Wivenhoe was selected for inclusion in the Essex arm of the Extensive Urban Survey, yet it is doubtful that it can be considered to have had an urban character at any time during the Middle Ages; the EUS report acknowledges that "it is not known when it began to take on an urban aspect" [Maria Medlycott, Wivenhoe - Historic Towns Assessment Report, Essex County Council,1999 p.3], though the VCH authors suggest that an increase, between 1066 and 1086, in the number of bordarii from 6 to 20 "might suggest incipient urban or port development" [A History of the County of Essex, Volume 10 ed. Janet Cooper, London: 2001, p.282]. There are no medieval references to a borough or burgesses there and modern property boundaries do not readily reveal any blocks of burgage-type plots, nor do the Essex Feet of Fines document any landless messuages at Wivenhoe. Furthermore there is no evidence of a licensed market, nor of any fair having been held there during the medieval period.
Wivenhoe's principal economic role was as a port, anchorage fees being one of the manorial perquisites. For it is situated on the rising ground of the east (or north, depending on your perspective) bank of the River Colne, some three miles south-east of Colchester, at the point where the river starts to widen to form the Colne estuary; the 'hoe' element of its name refers to a ridge or spur of land, presumably the rise above the riverbank. Its closer proximity than Colchester to the estuary (and thence the North Sea), and the difficulty for large vessels to proceed further up-river to Colchester despite the Colne being tidal, and navigable that far for small vessels, especially after a new channel was created, though this became plagued by obstructions in the Late Middle Ages meant that, in the post-medieval period at least, Wivenhoe provided Colchester with port and warehousing facilities, shipping the region's agricultural produce to London and transferring imported goods, such as coal, to lighters for carriage to Colchester's Hythe, while some goods may have been transported onwards by road. Scarcer evidence allows us only to speculate whether this was also the case during the Middle Ages. Yet in 1335 Elias le Herde of Wivenhoe leased from the borough authorities part of a property at New Hythe, formerly held by a fisherman, perhaps a landing or storage area, and Britnell identified him as a servant of Wivenhoe's lord "who had taken advantage of his manorial responsibilities to develop as a middleman" [Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300-1525, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.19]; as well, William Carter of Wivenhoe became a Colchester burgess in 1402/03, then some forty years later is referred to as executor of John Carter senior of New Hythe. This evidence is meagre. Several Wivenhoe mariners appear in Colchester records, but not before the close of the Middle Ages; in fact, Wivenhoe does not feature at all in Colchester's earliest records (before about the mid-fourteenth century).
Apart from its riverside location, Wivenhoe had no other particular advantages within the communications network; there was no direct road link to Colchester, just indirect ones, branching off the Colchester-Elmstead and Colchester-Brightlingsea routes, before converging with the northern end of the future and once-wider High Street. River access was the key to its economic development: at first fishing (probably especially for oysters), then maritime commerce, and later fish-processing and boat-building. Wivenhoe's quayside was, and remains, the main focus of settlement, along with a large open space just to its north, known as Anchor Hill. Roughly rectangular, Anchor Hill is suspected to have once served as a marketplace [QuBE Planning Ltd. Wivenhoe Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Guidelines, Colchester Borough Council: March 2007 draft, p.4; previously mentioned very cursorily by the VCH authors]; this is largely on topographical grounds: the southern end of the High Street formerly known as just The Street, or Wyvenhoe Street and East Street (formerly Love Lane) both ran into that space. After allowing for some infilling, it might be suggested that the eastern end of West Street could once have formed the marketplace's northern boundary, the High Street its eastern, and Quay Street possibly its western (although this more likely delineated an early block of settlement plots), while a short lane connected Anchor Hill directly to the quayside.
No documentary reference has been found to Anchor Hill hosting a market during the medieval period, but that the manorial cage, stocks and whipping-post were later located in Anchor Hill is indicative of a market role. Furthermore, immediately north-east of Anchor Hill was the churchyard of St. Mary's; this parish church was in existence by 1254, when included in a taxation of benefices we should not make too much of it being referred to therein as at Wyventon, for the document (a later copy) contains numerous errors. In mid-fourteenth century the addition of aisles to the church these being the oldest part of the surviving fabric (besides re-used materials) would normally be interpreted as an reflection of growing prosperity and population in Wivenhoe; however, for the 1327 subsidy Wivenhoe's assessment was one of the smallest in its hundred (Lexden), and the manorial lord was the sole large taxpayer, yet poll tax evidence suggests that by 1377 Wivenhoe was one of the most populous parishes of the hundred. The riverside settlement probably extended no further north than the church, and does not seem to have expanded greatly until late in the Middle Ages, but the High Street continued north to a small hamlet about a mile away, on higher ground, at Wivenhoe Cross, its residents likely primarily engaged in agriculture; the two foci of settlement eventually merged, so that they today represent two ends of the town, the area between them filled in mainly with nineteenth-century development.
On the opposite bank of the river to Wivenhoe was another village, Rowhedge, following the same riverine pursuits as Wivenhoe's community, but little evidenced until the late fourteenth century and not known to have had a market; the two banks were in separate parishes and not linked by any bridge during the Middle Ages, though there might have been a ferry service, as there was in later centuries.
The questions surrounding Wivenhoe's development have yet to be elucidated by systematic investigation. Surviving manorial records for Wivenhoe have not yet been fully exploited. Court rolls and estreat records prior to 1381 were said, in the roll covering that year, to have been burned by local adherents of the Peasants' Revolt, who subsequently claimed that they were freeholders, not holding at the will of the seigneurial lord. This prompted the latter, then John de Sutton who had been appointed one of the royal commissioners to array loyal Essex men to put down the rebels and subsequently a justice to preserve the peace in Essex to reassert (probably by force) his lordship of what he considered villein tenements, and to issue re-grants of some seventy properties [William Chapman Waller, "A Note on the Manor of Wivenhoe," Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, n.s., vol.10 (1908), p.320]. Nonetheless, many accounts of the manorial bailiffs are extant, the earliest from 1310/11, as are most court records from the remainder of the Middle Ages. Wivenhoe does not feature much, relative to most Essex market towns, in the published series of national records, nor in final concords; although mentions of it pick up from the time of Edward III, this is due to the royal service and the business and property dealings of the influential Suttons who had married into the Battle family, are seen buying up Battle properties in the later years of Edward II's reign, were associated with the de Veres, had the confidence of Richard II, and were active in suppressing any fresh outbreaks of peasant discontent during the 1380s rather than to the affairs of its residents, and references decline again after the failure of the Sutton male line. The Suttons do not seem the kind of men to foster a burghal element within Wivenhoe. There has been relatively little archaeological intervention at Wivenhoe, and, apart from the church, very little physical fabric from the medieval period has yet been identified there; however, the street pattern may well encapsulate that at the close of the Middle Ages, although not indicative of any comprehensive planning effort.
There is no strong evidence of a Roman presence at Wivenhoe Roman materials found in the church fabric more likely having been scavenged, possibly from far afield rather than from any Roman structure on the same or a nearby site. The name Wivenhoe suggests Anglo-Saxon origins of the settlement, the earliest reference to which is in Domesday, whose entry indicates nothing more than a manorial village with a small though growing population in 1086, probably clustered close to the riverside. Wivenhoe manor was then part of the holdings of Robert de Gernon, but held of him by one Nigel; though a mill is mentioned, there is no reference to church or priest a not uncommon lacuna in Essex entries and not proof that no Anglo-Saxon church stood on the site of the present St. Mary's, while the latter's location could point to the church having been preceded by a chapel to serve both manorial lord and fishing village. The manor-house assuming the original stood on the site of later successors was not far from the High Street, but further north than the church, and set a little apart from the main area of settlement around quayside and Anchor Hill. Robert Gernon, a companion and possible kinsman of the Conqueror, of a family from, and lords of, the fortified village of Monfichet in Normandy, was one of the greater beneficiaries of the Conquest, given lands in at least ten counties; his holdings mainly focused in Essex and Middlesex, and his caput was at Stansted Mountfitchet, where he built a castle. However, he has no known association with any market settlement, and only one ancestor acted to license a market, at Theydon Garnon (Essex, 1305), which had not been one of Robert's estates, but a later family acquisition. Other descendants substituted as their surname Montfichet (also not associated with market-founding), and it was to one of this branch to whom Wivenhoe came after Robert had forfeited his estates for rebellion.
The manor changed hands several more times during the course of the Middle Ages. At the time we first hear of the church, it was held by the Battle family, which also had an agricultural estate, known as Battleswick, on the outskirts of Colchester. Eventually Wivenhoe became, through marriage to an heiress, part of the Oxford earldom of the de Veres; in 1476, following attainder of the Lancastrian Earl John de Vere, and again when Henry VII reversed the attainder, John and his brothers were described as 'of Wivenhoe', indicating they resided there, and Colne Priory's accounts record a business meeting between a priory representative and the earl at Wivenhoe in 1440. The earl's manorial accounts from Earls Colne in 1431 document a number of trips made by his carters in fetching building materials, malt, and other goods from Wivenhoe to Castle Hedingham, though this more probably shows his use of the port rather than the market. The Yorkist Bourchiers also had a foothold in Wivenhoe, as in so many places in Essex.
Some of these lords were resident at Wivenhoe, at least for brief periods, but although one of them is likely to have erected the church (for the advowson always belonged to the manorial lord), and its expansion around the 1340s can probably be ascribed to the Suttons, while the de Veres improved the road connection between Wivenhoe Cross and their manor-house (and thereby to the quayside), it is not clear to what extent they otherwise contributed towards Wivenhoe's development. Simon Battle purchased the privilege of free warren there in 1246, although his family is not seen with any close ties to the Crown, such as might have eased obtaining royal grants. The de Veres made Wivenhoe one of their principal residences and invested in renovating the manor-house, which provided some local employment in a period of economic downtown, though this was later than the period with which we are concerned. But none of its lords ever saw the need to license any market at Wivenhoe, and it may have been that the port there was a more lucrative appurtenance. In fact, none of the documented medieval lords of Wivenhoe are known as market-founders with the possible exception of Robert de Bousser, although his holding at Wivenhoe was likely only a subsidiary manor (descending to the Bourchiers); and only Giles de Plaiz is known to have owned a market, which was at Fowlmere (Cambs.), but this had been licensed (1207) by a Montfichet heir's guardian, Roger de Lacy, a constable of Chester (whose earls were descended from a bearer of the Gernon surname, although it is not certain whether this was the same family associated with Wivenhoe the Battle family seems to have had some vague connection to the Chester Gernons too.
One reason for the failure to license a market at Wivenhoe may have been that its business was relatively small-scale. The local fishermen presumably sold some of their catch there (and as far afield, perhaps, as London), despite Colchester's claims to the Colne fishery. The raising of sheep on the manor documented from at least the time of Domesday meant that wool and cheese may have been traded in the market, doubtless along with agricultural produce and livestock. But, despite local availability of wool, there is no medieval evidence of a cloth industry developing at Wivenhoe, nor should we expect this, given the proximity of Colchester. So the amount of prospective profit from tolls may not have been large enough to warrant purchase of a market licence and paying for dedicated market administration, while judicial profits from market offences would still have accrued through the manorial court. We may note that any market activity at Wivenhoe did not garner attention during the hundredal investigations of Edward I's reign; had there been any seigneurial tolls we might anticipate the legality of the market to have been challenged, but Colchester's records give no hint of any such concern. There must have been more worry about Wivenhoe's port being used by smugglers, though the only indication of this is an accusation in the borough court roll in 1382 that an Alresford man had intercepted, in the waters of Wivenhoe port, a vessel with a cargo of barley bound for Colchester, and diverted it to a landing-point near Alresford, so that the borough was deprived of duties; the same man was also accused of having, over the previous decade, frequently bought oysters, mussels and other merchandize with the intent of defrauding the borough of tolls on goods landed at its own quayside. Rowhedge was reputed by the burgesses to be a location where Colchester's market was forestalled by fishermen and others selling goods, and Wivenhoe might have been seen in similar light. That such tension extended further back is indicated by a settlement of disputes reached in 1341 between Wivenhoe's lord, Sir John de Sutton, and the bailiffs of Colchester, whereby the latter and the borough community were permitted to load, unload, build, and repair ships at a stretch of riverside strand owned by Sir John in the vicinity of Colchester's Hythe, so long as his rights of pasture and herbage there were not compromised.
Another reason for the failure to license could have been that that few competitors were established in that part of Essex. Certainly Colchester's market would have drawn away some commerce, as well as local residents seeking to improve their prospects by obtaining burgess status there the earliest documented instance being in 1335 or doing business there, as in the case of Wivenhoe man John Rogere, who was renting a stall in Colchester's marketplace around the close of the fourteenth century. But its market could hardly have been challenged by the lords of Wivenhoe, nor was Wivenhoe one of those market locations in the region by which Colchester felt threatened; besides, Colchester's economic growth and large consumer base must have benefited Wivenhoe, just as Colchester benefited from Wivenhoe's port. Apart from Colchester, the only other markets close enough to Wivenhoe for the situation to possibly be deemed competitive in the eyes of the law were: in Elmstead parish, where the market (licensed 1253), later known as Elmstead Market, planted on a route connecting Colchester and the coast, became a focus for settlement, though it never amounted to much; and at St. Osyth, on the same route. Neither of those was likely to find Wivenhoe a threat, while Wivenhoe's lord had an estate at Elmstead, where sheep were raised. Further west, in the centre of Essex plenty of markets sprang up on routes to London and into Suffolk, but Wivenhoe's non-local trade must have been largely coastal- and London-oriented.
Yet Wivenhoe men are not conspicuous in records of commercial activity and none are recorded making debt recognizances, so it may be that mariners and fishermen continued to form the core of the non-agricultural sector of the population, with few, if any, engaging heavily or entrepreneurially in long-distance trade. Dealings with Londoners are almost absent; only Sir John de Sutton is seen in this regard, owed a debt of £40 by a London mercer (1371). After the Lancastrian defeat at Barnet, an investigation into the the Earl of Oxford's brother, Thomas de Vere, and his adherents was begun; the list of Thomas' fellow rebels included eight Wivenhoe men, six being yeomen (as were most of the other de Vere supporters), and two mariners; but this is too small a sample from which to characterize the Wivenhoe community.
We may reasonably suspect that the local community had developed a modicum of occupational diversity, beyond fishing and maritime transport activities but no more than would be typically found in a large village by the time that a church was put up at Wivenhoe, although that act cannot itself be dated with confidence. The postulated existence of a plausible area for informal markets, held between churchyard and quayside, would be consistent with a slow development of the community across the twelfth to fourteenth centuries a development stimulated by Wivenhoe's value as a port rather than as a market, though the two roles tended to be hand-in-glove. As a market site, Wivenhoe appears unremarkable, and that none of its succession of seigneurial families although connected by blood or marriage bothered to acquire a market licence is telling in this regard.