The Lost Village of Wharram Percy

 It's estimated that there are as many as 3,000 Deserted Medieval Villages in England - places where communities of citizens once thrived, but have long been abandoned, their houses, manor buildings and churches buried under lumpy earth.

Wharram Percy is one of the most well-known of these villages. Situated in North Yorkshire, the church still stands, but is derelict and out of use, surrounded by gravestones, mostly dating from the eighteenth century onwards. The area was excavated in the mid to late twentieth century, archaeologists uncovering a network of peasant homes, a manor house and of course, the Medieval church. The evidence found at Wharram Percy also supported the earlier use of the site before the Medieval era - as far back as the Iron Age, although there were Saxon and Roman finds found there too. 

Wharram Percy church, Deep Dale and Drue Dale by David Smith, Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

While we know that the population had dwindled to a handful of residents by the 1500s, no one is really certain of the reasons the village was abandoned. Could it have been plague or illness? Migration of families to seek better work prospects in the neighbouring villages and towns? 

Richard Muir, in The Lost Villages of Britain, called Wharram Percy 'arguably our most vital medieval archaeological site', and we are lucky to have been able to learn so much from it. Its value comes mainly from the fact that, in its remote location, it was never built over by modern developments, obscuring the important foundations and evidence. The stone walls of buildings can be found under the earth, as they were when the villages left them. Similarly, items including coins, evidence of blacksmith work and buckles help to date the development, left where their owners dropped them. 

Paul Lakin, CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Another chance event that led to the work at Wharram Percy was the invention of aircraft. As early planes soared over Yorkshire, all the dips, furrows and etchings of old foundations in the grass could be seen, like a map, for the first time. One photograph from the 1940s was taken over a light layer of the snow, and it really shows up the sunken ridges, the tofts and crofts (gardens and houses of the villagers) and the Medieval village plan, as well as a long abandoned fishpond, manor house and the church. 

Wharram Percy was excavated for around forty years. In that time, it has revealed its secrets, from its Iron Age beginnings, Roman and Saxon  settlement and the Medieval community. We have learned from the many artefacts uncovered there, and analysis from the skeletons show illnesses suffered by the villagers as well as some evidence of malnutrition. We might not yet know the reason for its decline, but changes in farming, and an emphasis on rearing sheep for the wool trade in the early Tudor period are thought by some to have been to blame. We can only imagine the villagers, who saw their community shrink during the late Medieval period, and how they tried to handle these changes. 

Have you been to Wharram Percy? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments below! 

You might also like: The Rebel Nuns of Medieval Yorkshire and The Sunken Sites of Ravenser Odd and Ravenspurn

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Notes and Sources: 

Wharram Percy, Deserted Medieval Village Guidebook, English Heritage, 1990s. 

Richard Muir, The Lost Villages of Britain, Joseph, London. 1982.