by the later ploughing, are traces of long narrow closes edged by low scarps. These closes appear more regular than elsewhere on the site and might be regarded as a late addition to the village.

A ruinous cottage documented during the archaeological survey of 1981 (RCHME) is now only evident as low banks with protruding stone and brick. This, although recorded as being mainly of C19 date with some late C18 features, may have been a rebuilding of one of the shepherd's cottages recorded in the early C18. A few sherds of C14 pottery have been found along the bed of the stream.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING The area of the scheduling is defined on all four sides by modern field boundaries and is cut north-east to south-west by a stream defined on both sides by field boundaries. Paddocks enclosed by electric fencing align with the western bank of the stream. A double fence of post and wire construction cuts across the easternmost field from south-east to north-west. All fences and gates are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath them is included.

There is considerable potential for undesignated (but potentially nationally important) heritage assets to survive outside the scheduled area of Onley medieval settlement, particularly around the site of Onley Grounds Farm. These may take the form of standing structures or buried deposits but are considered to be most appropriately managed through the National Planning Policy Framework (March 2012) and are not therefore included within the scheduled area. The remains of well preserved ridge and furrow survive outside the scheduled area, in the immediate vicinity of Onley Grounds Farm and north-east of the scheduled area, to the east of the dismantled railway. Both these areas are physically detached from the main settlement remains and have not therefore been included but they do add significant character to the area.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
NN 110
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Allison, K J, Beresford, M W, Hurst, J G, The Deserted Villages of Northamptonshire, (1966)
Astill, G, Grant, A, The Countryside of Medieval England, (1988)
Aston, M, Austin, D, Dyer, C(eds), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England: Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst, (1989)
Christie, N, Stamper, P (eds), Medieval Rural Settlement: Britain and Ireland AD 800-1600, (2012)
Dyer, C, Jones, R, Deserted Villages Revisited, (2010)
Hall, D, Turning the Plough. Midland Open Fields;landscape character and proposals for management, (2001)
Lewis, C, Mitchell-Fox, P, Dyer, C , Village, Hamlet and Field: Changing Medieval Settlements in Central England, (1997)
Partida, T, Hall, D, Foard, G, An Atlas of Northamptonshire The Medieval and Early-Modern Landscape, (2013)
Roberts, , Wrathmell, , An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England, (2000)
Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England, , An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Northamptonshire III, (1981)
Williamson, T., Partida, T, Champion. The Making and Unmaking of the English Midland Landscape, (2013)
Hall, D, 'Northamptonshire Records Society' in The Open Fields of Northamptonshire, (1995)
Northamptonshire Historic Environment Record (HER),


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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