General History of Rugby

This is a general introduction to the history of Rugby. For more detail see the more specific sections of this site or the references on the Bibliography page.

Rugby may be in the middle of England but it has always been on a border. This makes describing its early history difficult. For much of the time we are not certain where the border was exactly so Rugby could have been on either side.

The development of Rugby will be considered in three main phases :-


Our knowledge of prehistoric Rugby is very sketchy. Only one bronze age dagger has been found in the town itself. Due to the spread of the town much of the archaeology has been lost. However a general picture can be constructed.

The present town is on the top of a sandy ridge between Dunsmore Heath to the west and Hillmorton in the east. Both north and south of the ridge are river valleys. Early ploughs could not cope with heavy clay so settlement concentrated on lighter soils making Dunsmore Heath and the Avon Valley ideal areas. Settlement consisted of isolated farms and small hamlets within a system of fields. Villages did not exist.

Several crop marks are known between Rugby and Coventry showing the area was settled. They are concentrated on Church Lawford and Long Lawford and consist of circular and rectangular enclosures and rows of pits in straight lines. The marks can not be dated without excavation and the function of the rows of pits is not certain.

Roman Period

When the Romans arrived the Foss Way and Watling Street roads were built and the settlement at Tripontium created. For the first few decades the Foss Way was the frontier of the Roman Empire and the area would have been under military rule. Once the army moved north government was from the local civitas capital. Tripontium started as a mansio, a stopping point for official messengers where they could rest, eat and change horses. Later it developed into a small town. About 300AD a small fort was built beside the town, one of a series along Watling Street.

The 19th Century antiquarians of Rugby thought that a number of Iron Age defended sites faced each other across the river valley. However most of the earth works are now thought to have been medieval. Archaeologist's are uncertain of the names of Iron Age tribes, let alone where the boundaries were. An inscription on a tile from Tripontium says it was made in the 'Civitas corieltavvorum' - the area of the Corieltauvi ( or Coritani ). The capital of that area was Leicester. However Rugby was in the border area with the Dobunni to the south west and the Catuvellauni to the south east.

No other Roman style buildings are known in the area. The Rugby area was on the north west edge of the area where villas were built. The local people would have continued living in isolated round hut farmsteads as before.

The Saxons

Although the Roman Army units were withdrawn around 405AD that was not the end of the Roman system in Britain. While the area around Bath remained Roman into the late part of the century the fate of the rest of Britain is very unclear. Plague and famine caused the population to drop before anyone was displaced by the Saxon settlers moving west.

By 425 AD a the Saxons had moved west from Cambridge into the southern part of the Avon valley. By the 620's AD what is know North Warwickshire was probably part of the original area of the Kingdom of Mercia. The capital of the kingdom was at Tamworth and it latter expanded to control most of central England.

There are some pagan period Saxon burials in the Rugby area but not enough to suggest a large population. Place Name evidence also suggests a significant British population survived in the area. Both the Avon and Leam river names are Celtic words and the place name of Exhall north of Coventry suggests a British christian church may have continued in use. The now lost hamlet of Walcote in Grandborough suggests that Welsh was spoken there until well after 700AD.

The Vikings

The Viking raids from Denmark had occurred for many years when in 865 AD a significant army landed and remained in England over the winter. The English response was not organised and the Danes gained control of most of northern and eastern England. When Alfred became king of Wessex in 871AD he mounted a counter attack and in 886AD agreed a treaty with Danes. This treaty fixed the boundary between England and the Danelaw as the Rivers Thames, Lea and Ouse to Watling Street and then north up Watling Street.

The treaty placed Rugby in England but Danish settlement had already spilled down the Trent valley into this area. A number of true Danish place-names ending in -by (village), -thorpe (hamlet) and -toft (homestead) were formed. However a number of places have had their names corrupted to Danish spelling in later years. Rugby is the prime case of this, the berie of the Domesday Book spelling being a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon -bury, a defended place. Several of the -thorp names are possibly corruptions of the Anglo-Saxon -throp which also meant hamlet.

Studies in Lincolnshire have suggested that settlements with Danish names occupy less desirable land in gaps between the Anglo-Saxon named settlements which are on the more desirable sites. This points to an influx of Danish speaking population needing space to live. As the timescales are short - only a couple of generations - a migration of civilians from Denmark behind the army is the most likely explanation.

The English continued to fight the Danes and by about 920AD had regained control of the whole area south of the Humber. It was shortly after this that the Wessex system of shires was extended to the Midlands. The new areas did not respect the old Mercian system of administration. Many of the new shire towns, including Warwick, were probably very small and possibly only a defended fortlet - a burgh. Warwickshire was formed from old Mercian land, Northamptonshire was probably land recovered from the Danes quite soon after 887 while Leicestershire was a Danish area where their customs and methods had become entrenched.

There is almost no surviving Anglo-Saxon documentation for the Rugby area. So we have no direct evidence for the arrangements of the manors or the settlements. However studies of other areas suggest that the manors would have covered the same areas as the later parishes and that the settlements would still have been individual farmsteads and hamlets spread throughout the area. Clifton-on-Dunsmore had religious control of the area in the medieval period and this may have reflected an earlier roll controlling a group of manors held by the same person.

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Market Town

While Rugby is mentioned in the Domesday Book the form of the settlement at that date is not known for certain. However most midlands villages had evolved open fields around a single central settlement by the end of the 11th century.

The large open market place may be very old but the row of uniform plots along the east side of High Street suggests an element of planned urban development by the Lord of the Manor. Laying out market places was popular in the 11th century and a market would have been well developed before the Lord of the Manor invested in obtaining the market charter in 1255.

Sometime in the mid 13th century the manor house moved from south of the church to near where Regents Place is now. The new house was moated, which was the fashion in that period. The old site became the rectory.

The Manor

The manor of Rugby was treated as being worth a half of a knights fee. It was part of the Earl of Warwick's lands from before 1086 to around 1500. In 1086 the manor was held from the Earl by Edwulf and his family remained Lords of the Manor until about 1310. The line included the two Henry de Rokeby's who probably developed the market. The first Henry also split the manor up by leaving 200 acres of the fields to Pipewell Abbey and this land remained separate until 1720.

When the granddaughter of the second Henry de Rokeby married the tenancy of the manor was passed to the Gobaud family as part of the dowry. They obtained the right of frankpledge in 1327 before selling the tenancy to the Earl of Stafford in 1349.

The manor was passed between various members of the Earl of Stafford's family. In 1421 it was given to a nephew, the son of the Duke of Buckingham. The Buckingham branch of the Staffords got into trouble with the law and forfeited their lands to the crown around 1500. They lost all contact with the manor of Rugby when the third duke was executed in 1521.

The crown then granted the manor to Sir Gilbert Talboys and by 1556 it had passed by marriage settlement to Ambrose Dudley, later Earl of Warwick. However in 1560 he sold the rights to the Wyrley family

The Church

Rugby did not have a priest in 1086. The church at Clifton-upon-dunsmore served as the mother church for quite a large area. A chapel of ease had been built by 1140 and the names of a Decon is known from 1220. Rugby may not have become an independent parish until the 1290's.

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Industrial Town

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© 2004 Rugby Local History Research Group
[ Version B1 05/02/04 ]

Place Name Evidence

The study of the origins of place names is a very skilled and inexact process. It is essential that very early spellings are used as names were corrupted over the years. Modern spellings are normally misleading when looking for the original form of the names. The Domesday book (See below) spellings are the earliest available for many places, and almost the latest considered useful.

Most words used to form English place names are Anglo-Saxon. In the East Midlands many Danish words are used, introduced during the Dane Law period. The use of Celtic words increases the further west the place is, probably indicating increased contact between the Anglo-Saxons and the British.

The words used in place names are called 'elements' and are grouped into types. The most common types are:-

Habitative -
referring to a settlement e.g a farm or a hamlet examples are by, thorpe - Danish, ton,ham - anglo saxon - they form the end of names
Topographical -
describe a landscape feature e.g steep hill, river bend
Personal Name -
normally the name of the holder of the manor. Normally the first part of the name. Can be Saxon or Danish. In the past unknown words have tended to be treated as personal names, these are now being looked at again.


Domesday Book Entry

An initial interpretation of the Domesday entry for "Rocheberie" would be :-

The Manor of Rugby was one of the estates of Thorkell of Warwick but was rented out to Edwulf for 50s ( £2.50 ) per year. Before the conquest the manor was held by Edwin and had been worth 40s ( £2.00 ) per year.

The manor was 2.5 hides with 6 plough lands. There was 16 acres of meadow and a mill for which the miller had to pay 13s 4d ( 67p ) per year in rent.

The manor farm worked 1 plough with 2 slaves working it. The rest of the manor was farmed by 11 villagers and 5 smallholders operating 5 ploughs.

At first sight this appears to give us the size of the manor, the amount of arable land and a population. However the Domesday Book was a tax return not a census and it's not that simple. Historians do not know the actual definitions of many of the terms used but careful analysis and comparison with other records has provided some clues.

Both the hide and the plough land are nominal units for tax assessment. The hide was the traditional Anglo-Saxon unit, the ploughland was an attempted replacement. Although both were nominally an area of arable land the assessment was adjusted depending on the population and the fertility of the soil.

The numbers of ploughs operated by the manor and villagers is probably the actual draught animals available converted to standard 8 oxen teams. Not the number of actual ploughs.

The numbers of villagers mentioned will be the heads of family who had tenancy agreements with the manor for land in the open fields. Each person may represent a large extended family with several generations.

The entry does not imply anything about the settlement of Rugby as anything owned by the manor will be included. In some places it has been proved that the entry includes land and people outside the modern parish, however this is probably not the case for Rugby.