DEFENCE AND SECURITY Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Newcastle-upon-Tyne Bamburgh Shrewsbury Melcombe Regis Lyme Regis Great Yarmouth petition war damage agriculture commerce raids piracy urban decline depopulation impoverishment plague national defence expenditures frontier towns fortifications murage fee farm exemption tax relief ports ships naval service Carlisle Rye Winchelsea planned towns natural disasters
Subject: War damage and defence costs as a factor in urban decline
Original source: Public Record Office. 1. Special Collections, Ancient Petitions, SC8/1652, 8520; 2. Parliament Roll, October 1407; 3. Miscellaneous Inquisitions, C145, files 283/20, 286/9; 4. Patent Roll, 49 Henry VI, m.17
Transcription in: 1. C.M. Fraser, ed. Ancient Petitions Relating to Northumberland. Surtees Society, vol.176 (1961), 180-82. 2. Chris Given-Wilson et al., eds., Rotuli Parliamentorum; Edition and Translation: a Prototype. Cambridge University Press, 2001. Online resource:; 3. Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, vol. VII (1399-1422). London: HMSO, 1968, 165, 196-97; 4. Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1467-1477. London: HMSO, 1900, 250.
Original language: , 2. French (translation of 2 by the editors of PROME); 3. Latin (English abstract by J. Chapman); 4 Latin (English abstract by R. Fowler)
Location: Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bamburgh, Shrewsbury, Melcombe Regis, Lyme Regis, Great Yarmouth
Date: 14th and 15th centuries


[1a. Petition from Newcastle, 1316]

The people of the community of Newcastle upon Tyne declare to our lord king and his council that whereas they have protected that town at their own costs since the beginning of the war with Scotland affected those parts, and have enclosed the entire town with a ditch, and most of the town with a wall, by means of several taxations levied among themselves, the townspeople's lands outside [the enclosure] have been so utterly laid waste by the enemy that they can earn no income from them. Those of the town who are merchants have put so much effort into protecting the town that they are unable to carry on commerce because of those guard duties, whilst those cargoes they did send out have been captured at sea and carried off by the enemy or by Flemings, so that nothing is left to them. And those of the town who are artisans can find no work because the surrounding countryside has been laid waste and whatever [time and energy] they have is expended upon protecting the town. In consequence of which the community cannot sustain or bear its [financial] obligations without help from our lord king. Concerning which, they beg his lordship that, if it please him, he have regard for their difficulties and provide a remedy for the same, so that they can maintain defence and security to the same extent they have in the past.

[1b. Petition from Bamburgh, 1318]

His poor burgesses of the town of Bamburgh declare to our lord king and his council that whereas they pay &?#163;17.6s.8d annually to the king's Exchequer [as fee farm] they have in the past been repeatedly laid waste by the Scottish enemy, yet have neither requested nor received any compensation from the king. Now they have once again been captured and laid waste, so that they are utterly burned to the ground and many of their neighbours with their wives and children have been captured and brought to grief, so that nothing is left to them. In consequence of which they beg our lord king and his council, for the love of God, and in consideration of the damage and losses [they have suffered] to be willing to pardon the burgesses of [paying] the farm until they can make the town habitable once more and earn a living again. And because they are in arrears of last year's farm to the amount of £4, to their great hardship, may it please him to pardon that £4. In addition they beg our lord king and his council to give them lodging at their own expense within the castle at Bamburgh – where they will undertake guard duty and night-watch at their own expense – and be willing to order the constable of the castle not to take anything [by way of fee] from the burgesses for receiving them.

[2. Petition on behalf of Shrewsbury, 1407]

The commons make a request on behalf of the poor burgesses and commoners of the town of Shrewsbury. The town and its inhabitants have been greatly impoverished and brought to ruin by various factors as articulated below.

Firstly, to the great ruination of the whole town, recently half of it was accidentally burned up, along with all the burgesses' goods which were in that part.

Also, at the parliament held at Shrewsbury in the 21st year of the reign of King Richard II all the armour and defensive equipment of the burgesses were requisitioned and given to various persons, and thereby lost, to the damage of the burgesses in the amount of over £200.

Also, whereas the town's prosperity came primarily from commerce [including sale of] ale and other victuals, the sheep in the region have been carried off or slaughtered by the Welsh rebels, and the victuallers of the town have been ruined because victuals can no longer be [safely] delivered, to the great damage and ruination of the town.

Also, the traitor and rebel Owen Glendower has burned down 8 villages within the liberties of the town and its suburbs, as far as the gates, to the great ruination of the whole town.

Also, at the battle of Shrewsbury a suburb on one side of town was burned down to protect the town, to the great damage and ruination of the town.

Also, the burgesses have ridden out in their best array on each expedition into Wales, at their own expense, without [royal] wages or reward, to the great impoverishment and ruination of the whole town.

Also, the burgesses and commoners are so greatly burdened with the expense of keeping watch over the town each night that many men have withdrawn and the greater part of the remainder are planning to withdraw outside the town, unless some remedy is provided in this present parliament.

Also, flood-waters recently surged up against the town walls , as a result of which one great tower together with a large stretch of the walls were undermined, putting the town at great risk; the damaged parts cannot be repaired or rebuilt for less than £200.

Also, notwithstanding all the aforementioned heavy losses and burdensome expenses, the burgesses and commons have paid out, from the time of the Coventry parliament [October 1404] up to the present, over £266.13s.4d in taxes, and – considering their great poverty, their heavy losses, and the unbearable burdens mentioned above – they beg for support, relief, assistance, and remedy for these matters.

May it please you, sovereign lord, to give thought to the aforementioned problems and misfortunes and, for the relief of those poor burgesses and commoners, to grant that while this rebellion in Wales is taking place they be discharged and exempted from tenths granted by the laity, any ordinances or statutes made to the contrary notwithstanding.

[3a. Investigation of complaints from Lyme Regis, 1405]

Commission [to 6 named men and the sheriff of Dorset] to go in person to the town of Lyme Regis, survey it and inquire, by jurors of the said county dwelling outside the town and not having lands or tenements within it, concerning the information that the said town, being situated in the said county by the sea, was occupied and inhabited by 500 tenants in the time of King Edward I and in all tenths granted to him by the laity of the kingdom was taxed and assessed at £8.10s. and the tenants had the town with certain liberties and franchises at fee farm of the grant of the said king for 32 marks yearly, and afterwards the town was so wasted and burned as well by the buffetings of the sea and the assaults of enemies as by great and frequent pestilences affecting the men and women there and in divers other ways that scarcely a twentieth part of it is now inhabited or occupied, whereby the present inhabitants, being poor and few, are not sufficient to pay the said farm or tenth or a twentieth part thereof and have been and still are often aggrieved, vexed and molested to their great damage and expense by reason of their non-payment and so will have to leave the town completely and dwell elsewhere for their greater security and peace unless speedily succoured by the king. Westminster. 20 January 6 Henry IV [1405]

Inquisition before [the sheriff and 4 of the named commissioners]. Lyme Regis. Wednesday before Easter [15 April].
The facts are as stated in the commission. The town is so wasted that there are at present only 26 burgages of the king's tenure inhabited by 26 tenants dwelling therein. The waste etc. occurred at various times, but especially in the time of Kings Edward III and Richard II. The town, with the liberties and franchises granted to the tenants in the time of King Edward I, is now scarcely sufficient to pay the king 100s. yearly for the said farm and the tenants are at present scarcely sufficient to pay 13s.4d for a tenth when it is granted, because the town is so wasted and destroyed. All other burgages of the king's tenure inhabited in the time of King Edward I or before in excess of the said 26 are at present wasted and entirely desolate for the said reasons and no profit can now be kept or levied therefrom to the use of the king or of anybody else.

[3a. Investigation of complaints from Melcombe Regis, 1408]

Commission [to 6 named men and the sheriff of Dorset] to go to the town of Melcombe Regis and survey its estate and inquire, by the oath of good and lawful men of the county dwelling outside the town and not having lands or tenements within it, concerning the information that the said town, which is held of the king at a fee farm of 8 marks payable yearly at the Exchequer, has been so burned and destroyed by sudden assaults of the king's enemies that the burgesses and others dwelling there have for the greater part withdrawn outside the town with their goods and have completely abandoned it to avoid such dangers and also by reason of other heavy and unbearable charges upon it, wherefore King Richard II, considering the great poverty of the burgesses and the destruction of the town, on 5 March 17 Richard II [1394] of his special grace and with the assent of his council granted to the burgesses that they and their successors should be quit and annually discharged both of the said farm and of tenths and fifteenths granted to him or his heirs for 12 years from that date, which term was completed on 5 March 7 Henry IV [1406], and by reason of the war and for other reasons the town has never been so desolated or the people living in it in such great poverty as they are at present. Westminster. 28 February 9 Henry IV [1408]

Inquisition before [4 of the named commissioners]. Melcombe Regis. Thursday before St. George [19 April].
In the time of King Edward III the said town, situated by the sea, was inhabited by 120 burgesses and other tenants, and in his days and those of his predecessors it used to pay a fee farm as above and was taxed and assessed at £9.10s. whenever a tenth was granted by the commonalty of the realm to King Edward III. But in the years 50 Edward III and 1 Richard II [1376-78] and repeatedly later it was so burned and destroyed as above that the burgesses and visitors have withdrawn as above, leaving it so desolate that in the year 17 Richard II there were only 20 burgesses and tenants remaining therein, wherefore on 5 March King Richard II, at the petition of the burgesses and considering their great poverty and the destruction of the town, granted that they be quit as above, which grant the present king confirmed by his letters patent on 19 November 1 Henry IV [1399]. During the said term, which expired as above, the town was repeatedly wasted by reason of the war and for the other said reasons and so desolated that the people living in it have never been in such poverty as they are at present, so that there are now only 8 burgesses and tenants dwelling there, who do not suffice to pay the said yearly farm or the said tenths when granted and so they will have to leave it entirely and depart to dwell elsewhere, to the great and heavy damage and prejudice of the king in the customs which he used to receive there by his customers and also of the dwellers in cos. Dorset, Somerset and Wilts, who used to have their victuals and other necessaries in the town, unless help be graciously provided by the king. For the above reasons the burgesses and tenants now dwelling there scarcely suffice to pay 20s. yearly as farm of the town and 6s.8d. for tenths when granted. The town was never assessed or taxed for fifteenths when granted to the king, but only tenths, like the other boroughs in the county.

[4. Investigation of complaints from Great Yarmouth, 1471]

Commission [to 9 named men] to enquire into the petition of the burgesses and inhabitants of the town of Great Jernemouthe that whereas the town is situated on the sea coast and is the defence of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk and formerly was in great prosperity as a resort of merchants, both denizen and alien, for the herring fishery, which was formerly carried on there only but now in many other places, and formerly there were in the town 80 ships with ' fore castellis' and 140 others and the men of the town then paid a fee farm of £60 yearly and supported other charges for the defence of the town, and now because of the departure of the merchants and because they are charged with a yearly rent of £6 to the bailiffs of the Cinque Ports, alms for the college of St. George Windesore, and other alms, watches for defence against the king's enemies, the repair of the walls of the town and the cleansing of the moats, bombards and powder for the defence of the town, and the repair of the port, and because only 24 ships called 'fisshers' belong to the town, and many inhabitants leave the town in consequence, and the town and the adjacent ports will thus come to desolation, the king should pardon to them a great part of the said fee farm.



While civil wars tended to focus particularly on inland regions of England, the territorial expansionist policies of English monarchs in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries exposed to intermittent border warfare the country's frontier counties in the north and west as well as coastal areas – which the war made into a defensive frontier, as its residents recognized only too well. The wars placed a huge strain on the royal treasury and, when it proved incapable of meeting needs, on regional and local communities, burdened with costs of defence (far above what they might have expected, given their traditional military responsibilities) and losses from enemy incursions.

The Scottish frontier

Having conquered much of Wales, Edward I set his sights on Scotland and held the initiative for most of the remainder of his reign. Edward II was less successful, however, and through much of his reign northern England was devastated by the war. The situation did not improve greatly during the next reign. Even during periods of truce (e.g. 1357-84) raids, cattle-stealing, and kidnappings for ransom continued. The relatively few towns in the north, although the larger ones were fairly well defended, were natural targets; but their inhabitants suffered as much from the wide-scale damage to the rural environment as they did from direct attacks.

Bamburgh had the status of a borough by 1170 and probably could be considered at least a proto-town by the Conquest. Archaeology indicates the castle site was occupied since Roman times and continued as a regional centre after the departure of the Romans; its location, together with evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, suggest it was fortified that early. It had been for a time the royal administrative base in the Angle kingdom of Bernicia/Northumbria (Bede described it as urbs regia and civitas), and its Norman castle was subsequently a stronghold for the earls of Northumbria and, post-Conquest, the sheriffs of Northumberland. The presence of the castle probably did much to stimulate the development of urban characteristics at Bamburgh, the "burgh" of which probably derives from the fortress rather than the settlement; establishment of a Dominican friary there in the thirteenth century could also have given the local economy a boost. The borough was granted at fee farm by royal charter of 1255, which also prohibited the constable of the castle from interfering in the borough in any administrative matter relating to the farm.

As a coastal settlement, Bamburgh was vulnerable to attack both from land and, particularly, from the sea. It appears the castle did not always give it either adequate protection or refuge. Bamburgh was not the only community in the vicinity of the castle to have suffered in this fashion in 1318. The villagers of Shoreston, North Sunderland, and Beadnell situated on or close to the same coast, a few miles further south than Bamburgh, also petitioned, at about the same time as Bamburgh, to be pardoned payment of their rents due the king and to be allowed to lodge in the castle without paying any fee, on the grounds that the Scots had, in repeated attacks, burned down their homes and carried off their wives and children, so that they lacked the means to support themselves.

Bamburgh's petition was endorsed with the king's decision to pardon payment of the coming year's fee farm, together with arrears of £4 owed from the past year. This was communicated to the constable of the castle in orders dated 26 November 1318. The following day saw a further message to the constable, ordering him not to charge the folk of Shoreston and Sunderland any fee for erecting temporary shelters in the castle grounds, and advising him that they were pardoned their rents for the following year. Similar relief was provided to the tenant of the manor of Mulfen, in the same vicinity, and another victim of the same raids. The Scottish incursion was widespread and taken seriously; November 26 saw the drafting of orders to the Exchequer to pardon Newcastle its farm (£100 p.a.) for the next two years, due to the townsmen’s expenses in defending the town against the Scots, and Carlisle for one year of farm, in aid of expenses incurred in resisting assault and keeping watch at other times. In 1325 the county of Northumberland as a whole, using war damage as the rationale, would request and receive respite from arrears of rents, castle-guard dues that the constable of Bamburgh castle was trying to collect; a couple of years later it was claimed that 200 townships in the county had been completely abandoned because of the war.

Bamburgh's troubles were far from over. 1324 saw, following another petition from the townspeople, instructions to the Exchequer not to press Bamburgh for payment of its farm for the previous few years, as the king had pardoned it due to losses from repeated Scottish attacks, while 1325 and 1326 saw further royal communications to similar effect; whether this represented continued difficulty to recover from the pre-1318 attacks, or new assaults post-1318 (although a truce was in place from 1325 to 1327) is not specified in the documents. A fresh petition in 1327 mentioned a new raid on the town, while reminding the king of attacks over the previous twelve years, and succeeded in winning an exemption from paying the last instalment due on the farm. 1333 saw the same tune played: complaint that, having suffered devastating attacks by the Scots over the previous two decades, the town had once more been wasted. Among the items looted or destroyed by the attackers, the petitioners claimed, was the money collected and set aside to pay the farm for the previous year and for the year to come; without financial relief, they declared, they would have to abandon the town. They were pardoned the payment of the farm for the previous and next years. The difficult conditions under which Bamburgh had to exist may have been a factor in the king's grant of a charter in 1332, confirming the charter of 1255 and allowing the town to have a market and fairs, a merchant gild, the right to elect four bailiffs to govern the borough, freedom from paying toll elsewhere, and the right to fortify itself.

In the late fourteenth century, tales of woe continued to come out of Bamburgh, from the Dominican friary there, due in part to the long-term damage to the countryside that had been caused by the Scots. In 1468 the king granted Bamburgh remission in its fee farm on the grounds of impoverishment due to losses caused by the civil war, the town and its castle having been invested by Margaret of Anjou's Lancastrians and their French allies from 1462 until the Yorkists captured it in 1464.

Despite its chartered privileges, Bamburgh was never able to develop into a significant urban centre. Today, it has the status of a village.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne was the principal port of England's north-east coast and one of the country's wealthiest towns by the time that the Hundred Years War began. As an important river-crossing, strategically important for northern defence, and a stronghold close to England's northern frontier, the site had attracted settlement and the foundation of a borough. Its location a few miles up the Tyne, at a crossing-point; gave it good access both to interior markets and a wool-producing hinterland via the river and road system and to international markets via the North Sea. The region having a predominantly pastoral economy, Newcastle's commerce was founded mainly on hides, wool-fells, wool and, increasingly, on coal. Its trade in hides, of which Newcastle at one time exported more than any other English port, declined as the domestic leather industry developed.

Its share in the wool trade also declined, due mostly to competition and growth of the English cloth industry; yet, although the wool of the northeast was of inferior quality, Newcastle's middlemen managed to find European markets for it through much of the later Middle Ages – . The privileges the town claimed to possess by the late twelfth century suggest it was attempting to dominate the region, economically, for they appear to include monopolies in the trade of hides and wool and in cloth-finishing. Its port was already seeing a good deal of business (and customs revenues) by the opening years of the thirteenth century, and the burgesses were then investing in developing the waterfront to better support commerce: building bridges across tributaries, reclaiming land from the river, ensuring lanes gave access to the area, and later (in the fourteenth century) redeveloping the separate wharves into a continuous quayside, a reflection of its economic success. But Newcastle did not go unchallenged; communities at Tynemouth, South and North Shields, and Gateshead, sought to capture a share in commerce, and legal battles to defend its control of trade created an added financial burden.

Newcastle's advantages made it a suitable staging-point for English military expeditions against the Scots, as well as a supply depot for armies in the field and for settlements and castles further north; the king was a frequent visitor, his supply train wagons were kept there in the 1320s, and perhaps no other English town saw large armies so frequently camped on its doorstep. Construction of town walls seems not to have begun until the 1260s, although there existed earlier a gateway, probably protecting the road leading through the town towards the castle and the bridge over the Tyne; the earliest wall-building focused on the stretch between the gateway and the river. That there may have been no earlier surviving fortifications is suggested by the fact that the town wall and ditch were built through lands in occupation, and the occupants had to be compensated. Much of what survives of the defences shows a degree of architectural homogeneity that could be interpreted as a sustained effort to complete a defensive enclosure at a time of pressing need. With the exception of the side protected by the river itself, the circuit may have been completed by about 1318 or a little later, since wall work later in the fourteenth century all seems to be repairs, although the king reissued murage grants through much of that century – probably to ensure proper maintenance of fortifications that could not afford to be neglected. That the walls were more than for show is also indicated by the placement of a turret between each pair of towers, to improve defensive and watch-keeping capabilities.

Newcastle's location also meant that it was less exposed than Bamburgh to casual Scottish raiding: it was farther south of the Scottish border and, although being 9 miles upriver was not ideal for a port, it offered some protection from sea-based raiders, who had other tempting targets in market settlements closer to the Tyne's mouth. Nonetheless it was well within range of major Scottish incursions and, for a time (1135-57), the town was under Scottish rule. In 1297 it was a refuge for Northumberland folk fleeing Wallace's army, which however turned back before reaching Newcastle, when opposed by an English force that included the town's militia. In 1299 Wallace returned and attempted to take the town, but without success.

The scorched earth strategy of both sides, the victualling demands of large armies assembling at Newcastle in the early fourteenth century, together with reports of disease, climatic disasters and bad harvests all tend to support the bleak picture painted in the petition of 1316. The petition's complaint of losses of cargoes to pirates also receives a little support from other evidence; this problem may have been exacerbated when Calais became the sole staple through which all wool had to be shipped (Newcastle having earlier been designated as a home staple). Furthermore, the war with Scotland resulted in Berwick being brought back, periodically at least, into the English fold, and it became a wool trade competitor with Newcastle, being give advantages by the king to offset war damage. What is not mentioned in the petition is that the adverse economic effects of the war – damage to regional agriculture (many of the townsmen owning farmland outside the town), the expense of fortifying and defending the town, the disruption of commerce and administration – together with other factors were placing such stress on Newcastle society that it was being torn apart, both in terms of conflict between occupational groups and of competition between leading townsmen, which was to erupt into violence in the 1340s.

In the last quarter of the thirteenth century wool and hides were the principal exports of Newcastle merchants; it can be imagined how the depredations of hostile forces – slaughtering livestock and burning fields that produced feed – affected this trade. Fortunately, the Scottish raiders did not target quarrying or mining operations and so the coal trade was relatively unaffected by the war. When the king prohibited the export of coal, among other goods, in November 1362, the community of Newcastle petitioned for repeal on the grounds that "there is no other product in which they commonly trade whereby they can maintain their prosperity, so as to pay the king's farm of the town of Newcastle." [Fraser, op. cit., 250; my translation]; but before the king gave leave to Newcastle men to resume shipping coal (1365) it took a further plea, hinting that if the burgesses could not trade then their ships would deteriorate and naval defence would suffer. The coal trade kept the town afloat, economically; nor should we forget that the role of Newcastle as a forward base in the Anglo-Scottish war must have brought a good deal of business to the town.

It may well also have given the king a certain measure of sympathy for a community that often played host to him or his forces and was likely a source of cash loans to help him buy supplies and pay his soldiers. Not long before the 1316 petition must have been drafted, the king sent a letter (December 1315) to the mayor and burgesses – itself on the heels of renewed threat of Scottish invasion following the English defeat at Bannockburn – acknowledging the difficulties undergone and burdens borne by the community, commending them for their persistence and fortitude in resisting the enemy, urging them to continue doing so, and promising to use the next parliament to improve things. Possibly it was this that encouraged the townsmen to submit their plea. The king initiated a favourable response to Newcastle's petition in December 1316, but putting it into effect was delayed, and it appears the burgesses sent another plea; in June 1317 the sheriff of Northumberland was advised that the king had pardoned payment of the fee farm (of £100 per annum) for the two previous years, because the townsmen had informed the king the money had been spent on the town wall instead. At the parliament of October 1318 the lords agreed that Newcastle would be pardoned its farm for a further two years, on account of the hardships its people had suffered and the costs they had borne. The same year saw the first royal charter to the town since that of 1216; it confirmed the latter and granted additional advantages including exemptions from paying toll at any other English port and from forced billetting of troops within the town (inns were to be designated for the billets of high-ranking persons), and an extension of the Lammas fair from two to twenty-eight days.

But the town faced further trials and tribulations. The year in which the petition was submitted saw Scottish forces ravaging the northern counties unchecked, bad weather and a poor harvest throughout the country, and local famine exacerbated by suspicions that some townspeople were hoarding grain in order to sell it at maximum profit when it was scarcest; these conditions persisted into the following year, and Berwick was soon to fall to the Scots, placing Newcastle closer to the danger line. In the campaign to retake it, Newcastle's militia is said to have taken heavy casualties at the battle of Halidon Hill (1333). Later, in addition to the internal conflict that wracked it in the early part of Edward III's reign, the Scottish threat remained a Damoclean sword. A Scots army was under Newcastle's walls once more in 1342 and tried a blockade; again the well-protected town held out. But on that and later occasions during the next sixty years, such as the Otterburn campaign of 1388 when Newcastle saw only a little skirmishing outside its gates, the surrounding countryside suffered badly, and the townspeople as a result. By this time the war with France was underway, adding to economic and financial burdens. Further petitions (ca.1342) sought concessions from the king. One, complaining of the intended levy of a tax in wool, claimed that

the commons are so impoverished by various taxes, tallages and loans on this and the other side of the sea, and by the maintenance of war-ships to keep the seas with both men and victuals at their own cost, and by various heavy ransoms exacted by Sir William de Kildesby, at Newcastle as the result of an enquiry in the king's presence on his last journey to Scotland by the more responsible of the town, that should the wool be levied the town will be deserted by its people, who have determined to move to Berwick where the customs dues are half a mark and the wool of better quality.
[Fraser, op. cit., 217]

While the second not only targeted the levy but also asked the king to reduce the fines imposed on the townsmen by the amount he owed them in loans, complaining of

various taxes imposed on them without taking into consideration the heavy damage and losses they have suffered because of the Scottish war and many other causes, the deaths of many of the good folk who used to protect and govern the town, and that many of the remaining residents have become so impoverished they have nothing at all with which to support themselves, so that the town is in grave danger because those living in it are not sufficient to defend it, unless given help and relief by our lord king.
[Fraser, op. cit., 218; my translation]
An added burden during Edward III's reign was the growing demands for royal service on ships owned by Newcastle merchants, further taxing local resources, disrupting the normal conduct of business, placing local shipowners at a disadvantage (compared to foreigners), and conceivably creating a disincentive to commerce.

Newcastle had no time to recover from the exhaustion of resources, and perhaps morale too, brought about by a persistent state of hostilities, external and internal, before it was struck by the first onset of plague (hard on the heels of a major Scottish invasion in 1346) , and then recurrences in 1362, 1369 and 1380. In those decades its requests for financial aid (to repair and strengthen urban defences) start to blame the Black Death for its weakened condition: ca.1373 one claimed that a third of the town lay unoccupied because of the pestilence, while in 1380 the figure of 6,054 dead had reached the king's ears – although precise and possibly cumulative, the estimate is unlikely (particularly given earlier hints of depopulation), but not exorbitantly so, particularly allowing for up to a 50% urban mortality rate sometimes favoured by historians.

In the changed post-plague situation, with prospects of higher wages and lower rents attracting new immigration into towns, Newcastle proved somewhat resilient in terms of its population, at least, and poll tax figures (1377) show it the twelfth most populous English town, with 2,647 taxpayers. But its economy had deteriorated. Its trade in hides, of which Newcastle at one time had exported more than any other English port, had declined as the domestic leather industry developed. Its share in the wool trade also declined due mostly to competition, a reduced demand abroad for English wool, and growth of the English cloth industry; although the wool of the northeast was of inferior quality, Newcastle's middlemen managed to find European markets for it through much of the later Middle Ages, but export volume was noticeably reduced in the fifteenth century, despite a concession obtained from the king that Newcastle wool could avoid going through the Calais staple. Coal exports continued to be important to Newcastle's merchants, but again, volume was down. At the same time, the merchants seem to have had little benefit from the increase in cloth export, perhaps because rural depopulation held back the development of a large enough cloth-producing industry to generate a significant surplus [J.F. Wade, The Customs Accounts of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1454-1500, Surtees Society, vol.202 (1995) 12].

In the north-west, Carlisle, like Newcastle, also (if to a lesser degree) benefited from a strategic location – at the junction of several rivers and roads – that brought it the role of regional defensive and administrative centre, but made it a military target in consequence. Also like Newcastle, Scottish invasion led it to petition the king in 1316 for financial concessions; in November it was pardoned arrears of its farm, in consideration of money spent beefing up its defences. If chronicle evidence is correct in attributing to a visit by William Rufus (1092) the initiation of enclosure of the town, as part of a plan to redefine the Anglo-Scottish frontier, it would have been one of the first newly fortified following the Conquest; Henry I is said to have ordered rebuilding in stone (1122). This attention to Carlisle's protection, combined with the establishment of a bishopric there (1133) and the grant of a regional trade monopoly, and the fact there were few other towns in Cumbria, helped the city become modestly prosperous over the course of the next century or so.

Its defences, however, were in an almost constant state of construction, repair, or enhancement. Not surprisingly, considering that on repeated occasions between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries Carlisle was targeted for capture by Scottish forces; it was in Scottish hands for two decades from 1135 and again briefly in 1216, whereas a three-month siege in 1173 and a three-day one in 1296 were unsuccessful. Ca. 1312 the townspeople were requesting for tax relief and they were exempted from the tenth granted in 1332; within that same period they also petitioned (successfully) for a grant of murage, in order to repair the town walls, strengthen gates and drawbridges, and re-dig the ditch, while a private petition declares a serious shortage of provisions in the town. Another petition seems to relate directly to events of 1316, referring to a full-scale, if short-lived (12 days) siege; the complaint here was that to bolster the town's defences the complainant's houses had been pulled down for their timber, without compensation. The garrison at Carlisle also had grievances: during their seven years of active service they had lost horses and armour but been unable to replace them because their wages were in arrears, while victuallers overcharged them for supplies of poor quality. Royal confirmation of its charters in 1352 acknowledged the harm suffered by the city as a result of pestilence and assaults. Repeated petitions in the 1370s spoke of deterioration of the defences: the gates could no longer be closed, nor drawbridges raised, and depopulation had left too few men to defend the town properly.

A more general complaint, with a more familiar tune, is found in the townsmen's petition of 1385, requesting exemption from the farm for a few years, in consideration of their expenses in repairing fortifications and initiating upgrade projects, and in mounting a watch by day and night, as well as for their losses as a result of recent assaults by a combined Scottish and French force which was then encamped outside the town; much of the city had been burned down, including houses, grain stores, and mills, and many inhabitants had already fled the place while others were planning to do so, unless financial relief were forthcoming. The 1380s were a period of renewed large-scale incursions into Cumbria. In 1382 a force en route back to Scotland tried its hand at an assault on Carlisle; by shooting fire over the walls, it at least succeeded in burning down a few houses; in 1385, although the city itself was not attacked, the countryside around it was wasted, and this was repeated in 1388 and again the following year. The difficulty in recuperating from this repetitive devastation, which brought about food shortages and loss of livelihoods, was reflected in the standard implicit threat, in the 1385 petition, that depopulation would leave the town unable to defend itself. The king's short-term response (1386) was to order the citizens to maintain watch and ward with the same vigilance as in the past, but more sympathy was shown in 1390 when he cancelled all debts owed the Exchequer by the northern counties.

Complaints about the poor state of defences continued into the next century, and in 1413 and again in 1438 the king allowed amounts due from the fee farm to be allocated to those needs for multi-year periods, while after 1461 the farm was reduced by 50%. The almost constant threat of attack and, when it came, the damage to the infrastructure on which Carlisle's trade depended, made it hard for the city to develop further economically, a situation cemented by the effects of plague, not to mention disasters such as a fire in 1391 that destroyed a large part of the city. Carlisle's population was much smaller than Newcastle's and its ability to recover from setbacks correspondingly reduced. However, its problems may have been counterbalanced to a degree by work and business generated by periodic investment in the defences and by victualling opportunities after the city became the base for the wardens of the Western March from Richard II's reign. Its role as a market centre for the region also helped sustain it, as indeed did persistent and often illegal trade with the Scots. But with peaceable conditions so frequently interrupted, it was not until Anglo-Scottish hostilities diminished, in the sixteenth century, that Carlisle was able to experience renewed economic growth.

The Welsh frontier

Following the Norman Conquest, the territorial ambitions of England's new lords expanded into parts of Wales and included not only fortification but also planned town foundation. By 1300, although Welsh towns were mostly small by English standards, there were quite a few of them and a good deal of commerce and migration was passing back and forth with English border towns such as Shrewsbury. Hereford, and Chester. A minor settlement re-established after the Roman withdrawal, Shrewsbury was by the tenth century a royal and ecclesiastical centre, and was fortified as a Mercian burh. Its growing prosperity – in the 1334 taxation assessments of towns, it ranked thirteenth highest – was founded upon a number of advantages: its port on the Severn, where fish and luxury goods were imported for the Norman abbey and other customers throughout the county; its access to high-quality Shropshire and Welsh wool (and later cloth) for export; its role as a cattle market helping supply the butcheries and tanneries of southern and midland England; and King John's grant to the burgesses of a local trade monopoly on hides and unfinished cloth. The provisioning of Welsh towns was another component of Shrewsbury's economy.

Edward I had conquered Wales, but he had not subdued it. Periodic revolts exposed Shrewsbury, strategically important as a key crossing point of the Severn, not only to physical danger but to loss of some of the raw resources on which its economy was based. At the same time Shrewsbury had responsibilities as a bulwark against Welsh insurgents making inroads into England. In December 1377 the king, having been informed (perhaps by the borough's bailiffs) that a number of townsmen were planning to go overseas to seek profit from military service in France, ordered the bailiffs to prohibit any resident going off, whether in the service of the king or some other lord, and restrain them forcibly if necessary. The fear was that the town would be left without a sufficient garrison to defend it. Further indication of the king's support for Shrewsbury's defensibility is seen in a three-year exemption from paying its fee farm and national taxes, granted in 1394, to enable local rebuilding following a major fire in the town; the fire had been preceded in 1392 by severe flooding of the Severn, which had damaged the town walls, gates and bridges. However, this did not mean that Shrewsbury was exempt from the type of obligations that other towns had towards the national war effort; in 1378 it had been tasked with joining Hereford in the construction of a balinger for naval defence.

The Normans had recognized the importance of Shrewsbury by building a castle there in 1074; thereafter the town was often used as a forward base for campaigns against the Welsh, as well as a muster point for Welsh troops en route to the wars in Scotland or France. Its capture by Llewellyn the Great's army in 1215 highlighted the need for better protection. Yet, although the first recorded grant of murage to Shrewsbury was in 1220, the encirclement of the town with stone walls had to be spurred on by subsequent civil war: in 1262, after Henry III had ordered the town be munitioned, its authorities contracted to engage the services of an arblaster for the duration of hostilities; he was to bring its defensive artillery into repair and manufacture ammunition. They also contracted with a mason to build wall at £3 per hundred foot stretch, a project which, employing six to eleven workers per week, progressed at about fifty feet a month; at least one new tower and one new gateway were constructed. In 1265 the last Welsh ruler, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, invaded the Marches in support of the rebellious barons; further improvements were made to the defences, and a catapult was constructed, but the town was not attacked. Nonetheless, that same year the king rewarded Shrewsbury for its loyalty with a charter granting its merchants exemption from paying murage tolls elsewhere in England and a measure of monopolistic protection for the local wool market. The circuit may have been completed in that period; murage grants covering most of the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth more likely supported maintenance and upgrades.

The justification usually given for murage renewals was the town's proximity to the Welsh border. In 1444 Glendower's rebellion was specifically mentioned as having tested Shrewsbury's defences which, by standing firm, had prevented other parts of the country from being subject to attack. When the rebellion had broken out, in September 1400, the king ordered the bailiffs to ready the town's defences and to require all Welsh residents to swear an oath of allegiance and back it up with sureties. The local authorities must have needed little urging, for news would have reached them that Glendower had assaulted and set fire to Ruthin on 18 September, and to Oswestry and Welshpool a few days later. On 26 September Henry IV arrived at Shrewsbury with an army, to set off on expedition through Wales in hopes of bringing Glendower's forces to battle.

Three weeks later they trooped back into the town, unsuccessful. Shrewsbury had not been targeted for attack at that time, and its rulers were not preoccupied exclusively with matters of defence: demand for residential space in the intramural area may have been responsible for what seems in retrospect an unwise decision in 1400 to tear down a small section of wall to make room for two houses to be built atop its foundations. The town continued to serve as setting-off point for expeditions against Glendower, and local tension must have been kept on a roller-coaster ride during the next couple of years by news of rebel sackings of various Welsh towns, accompanied by executions of some of their residents for loyalty to the English monarchy. Those years saw expenditure of large sums to prepare the city for a possible siege: fortifications were repaired, arms and armour brought in, and extra provisions put in store. Lord Burnell was commissioned to take charge of holding the town against the Welsh.

The initial threat came, however, from an unexpected direction when, in 1403, the Percies of Northumberland decided to rise up against Henry IV. Harry Hotspur led a force towards Wales, with the intent of joining up with Glendower's rebels. He first made for Chester, where there had been strong support for Richard II, and recruited from the city and region a force of the archers for which Cheshire was well-known. He intended next to head for Shrewsbury, to pick up more support there before linking up with Glendower. But the king, moving at high speed, beat him to the city and claimed it for his cause. When Hotspur arrived at its gates, he found King Henry in possession and his own entry barred. With assistance from the Welsh and from his uncle, the earl of Northumberland, failing to materialize, he found himself in a tight position. The battle of Shrewsbury (actually fought several miles from the town) ensued. With both sides using longbow-equipped forces to rain arrows down on each other, it is thought to have been the costliest battle, in terms of English lives, fought on English soil during the Middle Ages.

In 1405 Glendower came at last to Shrewsbury. But, finding it well defended, his men had to satisfy themselves with ransacking and setting afire settled areas outside the walls. At the parliament of March 1406 those appointed to collect the king's tenth in Shrewsbury and vicinity reported that, because of the destruction caused by the Welsh, they could raise nothing in the suburbs of the town nor in its surrounding hamlets. Seven were specifically identified as ruinous:
Frankeville (an industrial suburb northwest of town, where tanners and dyers congregated),
Meole Brace (south of town),
Shelton, (west of town)
At the next parliament Shrewsbury followed with its broader plea for tax relief. The king was noncommittal but may have instituted enquiries to see if the complaints had foundation. An audit of murage accounts already underway, to ascertain whether proceeds had been spent on the town walls, may have fed into this process. By the end of February 1408 Henry was sufficiently convinced as to pardon the town of £47 due from taxes, in consideration of losses sustained as a result of the Welsh attack.

In addition to living with the periodic psychological and socio-economic stress of war conditions, the disruption to trade, and the heavy burden on resources of maintaining strong defences, Shrewsbury had to cope with the adverse economic effects of problems faced by many towns, such as the widespread famine and lack of saleable materials brought about by repeated bad harvests and livestock murrain 1315-1322, the Black Death, and damage to the wool trade from high taxation (to pay for foreign wars) and the growing risks of overseas voyages. Already by 1340 it was complaining of impoverishment and seeking tax relief. Such statistical evidence as we have suggests that, as the fifteenth century progressed, Shrewsbury managed to maintain its population size and its relative importance in the urban hierarchy, although disturbances throughout Shropshire in the years following the suppression of Glendower's revolt, and constitutional conflict in Shrewsbury itself are indicators of the stresses in adjusting to altered circumstances. In 1485 Henry VII granted Shrewsbury a reduction in its fee farm and exemption from national taxes; this was justified on the grounds of the poverty and decay of the town, but was more likely a reward for having welcomed with open arms Henry Tudor's invasion force.

The coastal frontier

As the Hundred Years War progressed, ports along the English coast found themselves at greater risk of attack than ever before; the devastation suffered by Southampton in 1338 was far from an isolated instance; it represents only the most notorious example of a hit-and-run assault. South coast ports offered a tempting target for raiders and privateers: not just the French, but also Bretons, Flemings, Spaniards, and Italians; those with immediate access to the sea or at the head of estuaries were relatively convenient for quick arrival and getaway, were prospective sources of booty in the form of merchandize being shipped in or out (as well as ransomable merchants), and were places where beached or docked ships could be seized or destroyed with relative ease. Those ports were also particularly vulnerable to economic damage, both from attacks by hostile forces as well as the erosive, deluging, and silting effects of tides and tempests, since they were primarily dependent on maritime trade (in contrast to riverine port towns, which found markets both upriver and downriver) and on the usability and security of their harbours.

Two such ports on the Dorset coast were Lyme Regis and Melcombe Regis. The former was already providing a living from the sea in the eighth century, when there were salt-works there; the latter, along with the rival settlement of Weymouth, which shared the same harbour, was granted to St. Swithin's priory, Winchester in 1100. Both had prospered and developed sufficiently that in 1284-85 and 1280, respectively, they were granted by royal charter borough status and a range of associated privileges (including a merchant gild in the case of Lyme) that assume an economy based on international maritime commerce. At Lyme construction in the thirteenth century of a massive breakwater, known as the Cobb, had been instrumental in assuring a protected harbour with docking facilities that would attract business, and the same period saw a redevelopment of the market and residential strip of the town itself, which may also have been a planned component of economic expansion. A perhaps equally impressive growth of commerce at Melcombe/Weymouth is suggested by their provision of 15 ships and 263 sailors in 1347 to help out at the siege of Calais; their overall contribution to naval service during the first two decades of Edward III's reign was not very much less than those of Southampton or Bristol. Lyme and Melcombe had carved out a moderate share in the import/export business of key goods such as cloth and wine.

The second half of the fourteenth century saw a series of setbacks that reduced this commerce. We must of course mention the Black Death, if only to note that it is generally held to have arrived in England first via Melcombe, brought by a ship from Gascony (and possibly, therefore, an indirect impact of the war). In 1377 and 1380 Melcombe suffered damage from enemy raids. Another factor in its decline must have been the hostile competition with Weymouth over control of the harbour, and the revenues gathered there, a matter not finally settled until 1571 when the two towns were amalgamated. Lyme likewise was harmed by raids, but also by a savage storm that in November 1377 smashed the Cobb and caused extensive damage to the town and its mercantile fleet.

Pleas for financial relief from the king start appearing immediately. In February 1378 he appointed a commission to find out whether it was true as claimed that, with the loss of the Cobb, mercantile ships had ceased to visit Lyme and all but six or eight of the merchants formerly operating out of the town had died or moved away, so that the remaining residents lacked the wealth base to pay the town's farm or king's taxes. The findings of the commission, at the end of the following month, were that, whereas in 1331 Lyme had among its residents merchants occupying 77 houses (which contributed to the town's financial obligations) and owning 15 large ships and 40 fishing- and other boats, no wealthy merchants now remained, their houses, ships and boats had been destroyed, while another 71 contributory houses were vacant, because their tenants had left town or died, and too ruinous to generate any revenues. Only 8 burgesses and 21 poor tenants remained. In addition to the loss of property income, the town no longer had any revenues from the tolls that had been collected on the Cobb. In this situation of depleted revenues they could not meet the king's financial demands, let alone face the cost of rebuilding the Cobb (estimated as at least £300).

Despite this confirmation of Lyme's plight, either no relief was forthcoming and a second petition was sent, or the king may not have been satisfied, for in April 1380 he ordered to a new commission to enquire into the same matters. This basically confirmed the earlier findings, adding only that the damage had occurred within the previous twelve years, and expanding the number of properties now deserted to 90 and adjusting the total of remaining tax-contributory residents to 30. Once more it is not clear whether any concessions were made immediately to the people of Lyme. But we later learn that, with the town apparently falling into growing arrears at the Exchequer, in 1390 Richard II granted its farm to Walter de Merston for 10 years, and in 1393 reduced Lyme's tax assessment to 20s. for a 10-year term.

In 1402, with that term reaching its close and a new king on the throne, the burgesses tried again: a parliamentary petition for a reduction in Lyme's farm and tax assessment, on the same grounds, produced the response that the burgesses should take their case directly to the king. Whether they did so we do not know; but in 1405 came another petition (above), adding recurrent plague to the list of reasons for depopulation, whose extent was played up more by comparing the situation in 1405 with that of the time of Edward I. With the inevitable enquiry essentially supporting the burgesses' complaint, Henry, in January 1406, pardoned their contribution towards the tax granted him in 1404. This temporary relief could not meet the town's needs. At the parliament of October 1407 a further petition was put forward, by the Commons on behalf of the burgesses of Lyme, with the same story plus a reminder that it had been confirmed by enquiry; to prevent the utter abandonment of the town (and therefore of any financial value to the Crown), the request now was for a reduction of the farm to 100s. and the tax assessment to 13s.4d for a 40-year term. The king promised to review the report of the previous commission, and appoint a new one if necessary; possibly the enquiry at Melcombe in 1408 (see below) was expanded to include Lyme as well.

Before the king would take action, however, it required one further petition, to the parliament of January 1410. This basically followed the lines of the 1407 petition, but added references to the events of the 1390s, as evidence of the town's inability to meet its financial obligations, to the unaffordable arrears that had accumulated during Henry's reign, and to a 1408 commission's endorsement of the level of reduction sought; there was also mention that the burgesses were trying to build new port facilities. In May 1410, Henry granted reductions for 10 years and pardon of arrears.

The same concession was to apply to Melcombe Regis. Melcombe had petitioned the king, through the 1379 parliament, for additional financial privileges (such as those enjoyed by many other towns) to compensate it for war damage (i.e. from the raid of1377). That this produce no evident results did not discourage the townsmen, for it must have been further solicitation that led in March 1394 to a grant of exemption from paying the farm or taxes for 12 years, because of "sudden invasions" of the town by the enemy; at the parliament convened quickly following Henry IV's accession, the burgesses submitted that many freeholders had removed themselves and their valuables from the town, because of its frequent burnings by French raiders, and asked for a 6-year extension to the 1394 grant. Henry, however, was not to be taken advantage of, and he responded to the petition only with a confirmation of Richard's grant under its original terms, issuing letters patent to that effect in November 1399.

Consequently, as soon as he term expired, a fresh petition was drawn up, for submission to the next parliament (October 1407), requesting a renewal for 20 years. The 1408 enquiry documented above was the outcome. To achieve the temporary reductions in 1410 of farm and tax assessment (to 20s. and 6s.8d respectively, as recommended by the commission) required one final nudge, in the form of yet another petition to the parliament convened in January 1410. This essentially reiterated the 1407 petition, but added reference to findings of the 1408 commission, plus some new arguments:

  • That the king risked losing 1000 marks annually in payments of customs and subsidies if merchants did not wish to use the port at Melcombe, which is what could be expected if the town became deserted;
  • That the purpose of the financial relief granted by Richard II (now claimed to have begun in 1388 and been for 20 years) was to encourage merchants and others to return to live in the town.

The financial concessions of 1410 may have helped stop further decline of the two towns, but a return to their former prosperity was beyond reach in the changed economy. The indicators are not all bad: as the fifteenth century progressed, there was some increase in the amount of cloth exported through Melcombe/Weymouth. On the other hand the volume of wine imported declined. It benefited somewhat from the growing travel of pilgrims en route to Spain. But evidence of continued distress comes from the farm again being returned to the 20s. level in 1437 (with arrears once more pardoned), confirmed by Edward IV and Henry VII upon their accessions. The reduction was probably in consideration of a bill passed by the parliament of 1433 to transfer the status of staple port from Melcombe to Poole, the latter having a suitable and safer (i.e. less vulnerable) haven for ships and its burgesses being prepared to fortify town and harbour, whereas a recent incident at 'uninhabited' Melcombe – a raid during which visiting merchants had lost valuable merchandize, as a result of which others were afraid to do business there – showed (it was alleged) that it lacked the means to fulfill its obligations to users of its port. Melcombe was to be downgraded to the status of creek (although in fact it continued to be referred to as a port) and combined with Poole for purposes of customs collection.

Lyme, whose Cobb would not be properly restored until the sixteenth century, had its concessions confirmed by Henry V, and then in 1461 its farm and tax further reduced (to £66s.8d and 13s.4d respectively) for a 50-year term whose renewals continued that status quo up to the close of the sixteenth century.

Lyme and Melcombe were not isolated instances. Along the Sussex stretch of the south coast the neighbouring communities of Winchelsea and Rye were among several port towns to suffer from enemy attacks. They were settled as fishing communities before the Conquest, but Rye was being referred to as a borough soon after the Conquest, and Winchelsea obtained similar recognition in the next century. By mid-twelfth century the increase in trade passing through their ports had made them significant enough to be recruited in to the confederation known as the Cinque Ports; as such they contributed ships towards the traditional naval service of the league, particularly as Hastings, the head port to which Rye and Winchelsea were at first subsidiaries, found its harbour silting up.

The bay serving both Rye and Winchelsea also suffered from silting problems, while an extended period (1233-88) of stormy weather eroded the shingle on which Winchelsea had been founded, bringing periodic flooding of the town and a significant reduction in the revenues it was able to generate for the king; so in 1280 a process was initiated to acquire new lands and transplant the settlement from its now largely submerged location to the new one a few miles inland. This allowed, over the next few years, New Winchelsea to be carefully planned out (on an ambitious scale, though applying the usual grid pattern) and built on an elevated site (not at risk from flooding) of about 150 acres; it was divided up into 39 quarters containing 723 plots of land, each owing a rent to the Crown, and with port facilities on the bank of the adjacent River Brede. Once the new town was operational and attracting new settlers – many mariners from across the south coast – attention turned to providing it with a defensive ditch and bank. These were supplemented by four gates and stone walls for part of the circuit (to support the protection given by two of the gates to key access points near the river); this process probably began when the first murage grant was received in 1295, following a destructive French raid on Dover, but ran out of steam after 1330, and may never have been properly completed.

Winchelsea's defences failed, however, to protect it from enemy raids. The French attacked in 1328, 1359, and 1360, with parts of the town burned down on each occasion, while in 1380 it was briefly captured by a combined French and Spanish force, after an attack in which one of the gates was badly damaged and another was said to have been opened by treachery. Rye had a not dissimilar tale to tell. A series of murage grants during the opening decades of Edward III's reign mark efforts to fortify the hilltop site, but it is doubtful whether the work completed was adequate once the Hundred Years War brought threat of assault. A Spanish fleet threatened in 1350, but was driven off by English ships. In 1369 a renewed and successful request for murage was made on the grounds of damage suffered by Rye in a recent attack. Perhaps the most serious incident occurred in 1377, when the French were able to enter the town, loot it, and set fires.

We should not think that the raids on Winchelsea and Rye were totally devastating. Following the 1377 attack, Rye immediately made plans to improve its defences and won another murage grant on that basis. And it joined forces with Winchelsea to mount, in 1378, a reprisal raid on French coast ports which managed to recapture some of the booty taken by the French the previous year. The Cinque Ports had a tradition not only of naval service but also of privateering and piracy; their skill at naval warfare could even be directed against other English towns: in 1321 Winchelsea ships had attacked Southampton, for example, and there were sporadic outbreaks of hostility between the Ports and Yarmouth. This kind of aggression was for local benefit and contrary to national interest, while personal profit also lay behind a growing trend towards piracy. In the fifteenth century the king took advantage of such inclinations, and compensated for an inability to maintain an effective professional navy, through a policy of permitting private ships to attack enemy shipping, although it was hard to ensure pirate fleets were suitably discriminating; as the century progressed, privateering initiatives became better organized, perating notably from West Country ports.[Maryanne Kowaleski, "Warfare, Shipping, and Crown Patronage: The Economic Impact of the Hundred Years War on the English Port Towns", in L. Armstrong et al. eds., Money Markets and Trade in Medieval Europe, Leiden: Brill, 2007, 250-53.]

Nonetheless, when taken together with the impact of plague, declining trade, and the demands on local ships for naval service, the war damage contributed to difficult times. In 1379 Rye petitioned parliament for the transfer to it of Sussex fines collected under the Statute of Labourers, to help finance defensive repairs and upgrades necessitated by the frequent enemy action, and in 1380 the farmer of the bailiwick of Rye was ordered to turn over £18 from the farm, for each of the following two years, for that purpose. At the end of that period, the entire farm was allocated to the task, on condition the town walls were completed within three years, upon pain of a £100 fine; they were not, but Rye could not afford the fine, and the king had to forgive it. In 1384 a Commons petition on behalf of both Rye and Winchelsea requested financial relief for them, on the grounds they had been so weakened by past attacks they could not resist future ones, risking the possibility of capture and conversion by the enemy into fortified bases for invasion. The king promised to consider the matter, and in 1385 trees from a royal park and tolls on fish collected at various Sussex ports were assigned to Rye.

Winchelsea shows some signs of recovery in the late fourteenth century; yet indication of reduced condition is found in a request in 1414 from its mayor and community that the king permit them to construct a new ditch and stone wall, enclosing a smaller part of the town's site, since depopulation had caused the inhabited area to shrink and maintaining the old circuit would no longer be cost-effective. Since the new defensive line would run through properties whose rents had contributed towards the fee farm, an inquisition was necessary to see what the financial loss might be. This proved only a few shillings, so the following year the king, asserting his preference for frontier towns to be strengthened against the enemy, gave licence (on condition that those whose property was commandeered were compensated), but declined to reduce the fee farm (although, to help finance the work, an allocation was made from customs duties collected in neighbouring ports). In addition to this project, an effort was made (1419-22) to restore port viability by cutting a new channel towards the sea. These initiatives ultimately failed to halt Winchelsea's decline.

At the same period Rye's population had fallen to around a hundred house-holders, few of whom were particularly prosperous, judging from tax assessments. In 1448 it fell prey to another raid. Its fishing fleet and investment from Londoners helped with a gradual economic recovery from this new setback. Another Cinque Port, Sandwich, was the victim of a similar quick raid in 1457. Although it is doubted that this resulted in significant damage to the fabric of the town, the French were able to break through defences and loot parts of the town, whose mayor was killed in the fighting, and the episode created a scare throughout the country. Sandwich was already suffering economically and, when the raid took place, had just been visited by plague. Afterwards, trade was disrupted, as fewer ships made use of Sandwich Haven, and revenues from tolls fell, while property transactions in the town dropped off for a while. In the 1460s the king provided financial subsidy to support work on the defences. But this setback was another nail in the coffin of a town experiencing depopulation and decline.

East coast ports were also susceptible to deterioration from the forces of nature and to sea-based raids by French or Scots. Although Great Yarmouth suffered no attack on the scale of the more serious raids on south coast ports, as a key access point into eastern England, it felt itself under threat. During the fourteenth century the town made a seemingly endless string of complaints about one difficulty or another, and those in the petition of 1471 had already become serious generations earlier. Yarmouth's economic decline stemmed from a number of causes, notably:

  • the constant silting up of the channel leading from the sea to the River Yare, and thereby the town's harbour facilities;
  • the depletion of its fleet due to losses at sea and war service;
  • competition from nearby Lowestoft and Gorleston for economic advantages, and in the local herring trade not only from its long-time rivals, the Cinque Ports, but from fishermen from the Low Countries and northern France, while even its role as one of the select shipping points for wool (not a major element in the town's economy) was challenged directly in 1404 by Ipswich and more generally by London's efforts to dominate the trade.

A 1502 version of the 1471 petition blamed the Black Death for the beginning of the town's decline, but this factor was not cited in earlier pleas, although plague must have hit hard in the tightly-packed area of habitation.

The silting problem necessitated that new channels be cut periodically to connect Yarmouth's port to the sea. In 1393 the king granted permission for the townsmen to make a new cut, after they had petitioned that, due to silting at the mouth of the old one, they were no longer prosperous enough to raise sufficient money to pay the farm or to keep the town walls in repair; he further permitted them to levy for five years a special toll on herring wholesale transactions, to finance the construction. When approaching the end of that term, Yarmouth submitted a new petition to parliament (1397) pleading poverty, on account of depopulation and the silting of the port, and requested a reduction in the town's tax assessment of £100. By 1409 the new cut had itself become impassable at its mouth and permission to go through the process again had to be obtained from the king, this time financed in part by a five-year grant of £100 p.a. out of receipts from tunnage and poundage subsidies collected there; however, this revenue source proved unreliable. To help with the costs of maintaining that channel, in 1453 the burgesses obtained from Henry VI a six-year reduction of their farm by £33.6s.8d annually, and Edward IV renewed this. The same monarchs also on several occasions (up until 1463) granted Yarmouth exemptions from national tenths.

Yarmouth's various problems were frequently a public concern during this period, for it was the leading provider of a staple element of the English diet; there was natural public concern about anything that would affect herring supply or prices. Petitions from the town about economic hardship start appearing around the same time that silting of the port had first become critical and maritime commerce was, as a result, shifting down the coast towards Lowestoft. One put forward at the 1386 parliament argued that Yarmouth was suffering more than any other town in eastern England, and risked being unable to meet its financial commitments to the Crown because of the expense in making the town defensible against the enemy; on this occasion it sought not a reduction in those commitments, but a regrant of all its chartered liberties (some of which had been compromised by grants to its competitors). In 1397, however, it petitioned again, this time for a reduction in its tax assessment, blaming depopulation and the silting problem, and the request was repeated in 1399, emphasizing the abandonment of houses by their (tax-paying) tenants and the risk that the town could become deserted, thus compromising its role as the (defensive) frontier for the region.

That argument was made more explicitly as the lead-in to a petition to the parliament of October 1407, by which time the situation with access to the port had once more become critical. In it Yarmouth was described as the principal fortress against an invasion of East Anglia; the silting was also briefly mentioned, and some space given over to describing the abandonment of the town by residents, the consequent increasing burden of communal financial obligations, and the risk that the remaining inhabitants would also have to depart, leaving the county defenceless against invasion. A twenty-year reduction of the tax assessment to £60 was requested. The king was not willing to go that far, but other relief was provided (as mentioned above). Yarmouth's petition of 1471 (the text of which has not survived) was at least given enough credence to warrant a commission of enquiry. Whatever its results may have been, it was not the last such plea, for in 1472 and again in 1487 Yarmouth was one of several towns exempted from paying tax.

Whether the expense of protecting the town was a major factor in Yarmouth's economic distress we may doubt. Certainly during a good part of the fourteenth century the construction of a relatively substantial circuit of fortifications was underway, and such projects inevitably placed a strain on borough finances, with the need to supplement murage receipts with revenue from local sources. It is also likely that a frontier town would have felt the need to maintain carefully the town watch, something that appears to have been considered universally burdensome. On the other hand, Yarmouth never experienced the devastating consequences of an assault from the sea, although it was plundered (like Ipswich and Norwich) by rebellious peasant forces in 1381. The issue of defensibility costs would have contributed to the town's economic problems, but it was brought out in petitions mainly because expected to be a matter that would make the king take notice.

On the other hand, there was another area in which military affairs significantly impacted the Yarmouth economy; This was the depletion of its mercantile fleet which, in conjunction with the depression of maritime commerce as a result of the combination of piracy and war, proved a cumulative setback from which the town did not recover. Yet it was not a lever brought into play in the majority of the town's petitions for financial relief before that of 1471.

Yarmouth was one of the most prosperous towns in England in the decades preceding the arrival of the plague. Its wealth was almost entirely based on the sea: the fishing and the import/export trade; its wealthiest merchants became so in part by investing in ship-building. The 1471 petition's estimate of the number of ships in Yarmouth's fleet (presumably) at its peak corresponds well to other figures assembled by A.R. Saul ["Great Yarmouth and the Hundred Years War in the Fourteenth Century," Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 52 (1979), 108.] But that resource was called upon periodically throughout the fourteenth century when the king needed ships to defend the coast or for military transport. In the opening decades of that century the war with Scotland and what was essentially a war against pirates operating out of the Low Countries placed on Yarmouth ships. This demand increased in the early phase of the Hundred Years War; from 1335 to 1340 (when France had naval dominance), the number of Yarmouth ships called into royal service averaged out at 42 a year. These demands fluctuated more in the following decade, but 34 Yarmouth ships were among those that deserted the Brittany fleet in 1342, and their 26 owners (both men and women) were fined heavily as a result, while the huge fleet assigned to the siege of Calais for almost a year (1346-47) included 43 Yarmouth vessels holding 1,950 sailors, and on occasions during this period two Yarmouth men had command of the northern fleet (John Perbroun and Thomas Drayton).

Apart from exceptional situations like the siege of Calais, service periods were usually only a few weeks, but ships were often "arrested" (i.e. confined to port awaiting possible action) for longer periods, and there was a tendency to impound more ships than were ultimately used. Periods of arrest and service kept the ships from engaging in commerce. Owners were supposed to be paid for the service of their ships, but the Crown was notoriously slow in paying its debts. Some early tax exemptions were granted, in the 1290s and 1330s, inconsideration of Yarmouth's naval contributions, but at other times the king ordered that all townsmen contribute towards expenses. Ships were at risk of being lost to, or damaged in, enemy action, and for this the king did not usually compensate owners; although in1380 a system was introduced to assist with maintenance costs, the tontyght payments were not always available, and were at a much lower rate than the cost of major repairs or building a new ship. Losses to storms or to pirates (again with little hope of recompense), or indeed through engaging in piracy, further depleted the Yarmouth fleet.

Even before the Black Death struck, the lost opportunities for mercantile ventures, the general disruption to maritime trade occasioned by hostile forces at sea or by the war in general, and losses of ships, appear to have severely weakened Yarmouth's economy. Those merchants who survived the plague lacked either the means or the motivation to invest in new ship-building. Wartime might prove profitable for those involved in victories that led to booty, or in extracurricular action (piracy, although that had its risks), or who supplied victuals or services to naval expeditions that assembled off the east coast; but this was a minority. Sailors might also benefit from the employment offered by naval activity, but by the second half of the century wages were sufficiently low (relative to other occupations) to give rise to mutinies and petitions to parliament for increases. Furthermore, they too suffered from the enforced inactivity of arrested ships, which reduced employment opportunities.

The second half of the century saw royal recognition of reduced capacity for naval service from Yarmouth. Although the king's needs had not lessened, the town provided smaller contingents for transporting expeditions and guarding coastal waters; towards the close of the century Yarmouth's contribution was often nominal or non-existent. The decline of the town's merchant shipping continued nonetheless; in 1375, for example, an English fleet laden with cargoes to bring back to England, was attacked off the Brittany coast by Spanish ships; 39 English vessels were lost, including 6 from Yarmouth.

Yarmouth was not alone in this situation. In the latter years of Edward III's reign, parliament was expressing concern over the deterioration of naval resources, but it did not want the king spending money to increase his own small fleet. Instead various towns were ordered to build barges for war service. Yarmouth had received such orders on several occasions between 1294 and 1377; such projects were costly and appear to have been at the unremunerated expense of the town. Orders to various ports to build 20 galleys for naval service had also been issued in 1294.

It is hardly surprising that other flourishing ports, such as Newcastle, Bristol, Southampton, and Dartmouth, were called upon in the same way as Yarmouth, to build ships for the king and to loan merchant vessels for war service. But even wealthier inland towns, such as London and York, were similarly tasked, if less onerously (relative to the size of their merchant fleets). That such obligations do not seem to have featured explicitly in urban petitions pleading poverty and decline may indicate that, despite the financial burden, the personnel of urban government – many of whom were merchants, or at least occasional investors in mercantile ventures – saw some advantages to co-operating with the king in matters of naval defence. For one thing, keeping the seas safe for English shipping was in everyone's best interest. For another, co-operation might be expected to earn goodwill from the Crown, which could be 'cashed in' in the form of grants of enhanced jurisdiction, privileges, or financial concessions, and perhaps also the right to be consulted in matters of national defence.


The cases described above are only examples of the distress being felt in the urban sector in the later Middle Ages. By the time Richard II succeeded the warrior-king Edward III, the heavy burden of supporting – with human, fiscal, and marine resources – drawn-out hostilities on several fronts, while at the same time a commerce-based economy faced disruptions of various kinds, was taking a toll on all sectors of society but perhaps particularly towns.

A growing number of towns, in addition to those mentioned above, were looking for some kind of help or relief. Indeed, the sheer number of pleas and their similarities must make us suspicious whether some municipal authorities were not simply jumping on a band-wagon in order to reduceir financial burdens, although it is evident that foreign wars had made things difficult for townspeople, in a number of ways. At the parliament of April 1379 the Commons, looking for better coastal defence, complained that French warships were roaming freely in the waters off Scarborough, had attacked the town and carried off some of the townspeople for ransoms (some £1,000 having been paid over the previous two years), so that the town was no longer able to defend itself and at risk of further attack. The solution offered (by a committee of merchants set up by the king) – to institute a coastal patrol (two barges and two balingers) and finance it through a special toll on mercantile and fishing vessels using those waters – simply imposed a new financial burden and a further disincentive to maritime commerce. 1383 saw two Commons petition on behalf of Scarborough. One bemoaned raids by Scots, French, and Flemings, and their capture of many ships belonging to the townsmen; some of the burgesses had banded together to purchase a barge and balinger to defend the coast, but they could not afford the operating costs (including wages of fighting crews); they proposed that a new toll be collected to cover such costs. The second successfully requested, in consideration of the war losses incurred by the town, a confirmation of the borough liberties in their fullest extent.

When Henry IV displaced King Richard, it was perceived as providing a new opportunity. A number of towns sought to wring concessions from a usurper who felt the crown very unsteady upon his head and needed to win supporters. Lincoln and Yarmouth had both approached one of Richard's last parliaments (1397) pleading poverty and depopulation (without explicit reference to war as a causal factor) and seeking reductions in their financial obligations, but Richard's deposition prevented any remedy taking effect. They tried again at Henry's first parliament (1399). Lincoln was back with the same request at the parliament of 1402. It was joined by: Dunwich, blaming coastal erosion for an inability to pay its farm or taxes; Ipswich seeking a reduction because depopulation had reduced its number of contributors; Cambridge, arguing that a reduction in its farm was warranted because some of its privileges and revenue streams had been transferred to the university; and Truro, asking for Richard II's 20-year reduction of its tax assessment to be made permanent, in consideration of losses suffered in enemy attacks.

Besides Shrewsbury, Melcombe, Lyme, and Yarmouth, the 1407 parliament heard from Ilchester, which blamed the granting away of some of its territory, together with plagues and other unspecified adversities for its depopulation and impoverishment, not new, for Edward III had pardoned arrears of the farm and Richard II had reduced its level. In 1410 it was the turn of Truro again (seeking renewal of a 6-year tax reduction granted consequent to its earlier petition), with Winchester, Oxford, and Plymouth; of the last three only Plymouth blamed wartime attacks for its woes and part of the aid package it was seeking was the right to collect tolls to finance construction of defences. Also on the agenda was Newcastle upon Tyne, whose war damage and expense in defending the town was well recognized; it had its tax assessment reduced by 50%, and a complete exemption was accorded by the parliaments of 1410, 1413, 1414, 1415, and 1416. Henry IV's initial response to the early requests for relief was cautious, instructing towns to bring their cases directly before him, but in later years (his insecurity remaining after a series of rebellions) he was more prepared to make immediate concessions or at least to order investigations of complaints.

With war going more England's way in the reign of Henry V, urban pleas dropped off. Southampton was up to bat in 1414, pointing to its reliance on tolls to support costs of maintaining a town watch, keeping its fortifications in repair, and generally defending the town, which revenue was dropping due to a decline in visitation by outsider merchants. Henry acknowledged that, as a frontier town, Southampton needed better protection and, in the hope of reversing the depopulation trend, granted a 10-year reduction of its farm and licence to acquire property to the value of £100 as a source of new annual revenue. In 1421 there was a tax reduction petition from the small Sussex towns of Shoreham and Rottingdean, the former blaming coastal erosion and the latter destruction from enemy attacks for the population shrinkage and poverty. The reigns of Henry VI and his successors saw occasional requests for financial relief (e.g. Melcombe, above) or for the grant of new revenue sources or trade concessions to help meet payments of the farm, but not with the same intensity as in Henry IV's reign.

The king was the principal defender of the realm, but to be effective, and to uphold the authority of the monarchy in that role, he needed the co-operation of regional and local communities. He also needed to avoid strategically positioned fortified towns falling to the enemy or becoming indefensible. Towns aimed to capitalize on those needs by using defensive concerns to secure economic advantages or concessions from the Crown, to compensate them (at least to a degree) for the costs incurred in supporting the king militarily. By 1407 towns seem to have found the right 'mark' and the appropriate arguments to make, couched in terms intended to produce an emotive effect. They involved pointing out the strategic location of a town, the risk to the realm should the town become depopulated and unable to mount a defence, and the contributions (both defensive and offensive) of a community to the war effort together with damage suffered as a result of the king's territorial ambitions. The king did not necessarily take such claims at face value, but would institute an investigation (unless he had personal knowledge of the situation, as would likely have been the case with Newcastle). Allowing for a certain amount of tactical exaggeration, however, urban complaints seem to have had foundation, being often borne out by other evidence, by corroboration, or by the findings of enquiries.

How pronounced and long-term were the effects of war on towns is not easy to assess or differentiate from other factors. For, during the same period that the wars were underway, towns also suffered from other problems such as:

  • natural disasters such as major fires, flooding rivers, silting of harbours, coastal erosion, bad weather, and poor harvests (the Great Famine of 1315-1318, for example, providing part of the context for the Bamburgh and Newcastle petitions, above).
  • the initial visitation and recurrences of the Black Death as well as outbreaks of diseases affecting livestock
  • ;
  • changing patterns of trade as, for example, new competitors appeared, Londoners increasingly dominated the native share of international trade, new industries superseded older ones, or international politics made some foreign markets out-of-bounds;
  • the growing expense of local government as the scope of administrative responsibilities broadened and the demands of a cash-poor national administration increased;
  • and the social divisions that these various setbacks intensified.

We should beware of painting a picture of unremitting gloom. Regional and local communities could be impressively resilient. Yarmouth's long-time rival Norwich was holding its own and Ipswich was also doing well; indeed, their commercial competition may be seen as further factors in Yarmouth's difficulties, highlighting the point that varying regional circumstances have to be accounted for when considering issues of urban decline. Merchants prepared to take risks might still make a profit from long-distance commerce (including cross-border trading with the enemy, even in prohibited items such as weapons). While some townspeople preferred to move out of the danger zone, others were more determined, and simply rebuilt. It has been remarked in regard to Cumbria that its society and economy were "too strong to be eradicated by national conflict" [Henry Summerson, "Responses to War: Carlisle and the West March in the later fourteenth century", in War and Border Societies in the Middle Ages, ed. A Goodman and A. Tuck, London: Routledge, 1992, 170] and the same might be said of the north generally, as well as of the Welsh Marches, if not a good part of England.

Urban decline (also referred to as urban decay) was a widespread but complex and somewhat foggy phenomenon associated by historians with economic contraction in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, partly a result of excessive, unsustainable growth in the number and size of towns in an earlier, more buoyant period. But, as some of the above examples suggest, the ebb and flow of fortunes varied from region to region, town to town, affected by factors that included the burdens (on human and fiscal resources) of defence and the damage inflicted by prolonged war: damage to their physical fabric, to their populations (in terms of physical health, psychology, and economics), to the flow of commerce, and to the hinterland whose raw produce provisioned urban communities and fuelled industry and trade. Some towns were able to adapt to changes and recover, wholly or in part, from war damage and the high cost of defensibility, while others never recovered or remained depressed until the post-medieval period.



"a wall"
Newcastle received its first grant of murage in 1265, and further grants covered most of the remainder of that century and most of the fourteenth. When the townsmen referred to having borne the costs themselves, it may indicate that murage proceeds were inadequate to meet expenses. Part of the cost was in compensating the owners of properties across which the wall was to be built or the ditch dug. The fragmentary documentary evidence suggests that the enclosure was almost complete by the close of the thirteenth century, with the possible exception of the wall on the north side. Architectural evidence from what remains today of the medieval walls also suggests that most was built in the period following the first murage grant up to about 1316.

"guard duties"
By 1402, 100 men were engaged in the watch each night, and there were probably salaried gatekeepers (as was the case in the seventeenth century) and keepers of the fortified bridge over the Tyne.

"obligations, tenths"
That is, payment of the king's taxes and the fee farm of the borough. Taxes were assessed on (most) towns at the rate of one-tenth of the value of the moveables of the residents; but from 1334 taxation was simplified by making each town's assessment a fixed amount, like the farm.

"brought to grief"
The text uses the past participle peynt which may imply that the victims have undergone suffering (punishment) or that they have been obliged to pay a penalty (i.e. been held to ransom).

"not to take anything"
An earlier petition (ca. 1315) had complained that the constable was charging 12d. per plot of land for storing their belongings, and the castle's gatekeeper were demanding fees for letting the townspeople in and out. Furthermore, when the latter were seeking to purchase for £70 a truce with the Earl of Moray, the constable, it was alleged, scuttled negotiations by insisting on an equal sum for himself. An additional complaint was that a captain of a band of between 50 t 100 Irish mercenaries in the king's pay had used force to purvey supplies from the town; the same captain's roughshod behaviour was the subject of other complaints in that and the previous year (although Berwick was sufficiently pleased with his services in keeping the Scots from its gates that it requested the king to pay him better wages). The king ordered an enquiry into the charges against the constable but, whatever its result, it evidently did not produce a permanent solution. In defence of the constable, we may note that his own salary and reimbursement of his official expenses were in arrears from the king to a very large sum; the king instructed him to take it out of the farm payable by Newcastle, but frustrated that plan when he exempted the town from payment.

That is, what would later come to be known as the House of Commons. During the fourteenth century parliament changed from the ad hoc meetings of the previous century into a more formal, regularized, and influential forum for addressing political and legal issues through debate and through the presentation of suggestions for reform, some of which could develop into new legislation. Although parliament's original purpose was to provide community consent for royal initiatives, this approval increasingly entailed financial support, which gave the communal representatives a bargaining chip. The presentation of petitions by the "commoners" returned to parliament gradually became a standard feature, and a grant of taxes to the king was implicitly conditional upon the petitions being heard and valid grievances redressed (or at least looked into). At first the petitions addressed national concerns, but complaints of a local, and even private, import also came to be included.

"parliament held at Shrewsbury"
Convened January 1398. Having arrested several of his baronial enemies at the previous parliament, Richard now sought to rid himself of parliamentary criticism by intimidating with armed force the representatives who assembled at Shrewsbury.

"damage and ruination"
These terms should be understood, given the purpose of the petition, as referring to financial loss and damage to the local economy, rather than as damage to the physical fabric, which was self-evident.

"burned down 8 villages"
At the previous parliament (March 1406) the men commissioned to collect the king's tenth petitioned to be relieved of the responsibility for a part of it, representing the assessments of seven hamlets (identified above) that were outside the town walls but part of the territorial liberties, on the grounds that they were ruinous because of the actions of the rebels and no tax money could be raised there. Evidently the rebels had razed the area all around the walled enclave.

"to protect the town"
To prevent the buildings being used as shelter or cover for attackers. This was not an unusual defensive precaution (another instance is known from Lynn).

"outside the town"
Where they would not be eligible for night-watch duty. It is not clear from the verb used to express departure (voidre ("vacate", which I have translated as "withdrawn" to emphasize the similarity in formulae with Melcombe's petition) whether those moving out were simply going to nearby villages – a strategy that would have eased financial burdens but lost financial advantages and that, as the case of Bamburgh shows, would have been no guarantee of security – or intended to abandon the region entirely.

"granted by the laity"
That is the lay commoners and peers attending parliament; clerical participants granted taxes on Church property on a separate basis.

"9 named men"
Headed by the earl of Oxford, the commissioners included members of the Norfolk gentry (including a Paston, and members of the Fenne and Clere families, which were connected with Yarmouth) and two Norfolk lawyers.

"fore castellis"
In naval battles archers and crossbowmen fired from raised platforms installed over the prow and often also the stern of the ship, and stabilized by attaching them to the mast. The upper deck that became a standard feature of sailing ships was thus in origins literally a castle-like structure built aforeships. When merchant ships were pressed into naval service for combat they required the addition of a forecastle to make them defensible. Since Yarmouth ships were called into action relatively frequently, their owners doubtless did not remove forecastles once they had been installed. The Yarmouth ships without forecastles would have been smaller vessels, down to the level of fishing boats.

"alms for the college"
In 1352 the town promised a last of herring annually to the college.

The term was originally used in reference to siege engines, but by this date doubtless takes its later application to cannon.

"urbs regia"
We must treat guardedly Bede's judgement on what was urban, from the modern perspective, as opposed to what was primarily a fortress/administrative centre, perhaps serviced by a market and some resident tradesmen. Nonetheless, Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh was clearly a place of relative importance in Northumbria.

"from the sea"
Although the strongly-built castle is perched upon a crag, the settlement below it was relatively easily accessible from the shore and vulnerable to raids. The castle itself was touted as impregnable and did indeed withstand sieges in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, only to fall later to Yorkist besiegers during the Wars of the Roses, who used cannon to do much damage to the walls, after which it was left in ruins. Raiders could alternatively have entered Budle Bay and landed at Warenmouth, which served as Bamburgh's outport and was itself a borough, founded by the constable of the castle and generously endowed by royal charter (1247) with the customs and liberties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. From there the Scots could launch assaults on settlements along that stretch of coast. If so, Warenmouth must also have suffered much. It had failed as a town by the mid-fifteenth century (Bamburgh's 1332 charter perhaps reflecting a beginning of the shift of focus) and today almost nothing of it survives.

That is, the king's response to the petition was written onto the back (dorse) of the document.

"not to charge"
This was not an uncommon problem. A petition of ca.1333 from the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland complained of outrageous sums extorted for refuge by keepers of castles (up to 6s.8d for two or three nights stay) , despite the king having ordered that this not be done when the enemy was in the field, and despite the refuge-seekers' willingness to assist with defence of the castle in return for protection (a practice the king had suggested).

"taken seriously"
The earl of Lancaster was discredited, having been (1315) given charge of military affairs in the north, but failing to take any firm action in its defence.

"wealthiest towns"
Records of the national taxation of 1334 are commonly used by historians as a barometer of the relative prosperity of English towns. Newcastle had the fourth largest assessment (only London, Bristol, and York had higher).

Newcastle was the port through which most coal was shipped, by local and visiting merchants, to national and foreign destinations, although the town had no formal monopoly. The wealth that this trade brought to Newcastle was said to be the reason King John was persuaded to grant the town rights of self-government (1214) in return for a fee farm of £100; Mineral coal (called sea-coal) and charcoal were used in various industrial processes, some of which were tied to the war effort, such as smelting and smithing metal in making arms and armour, and burning lime for constructing or repairing fortifications. Outside of the north, it had only limited use for domestic heating at this period, notably by religious houses..

"developing the waterfront"
A process described, as part of a general discussion of Newcastle's commerce, by C. O'Brien in "Newcastle upon Tyne and its North Sea trade", pp.36-42 in Proceedings of the third international conference on waterfront archaeology held at Bristol, 23-26 September 1988, ed. Good, Jones and Ponsford, CBA Research Report No 74 (1991).

"North Shields"
Newcastle was fined £300 after its mayor led an armed band there in 1267, seized a boat moored there with a cargo of coal and hides, assaulted some of the residents and burned down some houses.

"begun until the 1260s"
A local legend ascribed the initiative to a wealthy townsman who had been captured by the Scots and, being ransomed, started building the walls at his own cost. There is no supporting evidence, although in the light of the known catalyzing roles of individual sponsors in some other towns, the story is not wholly implausible. It is, however, unnecessary, given that the Scottish threat must have made the desirability of walls evident to all.

"pressing need"
Whereas evidence of dumping of large amounts of domestic and industrial waste and building debris against at least part of the wall in the fourteenth and fifteenth century might be an indication of reduced threat and relative neglect of defences, and in the post-medieval period guilds were allowed to make use of a number of the towers.

"maintenance of fortifications"
The ward system at Newcastle was organized so that each of the 24 component wards was named after, and was responsible for manning, at least one gate or tower.

The turrets were said to have been topped by sculptures of watchmen. This was a feature not known from any other English town walls.

"victualling demands"
For example, a Newcastle petition ca.1327 complained that the grain crop being cultivated in the fields surrounding the town had been completely lost to the king's army on its last expedition towards Scotland, for which they had not yet received compensation; they asked to be allowed to conduct trade without any restrictions in order to buy, wherever they could find them, victuals to feed the community.

"forced billetting"
Although this gave burgesses the right to expect payment for lodging troops, in practice it did not guarantee payment.

"good folk"
The original uses the standard term good men bons gentz, referring to the ruling class. The deaths referred to are those of John de Denton and others resulting from the violent political contest in the town.

"houses had been pulled down"
Similar complaints in the 1380s blamed the digging of a new defensive ditch for the loss of homes and gardens.

Although the garrison was contributory to the local economy by comprising several hundred potential consumers of local goods and services, relations between citizenry and garrison were affected by the stress of war footing. In 1345 the latter rioted and intimidated the former by shooting arrows through their windows and threatening to set houses on fire.

"watch and ward"
How seriously this duty was taken is suggested by the existence of the office of sergeant of the watch; by 1402 this officer (appointed with life tenure by the earl of Northumberland, as warden of the town and castle) was receiving a good daily wage of 12d. and being lodged in a tower on the city wall.

"the burgesses"
This referred not to the townsmen generally but to those who were taxpayers, and meant those who became members of the merchant gild authorized by royal charter of 1227, although apparently set up in 1209 (perhaps in part to administer the monopoly).

"the town be munitioned"
A more detailed description of this effort over several years is given by Dorothy Cromarty, Everyday Life in Medieval Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury: Shropshire County Council, 1991, 12-15.

"murage grants"
Royal audits of murage accounts 1407-09 and 1434 did not interrupt the series of regrants, suggesting no irregularities were found to warrant complaints of embezzlement.

"stress of war conditions"
In the 1460s, with the Lancastrians using southern Wales as a base, Shrewsbury was again in fear of attack and called on to man its defences as well as to supply troops for offensive operations.

"disturbances throughout Shropshire"
On these, see Edward Powell, "Proceedings before the Justices of the Peace at Shrewsbury in 1414: a supplement to the Shropshire Peace Roll." English Historical Review, July 1984, 535-50.

"associated privileges"
Melcombe's were modeled after London, and Lyme's after Melcombe.

"damage from enemy raids"
According to one chronicle account, the townspeople were at Sunday morning mass when the raiders arrived, an explanation that had also been applied to the Southampton raid of 1338; either this was a stylized excuse or the raiders timed their attack for when they knew their victims would be preoccupied. Certainly the chronicler's reference to killings, rapes and pillaging was stylistic: such was the expectation of the character of attacks on civilians.

This was the date of a royal charter granting the town powers of financial self-administration in return for a fee-farm of £21.6s.8d.

"depleted revenues"
The tolls on imports/exports were said to be the principal source for paying the farm. All that remained to the town were court perquisites and tolls from the land-based market, amounting to a meagre 10s. a year. 71s.3d was received from the remaining tenants in the town, while 38s.1d was somehow being generated from ruinous properties and agricultural land. The commission appears to have been very careful in determining precisely how much of the farm could with justification no longer be paid.

"cloth exported, wine imported"
Statistics are tabled in D. Palliser, ed. The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol.1, 479, 481.

"carefully planned out"
The process is unusually well documented. Negotiations for the lands continued throughout the 1280s, but by November 1281 enough progress had been made to begin to assign plots to the residents of old Winchelsea, so that house construction could commence; the commissioners supervising the planning of the town included the warden of the Cinque Ports and two former London mayors. By 1286 the settlement of the new site was sufficiently advanced that the drafting of a list of tenants and their rents was ordered for Exchequer reference; a proper rental was compiled in 1292, representing the final allocation of properties by local authorities, into whose care the new town had been committed in 1288. By 1292 the number of plots had increased to 802 and there were 690 tenants.

"recent attack"
Turner, Town Defences in England and Wales, London: John Baker, 1970, 162, thought this referred to an assault in 1339, however. The years between 1338 and 1340, and again 1377-85, saw damaging attacks on a dozen or so south coast ports.

"declining trade"
Because of the war, the focus of the wine trade had shifted away from France towards Spain and the Mediterranean, which favoured more westerly English ports (e.g. Bristol), while the decline of Yarmouth's prominence in the herring industry impacted the Cinque Ports, which had special rights at the herring fair held at Yarmouth. By 1378 New Winchelsea's port, suffering from silting, had been eclipsed by that of Chichester. Rye perhaps did better, despite the silting of the bay through which it accessed the Channel, for it was able to expand its role in the fishing industry, with London as a key market, and to attract away from Winchelsea business of London merchants (drawn to Winchelsea from mid-thirteenth century, due to its good road connection with the capital) needing a south coast port – some of whom invested in property at Rye.

"inhabited area to shrink"
The contraction particularly affected the southern quarters (where rents were becoming devalued as early as the mid-fourteenth century) and the western quarters.

"is doubted"
Helen Clarke et al., Sandwich: the 'completest medieval town in England', Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010, 147, argue this on the grounds of the brevity of the assault and the French commander's prohibition that his troops set fires in the town or damage its churches.

"principal fortress"
An exaggeration (although Yarmouth was the best fortified coastal settlement between London and Lynn), but a spin expected to be effective with the king.

The walls were complete only on three sides, with the river protecting the fourth and a gated drawbridge added in the early fifteenth century to guard the river.

"1,950 sailors"
This would probably have been somewhere close to the total adult male population of Yarmouth, although crews must have been drawn from a wider catchment area.

"the war in general"
Trading with parts of France held by, or allied with, England could be fraught with dangers, particularly since relationships could change quickly. In the case of Yarmouth, its trade with Gascony – selling herring there in exchange for wine – was adversely affected.

"losses of ships"
A petition for tax relief in 1348 stated that, of 90 large ships owned by townsmen during the time of Edward II, 54 had been lost since 1333.

"unremunerated expense"
Some of the towns from which balingers were ordered in 1377 were promised that, once the vessels had served their purpose, they would be given over to the use of the builders.

"build 20 galleys"
A description of the effort involved is given by Colin Platt in Medieval Southampton: The port and trading community, A.D. 1000-1600, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, 61-62.

"size of their merchant fleets"
Londoners were less likely to be ship-owners, preferring to use Dutch, Flemish or other foreign ships to carry their cargoes overseas. York's merchants made use of shipping at Kingston upon Hull; a few had their own ships, but they tended to be of lesser tonnage than those owned by residents of seaports and therefore less useful for naval service, whether transport or combat. At many places ownership of ships was shared between several merchants, to spread the risk.

"the form of grants"
This case is argued by Christian Liddy in War, Politics and Finance in Late Medieval English Towns: Bristol, York and the Crown, 1350-1400, Boydell Press, 2005, in the context of a broader discussion of shipping and naval service (pp.43-57). He points out that Bristol's important charter of 1373 was granted (without the usual fee), according to its preamble, in appreciation of the citizens' loyal service and particularly that of their ships. The argument could probably be applied to the charters granted to Newcastle in 1318 and Shrewsbury in 1265 and 1485 (see above). .

"their fullest extent"
Some having been compromised, it was claimed, by contradictory grants to others, or by statutes.

"construction of defences"
However, it would not be until Edward IV's reign that such a project was seriously underway.

"appropriate arguments"
Anything that pointed to defensive vulnerabilities was likely to produce some form of assistance. Other foundations for complaint, such as declining trade, moved the king far less – they were, from his perspective, local problems, unrelated to his primary areas of responsibility.

"initial visitation"
1349 is often considered a turning-point in medieval English urban history, even though some of the economic and social effects of plague were slow to manifest.

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Created: December 31, 2007. Last update: January 7, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2007-2019