Situated in the Colne valley, Halstead's historical nucleus was atop the slope rising from the north bank of the river; Saxon terms for 'slope' and 'settlement' explain the meaning of the name Halstead, although we have neither historical nor archaeological evidence of Saxon settlement there until mid-eleventh century (though little archaeology has been conducted as yet, and still less has been productive). The river connected it to Earls Colne, a couple of miles to the south-east, Colchester beyond, and Castle Hedingham, not far to the north-west. At Halstead the Colne was crossed by a road between Sudbury and Braintree (and London beyond). Domesday shows a fairly large population in the area (117 households) with a high proportion of smallholders and freemen; the manorial lords in 1086 included William de Warenne and Richard Fitz-Gilbert.
One of the several manors within Halstead was tenanted by Abel de Sancto Martino in November 1250, when he obtained licence for a Saturday market and a single-day fair in October. The manor in question, which was later known as Abells, must have been that held of the king by Richard Fitz-Gilbert, for in 1262, upon the death of his descendant Richard IV de Clare, Halstead was said to have been in Richard's custody, as tenant-in-chief, subsequent to the death of Abel de St. Martin; Richard, however, had no demesne there and the Clares had evidently enfeoffed Abel or a predecessor in the whole. Around the same date as the market licence, Abel de St. Martin acquired a plot of arable in Halstead on the road heading from Halstead's church towards Castle Hedingham, and Margery de Munchensy (Monte Caniso in its Latin form), widow of Peter son of Richard, of Halstead, granted all her Halstead holdings to Abel [ERO, D/DCw T37/1]; whether the latter represents the transfer of the manor of Abells, or neighbouring land in Stanstead, is not clear, but it was probably the basis of Wright's assertion [The History and Topography of the County of Essex, vol.1 London, 1831, p.459] that Peter had sold Halstead manor to Abel, even though he dated the transaction incorrectly. Margery had her Halstead property from the widow of Roger de Munchensy, alias Roger de Stanstead (d.1248), whose heirs were two sisters. The main holdings of the Munchensy family brought to England from Normandy by Hubert de Munchensy, a Domesday tenant seem to have been initially in Suffolk, though members came to own manorial markets at Gooderstone and Hockham in Norfolk, Sutton Valence in Kent, and Painswick in Gloucestershire. They cannot have perceived any commercial potential in Halstead, perhaps because of the other markets already operating in the region, though evidently Abel de St. Martin saw some prospect of competing; Stanstead was in the hands of a royal custodian in 1249, and Abel may have obtained the manor named after him around the same date, so that he wasted little time in proceeding to develop the market.
The St. Martins may have come to England as followers of Richard Fitz-Gilbert or of the Count of Eu, or (as suggested below) have been linked to them by marriage. Abel does not loom large in national records, nor is his name associated with any other market foundation. The surname derives from one of several Normandy communities named for that saint; though Camden associated the family with lordship of the region of Normandy that produced the de Warenne and Mortimer families, this remains questionable.
Abel's brother was Laurence de Sancto Martino, a royal clerk who was archdeacon of the diocese of Coventry when he became Bishop of Rochester (elected 19 October 1250, while Abel's market licence was 17 November 1250); Laurence was bishop to his death in 1274, but absent abroad for extended periods, at the papal court on royal business. A third brother, William, was also a cleric and a royal clerk (accompanying the king to Gascony in 1253) who by 1260 had become archdeacon of Rochester, doubtless at the instance of his absentee brother. Abel may himself have been a royal servant in some capacity, though he is mainly seen when providing services for his brother while Laurence was out of the country. In 1262 we hear that the manor of Halstead had been taken into the custody of Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester (then recently deceased) subsequent to the death of Abel de Sancto Martino, Richard being the manor's tenant-in-chief under the king; Abel had apparently been alive in July 1261, when empowered to appoint attorneys to act in the bishop's name.
In 1086, an Alfred was sub-tenant of Richard Fitz-Gilbert's manor at Halstead and might perhaps have been Richard's reeve of that name who has a passing mention in Domesday. Though a coincidence of Christian names is tenuous evidence, the re-use of names from generation to generation makes it is tempting to see Alfred as a possible ancestor of the Alvred de Sancto Martino who served Henry II and Richard I as one of their stewards (witnessing a number of royal charters, including that granted to the borough of Maldon in 1171). This Alvred, with wife Alice, founded (ca.1176) an abbey in Salehurst parish, Sussex, but distant from the focal point of settlement around the parish church, at what subsequently became Robertsbridge. Salehurst had been held, as part of the Rape of Hastings, by Alice's former husband John, Count of Eu (d.1170) and may have been part of Alice's dower; the counts of Eu were descended from Geoffrey de Brionne (an illegitimate son of Duke Richard I of Normandy), who was also ancestor of the de Clares. An Alvred was a Domesday tenant of the Count of Eu in Sussex, but the name is too common to allow any identifications to be made with confidence. The traditional explanation of the name Robertsbridge assumes a bridge built over the River Rother (then called the Limmi) by the first abbot, Robert de St. Martin; but there does not seem to have been such an abbot, and the tradition may confuse the founder's family with Robert I Count of Eu and Brionne, lord of the Rape of Hastings at Domesday. The earliest known abbot, whose name occurs in the time of Count John's son Henry (1170-91), was Denis [Calendar of Charters and Documents Relating to the Abbey of Robertsbridge, Co. Sussex, preserved at Penshurst, London, 1873, p.3], which also happens to be the name of the saint for whose festival Abel de St. Martin licensed his fair in 1250.
Robertsbridge Abbey began to attract lay settlement around it and its abbot obtained a provisional licence for a Friday market in 1225, though within weeks the sheriff was ordered to make public announcement that no market would be held perhaps there had been a prompt complaint from owners of other markets in that part of Sussex. A new licence, this time for a market on Mondays, was acquired in 1253, when Robertsbridge, situated on the London-Hastings road just beyond where it crossed the Rother, could be described as a vill. One or other of the market grants (probably the earlier) may have been associated with the abbey relocating from its original, modest home to a new site between the river and Salehurst. The Cistercian monks (an order that preferred to avoid proximity to secular activities) perhaps found the growing settlement at Robertsbridge a distraction and wanted a quieter spot, or desired the better water supply from their new riverside site; alternatively, the separation may have been prompted by the abbots' efforts at actively developing Robertsbridge as a market settlement of this there are some indications, including the layout of burgage-type plots along at least one side of the High Street, which contained a widened stretch assumed to have served as marketplace, and the transfer of residents of an older settlement to Robertsbridge [Roland Harris, Robertsbridge Historic Character Assessment Report, East Sussex County Council, 2009, pp.13, 18-19; Rother District Council, Robertsbridge and Northbridge Street Conservation Area Character Appraisal, 2009, section 2.3]. Another major benefactor of the abbey, William de Echingham, had also, earlier in 1253, taken out a licence for a Friday market on his demesne at Salehurst; in fact, several other markets were established in the region around the same period, as the economy of the Sussex High Weald underwent rapid growth. The market at Robertsbridge seems to have out-competed that at Salehurst, and Robertsbridge became the new focus of community within the parish.
It may be that Abel de St. Martin licensed a market at Halstead as direct competition to the market licensed at nearby Earls Colne in March 1250 by Hugh de Vere, both aiming at capturing a share of the commercial traffic on the Colchester-Cambridge route, which also passed through a market settlement at Haverhill (Suff.). Once this competitive threat became clear which may have taken a year or two de Vere complained in the king's court that the Halstead market was injurious to those at Earls Colne and Castle Hedingham, the latter also relying on the Colchester-Cambridge traffic. Abel's defence was that a market had long existed at Halstead and had belonged to the king it is difficult to see how the latter point could have been demonstrated; Abel may have felt he could surmount de Vere's challenge through the influence his brother, already well in favour with the king, would have as Bishop of Rochester. We learn of de Vere's complaint only in 1254, when the parties had a settlement entered into the legal record: de Vere agreed to accept a market at Halstead on Saturdays, in return for an annual payment, in the form of rents from five tenements in Halstead, totalling 6s.8d annually, though all other rights over the properties remained with Abel, and de Vere was exempted from having to perform suit of court at Halstead in regard to the tenements. The individual rents ranged from 5d. to 2s.6d, so they cannot be used to argue for burgage tenure, but the tenants included Warin the merchant and John the weaver, which might be taken as an advance indicator of Halstead's future economic growth.
Another indication of the cloth trade at Halstead is found in the case of Peter the tailor, son of a Halstead man, who was sentenced to hang for larceny in 1259/60 though this is ambiguous evidence, for it may be asked why, if the cloth trade was thriving at Halstead, should a tailor have had to resort to thieving? Nonetheless, records of proceeds from the taxation of the wool trade in the thirteenth century show Halstead among the highest-paying of the smaller communities of East Anglia; places that were heavily involved in that trade tended to develop into cloth-making towns. It seems clear that Halstead emerged as one of the earlier Essex centres for the production of lower-quality cloth (notably burel); although this made it vulnerable to the import of cheap but better-quality Flemish cloth in the thirteenth century, Halstead's industry recovered from a decline and was able to maintain some importance through the Late Middle Ages. Michael Gervers ["The textile industry in Essex in the late 12th and 13th centuries: a study based on occupational names in charter sources," Essex Archaeology and History, ser. 3, vol. 20 (1989), pp.34-73] identified five areas of concentration of industrial development within Essex, two of which he defined as the Sudbury-Halstead corridor and the Haverhill-Sudbury-Halstead triangle; he noted that Halstead's location, halfway between Colchester and Sudbury, was particularly advantageous, for it placed Halstead beyond Colchester's dominating influence, and in a 'virgin' area outside Sudbury's early stimulation of industrial development in its vicinity, yet well-situated within the communications network, and with access to the flowing water that was essential to the cloth industry. Dr. Gervers found the incidence of surnames indicative of textile industry occupations higher for Colchester and Halstead than anywhere else in his study area; the Halstead references, occurring between 1230 and 1275, were to manufacturers and finishers (weavers, fullers, dyers and tailors) rather than to sellers of untailored cloth (drapers and mercers), while a fulling mill is also recorded at Halstead in 1275, the earliest known in Essex. Conceivably, the acquisition of a market licence in 1250 may have been partly aimed at stimulating the role of Halstead as a commercial centre for the cloth produced there and in its vicinity, at about the time when the local manufacturing side of the trade was beginning to suffer from competitive imports, while the appearance of a fulling mill could point to conversion of the local industry to the production of chalons (which required fulling).
The continued presence of the industry is indicated by a pardon issued in 1440 to Halstead fuller John Gange, for his outlawry after he failed to show up in court to defend pleas of debt brought by two men, one being a London grocer. Mention might also be made of Thomas Fuller of Halstead, a royal order for whose arrest in 1454 the sheriff of Essex forwarded to the bailiffs of Colchester (thereby copied into the borough's Red Paper Book), because of a debt of £49 10s.4d. he allegedly owed Henry Bourchier; however, Thomas, who had taken sanctuary in St. John's Abbey at Colchester, was described as a weaver. In 1471, when a group of Halstead men made an armed night-time attack on Earls Colne, those nine offenders who could be identified by name included a weaver, a tailor, and a fuller, alongside a butcher, three farmers, and two labourers; this might be considered reflective of Halstead's character as predominantly agricultural but with an industrial/commercial sector.
Who succeeded Abel as lord of Halstead is not known. A second Abel de Sancto Martino is glimpsed in the final years of Henry IIII's reign, but an inquisition post mortem on Roger de Mortimer, taken at Clare in 1397, was unable to name any heir of an Abel de St. Martin who had held land in Suffolk, once of the Honour of Clare. In 1280 we hear of Thomas de Sancto Martino, holder of the manor of Latford (Suff.) who identified himself as heir of one of the Abels; Thomas' precise relationship is not specified and he may have belonged to another branch of the family, based in Wiltshire and Hampshire. In 1278 Thomas is seen indebted to the executors of Bishop Laurence and as designating his lands in Suffolk, Essex, and Wiltshire as security for payment, but on the whole he is no better documented than was the elder Abel. The lordship of Halstead is lost sight of for a couple of generations; it did not revert to the Clare family, for it does not appear in any of their inquisitions post mortem, but rather seems to have descended to the Wiltshire branch of the St. Martin family, which eventually disposed of it.
In October 1330 one Robert de Bousser acquired a new market/fair licence for Halstead. This might have been because his acquisition of territorial lordship there was through means other than heredity, although the new licence declared the former holders of the market were his ancestors, but more probably because he wished to make adjustments. A Tuesday market was authorized the calendared version of the grant copied into the Charter Roll has this in lieu of the Saturday event, but Henry VIII's confirmation [ERO, D/DVz 4] has it as an additional market day and the fair moved to a festival later in October (neither the original nor the new festival being associated with any known ecclesiastical institution in Halstead). These changes did not produce any known complaint from the de Veres, even though they made Halstead's institutions more directly competitive with those of Earls Colne (whose fair was at the end of October), perhaps intentionally so.
It appears that during the dark period between Abel de St. Martin and Robert de Bousser, Halstead's economy prospered, and it continued to do so thereafter, to the point that, before the close of the Middle Ages, Halstead had eclipsed Earls Colne as the area's market centre. Another kind of eclipse also took place in the Late Middle Ages, as the more venerable seigneurial families, their patriarchal lines exhausted or disgraced, were superseded by others on the rise. The male line of the Clares was extinguished in 1314 and the great Clare estates split up among female heirs, while the de Veres had a tendency to pick the wrong side in national conflicts, leading to diminution of their influence.
East Anglia instead saw the advancement of families such as the Bourchiers, or Burgchiers, who perhaps were initially retainers of the de Veres. Sir Robert de Bousser was one of the earlier known members, the surname being Latinized by scribes as de Burgo Caro and Gallicized as le Bourg Cher, neither of which, however, resolve into any known place. His father, John de Bousser, or (sometimes) John le Bousser, is first seen as John le Bourser or Burser, buying land in Stanstead in 1298 and witnessing an undated Halstead deed of the last years of the thirteenth century, then in 1303 with wife Ellen buying land in Stanstead from Giles de Colecestre, and in 1304 alone acquiring property in Sible Hedingham from a member of the Munchensy family. John de Bousser deputized for Robert de Vere at the 1306 parliament suggesting some service relationship and in 1309 his surname was again rendered as le Burser (pursemaker?) in his acquisition, on behalf of himself and his two sons, of property in Rettendon, Essex, from Giles de Colecestre, then once more in 1314 when appointed a commissioner of walls and ditches in Essex; a John le Burser is glimpsed in 1305 among a large group of probable residents of Northampton, but there is nothing to show that this was our man, and Burser was probably just one of many variant spellings that are found of the Bourchier family name across time. In 1311 a member of the St. Martin family (likely the Wiltshire branch) transferred a rent in Halstead to John de Boussier, and the following year quitclaimed to the same his rights in all his properties in Halstead and elsewhere in Essex.
John de Bousser was evidently in the process of building up his holdings in Halstead; 1316 saw him acquire a large property there comprising messuage, fields, meadow, pastureland, and rents. Apparently a lawyer by profession seen acting in 1315-16 to assist clients in securing or transferring tenure of properties in Halstead and elsewhere in Essex John went on to serve Edward II as justice of gaol delivery and a regular commissioner on judicial and administrative investigations in southern and eastern counties (especially Essex), as coroner in Northamptonshire (a role he relinquished in 1317 on the grounds of non-residence), and, from May 1321, as a justice of the Common Bench, being re-appointed to that post by Edward III and last being seen in the role in 1329, not long before his death. Such men were well-positioned to build estates and attempt to consolidate them into manorial jurisdictions or even into baronies. John was in possession of additional large properties in Halstead and Markshall by 1318, although leasing them out. In 1320 he purchased or leased the manor of Langford (just north-west of Maldon) from John de Prayers, and then enfeoffed a son therein, and around 1325 was securing his tenure of an estate in Coggeshall. John de Bousser was also co-tenant of the Essex manor of Little Laver, held of the Scales family, and, upon the death of the 2nd Lord Scales in 1325, was able to convert his share into a separate manor, which became known as Bourchiers Hall. However, Halstead seems to have been the caput of his estates; its parish church still contains a tomb effigy believed to represent him.
Robert de Bousser first appears in royal service, as a commissioner of the peace in Essex, in 1329, shortly after the last reference to the judicial duties of his father. He followed in his father's footsteps, not perhaps with any private legal practice, but certainly as a member of the royal judiciary. Yet he had broader ambitions and seems not to have taken up in person his appointment (1334) as Chief Justice of the King's Bench of Ireland, preferring roles that kept him closer to matters dear to the king, and closer to home so that he could further build his landed holdings. Or perhaps it was so that he could protect those holdings, for his succession to his father's estates was not without challenge: he complained in 1329 that his property at both Messing and Halstead had been broken into and plundered by a gang that included three Munchensy brothers and members of the Sebern family; his father had, two years earlier, made a similar complaint alleging the abduction from his property in Halstead, Sible Hedingham, and Coggeshall, by Roger Sebern and others, of 200 sheep, 40 cows, and 10 oxen, worth £70, and theft of other goods and £300 in cash. Inter-family rivalries, erupting into violence or other crimes, were rife in early fourteenth-century England, but whether stemming from personal enmities, political faction, or economic competition can be hard to pinpoint. Family ties to the de Veres were reflected in Robert acting, in 1332, as a legal representative in England for John de Vere (successor to the Robert de Vere for whom his father had been a lieutenant) when the earl went on pilgrimage. Yet he also maintained ties to the Clares, receiving a large retainer from Hugh de Audley, the husband of a Clare co-heiress, until this presented a conflict of interest with his appointment as the king's chancellor.
It was about a year after his father's death that Robert de Bousser took out the market licence for Halstead, acquiring (or formalizing) at the same time view of frankpledge over his tenants. John de Bousser had obtained property in Halstead parish both by purchase and through his marriage to Helen, daughter of Walter de Colecestre and his wife Joan (one of the above-mentioned sisters and heiresses of Roger de Munchensy); Joan's father and brother had been lords of the manor of Stanstead (not to be confused with Stansted Mountfichet), which lay on the outskirts of Halstead. John made his home there at the former Munchensy manor-house, Stanstead Hall. Stanstead was identified in the hundredal enquiries of 1275 as having once belonged to Abel de St. Martin, who held view of frankpledge and assizes of bread and ale there, and possessed pillory and tumbrel for punishing offenders, though the jury knew not by what right. During the 1340s we see Robert de Bousser consolidate his tenurial rights at Halstead, work continued by his son John, even prior to Robert's death, and including the absorption of the Halstead manor of Hipworths in 1357. In 1341 Robert obtained royal licence to crenellate Stanstead Hall a symbol of his rise into the ranks of the nobility and, that same year, licence to found and endow a college of secular chaplains in association with Halstead's parish church. The latter plan seems not to have been implemented; instead, his grandson revived the project and the Bishop of London was in 1412 authorized by the king to apply much the same endowments to found a chantry in the church to celebrate for the souls of Robert and other members of his family.
Robert had, before 1325, married Margaret the daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas de Prayers of Sible Hedingham, thereby gaining or expanding family interests within that village, neighbour to Castle Hedingham and a possible cloth-making centre. In 1330 Robert purchased, besides his market licence, a grant of free warren on his estates at Little Laver, Halstead, Stanstead, Coggeshall, and nearby Markshall, and the right to view of frankpledge at Halstead. Robert de Bousser evidently was interested in exploiting the financial potential of his lands. He was involved in wool production, as was his younger brother, John de Bousser, seen in the 1330s first as parson of Sible Hedingham (of which church his brother had the patronage), then as archdeacon of Essex. The debt of £109 6s.8d. acknowledged to Robert by two Londoners in 1339 may perhaps have been for wool sold them; if he was personally involved in exporting it, his estate near Maldon would have provided convenient access to a port for that purpose. The following year he himself acknowledged much larger debts to William de Staunford, who in turn acknowledged a sizable debt to Robert, presumably in relation to a complex land transaction relating to the manor of Asheldham, later found in the hands of Robert's descendants. Yet, despite the family's progressive expansion of its land-holdings, when Robert succeeded his father he turned over, for a small annual rent, his fulling-mill in Halstead to Sir John Botetourt, another de Vere feoffee and up-and-comer, who then leased it out at a good profit.
Robert's involvement with his estates may have taken a back-seat as he spent an increasing amount of time serving the king in military, judicial and diplomatic roles culminating in his appointment in December 1340 as the first lay chancellor of England; though, politically embattled, he resigned that post the following October, he remained in royal service. It appears to be in the context of this upwards mobility and perhaps specifically in preparation for his promotion to chancellor, as Edward III feuded with leading ecclesiastics who had previously dominated that office that the family name was re-imagined from Bousser to Bourchier; both forms are found in 1341. The alteration was perhaps to suggest more conspicuously a well-born French family background, and/or to obscure possible humbler origins, if 'Bousser', as one theory has it, derived from an occupational term (perhaps denoting a cobbler, or a butcher on one occasion a scribe rendered the surname as Boucher, though perhaps from ignorance or intent to denigrate), or if it pointed to a minor English location, such as Bushey in Hertfordshire. On the other hand, the desire might have been to disguise a place of family origins in what was by then enemy territory of France, just possibly (for example) Bussy Saint-Martin, a place-name that could suggest a connection with Abel de Sancto Martino though on the whole I think this unlikely, for it stretches the thread of historical association to breaking-point. Had the family descended from the Robert de Boci who was a Domesday tenant-in-chief in Domesday, his surname probably pointing to a Norman origin, there would have been no need for the Bourchier subterfuge. Robert's brother John does not seem to have benefited from the surname makeover, being rarely accorded the new version, though he perhaps suffered from Robert's rise to power, for the latter may explain John being kidnapped, intimidated, and held to ransom by Sir Gilbert Pecche (associated with the troublesome Fitz-Walters of Essex) and his gang in 1340, and perhaps also a violent death ca.1349. Around the same time as John's kidnapping, Robert's manor of Rettendon was broken into by another group, though it is not clear if this was a manifestation of the same conflict.
In 1348 Robert was summoned to parliament as Baron Bourchier, but he was soon appointed to a diplomatic mission to Spain. He, together with his brother John, and their mother Helen, all died during the time of the Black Death, though it may not have been plague that carried off John, for there is reference in 1350 to a John le Bouser having been murdered on a road heading for Canterbury. Sir Robert was well enough to witness, in March 1349, a quitclaim to property in Halstead. His inquisition post mortem, taken the month following his death in August, shows only lands in Essex, few of which were held directly of the king. It refers to his manor of Stanstead in Halstead and, separately, a property held of the de Veres, as well as another, known as Abells, held of the Clares; the fair is mentioned, but not the market.
Robert's elder son and sole grandson continued, in their turn, to build the barony's estates in Essex but did not add any markets or fairs to their estates; nor did they pursue royal service, except for the son's military service. The grandson left only a daughter, Elizabeth, who in 1431, following the death of her second husband, was granted dower rights in a lengthy list of Bourchier properties including the manor of Abells in Halstead and Halstead's fair and market. Two years later Elizabeth died childless and the Bourchier barony and estates passed to her second cousin, Henry Bourchier, whose father William (1374-1420), a younger son, had in 1419 been awarded by Henry V the Comtè of Eu, thus bringing back the title Count of Eu into association with the family that had the lordship of Halstead. William had inherited from his mother the Suffolk manor of Bildeston, which had a market by 1348.
The estates inherited from Elizabeth by Henry Bourchier, formally recognized as a count though his control of Eu was only nominal, were quite extensive, yet still mainly in Essex; they comprised over a dozen manors, though the only one furnished with market or fair was Abel's in Halstead. His properties also included thirty shambles (probably at various locations, and a quay and crane, these perhaps at Little Maldon. By this time Henry had already associated himself with the Yorkist party in national politics, having married the sister of Richard, Duke of York, which made him uncle to the future Edward IV, and he provided military support to Edward's cause. Following Edward's victory, Henry was made Earl of Essex in 1461, Edward seeking to strengthen Bourchier influence in that county as a counterbalance to the Lancastrian de Veres. In 1467 Henry was issued, free of fee, a new licence for Halstead, for a Friday market at the town of Halstead whether superseding or additional to, the existing Monday and/or Saturday markets is not clear and two fairs there, in April and October, the latter perhaps just an adjustment of the timing of the existing fair, as well as a court of piepowder having exclusive jurisdiction over pleas arising from market and fairs, without interference from any royal officer. Still we see no indication of ambition to introduce a market into any other of the Bourchier estates. Henry's only new involvement with a market was that of the borough of Bradford (Yorks.), in whose lordship Edward IV enfeoffed (1481) a group of high-ranking dignitaries and administrators, including Henry and his brother Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Henry Bourchier's enhancement of Halstead's commercial infrastructure may be seen as a response to the growth of the cloth industry and trade there. It had been one of the principal beneficiaries of the immigration of Flemish cloth-workers in the fourteenth century, and of the fifteenth-century migration of cloth-workers from the larger, more restrictively regulated English towns (e.g. Colchester, Sudbury) to rural centres. Its rival, Earls Colne, falls into neither of those categories. The sixteenth century would see another wave of immigration, from Holland, but local resentment arose over the success of the skilled newcomers, who eventually left again, so that Halstead's role in the production of what are known as the 'new draperies' ('bays and says') declined, relative to that of Colchester. [Nigel Heard, Wool: East Anglia's Golden Fleece, Lavenham: Terence Dalton, 1970, passim];
The question of Halstead's urban status is a thorny one. Halstead developed around the Braintree-Sudbury road, which ascended the Colne valley slope in a south-west to north-east direction; this road carried commerce, the part between Halstead and Braintree being the location of a robbery in 1311, by which a travelling merchant claimed to have lost £42. The stretch of the road along the upper (northern) part of the valley slope became known as Head Street, with blocks of tenements on the eastern and western sides running to back lanes, each of which became named after a field beyond. The parish church presumed much older than its earliest documentary reference in the thirteenth century, though largely rebuilt in the early fourteenth was located at the southern end of Head Street; from around that point may have run a minor route connecting to Earls Colne, although the main route there seems to have lain south of the river. Below the church the steepening road was known as Market Hill and this stretch, whose church end is much wider than its lower end, began at the junction of the road to Hedingham; Abells manor-house is thought to have been situated along that road, somewhat north-west of the church. The next and later-developed stretch became the High Street, which descends steeply to the river, at that point becoming Bridge Street. It is suspected that Head Street represents the focus of early Halstead, with settlement gradually spreading down towards the river and an original market also expanding, or being relocated, into Market Hill; the name Chipping Hill is encountered, though whether an alias for Market Hill, or referring to the older market in a funnel-shaped stretch of Head Street (later infilled), immediately north of the church, is not certain the latter hypothesis is most commonly adopted, despite Wright's statement on the matter not being trustworthy. At some point in time a bridge was built over the Colne, east of an earlier ford, and the line of the lower High Street diverted slightly to target the bridge. In the post-medieval period the High Street became the focus for the market.
Halstead's growth along its axial street may have been a mix of organic and planned. In February 1338 an inquisition convened by the Essex escheator at Coggeshall heard that Sir Robert de Bousser had, two years earlier, erected seven new houses in Halstead on various sites, apparently to increase his rents from the manor. There had perhaps been a complaint, but Robert was exonerated from any wrongdoing, and one suspects he took advantage of his high office to have the inquisition record copied, in 1341, into a more permanent record of reference, perhaps for political reasons. The inquisition found most of the new buildings to be shops (their low rents support this finding) and concluded that "these houses are not to the damage or prejudice of the king or a nuisance to those passing along the high-street ... and no part of them has been raised on soil of the king or in the high-street, but by the market of the town on his own soil, that he holds ... of the lady of Clare, by knight service" [Calendar of Patent Rolls 1340-1343, p.222].
Robert had also built a Tolbooth opposite an older house beside the market, again without encroaching on the High Street, but said to be for the benefit of the whole town, so that pleas related to the market or other complaints could be held there. Whether this was predecessor to the later guildhall is doubtful, as the guildhall was at the opposite end of the High Street to Market Hill; the northern end of Market Hill, where the market was widest and a connecting street led to the manor-house, is a more likely location for the Tolbooth. One of Bousser's shops was at a location known as Eldemartathel, which evidently references an older market further up the hill; the old market was also referred to in a grant of 1334 which may reflect conversion of that marketplace into residential plots, while one document of 1337 mentions Robert de Bousser having leased out a plot of land in the New Market for 24d. annually and another shows him granting to a local couple a plot in the vicinity of the church [ERO, D/DCw T37/21-23 ], perhaps meaning the older marketplace. Among the existing residents, neighbouring the new buildings, mentioned in the 1338 inquisition were a William le Chapman, John Marchaunt, and William le Fullere, while the deed of 1334 included among its witnesses William Mercator and William le Fullere; we hear of a Geoffrey Marchaunt of Halstead in 1317 and William de Halstede merchant in 1329 when acquiring land in Halstead. In 1352 Robert's successor, Sir John de Bourchier, was leasing to a local couple three booths, known as "Corneresschoppe" opposite the steps into the churchyard, while in 1357 four shops were part of a transfer of a larger package of Halstead properties.
We may thus posit for medieval Halstead at least three phases of development:
- Domesday period settlement along the Head Street part of a through-road leading to the Colne ford, with probable manor-house and church, linked by a secondary road, and a marketplace opening out where the through-road reached the corner of the churchyard;
- Market Hill, extending the earlier village southwards along the through-road, widened to accommodate a new marketplace and shops added at the front of tenements, or perhaps infilling space between existing buildings;
- Further southern spread towards the river along what is today known as the High Street. This area perhaps filled out in the fifteenth century, with space there entirely consumed by the sixteenth, so that land near the bridge had to be raised to accommodate new buildings. A deed of 1330 shows Robert de Bousser granting Robert le Tannere a plot of Halstead land by the river, next to the bridge and refers to another house, owned by Bousser, between the said plot and the street [ERO, D/DCw T37/19]; however, this might be what was later known as Parson's Bridge (possibly the Banleghebregge mentioned in a deed of 1358), further east than the town bridge, at one edge of the Stanstead Hall estate.