The end of the middle ages

In 1377 a poll tax was ordered throughout England. It levied 4d on the head of every man and woman above the age of fourteen, apart from clergymen and genuinely poor beggars. Unfortunately none of the rolls recording the names of the tax payers have survived for Moreton, but the names of the assessors and collectors have. These were Henry Brokman, William Matheron and Roger Broun for Moreton; Richard Bailly, John Carswill and John Coule for Wray; and Stephen Mol, John Bagge and John Bastard for Howton. Most importantly, the amounts of money charged in tax have survived, from which one can work out the adult population more accurately than at any time previously: Moreton itself was assessed at £2 12s (156 individuals), Wray at 10s (30 individuals), and Howton at 4s (12 individuals): see Carolyn Fenwick, The Poll taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381 (1998)).

These figures allow us to determine an approximate size of population for Moreton at this time. The total population of the population paying tax being 198, not including priests and the genuine needy. It has been argued that the number of needy not paying tax remained fairly constant; to judge from later centuries as many as a third of all adults might count as paupers in this way. Thus the probable rough number of adults in Moreton was about 300, and considering maybe as many as a third of the population were below the age of fourteen (due to the high infant and child mortality) the total population of the parish was probably about 450 at this time. By comparison, in 1377 Chagford had 135 taxpayers (population about 300); Dunsford 80 (population about 100) and Bovey Tracey 150 (population about 350).

Two things from the above figures are obvious: firstly that Moreton was holding its own as a significant local centre, no less important than Chagford or Bovey Tracey; and secondly that it had suffered a loss of population. If there had been two hundred or so people living outside the town in 1332, there were certainly fewer in 1377. The Black Death killed approximately half the population, and while Devon was quick to recover, it was severely affected. We know also that the moorland areas were affected: the tin trade was brought to an almost complete standstill, and since Chagford, just four miles away, was one of the four towns where tin was weighed and assayed (stannary towns), we can be certain that Moreton was affected too. If Moreton's population fell by a third, then we can guess that in the 1330s the town had had a population of about 400-450 within its boundaries, as well as the 200-250 in outlying areas. The four hundred or so survivors in the 1370s would have lived in a parish surrounded by crumbling buildings, relics of farms once worked by men buried quickly, for fear of contagion, within living memory.

For those who survived, new opportunities presented themselves. Wide areas of land suitable for raising sheep were nearby, and while even vaster streches of sheep-rearing land were available to those parishes which bordered Dartmoor, Moreton was a suitable point at which to process the pelts. By the late fifteenth century woollen cloth was the staple industry of the town, and so it remained for the next three hundred years. There were fulling mills on Millbrook at Kinsmansdale and Wrey, and weaving remained an important industry until the eighteenth century. Now the medieval fair, granted by King John and regranted several times since, came into its own. It was very probably money from the wool trade which paid for the rebuilding of the church tower in 1420, either directly, through tolls, or indirectly, through profits raised by the Courtenay family from the manor and borough. This trade and the elevated importance of the town resulted finally in the construction of the most important building in Moreton, St Andrews Hospital, where pilgrims and ill people could attend to their 'spiritual cleanliness' before venturing on their way, whether to an earthly or heavenly destination. The chapel of the hospital, according to Bishop Lacy's register, was newly constructed in 1450 (The Common Register of Bishop Edmund Lacy, iii, p70).

By 1500 Moreton had grown into a prosperous small town. It had kept pace with its neighbours, while never outgrowing them. Very difficult communications with Exeter meant that, effectively, it was still cut off, as may be shown by some of the irregularities which may be noticed in what little can be noted of daily life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In 1342 it was noted by the Archdeacon of Totnes that, at an enquiry made on May 4th, 'the Missal is incomplete, the synodal is torn and defective, the Chrysm bowl is not waxed, thae altar is not dedicated and the lamps are defective' (Lt Col GWG Hughes, 'Moretonhampstead' in TDA, lxxxvi (1954), p80). The archdeacon added that the parishioners had been warned that all these defects must be put in order before the next visitation of the Bishop of Exeter, on the penalty of forty shillings. He added that the main barn of the rectory had fallen down, although other church buildings were in order.

Finally, a reminder that the reward of prosperity is the company of thieves: in 1408 one John Sampson was accused before the king of 'many outrageous treasons, felonies, and other extortions committed by him at sea in contempt of the crown'. In other words he was a pirate. A deputation, led by William Bentley and William Soper, was given the task of hunting him down. They sought him at the house of Peter Whiteley, who denied he knew of his whereabouts, although John Sampson was hiding in his dovecot. Eventually, after many months, he was tracked down. Guess where he had been hiding? Moretonhampstead.

Next section: 6. The Sixteenth Century (not yet written)