Astbury in Domesday Book

Judging from the size of its parish, Astbury would appear to have been an important pre-Conquest estate centre. The name means 'eastern borough or defence' and the village was probably named in relation to the major pre-Conquest estate centre of Sandbach. It was apparently a place to reckon with. It is, then, the more strange that the name does not appear in Domesday Book. Given that the place was already in existence in 1086, there are a number of possible reasons for this apparent omission. The simplest would be to suppose that it was accidentally overlooked: it is not unknown for the Domesday scribe to leave a space for an entry and then forget to supply the information. It is possible that at the time it had another or alternative name: place-names could change for various reasons. More abstrusely, it might have been omitted precisely because it was especially important: Domesday Book was about land that was assessed to the geld and exempt estates ('inland') therefore did not fall within its remit. Finally, it may appear under another name: by and large, Domesday Book concerned itself with estates rather than settlements and it often identified them by an estate name rather than a village name. It is this last that is the most likely explanation for the non-appearance of Astbury.

Suspicion must fall upon Newbold. Today Newbold is little more than a handful of houses within the township of Astbury, but in 1086 it was a major manorial centre. It was held of the earl of Chester by Gilbert de Venables, called Gilbert the hunter in Domesday Book. The land is described thus:-


Gilbert the hunter holds of the earl Newbold. Wulfgeat held and was a free man [There is] 11/2 hides gelding. There is land for 5 ploughs. A radman has one plough there and a priest one plough. [there are] 3 villagers and 2 bordars. [There is] 1 acre of meadow there and wood 1 league in length and as much wide and 2 enclosures there. In the time of King Edward it was worth 20 shillings, now 8 (DB i, 267a).

Gilbert was one of the earl's honourial barons. Earl Hugh 'the Fat' was a keen hunter, and Gilbert would seem to have been one of his huntsmen. He held in total eighteen manors in Cheshire and north Wales, including Brereton, Kinderton, Davenport, and Witton in the vicinity of Newbold. Whether Newbold was his principal residence in 1086 is unclear; if it was not, it was to become so for his successors from the twelfth century onwards.

The social and economic profile of the estate is much the same as that of Congleton and Buglawton. What is striking, however, is the record of a priest. In this part of Cheshire a priest strongly suggests a church, and yet no church is known to have existed at Newbold. Add to this the fact that Gilbert de Venables granted the church of Astbury to St Werburgh's Abbey, Chester, and it seems clear that the Newbold entry must include at least a part of Astbury. In the later Middle Ages the manor of Astbury was distinct from that of Newbold, but it was probably held of the Venables fee. It is likely, then, that the Newbold of Domesday Book embraced Astbury and was named in Domesday Book in preference to it because it was the centre of the whole estate.

The place-name itself indicates that this had not always been the case. Newbold means 'new hall'. It is widely used of new manors and new sites for the manor house of old manors. The latter seems appropriate here: Newbold was the successor to an earlier site, presumably in Astbury itself. The pattern of development is most famously paralleled by Chesterfield in Derbyshire. Before, as after the Conquest, that great soke centre was known by the name that is familiar today, but in Domesday Book it is called Newbold where the lord's house was situated in 1086.

Perhaps the naming of the Astbury Newbold marks a significant stage in the management of the wider Astbury estate. Wulfgeat, the pre-Conquest holder, was not a king's thegn. He was a predecessor for much of Gilbert's land, but probably himself held from the pre-Conquest earl Edwin. He, or more likely a predecessor, was in all probability installed in Astbury as something akin to a bailiff. In the course of time the drengage, as this type of tenure was known, became hereditary and a presumptive right to part of the estate was assumed. The building of the 'new hall' probably marks the point at which Wulfgeat's family was perceived to have arrived as lords in their own right.

ãDavid Roffe, 2000.