INTRODUCTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval new towns ports market Newcastle-upon-Tyne commerce customs tolls fishing bakers monasteries seigneurial rights
Subject: A surfeit of towns
Original source: Public Record Office, Parliament Rolls (Exchequer Series), SC 9/1 m.5
Transcription in: Chris Given-Wilson et. al., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504, University of St. Andrews, 2005. Online resource:
Original language: Latin (translation by the editors of PROME)
Date: 1290


... the aforesaid burgesses, on the lord king's behalf, say that, whereas the lord king himself possesses, and is entitled to possess, the entire port in the river Tyne from the sea as far as the place which is called Hidwynestremes, freely, with such a monopoly that no-one is allowed to load or unload any merchandise, or goods for retail, or to forestall the market for such merchandise or retail goods, by buying or selling the same, except within the aforesaid town of Newcastle, so that the king can collect his tolls, and prises, and customs, and the other things pertaining to his lordship there; the aforesaid prior, who has his demesne lands adjacent to the aforesaid river, between the sea and the aforesaid town, causes any merchandise and retail goods which are landed there to be loaded and unloaded, buying and selling them in his aforesaid lands at his will, creating a port where there was no port previously, and also forestalling merchandise, to the manifest prejudice of the lord king and his aforesaid town.

They also say that, whereas the lord king has, and should have, his communal ovens at Newcastle, freely, with the monopoly that bread for sale should be baked there and nowhere else in those parts; and the same lord king receives, and is entitled to receive, for every quarter of corn baked there 4d., under a custom in use until the present; the aforesaid prior has created a new town at Shields, between the aforesaid sea and Newcastle, and has fishermen, bakers and brewers living there, from whom the same prior receives annually 36 marks and more, and the lord king accordingly has sustained an annual loss in the revenues of his aforesaid oven-due, to the value of £10, and also through the aforesaid forestalling of the market at Shields to the value of £20.


They also say that, whereas the lord king takes, and is entitled to take, through his aforesaid sheriff, his prises and due customs at the port of the aforesaid Newcastle: namely, from each ship carrying wine, two tuns, chosen fore and aft, each tun for 20s.; from each ship carrying herring, 100 herring freely; from a ship carrying haddock, 100 haddock for 6d.; from each boat of cod or skate, the best fish for 1d., and so forth; the aforesaid prior makes his purchases and unloading of ships and boats at Shields and elsewhere, as a result of which the lord king does not receive these prises and due customs, because the aforesaid merchandise does not reach the official port of Newcastle entire.

They also say that the aforesaid prior has built four ovens at Tynemouth, which William Savage, William Barber, Robert of Bruern, and Adam Taylor, common bakers, hold, paying for them to the aforesaid prior 8 marks annually; and they say that the bread baked there is sold at Shields to sailors and others landing there, who ought to land at Newcastle and buy their victuals there, to the benefit of the same town.

They also say that the aforesaid prior likewise has a market on a Sunday in Tynemouth, which is only 6 leagues distant from Newcastle, and he has there a tumbrel, market stalls hired to butchers and others, and he collects there fines for bread and ale without any warrant. And where they say that the whole country, and sailors who have landed at Shields, come with their possessions and merchandise for sale, and put them up for sale there, to the prejudice of the lord king, who receives no toll from this, or any thing else, etc.

They say also that the aforesaid prior has monks who are merchants in untanned hides throughout the region, who, when they have purchased them, have them tanned at Preston, and from there they load them into ships or boats at Shields and sell them, to the great injury and impoverishment of the lord king's burgesses of Newcastle, who carry on, and have been accustomed to carry on, this trade.


And, with regard to the foundation of a new town at Shields, he [the prior] says that he has created no entirely new town there. For he says that in the time of his predecessors, priors of the aforesaid house, there were dwellings there on their own land, where the lord king has no land, nor free tenement, because the land and free tenement of the said house extend as far as the mid-stream of the Tyne, beyond his dry land there; and between this same midstream and the aforesaid land, the aforesaid house has its free fishery in the same river, extending as far as his land does.


And he says that he and his predecessors have successively constructed houses and dwellings there, and have let them at will to fishermen, and to others who sold bread, ale and fish to those who landed there, without them paying any fines for this to the lord king, but only to those same priors.

He also says that he neither has, nor claims to have, any market or oven at Shields.

And, as for the fishermen and the buying of fish there, he says that his aforesaid predecessors, during their terms of office, had their own fishermen, fishing at will in the aforesaid river, for the provisioning of their aforesaid house, without paying toll or anything else to the lord king for this, notwithstanding that the port of the river Tyne belongs specifically and entirely to the lord king.

He also says that the same predecessors had certain free tenants of theirs from Shields, with their boats, within their demesne lands. And he says that he and his aforesaid predecessors, for the provisioning of their aforesaid house and household, bought fish, as they bought other things necessary to the provisioning of their house and household, on land and water, freely and with immunity. Because he says that although they made these purchases or unloading of fish there from any fishermen, the same fishermen (other than their own demesne fishermen), when they landed at the port of Newcastle or elsewhere, paid there, and were obliged to pay there, the toll and due custom, both for the fish sold in this way and for the fish left in the ship or boat, and landed at that port.

And, as for the market of Tynemouth, and the other matters there, he says that he claims no market there, but fully acknowledges that there is a tumbrel there, and that there are bakers and brewers there, and ovens rented from this same prior, and market stalls, for the goods for sale, such as bread, meat and fish, which are sold in that township, to be put on, as in other country villages in those parts, just as there were in the times of the predecessors of the same prior; and that until now they have received the fines.

He also says that he has no monks who are merchants of hides, as is alleged against him. He says however that they lawfully sell the hides from his larders, or profit from them in other ways. But they have never bought hides throughout the region, nor have they loaded ships or boats with them at Shields, nor did they sell them, and this he is prepared to prove, etc.


And, with regard to the town of Shields they [the burgesses] say that, whatever dwellings there were there, in the time of the predecessors of this prior, the same present prior, during his period of office, caused twenty-six houses to be built there, on ground which ought to belong to the lord king, because it is included within the high-water mark and flood mark of the sea.


They also say that in those houses at Shields live bakers and brewers, huckers and hucksters of bread and ale and other things, who are so rich that all ships and boats, by the hundred or two hundred more or less, sailing to those parts with their goods and merchandise, land there, for the quantity of lodgings and victuals which they find there, when they should land at Newcastle and buy their victuals there as they used to, for the benefit of the same town.


They also say that the same prior has in Shields sixteen or more fishermen, fishing with large boats in the sea each year, as a business, and not for provisioning his aforesaid house; and from them the lord king receives no toll, nor his due custom.

They also say that when ships, or larger or smaller boats, with fish or any other merchandise, land there, the same prior comes, with his men and others of the country, with horses and pack animals, and there they purchase what they need, so that sometimes those ships or boats return empty or half-empty to ports other than the aforesaid Newcastle, or arrive there only with the remains of these fish transferred from several boats into one boat or two: whence the lord king, who collects his prises and due customs through his sheriff at Newcastle, cannot collect more than a mere 4d. for a boat with oars, and 1d. for a boat which is without oars; ...

They also say that, with regard to the ovens at Tynemouth, they are very injurious to the lord king and his aforesaid town. Because they say that the aforesaid prior causes his grain to be delivered to his lessees of the same abundantly, to make money from it for his own benefit, and so that these same lessees bake the bread and sell it at Shields, and from it the same occupants of the ships landing there are supplied, who ought, and used, to buy their victuals at Newcastle.

Whence they say that bakers and brewers from Newcastle, for the said reason, leave that town and live at Tynemouth and Shields, to the detriment of the lord king and his aforesaid borough of Newcastle.


And afterwards they say that in the Eyre of John des Vaux, and his companions in the county of Northumberland, in the seventh year of the reign of the present King Edward, it was presented by a jury that the prior of Tynemouth had built a township on the bank of the river Tyne, at Shields, on one side of the river, and the prior of Durham had built another on the other side of the river, where no township should be, but only huts in which fishermen could stay; and that fishermen sold fish there which they ought to have sold in Newcastle, to the great injury of the whole borough, and to the detriment of the prises of the lord king at his castle, because fish, and other merchandise from which the king was accustomed to receive his prises, and which are now sold there, ought to be sold in the borough of Newcastle, where the lord king receives his prises; and that the same prior likewise arranged for brewing at Shields, and had great fishing ships, where there should only be boats, through which the lord king loses his prises, and the borough of Newcastle its customs, to the great loss of the lord king and the aforesaid borough; and similarly, that the prior of Durham on the other bank of the river Tyne, arranged for brewing and had ships where he should only have boats; and that the aforesaid prior of Tynemouth had other people's bread baked in his own oven, bread which should have been baked in the borough of Newcastle, through which the borough loses its oven-due, namely 4d. for every quarter; and for this they vouch to warranty the rolls of the purprestures made against the lord king, in accordance with the verdict and presentment of upright and law-worthy men, chosen for this during the aforesaid Eyre; and they say that those presentments were never until now determined or decided, or brought to trial, nor was any redress made in response to them: and they request that these matters should be shown to the lord king and his council, etc.


These extracts from a dispute between the civic authorities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Prior of Tynemouth are not strictly speaking a commentary on a particular town, still less upon towns generally. They nonetheless have the effect of painting a picture that reveals some characteristics of towns. At the core of the dispute is a settlement aspiring to become a town, but facing a challenge from a neighbour that already has such status. The contest highlights economic elements in the definition of a town:

  • an exchange of goods and services, involving not only the local population but visitors who come specifically to effect such an exchange, and involving goods produced both locally and externally;
  • the possession of formal institutions to facilitate this exchange, notably a market, but in some cases also, or alternatively, a port;
  • authority to license, regulate, police and tax activities and transactions occurring through such institutions.

Although urban society was well established before the close of the Anglo-Saxon period, the Norman conquest gave urbanization new impetus, as the conquerors attempted to bring the country under their control. Urban development was part of the plan to achieve this. In 1080 one of the Conqueror's sons, returning from a campaign against Scotland, built a castle on a site controlling a crossing point over the river Tyne. Not surprisingly, particularly in a part of the country with few towns of any size at that time, settlement took place adjacent to the castle, both to service its needs and to take advantage of its protection.

The urban and mercantile character this quickly acquired is reflected in a set of local laws governing affairs in the Newcastle settlement. It acted both as a marketplace for the region, whose soil was better for pasturing cows and sheep than for growing crops, and as a port for coastal and foreign trade, despite being several miles inland from the coast. In particular it was able to capitalize on the trade in wool (although local wool was not of the best quality), hides, and coal mined in the north, including around Tyneside. Its early prominence in the commerce of the region Newcastle sought to protect, claiming certain trade monopolies not only within the town but also in the surrounding countryside; for instance, visiting merchants were only allowed to trade with burgesses, not with each other, and any bread made for retailing (i.e. non-personal use) had to be baked in the town ovens. By 1334 it was ranked as the fourth wealthiest town in the kingdom, thanks in part to its importance as a military base for the war effort against Scotland.

Its dominance did not go unchallenged. It was not only the king who encouraged the development of towns (by, for instance, granting Newcastle control over its own affairs in 1214, via a fee farm arrangement). Local landlords, both lay and ecclesiastical, sought to capture a share of the economic benefits that could come from town-founding; a few men, like William Brewer or the Bishop of Winchester, took a quite entrepreneurial approach to the task. Settlement adjacent to monasteries and castles was a mutually beneficial affair: supplies and perhaps particularly services (e.g. construction workers, merchants) were more conveniently available for those establishments, while the settlers had employers/consumers close at hand. Such settlements could act as points of distribution and exchange for the regional population, many of whom were dependants of the religious houses or castle owners. Furthermore, rents from houses in towns would normally produce a higher return than income from the same land if put to agricultural use. In north-eastern England several dozen settlements grew to the point of aspiring to urban status; the Church was the major player in the process. River mouths and crossings were notable target sites for attempts to grow towns.

Tynemouth Priory had originally been founded, it is believed, by a seventh-century Northumbrian king, on the northern bank of the Tyne close to the sea; but it declined after being devastated by the Danes. It was refounded in 1090 as a Benedictine cell of Durham, although jurisdiction was transferred to St. Albans in 1093. Its endowment included much of the land between the coast and Newcastle. By charter of King John (1202/03) it received a number of privileges. During the reign of his successor the monks were draining marshy areas around the river's edge, apparently with a view to encouraging greater lay settlement there. Tynemouth and what is now known as North Shields were the result, probably in the form of fishing villages. The derivation of "Shields" is a Scottish/Scandinavian term meaning a shepherd's hut, or by association the pasturage adjacent to the hut; the term was also applied to fishermen's huts.

The first sign of a combative rivalry was in 1265, when the mayor and one of the leading merchants of Newcastle, Thomas de Karliol, led a band of armed townsmen to North Shields to demolish a mill that had just been built there; for good measure, they set fire to several houses of what may already have been a largish village. In 1279 the prior was defending his claim to have a market at Tynemouth. However, this was rejected.

The role of Tynemouth and North Shields as ports was what primarily concerned Newcastle in 1290. The prior had built a quay at North Shields. The intent was doubtless to draw away some of Newcastle's commerce – and control over the river mouth may have helped in that – and perhaps in particular to develop the priory's share of the coal trade. There was an outcropping of coal at Tynemouth itself, and North Shields was used by the priory for shipping coal from other quarries on its land. South Shields was planted on the southern bank of the Tyne by the Prior of Durham in the same period, and presumably with much the same purpose.

The Newcastle authorities were determined that coal quarried in the vicinity should only be sold and exported through the town. Monopoly over this trade and control over shipping on the Tyne were thus the main concerns. To defeat its rivals, Newcastle also aimed to assert other monopolies which it associated with urban status.

In the consequent picture of North Shields/Tynemouth that emerges from the dispute brought before the parliament of Easter 1290, we see the outline of a good-sized settlement that was still growing: the prior of the time had erected 26 houses to attract new tenants, and his predecessor had built others. It had sufficient urban features that both parties to the dispute could agree on characterising it as a town. North Shields had a quayside that was the home base for a small fishing fleet, and where sea-going vessels unloaded cargoes for sale on the quayside or in the Tynemouth marketplace, attracted in part by the clientele of the priory. This community and the mercantile visitors were being serviced by four bakers – who were leasing communal ovens built by the priory – and by an unspecified number of butchers, fishmongers and brewers, as well (it is implied) by inns; despite this occupational heterogeneity, there seems to have been little local industry, for there were no tanners in the settlement. Some of the bakers and brewers had been attracted away from Newcastle by the prospects of making a better living at North Shields. The bakers were supplied with grain from priory estates, and there may well have been another mill built on priory land, or the earlier one had been rebuilt. Hides were being exported through North Shields, likely by agents of the priory. The prior was exercising various legal jurisdictions within this settlement. All these added up to losses in revenues for Newcastle, jeopardizing its prosperity and its ability to pay the fee farm upon which depended many of the privileges giving it a competitive advantage. Port dues represented the chief element of the borough revenues. The threat was not a new one; similar complaints had been made before an eyre in 1279, but no action had been taken on them.

The commission of enquiry that was instituted as a result of Newcastle's complaints, although it had to tread carefully because of the prior's claims of privileges granted by Richard I (whose charter to the priory of 1189 had been read into the record), appears to have come out squarely on Newcastle's side; it agreed that the unwarranted growth of towns and of urban ambition at both North and South Shields was to the detriment of Newcastle and thereby of the king, who earned revenues through commerce conducted at Newcastle. It was not in the king's interests to jeopardize a town that played host to his armies and himself on occasion, served as a commissioning point for naval forces, and whose merchants supplied both with food, transport and other necessaries for campaigning. The prior was prohibited from holding a market or claiming port privileges at either Tynemouth or South Shields, and was ordered to tear down any signage that advertised the locations as market or port. Further investigation resulted in the judgement, in July 1292, that the priory's involvement in commerce went well beyond its needs for supplying itself, and it was ordered again that ships not treat North Shields as a port, merchants were not to be allowed to buy there, and wharves there were to be demolished. In consequence of this reversal, Newcastle was able to maintain its regional dominance.

The struggle was not yet over. In 1303 the king left his new queen under the protection of Tynemouth Priory before heading north to another campaign; upon his return the following year the monks were rewarded with a grant of an annual fair for Tynemouth and North Shields. The first parliament of 1305 saw the prior trying to obtain confirmation of royal charters granted the priory by the Henry II and Richard I, and permission to exercise privileges which had not been used. Newcastle countered at the same parliament with a complaint that Tynemouth's new fair was once more encouraging ships to unload and sell their cargoes there; they relied on much the same argument as in 1290: the fair drew commerce away from Newcastle, thus depriving the king of customs and the burgesses of other tolls applicable to the fee farm and to murage, which would have been collected had the ships continued upstream to unload at Newcastle. The king subsequently revoked the grant of the fair.

In 1376 town and priory butted heads again, although this time the issue was jurisdiction over Fenham, a hamlet on the west side of Newcastle. A judicial enquiry in 1447 suggests that during the previous several decades, the prior had again been trying to develop North Shields into a substantial settlement, building houses, wharves and communal ovens, and licencing inns, taverns, shops, and fish-drying houses. We have to view this in the context of prolonged financial difficulties Newcastle had been experiencing, leading to the king having to exempt the town from contributing to a series of annual taxations. Whether loss of revenues to North Shields was a factor in this is not explicit, but we may guess so. Yet regardless of any growth there, North Shields did not obtain any official recognition as a borough. The incipient urbanity of Tynemouth and North Shields had already been nipped in the bud, and they would have to wait for the ship-building industry of the eighteenth century to see their fortunes revive.

North Shields and Tynemouth were not the only local threats to Newcastle. Newcastle's royal charter of 1298 embodied a clause prohibiting ships from loading or unloading at Pandon, just east of the town, without the burgesses' prior consent. In the fourteenth century Newcastle would fight a battle against Gateshead, on the south bank of the Tyne, a manor of the Bishop of Durham. The bishops were trying to develop it into a town, having at some point in the second half of the twelfth century granted the residents all liberties that Newcastle burgesses had. But these efforts met with little success, for the settlement remained small and never seems to have obtained royal recognition as a borough. Nonetheless it was a sufficiently significant rival that Newcastle battled over issues such as control of the bridge connecting the two places, and over the Tyne fishery and coal trade. In 1454 Newcastle won an important victory by obtaining full control over that part of the Tyne stretching to the coast.

In the context of a flourishing economy and expanding population in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there was a vogue for founding new towns or trying to develop villages into towns. To succeed, these places needed to obtain official licence for marketplaces (royal grants growing in number over the course of the thirteenth century), to attract tradesmen and merchants to settle, and to capture a share of regional commerce, often in competition with other new foundations in the area. Few of these efforts amounted to anything of more than local importance, and by no means did all of them acquire a size or status that makes us think of them as towns. Either there were too many competitors, or there were longer-established towns which could not be supplanted. Foundations on the coast seem to have fared the best, when able to obtain recognition as ports. Newcastle presents the example of a new town that took on great importance, while neighbouring Tynemouth/North Shields, the example of one that failed.



Forestalling – the interception of merchandize before it reached the stalls of the marketplace for public sale, with the intent of re-selling it (or of creating a monopoly or scarcity, so as to push prices up) – was an offence, but the arguments in the present case revolved around the definition of what constituted forestalling. The mention of forestalling in Richard I's charter to the priory may, judging from its context in a list of crimes whose jurisdiction was transferred from crown to priory, have hearked back to an earlier definition relating to a violent assault on someone in the king's highway (although probably, at a time when most travel was for purposes of trade, this also meant ambushing traders taking goods to market). The prior, however, was interpreting the term to mean the right to buy, from traders en route to an official market, necessaries for the priory's own use; the prior's defence was partly based on the argument that the monks were engaging in trade only to supply their household needs. By the close of the thirteenth century it was established that such an act could not be considered a forestall. The argument of the Newcastle authorities, however, was that the act of intercepting merchandize en route to Newcastle was taking place at an unwarranted port that could not be considered part of the prior's demesne, and therefore not covered by the charter of Richard I, but was rather part of the king's highway (i.e. the Tyne). They did not directly address the motivations for this interception, but implied that the intent was to re-sell the merchandize in the unwarranted market at North Shields, when it ought by rights to have been brought to the market at Newcastle, on the assumption that the latter's commercial monopoly extended across the area to the coast. It was unusual for a charge of forestalling to be made against a place rather than an individual.

"huckers and hucksters"
The male and female forms of a term now generally used in the female, referring to retailers, i.e. sellers of goods produced by others (middlemen).

"Scottish/Scandinavian term"
Today still in use as shiel, but in Middle English schele; the original Latin of the Parliament roll has the name of North Shields as "Sheles". The modern "shelter" probably has some derivation from it.

"largish village"
North Shields' historian William Garson, writing in 1926, estimated 200 cottages held a population of a thousand in 1290; this seems to be based on findings of a 1447 enquiry, referring back to the 13th century, but painting a probably exaggerated picture of North Shields in the 15th. However, clearly the settlement was substantial enough in 1290 to be a worry that Newcastle could not afford to ignore.

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Created: April 3, 2005 © Stephen Alsford, 2005