Located on uplands at the border with Hertfordshire, and close to the border of Cambridgeshire, Berden, whose name is Anglo-Saxon in origin, was a very small village at the time of Domesday, though 122 sheep were pastured there. It was one of the estates held in 1086 by Suein, though occupied by his sub-tenant. Beresford and Finberg [English Medieval Boroughs: A hand-list, Newton Abbot, 1973, p.108] reported a reference in a manorial court roll [ERO, D/DU 565/2 m.17v] whereby in 1369 a butcher was fined 2d. for conducting trade at Berden despite residing extra burgum presumably he ought to have purchased a tenser's licence and on this basis they included Berden among Essex boroughs. This evidence was insufficient to warrant Berden's inclusion in the Extensive Urban Survey for Essex, particularly given the absence of any record of a market licence. The notion of Berden as a market town is not implausible, however, for there were at first no competing markets close at hand; however, by the fourteenth century Berden was ringed by a number of small market towns within a range of five to ten miles distant, which would, over the course of time, have made it difficult for Berden to maintain market share.
The Rochefords and Bohuns were manorial lords in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; although in 1273 it was indicated that the Abbot of St. Osyth's had a manor at Berden, this must have been a sub-tenancy. Some time after Suein's grandson forfeited his lands, held as the Honour of Rayleigh, Rochford was given by Henry III, upon his coming of age (1227), to Hubert de Burgh when he was created Earl of Kent. Yet it may be that Hubert lost at least some of his lands upon falling from favour and participating in a short-lived rebellion, for Guy de Rocheford, at his death in 1274, was said to hold the manor of Rochford of the king by escheat of the Honour of Rayleigh; yet Guy held marshland elsewhere in Rochford Hundred, also part of the Honour, of John de Burgh according to Parkin [Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, vol.9 (1808), p.105]. by purchase from John and held the manor of Berden directly of the king. Whether Guy was the first of his family to adopt the name of the family seat, Rochford, as surname is unclear, but certainly the family appears to have reached its peak with Guy and his successors: his nephew John (1251-1309) and John's son Robert (1279-1337), who was said to hold both Rochford and Berden manors of the king, through the Honour of Rayleigh.
Robert's heir was his son Thomas (ca.1311-40) who, however, immediately engaged in a fierce contest with Robert's widow for control of the estates, but shortly died without male heirs. Edward III then granted Rochford and Berden to William de Bohun, a younger son of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Essex, to help William build an income commensurate with his new role as Earl of Northampton. In 1343 William granted the reversion of the manor of Berden, once Rocheford dower rights would be extinguished, and advowson of an Augustinian priory at Berden to the Abbey of Walden (founded by Geoffrey de Mandeville, an earlier Earl of Essex); the transfer was completed in 1345 and the abbey held Berden and its priory to the Dissolution. A few years later, just before the onset of the Black Death, manorial court records show 74 male adults living in Berden, which may perhaps point to a growing population, since in 1334 a manorial levy of one penny on heads of households netted 51d.; but we should not place too much weight on such figures.
The Rochefords have to be possible candidates for establishing burgage tenure to develop a postulated market at Berden. No market at Berden is reported in the inquisition post mortem on Guy de Rocheford in 1274, but such assets were not consistently mentioned in manorial extents; that at Rochford, for which Guy had obtained licence in 1257, was not mentioned either. It is possible that daily commerce at Berden was not substantial enough to warrant obtaining a market licence; Rochford would have been more the focus of the family's ambitions for economic development, and a formal market there would have been cheaper to administer. Capitalizing on commerce at Berden seems instead to have been left to the priory.
The origins of Berden's Augustinian priory are obscure; Dugdale's Monasticon has little to say of it. It is suspected to have been a twelfth century foundation, and Morant suggested that some member of the Rocheford family was likely the founder; these two notions are not necessarily compatible and both remain unsubstantiated. Certainly members of the Rocheford family are evidenced as benefactors as for example in1317 when Walram de Rocheford (a Hertfordshire. landowner) obtained licence to give in mortmain rents from various Essex properties but this would be natural enough for manorial lords, even if they only acquired the priory along with the manor. The priory seems to have functioned initially as a hospital. In 1291 its endowments and annual income were very modest, and this changed little in the Late Middle Ages. Shortly before 1308 its church, cloister, refectory, dormitory, infirmary, and hall, were lost to fire and episcopal indulgences were offered to those who donated to a re-building fund; these facilities could reflect its role as a hospital, rather than indicating a sizable monastic community. It was probably in connection with re-establishment of the priory that in 1314 Robert de Rocheford was permitted to give it 20 acres of land in Berden and the advowson of the parish church.
It was to this priory that fair grants were made, with a view to supplementing its meagre income. The dedication of the priory is believed to have been to St. John Evangelist; as his festival was in December, it was not optimal for a fair. The first grant, made in 1214 to the brethren of the hospital, was for a fair at All Saints (November). In 1222 a fair was granted at the feast of St. John Baptist (June), but was provisional because made during Henry III's minority; it was licensed to be held at the priory. Confirmation of the licence was obtained after Henry came of age, but not until 1267; the reason for the delay is unknown, but perhaps the priory did not feel a need to renew until quo warranto proceedings began to challenge licences obtained during the minority. The renewal stated that the fair was to be held at the manor, but we should not read anything into the change, for it did not preclude holding it at the priory site. It was conceivably at one of these fairs that three Hanse merchants were robbed of some of their merchandize, a crime that Edward II ordered investigated in 1308 (and a new commission appointed the following year), though it had been committed at Berden during the later years of the reign of his father.
Berden was built around two streets: one an east-west through-road, alongside which ran a stream, forded east of the village; the other a road entering from the south and terminating at its junction with the through-road that today it is simply known as 'The Street' might point to it having been the axial route around which the settlement was established. The original focus must have been the church, and manor-house, and perhaps too the priory, although that may have been a later addition (and evidently not so close to the other buildings that they suffered from the fire of ca.1308). The church, dedicated (perhaps significantly) to St. Nicholas, lay on the west side of the road from the south, somewhat south of the junction; its nave appears to have been built in the twelfth century (though largely rebuilt later), transepts added in the thirteenth, with a final enlargement in mid-fourteenth; that a bell-tower could be added in the fifteenth century (replacing the west end of the nave) suggests some local prosperity, as does the brick tomb (1473) of William Turnor within the church, its stone cover with memorial brass inlays showing a man in civilian dress (a fur-edged gown), with a bag or purse at his belt, flanked by his two wives and their thirteen children. While the purse denotes a man of business, we cannot say with any confidence that Turnor was a local townsman. Such prosperity was possibly based on the wool and/or cloth trade, but this was not predicated upon existence of a town. Just south of the church, Berden Hall, built in the sixteenth century, probably succeeded the medieval manor-house. Half a mile south-east of the church rises a mound surrounded by a ditch, dated, from pottery found, to between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries; it might indicate the one-time presence of a small motte-and-bailey castle. Lay settlement was concentrated around the junction, today known as 'the triangle', and particularly the stretch of road south of the junction to the church. The triangular junction is the likely site for markets to have taken place. The site of the priory, of which no fabric survives (although thirteenth-century stone coffins were found there) lay half a mile north-west of the church.
A little west of the junction at Berden (though not as far west as the priory site), Bonneting Lane heads north to an area shown on an 1883 map under the name 'New Town' at which point the lane today becomes no more than a track. The question must be asked whether this remembers the location of a medieval planted town, despite it not being very convenient for the junction, the only plausible candidate for an early marketplace. We may speculate that Walden Abbey attempted to establish a new town at some time after it acquired the manor, in an area located between the village and the priory, perhaps with a new marketplace; it already had experience with a market town, having in 1295 renewed the market licence for Saffron Walden, originally taken out by Geoffrey de Mandeville. If so, the abbey's timing was unfortunate, coming in a period when repeated outbreaks of plague took their toll on population and economic activity; although it is conceivable that establishing a borough may have been an attempt by the abbey to create improved conditions that would discourage the manor's serfs from escaping to seek better fortunes elsewhere. The 1369 fining of a butcher for residing outside the borough could be seen as an expression of difficulty in getting some tradesmen to relocate from the existing marketplace to the new town. This is a tenuous string of hypotheses, but then we have very few facts with which to work. For the same reason it is impossible to judge whether any market town at Berden proved viable at least up until the Dissolution, when the abbey as patron and priory as client for goods and services both disappeared or whether it was a short-lived venture that struggled to prosper in a location not especially advantageous and an increasingly competitive commercial environment. The only hints of economic decline we have at Berden are a presentment in the manorial court roll of 1416 that all houses held of the manorial lord by customary services had fallen into disrepair, and repeated presentments over several years closer to mid-century that various persons had scavenged ironwork and timber (apparently for firewood) from the manorial windmill and had torn down other buildings on the manor. Like so much of the documentary evidence related to Berden, this is too little from which to draw confident conclusions.