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Why were some medieval villages deserted?

Written by
Jessica DavidsonTeaching Fellow in British History, University of Keele
Looking towards the sea, over the heather-covered ground at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk.
Looking towards the sea, over the heather-covered ground at Dunwich Heath | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

There are over 2,000 known sites of deserted medieval villages in England. Discover the varied reasons why these once thriving communities disappeared and the National Trust places where they once stood.

Coastal erosion and climate change

Natural causes can also have a serious impact on local inhabitants. Dunwich, in Suffolk recorded 183 inhabitants in the 2011 census, but at its height in the Anglo-Saxon period was a major international port and the capital of the Kingdom of East Anglia.

Major storms began to damage the town in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with 400 houses swept into the sea in 1347, and the remainder of the town destroyed in a massive Atlantic gale in 1362 which took 25,000 lives across northern Europe. Extensive archaeological work has discovered remains of the town just off the coast, in what is the largest medieval underwater site in Europe.

Lives and landscape

The fate of lost villages inspires us to think more deeply about the relationship between the land and its inhabitants and the unseen stories behind apparently static landscapes.

A history of contested land use encourages us to think about who lived on these sites besides the families in the great houses and how the estates supported both these families and the wider communities. In other places, villages destroyed by weather conditions remind us about the impact of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of people both past and present.

The Gothic Umbrello and the Wolfe Obelisk at a distance with parkland in the foreground at Stowe, Buckinghamshire.
The Gothic Umbrello and the Wolfe Obelisk at Stowe | © National Trust Images / Andrew Butler

Places with deserted medieval villages:


At Stowe, the medieval village was deserted when the Temple family created a private deer park in the 1630s and 1640s. A medieval church still remains on the site of the now-lost village at the heart of the landscape.

Dunwich Heath and Beach

Now a small settlement with a beautiful heath and beach, in the Anglo-Saxon period Dunwich was a major international port and the capital of the Kingdom of East Anglia. The majority of the town was destroyed by storms during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, resulting today in Europe’s largest medieval underwater site.

Wimpole Estate

At Wimpole Estate hamlets were destroyed when the celebrated garden designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, landscaped the park from 1767 to improve the views from the Hall.

Gunby Estate, Hall & Gardens

A medieval village on the site of the Gunby Estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 and is thought to have been deserted when Gunby Hall was built in 1700. You can still see the remains of the village as earthworks in the park today.

Trusted source

This article contains contributions from Jessica Davidson from the University of Oxford who specialises in British social history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jessica has completed on a doctoral thesis on English provincial fairs.

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