Heritage: Medieval entrepreneur Thorembert met his match in Botilda

The land bought by Prior Thorembert. Picture: Google Maps

The land bought by Prior Thorembert. Picture: Google Maps - Credit: Archant

Juliana and Botilda are the first women in Havering history we know anything about. Prof Ged Martin tells their stories

John and Juliana wanted to retire from farming. That was unusual in the reign of King John (1199-1216). Most people worked until they dropped dead. With medieval life expectancy, that didn’t take long.

The Southend Arterial Road was built across John and Juliana’s farm 700 years later, but old maps identify their land.

Their main holding was a twelve-acre field fronting today’s A12, from Bryant Avenue to Gallows Corner roundabout.

Their “assart” (land cleared from the forest) was near “Haroldsbridge”, probably where the tiny Ravensbourne emerges from Gidea Park sports ground.

Havering hanged its criminals across the road. Perhaps that encouraged John and Juliana to move.

They sold other property. Two acres of rich Thames-side marshland went for ten shillings (50p) to Alexander of Huppmenister, who sounds a dodgy character.

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But John and Juliana gave their 12-acre field to Hornchurch Priory.

Founded around 1159, the priory belonged to a religious Order from Savoy, run by Frenchmen.

Hornchurch Priory was a “hospital”. John and Juliana arranged to use it as a care home, donating their field and moving in with the brethren.

The deal didn’t work. In 1223, the priory promised the couple eleven shillings (55p) a year to settle various rows.

Their gift had included other land, alongside today’s Bryant Avenue (then a through road to Hornchurch), opposite Whitelands Way, let to tenants.

Leofwin farmed seven acres, now mainly under the Arterial Road, which stretched across to the modern Belgrave Avenue shops.

His son, Henry, occupied a small “tenement”, on condition that he fight in foreign wars.

Another resident was Edmund Barenot. I suspect he was bald.

Around 1233, a new prior arrived from Savoy. No doubt Thorembert was a holy man, but he was a dynamic entrepreneur too.

He quickly bought out the Bryant Avenue tenants, extending the Priory’s direct control across to Amery Gardens.

Hornchurch Priory’s holding now bordered the land of Botilda the Widow, beyond modern Ferguson Avenue.

Botilda’s property was divided from the farm to the south by a zig-zag hedge. The winding line of Belgrave Avenue echoes its odd shape.

“Botilda” means “healer in battle”. The name is related to Mathilda and Brunhilda.

Botilda was probably a tough Essex girl, not some sweet old lady.

She was still remembered 200 years later, when a 1488 document mentioned “Botylfeld”.

Thorembert wanted Botilda’s land. I think he was building up a ranch. Havering soils yielded poor crops, but its grassland supported cattle. Romford’s cattle market would start in 1247.

Thorembert wanted land alongside the main road to supply London’s meat market.

Cattle needed drinking water. Behind Montrose Avenue, Botilda’s land bordered the Ravensbourne.

But the tough widow wouldn’t budge. Thorembert had to wait until around 1240, when Robert de la Heye, son of Ansith, and his wife Nolicia sold him Botilda’s land.

It seems that Nolicia was Botilda’s daughter, and heiress.

Thorembert still wasn’t finished. Three and a half acres “in the field called Bothildeland” (possibly now Farnes Drive) belonged to Agnes, daughter of Godwin. Goodwins was the ancient name of a local farm, now the site of the Royal Liberty School.

Somehow, part of Botilda’s farm had been transferred to the property across the stream.

A hard bargainer, Agnes swapped the land for a load of wheat and a blue cloak.

In 1391, the priory’s lands were bought by New College, Oxford. The college sold them to developers around 1927 – two owners in seven centuries.

Nowadays, Bryant Avenue is a light industrial zone. Quiet streets branch off Belgrave Avenue.

But peer through the centuries, and we can glimpse John and Juliana planning to quit farming, Edmund Barenot with his bald head, Thorembert the saintly entrepreneur and Botilda, doggedly hanging on to her few acres.

Arguably, Juliana and Botilda are the first women in Havering history we know anything about.