Why were some medieval villages deserted?

Looking towards the sea, over the heather-covered ground at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk

There are over 2000 known sites of deserted medieval villages in England. Some villages were depopulated gradually by disease, enclosure or depleted local resources, others destroyed for aesthetic reasons by landowners, and others swept away by the effects of a changing climate.

Landowners and tenants

Grand landscape projects or attempts to repurpose land often led to protests from tenants and neighbours.
The creation of a private deer park at Stowe in the 1630s and 40s brought the Temple family into conflict – occasionally violent – with neighbouring gentlemen, who contested the ownership of the land, as well as tenants, who were deprived of their traditional access to the forest to gather firewood and graze livestock.
At Wimpole, hamlets were destroyed when the park was landscaped by Capability Brown to improve the views from the Hall.

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. 

Places with deserted medieval villages:

Our landscapes

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