Rayleigh is situated in south-east Essex essentially a peninsula bounded by the rivers Crouch and Thames in what was once the hundred of Rochford, atop a northeast-southwest ridge (comprising multiple hills) carrying a road connecting Brentwood, Billericay, and Rochford; to the west of Rayleigh that road was crossed by another northbound to Chelmsford, while a lesser road from Rochford descended the ridge towards Hadleigh or Prittlewell. This arrangement of routes has been described as "a staggered cross-roads" [Essex County Council, Rayleigh Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Plan, Rochford District Council, 2007, p.9]. Although this thickly wooded ridge must have been a prominent feature in what was otherwise a fairly flat and low-lying terrain given over to fields and marshland pasturage, it does not appear to have attracted very much settlement until the Saxon period: a fairly large 6th-century cemetery has been found just north of Rayleigh, and Domesday Book shows a medium-sized village there. This village seems to have spread southwards along the through-road, later the High Street, likely from an original focus around the parish church at the north-eastern end of the street. Although most of the church fabric represents a late medieval rebuild, the oldest materials (apart from recycled Roman tiles) are twelfth-century elements in the chancel; a wooden structure may have stood on the site even earlier, although Domesday gives no hint of a church.
Rayleigh's name denotes a clearing where goats or deer grazed. It was sheep that were in abundance by the time of Domesday, though goats are also mentioned. Yet the manorial park there established was, in the thirteenth century and beyond, often a source of deer, along with timber, at the king's disposal.
Domesday shows Rayleigh in the hands of Suein of Essex, who by 1086 had built one of the earliest recorded castles in England on a mound raised atop a slight spur that projected from the west side of the ridge. Suein was the son of Robert Fitz-Wimarc, whose matronymic is suggestive of Breton origins. Robert was related both to Edward the Confessor and William of Normandy; brought to England by Edward, he served as one of Edward's palace officials and as sheriff of Essex, but remained in favour following the Conquest. William allowed Suein to follow his father in the shrievalty (an office not inherently hereditary) for a brief term. Suein held extensive lands in Essex and other counties, under the collective title of the Honour of Rayleigh, though the Essex estates were concentrated in the adjacent hundreds of Rochford and Barstable an atypical situation, as most large land-holdings tended to be scattered. The castle at Rayleigh would have given Suein a good view across the peninsula and to the two rivers giving access to it. It was in this marshy region that he pastured some of the vast flocks of sheep he owned, which led Round to describe him as "the greatest sheepmaster in Essex" [VCH Essex, vol.1 (1903), p.346]. Suein's grandson, Henry of Essex, forfeited the honour (1163) after showing cowardice in battle. Although in 1217 Henry III granted it (perhaps only confirming a grant by John) to Hubert de Burgh who was, however, more interested in Hadleigh, where he established castle and market it remained mostly in royal hands.
The barony was farmed out after Hubert's death and is found, in the opening years of Edward I's reign, in the hands of William de Wodeham (d. ca.1279), who may have been a descendant of Henry of Essex; but thereafter its component estates came to be parcelled up in grants or farms, while some were made part of the dowry for English queens. The king had a prison for felons at Rayleigh itself and the hundred court was occasionally convened there (both presumably in the castle). By 1254, queen Eleanor had established a stud in the park there; Edward I's widow, Margaret, farmed Rayleigh and other parts of the honour to the Prior of Prittlewell the priory long having held the presentation to the parish church while Edward III's queen, Philippa, leased the manor and honour to William de Bohun, earl of Northampton, younger son of the Earl of Essex, for 20 years, a term not yet completed at her death. In 1380 Richard II granted the honour, along with the fair and market of Rayleigh, to Aubrey de Vere, for life, and a few years later the reversion to the Duke of York, whose heirs are also seen in possession during the fifteenth century, intermittently with members of the royal family or the Crown itself. During the 1480s the manors of the Honour of Rayleigh were being used as a source of revenue from which Tower of London wages and expenses were paid.
Suein's motte-and-bailey castle, which lay to the west of the High Street, was around the mid-twelfth century strengthened with stone though the keep itself never seems to have been rebuilt in stone and late in the century the castle was entirely remodelled. It was falling into disuse, at least in the defensive sense, by the thirteenth century (though remained in use as administrative caput of the honour) and became ruinous in the next, a process that may have begun by de Burgh robbing stone to build his castle at Hadleigh, and resumed with Richard II authorizing residents (1394) to re-use stone from the castle foundations to repair their church and give it a belfry this indicates that the bulk of the castle had already disappeared, although the prison there remained operational into the sixteenth century. Edward III seems also to have valued Hadleigh castle in which he invested much money to remodel it as a comfortable retreat close to London more than that at Rayleigh, authorizing timber to be cut down in the park at the latter to provide fuel for the former. In the last months of his life, he even granted to one of his servants, Walter de Whithors, then castellan at Hadleigh, the profits from the town of Rayleigh and its market and from the neighbouring manor of Thundersley, in lieu of an annuity of 40 marks earlier granted him; it is not clear that this gave Walter any seigneurial authority and the new government of Richard II reversed the decision the following year, granting those profits and custody of Headleigh castle instead to Aubrey de Vere. The hunting parks of Thundersley, Rayleigh and Hadleigh appear to have been contiguous. Maintenance of the park enclosures and of the castles must have provided some business for local artisans and work for local labourers, as for example in 1380, when two Rayleigh men were engaged to recruit and supervise a work-crew for the re-digging of Hadleigh castle's ditch.
Nor is it clear whether we can consider Rayleigh originating as a castle-town though this seems probable, and is the generally accepted view or whether the two components were developed in conjunction. There is some evidence of an outer enclosure ditch and rampart topped by wooden palisade east of the castle site that gave protection to part of the High Street and the parish church, probably in place by the thirteenth century; this, however, may have been intended as an additional outer bailey rather than a town enclosure. In lists of properties assigned as dower to various queens, in earlier records Rayleigh is generally referred to as a manor, which need not surprise us, but from the late fourteenth century is more often referred to as a town this may only be villata in the Latin, but in one of the grants Colchester is also described as a town usually when granted to some individual in conjunction with its market and fair. The grant of market and fair along with the settlement is suggestive of urban status. Yet, if there were a burghal component to the manor, it was evidently slow in attaining prominence; there are no references to burgages. On the other hand, we do have reference to Rayleigh as a borough, in a rental of 1597, covering both manor and borough. A borough at Rayleigh is also mentioned in 1459, in a list of properties forfeited by the rebellious Duke of York, but whose incomes were assigned to supporting his widow and children; but this passing reference should not be relied on too much. It may be that the presence of a castle, which continued to serve an administrative role even as it became dilapidated, along with that of a market was enough to engender the assumption, in some late medieval minds, that the vill of Rayleigh could be considered a borough.
Rayleigh was one of three manors (the others being Nayland and Haughley, both in Suffolk) that Henry III, upon emerging from his minority, granted, along with market and fair at each, to Hubert de Burgh in 1227. This grant was part of a larger reward to Hubert, for his loyalty to King John in the face of baronial opposition and for serving as Regent during Henry's minority, that saw him made Earl of Kent; most of the various manors given him were part of the escheated estates of Henry of Essex, and included Rochford Hundred and the advowson of the priory of Prittlewell. The grant of market and fair was not strictly a licence, it not being framed in licence terms and not even the market day or date of the fair were specified; rather, we should think of the market as prescriptive, and indeed there had already been a reference to it in the Pipe Roll for 1181. A livestock fair on Trinity Monday, which continued in operation up to the nineteenth century [Philip Benton,The History of Rochford Hundred, v.2 (1888), p.691], may be the medieval fair, for the parish church was dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
The 1227 grant reissued the following year with minor changes (notably the inclusion of Hadleigh among the manors granted with market and fair, and mention of the Honour of Rayleigh) was made out to both Hubert and his third wife Margaret, daughter of King Alexander II of Scotland, and the heirs of that marriage, with remainder to Hubert's other heirs. As it turned out the marriage produced only one heir, a daughter whose marriage to Richard de Clare, 5th Earl of Hertford, unlicensed and angering the king, was childless. Hubert's son by his first marriage, John, succeeded him as lord of Rayleigh, though not in the earldom. Meanwhile, Hubert dying in 1243, Margaret was left in charge of his estates; in 1248/49 she was pursuing a complaint that the market licensed by the Earl of Oxford at Prittlewell a decade earlier was damaging to hers at Rayleigh; how this complaint fared in the king's court is unknown, but perhaps the earl reached some settlement with the countess in her declining years, for in 1257 he altered the market-day at Prittlewell to Friday which would suggest that Rayleigh's market may have been held on one of the earlier weekdays (the present market is on Wednesdays).
It is hardly surprising that the name of Hubert de Burgh (ca.1170-1243) who entered the service of Prince John ca.1198 and rose through a variety of responsible posts and projects to become John's chief justiciar and arguably the most influential man in the kingdom after the king is associated with a number of markets, and appears repeatedly in this study. Several of these were in East Anglia, where his family was based. Although his precise parentage has been a matter of debate, it is assumed that the family home was at Burgh-next-Aylsham (Norf.), and a Thursday market there was one for which Hubert, towards the end of his regency, acquired a licence, along with a second at Sotherton (Suff.), also for Thursdays; two months later he adjusted the days to Friday at Burgh and Wednesday at Sotherton. Burgh's market may have later been transferred to Aylsham, which was developing into a cloth-making centre, while Sotherton's licence was in 1229 transferred to nearby Westhall. Cawston was another manor in the same region of Norfolk to come into Hubert's hands (1201) and had a market by 1263, perhaps acquired during the lordship of John de Burgh, who turned the manor over to the king in 1272. The market at Hadleigh, already mentioned, was held on Wednesdays, including after it had come into the hands of the king, by 1246, when he granted that anyone frequenting it, as buyer or seller, should be exempt from tolls for three years this being probably being aimed at stimulating business there.
Even though Hubert de Burgh's caretaker government issued large numbers of market licences, and he himself died seised of manors in many counties in addition to Essex, Hubert held fewer financial institutions elsewhere in the kingdom, These included: Kirton in Lindsey, another of the royal grants in 1228, accompanied by a separate market licence, though he lost these when temporarily disgraced in 1232. A grant of the manor of Eastbridge (Kent), apparently along with a market (mentioned in Domesday), was another of Henry III's rewards to Hubert, but the latter made it (1227/28) one of his later endowments of a Domus Dei (pilgrims' hostel) he had founded (1203) at Dover, which town Hubert, as castellan, later successfully defended against John's baronial opponents and their French allies. In 1229 Hubert purchased a half-share in Long Compton (Warks.) manor from descendants of the Mandeville Earls of Essex, and in 1231 he took out a licence for its (probably pre-existing) market and fair; this manor too he forfeited in 1232, but it was restored when he returned to favour. Another of the 1228 grants was the manor of Ospringe (Kent), neighbour to the larger Faversham and on the road from London to Canterbury and the continent (via the ports of Sandwich and Dover); the grant included an existing market and fair, for which Hubert never felt the need to take out a more formal licence, but in 1236 when Hubert was again in hot water with Henry III the manor was given to Henry's new wife as part of her dower provision. Another of Hubert's holdings was the manor of Aspley (Beds.), but his acquisition of it in 1227 was not apparently a prelude to development, for obtaining a market licence (1267) was left to John de Burgh's tenant therein, Anselm de Guise, whose family remained the immediate lords and appended their name to the manor, nor is there any indication of a burghal component having been introduced.
The only town in which Hubert had market rights, however, was Montgomery, in the Welsh Marches, to which Henry III had granted liber burgus status in 1227, a few years after a castle-town had been founded at what was then a strategic site; the royal charter authorized a merchant gild whose members were to have a near-monopoly on local commerce (although the burgesses could issue commercial licences to others) and granted two fairs and a Thursday market. In 1229 Henry confirmed a charter of Hubert de Burgh granting to his burgesses of Montgomery the town at fee farm, including the tolls from market and fairs, and requiring his officials in the town to pay for any purchases of necessaries within twenty days. However, Hubert lost Montgomery after the Welsh revolt of 1231 and it later reverted to the Crown. Hubert's son John or, more likely, a like-named grandson, licensed in 1264 a market at Queen Camel in Somerset although after a decade of operation it was the target of complaints from Somerton and Ilchester of damaging competition and prior to 1269 he was in possession of the tolls and other perquisites from the market at Shaftesbury (Dorset). A step-son by Hubert's first marriage, William Bardolf, inheritor of the barony of Wormegay, and/or William's like-named son, would go on to license markets at several Norfolk locations, though not until escaping from the constraints of guardianship in the same year that Hubert died.
Through example or advice, Hubert may have influenced the market-founding activities of another noble house, the Bardolfs, which family built up extensive estates, notably in Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and Surrey. This was furthered by the marriage of Doun Bardolf to Beatrice, sole heiress of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, strengthening the family's existing lordships at Wormegay (Norf.) and Shelford (Notts.) Beatrice's third husband was Hubert de Burgh (his first wife). Duon's son William thereby became step-son and ward of Hubert, who controlled the Bardolf inheritance during William's minority and (through a life-grant of the Honour of Wormegay) beyond. In 1243, following Hubert's death, William, having already earned some royal favour by accompanying Henry III on an expedition to France, was granted control over his lands and, the following year, licensed a market at Wormegay and a fair at Stow Bardolph (Norf.). He and his descendants would, in the decades that followed, establish further commercial institutions at a number of locations in Norfolk and elsewhere. To what extent William's initiatives were driven by family tradition and to what extent the influnce of de Burgh is hard to say.
The location of Rayleigh's market is not certain. One interpretation of the topography has the market as a cigar-shaped stretch of the High Street at its south-westerly end, while another sees it in an elongated triangular space (gradually infilled from the fourteenth century) ending at the churchyard, and with the High Street running along its southern edge and the outer bailey ditch (filled in during the Late Middle Ages) along its northern. The latter interpretation would tie the market to the castle, while the former is more an integral part of the expanding village; they may represent two different phases in the morphological development of Rayleigh, or two components of an expanding market, conceivably with properties around the cigar-shaped space laid out with deliberation as population grew and as the castle was declining as a market customer.
By the eighteenth century a market hall similar to that of Thaxted seems to have stood at one end of the triangular space. Some plots along the south side of the cigar-shaped space extend deeply to a back lane and might represent burgage-type properties, though later changes to the boundaries make it hard to be sure. Very few conveyances of landless messuages are among the Essex final concords, though the earliest (1325) concerns a messuage with shop. Seventy years later another Rayleigh conveyance mentions two shops; but, like burgages, shops are little in evidence in surviving records. One of the buildings in the centre of Rayleigh incorporates a late fifteenth-century three-bay cross-wing which probably contained a shop facing onto the High Street with residential space above; neighbouring buildings likely were of similar type, although much of the High Street was rebuilt in the twentieth century and so older historical fabric may well have been lost.
We may easily imagine that wool was one of the products locally produced for market; in 1339 and 1361 we hear of cases of wool-smuggling in which Rayleigh men were implicated. Whether Rayleigh had any particular industries or mercantile specializations is unclear, however. A possible kiln site suggested by a dump of pottery products discarded because defective has been identified near the through-road, just south of Rayleigh, within an area of thirteenth-century occupation, although the ceramic waste is late fourteenth and fifteenth. It may well have been that local pottery was sold in the market, although the castle does not appear to have acquired any of these ceramics. A family of the surname Coleman which could derive from a personal name or from an occupation involving trade in coal is in evidence from the time of Edward I to that of Edward III, and of sufficient local importance that Nicholas Coleman was bailiff of the market of the town of Rayleigh in 1362. Around the same time another holder of this office (also reeve of the manor) was a Richard Tannere. In 1292 Thomas le Tanur of Rayleigh and his son were parties to a land transaction there; practitioners of this almost ubiquitous and practically essential occupation could have used one or more of several streams draining from the Rayleigh Hills into the River Roach, itself part of the Crouch. The cloth industry is barely evidenced. In 1271 Richard le Taylur was pardoned for having failed to prevent an escape from the prison at Rayleigh, while it was in his custody. The occupational surname of hudeler (a type of hatter) belonged to a Rayleigh resident in 1280, and a Rayleigh dyer left a will dated 1435 [Benton, op. cit. , v.2, p.729]. But these add up to very slim pickings, as a basis on which to surmise thecharacter of the local economy. Of direct evidence of long-distance trade activities involving Rayleigh men there is even less.
A wider range of industry is indicated in the post-medieval period, giving Rayleigh a more urban character, but its population did not expand much before the arrival of the railway. In fact, unlike some Essex towns which lay on important coach routes, Rayleigh may have shrunk in size in the post-medieval period; no coaching inns were built there.