Braintree is situated on a ridge between the River Blackwater (which rises as the Pant and empties into the North Sea just beyond Maldon) and the River Brain, a tributary of the Blackwater; it lies closest to the Brain from which it likely takes its name, with the addition of a suffix meaning a settlement while adjacent Bocking lies on the Blackwater. Here an east-west Roman road (Stane Street, now Rayne Road in Braintree) between Ermine Street and Colchester crossed a north-south road (also originally Roman, now London Road in Braintree) connecting Suffolk to London and Thames crossings, via Chelmsford. A small Roman town, on the site of an Iron Age settlement, had existed near the crossroads, which raises the slight possibility that Braintree rendered Branketre or some variant thereof in medieval documents might be a corruption of Brancaster, though that place-name is otherwise found only in Norfolk. Modest Saxon occupation is evidenced, perhaps focused on a predecessor of the church of St. Michael's, which was built in the twelfth century, but largely rebuilt and expanded ca.1240. In 991 the thegn who held the estate bequeathed it to the bishops of London, who subsequently had a palace/manor-house on Chapel Hill. Branchetreu is mentioned in Domesday, and in 1086 appears to have been part of an estate named Rayne (now a village just west of Braintree), held by the bishop; Braintree was often referred to, from the thirteenth century, when Rayne was divided, as Great Reyne, particularly in the context of land transactions. It has been speculated that St. John's chapel near the manor-house might have been the original parish church, but was superseded by St. Michael's, upgraded from chapel to church status when a new town was planted.
On 25 April 1200, King John gave his approval to an initiative of William de Sanctæ Mariæ Ecclesia in the following words:
"Know that I have granted to all those men who accept from William, Bishop of London, messuages or plots on which to build, within that bishop's demesne lands at Chelmsford or Braintree, that they may have and hold those messuages or plots properly, peacefully, and freely, with all appurtenances, liberties, and free customs that pertain to those messuages or plots, just as the bishop shall assign, or may arrange to be assigned, for the convenience or improvement of the church of London and the bishopric of that church." [T. Duffus Hardy, ed. Rotuli Chartarum in Turri Londinensi asservati, London, 1837, vol.1, p.51; my translation]
We have to assume that the bishop's offer of building plots, some of which may already have had houses on them, was promulgated shortly before the time of John's confirmation. Yet it is possible the offer was issued in Richard I's reign; for one of the first acts of John's chief administrator, Walter Hubert, with whom the bishop was closely associated, was to require all charter grants to receive royal confirmation if they were to be treated as legally valid by royal courts a by-product of this being the need to maintain an archival copy of confirmations, giving rise to the Charter Rolls. While Walter Hubert's provision was aimed at combatting forgeries of charters purporting to be royal grants, some persons close to the heart of government may have felt it advisable to obtain confirmation of their own grants.
The confirmation of 1200 suggests the foundation, at those two locations, of new towns with burgage tenure. No charter of liberties is known, nor is one likely, to have been issued by the bishop, and Braintree is never referred to as a borough in records; in a list of debts due the king in 1248 from various Essex towns (fines for unspecified offences) the villata of Braintree was said to owe 5 marks, but Chelmsford and other settlements were also so described, and only Colchester rated being classified as a borough. Nor was a grant of market or fair associated with the foundation; one was not strictly necessary at that period; Morant claimed a Wednesday market and September fair had already been granted for Braintree by John the previous June, but this may have been an assumption based on later information about such events and on the fact that the bishop did receive a market grant for Chelmsford in September 1200 Morant perhaps supposed that such a grant for Braintree must have come in the period between John's coronation (30 May 1199) and the commencement of the earliest surviving Charter Roll (July 1199) from his reign. On the other hand, Morant may have seen some record, no longer extant, of grants during the early weeks of that reign.
Yet, while it is quite possible that a market, licensed or unlicensed, was either already in existence at Braintree or would have been established in conjunction with the town foundation, it is also conceivable that the bishop preferred to wait until Braintree attracted enough suitable settlers before investing in a market licence; whereas Chelmsford could have met this pre-condition very quickly, the process might have been much slower at Braintree, with other events intervening (see below) to distract Bishop William's attention. At any rate, we do not hear of Braintree's Wednesday market until 1340, and then again several times between 1344 and 1357, in the context of accounts submitted to the Exchequer; from some of these it seems the market may have been held on more than one day of the week. The September fair is first heard of in 1225, as a provisional licence granted during Henry III's minority; this fair illustrates that other considerations than the dedication of the local church could take precedence when selecting a fair date, for the bishop opted for the festival of St. Matthew, even though that of St. Michael, to whom the church was dedicated, was little more than a week later. In 1235 ownership of two shops at Braintree were the subject of a legal dispute which had come before the king's court.
Bishop William, whose surname indicates him a native of the small Norman town of Sainte-Mère-Église, pursued a career as a clerk in royal service, beginning in the reign of Henry II. He followed Henry on his travels, and found favour with Richard I, who described him as his prothonotary. He was among the group accompanying Hubert Walter, Bishop of Salisbury, Exchequer official, and a former prothonotary of the king, to track down the captive Richard I. After Richard's release William received many rewards, and was himself given a post in the Exchequer, overseeing the affairs of Jewish moneylenders (who were under the king's protection) and administering a system devised by Hubert Walter to reduce fraud in moneylending activities. William had been elected bishop in 1198, a post he held to 1221 when he retired into St. Osyth's priory. King John was also grateful to William, for joining Hubert Walter in supporting the choice of John to succeed Richard; but when John came into conflict with the Pope in 1205, William's support of the latter led to him being banished and his estates seized, a situation he had to endure from 1208 to 1213.
Bishop William's new town at Braintree was established, just east of the crossroads, in what appears to be a planned fashion, with blocks of tenement plots laid out around a large, almost rectangular marketplace. Though that space was largely lost to infilling (which had begun by the sixteenth century), alleyways running through the buildings may preserve some of the layout of rows of stalls. The marketplace lay between the east-west through-road (to north) and the High Street to south; the High Street continued eastwards to the manor-house. On the south side of the High Street was St. Michael's church (its surrounding cemetery probably defined by present-day St. Michael's Road and St. Michael's Lane). A street (now Bank Street) on one side of the marketplace and connecting it to the through-road may judging from archaeological evidence and surviving building fabric have been built up in late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, although possibly through organic growth that began in the thirteenth. On the other hand, that approaching the marketplace from the south, New Street, was created as infilling of the marketplace progressed, it being referred to in 1619 as a "newe markett streete" [Maria Medlycott, Braintree - Historic Twwns Assessment Report, Essex County Council, 1999, p.17], with the market cross being transferred there in 1631. But this new market area was, in its turn, encroached upon and the market was again relocated, to an area now remembered in the street named Market Place. A little further south was another open area, used for holding fairs (remembered as Fairfield Road) and later the cattle market. The plots around the original marketplace have a burgage-type look much deeper than wide though they had relatively generous frontages of 2.5 perches; Later plots were smaller in both dimensions, suggesting more population pressure, and the same is indicated by the character of subsequent (though still medieval) expansion further along the High Street and on the east-west through-road.
Braintree developed into a centre for the wool trade and then for cloth-making. Fulling mills existed, perhaps from the early fourteenth century, on the Brain and Blackwater, one being built in 1303. In 1452 the bailiffs of Braintree certified that weaving was, and had long been, the principal craft carried out in the town; a large open area (now parkland) north of the medieval town was known as Weavers Field. This industry had received a boost in 1304 from an influx of Flemish immigrants, many skilled in weaving, to neighbouring Bocking Bradford Street, which then developed as an industrial centre. Bocking was a bi-focal settlement whose original focus, around the church and manor-house, was supplemented by, and gradually lost importance to, a second area of settlement further south, at Bradford Street. This perhaps originally serviced pilgrims bound for Bury St. Edmunds and Walsingham in one direction and Canterbury in the other and other travellers using the north-south route mentioned above; that those travellers included merchants is illustrated by the case of one, Adam de Hitche, who in 1311 complained of having been robbed of £42 on the stretch of the road between Braintree and Halstead. This industrial settlement, perhaps attracted by the fulling mills, could take advantage of Braintree's market and fairs, Bocking having none of its own though by the early fifteenth century it may have had a public hall where wool and cloth were exposed for sale. Despite Bocking's inclusion in the Extensive Urban Survey for Essex, it is hard to identify sufficient key characteristics that would justify calling it unequivocally urban during the medieval period. Further indication of the importance of the cloth industry to Braintree is the prominence there, during the reign of Edward III, of a family with the surname of Taillour. The industry remained vibrant into the post-medieval period, thanks largely to specialization in types of cloth produced for the export market; after decline in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it revived as a silk-producing industry.