On the eve of the Norman Conquest, most of England, including Devon, was a land of hamlets and farmhouses. The scattered community of Branscombe parish was already established in the pattern of settlement and land-use that's visible today. The parish boundary, some of the individual field boundaries, and even specific dwellings could be matched on a modern map.
The term "manor" came with the Conquest, but it's believed the manorial system, or something very similar, was already in place. Some suggest it was a continuation of the Roman tenure system, some say the Saxons introduced it - the experts disagree.
From the earliest times for which we have records, the normal type of peasant holding was the yardland or virgate. This consisted of about 30 acres, scattered in strips. The substitution of the long, narrow strips for the rectangular Celtic fields is attributed to improvements in ploughshare design and larger teams of oxen. The virgate represented the amount of land that could be ploughed in a day, so varied from place to place, according to the soil and topography. These virgates were never divided among heirs, they went only to the eldest son, therefore second and third sons had to find a living as cottars - serfs tenenting their master's cottage, with about 5 acres, in return for set days of work on the demesne, and hiring themselves out as day labourers (journee men) to villeins for a living. Women could only find a place in this society by marrying and sharing their husband's fortunes.
The manor was the lord's estate. Against his lord, the villein could assert few rights, although, theoretically at least, the law afforded protection in life and limb. The lord owned his or her body and could do as he pleased. But a villein was not a complete slave, as he did own land and could enjoy the produce of that land and pass it on, with whatever dwelling he may have constructed, at his will. Besides his land holdings, the villein would share with his lord the common holdings of meadow and waste, have rights of pasture and messuage (homestead), surrounded by a toft, or farmyard. What he couldn't escape was his responsibily to the lord under his villeinage. To that extent, villeins were still serfs.
The cottage tenant, cottar, occupied a lower place in the manorial hierarchy. The terms cottars and bordars are interchangeable. They were most often recruited from the younger sons of villeins. They usually had a holding of just 5 acres for their own survival. They usually worked for the lord one day a week. Their usual service was ploughing, using their own oxen. Cottars worked for hire on other days on the lord's demesne or those of villeins. Besides this, there were still slaves, who had no rights at all.
The big losers at the Conquest were the landed Saxon gentry, who found themselves dispossessed and supplanted, if they were lucky enough to be alive. For the rest, the agricultural labourers in their varying degrees of servitude, it made little difference whether the overlord spoke English or French. We have no information about which Norman nobles were given land in Branscombe parish. Most of it was still owned by the Church, and would remain so for another eight hundred years. But among the names inscribed on the roll of honour at Battle Abbey, after its completion, were several that were to become pre-eminent in Devon for centuries, some even to the present day:
Audeley Braunche Champney Aumarle Chambernoun Curtenay Beauchampe Dabernoune De la Pole Bohun Daubeney Fitz-Pain BrandThe Domesday survey took place in 1086, and gives a useful economic "snapshot" of Branscombe manor nearly a thousand years ago. Devon was the fourth most populous county in England, with an estimated 17-18000 men. Even so Exeter, the county's major population centre, contained only 1500 people within its walls. By 1100 there were only four towns in Devon other than Exeter, and they contained only about 300-400 inhabitants each.
The average density of plough teams at Domesday was 2-3 per square mile. Each plough was pulled by up to eight oxen. The manor of Branscombe may have encompassed an area from Street in the west, to Branscombe Mouth, and in the two valleys as far north as Hill Arrish and Woodhead Cross. It did not include outlying individual farms or hamlets such as Edge Barton, Berry Barton and Weston.The owner of Branscombe manor at Domesday was Bishop Osbern of Exeter. The demesne of the canons was one hide (60-100 acres) and one plough. The villeins had four hides and fifteen ploughs. There were 22 villeins, five bordars and one serf. There was one head of cattle. The manor was valued at £6 a year.
There is disagreement about interpreting the Domesday entries. In particular, it's not clear whether each villein had their own farm. The bordars and serf worked on the demesne farm. If the figures for the population are correct, there may have been fifty or so adults living in Branscombe at this time, perhaps a hundred including children and old people, cultivating a total of about 500 acres.