Keywords: medieval urban commerce security aliens merchants migration King's Lynn competition regulation London hosting Great Yarmouth transportation rivers ports Norwich

 The home front of international commerce 

The laws of Anglo-Saxon kings do not give much hint of foreign (or rather 'alien' as called by the English) merchants frequenting England, though this may be partly because they do not feel any need to differentiate, as regards legal principles, between English and foreign traders. It was recognized that some traders would be using ships, for Ethelred (ca.991, at a time when England was threatened by Danish incursions) guaranteed protection for any merchant ship reaching an English estuary, and for their crews and cargoes put ashore at English towns; and at much earlier date, a law of Ine recognized that some traders would travel into the interior of England. But the Anglo-Saxon authorities were mainly concerned, as far as commerce was concerned, with ensuring that bargaining was conducted fairly and did not involve stolen goods, so that they restricted trading to towns (except everyday low-cost transactions necessary to sustenance) where there was a public marketplace and officials or other credible witnesses who could oversee those transactions and, if necessary, attest to them in court.

More revealing are Ethelred's regulations for London, already a hub for international commerce; they are mainly concerned with payment of tolls and the problems surrounding foreign currency, although also refer to some trading rights of and restrictions on merchants from France, Flanders, and Germany. Other sources, such as chronicles and Domesday, throw a little light on the extent of large-scale commerce. But we rely more on archaeology – particularly extensive investigations at some larger towns, like London, York, Winchester, Norwich, and Southampton – to suggest, through coins, remains of imported goods and of port facilities, the extent and range of foreign trade, augmented to a degree by evidence from topography and surnames to show subsequent growth of local commerce and the industries that fuelled it.

At the risk of over-generalizing, we can say that pre-Conquest English commerce was oriented towards northern Europe and particularly the Scandinavian world, but that the continental territorial possessions of Norman and Angevin kings and their spouses helped expand, and to some extent divert, lines of communication and commerce southwards throughout more regions of France, while the growth of the Flemish cloth industry spurred trade with Flanders and expansion of commercial activities of Mediterranean maritime powers brought modest but growing numbers of Spanish, Portuguese, and especially Italians to English shores. England's own merchants were less experienced in foreign trade, perhaps less canny in business strategies, and had less capital they were willing to venture; so they were at a disadvantage in the face of competition from outsiders. Yet many had the customary and chartered rights of burgesses, group support via merchant gilds, a competitive advantage in English courts, and influence over local authorities that could place regulatory impediments before outsiders.

In the early post-Conquest period the reception of foreign merchants to England must have been a mixture of welcome and distrust. On the one hand they brought both necessaries (notably wine, but also high-quality cloths, and dyes desired by English cloth-makers) and luxury goods not otherwise produced by the English; and they were buyers of the surplus produce of English farmlands and pastures – particularly good English wool to supply the continental cloth industry – and other raw materials, such as hides, grain, tin, and lead. On the other hand, they presented a serious competitive challenge to native merchants, and were something of an unknown quantity with their foreign languages, coinages, and behaviours, subject to parochial and protectionist sentiments. For the foreign traders themselves, overseas ventures were full of risks; quite apart from the various hazards of maritime travel, they faced in England the costs of royal customs duties and of local tolls at each town they visited (some of these exactions possibly extortionate), regulations restricting their freedom of action and length of stay, possible hostility and/or obstructionism from locals (particularly at times of war when dislike of foreigners tended to increase), and uncertain prospects of obtaining justice in the event they were cheated by English buyers or sellers.

Nonetheless, the desirability of encouraging foreigners to trade in England and of creating conditions that encouraged them to do so was recognized by the king and his entourage, who purchased the kinds of luxury goods foreign merchants brought and for whom taxation of commerce provided a revenue stream, as well as by at least the greater local merchants who could benefit from trade with foreign counterparts as consumers and as middlemen distributing foreign goods across England and collecting local produce to sell to foreign exporters. Most borough authorities were not overtly hostile to foreign traders, but they had the difficult task of balancing the economic benefits from attracting long-distance commerce, and the need to assure the local population an adequate supply of necessaries at reasonable cost, with the quasi-monopolistic market privileges of tax-paying citizens (among whom they themselves numbered) and the added challenges the presence of strangers tended to cause for maintenance of law and order.

Magna Carta addressed some of the key concerns foreign merchants had, promising them safety and security in entering or leaving England and the right to remain while conducting trade and to travel about internally, without being burdened with improper tolls; even in time of war the merchants from enemy countries would have their safety ensured, so long as their country was according similar treatment to English merchants. But although John's successors would develop a policy of royal protection of the foreigners who supplied their household, brought vital supplies of wine to sustain their supporters, and were the source not only of customs revenues but of loans to finance war efforts, there remained a fundamental tension between the need to attract foreign merchants and the need to circumscribe their activities so that they would not completely dominate wholesale trading and thus retard the development of a native economy benefiting from long-distance commerce.

A small number of foreign merchants – presumably those who found the English market a profitable one – settled in England and merged with the native mercantile elite. Perhaps this acquisition of urban property, and consequent opportunity to be accorded burgess status, was seen simply as the route to being able to trade in England throughout the year, without the encumbrances faced by outsiders; though we should not discount other, more personal, motives which are rarely documented. Particularly in the thirteenth century, a period when newly-enfranchised boroughs were prepared to accept all and sundry to boost the local taxpaying population, we find forenames or surnames indicative of foreign origins (though whether personally or through family descent is not always evident). But the process of immigration, driven partly by economic ambition and opportunity, had of course been going on in England for a long time before that. At Lynn, for example, names of residents listed in the Pipe Roll of 1165/66 reflect the intermixing of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman cultures, as well as relocation within England; for instance: Aluard son of Alfware, Steingrim, Wulnoth son of Svartgar, Turstein son of Rolf, Robert Stuntard, Ralph Heved, Henry son of Alfled, William of Huntingdon, Wulnoth of Harwich. And in the thirteenth century Lynn's governing group included Robert fitz Sunolf, instancing Lynn's Scandinavian connections, Michael de Belvaco and probably John de Merlowe suggesting French background, while the names of John de Hispania, and John de Almannia speak for themselves. At Ipswich the leading family in the same period had Norman roots; and at thirteenth-century Norwich we can point with some confidence to Ralph Estrensi, Nicholas de Chaumpanye, Geoffrey de Verly, and perhaps Nicholas de Costinoble.

This small foreign element accepted into the urban elite, in many cases probably because of mercantile success, is almost entirely absent (or invisible) in later centuries. Sylvia Thrupp [The Merchant Class of Medieval London, University of Michigan Press, 1948, 219-22] has observed something similar at London, except that, as a great magnet for trade and traders, the city population evidences a few prominent French immigrants into the fourteenth century, and Italians both then and in an earlier period, but still only a relatively small group within the city's ruling class, while Flemish and German immigrants were found only in the artisan class – although we must allow Arnold fitz Thedmar as an exception (though again an early one) to this rule. In the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries citizenship was more closely defined and the entrance to it guarded, and there was greater reluctance by the urban elite to assimilate foreigners or let them rise to positions of power, as the case of James Nicholasson illustrates. Full denization, by royal grant, now became a goal of those foreign immigrants who could afford it; Lloyd [Alien Merchants in England , p.14] has suggested the differential rate of customs, with not only foreigners but resident aliens being obliged to pay more than denizens, may have been a factor here. Nonetheless, by far the greater number of foreign merchants that the law and urban authorities had to accommodate were only temporary visitors.

From the urban perspective, servicing and regulating the local activities of both English and foreign merchants had a number of dimensions. These included provision for accommodating the merchants themselves, their merchandize (pending sale, or return abroad), and the ships that brought merchants and cargo to England. Also, it was important to ensure that outsiders knew, and complied with, local laws and customs governing the conduct of commerce and financial transactions; and that, should they run into legal problems, that they could obtain a fair judicial hearing and, if applicable, assured compensation, rather than them having to obtain retribution after returning to their home countries, by means such as withernam that could damage international relations and, at its worst, escalate into international crises. At the same time, local customs, and in some respects national statutes, sought to limit the scope of, or disadvantage (such as through the imposition of tolls), the trading activities of foreign merchants, as well as outsiders from elsewhere in England, in order to protect the interests of local traders – not just merchant wholesalers but also retailers.

Some of the oldest locally-issued regulations we have on English treatment of foreign merchants come, unsurprisingly, from London. The so-called Law of the Lorrainers (of Lower Lotharingia, during the Middle Ages a duchy within the Holy Roman Empire), reflects a prominent role of Germans, and other Easterlings, in the overseas trade of England around the eleventh century, and later as the Hanseatic merchants; the Rhineland was a major source of wine imports until French wine overtook it in importance from the thirteenth century. These rules were written out in the early twelfth century, but seem in certain respects to heark back to the eleventh. They authorized the German ships to pass up the Thames under London Bridge – or, more strictly, through the gap when the drawbridge there was raised – and dock at Queenhithe, a harbour centrally located along the riverfront; there they had to abstain from trading (except for broaching one tun of wine to sell by retail) or unloading cargo for a period lasting three tides, in order to give the king's officers time to see if they wanted to requisition any of the merchandize for royal use, for which purchases a fair price was to be set by London merchants, although a limited amount of wine could be requisitioned below market price. Thereafter they might allow other customers to board the ship, and later sell any remainder by displaying it for sale within the city for at least one day, and after that further afield if they wished. But wine or cloth could now only be sold wholesale; similarly they were permitted to buy most goods only by wholesale, with the exception of food for crew consumption. Their total stay was to be limited to forty days, unless bad weather, misfortune, or suing for a debt necessitated a longer stay. If selling exclusively from their ship, they might sleep aboard too, or perhaps take rooms in the lodgings built onto the cookshops along the Thames bank, but had the option of finding lodgings deeper within the city, so long as the sheriff was kept informed where.

This limited stay and right of lodging anywhere within the city were applied to most subjects of the Holy Roman emperor, although for some reason the men of Tiel, Bremen, and Antwerp were singled out for a prohibition of passing London Bridge unless they were prepared to comply with civic laws. By contrast with the Germans, a Scandinavian merchant was allowed to stay for up to a year, and even set up a booth from which to conduct business, but was not to go out of the city (such as to fairs) to trade. At an uncertain but probably slightly later date even greater restrictions were placed on merchants who specialized in importing woad into England, who were mainly from northern France, Flanders, and the Rhineland. Once their ships – or indeed those of any foreign merchants – had passed the New Weir, the point in the Thames where the city boundary was considered to lie, they were not permitted (it was claimed) to dock anywhere else but at London. Cargoes of woad had to be unloaded, but could not be moved into any warehouse facility; rather the merchants had to trade from the quayside and only with citizens of London, plus pay a royal toll of a halfpenny per official measure sold or exchanged. Nor could they buy anything for export except from citizens, and could not go out of the city to trade – if caught sneaking out, their merchandize was to be forfeit. They were subject to the stay limit of forty days and could not take away any unsold cargo, nor store it locally until their return, which would have forced them to reduce their prices as they approached the end of their stay, or risk forfeiting what remained unsold, although they were allowed to sell to non-citizen Londoners before departing.

However, such restrictions could be tempered or waived in cases where specific, and mutually beneficial, agreements were made between London and continental cities. For example, an agreement of 1237 with several towns in Picardy, whose merchants brought woad, garlic, and onions, in return for an up-front payment and an annual fee, exempted their merchants from the warehousing ban and allowed them to take their merchandize outside of the city to sell (although inside it they still had to trade with citizens); furthermore it was permitted that any of their countrymen might operate a hostel in London for their accommodation – hostel-keeping being normally reserved to citizens. An agreement with Douai moderated some of the restrictions on woad-merchants: they were allowed to store rather than forfeit the unsold portion of cargoes, and to venture up to three miles outside the city to attend markets or fairs; but they were subject to a new restriction of being allowed to sell only on three days of the week. Another agreement had earlier granted privileges to the merchants of Cologne, who were allowed to have their own guildhall in London as a base of operations, and to travel outside the city to fairs or other places to trade, again in return for an annual fee.

A more focused agreement was also made with the Hanseatic League, whose various branches, from 1281, united their headquarters at the Steelyard: a large complex that included meeting hall/court-house, accommodations for the twenty to thirty who were usually resident at any given time, dye house, wine cellar, garden, and row of warehouses running down to a quay equipped with a crane, most of this surrounded by a sturdy and high wall to protect their trading secrets and themselves. For the Germans, who played so prominent a role in supplying the English with goods they badly needed – such as furs, fish, wine, timber, and metals – that there was a trade imbalance in their favour, were disliked by the citizens, having obtained trading concessions from Henry III and from the city, but without Londoners obtaining reciprocal privileges at Hanse towns. Similarly, the Gascon merchants who at first had a large share of the wine trade with France were over time harassed into abandoning the English market to London merchants.

Restrictions on foreign merchants might have damaged London's economy were it not for the fact that the city was, for many, the most convenient point of access to the interior of southern England, and that it housed a large and wealthy customer base including the royal household and bureaucracy, which reduced merchants' time and costs in searching out customers. Yet they could not prevent merchants from entering England elsewhere, and a sizable proportion of foreign trade was channelled through ports other than London. The cycle of major fairs offered foreign wholesalers an attractive alternative to the London market, and were better accessed through east coast ports or, in the case of Winchester's fair, Southampton.

Although a suspicion of foreigners may have been as great in other towns as at London, there seems to have been less effort or less rigour applied to controlling them. Immigrant achievers from abroad seem – at least before the ongoing foreign wars and associated economic tensions of the fourteenth century inflamed sentiments of xenophobia – to have been more readily accepted into the society of provincial towns than that of London. By the close of the thirteenth century, monopolization of retailing – generally, or in specific goods – by local burgesses or members of the merchant gild was a common feature of towns whose customs were confirmed and augmented by royal charter; but the aim of this, as well as of requiring outsiders to buy wholesale only from locals (outside of fair-time), and of exempting citizens from borough tolls, was directed at protecting resident traders' interests against the commercial competition of all outsiders, not just foreigners. The forty-day stay limit may have been widespread; it is found also at Lynn in 1309, when actually portrayed as an improvement, and at Bristol, in its 1188 charter, which also prohibits outsiders from operating taverns in the town, although they could retail wine from ships. But on the whole neither borough charters nor customs or by-laws show much concern, beyond restrictions on retailing, with foreign merchants.

The notable exception to this is the institution of hosting of foreign merchants, evidenced in a few towns, and perhaps more widespread in a less formal way. This practice required foreign merchants to lodge with local counterparts, who could provide them with guidance and assistance in marketing their cargoes, see that they were not cheated, and ensure they complied with local laws and trading regulations during their stay. It is not clear whether the intent was to control the behaviour of foreigners (e.g. prevent involvement in forestalling or making bargains contrary to communal interests), or to protect them from exploitation or getting into legal difficulties; probably both.

The practice of hosting is relatively well-documented at Great Yarmouth, where Cinque Ports participants in the herring fishery were a particular, but not exclusive, target of the practice. A Yarmouth ordinance of 1272 provided for special legal procedure to deal promptly with mercantile debts owed to foreigners, while a second prescribed retributive measures against any burgess whose unpaid foreign debt had resulted in any fellow-burgess being punished. In 1300 hosting, as a practice evidently already in operation, was the subject of several Yarmouth regulations; except in the case of fish, hosts were to act as brokers of their guests' cargoes, obtaining a down-payment from each buyer, in return for which they would earn the right to buy one-third of the cargo, which however they could sell only to other residents. By 1413 herring fishermen were also subject to hosting, under different terms, though we later see some of the problems that could arise from this. In 1491 it was necessary to prohibit foreigners resident in the town from acting as hosts.

At Ipswich too hosting was restricted to burgesses, who could buy a quarter share of their guests' merchandize; they provided advice, accommodations, and storage for merchandize (with some exceptions), but did not act as brokers, and such also appears the case at Lynn, where the host's share of one-sixth was reduced a few years later. How widespread hosting was, as a commercial institution rather than just provision of accommodations, is unclear. But one chapter of the royal statute of 1382 was evidently the result of a complaint about forestalling and other abuses of their privileged position by hosts in London and in coastal towns (singling out Yarmouth, Scarborough, Winchelsea, and Rye); despite this kind of problem with the institution, it was obviously a useful one, for the statute of 1403 insisted that:

"In every English city, town, or sea-port where alien or foreign merchants are or will be coming, they are to be assigned by the mayors, sheriffs, or bailiffs of those cities, towns, or sea-ports sufficient hosts, and those alien or foreign merchants are not to lodge in any other place than with the hosts assigned them; the assigned hosts are to take for their trouble what they have been accustomed to take in the past."
[Owen Ruffhead, ed. The Statutes at Large, London, 1758, vol.1, p.459, my translation]

This was promulgated again in 1416, on the grounds that it had not yet been satisfactorily put into execution across the realm. In 1432 the king granted a parliamentary petition for the reiteration and enforcement of the requirement, on the grounds that some foreign merchants were ignoring it and town officials were lax in ensuring that hosts were assigned to all. But in 1439 the regulation had to be reissued yet again, with sterner penalties for delinquents, and hosts were required to report on what their mercantile guests were up to; reports survive from London, Southampton, and Kingston-upon-Hull.

Although hosting was a system open to abuse by either party or collusion by both, in theory, and probably in practice in most circumstances – at least until exploited for policing as anti-alien policies started to come to the fore under the Lancastrian dynasty – it was a win-win situation, despite involving some sacrifice on both sides. Since those who served as hosts were doubtless well-to-do merchants who owned storage facilities, houses large enough to receive guests, or perhaps an inn, visiting merchants could be assured of decent quality accommodations for themselves and their goods, and a local 'guide' with the right connections and savoir-faire who should have been able to ensure timely disposal of goods to be sold. The host obtained privileged access to imported goods, his share being a larger portion than that he might normally expect to obtain in the marketplace, where by borough custom all burgesses had a right to an equal share of merchandize displayed for sale; and he made foreign connections which might prove similarly useful to mercantile ventures he made abroad, or found potential placements for sons receiving a business training – a stint overseas being a valuable part of such an apprenticeship. Borough governments gained closer surveillance of outsiders and more assurance they would not be victims or perpetrators of commercial fraud,

In addition, hosting contributed to the king's policy of encouraging visits by foreign merchants, since it was a means of providing productive and cordial experiences under the wing of locals. For, in the centuries following Magna Carta, royal legislation continued to attempt to bolster international commerce. One side-effect of this, along with other factors, was that London's attraction as a port and its commercial dominance increased over the course of the later Middle Ages, particularly once Edward I had intervened to blunt the city's restrictive regulations.

Port scene; Bibliothèque nationale de France
The bustling port scene shown above, from a French manuscript, the Livre d'Heures de Marguerite d'Orléans, ca.1430, shows a ship being unloaded; some of the cargo is already the subject of negotiations between merchants, while other goods are being loaded onto a cart for carriage on elsewhere. Other boats, carrying travellers, are heading out. Quaysides, and the towns where located, required a range of facilities and services if they were to work well enough to attract the business, whether mercantile or passenger, of sea-going vessels.
(click on the images for more information)
Warehouse at Southampton; 
photo © S. Alsford Two-wheeled cart of a type used in the Middle Ages;
photo © S. Alsford

Creating within towns an environment that would lure outsider merchants, whether English or foreign, involved more than just a regulatory framework, official supervision of market activities (which offered some protection for a merchant who feared he was being cheated), and courts before which merchants could bring any formal complaints or from which they might, in the Late Middle Ages, obtain registration of debts. Paving marketplaces and making sure streets could comfortably accommodate the movement of people and goods, as well as combatting pollution in its many forms, was done not just for the benefit of residents, but to give the town a good reputation that would help attract merchants. Ensuring roads and rivers leading into the town were navigable and safe for traffic was likewise a concern both for the benefit of locals and visitors; building town walls and bridges, then keeping them in good repair, contributed to encouraging commerce, and a few cities even went to far as to build facilities within which visiting merchants could display their wares. An ample supply of well-run hostelries and hospices was another element of the same.

Since not a few towns depended on water-borne transport for bulk supplies of victuals or other raw materials not produced locally, an important part of their commercial infrastructure was harbour facilities, which included quays and wharfs, cranes (by the Late Middle Ages) for helping load and unload cargoes, skilled labour services to assist with handling cargoes, warehouses and/or storage cellars, and visitor services amenities such as the London cookshops already mentioned. Provincial towns had at least one such waterside facility, and some more than one at different points on rivers running through them, sometimes with specializations, as at London, where London Bridge was flanked by the combination wharves/markets of Billingsgate and Queenhithe, with several other landing places elsewhere along the Thames. Coastal ports had quaysides that could be fairly extensive, or outlying port facilities – such as Colchester's wharves at Hythe, situated on the Colne estuary about a half-hour's walk from the town proper, and the like-named facility at Maldon, a modest distance outside the town itself, on the Blackwater. Colchester's New Hythe was in existence by the 1150s, superseding Old Hythe which was even further away. Warehouses and a few residences were gradually erected there but it was a relatively modest facility compared to coastal ports directly on the sea, its channel not deep enough for larger merchant vessels, which anchored further out in the estuary and transferred their cargoes to the wharves by smaller boats. A few coastal towns, such as Yarmouth and Hull, were predominantly dependent on water transport. Municipal authorities were aware of the importance of keeping quaysides uncluttered, to allow the room necessary for handling cargoes, and ensuring their towns were well-served by facilities for water transport. Many of the personnel of local government themselves relied on such transport for their own commercial ventures, whether being ship-owners or entering into freighting contracts with others.

Rivers played a determining role not only in the foundation of many settlements or their growth into towns – such as Henley or Maidenhead, in the case of the Thames – but also in sustaining the economic well-being of those towns. This was not only because of their role in international and intra-national transportation, but because rivers themselves were sources of food and drink as well as of raw materials useful for industry, while riverbanks were suitable places for the location of industrial activities that relied on water for one reason or another – such as milling, the fulling and dyeing of cloth, tanning of hides, and shipbuilding. Some of the wealthier urban merchants owned private quays.

Archaeological and topographical evidence has demonstrated a process of reclamation of waterfront space in quite a few port towns, such as London, Bristol, York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Ipswich, and Lynn, typically in a progressive series of stages between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, with the thirteenth seeming to see a peak of activity. The effort invested in this, although spread over a long period of time, could be considerable; at London the entire area between the Thames Bank and Thames Street is man-made, while it has been estimated that at Newcastle 11‰ of the intramural area was the result of reclamation from the river [C. O'Brien, "Newcastle upon Tyne and its North Sea trade", Proceedings of the third international conference on waterfront archaeology, CBA Research Report No 74 (1991), p.38]. The construction of, first, private wharves and jetties and later public quaysides, initially in wood with later rebuilding in stone, was one contributor to this process, while another was the installation of revetments or sea defences and, in some places, deep-water berths or slipways.

These same factors also represent motivations for reclamation: to win new space for building, to stabilize river frontage, or to deepen berths for harbourage. Up into the twelfth century ships were predominantly of the Viking type, which could navigate shallow waters and did not need formal harbour structures to load and unload cargo. As the draught of ships used to transport large cargoes gradually increased thereafter, with the Frisian hulk in due course becoming the dominant ship design, beaching on the foreshore was no longer practicable. Raised wharfs became economic necessities for coastal and river-based ports alike (notwithstanding the availability of barge-like vessels for some transport purposes), for mooring at quayside avoided the added time and expense of transshipment. Around the close of the Middle Ages there was more of a preference for modest-sized ships, probably on the realization that impressively large vessels were neither necessary or economic (requiring larger crews and moving more slowly) for the relatively short voyages made by most English merchants, and exposed too high an investment to risk; the problems with maintaining depth of harbourage in English ports may also have worked in favour of smaller vessels.

For simply building structures where boats or ships could dock was not the only challenge for local merchants and civic authorities. It was also necessary to keep the harbour and, if applicable, a channel leading to it, clear and deep enough for sea-going vessels, making allowance for tidal fluctuations in water level. Particularly where subject to storm damage or tidal silting, this could be an ongoing challenge entailing much expense, Winchelsea and Yarmouth presenting good examples of this. But human activities, such as reclamation itself – often the outcome of dumping building rubble or household and industrial refuse – also contributed to such problems.

London was far enough down the Thames that the maintenance problem was not so severe, though periodically investment was needed to dredge, repair or enlarge the harbours. By the thirteenth century its stretch of riverfront between London Bridge and the western terminus of the city wall was lined with wharves, most privately-owned, with the main public quayside at Queenhithe. Not far away, at Dowgate, was the Steelyard, the fortified enclave of the Hanseatic League merchants, who preferred to be close to the river; the similar and like-named base of Hanse merchants at Lynn was also in a lane with direct river access, and their warehouse on the quayside had to be built in stone because at high tide the waters lapped around it. Whereas London's Italian merchants generally congregated within the city centre and seem to have aroused less hostility from Londoners, at least until London merchants came to desire a share of the trade in luxury goods; the Italians were the target of mob violence in 1319, but this was a period when Edward II's enemies had the upper hand, royal protection of foreign merchants was at a low ebb, and Italian residents were resisting contributing to taxes imposed on the city. A second quayside was at Billingsgate, near where there had existed a wharf since the tenth century; but this quay was not as heavily used, though it became increasingly more important during the fifteenth century as the growing size of ships made it difficult for some to get past the bridge, and then the decommissioning of the drawbridge section relegated Queenhithe to inland shipping and prompted more development of the riverbank between the bridge and the Tower.

The water off those two harbours was deep enough for some ships to dock, although larger ones anchored mid-river and transshipped their cargoes in more manoeuvrable boats. Markets for bulky products, such as grain and fish, developed beside these public facilities, and there were granaries on one side of Queenhithe, while as Thames Street itself emerged into being many of the buildings erected on either side incorporated stone cellars or other storage rooms on the river side of the street, and shops on the north side. London Bridge itself – rebuilt in stone in the late twelfth century and maintained with revenues from real estate endowments by the citizens whose businesses benefited from it, from tolls, and from rents from certain market stalls and shops – must be viewed as an investment in commercial infrastructure, giving merchants access from London to southern England.

Post-medieval plans and panoramas of the Thames bank augment documentary and archaeological evidence for London's waterfront. Those of other English cities are as yet less well documented or investigated. Norwich, whose developing pattern of settlement was dictated partly by the course of the River Wensum snaking through it, shows signs of small wharves at various points. The oldest, heard of in the early thirteenth century but probably older, were along the northern stretch of the river, between Fye Bridge and Whitefriars Bridge; some served fishermen, while nearest Fye Bridge were public landing-points. Earlier, in the Late Saxon period, the gravel shore there had been improved for beaching boats by the laying of brushwood mats and insertion of mooring posts. By the 1280s we are hearing of both private and public wharves along the south-eastern stretch of the river, which lay close and parallel to Conesford (now King) Street, the principal north-south route through the city. The well-known Dragon Hall complex, consuming a site between that street and the river, represents an early fifteenth century merchant's home and business (though ahead of its time in design) with an impressive trading hall facing onto the street, behind which was warehousing and a storage yard, connected to a private wharf at the riverfront, which had been there when previous (monastic) owners occupied part of the site; a passageway under the hall connected to a path down to the wharf, thus linking water and road transportation of merchandize.

By the late 1370s the civic authorities already had in that same vicinity a public wharf – the Old Common Staithe – and shortly after established the New Common Staithe further south, both equipped with cranes and public warehouses; in 1379, to facilitate collection of tolls, they issued a regulation requiring all merchants to load and unload goods at public wharves and use the warehouses there, with the exception that merchants based in Conesford could use their own facilities. The Old Common Staithe was thoroughly renovated in 1432. Certainly by this time, and probably well before, the river was too shallow for most sea-going vessels, so Norwich-bound goods were unloaded at Yarmouth (where Norwich citizens were exempt from toll) and transshipped in barge-like vessels known as keels, which could be quite capacious, but were slow-moving. In fact, by the early thirteenth century much of the maritime trade that had made Norwich's market so important at an earlier period was not getting any further than Yarmouth; repeated complaints from Norwich merchants alleged that Yarmouth was being pro-active in preventing merchant vessels from proceeding into the river system. On the other hand, Norwich was an important source of the rural produce and manufactured goods that Yarmouth could not generate itself, while Yarmouth supplied Norwich not only with fish but with imported building materials and coal for its industries. One consequence of the limitations of river access and Yarmouth's control of the estuary was that Norwich merchants were rarely ship-owners (at least before the late fifteenth century, when Yarmouth shipping was in decline), but typically reduced their transportation costs by joining with one or two colleagues to freight ships owned by outsiders – mostly foreigners, rather than their long-time Yarmouth rivals.

Long-distance transport of bulky goods by water was cheaper by water, and almost essential for heavy items (such as mill-stones) or expensive perishables (such as wine) but the road network was nonetheless still an important means of distributing regionally-produced grain, and other goods capable of being carried by pack-horses or wagons (usually pulled by oxen), notwithstanding the dangers and the expense of animals, drivers, and vehicles. The Statute of Winchester's provision in 1285 that the verges of roads running from towns should be kept clear of brush was a reflection of the expansion of commerce, which in its turn encouraged banditry. Although we hear mostly complaints about the state of the roads, this is partly because of the type of records that survive from the Middle Ages, and it is in the nature of travellers to complain about transportation infrastructure. But the roads were generally serviceable enough to support regular traffic of carts, some even carrying heavy goods such as construction materials, and to facilitate long-distance journeys to the various fairs spread across England – outings that might sometimes combine road and river travel. The Gough Map, thought to have been produced ca.1360 (with some information added later), is the oldest surviving road map of Britain, though its compiler, purpose, and users are unknown; it shows many of the towns, major roads, and rivers, with a calculation of distances (not always accurate) along each route, which suggests that the map was intended to have a practical use.

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Created: October 28, 2014.
Last update: January 8, 2019
© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2019