Harlow lies at the western edge of Essex, at its border with Hertfordshire, in a fairly central position within Harlow (half-)Hundred. Harlow's more distant history is today overshadowed by the new town planned and built, as one of a series of new satellite communities, after the Second World War, to accommodate population growth in Greater London. The boundaries of what is now known as Harlow Town incorporate the site of the medieval town, now referred to as Old Harlow; the latter lies about two miles north-east of the modern town centre. Just north of Old Harlow there had been a small Roman town, on the southern bank of the River Stort (not its medieval name), the county boundary; the river ran south from Bishop's Stortford, a manor of the Bishop of London with an ancient crossroads-marketplace, whose settlement had acquired borough status before mid-fourteenth century.
At the time Harlow's market was licensed, by Hugh, the abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, in 1220 [thus Letters; the VCH authors, followed by Medlycott, misdated it to 1218, but the source is the Fine Roll of 1220/21], Old Harlow was ringed by other market settlements in Essex and Hertfordshire, though none were quite on its doorstep. The market at Bishop's Stortford, some six miles to the north, was never licensed, nor were those at Chipping Ongar, a similar distance to the south-east, Pleshey to the east, or Waltham Holy Cross to the south-west, and Waltham Abbey did not license its market in Epping, south of Harlow, until 1253, the same year in which Hoddesdon's market was licensed. Four years later a market at Roydon, just west of Harlow, was licensed, though it seems to have had difficulty carving out a niche in the commercial activity of the area. Markets at Brentwood and Great Dunmow had received licences just a year after and a year before Harlow, respectively, but were even further off. It might be thought that the most important market in the region would be that of the Domesday borough and county town of Hertford, able to obtain in 1224 at least a partial suppression of a newcomer market at Ware, but by the late fourteenth century Hertford was losing trade to other markets of the region; despite its early role as a burh, Hertford was not well-placed in the communications network and commerce naturally gravitated elsewhere. Perhaps the most serious commercial threat Harlow faced was from Hatfield Broad Oak, five miles to the north-east, which in 1223 suppressed a new competitor at Sawbridgeworth. Despite the competition, a manorial extent of 1287 estimated the annual profits from Harlow's market as 50s., a respectable enough amount, while the abbey also received 3s. a year from tolls on goods (at 1d. per cart) crossing the mill-bridge spanning the Stort, on the road from Sawbridgeworth; a rental of 1383 identifies only 3s.4d from the market, but this may represent solely stallage, while an extent of 1431 gives income of 12s. market-tolls, but had pulled this figure from an old rental.
Harlow's was the only market the abbey of St. Edmund possessed in Essex; it later licensed one in Norfolk, at Brooke (1282). Most of the abbey's lands were in Suffolk and so more markets are found there, one being of course at the borough of Bury, whose market is heard of soon after the Conquest and was confirmed by a royal charter of 1135. The market at Beccles, another ancient borough, was shared between the king and the abbey, the latter having majority control. But the abbey's principal market-founder was abbot Hugh II (1215-29) who, like many other landlords, took advantage of Henry III's minority to purchase provisional licences for markets at the abbey manors of Mildenhall and Redgrave, on the same occasion in 1219, followed by the market at Harlow in 1220, and one at Southwold in 1221; this looks rather programmatic. Explicit re-grants of the Redgrave and Southwold licences were obtained in 1227, as strictly required, after Henry had come of age, but not of Mildenhall, which may have been subject to a legal challenge, or was not performing well in 1412 it was claimed that Mildenhall's market had become inoperative because it proved unable to compete for business with other markets in its region, although this did not prevent the abbey accepting a new market grant for a different day of the week. Why we do not hear of a re-grant of Harlow's market is harder to explain, unless it too was slow in generating profits for the abbey.
Not only was Hugh II very active in establishing, or formalizing, markets, he also protected Bury's existing market: in 1220 he objected to a market at Freckenham, licensed the previous year by the Bishop of Ely, though we do not know the outcome of the contest, as the parties were permitted to reach an out-of-court settlement. Bury's market had already been successfully protected, by an earlier abbot in 1202, against a market raised at Lakenheath (licensed 1201) by Ely Priory, although the priory would obtain a new licence in 1309 without opposition. Abbot Henry's market licence for Long Melford in 1235 faced a prompt challenge from Richard de Clare, protecting his market at Clare, perhaps also successfully, although the abbey would obtain a new licence in 1330. In 1270 another abbot had complained that a new market at Barrow, licensed 1267, was attracting business away from Bury's; the two markets were geographically close, but Bury's was held on Monday and Barrow's on Saturday, so the case for competition was not clear-cut, and the king ordered precise measurements to be made of the distance between them; it appears the case went against the abbey, since Barrow's market is heard of again in 1291. After becoming Bishop of Ely, Hugh II pursued much the same policy of developing that institution's estates, including by acquiring licences for markets at Shipdam (Norf.) and Balsham (Cambs.) in 1245.
Hugh's motivation for developing markets for the abbey was doubtless partly to ensure abbey manor-houses, occasionally used to host abbey travellers, were adequately supplied; but he was probably also conscious of the growth of commerce in East Anglia and how it might provide a revenue stream for the abbey. The licence for a Monday market at Old Harlow, together with a two-day fair in early September (at a festival associated with the primary dedication of the parish church, to St. Mary, which was also a secondary dedication of the abbey), was acquired for the price of two palfreys; perhaps this high payment twice the price paid by Hugh II for his other market licences helps explain why no re-grant was necessary later. The abbey held the principal of four (essentially manorial) estates identified as in Harlow in Domesday Book; this, known as Harlowbury, it had acquired as a bequest from a Saxon thegn in the 1040s. Harlow lay on the road between Bury and London and the abbey chronicle of Jocelin de Brakelond shows the abbot and his entourage travelling through it on more than one occasion. The abbey later expanded its holdings there, but also granted some out as separate manors; it usually farmed out Harlowbury rather than administering it directly. Other landlords within Harlow included Eudo Dapifer and possibly the de Clares.
The village of Harlow or at least the greatest concentration of the hundred's relatively large population seems to have been within Harlowbury, which lay mainly to the north and east of the village, and the riverside mill also was part of Harlowbury; the river was forded near the mill. There are topographical indications that the focus for the village may originally have been around the manor-house, which lay not far from the mill, and its adjacent chapel, built atop the foundations of a Saxon church; but the abbey moved it south-eastwards, beside a single north-south street whose northern end formed a T-junction with a roughly east-west through-road, meandering as it headed towards Hertford in one direction and Dunmow in the other. The construction of a church there halfway along the street, on its west side in the twelfth century probably marks this relocation; this settlement subsequently became known as Churchgate Street, and there may well have been a market held in the street [Maria Medlycott, Harlow - Historic Towns Assessment Report, Essex County Council,1999, pp.15-16]. There is nothing about Churchgate that suggests a town foundation. Whether the abbey built the church or this was left to the residents of Churchgate is not clear, for, although the presentation always seems to have been held by Harlowbury manor, in 1313 a recently-elected abbot obtained papal approval for the abbey to appropriate the church revenues; royal approval (as a licence in mortmain), however, did not follow until 1398, and was with the proviso that a sufficient portion of the revenue be assigned to paying the vicars and to charity for poor parishioners.
Not long after the abbey had made progress in acquiring the revenues of the parish church, it was looking again at shifting the focus of the village, away from that church, half a mile westwards, to a site south-west of the manor-house; we must assume this was around the time of the acquisition of the market licence. The market was thereafter held in, and north of, a stretch of the Hertford-Dunmow road, just beyond the north-west corner of a large open area extending on either side of the road. That open area was known later as Mulberry Green, although an earlier rendering (1547) was Midborrow Green, and in the rental of 1383 we have reference to what may be another, rather more interesting, corruption or precursor, Moteberugh Street, which ran to the green, passing en route a field containing the Moot Mound. The last stretch of the road emerging from the green, later Harlow's High Street, continued beyond a crossing north-south road (leading to the ford), into a much-widened and slightly more elevated stretch, delimited in course of time by Fore Street on its south side and Back Street (now Market Street) on the north side. This was the marketplace, where rentals of 1302 and 1430 show 54 tenants, differentiated from other freeholders, and many also holding acre-strips of land in a field behind the houses along the south side of the High Street, and this may explain the survival into modern times of Chippingfield as a Harlow neighbourhood name; but, due to progressive encroachment, it is difficult to be sure how far the marketplace once extended perhaps to St. John's (a chapel built in the nineteenth century).
In 1989 archaeologists found at one edge of this gravel-surfaced marketplace, beside Market Street, a sequence of buildings, the earliest (thirteenth century) represented by remnants of a wooden structure with earth-fast posts possibly a market stall or seld (documented in a rental of 1383) superseded (thirteenth to fourteenth century) by a more permanent, timber-framed structure suggesting encroachment on the marketplace [David Andrews, "An Archaeological Sequence at the Edge of Old Harlow Marketplace," Essex Archaeology and History, ser.3, vol. 22 (1991), pp.112-13]. Though the earlier structure seems to have preceded any surfacing of the marketplace, Mulberry Green had perhaps long been a public space, for at its southern end the feature known as Moot Hill may remember the meeting-place of the hundred one possible interpretation of the place-name Harlow being 'hill of the assembly'; if so, this could have been why no market settlement could be established thereon. Harlow Hundred had in fact been granted to the abbey by Henry I, according to a confirmation by King Stephen, though it reverted to the Crown in the thirteenth century and was given into other hands. Though Mulberry Green was, at least at later date, used for one of the fairs, there was a second space, known as the Fair Croft, to the north of the marketplace, also used for fairs.
That second shift of population focus, to what is now Old Harlow, may have begun well before 1220, as a natural gravitation of commercial activity and new settlement away from Churchgate to a commerce-carrying through-road; Medlycott [op.cit., p.4] mentions "some evidence that there had previously been a small settlement and market there in Stephen’s reign", but did not elaborate. In 1449 the abbot and convent of Bury St. Edmunds acquired licence (reissued 1457) for a Friday market and single-day fairs in May and November at what was described as "their town of Harlowe Market", [Calendar of the Charter Rolls, vol.5 (1427-1516) pp.106], though we must beware of reading too much into 'town'; the November fair was on a festival associated with a secondary dedication of the parish church, and the May event with a saint to whom an altar in that church was dedicated. These fairs may have supplemented the older September fair, but the unchallenged establishment in 1332 of a late August fair at the manor of Latton, which lay within Harlow parish though somewhat south of Old Harlow, could point to the September fair having fallen out of use. Whether the abbey's retooling of its commercial institutions at Market Harlow had anything to do with dropping profits the market was said to generate 50s. in 1287, but only 12s. in 1431 we cannot know. The market seems to have ceased operations by the close of the sixteenth century, though Harlow's fortunes were later revived thanks to business from coach traffic along the route between London and various East Anglian towns. Although a pottery industry is evidenced at Harlow between the Late Middle Ages and the seventeenth century, and despite Harlow being within a region of Essex where the growing cloth industry could support large numbers of market towns, Harlow itself was not strongly involved in cloth manufacturing, though it is not improbable that wool may have been collected and marketed there, and there is slight evidence for some local weaving and fulling of cloth.
We have already noted that when Hugh II became abbot at St. Edmunds he showed an intent to develop the abbey estates. A capable and forceful individual, whose nomination as abbot King John had unsuccessfully resisted (for the abbey had played a role in the coalescence of his baronial opponents), Hugh would go on to be elected Bishop of Ely and provide valuable service to Henry III. Just a month after John grudgingly approved Hugh's appointment to the abbacy, Hugh obtained from the king a grant that abbey woods at Harlow and other of its manors should be exempt from supervision by the king's foresters and other officials, thus giving the abbey a freer hand to exploit the sylvan resources and convert woodland into rental holdings. It might be going too far to suggest that this was the first phase in a larger plan involving the foundation of a new market settlement in Harlow, but it could well have assisted; in the 1220s we hear of the abbot authorizing assarts at Harlow. It may have been Hugh who rebuilt the Harlowbury manor-house, traces of which still survive within the present expanded and refurbished building. It was presumably around the same time as the 1220 licence acquisition that Hugh issued, to those residents who relocated to, or newly settled in, the surrounds of the new market for Churchgate remained a settled neighbourhood a charter granting that they hold their tenements by the same rights as did the burgesses of Bury St. Edmunds or any other of the abbey's burgesses. This reads much like the foundation of a borough; Beresford and Finberg [English Medieval Boroughs: A hand-list, Newton Abbot, 1973, p.109], and subsequently Dyer [Everyday Life in Medieval England, Hambledon, 2000, p.123], took it as such. Yet an inquisition jury in 1290 declared that the market residents held by villein tenure despite customary labour services having been replaced by a rent. This seeming reversal is perhaps explicable to a hardening of abbey policy, as it experienced growing troubles in its relationship with the burgesses of Bury, who felt that their ancient freedoms were being curtailed under abbey lordship and resisted forcefully; but it may alternatively be that their market tenements in Harlow were held as burgages, while their arable strips in villeinage.
Nonetheless, any retrenchment in abbey policy must have been temporary, for its main thrust across time was in the direction of commuting labour services for rents in the case of all its Harlow tenants, and local development was not evidently hindered by the 1290 pronouncement. Rentals in the post-plague period show progressive abandonment by the abbey of efforts to maintain villein tenure in Harlow [J.L. Fisher, "The Harlow Cartulary", Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society n.s., vol. 22 (1936) p. 254]. We might imagine Market Harlow gradually acquiring the character of a small town, but there is little evidence to illustrate such a transformation. Manorial court rolls reveal no distinctively urban characteristics to local administration, except perhaps in the registration of the will of a local brazier in 1440, and commerce is reflected only through the punishment of breaches of the assize of bread and ale. Nor are blocks of burgage-type tenements conspicuous on the landscape, and transfers of landless messuages are not documented in statistically significant numbers. On the other hand, some semblance of communal organization may be suggested by the royal grant to a group of individuals, in 1404 (renewed 1407), of authority to levy pavage tolls to fund the paving of two Harlow streets, one named 'Newestrete' just possibly to be identified with the modern New Road linking the High Street more directly to Old Road (between the ford and Mulberry Green).
The new market settlement appears to have extended along the south side of the marketplace (Fore Street), perhaps as no more than cottages backed by strips of cultivable land more probably garden than field. Clusters of settlement also grew up to the east: along the High Street and parts of Mulberry Green, filling in the sides of at least some of the through-road as far as Churchgate. By mid-thirteenth century is evidenced the beginnings of an industrial neighbourhood at Potters Hill (now Potter Street), well south of Market Harlow, off what developed into a road to London (which city would, in the post-medieval period, become an important market for the local pottery), and close to a supply of clay dug from Harlow Common. Harlow's settlement would retain a dispersed pattern, still traceable in Old Harlow today, the landscape never totally infilled. Parts of the marketplace, however, were, as usually the case, encroached upon by shops, gardenless houses, and inns; this process may have been underway before 1383, when we hear of a number of selds there probably shops built onto the street frontage of residences and by 1431 there was a 'Midil Rowe' in the marketplace, apparently a block of buildings. The process continued into the sixteenth century, as market business declined, to fill in most of the area between Fore Street and Back Street an area identified in abbey rentals as the middle of the market and narrow those two streets as shops extended along the house-fronts there. One of the present buildings in the middle of the one-time marketplace incorporates remains of a medieval structure which is likely to have had some role in market administration. Economic decline in the post-medieval period, offset partly by development of the pottery industry, helps explain why Old Harlow did not expand much further then, largely preserving the medieval street layout.