The settlement at Whitwell came into being some 13 centuries ago, and received its first documentary mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 942 AD. The first part of this history attempts to explain how Whitwell came into being, to set the settlement into a regional context, and to chart its development to the Tudor period, insofar as the documentary and field evidence will permit.
THE PHYSICAL BACKGROUND
The parish of Whitwell, some 5000 acres in extent, lies on the eastern edge of the Permian Limestone belt - a narrow belt running roughly north-south, the western dip-slope of which is marked by the descent from Barlborough to Renishaw, and whose eastern margin dips away from Red Hill to Worksop. To the west lie the Coal Measure Sandstones, and to the east is the New Red Sandstone. The Permian limestones outcrop in places, but are usually overlain by shallow clay or mad soils, which lend well to arable cultivation. The stone is not only suitable for building purposes, but can be burnt to provide lime.
The parish is bounded on the north by the Bondhay Dike, which drains into the river Ryton, to the east by the Darfoulds Dike and Walling Brook, and to the south by the Creswell Dike. These streams join the Millwood Brook to grow into the artificially enlarged Welbeck Lakes at Sloswicks on the eastern extremity of the parish. Welbeck Lakes, in their turn, feed the river Poulter. These streams constitute a natural boundary to the north, east and south of the parish, and would appear to delimit its extent from the time of Anglo-Saxon settlement. Before improved drainage and colliery pumping operations lowered the water table, the old settlement area of Whitwell was served by the Dicken Dike, a stream which rose near Highwood, flowed through the Dicken and into the Square, then headed towards Belph where it too joined the Millwood Brook. The Dicken Dike was the stream, which was the major influencing factor in the siting of the original, Anglo-Saxon, settlement of Whitwell.
THE ORIGINS OF WHITWELL
The origins of the settlement of Whitwell are shrouded in the depths of time, but possibly by the mid-7th century AD, and certainly by 700, our Anglo-Saxon forebears had established a small settlement on the pleasant southward-facing area of land between where the parish church now stands and the Dicken Dike. "Dicken" itself derives from the Old English word ‘did' meaning ‘ditch’ or ‘trench’. The name of this settlement was Hwitewylle, the meaning of which is 'clear spring or stream'. Whitwell was one of a number of dispersed settlements or farming units within a three-mile radius, which appear to have originated at that time, some of which bear a personal name as the first component of the place-name, perhaps indicating the identity of the founder of the settlement. Most of these settlements have the old English ending of 'leah' (modern 'ley'), which means 'open space or clearing within woodland 'and thus gives some idea of the nature of the landscape at the time of settlement.
Neighbouring settlements, which on place-name evidence are likely to have been founded more or less contemporaneously with Whitwell, are Elmton ('farm of the elms'), Barlborough, the original name of which was probably Barley ('boar or barley clearing'), Slaley, Steetley and Pebley (Pybba's clearing') within the present parish of Barlborough, Romeley ('large, spacious clearing') in Clowne, Steetley ('stump clearing'), Creswell ('a stream where cress grew') and Belph (Old English 'belg' or 'bag-shaped' [valley]) in Whitwell. At, or shortly after the time of their creation, Whitwell and its neighbouring settlements formed part of the West Midland kingdom of Mercia, and lay close to if not upon that kingdom's northern border with Northumbria. From time to time, the boundary of the two kingdoms shifted and some of the adjacent settlements to the north, which later came to be included in the West Riding of Yorkshire, appeared to be under Mercian rule. Whitwell's first recorded mention, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, occurs in 942 AD as a point on the then boundary of Mercia between Dore (in historic Derbyshire, but within modern Sheffield) and the Humber estuary. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to 'Hwitan Wylles Geat' (the Whitwell Gap), which has been interpreted as meaning 'the gap near Whitwell.' Lf this interpretation is correct, then the 'gap near Whitwell' might refer to the gap at the northern extremity of Whitwell Wood, through which flows the Bondhay Dike, and which not only marks the historic and present boundary between Whitwell and Thorpe Salvin, but also the ancient boundary between Derbyshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire - a boundary which could be coeval with the establishment of the shire counties as administrative units in the mid-10th century and the fixing of county boundaries. If one were to project this boundary line westwards, this could help to explain the positioning of the 'burhs' (defensive works of the Anglo-Danish period) at Barlborough and Mosborough, inferred from their place-name endings. Perhaps the prominent site at Caste Hill, Whitwell, which sits overlooking the ancient county boundary at the head of the 'Whitwell Gap' is a defensive earthwork of this period, as in siting it makes little sense in any other period, earlier or later.
Although most of the land around Whitwell appears to have been occupied by Anglo-Saxon settlers during the 7th or early 8th century, some marginal land may not have been occupied until the Anglo-Scandinavian period of the late 9th or early 10th century. Whilst the Old Scandinavian ending ‘by’ ('hamlet') is missing from settlements in the immediate vicinity. The place-name ending ‘torp’ ('thorpe' or 'outlying farm') is present in a couple of cases, viz. Harlsthorpe ('Thoraldr's outlying farm') in Clowne, and Thorpe (Salvin) ('torp' plus the later addition of the family name Salvin), which in its early form was Ryknieldsthorpe ("outlying farm on or by the ancient route Packman Lane or Ryknield Street'). The paucity of Anglo-Scandinavian place-names in the vicinity might indicate that the land was already heavily settled and that only infilling on relatively small areas was possible. There was, however, some Anglo-Scandinavian influence in Whitwell, as evidenced by a small number of field-names, which contain elements derived from Viking or Norse words, for example 'wong' as in Basil Wong, from the old Norse word 'vangr' ('garden' or 'in-field'). The number of such names is so small as to suggest that later influence was minimal in a landscape, which had been settled two or more centuries earlier.
Some insight into local territorial holdings of the later Saxon period is given by the will of the great Mercian thegn (nobleman) Wulfric Spott, dated between 1002-4AD, in which he bequeaths the manors of Barlborough, Beighton, Clowne, Duckmanton, Eckington, Mosborough and Whitwell to a certain Morcar, probably the chief thegn of the Five Boroughs of Mercia, who, with his brother Sigeferth, was murdered in 1015. As Wulfric's holding included a block of manors in Yorkshire, mainly south of the Don, there is a strong possibility that not only does the unit predate the establishment of shire county boundaries in the middle years of the previous century, but has its origins much earlier, when the boundaries of Mercia may have extended as far as the Don. The place name 'markland' ('boundary land') situated along the southern margin of Whitwell parish may perpetuate the line of the southern boundary of this estate, especially since none of the manors detailed in Wulfric's will lies south of this line. It is conjectured that the centre of this estate may have been originally Conisbrough, which was not only an important early ecclesiastical centre, but continued to be a significant administrative centre and caput for the Warenne honour into the medieval period.
At the Norman Conquest, Levenot (Leofnoth), by an unknown succession of title, was in possession of all the manors constituting the Derbyshire property, which passed to Morcar by Wulfric Spott's will. Twenty years later, in the Domesday Survey, the same territorial unit was in the possession Ralf (Ralph), son of Hubert (Fitzhubert), the Norman tenant-in-chief whose Derbyshire holdings were fairly compact and centred in mid-Derbyshire, around Crich and Ashover.
THE SAXON SETTLEMENT
The earliest mention of Whitwell is in the will of Wulfric Spott, who, in the time of King Ethelred, bestowed lands in Derbyshire, including Whitwell and several adjacent parishes, to Morcar. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in the year 942 AD, there was a place called Hwitan Wylles Geat in this locality. From these words, meaning 'the shining stream' the name of Whitwell was derived. 'Geat 'is an old Saxon word meaning 'A passage between the hills'. In this passage, or valley, the village settlement began.
The first and probably most important facet of early Saxon life was the gradual spread of Christianity. Whether there ever was a Saxon church at Whitwell is doubtful, although there are traces of rough Saxon stone used in the Norman church building and, of course, there is the Saxon font inside. Religion at this stage had little meaning for the common man; he was too busily engaged in the life and death struggle of obtaining a living from the soil and would have little energy left for either material or spiritual matters. So there was little need for a church building; often just a wayside cross erected at the parish boundary, where it also served as a direction marker, was adequate for the people and an itinerant priest.
Whitwell, like most Saxon villages, would be essentially a family settlement. Whilst a chieftain would be appointed, the laws and regulations under which the village worked were loosely formed and would be passed on by tradition and word of mouth rather than by written edict. Everyone had a duty to apprehend wrongdoers and to sit in judgement as well as to apprehend. There was a loose organisation of villages into 'hundreds' and of hundreds into 'shires' following the Viking invasions from Denmark and Norway, which led to the introduction of the Danelaw - nevertheless the organisation was still fragmented with little sense of unity.
The work of the freemen was to till the land to the best advantage and in this they were assisted by the slave workers or serfs. The freeholders were allotted strips in different parts of three arable fields - arranged so that they shared the good and poor ground equally. The cropping sequence was wheat or rye in one field, barley or oats in the second, while the third field lay fallow and was used for grazing cattle. No root crops were grown. Beyond the field system were the common lands, controlled by rigid custom, where everyone could graze their flocks, and obtain fuel, timber, berries, wild fruit and roots for the pigs. The pigs also rooted in the woodland, especially when the acorns were on the ground.
Farm implements consisted of a hand plough or a ploughshare drawn by oxen, an iron sickle for reaping and an iron axe for clearing undergrowth. There were also iron weapons for hunting.
The Saxon community had most of the necessities of life. Grain was harvested and made into flour, much as it is today: the miller would be an important person in the village. Cattle were kept for milk and meat, while sheep would provide both meat and wool, and pigs would provide food and skins. These food supplies would be further augmented by hunting of wildlife in the forest.
Besides the routine work of farming, there was a variety of other occupations both domestic and communal, which contributed towards the self-sufficiency of the village. The grinding of corn has already been mentioned; there was also the fermenting of honey for making mead; the cleaning, spinning and weaving of wool; the turning of skins and hides into jerkins, boots and saddles; cottages to be repaired and the stockade fencing to be mended. Each villager was responsible for the upkeep of a fixed portion of fencing. The Saxon men at this time would be clothed in home-woven cloth. They would wear a shirt and breaches, with combined leggings and shoes made of leather, and an outer garment or tunic. The women would be dressed in a long, plain undergarment, with a dress reaching down to the ankles and a kind of mantle as an outer garment.
We can begin to form a mental picture of the village at this time, possibly consisting of twenty or thirty huts of rough hewn timber, thatch and a mud-daubed framework of intertwined branches. The chieftain's dwelling would be more substantial, the others merely hovels. The floor would be bare earth, possibly straw or rush strewn, open slits for windows as small as would give the necessary ventilation and a hole in the roof for the smoke from a dried turf fire to escape. A turf fire would burn safer and longer than one fuelled with timber. The dark interior would be lit by tallow candles and one room would serve the family for eating, sleeping and working. Perhaps there would be a rough-hewn table and a bench. The Saxons were not short of cutlery - iron knives, forks and spoons; they also had pottery cups, jugs and bowls and drinking-horns. Thus the village was practically self-sufficient, their only outside needs were iron and salt.