The William Salt Archaeological
Society, transcribed, translated, and published records
from ancient law courts in the society’s journal. Black
Country historian, and author, Frederick Hackwood, who
wrote the Annals of Willenhall, published in 1908, was a
member of the Society, and often quoted details of
trials and disputes from the Journal in his books. They
are some of the few surviving records of the town in the
Middle Ages, and so I have included several of them
here. As Willenhall was part of the Royal Forest of
Cannock, the inhabitants had to abide by the oppressive
forest laws of the day. Numerous fines were imposed on
local landowners for illegal enclosures, such as growing
a hedge on forest land.
The Levesons (pronounced Lusons)
became the principal land-owning family in Willenhall.
The family, who had lived there since the early years of
the Norman occupation, farmed their land, and not
infrequently came before the law courts in one dispute
In 1271 Richard Leveson was fined 2
shillings and 3 pence by the Forest Court for illegally
removing trees and bushes from forest land, in order to
cultivate it. Three generations later family members
were attracted to Wolverhampton where they became
wealthy wool merchants, and landowners. They married
into some of the wealthiest local families, and fully
exploited their estates, to become the richest family in
In 1306 John de Swynnerton married
the daughter and heiress of Philip de Montgomery,
Senescal (the Lord’s representative in the
administration of his estate), of the Royal Forest of
Cannock. He became Stewart of the Forest. In 1364 he
sued two Willenhall men for forcibly and feloniously
removing some of his goods and chattels from Willenhall.
In November 1334, John, son of John
de Bentley, was attacked by 30 assailants including five
members of the Leveson family, namely, Geoffrey, Moses,
John, Simon, and Simon the younger.
Richard Adams of Willenhall was
charged with murdering two men, John Odyes, and John de
Bentley in 1339. He was acquitted, so the act was
probably carried out in self-defence.
In 1347, Andrew, son of Simon
Leveson of Willenhall, was sued for treading down, and
consuming the corn of Andrew de le Lone, at Willenhall,
with his cattle, and by force of arms, and for cutting
down his trees, and beating and wounding his servant.
In 1348 Geoffrey Leveson of
Willenhall brought a charge of trespass against John
Oldejones of Wednesfield. A few years later, Juliana
Leveson married William Tomkys, a member of one of the
leading families in Bilston.
In 1369 John de la Lone of
Wolverhampton sued John Leveson of Willenhall for
forcibly taking his fish, to the value of 100 shillings,
from his ponds in Willenhall.
John Wilson of Willenhall
prosecuted a burglar in 1373 who forcibly broke into his
house and estate at Hammerwich, and removed household
utensils, clothing, timber, corn, hay, and everything
that he could carry away. Twenty years later, possibly
the same John Wilson prosecuted John Wilkes of Darlaston
for stealing two of his oxen.
Two Willenhall men, William Colyns,
and William Stokes, were arrested and charged with
cutting down trees and underwood at Bentley, in 1399.
They were also charged with using force and violence to
carry out the act.
John Pype and several other Bilston
men were prosecuted by Sir Hugh Burnell in 1415 for
breaking into his closes at Willenhall, trespassing on
his land, breaking down his grass with their cattle,
committing damage to a grievous extent, and all in
undisguised defiance of the law.
In 1429 Richard Leveson sued Robert
Dorlaston, a weaver, Richard Colyns, a lorymer (meaning
a maker of parts for a horse’s harness, in particular
the metal parts), William Brugge, a yeoman (meaning a
man who owned his own land, and often farmed it
himself), and William Bate, another yeoman, all of
Willenhall, for forcibly breaking into his close.
A similar case occurred in 1433
when James Leveson of Willenhall, sued Roger Walters, a
lorymer from Willenhall, for forcible entry into his
houses and close. Three years later James Leveson sued
John Pippard, a chaplain, over a piece of land in
Wolverhampton, which he said he had inherited from
Richard Leveson of Willenhall.
A ploughing team in action.
From the details of the individual
cases, a picture emerges of a small farming community,
working on individual pieces of land, adjacent to the
forest, and governed by the strict forest laws.
Ownership of land, or the right to farm it, was clearly
very important, because it would have determined the
income, and lifestyle of the individual farming
families. There were also small service industries,
supplying the local community with their everyday needs.
Mentions are made of a weaver, and a lorymer. Some of
the landowners were comparatively well off, being able
to afford a servant.
The Subsidy Rolls of 1332 to 1333
include the names of individuals assessed for tax. Only
the richer members of society were eligible to pay the
tax and so the list cannot be used to calculate
population figures, but does provide an indication of
the comparative size and prosperity of Willenhall and
the surrounding towns. The amount of tax paid was based
upon the value of movable goods that were owned by each
person, and the status of the town. People living in
cities, boroughs and ancient manors paid one tenth of
the value, whereas others paid one fifteenth of the
value. People whose movable goods were valued at less
than 10 shillings were exempt.
- 1332 to 1333
Darlaston and Bentley
As can be seen, Willenhall was more
prosperous than some of its neighbours, possibly due to
the fertile soil in the locality.
It is not known what effect the
Black Death had on the local community, after its
arrival in 1348. Nationally it resulted in the deaths of
between 30 to 40 percent of the population, around 2
million people. It certainly changed the way the country
was run, and eventually led to the demise of the old