The Dissolution of the Monasteries failed to disturb the continuity of religious practice in Ashow, but it did result in a change of ownership of the parish. In 1531 almost all of the land belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Stoneleigh, but following its enforced closure in 1535, the manorial rights were granted to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. In 1561 they were acquired by Sir Thomas Leigh, trader in the Levant and Lord Mayor of London; and merchant Sir Rowland Hill. Most of the land remained in the possession of the Leigh family until 1996. A comprehensive inventory of holdings on the entire Stoneleigh Estate was undertaken by John Goodwin for the Leighs in 1597. This identified the place of residence of every householder, the area of land farmed, the rents paid and the value of the holding. The accompanying maps show patterns of land use. From this exceptional source, it is possible to describe in detail the social and economic character of Ashow at the end of the Elizabethan era.
Ashow Towne was still being farmed under the open field system in 1597. Bericote had long been enclosed by this time, but north of the river, the medieval arrangement, in which each farmer with rights in common held strips in the ‘Ashowe Towne Fields’, remained. Eight separate parcels of land were held in common, the two largest being Wethers well field and Chesford field. The total area of the common fields was 354 acres 2 roods and 34 perches. As well as cultivating the open fields, villagers with rights in common were entitled to keep stock in Rugwell and Chesford meadows. They could also collect fuel and run their pigs in Couches Grove, Thick Thorne and How Grove woods.
Rye and oats were the main crops although barley, wheat and maslin (mixed rye and wheat) were also grown. Adherence to the classic three-way rotation of winter corn (rye and wheat, sown in the autumn), spring corn (oats and barley, sown in the spring) and fallow is likely. The ridges and furrows which are the products of strip farming under an open field system can still be seen in Wheatcroft field, behind Abbey Farm, today.
The strips that could be farmed, and the size of the herd that could be grazed were determined on the basis of the number of ‘yardlands’ which an individual rented. Despite its name, yardland was not a unit of area but a measure of entitlement. It provided a set of relativities among the members of the community. Once fixed and agreed among tenants and their landlords it could be used to determine entitlements to any area of land, or any possessions, that were held in common. In 1597 the ‘towne of Ashowe’ contained eight and one quarter yardlands in the 354 acres of common fields. On this basis a person with an entitlement to one yardland would be allocated 43 acres. However with 26 acres 1 rood and 15 perches of land in Tugwell and Chesford, a yardland of common meadow was equivalent to slightly over 3 acres. For each yardland, a tenant was entitled to graze 60 sheep, 12 cows and 3 horses in the meadows. Those who had no entitlement to land in the common fields could graze one cow ‘by custome’.
Ownership of, rights to, and the size of land holdings determined social position in Elizabethan Ashow. In all respects Sir Thomas Leigh II, who lived in Stoneleigh Abbey, was preeminent. His holdings included 811 out of the 845 acres in Ashow and Bericote. The majority was let but a direct interest was retained in 39 acres of meadow land, and the grange water mill adjacent to the Abbey. As Lord of the Manor he received the profits of the courts that his steward held, and enforced his right to have the villagers’ corn ground only at his mill. The remaining 34 acres were owned on a freehold basis by Sir Robert Dudley. Although a minor landowner in Ashow he had extensive holdings outside the parish.
Nineteen of the twenty-four heads of families identified in the 1597 survey were husbandmen. All were tenants of Sir Thomas Leigh who enjoyed yardland entitlements which enabled them to cultivate the open fields and to graze stock in the common meadows.
The third tier in the social structure of Elizabethan Ashow was occupied by the five ‘cottagers’. These were heads of households who rented houses and grounds but who had no rights in the open fields.
The number of ‘mens’ and ‘maids’ chambers reported in villagers’ wills, and the frequency of bequests, point to the existence of a sizeable service class. As they neither rented property in their own names, nor had rights in the open fields, however, servants and labourers are not included in the 1597 survey.