Axtell Family OrganizationA Glossary of 17th Century terms

to assist readers of Puritan Village by Sumner Chilton Powell
compiled by Dan Axtell. This is not intended to be exhaustively accurate, just good enough to make sense of the historian's jargon and historical references.

A Quick, Unscholarly Introduction to Manorial Management
Manorial management in a 17th century English town was a holdover of 13th century feudalism, where unfree peasants worked the lord's fields. These "serfs" or "villeins" got the security of living in the lord's domain and could subsist on their farming. They had to do "boon work" (a obligation to the lord of helping with plowing, sowing, harvesting, etc.) and "week-work" (a regular obligation to work the lord's own fields) for the lord of the manor. Serfs also had to make money payments to the lord of the manor and provide military service when required. The king owned all lands, so these serfs had minimal land rights granted from the lord, who had rights to his manor granted from the king.  The lord of the manor was obliged to make payments to the king and provide military service.

In the 17th century, the king still technically owned all the land, but individuals had more freedoms and the ability to get ahead through hard work. "Freeholders" had more rights to the land they held than did the earlier serfs. Freeholders could pass their land holdings on to their heirs, even though the lord of the manor supposedly had control over the manor's lands. Freeholders often could sublet or transfer their rights to the land at a profit; the transfer had to be recorded by the manorial court and a "fine" paid. This fine was really just a transfer tax to be paid, not a punishment (I would have said it was like a transfer fee, but "fee" meant something else in the 17th century). But these transfers also meant that an ambitious freeholder could accumulate a lot of land and become wealthy. This land hunger may have contributed to the urge to emigrate in the hopes of getting a large land grant in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

These are generalizations about manorial management. Remember, there was no such thing as a typical freeholder, nor a typical lord, nor a typical manor, nor even a typical king.


Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Settled 1630 by English Puritans as a colony separate from the Plymouth colony 30 miles south that was settled 10 years earlier. Both colonies thrived and traded and finally merged in 1691. Watertown, about 4 miles west of Boston, was a primarily agricultural settlement of the original colony. The shortage of land there--especially for open-field farmers--prompted new inland agricultural settlements: Concord (originally Musketaquid) to the northwest in 1635; Dedham to the southwest also in 1635; and Sudbury in 1638.

England, Great Britain, British Isles, United Kingdom
helpful Great Britain mapThe name of the sovereign nation is "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". (Before Ireland's independence in 1922, it was the U.K. of Great Britain and Ireland.) "Great Britain" is the name of the large island with England, Scotland (to the north), and Wales (a peninsula in the west).  The "British Isles" include Great Britain, Ireland, and some smaller surrounding islands. "England" is a division of the U.K. Even today, the divisions of Great Britain have differing cultural traditions and accents (and pockets of surviving languages) that reflect the different invasions and settlements over the past 2500 years. All the earliest settlers in New England came from England, bringing English customs and language. Colonial New England was part of the "British Empire", a term no longer used.

East Anglia
The area in southeastern England (but northeast of London) comprising the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. Until about 1000 years ago, East Anglia was a separate kingdom, first held by Anglo-Saxons and then by the Danes. This area never adopted open-field farming that was common in most of England. Many New England town names come from here, including Sudbury (home of Edmund Brown, the new Sudbury's minister, and Edmund Rice, who moved to Berkhamsted and then settled in the new Sudbury with Thomas Axtell). Watertown, Massachusetts was settled mostly by East Anglians--one reason that immigrants with open-field farming experience wanted their own settlement.

borough, parish, and manor
A borough was a town that had some rights to self-government granted by the king. A parish was a church and all the surrounding people who were obliged to support it. A manor was land that was under the control of a lord. In some places, borough, parish, and manor were about the same thing. In the 17th century, the manor was fading away, while the borough was rapidly becoming more important than the parish for both social and political matters. In a parish, the "churchwardens" had the power to tax to maintain the church. In a borough, the chief burgesses (along with the mayor in the common council) had the power to tax. Originally, a "burgess" meant someone who lived in a borough, "burgess" came to mean one of the chief burgesses.

a subdivision of a county. The term has obscure Medieval origins, but it was still used in the 17th century.


freeholder, freeman
The "free" here means relatively free. A freeholder had certain rights to land unlike the earlier serfs. A freeholder could usually pass on his land to his sons and sometimes could sell his rights to the land. Early freeholders were hardly "free", and were often obliged to the lord for boon work, military service, road maintenance, as well as money payments. This higher social status often included the right to vote in local and Parliamentary elections. "Freeman" was a more general term, including both freeholders and non-farmers like merchants and craftsmen. By the 17th century, most freemen were obliged only to make money payments to the lord. Remember, there was never a "typical" English manor, and the manorial system broke down over a period of several centuries--a very slow social and political transition that is nothing like anything in American history. By 1638, when Peter Noyes emigrated from Weyhill in England to Sudbury, Massachusetts, the whole manor in Weyhill had been transferred and the "lord" was Queen's College, Oxford and no labor was required, just annual rents and some fines. "Freeman" is still a term used in New England meaning a citizen with full rights.

Originally used capitalized in 1619 to mean someone who does not conform to the Church of England. The term is a loose one and was applied to any of the Protestant religions.  A famous quote of King James I about the Puritans in the early 17th century was, "I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land".

Remember, only in the USA do we have pilgrims with a capital "P" referring specifically to the Puritans from Scrooby who arrived in Plymouth in 1620. Everywhere else, it is a general term for someone who travels to a holy site, usually in a foreign land. Pilgrim and Puritan are not in any way synonyms, but it may seem that way if you were schooled in the USA.

A term first used about 1570 for English Protestants who wanted to "purify" the Church of England of ceremony and ritual not found in the scriptures.  At first they simply wanted to reform their church, but by 1620, many were "separatists" who wanted to start their own churches. There were never many separatist Puritans in England because they tended emigrate to America. During the time of the Parliamentary Wars (or Civil War) 1642-1649, Puritans in England were called "Roundheads" because of the way they cropped their hair. So, Col. Daniel Axtell was a Roundhead. The Royalists who supported the king were "Cavaliers" with long, flowing hair. All of the English settlements in Massachusetts--both the Plymouth Colony of 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1630--were settled by Puritans. Puritans included people from all of English society and from all parts of England. They were all over the map and it's hard to make generalizations.

One of the governing board of a New England town. This term originated in 1635 and today is used only in the New England States except Rhode Island. Only a "town" has a board of selectmen (or, nowadays, "selectboard") and all the adult residents have a vote at town meeting; a "city" has a city council with aldermen and there is no town meeting. In New England, a "town" can have 50,000 people while the "city" of Vergennes, Vermont (smallest city in the USA) has a population of only 2,578.

This is a confusing term that has had lots of meanings over time. In the 17th century, a yeoman was a prosperous, hard-working farmer. A less prosperous farmer would be called a "husbandman". Don't get confused with the earlier meaning of an attendant to a knight or noble--or the later meaning of a petty officer in the navy.

Other Terms

open-field farming
a cooperative style of farming used in most of England from Medieval feudal times through the 17th Century. Generally, open-fields were on the outskirts of a town, away from homesteads, the manor house, and the commons. (The commons was a pasture at the edge of settlement where each farmer was allowed to pasture a few animals.) "Enclosed-field" farming is more like modern farming with widely-spaced homesteads built on farmland and individual farmers owned their tools and could choose which crops to plant. It was competitive compared to the cooperation of open-field farming. An open-field was divided into strips (not by fences, just by a subtle marker if anything at all) about a furlong long (220 yards or 1/8 mile; the word comes from "furrow-length"). These long furrows made for easy plowing (or British: ploughing) because you didn't have to turn your ox-team often. The farmers decided as a group what to plant on the strips each year and when to sow and harvest and what strips should lie fallow to improve fertility. After harvest, all farmers could let their animals graze on the stubble. Remember in particular that open-field farmers expected to work cooperatively, to share tools and oxen, and to help maintain the fence or hedge protecting the open-field. This expectation causes problems when open-field farmers and enclosed-field farmers try to settle side by side.
--Berkhamsted was on the edge of the open-field territory in the 17th century and was in the midst of slow transition from open-fields to closes, so Thomas was probably familiar with both styles of farming.
--Useless, but amusing, trivia: The British comedy troupe, Monty Python's Flying Circus, has a skit with some rock songs that explain open-field farming (lyrics). It's on side 3 of the 1973 vinyl disk "Matching Tie and Handkerchief". Side 3 was the second groove on the second side--you can't tell which groove the phonograph needle will start in. Later pressings had the usual single groove for all the skits.
--The last holdout of open-field farming lasted until 1914. The system can still be seen at the historical site, Laxton's Village Survey.

Anglican Church
England broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 when Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The new Anglican Church was little changed from Roman Catholicism except for divorce and the replacement of the Pope by the English monarch as the head of the church. (One year later, a Johannes Ackstyl was forced out of the Gatesdon Monastery and he converted to the new church.) The next few English monarchs switched back and forth between the Anglican and the Catholic churches. By the time of the Puritans, England had settled on the Anglican Church as the one true church, but the Puritans thought both churches were too ritualistic and so created a new division in the church. The Puritans instituted some changes while they were in control of England under Oliver Cromwell from 1649 to 1660 and many of the changes stayed even after the Restoration.

land held from the lord of a manor on condition of homage and service. This definition from feudal law is the original meaning of the word. The rights to this land can be inherited by the next generation. A "fee simple" can be transferred to anyone, not just a rightful heir. If you have a "fee tail", the lord puts limits on the transferability of the land.

Originally, a system where householders were responsible for each other's behavior and you had to tattle on your neighbor if he broke any laws and bring him to the "court leet", the manorial court for petty offenses. By the 17th century, "frankpledge" came to be synonymous with "court leet".

the legislative body in England, much like Congress in the USA.  King Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629. He summoned Parliament in 1640 to get support for for a war with Scotland (which was still a separate kingdom). About 1641, Parliament (mostly Puritans now) assembled its own rebel army and declared that the king could no longer dissolve parliament, attempting to greatly reduce the king's power.  In 1649, King Charles I was beheaded as a traitor. In 1660, King Charles II regained control in the "Restoration". Shortly afterward, Col. Daniel Axtell was hanged, drawn and quartered for his role in the 1642 overthrow (he was captain of the guard at the king's trial). Today, the king or queen of England has no legislative powers.

Privy Council
an advisory group appointed by the king similar to the president's cabinet in the USA.

"social and political"
Historians use these terms a lot so I found it useful to come up with meanings that explain how the two terms relate to each other. "Social" means how individuals interact with the rest of the group. "Political" means what a community does as a group, which is the most basic role of a government. (Politics often involves individuals wrangling for control, but it is ultimately about deciding what the group will do.) Keeping order is a social function and, in the 17th century, you can see how the church and the manor are losing their effectiveness to enforce good behavior and the town starts to take up the slack.

This glossary is compiled from dictionaries, encyclopedias, web pages, explanations given in Puritan Village, and The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History (edited by David Hey, Oxford University Press 1996. ISBN 0-19-860215-4 paperback). This glossary is hardly definitive, but good enough to help a non-historian get through Puritan Village.

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Last revised 04 Jan 2003 by Dan Axtell