Term : The Administrative Vill
The term vill also designated the basic unit of civil administration in medieval England, representing a village or grouping of hamlets or farmsteads, which were obliged to perform a range of communal administrative duties. The latter included the delivery of evidence at inquests, the upkeep of roads and bridges, the apprehension of criminals within its bounds and the assessment and collection of taxes (Vinogradoff 1908, 475; Winchester 1978, 61; 1987, 32; Dixon 1985, I, 78).
The most comprehensive listing of these administrative vills is provided by the occasional tax returns known as Lay Subsidy Rolls. The assessment units recorded therein essentially correspond to the vills and, although clearly incomplete, sufficient survives of the 1296 and 1336 Northumberland rolls to provide a good impression of the number and distribution of the administrative units in many parts of the county (cf. Fraser (ed.) 1968, xv-xvi).
In many areas these administrative vills correspond very closely to the territorial vills and with the later poor law townships (see below). Dixon has shown this to be the largely case in north Northumberland (north of the Coquet), for example (1985 I, 78-9). This was by no means the case everywhere in the border counties, however. In the district of Copeland in west Cumbria, where a predominantly dispersed settlement pattern of scattered 'single farmsteads, small hamlets and looser groupings of farms' prevails, Winchester has demonstrated that the administrative vills had a composite structure, frequently embracing several 'members' or 'hamlets' which correspond to the basic territorial townships (1978, 61-5).
In many instances administrative vills were significantly larger than the later poor law townships. These relatively large, composite administrative vills correspond to what were termed villae integrae ('entire vills') elsewhere in England. It is possible that a similar pattern of composite administrative vills might be have been introduced in areas of the Northumbrian uplands such as Redesdale and North Tynedale, where hamlets and farmsteads were more common than nucleated villages.
However these areas were liberties or franchises, like the lands of the Bishops of Durham, i.e. the normal apparatus of royal government was absent and their administration was entrusted instead to the baronial or ecclesiastical lord. This may have resulted in administration and justice being exercised through the structures of manorial lordship rather than a separate tier of specifically administrative land units.
Finally, Winchester also suggests that the term vill gradually acquired a more specific administrative connotation as the organisation of local government became more standardised after the Statute of Winchester in 1285, with the result that in his study area, from the end of the 13th century, the term was restricted to the administrative units and no longer applied to the basic territorial townships (1978, 66-7).
This idea of the vill as an area of land with defined boundaries, potentially enclosing a number of settlements, rather than a the territorial resource of a single community, is expressed in a passage by Sir John Fortescue, writing towards the end of the medieval period, and makes an interesting contrast with Bracton's description over two hundred years earlier (Fortescue, 54-55; cf. Winchester ibid. n.27):
Hundreds again are divided into vills . . . . the boundaries of vills are not marked by walls, buildings, or streets, but by the confines of fields, by large tracts of land, by certain hamlets and by many other things such as the limits of water courses, woods and wastes . . . . . there is scarcely any place in England that is not contained within the ambits of vills.