The village of Whatborough was cleared in 1495 for sheep farming, much in the way the better known highland clearances took place. Details of Whatborough are well recorded as, in 1586, the Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, the owner of the land was in a dispute with the owners of neighbouring land. The map is the earliest known map record of the enclosure and depopulation of a village.
The deserted village of Whatborough lies on the southwest side of Whatborough Hill, to the North of Whatborough Farm. In 1086 the Domesday book records Whatborough with 1 freeman, 11 small holders and 4 villagers, a relatively small settlement. Also noted as belonging to Whatborough is a hamlet named Burthett ('The Burgh') on the boundary with Launde Parish. This hamlet has since also been lost.
In 1156 Henry II granted the lands at Whatborough to Fulk fitzWarine, whose father founded the Priory of Alderbury in Shropshire. Fulk fitzWarine granted The Burgh and pasture on lands of Whatborough after harvesting to Launde Priory, which had been established in 1125. A Chapel, dedicated to St. Nicholas, existed at this time, but had disappeared by the 14th Century (Sister Elspeth 1907).
1246 saw the origins of the dispute, as Launde and Alderbury Priories entered into an agreement to swap pieces of land: Woodland in Whatborough transferred to Alderbury, while land between Halstead and Launde transferred to Launde. Then in 1327 Alderbury leased the lands back to Launde Priory. Under Henry V, in 1414, the Alien Priories were sequestered and their land and revenues taken into the King's hands. This included Alderbury Priory and its land at Whatborough. The king's son, Henry VI, subsequently transferred most lands to other monasteries, but in the case of Whatborough, it was transferred to All Souls College, Oxford in 1437.
In 1458, All Souls College leased the land back to Launde. In 1495, Whatborough was enclosed by Launde, presumably to benefit from the lower labour requirements and higher profits from sheep farming. However, not all land in Whatborough was enclosed and some of the land to the south and west was farmed as part of Halstead's arable lands until the enclosure of Halstead in 1605.
The Dissolution of the monasteries, which started in 1536, must have been anticipated because Launde sought to reduce assets, with Thomas Cromwell, owner of the Lordship of Withcote, expressing interest from 1528. Launde finally dissolved at the end of 1539. In 1540 Cromwell was granted the Priory of Launde and included in this was the land of Whatborough.
All Souls College papers record the renewal of leases in 1504 and 1531, but when it sought to renew its lease in the 1550s, Cromwell disputed its ownership of the land. This led to a long case in the Court of the Exchequer, which ultimately went to trial in 1597 in Leicester. The case cost All Souls £2,500, or about 5 years of the gross revenue of the entire Launde Priory estate. 1607 saw final confirmation that the college owned Whatborough close, but it relinquished right and title to the land next to Launde, known as the New Enclosure.
The complicated history, over many centuries, with leases, transfers of ownership and boundary changes had clearly complicated the case and had to be understood to resolve the matter. It led, in 1586, to All Souls commissioning the Whatborough map from Thomas Clerke, a surveyor from St Martins, Stamford. By 1586, there were no living former residents of Whatborough, so Clerke used evidence on the ground and the testimony of residents or nearby villages.
The earthworks from the former village remain clearly visible on Satellite images, such as those on google maps. Bing maps also has very clear images.
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