Today the word Sparkenhoe is little more than a remote memory and the name of a short street in Leicester, but in the past it had a special significance to all who lived in the Hinckley area. Sparkenhoe was the name given to the hundred, or sub-division of Leicester, which had its western boundary on the Watling Street, its eastern margin in the outskirts of Leicester, the southern frontier on the Fosse Way and the northern boundary roughly in the area marked by the present road from Atherstone to Measham, the ancient turnpike. Hinckley was the major settlement in the area along with Market Bosworth.
The hundred was a local government unit which probably originated first in the tenth century and in each hundred a court met every four weeks. In the Midlands many of the hundreds were created, as in the case of Sparkenhoe, at a much later date and the word hundred would appear to be derived from the total land area of one hundred hides. Usually the hundred court met in a prominent open site, often used long before the establishment of the hundred as an important landmark and meeting place. By the time of Henry I (1100) it was established that the priest, reeve and four best men should go from each village to the court if the village was not represented by its Lord or his Steward. Not until the local government reforms of the nineteenth century did the term Sparkenhoe hundred lose its significance, its last mention in the census returns being in 1881 with 44,188 people in the hundred.
The origin of the Sparkenhoe hundred is thought to have dated from the first half of the fourteenth century and according to Burton it was a division made of the Guthlaxton hundred in 1346 although at least two previous references occur just after 1300. Sparkenhoe as a name gives rise to interest and speculation and W«G. Hoskins in his book, ‘Provincial England’, argues strongly that it means a hill covered with brushwood or juniper. He further states that Croft Hill, which was an important meeting place in Saxon times, is the hill referred to in the name Huncothoe. Certainly it is mentioned as a place of significance in the Anglo Saxon chronicles where it is recorded that in the court preceding Christmas in 1124 some forty-four criminals were executed and their corpses left black silhouettes on the gibbets of the hill¬top as a warning to others.
Nichols in his epic, ‘History of the County of Leicestershire', used the hundreds as a basic division for this local history published in the latter years of the reign of George III when the hundred was soon to become insignificant. The map of the hundred which begins the volume for the Sparkenhoe area is accompanied by this information; ‘ln 1346 the Hundred of Sparkenhoe (on the aid then granted for Knighting Edward of Woodstock, the King's eldest son) was assessed at 34 pounds; and then said to contain 17 Knights1 fees. The high sheriff of Leicestershire pays annually to the Earl of Stamford 10 pounds for licence to come into this Hundred to execute any part of his office.’ The significance of this statement lies in the small number of Knights fees involved. Sparseness and barren waste was the characteristic of the Sparkenhoe hundred in medieval times and the late creation of its separate identity is probably evidence that it did not deserve individual status before. It was certainly in medieval times the poorest part of Leicestershire. This was due to the fact that it was mainly heavy clay and the only settlements were on the islands of gravel in this clay morass.
The Romans had largely passed the area by, the Saxons developed it little nor did the Vikings. Names like Stoney Stanton describe even the nature of land that was settled and Shackerstone, meaning place of thieves, the people who settled there. Domesday book shows a sparse area with only some 35 villages in the district later to be called Sparkenhoe and no extensive church lands. Only the land hunger of the late thirteenth century forced people to clear land in the great heath extending from Barwell to beyond Ibstock and make much of the land of Hugh de Grentemaisnil.
The tax returns of 1377 show a large number of exemptions in the recently created Sparkenhoe hundred with the largest number of taxpayers in Harwell, some 176. Hinckley, although the returns were incomplete, had only 136 taxpayers with 144 at Earl Shilton.
Because of the nature of the land the Sparkenhoe hundred did not suffer the depopulation which came with the enclosing of land for sheep and the removal of villages in the late medieval period in much of Leicestershire although lost villages such as Ambion and Elmesthorpe show that the area did not escape altogether.
Sparkenhoe owed its popularity as every reader will recognise to William lliffe and the introduction of the stocking frame in the 1640’s. By 1670 the tax returns record a total of 2,714 households in Sparkenhoe and 204 in Hinckley, the next largest number being 119 at Earl Shilton. At last Sparkenhoe had become recognised and Hinckley above all !
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine