The Great Fire of Mansfield Woodhouse, 1304

Mansfield Woodhouse in 1304 was a small village of 20 or 30 houses clustered around the Church. The houses were built of wood and straw mixed with mud and manure, thatched with straw, bracken and reed. Each house was home to a family of several generations, all living together in one or at most probably two rooms. In the middle of the main room was a fire, the smoke from which rose to the rafters. Not only were parents, children and grandparents living in these rooms, but the people will have shared their space with pigs, possibly a cow or two, ducks and hens, and any other animals the families kept.  One end of the cottage will have had a rough ladder leading to a space where the family will have slept. On winter nights, they will have been kept warm by the animals stalled beneath them.

In 1304, most of what a family needed came from its own resources, meat from its animals, wool for clothing from its sheep, the cottage’s garden produced vegetables, and grain for bread came from the family’s lands in the open fields. There is little to buy that does not come from within the village itself; the people are largely self sufficient and reliant on each other.  By the end of August, most of the garden produce has been eaten, or is being salted or dried for winter use. The autumn slaughter of all but a few animals is underway, and hams, sausages and black puddings are being smoked above the family fire. The wheat is bagged and stored, and everything that the family needs for the long cold winter is stored in and around the cottage.

In villages where the houses are made on materials that can easily catch fire, everyone looks out for his own family and his neighbours. A fire that starts in one house can quickly spread to another.  Caught quickly enough, people can work together to limit damage to just one or two cottages, passing bucketfuls of water from hand to hand. What happens one windy autumn day, vegetation dry after a long and droughty summer, when a few sparks are caught from a bonfire and land on the thatched roofs of not one but two or three cottages? That is exactly what happened around 13th September 1304 in Mansfield Woodhouse.  The people inside their cottages, working or playing and used to the smoke of their own hearth, do not notice what is happening until suddenly a neighbour’s voice is heard yelling “fire!” Several roofs are already well alight, the sky has blackened with smoke, and lumps of burning thatch are flying through the air, catching in people’s hair and clothing as they hurry to get children, animals, and aged relatives to shelter.

The village burnt down. Even the Church steeple, made of wood, was destroyed, and the church bells lost.  We have no idea how many people were killed. We can only guess at how the survivors managed.  Most of their food for the coming months will have been destroyed; there were no welfare services to provide food or shelter. One can only imagine how the survivors felt the morning of 14th September, with the village still smouldering, bodies to bury, and the ruins to sift to see what, if anything, of their belongings could be salvaged, and a long cold winter ahead.