go to table of contents  INTRODUCTION 

 Introduction to the study theme

Keywords: commerce regulation fairs market towns town-founding Wiltshire Herefordshire Shropshire Essex


"There are few, if any, societies in which institutionalized exchange does not play some part."
[John Beattie, Other Cultures: Aims, Methods and Achievements in Social Anthropology, London: Routledge, 1966, p.195]

In the medieval, as in the classical, world the principal institution – that is, persistent mechanism defining and upholding protocols that give structure, or order, to some type of social activity susceptible to regulation – for exchange of goods (notably production surpluses), whether for mutual benefit or for economic advantage, was the weekly market, with the annual fair in a secondary role. Such institutions served not only economic but social and administrative functions to the communities – local, regional, or national – within which situated. Whereas economists talk of commodity markets primarily in abstract terms, as a process through which forces of supply, demand, and competition intersect to generate or adjust discoverable values of goods for purposes of exchange, for the historian markets are concrete, localized and scheduled manifestations of the interaction between producers and consumers – facilitated, constrained, and protected by customs and/or regulations – to further the distribution, or redistribution, of raw or manufactured goods beyond the places where produced, to other places where needed to support daily life or organized initiatives.

Markets and fairs not only facilitated and stimulated England's internal commercial activity, by providing known times and places where consumers, producers and vendors could gather together, but enabled it and its component elements (e.g. price-setting) to be regulated in those venues, thereby providing better security against fraudulent dealing for all parties to transactions. Furthermore the right to implement such institutions, sometimes inherent though increasingly the result of explicit authorization – royal attorneys prosecuting in the hundred-based judicial enquiries of the early years of Edward I's reign specifically taking the position that no-one might hold such events without royal licence – came to fall within the scope of a national administration aiming to control pricing and quality (to at least some degree), to ensure that the populace was supplied with the necessaries of life, and to suppress deceptive or exploitative behaviours in commerce. The claim that markets and fairs were essentially a royal prerogative, which could be delegated to others in the form of a franchise – a sphere of private jurisdiction (or perhaps, more strictly, a "public jurisdiction in private hands" [G.B. Adams, "Private Jurisdiction in England: A Theoretical Reconstruction", American Historical Review, vol.23 (1918), p.599]) – itself encouraged the practice of issuing written licence grants so as to justify the claim.

However, unlicensed institutions could present the defence, usually successful, that a market or fair had been in operation since time immemorial – that is, by customary practice from a period prior to the requirement for written authorization, eventually defined by the Statute of Quo Warranto (1290) as the opening of Richard I's reign a century earlier; a jury's confirmation that a market had been held regularly over an extended period of time was – assuming no question of procedural abuse transgressing the operational bounds of the franchise – generally accepted as proof of legitimate seisin by the market owner, whereas non-use of an incorporeal franchise could be grounds for forfeiture (though this was debated). That such a basis for claim of right, known as prescription, was not always an assured defence is illustrated to some extent in the quo warranto proceedings of Edward I's reign, when the king's attorneys tried to insist on written documentation as evidence of market and other franchises, albeit with limited success, as well as in a case of 1315 stemming from a complaint by the burgesses of New Carmarthen (a Norman castle-town) that, despite a royal order (ca. 1313) placing restrictions on unchartered wholesale commerce within five leagues of Carmarthen, or indeed any royal borough in Wales, the Prior of Carmarthen had been holding markets in Old Carmarthen, a longer-existing part of the settlement but not part of the franchised borough; the Prior, unable to present documentary authorization for his market at a judicial enquiry, claimed his predeccesors had long enjoyed market rights, which an inquisition jury supported, and the royal justice had consequently felt unable to legitimately enforce the king's repeated directives to suppress the market. In 1316 the Prior was able to reverse the king's position by presenting a charter of Henry II (whose authenticity we must suspect), and the priory eventually found it advisable to acquire a market charter, though not until 1394. [[National Archives, SC 8/119/5909, SC 8/119/5910, SC 8/311/15527; Calendar of the Close Rolls, 1313-18, p.370]

Urban markets are generally considered prescriptive, since by the time that licensing became the norm most towns with borough status and functioning markets had longer been in existence. Quo warranto actions were instituted to enable the king to recover franchises that were not rightfully possessed, and this tool was used vigorously, if to limited effect, by Henry III, some years after he emerged from his minority, and by Edward I, whose attorneys were inclined to challenge even prescriptive claims (which Bracton had argued against), demanding documentary evidence of royal grants. Although, as Christopher Dyer, ["The hidden trade of the Middle Ages: evidence from the West Midlands of England", Journal of Historical Geography, vol.18 (1992), p.142 ] has observed, "we must beware of using a legal institution as the sole basis for identifying trading places", the close connection between the growth of a network of markets and the spread of urbanization makes them a convenient point of focus for examining both phenomena; urbanization, as seen in the establishment of small communities that had, or subsequently developed, urban characteristics, is a secondary theme running through this study.

By the close of the Middle Ages approximately 2,400 settlements in England and Wales are evidenced as holding, or at least of having at some point been endowed with grants of the right to hold, a market and/or fair to service local and long-distance commerce, although not all of those documented were still in operation by that point in time. Most of these commercial institutions are evidenced primarily through records of the licence grants, and a small number from written petitions requesting such grants, though a number from clauses within more general charters – some of which, preserved as copies within monastic cartularies, may be spurious or at least suspect – while some are known through references in non-grant documents, such as litigation records or inquisitions post mortem. However, a few hundred are classed as prescriptive: and are known from some other historical reference – often one pre-dating the licensing era – or assumed (by Letters) to exist within an established borough. In fact, roughly one-third of the market settlements are considered to have been, or have incorporated, boroughs at some time in the Middle Ages, although this often meant little more than that a percentage of the residents held properties by burgage tenure and, perhaps less often, that they were exempt from paying tolls in their local market. This study focuses on markets in locations considered urban, although differentiating urban and rural communities often comes down to a tenuous judgement call.

The second half of the twelfth and (even more so) the thirteenth centuries are considered the period of greatest activity in fleshing out an existing network of commercial institutions, though its shape and size were constantly changing; we see this not only in grants of markets and fairs, per se but in grants of exemption from the tolls that were an integral part of such institutions. This timing owed something to various factors, notably:

It has been noted that "The pattern of grants ... reflects royal patronage in response to political conditions and the family and estate strategies of different categories of owners" [Centre for Metropolitan History, Annual Report 3003-4. University of London Institute of Historical Research, 2004,p.7]. Each market site – for purposes of the present study the key unit is the market town – has its own history, but the local history of any given market cannot be fully understood in isolation from the broader contexts of relationships with other markets (notably those in that region of the network) and with its surrounding field of producers and consumers of marketable goods or services, relationship to the larger estate management policies of market owners, and relationship to broad economic trends applicable at a national level.

This study purposes to look at the development of parts of the market network in medieval England – the growth of formal markets, the competition between them for commerce, associated urbanization, and the survival or failure of contestants – by focusing primarily on case-studies of 112 market towns in four counties located in three different regions of England; but by no means exclusively, consideration being given to examples of market towns and villages from across most parts of England and some parts of Wales. However, to explore the broader involvement of particular individuals or groups in the development of England's commercial and urban infrastructure, as well as to draw on illustrative examples from a wider field, digressions, occasionally lengthy, are made beyond those four core counties. It has not been practicable to explore in detail for each market town those contextual relationships mentioned above – such is the stuff of doctoral theses [e.g., David Fleming, A local market system: Melton Mowbray and the Wreake Valley 1549-1720, University of Leicester, 1980; Antonia Catchpole, The Small Towns of Medieval Gloucestershire: Origins and Development, University of Birmingham, 2005; Vanessa McLoughlin, Medieval Rothley, Leicestershire: manor soke and parish, University of Leicester, 2006] – but within the individual case-studies a degree of consideration, usually brief, is often given to one or more of them, for exemplification.

Nor does this study attempt to relate its findings to current theories regarding the development of the market network; much more work needs to be done – if the surviving documentary record will support it – before we can confidently array the necessary data to test those theories. Also largely for purposes of manageability, rural markets in the four counties with which this study is concerned, and markets elsewhere in England are largely ignored – unless they have some association with the focal markets, or provide a good illustration of some point. It is felt that the counties selected provide a broad range of examples elucidating how markets came into existence and towns grew up around them, either at the same time or at later date, and that the published evidence relating to them enables the subject to be examined from several perspectives.

Two of the English counties of the Welsh Marches, a county in the heart of ancient Wessex, and one east-coast county are here surveyed to illustrate the growth of a network of market-endowed towns beyond the county towns themselves. Wiltshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Essex have been selected for study in part because they offer not only similarities but some contrasts. Most studies of medieval markets have concentrated on individual counties, but it is hoped here that examination of parts of the market network in different regions of England may better illustrate the diverse aspects of the subject; two of the foremost English urban historians of our time have observed that "Markets and towns play a central role in the formation of territorial and regional identities" [Derek Keene and D.M. Palliser, "Regional Introduction" in The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol.1 (2000), p.541.] In the Marches the establishment of market towns was primarily an imperative of the extension of the Norman Conquest into Wales, and one carried out with some vigour. Wiltshire shows the influence of the imposition, during the Saxon period, of ecclesiastical and royal administration, as well as the establishment of fortified population centres in response to the Scandinavian invasion. Essex – whose towns have received particularly detailed attention in this study, in part because coverage of the county in the Victoria County History series remains far from complete, but also because of the East Anglian focus of this Web site – also shows the role of ecclesiastical institutions in opening up the country to settlement and commercial exploitation of agricultural resources, as well as pastoral resources leading into the development of the wool trade and cloth-manufacturing industry, and the consequences of that for the development of a market network; furthermore, many of its market towns lay on the coast or navigable waterways. Most regions of East Anglia became well-served, in terms of close access to a market, and some parts arguably over-served; the few large towns in East Anglia perhaps inhibited some market growth in their surrounding regions, although routes connecting those towns to London became magnets for secondary markets. It will be noted that none of the study counties are in northern England, where urban growth and market network development were processes slower to get off the ground. Some of the towns falling under this study have already been the subject of capable historical examination from modern perspectives, but others have not, despite the survival of at least some medieval records; the capsule histories here included must be considered interim until more detailed study takes place.

For each of the market locations that fall within the scope of this study, the aim is to explore the overarching theme from the time-honoured perspectives of who, what, where, when, and why? The answer to 'who?' is usually, though not universally, explicit in market/fair licences and enables us to consider the human agents of change; these were, essentially manorial lords (i.e. the holders of the territory upon which the majority of markets were planted) though they ranged from the king himself, particularly in the case of pre-Conquest boroughs (though lordship of towns was often more complex than this) down the social scale to those of relatively low status within the upper echelons of society. If we can identify the agents, albeit only tentatively in most cases, we can speculate as to their motivations, as suggested not only by one particular licence but the extent of individual or family engagement with market and urban development in general.

Licences also normally give additional details, such as the timing of markets and fairs, which in turn can throw light on the relationship of the event to others in the region, or on local relationships, and thereby on reasons for licensing; we must bear in mind that licences do not necessarily indicate the commencement of commercial activity in a locale, but more a point in its development where licensing the activity as an institution is perceived as beneficial by the licensee. Likewise, the general location for the market/fair – typically a specific manor held by the licensee – is normally documented within licences, and enables us to look at the geographical proximity of one market to others (that is, the competive environment). Licences rarely, however, prescribed where, within a manor, a market should be located, this and any future relocation within the manor being at the discretion of the licensee.

There are thus two facets to the 'where' question: geographical and topographical. The first concerns the community – understood as a geographical/administrative unit – within which a market was established, and is complicated by the above-mentioned fact that market licences were not normally issued for towns or villages, still less parishes or hundreds, but for particular manors within, and not necessarily co-extensive with, specific settlements. Identifying the geographical locations of markets is not, despite these being stated in licences, always as straightforward as it initially seems; two examples will illustrate difficulties encountered. Blomefield alerts us to an unlicensed market that existed in 1251 on the manor of Grenstein, near Tittleshall (Norf.), though we have no other reference to that market, and Grenstein as a whole has made relatively little imprint on the historical record. For the village had become depopulated and abandoned by the sixteenth century, and, given back to farmland, its site was lost until rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1960s. It is not a unique case. Another challenge regards multiple settlements of the same name; the Hardwick (again Norfolk) for which a market was licensed in 1304 might, at first glance, be assumed the village of that name which still exists in the parish of Shelton, whereas the identity of the licensee points instead to it having been the hamlet of that name associated with North Runcton. The second facet concerns the particular space, within manor, town, or village, where market gatherings took place, and for which we rely on topographical evidence to suggest possible location, such as a junction of two or more streets, a widened stretch of through-road, a village green, or some open area in close proximity to church, monastery, castle, or manor-house. Today some marketplaces retain their historical function; but in many cases market activity was relocated at one or more times during the medieval and/or post-medieval periods.

This study goes beyond licence information to try to pinpoint one or more particular locations within each manor or borough that can be posited as the marketplace and/or fairground, and to understand such locations in terms of the greater site plan of the settlement and placement within the communications system linking the settlement to other nodes in the market network. Market activity tended to take place at consistent points in the local topography: in churchyards, in other open areas specifically designated as marketplaces, within or along a through-road (sometimes with spill-over into adjacent streets), or at road junctions (particularly crossroads). Whether through social habit or site planner's design, such activity in most settlements was – or became, as population growth focused on the vicinity of marketplaces – fairly centralized, so that even today marketplaces are evidently a topographical focus of many communities. Yet location was one of the matters regulated by authorities at all levels. Thus, for example, we find in 1223 the king instructing the executive officials of Lincoln not to allow markets to take place in graveyards, but to make provision for them to be held in suitable parts of city streets. While, by the early fourteenth century, the civic authorities of Oxford had allocated stations in specific stretches of streets for vendors of particular goods, such as straw, timber, ceramics, gloves, pigs, ale, bread, fish, dairy products, etc. [Montau Burrows, ed. Collectanea, second series, Oxford Historical Society, vol. 16 (1890), pp.13-15] – most of these were, it seems, non-residents selling from carts or baskets (while resident traders were probably selling from shops), so that streets were not at other times cluttered by stall structures.

The 'when' question – here defined as when a settlement first appears to have urban character – is somewhat thornier since, although existence of a market is a key characteristic, the date of a market licence, as already noted, probably does not, in the majority of cases, represent the initiation of market activity. Nor does it necessarily coincide with the conversion, or promotion, of a settlement to urban status – or, more commonly, as this study will suggest, introduction of a burghal component into a long-standing village, usually as an extension of that village. Nonetheless, grant of a market licence and datable references to burgesses or burgages in a community tend to be the best, if tentative, indicators we have as to timing, and so are often adopted in this study as representing, at the least, a significant point in the development of a trading community. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that the dates I have assigned to each market location examined in this study, to enable them to be placed within a chronological sequence, must almost all be considered as prefaced by circa, and some (particularly those ending in a zero) are very approximate or nothing more than best-guesses. Trying to establish a chronology of the appearance of markets at different locations is a thankless task, but must be attempted, and one can only hope that improvements will be made by future historians. Consideration of 'why' arises largely, though not exclusively, out of the aforegoing factors, particularly the geographical positioning of a market site, the history of the licensee, and the timing of his (or, very occasionally, her) initiative in contributing to the growth of the urban/market network.



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Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: August 1, 2020 © Stephen Alsford, 2018-2020