go to table of contents  THE REGIONS 


Keywords: medieval Essex boundaries topography marsh land reclamation economy cultivation animal husbandry fishing forestry travel routes commerce commodities rivers ports central places royal demesne urban origins towns villages markets London landholding migration religious orders burgage tenure

Situated between London and the North Sea – a position bound to draw it into international commerce – Essex, one of the larger English counties, is geographically part of that protrusion into the North Sea known as East Anglia, a relatively flat, low-lying, and (thanks to a high proportion of clay soils) river-rich region, with most rivers flowing towards either the North Sea or the Thames. This region mixed large areas of saltmarsh around the coast, a good deal of which has been subject to reclamation, and various estuaries deeply indenting its southern coastline, with vast areas of often thick forest. From the coast the landscape rises gently to a peak in its north-west corner – the area around Saffron Walden – with this gradual slope punctuated by low hills and ridges. Much of the county's soils, especially those around river terraces, has been very good for agriculture, while marshland provided good grazing, at least until reclaimed for arable. By contrast, however, in the South Essex coastal zone, between Maldon and the Thames, the heavy clays presented a challenge to cultivation, and its land was more used for pasture, with correspondingly sparse human settlement, whilst the wooded hills of central Essex, around Brentwood, had acidic soil also more amenable to pastoral than arable farming, and Colchester was encircled by extensive heaths whose light soil was farmed communally.

Essex map
Market towns of medieval Essex; adapted from the EUS map.

The Essex woodlands, perhaps still covering about 20‰ of the county by the time of Domesday [Oliver Rackham, "The medieval landscape of Essex", in The Archaeology of Essex to 1500, Council for British Archaeology Research Report No 34 (1980), p.106], was progressively cleared as population grew and spread throughout the region, particularly after assarting of forest (clearance to make land available for other uses) became more readily countenanced during the reign of Henry III. The early Norman kings, for whom hunting was a valued pursuit, and to whom the forests were an asset providing various natural resources – such as construction supplies, firewood, grazing, birds, deer and other game, fungi, nuts and berries – were initially reluctant to encourage the kind of colonization that made inroads into wooded areas; under forest law those who unwarrantedly cleared trees could be prosecuted and fined. But, from the latter years of Henry II onwards, their need for money prompted sale of greater numbers of licences to assart, converting woodland to areas amenable to cultivation, pasture, or habitation, thus aiding the economy through the spread of settlement, increase in arable fields and numbers of livestock, and stimulation of industries that made use of forestry products, such as lumber for coopers and wheelwrights, fuel for lime-burning and tile-making, and bark for tanners and rope-makers [See Jean Birrell, "Peasant Craftsmen in the Medieval Forest", Agricultural History Review, vol.17 (1969, pp.91-107]).

This clearance of woodland, along with habilitation of waste-land, made Essex, already by the time of Domesday, one of the most densely populated areas of the country and where a relatively high percentage of the land had, even before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, been brought under cultivation or given over to sheep-farming – for the sheep was valued for its wool (though Essex wool was relatively poor quality), for its pell, for mutton, and for the milk that could be made into cheese, an important component of the diet; cheese-making remained an important industry in Essex even after cloth manufacture came to the fore. As a generalization, we could say that the land-owning elite, able to support large flocks on their manorial demesnes, were most likely to be earning income by marketing wool, whereas those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic scale, who might own only a few sheep, valued them more for milk and, in some cases, meat. The increase in cultivation and animal husbandry benefited from the proliferation of markets, spread out across the county, although avoiding the region around Colchester, which dominated its surrounds, in terms of industry and commerce. The pace of assarting and the development of new market settlements both began slowing as the thirteenth century progressed. Just as Colchester's growth may be considered to have both stimulated and inhibited the development of other market towns in Essex, a similar situation is found in Norfolk, where the growth of Norwich, under the Normans, into a base for control, commerce, and loyal population, must be seen as part of the reason why few market settlements in that county developed into towns of any great import, other than on the coast, where maritime commerce fed the emergence of large communities with significant mercantile elements.

Essex's natural assets promoted occupational heterogeneity. The landscape not only encouraged raising large flocks of sheep, but also supported fisheries – a term that in Domesday seems to refer mainly to weirs or other devices for trapping eels (used as a standard for assessing rents in kind) – which were an important part of the economies of some market settlements. Oysters were a notable crop – for their 'layings' were beds that involved managed planting and harvesting – Colchester and the Colne estuary being particularly renowned for their oysters in the medieval period, as they still are, but shellfish also played a role in the economies of smaller settlements such as Maldon, Burnham-on-Crouch, Prittlewell, Rochford, and St. Osyth. The soils of East Anglia as a whole were, for the most part, fertile and easy to cultivate – barley, oats, rye, wheat, and peas, were the most common crops in Essex – albeit that arable and pastureland were at growing risk of flooding as the sea-level rose, and the erection of sea-walls on land adjacent to the larger rivers was underway. The forest supplied fuel and construction materials, forage for pigs, as well as hunting opportunities, while the grasslands of the river valleys were a source of hay needed to feed livestock – the purpose of fairs held in the latter part of the year was often to sell off as much livestock as possible, to avoid the costs of feeding them over the winter. Despite its long coastline (almost 400 miles), medieval Essex had relatively few ports of any renown, and the most notable (Harwich) lacked much of a hinterland; but Colchester and Maldon were at the inland (and safer) end of major estuaries and could combine the advantages of ports and centres for agricultural redistribution, while some of the smaller market towns close to estuaries had modest wharf facilities and, at times, serviced cargo vessels. So Essex was both well-positioned and well-endowed for waterborne communication with northern Europe, even if more of that activity targeted the ports of London and Ipswich.

Although medieval Essex is known as much for its forests as for its marshes, already by the time of the Conquest areas referred to as royal forest did not necessarily denote land covered by trees, but could incorporate arable and grazing areas as well as scrub, much being reserved (and increasingly enclosed) as parkland for hunting; 'forest' rather meant districts over which the king had particular rights, such as those associated with management and exploitation of resources of timber and deer – we must remember that timber was needed not just for construction and as domestic fuel, but also to service some key industries (e.g. baking, brewing, tanning, dyeing, charcoal-making). Being close to the centre of royal government at Westminster, Essex's royal forests provided recreational opportunities for monarchs – several royal manors being furnished with hunting parks and lodges – and their resources of timber and game could be called on for largesse; the king's periodic presence at those manors and lodges was part of the incentive to foster markets at such places. Clearing of the terrain for settlement had been going on since the Mesolithic and occupation across Essex was quite widespread during the Iron Age; by the Roman period perhaps half of the county had come under cultivation [Rackham, >I>loc.cit.], and coastal resources were being more heavily exploited – not just fish but also shellfish and salt – while marshy land was already being used for pasturing sheep and goats and was progressively walled off with earthen banks to protect them from flooding.

These various economic activities produced goods sufficient for export of quantities surplus to local needs [Rochford District Council, Rochford District Historic Environment Characterisation Project, 2006, pp.22-23]. Foreign trade may have been more common and better organized than we yet appreciate. For Essex became part of, and took its name from, one of the earliest major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in England, as small groups – arriving and settling first along the coast – coalesced into larger groupings, mixed with Romano-British communities, and ultimately united – along with areas in what were later adjacent counties of Middlesex, Hertfordshire, and Surrey – into the East Saxon kingdom at the end of the sixth century, retaining a measure of independence down to the mid-ninth century; Bede described London as the principal city of the East Saxons. Essex was also one of the earlier areas (after Kent) visited by Augustinian missionaries, in the seventh century, establishing an initial base at London. Although the East Saxon conversion to Christianity was short-lived, a second wave of missionaries saw a number of minster churches established. The early Saxon period has not left a great deal of material evidence in Essex, however, with exceptions such as a cemetery at Prittlewell [Alison Bennett, The Historic Landscape Characterisation Report for Essex, Essex County Council, 2011, vol. 1, p.25].

If Essex involvement in maritime trade was somewhat organized during the early Saxon centuries, archaeologists have been hard-pressed to identify with confidence any early Essex emporia – that is, sites of regular (at least seasonal) exchange of goods – which could have been part of an international trading network centered on the North Sea and driven by the desire of social elites to foster a commerce in luxury goods, such as imported pottery and dress accessories, that helped them maintain prestige, status, and authority. But the East Saxon kingdom as a whole included the trading centre of Lundenwic, though it gradually came within the sphere of influence of Mercia, and, later, Wessex. The Scandinavian invasions disrupted both the Anglo-Saxon polities and trading activities. The treaty between Guthrum and Alfred defined land east of the Thames and Lea rivers as Danish territory, and Essex remained a distinct region under this arrangement, a target for Edward the Elder's early tenth century campaigns of reconquest, which included the creation of burhs – a combination of fortified bases, refuges, and secure trading sites – and/or mints at places such as Maldon, Colchester, Witham, Horndon-on-the-Hill, and perhaps Newport.

Throughout these shifts, the Essex marshes were used (indeed, maintained) for salt production, fishing, and grazing livestock; royal vills may have provided communal 'central places' where such items, along with agricultural produce and animal products, were the basis for commerce – whether to supply the local area with necessities, or to provision the consumer bases of London and Colchester – and places where minster churches or monasteries were founded (e.g. Barking). Whether such places attracted commerce simply because of the presence of elite consumers around whom social networks came into being, or were intentionally developed as market centres, is harder to judge. This does not mean, of course, that only those of high status were participating in, still less monopolizing, commercial activity; but it seems self-evident that the locations of wealthier consumers would have been more likely to draw itinerant traders and were thus likelier places for broader-based commerce to become a regular, centralized occurrence. It was following the reconquest that the great royal estates began to be divided up into manorial estates, outside whose entrance gates lay communal greens; there was a corresponding ecclesiastical reorganization as manorial lords erected proprietary chapels, many of which subsequently became parish churches.

Domesday documents the many settlements that had been established within Essex, both clustered around manor-house and/or church, or dispersed in small hamlets or individual farms, with only Colchester – by far the largest town in Essex, and economically resilient – and Maldon as evident urban communities. Even of the villages only a minority seem to have been predominantly nucleated, rather than dispersed, settlements; their dwellings and farms clustered into areas whose name often incorporated 'Green' or 'End', or sometimes 'Street' when lined along the wide green verges of a highway. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries there was a tendency, across Essex, and indeed all East Anglia [Robert Liddiard, "Living on the Edge: Commons, Castles and Regional Settlement Patterns in Medieval East Anglia", Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, vol.97 (2008), p.169; Bennett, op. cit., p.28], for settlements originally focused on churches to disintegrate, as homesteaders migrated to new sites along the edges of greens or other communal-use grazing areas, to locations closer to important through-roads, or, in some cases, into the protection of castle baileys – although some castle locations were probably chosen because of the presence of existing nucleated settlements (e.g. Hedingham). The imperative for castles was not one of border defence and expansion of subjugated territory, as in the Welsh Marches, but consolidation of authority; a number of families which were beneficiaries of the Norman Conquest favoured erecting castles as their administrative and/or residential focus of territorial estates (large but somewhat dispersed) that they were building up in the region; the establishment of market settlements to support those castles (as at Pleshey, for example) was occasionally a concomitant.

Nonetheless, along with other East Anglian counties, Essex is considered one of the least urbanized parts of medieval England, in terms of communities formally recognized as boroughs, despite it having a relatively high proportion of non-forested land (perhaps particularly the lighter soils) brought under early cultivation, with much of that land evidencing planned field layouts and periodic reorganization of the same – later introduction of planned settlements sometimes made use of field strips for establishing house-plot boundaries. This low level of urbanization was partly because Essex lay within the orbit of England's only great city, in continental terms, and partly because it had not been absorbed into the East Anglian kingdom that formed in the Middle Saxon period, focused around, at first, the wik at Ipswich and later probably Thetford. This kingdom fell before the first major wave of Scandinavian invaders, was retaken and absorbed into the new state of the Wessex kings, then fell again to the invading Canute; yet there does not seem to have been any overwhelming settlement of Scandinavians – the large areas of marsh perhaps being unappealing – and no Essex place-names point unequivocally to Scandinavian influence. However, East Anglia was a region well settled by Domesday, even if dispersed population and polyfocal villages characterized Essex's settlement pattern, and there seem to have had a relatively large number of settlements that combined village- and town-like characteristics, the latter principally residents holding by burgage tenure, but otherwise lacking privileges or institutions that tend to be thought typical of boroughs.

The paucity of large urban centres did not mean that Essex lacked for markets, and these are often associated with enclaves of burgage tenure. The establishment of Anglo-Saxon burhs (e.g. Witham) and Norman castles (e.g. at Hedingham, Rayleigh, and Saffron Walden) provided a foundation for the emergence of further towns, while some royal manors, such as Maldon, Newport, and Horndon had markets, and perhaps even mints, before the Conquest, so they may have been deliberately developed as trading centres. Others were intentional commercial ventures, aimed at cashing in on the growth of long-distance trade – such as at Harwich, Brentwood, perhaps Halstead, and the Bishop of London's foundations at Braintree, Chelmsford, and possibly Writtle. Yet the absence of any Domesday reference to markets in Essex drove Round to conclude that "Of trade there was then little or none" [Victoria History of the County Essex, vol.1 (1903), p.335], and he held that the growth of towns was slow in altering this situation. Closer study, both historical and archaeological, has since shown otherwise, so that towards the opposite end of the same century, and even before Letters' Gazetteer provided a definitive list, Richard Britnell was able to assert that Essex, like East Anglia in general, was "particularly well favoured with markets in the Middle Ages" ["Essex Markets Before 1350," Essex Archaeology and History, vol.13 (1981) p.15], with the first half of Henry III's reign as the peak period of market licensing.

The long coastline of the East Anglian counties, extending out into the North Sea and rendered accessible to venturesome ships by the large estuaries, made Suffolk and Essex natural points of contact with sea-faring traders of north-western Europe; although such commerce was probably at first restricted to encounters where foreign ships beached or anchored, it gradually gravitated inland towards larger communities, through both native redistribution and foreign navigation along the larger rivers, as well as settlement. The Thames Estuary formed Essex's southern boundary, the Stour separated it from Suffolk to the north, and the Rivers Lea and Stort helped define its western boundary (with Middlesex and Hertfordshire); these, together with the Orwell, Colne, Blackwater and Crouch, all draining into the North Sea, provided coastal and sea-going vessels with access into the interior – a detrimental liability during the period of Scandinavian raids and invasions. Some inland rivers were more navigable in the Middle Ages than they are today, if only for short distances. By the early eleventh century, with Danish kings in control of England, London was a node in a European trading network, and that trade was also penetrating the interior of East Anglia via its estuaries.

It was along the more important road and river routes – particularly where one crossed the other – that most of the county's towns developed. Settlements might even spread out or relocate, to bring themselves closer to such thoroughfares, as in the cases of Coggeshall and Great Dunmow. The significance of roads in the establishment of towns is emphasized by cases where market settlements appeared along only a single side of a road, as at Barking and Epping. These through-roads not only carried long-distance traders but siphoned regional traders into the main route through secondary roads, and market towns tended to grow up close to the junctions of minor with major roads; around the close of the Middle Ages the economies of such towns were being bolstered by the proliferation of inns that could accommodate long-distance travellers. The number of tidal creeks and inlets along the Essex coast was even greater in the prehistoric period; they provided a rich habitat for fish and shellfish but, with changes in sea-levels, meant that many coastal areas that attracted settlement either had to be reclaimed or were susceptible to flooding. On the other hand, these creeks provided opportunities to load or unload mercantile cargoes away from the eyes of customs officials, so that in 1387 the king ordered a general proclamation in Essex and over a dozen other counties against such use of creeks – it must have been a futile prohibition, though the offer of reward to informers might have been more productive. Nor must we forget the value of rivers in powering mills for grinding grain and fulling cloth. The downside of the large number of Essex rivers, many with marshy flanks – particularly in wet seasons – was that they presented obstacles for travel and transportation by road until bridges and causeways were introduced; consequently settlements adjacent to such facilities, or at least fords, had an advantage in terms of the development of trade routes.

Neighbouring Kent provides a similar illustration to Essex, in terms of important waterways being the focus for market location. For instance, the wide Wantsum Channel, separating what was once the Isle of Thanet from the main body of Kent, and linking the Thames estuary to the sea, was an important shipping route from at least Roman times, though storms, coastal erosion resulting in deposits of shingle, silt washed down from tributaries, the spread of marshes as tidal flow diminished followed by land reclamation and dessication, all contributed to restricting access by the eleventh century, and making the Channel unserviceable for ships well before the close of the Middle Ages; it has now all but disappeared, remembered mainly in the courses of the River Stour and the unimposing River Wantsum. Nonetheless, along with the creeks, or fleets, that ran off it, it was a natural magnet for villages where we find modest harbour facilities and, in some cases, markets; many of these were owned by religious houses of Canterbury, which itself was reached by the Great Stour and had its outport, Fordwich, at the tidal extent of that river. In the Middle Ages the two banks, the tributaries, and the fleets of the Wantsum Channel were flanked by market settlements in fairly close proximity to one another, notably:

Its proximity to London, with its huge consumer demand and great occupational diversity – and all that meant in terms of influencing routes of commerce and migration – has sometimes led to Essex being treated as one of the Home Counties of south-east England. We should beware of attributing too great an influence of the city on the early development of settlement in Essex, bearing in mind that it became a Mercian rather than an Anglian town, that its size during the Middle Ages was relatively modest by modern standards, and that its community – like that of most medieval towns – was self-centered rather than outward-looking. But, as its population grew, its society sophisticated, and it became increasingly the focus of national administration, the need to supply the London/Westminster hub with food and other necessaries obliged the city authorities and merchants to become more broadly engaged with agricultural and market settlements in an expanding hinterland, part of which would eventually become absorbed into the metropolitan entity known as Greater London – this study treats Essex as it was prior to that change.

Routes radiating out between London, or to a lesser extent Colchester, and other large towns or penetrating deeper into East Anglia, to Ipswich, Norwich and Cambridge, encouraged the development of market towns at places like Chelmsford and Braintree as purely commercial ventures; these routes carried traders intent on buying or selling, in particular, wool, textiles, livestock, dairy products, grain, and malt to supply the high demands of the capital's large population. Much the same can be seen in other counties; in Oxfordshire, for example, roads leading to Oxford itself (as well as the Thames route to London) were favoured locations for the establishment of markets, new boroughs, or burghal components (some under the title Newland), as at Eynsham, Witney, Cogges, Bampton, Standlake, Bicester, Chipping Norton, and New Woodstock. Many London tradesmen did business in Essex or with Essex counterparts, and they purchased Essex real estate. The growing dominance of London, economic, social, and administrative, in the Late Middle Ages, favoured those Essex markets located on such routes; the acquisition by London merchants of houses, land, and even manors, in Essex market settlements – particularly those closer to the city – is a repetitive theme in the histories of those places; in part this reflects the desire of prospering London merchants to invest some of their wealth in land and, at a later period, to obtain country retreats where they might escape the hustle and bustle of the city and rub shoulders more with the gentry class. But it may also reflect a desire to obtain a share of the agricultural and pastoral raw resources which dominated Essex produce.

The other side of the coin, however, was that London was a magnet, offering wider prospects of employment for landless young men looking to acquire skills and training through apprenticeship or for those of an administrative bent, bigger profit or social advancement for businessmen or those with special skills or aptitudes, thereby drawing away to potentially greener pastures some of the more successful or ambitious locals. Essex was probably a bigger contributor of immigrants to the city population than any other county, judging from surname evidence. London merchants who sought to take over a share of commerce, industry, and real estate in localities within the city's hinterland introduced into those places a social element with other than local interests, while emigrants from market towns to London might build stronger links between the two places.

London demand also helped the development of towns whose economies became focused around specialized goods – not only types of cloth but the saffron cultivated at Saffron Walden and the metalwares produced by Thaxted's cutlers; the prosperity these generated, although not enduring, resulted in exceptionally large and fine parish churches being constructed at both places in the Late Middle Ages. The commercial dimension of urbanization could be said to apply to many of the small towns that emerged in Essex during the Middle Ages, for most of Essex's towns tended to be close to the coast, to the estuaries or the rivers emptying into them, to long-standing roads connecting to London, or to newer ones leading to the Thames, which travellers took on their way to the great pilgrimage destination of Canterbury cathedral or to ports from which to cross to France. Market towns could thus serve not only as distribution nodes for local produce (particularly grain and wool) but as bases for service industries supplying the various needs – sustenance, lodging, supplies, repairs, devotions – of travellers, their animals, and their vehicles.

Factors such as those outlined above contributed to making East Anglia one of the more commercialized regions of England, in terms of the numbers of fairs and markets that came into existence. On the other hand, those institutions were largely rural-based – although the dividing line between village and town is often hard to distinguish – the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex requiring less urban development to support a market network and. in particular, being dominated by a relatively small number of large towns. The absence of many large towns in East Anglia may in fact have removed what otherwise could have proven an inhibiting factor on the proliferation of smaller markets. But, as this study seeks to show, Essex had its share of market settlements that could be considered urban, whether by intentional act of creation or in terms of developing characteristics. It also evidences a relatively high degree of competitive market activity and resistance to the same.

Colchester aside, the towns of medieval Essex owed relatively little to Roman settlement – though Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlers evidently appreciated much the same topographical advantages of particular sites as perceived by the Roman and Romano-British inhabitants; but they owed a fair amount to the Roman road system, targeting London. Petchey has noted that "the medieval revival of trade along the still used Roman roads encouraged the return of settlement at junctions in the network, at such places as Great Dunmow, Kelvedon, and Braintree" ["The archaeology of medieval Essex towns," in Archaeology in Essex to AD 1500, Council for British Archaeology Research Report no.34 (1980) p.113]. Beresford [New Towns of the Middle Ages, London: Lutterworth, 1967, p.434] observed that the parish system had already formed before most Essex towns came into being, so that some – such as Brentwood and Billericay – were only chapelries within parishes whose parish church was somewhat distant from the town; in fact the main street through each of the aforementioned towns was a boundary line between two manors. Another characteristic of Essex was that its churches were more likely to be built to in proximity to manor-houses, rather than situated to serve village communities in a convenient fashion.

Furthermore, unlike in the counties of the Welsh Marches, Essex's market network did not rely as heavily on a Norman policy of establishing castle-towns, even though some of the earliest post-Conquest town foundations tended to be of this type (good survivals are seen at High Ongar and Pleshey). Considerations of defensive capability do not appear to have been a determining factor in the development of towns. Essex did benefit from the development of agricultural resources, but this was as much, if not more, at the initiatives of ecclesiastical authorities as of lay barons; St. Paul's cathedral in particular built up considerable estates in Essex. The role of the Church – both the diocesan authority and those of monasteries – in opening up the land for arable and pastoral exploitation, aided by the numerous rivers whose marshy edges provided grazing land for sheep in particular, is one of the more distinctive characteristics of medieval Essex, and their fostering of market settlements was a contributor to urbanization in that county, notably through the introduction of units of marketside settlement, some involving burgage tenure. Beresford was unable to identify with confidence many planted towns in Essex; but this may have been because his criteria were too restrictive and the information available to him incomplete (as, indeed, it remains today), for as some of the case-studies here suggest, the urbanization process in Essex involved smaller and less conspicuous settlement units than what we think of as towns.

The number of market towns founded by monasteries was an important contribution to the development of commercial infrastructure in Essex. The number is relatively high partly because the number of religious foundations there was higher than in most counties, with most of the older houses – some pre-Conquest, though more founded, or re-founded during the reigns of Norman or Angevin kings – were part of the Benedictine or Augustinian orders. By contrast the orders of friars are not associated with foundation of markets or new towns, partly because they tended not to acquire much real estate and partly because they did not arrive until the thirteenth century. The oldest and wealthiest monastic house was at Barking, a double house whose abbesses not only held the market at Barking but founded one at Salcott. Similarly, abbeys at St. Osyth's, Waltham, and Colchester , also among the wealthiest houses, were associated with markets at those places, St. Osyth's establishing a second at Brentwood.

These religious communities – that is, consumer groups – had a large overhead, making regular purchases not only of foodstuffs but also pricier goods such as livestock, wine, and cloth. To support their relatively high standard of living they needed to expand revenue sources such as rents and profits from marketing the surplus produce of their endowment estates, particularly the wool obtained from their often sizable flocks of sheep. It is therefore significant that some of the market settlements they created, or that grew up outside their gates, were situated around the roads running from Colchester to London (e.g. Barking, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Witham) and from Colchester into Hertford (Coggeshall, Dunmow, Hatfield Broad Oak) and were where the making and processing of cloth developed as an industry. In the latter half of the fourteenth century East Anglia was one of the most productive areas of the country, in terms of cloth manufacture, and Essex cloth was distinctive enough to be identifiable as such. Colchester was on the edge of a particularly vibrant cloth-making region, straddling the Essex-Suffolk border; it and the newer towns that arose within that region were well-positioned to benefit from greater continental demand for English cloth in the later fourteenth century. It was largely because of this industry that the western and north-western regions of Essex saw more small market towns emerge than in any other part of the county, though not all were equally involved in both the manufacture and trade aspects of the industry.

Both before and after the Conquest, the crystallization of the territorial administrative structure influenced the emergence of market centres. Richard Britnell noted that "examples of hundredal markets are numerous and, in East Anglia at least, account for a large proportion of medieval markets for which no warrant is known," ["English Markets and Royal Administration before 1200", Economic History Review, 2nd ser., vol.31 (1978), pp.188]; his analysis suggested that by 1200 55‰ of the known markets in Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk were in hundredal manors, boroughs that had hundred status, or had some other distinctive association with a hundred, and that by 1300 the same statistic (after elimination of markets for which no specific grant was known) was only slightly lower. Barking, Chipping Ongar, Colchester, Hatfield Broad Oak, Rayleigh, Waltham Holy Cross, Witham, and Writtle had markets that might be considered hundredal, suggesting their emergence before the Conquest, although at Rayleigh and Chipping Ongar hundredal jurisdiction seems only to have been acquired by the manor after it had become the caput of a baronial honour.

Yet Britnell recognized that markets were not integral facilities of hundreds, but arose within hundreds only where economic circumstances favoured their emergence. Among these circumstances was location on communication routes used by traders: "The chronology of formal market creations in Essex suggests that prime roadside locations became more important after 1200" [Cambridge Urban History of Britain, p.265, from Britnell "Essex markets before 1350"]. New towns such as Braintree, Brentwood, Chelmsford, and Epping were developed on roads leading out of London in late twelfth century, mainly by ecclesiastical landlords.

The tendency for markets to be established at manors with administrative significance is exemplified in Essex by: Chipping Ongar, Hatfield Broad Oak, Rayleigh, Witham, and Writtle, which were centres for hundredal administration; Horndon on the Hill and Southminster, which were ecclesiastical centres for administration; and Barking, Colchester and Waltham Holy Cross, which were both secular and ecclesiastical centres. Proximity to the national administrative focus of Westminster meant that the king too held manors in Essex and frequented them for hunting when he had the opportunity; he was no different in his desire to ensure his favourite manors were furnished with markets, such as that at Romford. The early association of markets with important manors helped shape local patterns of commercial activity, offering better prospects for such markets to endure over time, whereas markets licensed by later manorial lords were not assured longevity even by a propitious location within the communications network, for such sites had became scarce by the latter half of the thirteenth century, and prospects of capturing and retaining a viable share of commerce was affected by the growing competitiveness within the market network.

Britnell sought evidence of market-based urbanization in the published Essex-related final concords, or 'fines', records of the outcome of a legal action – sometimes a genuine contest, but often a collusion between parties – in the king's court, intended to provide, through the legal record, greater security to a property conveyance; he paid attention to transfers of 'landless messuages', which appear to be burgage-type properties and often held by tradesmen or craftsmen. His analysis led him to conclude that these were found predominantly, though not exclusively, in towns, in clusters, and at dates later than the earliest evidence for a market there – explicable partly to increasing property values once trade and industry had become well established. He suspected these landless messuages indicated investments by manorial lords in laying out planned tenurial units (whether called boroughs or not), probably in conjunction with establishing or licensing markets, but noted that their scarcer appearance in the records after 1350 suggests that landlords were less inclined to make that kind of investment when licensing markets. ["Burghal characteristics of Market Towns in Medieval England", Durham University Journal, no.73 (1981), pp.148-50]. However, an absence of evidence of landless messuages cannot be used as an argument against urban status; there are almost no such cases as regards Harwich, for example, despite ample other evidence of its urban status.

Market towns in Essex

go to previous page
go to Medieval Towns main menu
main menu

      powered by FreeFind

go to first market town case study
next page

Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: August 16, 2020 © Stephen Alsford, 2018-2020