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 1250 Earls Colne

Keywords: Earls Colne river crossings travel routes manors records villages priory disputes earl Oxford town-founding Whitchurch Stony Stratford market licences fairs competition lawsuits Halstead topography streets marketplace tolls stalls shops leet court market offences manorial officers economy commerce occupations bakers brewers fishmongers butchers butchery tilers middlemen regrating cloth trade basters leather crafts construction industry urban attributes

Earls Colne has left an unusually rich legacy of local records, from the late fourteenth century on, though richest for the post-medieval period; these have been made accessible in print and online [http://linux02.lib.cam.ac.uk/earlscolne/]. This enables, and warrants here, a closer look at the later fortunes of a minor market, and its community's commerce in general, than is possible for most small market settlements of Essex. However, a lack of earlier documentation leaves uncertainty surrounding the status of the settlement during that part of the Middle Ages of prime interest to this study.

Earls Colne was a parish in the north-west corner of Lexden Hundred, and was situated on the east-west route between Colchester and Cambridge, the former lying barely ten miles to the east of Earls Colne – close enough that its market must have attracted away some of the agricultural produce of local farmers, who could get it to Colchester, sell it, and return home the same day. Immediately to the north-west, and on the same road, though belonging to Hinckford Hundred, was Halstead, which would become the closest and most important commercial rival. Braintree and Coggeshall – the latter connected to Earls Colne by a minor road – were also only a few miles distant, but they were targeting commerce that was using a different main road. To the north, in Suffolk, Sudbury was closer at hand than was Colchester, but it was on a north-south trade route. The River Colne's route, bounding the parish on its northern side as it meandered south-eastwards, cut across the Colchester-Halstead road and divided Earls Colne to the west from White Colne to the east; a tributary, the Bourne brook, formed the western boundary of Colne. This stretch of the river was not navigable, but was already powering two mills by the time of Domesday.

The river meadows and the ford carrying the Colchester road across the river are likely what attracted settlement to Colne's site, though in the Roman period any settlement seems to have been no more than a single villa. It is not until mid-tenth century that we have a documentary reference to Colne, while another in 1045 suggests the presence of a minster church; before the Conquest a village of indeterminate size had grown up around the church, though settlement in the parish may not have all been focused at that spot.

William I granted Colne to Aubrey de Vere and by 1086 part of it was already in the hands of a sub-tenant, Demiblanc, from whose name 'White' Colne derives. The de Veres remained lords of the manor down to 1592. Hereditary service to the monarchy as chamberlain, Aubrey II's marriage to a daughter of Gilbert de Clare, and Aubrey III's pledge (1141) of support to Matilda in her contest with Stephen – Aubrey II, an adherent of Stephen, having recently been killed by a London mob, and Stephen having become Matilda's prisoner – brought Aubrey III the earldom of Oxford, perhaps at the recommendation of his sister's husband, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. Although Aubrey I's estates were scattered across several counties, his Essex manors were his main focus of interest; besides Colne, his holdings there included Castle Hedingham (the family's principal residence), Manningtree, and Dovercourt (which a grand-daughter subsequently took to her marriage with Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk), whilst he had property in Colchester and his Suffolk lands included Lavenham. Through his marriage, Aubrey I acquired Aldham, a manor near Colne. Aubrey III attempted to further his interests in Essex by marriage to a daughter of the lord of Rayleigh, although this went sour when his father-in-law was disgraced. The lordship of the Earls of Oxford was almost continuous, despite occasional political reverses, though Earls Colne was occasionally in the hands of a widowed countess or other guardian during some heir's minority.

Aubrey I's first-born son having fallen sick and been tended (initially successfully) at Abingdon Abbey, and being buried there after a relapse, the parents founded at Colne a small Benedictine priory as a cell of that abbey; soon after its dedication in 1111 (construction of the priory complex continuing into the early thirteenth century) Aubrey I retired into the monastic community, died a little later, and was buried there, the priory thereafter serving as the family burial-place. The priory was erected on the site of the suspected Roman villa, by this time manorial demesne, on the west bank of the river, between the parish church and the bridge that had been built at Colneford by 1135, Its endowments included that church, some of the adjacent village houses, Colneford mill, and plots along the road between the ford and the church – by the close of the Middle Ages the priory held almost half the parish – as well as the church of White Colne and real estate there. Its holdings became a separate manor, Colne Priory, or Monks Colne. The remainder of the original manor was known as Great Colne, not to differentiate it from the priory manor but from Little Colne (later Colne Engaine, under separate but less stable lordship) to the north-west. Only later, after several earls of Oxford had held sway at Great Colne ,and perhaps to distinguish it from the priory domain, did the name Earls Colne become predominant, though on rare occasions it was referred to as Chipping Colne.

Perhaps inevitably, the earl's and prior's manorial jurisdictions became uncomfortable neighbours, as over time the boundaries between the two manors became blurred (which impacted on seigneurial revenues), and as the earls tried to assert their rights as priory patrons and the priors to shake off that influence. By 1394 the king could declare himself wearied by the disputes between the two sides, which were bringing the priory into disrepute and demoralizing its community. This exasperation stemmed from a dispute over the choice of a new prior, which dragged on until, during 1400-01, it erupted into open warfare between factions supporting rival claimants to the priorate, one backed by the countess of Oxford and archbishop of Canterbury, the other supported by the Bishop of London and pursuing backing from the Pope; the king sought to arrest both claimants and have them brought before his council. Relations between earl and priory improved later; the former transferred his manor-house into the priory precinct, perhaps at a time when the earldom's fortunes were at a low ebb, politically and economically. At the Dissolution the earl of Oxford was granted the priory and its temporalities.

Earl Hugh de Vere, grandson of Aubrey III, acquired in March 1250 royal licence for a Monday market at Earls Colne and a fair there at the end of October. He or a previous earl had already instituted a market at Castle Hedingham. These were not the earliest markets founded on de Vere manors nor the earliest such activity by Hugh, though the date of the Hedingham market is uncertain. We must discount those at Dovercourt, licensed 1222 to an Earl of Norfolk descended from a de Vere female, and at Manningtree, which appears to have been temporarily in other hands when its market was authorized. A member of another branch of the family (probably descended from Aubrey II), Baldwin de Vere, had in 1205 obtained a market grant for Thrapston (Northants.). Hugh himself had obtained in 1238, just a few years after succeeding to the earldom, a market grant for Prittlewell (Essex) – a surprising choice since it does not seem to have been one of his more important manors, though it is conceivable the Hedingham market may date from the same period. Perhaps he saw Prittlewell as an experiment, and may not even have taken advantage of the licence at first, for when the countess of Kent complained in 1248 that Prittlewell's market was damaging to hers at Rayleigh, she alleged the former had only been in operation for six years. In 1245 Hugh licensed a market and fair for Whitchurch (Bucks. – not the Oxon. Whitchurch as in the Gazetteer), which had come to the de Veres around 1185, through marriages of two of the earls (Hugh's uncle and his father) to heiresses of the Bolebec family.

Evidently his initial experiences with markets were satisfactory, despite the setback at Prittlewell, for Hugh went on to introduce that at Earls Colne. His ambitions in this sphere of activity only increased, for he acquired licences for market and fair at Lavenham, Chesham (Bucks.), and Great Abington (Cambs.) in 1257, all on the same occasion; at the same time he obtained a new licence for Prittlewell, changing the market-day, to prevent further challenge to it, as well as adding a fair there, and licence for a fair at Stony Stratford (Bucks.), which already had a licensed market before it had come to Hugh de Vere through his mother, daughter of Hugh de Bolebec. Hugh's descendants were almost inactive in this sphere, for Hugh had left them little to do; a later namesake – a junior member of the family – and his wife added a fair at her manor of Gooderstone (Norf.), where a market was already licensed, but otherwise the de Veres only had to keep their existing commercial institutions viable.

The layout of Earls Colne has the fairly typical appearance of a church-focused village, lying beside an important land route, which has been retooled to introduce a market component, surrounded by common grazing land, fields, and farms. The road from Colchester, approaching from the east, passed through White Colne, crossed the ford, then ran along the south side of the priory precinct before turning north a short distance to reach and skirt the church (just south of which was the manor-house) before resuming its westward path towards the crossing of the Bourne and, beyond, through a corner of Colne Engaine to Halstead. It was in the stretch of this road from the west side of the churchyard as far as the road running south to Coggeshall – the later High Street (earlier known as Church Street) – that the market was held. An estate map drawn in 1598 shows that, notwithstanding any encroachments, this part of the road was unusually wide, though tapering slightly at either end. It has the look of a road widened to serve as a marketplace and some, if not all, the plots along either side of this stretch were likely carved out of the demesne pastureland to attract new settlers who would help service the market – the areas to north and south of the plots remaining arable into the post-medieval period, although small parts were converted into tenements in the Late Middle Ages.

Towards the western end of this stretch stood the toll collection building on Tollhouse Green – a space conceivably used to expand the marketplace at fair time – and just slightly further west stood the pillory used to punish market offences (though apparently removed by 1466), probably along with the stocks the manorial bailiff and constable were tasked with making in 1426. On the opposite side of the western part of the High Street, roughly across from the tollhouse, two surviving buildings still incorporate spaces reminiscent of market-houses or guildhalls, although the latter would have served the socio-religious gilds known to have existed in the community, rather than any institution of communal administration. Self-government is not evidenced beyond the leet court, where local manorial officials such as constables and ale-tasters (the latter responsible for policing the assizes of ale and bread) were elected and whose suitors, or the jury of capital tithing-men, are occasionally seen (somewhat as at Maldon) formulating by-laws relating to such matters as punishment of slanderers and restriction of hours for sale of foodstuffs (1429), tavern closing times (1442), or late-night gambling and measures used by taverns (1511).

In the eastern half of the High Street stood, by the late sixteenth century, the mysterious Town House, whose name suggests something serving communal purpose(s); though we know very little beyond its name and approximate location, it is conceivable it was the type of two-storey building seen in a number of small towns towards the end of the Middle Ages, serving a mix of commercial and administrative functions. The Earls Colne through-road – not only the marketplace stretch, but that to the west of the Coggeshall road crossing (which also looks to have been widened, though the relatively few tenements surrounding it argue against it having been part of the original marketplace), and the stretch running from below the church, past the priory, to the bridge, and then beyond it up Colneford Hill – was, unsurprisingly, the focus for residential tenements. The concentration along that route, leaving mostly scattered farmhouses and cottages elsewhere in the parish, is explicable by the location of the ancient village, the marketplace, and the priory.

That Earls Colne's market initially did well enough is suggested by the application of the alias Chipping Colne to the manor. Yet almost immediately, and despite an inquisition ad quod damnum having preceded the royal licence, the market faced a competitive threat from Halstead, whose lord acquired in November 1250 license for a Saturday market and early October fair. This looks like an intentional challenge. If so, indication of a response comes not until November 1254, when, in the context of eyre proceedings at Chelmsford, Earl Hugh complained that Abel de St. Martin had instituted a market at Halstead that was injurious to his own at Hedingham and Colne. However, the purpose of the complaint was actually to register an agreement reached between the parties, whereby Earl Hugh withdrew any objections to the Halstead market, in return for assignment to the earl of certain rents in Halstead, worth 6s.8d annually, without any further alienation to Hugh of feudal rights over the tenements in question, nor obligation of Hugh to Abel's manorial jurisdiction other than a nominal pair of white gloves each year in lieu of suit of court, service and customary dues. In the long run, the earls were losers in this deal, and it might have been better for Hugh, using the leverage of his status, to seek a suppression of the Halstead market, on the grounds of geographical and chronological proximity of the rival events, with those at Colne and Hedingham having the advantage of possessing the older licences. But Abel's defence was that he had only licensed a market that had long existed under royal ownership. Hugh may have felt his position was not strong enough to mount an effective opposition, for he had joined the critics of Henry III and in the late 1250s would participate on baronial committees looking to reform the government, so he could expect no special royal favours; whereas the St. Martin family – which held under the de Clare earls of Gloucester, also a member of the reform party, though there is no evidence the St. Martins shared that political affiliation – had influence in Kent, some history of service in the royal bureaucracy, and at the time of the dispute Abel's brother was Bishop of Rochester. Hugh may have felt it wiser to reach an out-of-court settlement. A later lord of Halstead was able to obtain royal authorization in 1330 for shifting the market-day to Tuesday, and transferring the fair to later in October, which can only have made it even more damaging to that at Colne; the rival fairs had not been part of the legal challenge and settlement between the two owners. Earls Colne's commercial institutions were themselves under threat in the final year of Henry III's reign, but a further inquisition ad quod damnum cleared the air and Hugh's right to market and fair there were upheld.

Though the overall value of the manor of Earls Colne was not particularly impressive – the earldom was one of the least wealthy of the kingdom – the value of its market was estimated at 15s. for purposes of the inquisition post mortem on Hugh de Vere in 1263, and in 1350 at 20s., which represents respectable growth during a period in which toll revenues were becoming harder to collect. Moreover, already by the time of the earliest manorial account, the tollhouse was being referred to as Eldetolhous, a name that does not seem to imply the existence of a newer collection point (none such being evidenced) but that the building's function as a tollhouse (though it long survived in local tradition) lay in the past, for by 1378 it was being rented out as a domestic residence. While the tenants of Earls Colne were probably exempt from tolls in their own market, the prior's tenants are less likely to have had that privilege, and this may have been one of the sources of antagonism between the two manors, particularly as toll-exempt outsiders were seen using the market.

It is reasonable enough to posit economic setback consequent to the outbreaks of plague in the second half of the fourteenth century, even though the poll tax data suggests some recovery from the demographic impact. Unfortunately no manorial records survive prior to the time of the Peasants' Revolt – older records might have fallen victim to this, though there are contra-indications – but in the oldest manorial account, for 1378/79 [ERO, D/DPr 119], are several references to the marketplace, one being to a 'new rent' for a stall there – it was still being described as 'new' decades later – another to a small increase in rent for a property facing onto the marketplace; yet we also hear of three stalls whose tenants have died without leaving heirs and seven other stalls which generated no rents (usually 4d each a year, although might vary with size), as well as at least one vacant cottage facing onto the marketplace. By the time of the 1430/31 account those stalls remained without tenants and six to eight others were also going unrented; while the earl might still have been provisioning his manor-house through the local market, when he visited for extended stays he was also carting in supplies from his manors of Bentley and Wivenhoe. Similarly, when, about 1440, Colne Priory needed a pair of iron cartwheels and several thousand tile pins, rather than commission the work to its own forge or to any other local smith, it looked to a Colchester craftsman to fill the order, whilst needs for goods such as linen, wine, and pewterware were also met at Colchester as well as at London, and certain foodstuffs likewise had to be sought further afield – such as large quantities of salmon, herring, tench, and dried fish acquired at Stourbridge fair, and salt at Harwich. The preference for doing business at Stourbridge rather than Yarmouth's herring fair was perhaps not only because Stourbridge, although not as significant as it had once been, offered a wider range of goods, but also because both the priory and the de Veres had estates close enough to Cambridge that accommodations might be had there. Yet daily purchases of foodstuffs, to supplement what the priory had in storage, indicate that a wide range of fish, shellfish, and even some spices were available locally – though 'locally' might include Halstead's market. At least one of Earls Colne's fishmongers is known to have had his own pond, where he kept live stock; this may have belonged originally to the manor-house, but been alienated as the earls' interest in the manor waned.

There is no indication of any pro-active effort on the part of the earl or his officials to seek out tenants for the empty stalls. A number of houses on the manor were being poorly maintained or had been abandoned and were ruinous, this situation also persisting for many years without seigneurial action other than the court's insistence that tenants repair them, even though it is not clear that tenants were necessarily still in Earls Colne. The earliest extant manorial rental, of 1395 [ERO, D/DPr 109], notes seven stall sites from which no rent was received and on which no stall structures were standing, while six other stalls, known from an earlier rental (not extant), had been lost track of, and perhaps had been absorbed into market-facing buildings, as shops. Yet we also hear of eleven tenanted stalls – one as far down as the churchyard end of the High Street, and another that had been converted into a shop (with a second shop mentioned in passing), as well as four tenanted cottages facing onto the marketplace. The prominent Morden family held a capital messuage, near the pillory, that included a cottage with a solar and, before 1466, two adjacent shops, at least one of which had originally been a stallage site. Roger Morden, a capital tithing-man, was a grain-farmer presented as both brewer and baker in 1402 and as brewer and regrator of candles in 1406, and his wife as a regrator of ale in 1403. His grandson Thomas Morden, who in 1432 drove a hired cart to Bury St. Edmunds to buy saddle-cloth for the earl's cart-horses, had a tavern near the shambles; he too was a capital tithing-man by the 1440s and was presented in 1453 for regrating candles. It is unclear where the Thomas Murdon presented as a tanner in 1414 fits into the family.

We may thus guesstimate that Earls Colne's market, at its peak, comprised at least two dozen stalls. By contrast, no stalls or shops are mentioned in the earliest rental, probably from the 1380s, of the priory manor [ERO, D/DPr 5]. That manor has the appearance of a cottage community, with few indications of commercial or industrial activity (beyond occupational surnames, which are uncertain evidence), although the manor included a tenter croft, signifying cloth-making. Furthermore at least one tile-maker was probably active at any given time, in part to serve priory needs; the priory account of 1375 refers to a rent of 2,100 tiles, while its rental of ca.1380 shows one field, adjacent to land held by Richard Tyler, owing an annual rent of 1,100 tiles (valued at 5s.), and the tile-kiln, which gave rise to a place-name, may have been owned by the priory itself, which in 1439/40 sold 14,500 tiles (at 3s.4d the thousand) to various but unnamed buyers and four thousand more at Stourbridge fair (at 6s. the thousand), while two years later a total of over 16,000 tiles in batches to three buyers, one being London grocer Robert Marchall (sheriff 1439/40), who had just acquired a cottage facing onto Earls Colne's High Street. Several individuals were employed on contract by the priory to manufacture tiles, two of them with Teylere as their surname, and one an immigrant from the Low Countries; a new kiln was being built at this period, though seemingly to replace an older one rather than expand production capacity.

The Earls Colne rentals of 1417, 1455, and 1469 (based on that of 1455) are almost silent as to market stalls, although in 1455 we hear of two shops being enlarged. How much the seeming disappearance of stalls is due to failure of the market and how much to migration to shop-based commerce is hard to say, for these two phenomena are closely intertwined. The transformation of commerce at Earls Colne is exemplified in Geoffrey Buckwell, who first appears in local records in 1467, when he and his wife rented two adjoining cottages as their residence; but, if a new arrival, he was no young man, for the following year he was made one of the capital tithing-men (a role he also held for the priory manor in the last years of his life), while his wife was among those women amerced for baking and brewing. Before 1474 he was buying fields there. In 1486 he was presented as a baker and an ale-seller in his own right (though this may only have disguised his wife's activities). His will, drawn up in 1490 and proved the following year, refers to his shop; bequests of brewing equipment, numbers of tables, stools, and benches, and quantities of malt and wheat suggest he was a taverner or inn-keeper. His properties included one of the former properties of Thomas Morden, probably that near the pillory, although perhaps his tavern. His furniture and furnishings – including pewter plates and dishes, silver spoons, an alabaster retable with wooden canopy whose carvings were decorated with gilding and red paint – suggest a level of prosperity that is also reflected in his foundation of a chantry in the parish church.

Evidence from the series of manorial court rolls – the oldest surviving dating to 1401 – reinforces the impression of a declining market during that century. In 1406 we have explicit acknowledgement that commerce is still going on in the marketplace. Ten years later the holder of a stall situated between two shops (likely themselves former stalls) had his transfer of the stall to three new tenants ratified in court. In 1430 one of the cottages facing the marketplace is said to have incorporated two stalls, and these may have been somewhere along the process of conversion to shops, while a tenement named Aywardes Homstall (the following year, Aywardeshaustall) also suggests a stall intimately associated with a residence facing onto the marketplace. But references in the rolls to the marketplace become scarcer as the century progresses.

Yet commerce continues to be evidenced. The richest expression of this in the court rolls were the leet courts' amercement of producers of, or traders in, foodstuffs and other necessaries. Although at Earls Colne, as elsewhere, what was originally a punitive system of fines may have been transforming into an informal licensing system, the recurrence of names from year to year is not mechanistically rigorous, and it may be that only the worst offenders were presented – one-time offenders certainly had lower amercements, and persistent offenders higher – or that amercement was at least a temporary disincentive in some cases. The earliest roll shows four bakers and twelve brewers presented for infringement of the assize, probably in regard to their products or their measures not meeting standards; all of the brewers were women, mostly married and including the wives of the three male bakers, although one unmarried brewster was also the sole female baker presented by the capital tithingmen. Three other bakers were presented for selling against the assize, their offence probably being what they charged for their bread. Two further women, wives of some of the bakers, and one man were presented for retailing foodstuffs, including ale (the issue here also being their profit-margin). Three butchers (an occupation invariably male) were also dealt with by the court; butchers' offences generally related to their prices and to whether their meat was safe for consumption. The ale-tasters appointed by the court each year were customarily amerced at the end of their year of office for unsatisfactory performance of their duties; it is not clear whether this was a corollary to the inevitable presentment of offending brewers, a tax on whatever 'rewards' the ale-tasters may have been able to extort from brewers in return for approving brews, genuine dereliction of duty, or a reflection of the resistance of some brewers to having their product scrutinized – abusive resistance occasionally being recorded in the rolls. In May 1402 six bakers, twelve brewers, three retailers, and two butchers were amerced, and at the November session that year a slightly smaller number (with some of the same, and some new names) are augmented by an offending fishmonger. The following year four fishermen and retailers of fish were presented. These kinds of numbers continued for some years – 1418, for example, saw eleven brewers, three bakers, five butchers, three fishmongers, and three retailers presented, and 1431 ten brewers, five bakers, four butchers, three fishmongers, four retailers of ale, and a tanner– with occasional inclusion of new wares, such as underweight candles sold by chandlers or regrators (regularly from 1406), poorly-tanned leather that was being sold in sizes too small and for prices too high (1408, 1414, 1417, 1427), and a regrator of butter (1421-23). But in the 1440s the numbers drop off, particularly of butchers and fishmongers, the more prosperous of the tradesmen; while by the end of the 1450s even bakers, brewers and regrators are in short supply, though their numbers at least rebound slightly in the next decade, while from the 1470s Earls Colne was served by at least one butcher and one fishmonger. The reasons for these fluctuations are not immediately apparent; whether due to deaths, changes in business, laxer prosecution of offenders, or external causes would require closer analysis of the careers of the individuals involved. But certainly market decline – possibly both demand and supply – cannot be ruled out.

Though we have stray references in the manorial records to former tenants such as Warin the merchant (1250s), Arnold the merchant and Haurus the merchant (both late fourteenth century), it seems unlikely that the kind of commerce happening at Earls Colne would have supported men doing much long-distance business in bulk goods; no Colne men are evidenced among holders of export licences. An eyre of 1272 saw two Earls Colne men accused of infringing the assize of wine, but if there were vintners operating there in the fifteenth century, they are absent from manorial records. The only other reference in national records to a large-scale deal concerning Earls Colne is from 1392, when the dowager countess, short of money after the fall and forfeiture of her son Robert de Vere, was authorized to sell off 400 marks worth of timber from her woodlands; yet it seems the only one of her tenants able or willing to operate at that level was Thomas Smythe, although the king blocked him from proceeding, and the only transaction that went ahead was with a Thaxted man who paid her 100 marks and had a certain number of trees cut down and trimmed for transportation. In 1395 the same Thomas Smythe was sued by two London men for debts of 40s. and 26 marks; evading payment, he was outlawed and made himself scarce, so that his moveables were seized. Yet he overcame this setback and by 1401 was one of the capital tithing-men at Earls Colne. Smythe may indeed have been a smith, for his properties included a cottage and yard near the gate to the churchyard, which could have been associated with the priory smithy, a horse-pit (for shoeing horses), and possibly a hay-barn.

Instead of a class of wholesale merchants, there was within the Earls Colne community of that period a fair-sized group of small-scale operators who, assisted by their wives' commercial activities, were generating a good part of their income from trade, industry, or a mix of the two, and these were the men who held the stalls or shops. The kind of commercial activity most commonly going on there can perhaps be better illustrated by looking at a few more examples of tradespeople resident there in the early fifteenth century.

One of the more prominent was Thomas Hunte, established in Earls Colne before 1395 and by 1401 senior enough within the community to be one of the capital tithing-men, a duty that (as in most cases) remained with him for the rest of his life. He was the butcher most frequently the subject of leet court presentments from 1401 to 1409, but in 1411 was presented as a baker and by the following year had built a new two-room bakery, expanding an older bakehouse formerly co-owned by Roger Morden; whether Thomas operated this in person, however, we may doubt, for he was again amerced as a butcher in 1413 and 1414, dying late that year or in early 1415. He was survived by his wife Agnes, who had often been amerced as a brewster, and a like-named son who continued his father's business. Butchery could be a profitable occupation and Thomas sen. held a number of properties within Colne parish. These included various pieces of pasture where he likely kept livestock destined for his butchery, and over 100 acres of fields which may have supplied the grain for his bakery. One of his properties was an empty but enclosed plot adjacent to the Colneford bridge, and one suspects he may have carried out slaughtering there, the river being a convenient place to dispose of offal and carcass remnants. Another of his tenements, described in 1416 as a shop, was near the shop of Richard Goseboll, a fellow-butcher (whose wife was also a brewster). These butcher's shops were probably no more than enclosed stalls, and must have been part of a shambles, for in that same year we hear both of another stall site between the two shops, taken up by a fishmonger, and of a plot (15 ft. x 9.5 ft.) next to Goseboll's shop where butcher John Chaloner proposed to erect a shop, paying the countess an annual rent of 4d. – the amount generally associated with stall sites. After Goseboll's death his shop was held by John Ashford, another capital tithing-man with a brewster/regrator wife, who lived in a cottage by Tollhouse Green. Hunte held a cottage that may have been in the same vicinity as his butcher's shop, but it seems unlikely it was his residence, as the court was constantly complaining it was in serious disrepair, though Hunte did nothing to remedy the situation. The shambles seem to have been at the east end of the High Street, for Hunte's shop was also said (1412) to have the church stile to east of it. Thomas Hunte junior took over the shop after his father's death.

A second trader, about whom we know less and who is documented at Earls Colne over only a short time-span, was Geoffrey Chapman. His surname appears to have represented his occupation accurately, his family name actually being Geoffrey Bernard. He is first seen in 1401 when his plea of debt against Walter Bocher, a butcher, was dismissed and he was being sued for debt by Emma Gyffard, a baxter and brewster; the following year he was sued for debt by a resident of Bures (a village a few miles north-east of Earls Colne). In 1403 the above-mentioned Thomas Hunte brought a case of trespass against him, and Richard Meller (a baker with a brewster wife) reached a settlement with him in another case of debt; the same year saw him amerced as a regrator of fish and acting as pledge for another fishmonger accused of detinue. Geoffrey appears to have been a man whose principal source of income was commerce, yet he was not entirely divorced from the agricultural character of a manorial village, for, again in 1403, he obtained from the countess a six-year lease on three fields of arable land. Our last references to him are once more in the context of pleas of debt. Whether he was ancestor to Edmund Chapman, one of Earls Colne's capital pledges who in 1425 is seen selling linen to the priory, and who had a brewster wife, or to the John Chapman who held a shop in Earls Colne in 1430, or to the Thomas Chapman who that same year held a property facing onto the marketplace, is unknown. Another Earls Colne resident who could have been a small-scale merchant is the John Pedder who in 1413 and 1414 was presented for selling fish at too high a profit-margin, while his wife was in the latter year and in 1415 amerced as a brewster and as a regrator of ale, bread, and candles; she may have been the Joan Pedder presented in 1425 for breaking the assize of bread and again for regrating candles.

Finally, for purposes of a little gender balance, we can look at the case of Margery Lyteman, the wife of John Lyteman, or Litilman, a capital tithing-man and sometime constable of Earls Colne, who held a number of properties from both earl and prior, but whose occupation is unknown. Margery was a regular among the brewsters amerced between 1406 and 1436; her amercement as a baxter 1428-33 and in 1436 suggests an expansion of her business. In 1423 she was one of a group of married brewsters who refused to let the ale-tasters check their serving vessels to see if they conformed to standard measures – perhaps suggestive of a concerted resistance to authority; in 1435 she was again presented, for selling by cups and dishes – small measures normally frowned upon – that had not received the official stamp of approval. Margery's husband died in early 1436 and she began to divest herself of their property; in 1437 she was accused of selling one house without the earl's permission. This paring down, or perhaps the ageing process, may have obliged her to give up brewing by the late 1430s, when she was presented only for regrating ale. Her last documented business activity, in 1440, shows her buying 44 wool-pells from the priory, suggesting an effort to find another source of income. In June 1441 her executors (Stephen Smythe being one) were disposing of the remainder of her real estate.

Businessmen are not conspicuous on the priory manor, but not entirely absent. For a while the priory was using as a business agent, building contractor, counsellor, and attorney one Stephen Smythe, who was on one occasion described as a carpenter, although the range of his activities show him much more than that. Between 1425 and at least 1429 he was acting as the priory's rent-collector. In 1425 he was lessee of one of the priory's mills, and he travelled on the priory's behalf on a number of occasions, around East Anglia and to London, to attend judicial sessions, negotiate with tax-assessors, buy shoes at Sudbury and consult with a plumber there, engage a furbisher to clean the prior's armour, and deal with other matters of concern to the priory; he also transported lumber and lime to a priory estate for repairs to its manor-house, and on three occasions during the year purchased wheat for the priory. The following year he was he was farming the tithes due the priory from White Colne and the priory's agistment rights (that is, the right to charge fees for pasturing others' animals on one's land) in the park at Earls Colne, again travelled frequently on priory legal and financial business, used his cart on numerous occasions for transporting priory goods, as well as supervised repairs both to the priory itself and to houses on some of its outlying manors, which included him acquiring locks and other hardware at Colchester, while he also sold malt and a bullock to the priory. A gap in the sequence of surviving priory accounts prevents us from knowing for how long he performed these types of roles on behalf of the priory. By the early 1440s he was no longer its rent-collector, yet he was still acting as its commercial agent, selling priory goods at Stourbridge fair and buying eels at Sudbury for priory consumption, and as a supplier of goods (e.g. 500 eggs and 8 chickens); by this time the priory owed him £27 for past services or goods, which it was gradually paying down at the rate of £5 per annum. Stephen is less in evidence thereafter and last mentioned in 1451.

Nor was the priory manor without its tradespeople. By the time of the earliest extant manorial records, and probably long before, a leet court was part of the priory's judicial jurisdiction. The first surviving priory manor court rolls (from 1489) and estreats of court (from 1463) document amercement of brewers, bakers, regrators, butchers, and tanners, but they were far fewer in number than those of Earls Colne and are not indicative of any market, formal or informal, in that manor. It appears that the row of plots facing the priory precinct across the through-road included residences or even workshops for tradesmen whose services were useful to the priory, while some of the residents of White Colne also engaged in trade. Such men would have had to rent market stalls in order to trade in the Earls Colne market without toll, and certainly some residents of Colneford Hill are found as stall-owners. In 1403 the leet jury complained that the prior had erected posts on either side of part of the through-road (Holt Street) leading from the priory to the parish church and blocked the road by installing a gate or stringing a chain across; this restriction of market-bound traffic, however, was probably prompted by the hostilities between prior and countess, mentioned above, though it was still unresolved by 1430. The prior had no authorization to collect tolls, but the gate may nonetheless have played a part in the decline of Earls Colne's market.

If not, in the Late Middle Ages at least, a mercantile centre, nor was Earls Colne one of the significant cloth-making centres of medieval Essex; indeed, there was no industry of great note. Despite its proximity to the Colne, none of the mills there are known to have been converted for fulling during the Middle Ages, though a Thomas Fuller was farming a mill from the priory in 1375. One local dyeing facility was referred to in 1379 (by which time it had become inoperative) and another on Colneford Hill in 1431. The 1395 rental refers to a weaver as a former occupant of a cottage, another weaver was a fugitive from servility before 1406, and a third was mentioned in 1416. A number of tailors are also referenced in late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, including: three present at the same time, according to the 1395 rental, although one lived on Colneford Hill; a fourth was reputed to be a frequent night prowler (1429); and a fifth an eavesdropper and scandalmonger (1442). The only instance of a draper was one listed in the 1327 tax assessment; of fifteenth-century residents with the surname Draper one had it as an alias, which is more likely to be indicative of occupation. Mercers are not evidenced at all, not even through surnames. The surname of Chaloner (referring to a dealer rather than a manufacturer of this type of cloth) was held by a handful of fifteenth-century residents, but the only one whose occupation is known was a butcher; while of the slightly larger group of men with the surname Fuller, besides the aforementioned Thomas, only one was called le Fuller, a second had Fuller as an alias, but a third was a baker. Nor do we know if Richard Hosyer actually practiced that occupation, although in 1425 the prior owed him a modest sum for some unspecified product or service. The scale of cloth production and trade at Earls Colne cannot have been large, and it may be that some cloth-workers removed to other places in Essex and Suffolk where their skills were more in demand.

The leather-working industry was represented by enough tanners to allow for some specialization; one of them, although a resident, had his tanning facilities outside Earls Colne in 1431, to the annoyance of the manorial court. As well, we encounter a troublesome cordwainer, frequently in court on assault charges, with the constable as one of his victims, and a glover who had a High Street residence; the wives of both contributed to household income by regrating ale. But these leather trades were not uncommon in market settlements, for they took advantage of the presence of quantities of livestock and of butchery activities. Skinners, who dealt in more expensive animal hides, were less common; a few male residents of Earls Colne had the term as a surname, but the most prominent of them was a fishmonger. We should also expect to find occupations associated with the construction industry, and these are exemplified by a carpenter with the surname Wright who, in 1421, owed a large debt to a London smith, and by two John Tredegolds, one a glazier the other a painter, who were contemporaries in mid-fifteenth century, the glazier seeming senior though their precise relationship is uncertain.

Far less commonly found in market settlements was the craft of the baster – involving the extraction from certain trees, bushes, or other plants of a high-tensile inner fibre – which occupied a number of residents, most perhaps part-time, but not all. The basters could have supplied the harvested material to makers of coarse cloth, such as burlap (sack-cloth) or, mixed in with wool, burel (which might explain the large number of tailors in Earls Colne, as burel required careful tailoring), or alternatively to tanners, who could use it in lieu of bark; but it is more likely they made it into rope, nets, or mats. These men were specially licensed by the earls to prune trees in his park, or elsewhere on his demesne, from which to extract the fibrous material. Also in the uncommon category falls John Smith, a collier, who was arrested for an unspecified felony ca. 1416, when his horse was seized by the constable; he was apparently executed not long after. There is no spicer or apothecary evidenced in medieval Earls Colne, although the single male holder of the surname Spicer, employed as the priory's cook (while his wife was presented as a regrator of ale through the 1430s) , might have also traded in spices; occasional priory purchases of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, almonds at short notice suggest the presence either of a local dealer or itinerant ones. Nor is any ironmonger seen, but some metalwares were available through smiths. Certainly the priory was doing business with John March, who operated the forge near the parish church, buying from him in 1440 a cart and cart-horse, iron items that March had been commissioned to make, supplies of lead and pewter, horseshoes, and shoeing services, while March made his assistant available for a tile-making project; the business seems to have gone beyond what one might expect a smith to provide, for March also sold the priory some woollen cloth, to clothe other men working on the tile-making project, and grain – March was leasing Colneford mill from the priory. Note, however, that two men of this name, possibly father and son, are evident in Colne by the 1450s, with the junior probably the glover of that name, who was also presented for tanning offences in1491. The wives of both were among the local alewives at different times.

The priory appears to have been considerably more important than the earl's household as a purchaser of local goods, though by no means reliant on local suppliers. The earls' manorial accounts record fewer expenditures – Earls Colne not being their main residence, so that at some point an earl had moved his manor-house into the priory precinct and was receiving some of his meals at the priory, on his rare visits – and show a greater tendency for purchases to be made at better-stocked Colchester. Similarly, on the rare occasions we encounter barbers or laundresses in the records it is (unsurprisingly) in association with the priory, rather than with Earls Colne. It might be stretching the evidence to suggest the earls were, by the fifteenth century at least, neglecting their own manor, but they do not seem to have patronized it much, perhaps making greater use of the market at Castle Hedingham; by mid-fifteenth century earl and prior even seem to have been using the same man to manage their manors. It might be fairer to say that, like most of the higher nobility, the Earls of Oxford were interested in the majority of their manors primarily as a source of income from rents and dues, and were only concerned about the state of the local economy insofar as it affected the ability of their tenants to pay their financial obligations, though ensuring that was more the worry of the earls' bailiff and steward of the court.

The range of commercial and craft activities evidenced at Earls Colne shows a fair degree of occupational diversity, but seemingly no more so than most modest market settlements, whether urban or rural in character. Despite the relative wealth of fifteenth-century records surviving from the earl's and prior's manors, much of the commerce and the occupational range within the community remains nigh invisible, though hinted at by the wide variety of raw and processed goods, as well as services, purchased by the priory each year. On special occasions, or when guests were at table, or perhaps simply at the prior's whim, amounts ranging from one to four shillings were spent weekly to supplement the main meal of the day with (relatively) fresh fish, shellfish, fowl or other meat, along with less frequent purchases of eggs, milk, butter, rice, cooking oil, cherries, figs, and beer; much of this was acquired the day of consumption, so probably obtained locally – Earls Colne butcher John Olmested, for instance, sold 3s.6d worth of beef, pork and veal to the priory one week (a possible son, Thomas, transferring the butchery business to the priory manor), and local fishmongers in particular must have had good business from the priory, although some shellfish were bought at the Hythe in Colchester.

The ability of Earls Colne market to compete well enough at first is further suggested by its inclusion among the five Essex markets which Colchester's citizens complained, in 1317, were taking business away from their own, though there is no indication that this toothless complaint had any repercussions for the Colne market. Halstead was not among the five, despite its market taking place on Saturdays – one criterion for targeting the complaint – and apparently was not yet considered a threat by Colchester standards. The poll tax (1377) shows that Earls Colne had become one of greatest concentrations of population in its hundred, with 276 tax-payers. Yet the recurring bouts of plague had not left it unscathed, and before the close of the fourteenth century there were a number of tenements in a chronic state of disrepair, and market stalls that lacked tenants. Alan Macfarlane, an historian-anthropologist instrumental in analyzing and publishing most of the surviving records of Earls Colne, has asserted that "the market itself ended by the early fifteenth century, when Halstead took over as the market centre" [Reconstructing Historical Communities within a Computer: Final Report to the Social Science Research Council 1983, p.6. Unpublished report at http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/TEXTS/Report.pdf], while the authors of the Victoria County History volume for Lexden Hundred expressed more tentatively a similar conclusion. Though this may be an oversimplification, it is certainly the impression given from those of the manorial records that have survived. The 1598 estate map shows, according to Professor Macfarlane only 139 residential plots, though some had been subdivided so that the number of dwellings could be calculated as 171; but by this time there had been not only sub-divisions but also amalgamations of older properties and infilling, as well as encroachments into demesne arable and into Tollhouse Green, so it is difficult to be sure how significant any population decline had been. Occupational diversity continues to be seen in fifteenth-century Earls Colne, and an impression of some modest growth in the cloth industry given, particularly by the number of tailors evidenced, while part of the reason for abandonment of market stalls was the transfer of business operations to shops.

The development of Halstead at the expense of Earls Colne may have been furthered by the Lancastrian affiliation of the 12th earl, John de Vere, activated just before the crucial Yorkist victories, and leading to the earl's execution in 1462. Clemency was shown the oldest surviving son, another John de Vere, not yet of age, who was allowed to become the 13th Earl of Oxford. But Edward IV counterbalanced this by reviving the earldom of Essex to reward the Yorkist Henry Bourchier, who was married to Edward's aunt, and whose family had acquired lordship of Halstead from the St. Martins in the early fourteenth century, though it was not their main base in Essex. Bourchier was granted temporary custody of the forfeited de Vere estates, subsequently given to the Duke of Gloucester and not restored to de Vere until 1464. Halstead's lord was thus upwardly mobile while Earls Colne's was sidelined politically, with de Vere influence in Essex at risk. The marriage of John to the sister of the Earl of Warwick, probably in the early 1460s [James Ross, John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford (1442-1513), Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2011, p.50], combined with the internal problems of the Yorkist regime in the late '60s, gave the de Veres fresh, though false, hope. The involvement of John de Vere – supported by other family members, some of his principal tenants at Earls Colne and Hedingham, and other Essex gentry and artisans – in the readeption of Henry VI in 1470/71 only briefly restored de Vere fortunes; after its reversal, and the flight abroad of de Vere, Earls Colne was once more handed over to the Duke of Gloucester and others, until de Vere won it back by helping defeat the Yorkists at Bosworth. A group of men from Halstead took advantage of the earl's overthrow in 1471 to break into three houses at Earls Colne for the purpose of assaulting and intimidating their tenants, this was perhaps a manifestation of the national factionalism possibly combined with local economic rivalry (several of the perpetrators having cloth industry occupations). An attempt to bridge the political divide had been made through the marriage of Henry Bourchier's eldest son to a daughter of the 12th Earl of Oxford; but this ended childless with her death (by 1467), perhaps fuelling bitterness between the two families.

Local tensions could thus have exacerbated economic decline in Earls Colne. However, whether people sometimes expressed their political sympathies through where they chose to buy or sell is a question no historian has yet investigated.

Whether the establishment in 1250 of a formal market at Earls Colne was accompanied by foundation there of a burghal component is very doubtful. Macfarlane was somewhat indiscriminate in referring to Earls Colne sometimes as a village, sometimes as a town. The Victoria County History authors, who had the benefit of Macfarlane's work, assume that the 1250 licence represented the foundation of a small market town. The same assumption is made in the report written by Maria Medlycott (for Essex County Council, but part of English Heritage's Extensive Urban Survey) about the same time, though independently of either of the previous. Yet no concrete evidence is presented by any of these writers to support the assumption, other than the market licence, a franchise not predicated on a community's urban status. In local records from the Middle Ages Earls Colne is never referred to as a borough, nor its inhabitants as burgesses, though the priory's medieval deeds and cartulary remain largely unstudied. Cursory examination of the transcript of the latter [John L. Fisher, ed. Cartularium Prioratus de Colne, Colchester, 1946] reveals a family of the surname Burgate, though this appears to derive from a Suffolk village rather than a topographical feature at Colne. Furthermore there is no evidence of any of the incidents of burgage tenure (even the right to bequeath property being subject to seigneurial approval), though it is not inconceivable that an early state of burgage tenure (in the period not elucidated by surviving records) was later altered to conditions more typical of copyhold, as happened at Eynsham.

Property boundaries as shown in the 1598 map give no indication of any blocks of burgage-type plots, though encroachments, amalgamations, and sub-divisions have muddied the picture somewhat. Yet it seems clear enough that part of the through-road was widened to serve as a marketplace and the residences on either side of this seem to have formed something of a cottage sub-community. It is tempting to imagine that, in conjunction with the market licence and widening of the street (if the two were contemporary), Hugh de Vere might have laid out on demesne fields a set of plots, comprising mostly cottages with gardens – extending beyond the older village strung between its original parish church nucleus and the later focus of the priory – to attract settlers who would service the market. But we cannot automatically assume this was intended as a new town; the name of the common field on the south side of the High Street, on which part of this posited cottage component was established, was Bercroft (the earliest form of what was later corrupted to Bearcroft); but this is far too flimsy a piece of evidence on which to argue for a borough foundation. Nor is it clear that a significant number of the tenants of these cottages pursued purely non-agricultural occupations, although such might have been more the case in the 'dark age' of thirteenth-century Earls Colne than it was in the fifteenth; many of the occupations and industries noted above were closely associated with exploitation of agricultural and pastoral resources, and consequently many of the fifteenth-century residents who engaged in trade or industry also held fields and/or pastureland.

It has been indicated above that Hugh de Vere showed a strong interest in markets as a source of seigneurial income. But his history does not convincingly paint him as a town-founder. Of those of Hugh de Vere's manors covered by his inquisition post mortem (1263), only Castle Hedingham and Whitchurch are mentioned as incorporating boroughs. We first hear of the former's borough in Hugh's time, but it is not known if he or an ancestor was the founder; as the caput of the de Vere barony, Hedingham was the likeliest candidate for a burghal unit before Hugh's time. Nor is it known whether Whitchurch's upgrade to urban status was Hugh's doing – he may smply have formalized an existing market, situated close at hand to the castle – or the work of the Bolebec family, for whose barony Whitchurch was the caput. Under the de Veres, Whitchurch had diminished importance, its market not evidenced after 1331and the borough declined to village status after the Black Death. The surrounds of Whitchurch's marketplace, which represents an extension to the Anglo-Saxon church-centered village, has no residual signs of burgage-type plots – though there is some semblance of regularity to plots further south along the High Street (a through-road crossing the original village, then skirting one side of the marketplace), which might have been a settlement founded to service the market. Another of the Buckinghamshire manors acquired via the Bolebec inheritance, Chesham Magna, shows indications of a town foundation with the laying out of the High Street – again representing a refocusing away from the Anglo-Saxon village – whose linear form, with wider areas at either end, appears designed to accommodate a market, and which has burgage-type plots along either side, although there is no evidence of burgage tenure at Chesham; these plots were laid out in former pastureland, and archaeology has evidenced habitation by the fourteenth century, but the presence of grazing animals in the twelfth and early thirteenth. Such a plan would seem likely to have been associated with Hugh de Vere's acquisition of the market licence, and the rebuilding of the church is datable to roughly that period. Chesham was not situated on any important through-road, so its market must have been established mainly for trade between residents of the immediate region.

Stony Stratford was another manor with Bolebec connections, its market charter having been acquired (1194) by Gilbert Basset and his wife Egelina, widow of Hugh de Bolebec, and is not seen in de Vere hands until the inquisition post mortem of Hugh's grandson in 1331, and then only as a half-share, for the market and town straddled two parishes under separate lordships (somewhat as at Brentwood), with Bolebec/Bassett representing the Calverton side. Here too is evidence of planned settlements in each of the separate lordships and subsequent vying for economic dominance, though the earliest reference to burgesses is not until 1420, but the de Veres cannot be credited with any role as urban founders here, though Hugh de Vere sought, through a pontage grant, to repair or rebuild the bridge carrying Watling Street across the Ouse, and he and descendants augmented local commerce with fairs. A question-mark surrounds Hugh's role at Manningtree (see above), while evidence for a burghal component at Prittlewell is slight, and will be considered elsewhere in this study. There is no reason to think Lavenham acquired a burghal component when Hugh obtained a market licence for it; the character of a town developed in a more organic fashion, alongside growth of cloth-making there.

In short, Hugh de Vere was committed to developing his estates and saw markets, and probably market-servicing settlement, as one strategy for so doing, but there is no reason to think he considered town-founding essential to that strategy. If he did found any towns, Chesham is the only real candidate.

Yet if there was no burghal element introduced at Earls Colne in conjunction with the establishment of a market, it could be argued that the place was a 'virtual town' by the end of the fourteenth century; that is, it had some of the virtues (characteristics) associated with urban settlements, without actually being one formally. The establishment of a market on a moderately important communication route, indications of layout planning associated with that act, the intensification of population along the through-road, some social and economic diversification within that population; the presence of a number of residents for whom commerce seems to have been an integral part of earning their living; and the presence of at least modest industry; these all support the case, without proving it. Mention should also be made of the fact that pleas concerning small debts and detinue of goods – symptomatic to some extent of a commercialized community – are a significant element within the earliest surviving court rolls, from the opening years of the fifteenth century; although these thereafter largely disappear from the rolls, it is possible they were hived off into a separate record (e.g. of petty courts), which, unlike the general court rolls (documenting property ownership), were not considered worthy of preservation by the manorial lord who succeeded the earls of Oxford. It is, alternatively, possible that the disappearance of debt cases is another reflection of economic decline, but it seems hard to believe that no such cases would arise.

The overall impression is that Earls Colne was developing into a town during the Late Middle Ages, but that this process was countered. To what extent the decline visible in the fifteenth century was due to national problems of plague, depopulation, and economic transformation (including the rise of shop-based commerce, at the expense of markets), and to what extent due to more local issues such as possible neglect following the disgrace of Earl Robert de Vere, jurisdictional conflict between prior and earl, growing competition from Halstead's market, political rivalry between the lords of Earls Colne and Halstead in mid-fifteenth century, and finally the removal of the priory, a major consumer and employer, at the Dissolution, remains open to speculation. But like many rural settlements or small towns located on important communication routes, when their markets declined towards the close of the Middle Ages or in the Tudor period, Earls Colne's economy became more reliant on shop-based commerce and on hospitality services for travellers.

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Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: June 10, 2019
© Stephen Alsford, 2018-2019