Burnham was a bifocal settlement, whose urban component was situated on the north bank of the River Crouch, a few miles west of its mouth. This location close to the coast gave it a role as a small port and a base for fishermen. In a somewhat isolated position on the south side of the wide but low-lying Dengie peninsula, framed by the Crouch and the Blackwater estuaries, Burnham faced very little competition from other markets in that region and must have served as a facility for distributing, primarily by water routes, agricultural produce Dengie being mainly an area of farmland, though marshy around its edges. The earliest reference we have to Burnham is in Domesday, which records a late Saxon manorial village, held in 1086 by Ralph Baynard, who had substantial properties across Essex, including at Dunmow, Ongar, Witham, and Woodham (by Maldon). Like other villages on the peninsula, the original Burnham settlement was probably on higher, drier ground, where stood the manor-house and the parish church, almost a mile inland from the subsequent town site. The church of St. Mary had been erected before 1155 (when given to Little Dunmow priory) and still contains a twelfth-century font; although the oldest surviving fabric apart from repurposed Roman brick and tile is fourteenth century, the site shows evidence of an older structure having stood there. The manor-house was immediately north of the church, in a moated enclosure. The name Burnham supports a Saxon origin for the village, it referring to a homestead by a stream; although the stream is often assumed to have been a tributary of the Crouch, it may rather have been the watercourse north of the village, intersecting the northbound road to Southminster, and emptying into the marshy eastern coast of the peninsula.
A commercial settlement was established near the river's edge, where market and port could support each other; its size and expansion potential were limited by marshy land to east and west, until they were drained in the post-medieval period. In 1253 the manorial lord, Walter Fitz-Robert, acquired a licence for a Tuesday market at Burnham and for an October fair at the festival of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross this choice may represent a play on the word 'Crouch' (French for crucifix). At that time the only other market within a five-mile radius was inland, at the Bishop of London's manor of Southminster, first documented in 1218 when Bishop William de Sanctæ Mariæ Ecclesia changed its day from Monday to Thursday. In 1285 Bishop Gravesend complained, before royal justices sitting at Colchester, that the Southminster market was being damaged by a Monday market at Bradwell-on-Sea, licensed by John de la Mare in 1283; this lay on the north coast of Dengie, beside the Blackwater estuary. Episcopal officials had been trying to combat the rival market by blocking, from Sunday to Tuesday, a bridge on the road connecting Southminster and Bradwell, so that neither the bishop's tenants nor outsiders could proceed with their carts, wagons, or livestock beyond Southminster; there is some intimation that a retaliatory blockade at Bradwell had also been instituted. The bishop's challenge was not unsuccessful, as Samantha Letters thought, but rather a legal fiction, to formalize in a court of record an out-of-court settlement between the disputing parties in the trade war. The bishop had agreed to accept the Bradwell market and not to block the road leading to it, while John de la Mare conceded that the bishop's agents or tenants transporting goods to Southminster via the Blackwater could dock and unload at Bradwell's quay, transfer their cargoes to carts or packhorses, and proceed freely through Bradwell to Southminster, without being charged tolls on their goods or wharfage on their vessels; the same right was extended to others wishing to frequent the Southminster market, but in their cases only from Wednesday to Friday. It had been further agreed that none of these traders, bishop's men or otherwise, was permitted to erect a tent or implant stakes (for stalls?) next to the wharf, without permission from and presumably a stallage payment to de la Mare's bailiffs. [Ernest Kirk, ed. Feet of Fines for Essex, vol.2 (1913), p.53]
Walter Fitz-Robert was of the family that claimed to be, by hereditary right, chief banneret of the London militia; family heads more or less alternated between Walters and Roberts Walter Fitz-Robert also being known as Walter Fitz-Walter, to add to the confusion as far back as Robert Fitz-Richard, steward to Henry I, who granted Robert the lordship of Dunmow and the London soke of Baynard's Castle, to which the post of banneret was associated, after these had been forfeited by William Baynard in 1111. Robert in fact seems to have taken over almost all the Baynard estates, and the family home became based at Woodham Walter. Walter Fitz-Robert was either a younger (but surviving) son or the grandson of the Robert Fitz-Walter who led, if not very effectively, the baronial opposition to King John. Robert established a market at Hempnall (Norfolk) and owned several ships that engaged in the wine trade; his daughter married William de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. Walter succeeded around 1235 as a minor and married Idonea de Longspée, a daughter of the Earl of Salisbury; their son was the first of the line to be accorded the title Baron Fitz-Walter. The Fitz-Walter family, which traced its descent from a junior branch of the de Clares, continued to be lords of Burnham manor up to 1431, when the male line failed, although periodically under management of a royal caretaker, while heirs were in their minority.
Unlike John de la Mare, Walter was probably not much bothered by the Southminster market, though his choice of Tuesday as market day was likely intended to create sufficient distance to avoid grounds for episcopal complaint; there is no indication relations between the Burnham and Southminster markets became as adversarial as those between Southminster and Bradwell. He would go on to obtain a licence, in 1257, for a market and fair at another of his Essex manors, at Roydon. He died the following year and in 1292 his son, Robert Fitz-Walter, was authorized to change the market day from Monday to Thursday; this Robert was also lord of the market town of Diss (Norfolk) and obtained a fair licence for it in 1300 (its market being too old to need a licence).
The grant of a market licence to Burnham is assumed to mark, at least approximately, the date when a town was founded, around a wide street that served as the marketplace. The aim of Walter Fitz-Robert was evidently to take advantage of commerce carried by boats using the Crouch and its tributary the Roach, both wide enough to permit navigation as far as Woodham Ferrers and Rochford, respectively. A market and fair had been licensed at Woodham in 1234, by William de Ferrers, and Rochford was a couple of decades further away from licensing, and so was probably already acting as a magnet for traders. It may have particularly been the fish trade in which Walter saw the potential for a combination port and market in the Crouch estuary; fishery rights on that river already belonged to the manor of Burnham and these rights such as having fish-weirs or dredging for oysters (a particularly important resource of the estuary) were licensed to tenant fishermen. In 1427 Burnham resident Walter Dawe was being sued by a London fishmonger over an alleged debt of 40s. Fishing was certainly the mainstay of the local economy in the post-medieval period, accompanied by boat-building, and likely also during the Middle Ages; that a good proportion of the residents earned their living from the water is evidenced by the twenty-one Burnham men named in 1374 among a much larger list of Essex mariners engaged to serve in the king's navy but absconding after collecting an advance payment. The port was probably also frequented by smaller sea-going vessels involved in the coastal trade, notably bringing down coal from north-eastern England.
Domesday records several hundred sheep pastured at Burnham and in 1377 there is reference to the Fitz-Walter flock there, so wool is likely to have been another commercial resource. Other wool-growers on the Dengie peninsula would have taken advantage of Burnham's port the marshy coastline of the peninsula making ports scarce there. In 1368 we find William Walpole of Burnham Ware a qualifier referring to the fish weirs in the Crouch permitted to transport 15 sarplers of wool and 400 wool-fells by ship from Burnham around the coast to London to sell at the Westminster staple, so long as he provided his local bailiffs with surety that he not carry them elsewhere. In 1339 a ship, the Nicholas of Burnham, was seized near Burnham by royal officials, for trying to put to sea with a cargo that included wool and wool-fells on which customs duties had not been paid.
The town comprised an axial street (High Street) which represented an extension eastwards, not quite parallel to the waterfront, of a road running southwards from the original village; this extension is conspicuously wider than the main road, suggesting it was created specifically for holding a market. The street does not seem to have continued eastwards beyond the settlement, and is narrower at its eastern and western ends (though, just possibly, this could have been consequence of encroachment). Not until the nineteenth century did this simple layout expand, with additional streets running north off the High Street. That settlement may already have been spreading southwards from the Domesday village towards the riverside is hinted at by a lone find of a suspected Saxon loom-weight in that vicinity. It has been suggested that not only the widened High Street represents a planned element, but also routing that street at a tangent to the quayside, to allow for plots of different depths to be laid out, backing onto the quayside so as to enable cargoes to be unloaded directly from ships to warehouses [Maria Medlycott, Burnham-on-Crouch - Historic Towns Assessment Report, Essex County Council,1999, p.7]. By the close of the Middle Ages there may have been private jetties along the quayside, with a main wharf at the western end, near where the High Street ended and its route began to curve northwards. Lanes at either end of the row of tenement plots on the south side of the High Street, with other lanes in intermediate positions through the row, connected quayside and marketplace, and the general impression is one of a close working relationship between the two facilities, with less importance placed on road-based traffic into the marketplace from inland locations.
Blocks of plots laid out along the north side of the High Street (less vulnerable to flooding) were shorter and of a more consistent depth; they were perhaps intended as residences it being unclear from what period the south-side plots incorporated these for merchants, or for artisans or service providers, who needed no warehousing. However, industries typically found in small towns leather-working, some cloth-making, and food reprocessing (e.g. brewing) are not in evidence at Burnham, and craftwork may have been more oriented towards serving the needs of the port and its users, with some possibly taking place (as was later the case) within the more spacious plots between High Street and waterfront. Burnham never quite became much of a market town in the modern sense, and even today there are relatively few shops along its High Street, which remains wide, not having been subjected to the creeping encroachment to which most conventional marketplaces were susceptible.