go to table of contents  INTRODUCTION 

 Markets, towns, and manorialism

Keywords: manorial system landholding agriculture commerce enterprise seigneurial rights market licences town-founding competition transportation merchants Fifield Bavant

In medieval England while most of the earliest 'new towns' grew up in proximity to administrative foci, such as manorial centres, minster churches, and fortifications, later ones (of the Angevin period) tended more to be associated with exploitation of manorial resources, developed as adjuncts to, or expansions of, existing villages, or as settlements planted on previously unoccupied sites. By contrast, the number of villages remained relatively stable in most parts of the country, the tendency being more to expand existing ones than establish new ones. Many such foundations. unless chartered as towns, were perceived and/or treated by their founders as sub-manors, or units of manorial jurisdiction. Manors to which markets were granted were sometimes lesser units (whether long-existing or new foundations), rather than the principal manor of the locality, although marketplaces were normally situated within foci of settlement. Similarly, market licences might be sought by the mesne lords or the actual tenants of a manor. In essence these new towns and village enlargements were entrepreneurial initiatives of manorial lords seeking opportunities to augment cash revenues from their estates – some of the greater collections of which were referred to as honours (a term that will be frequently encountered throughout this study) – by establishing new markets, or formalizing existing ones, and 'staffing' each with a community of traders and artisans. They aimed to take advantage of improved agricultural productivity on their demesne lands and in the surrounding countryside, of increasing international demand for English wool, of growth in consumer demand within an expanding population, and of a growing volume of coin in circulation. The thirteenth century in particular saw increased cultivation of demesne lands, the growth of manorial officialdom and of professionalism within that officialdom, and the production of treatises on farming or on accounting to assist the more business-like operations of manors. At the same time, the foundation of a market settlement within a manor increased the size of the local consumer population – that is, demand for foodstuffs, other necessaries, and the raw materials needed by craftspeople – thus channelling more money into seigneurial coffers. Increased productivity and seigneurial income in its turn gave rise to more employment opportunities and improved supply of necessaries, which bolstered family formation, individual survival, and reproduction rates. This cyclical process was, however, vulnerable to reversal, as part of the natural cycle, and to adverse circumstances within the external environment.

One example of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to develop a market town is Skipsea (in Holderness, Yorks.), situated beside a large lake accessible (via a channel) to ships plying the North Sea, and at some point provided with hythe facilities. Initially it was part of a large manor known as Cleeton (with like-named village), in which a castle, erected soon after the Conquest, subsequently served as the chief base of the Honour of Aumale. Though a sub-manor, Skipsea came to overshadow Cleeton, perhaps particularly after a small planned borough was planted adjacent to the castle in the late twelfth century, presumably by William le Gros, or Crassus, earl of Aumale; a like-named man, not apparently a direct descendant, is also credited with founding the borough of Chipping Sodbury (Gloucs.) around the same time he acquired a market licence for it (1218). The transfer in 1221 of the Honour's caput to a different location, neglect and partial demolition of the castle, and disbandment of its garrison (made up of Aumale tenants), the erosion of Cleeton's cliffside fields and the area near the hythe due to sea action, and reduction of income from fishing as the lake silted up, as well as the Black Death, must have been among the factors that worked against the prosperity of what came to be called Skipsea Brough; this despite migration from Cleeton to Skipsea around mid-thirteenth century, and despite repeated licences for markets and fairs issued between 1272 and 1343 – several of them, significantly, to the residents, rather than any manorial lord. This may point to efforts to stem decline by an organized group of tenants who were collectively leasing the manor. Or the various licences might reflect distinct events taking place in Creeton and its sub-manors, but not necessarily in Brough, which was only a small burghal component that never developed into a mature urban unit, even though remaining, somewhat uncertainly, a manor in its own right; however, the location of stocks (often an indicator of a marketplace) near the church, believed built around the same time as the castle, may associate marketplace and borough.

If at least a percentage of the secular landed aristocracy were prepared to be entrepreneurial in exploiting their landed and human (labour) resources, so were some of the monastic houses. The more successful, fiscally, of the monasteries might in England's relatively under-developed economy be thought of almost as the medieval equivalent of corporate business enterprises, for they invested in, and sought profit from, land development, agricultural production, manufacturing, retail and wholesale of raw and manufactured goods, and from the medieval equivalent to the tourism industry (by furnishing attractions and hospitality services), not to mention being purveyors of what might be considered spiritual health insurance.

From the perspective of estate management, putting in place market towns was simply one manifestation of business activities, their revenues intended to augment rather than supersede those of the manor. Income from Downton borough in the 1230s was, for example, just a small fraction of the total profit of the manor within which it was situated; the sale of grain, wool and other agricultural produce generated far higher amounts than came directly from the burgesses, while the same could be said, with regard to the same decade, of revenues from Hindon compared to those from the manor in which it was situated; yet the markets and merchants at Downton and Hindon must have been assets in selling the manorial produce. As an illustration of the disposable manorial surplus, the annual account of the reeve of the episcopal manor of Evercreech (Somers.) for 1382/83 shows that, over the course of the year, were sold, in addition to quantities of produce (corn, oats, beans, hay): 4 cow-hides, 3 horse-hides, 87 wool-pells, 20 lambs, 1 mare, 1 foal, 7 oxen, 4 cows, 4 calves, 126 sheep, 10 pigs, 6 piglets, 12 capons, 210 chickens, and 170 eggs, while principal purchases were seed, hens, sheepwash, tar, oil, and lumber and hardware for constructing or repairing carts, ploughs, and manorial buildings and enclosure [F.W. Weaver, "Evercreech Manor Roll", Somerset & Dorset Notes and Queries, vol.11 (1909), pp. 227-46]. The account does not indicate whether any markets or fairs were the venue for such transactions – Evercreech being within a day's return journey to the market settlements of Castle Cary and Shepton Mallet – but many transactions are said to have taken place off-manor, although some from the manor-house.

In addition to welcoming transient clients, in some – conceivably most – cases, a manorial lord may have expected, if not required, his tenants to patronize his local market (perhaps especially in regions where market saturation created a high level of competivity); this we may infer from the few instances encountered of seigneurial concession that tenants were free to frequent other markets. Compulsion or liberty notwithstanding, there is ample evidence of farmers taking their produce to whichever market they felt offered potential for sales. Manorial lords and residents of small market communities in Oxfordshire, for example, are known to have regularly frequented the better-attended, and often more accessible, markets in towns such as Witney, Burford, Woodstock, and Oxford.

Yet we should not think of market licensing as a sweeping, generalized trend, but one that proceeded in more of a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, albeit with certain peak periods of activity. There were plenty of manorial lords disinclined to invest in a formal market, but instead preferring to sell, through the agency of their officials, surplus demesne produce directly from the manorial barns or at nearby markets. One example, described by Richard Britnell ["Production for the Market on a Small ourteenth-Century Estate," Economic History Review, n.s. vol.19 (1966), 380-87] is Langenhoe in Essex, a few miles south of Colchester; it was the sole manor of its owner, and has left us a number of financial accounts that identify buyers of the manor's grain and wool. Some buyers were those of the lord's own tenants who did not, on their own holdings, grow enough for their own needs. But at least half were townspeople of Colchester, presumably transacting purchases in the town's marketplace, although (to avoid toll) the manorial sergeant rarely took supplies into the marketplace – and when he did it was only modest amounts, intended for small sales – leaving it up to most of the customers there to come and collect their purchases at the manor and transport them back into Colchester, paying toll on or avoiding it (perhaps by smuggling, or attempting to claim the goods were for domestic use). Buyers of larger amounts of grain included Colchester bakers, inn-keepers, brewsters, and a miller. In the decades following the Black Death, grain production dropped off and wool prices were falling, so there was less effort to generate a marketable surplus; while Langenhoe cannot be assumed typical, it may well be that similar drop in productivity across England could have contributed to the decline or failure of a number of small-town markets. Yet while reduced demand for grain may have adversely impacted some markets, at the same time many plague survivors found their incomes rising, which stimulated consumption of other necessaries, while mobility within the rural consumer population – both in terms of inclination and of improved travel facilities – favoured better-stocked or cheaper markets over local convenience.

Like any business venture, each investment in the foundation of a new town or market centre was a calculated gamble that might succeed or fail. Failures tend to be less conspicuous, and so the number of these may have been greater than we can yet appreciate; for instance, in the second half of the fifteenth century Glastonbury's Abbot Selwood embarked on a development project within the abbey's demesne manor of Mells – at one extreme of its great mass of holdings in central Somerset – to increase the number of rental properties there. This entailed rebuilding part of the existing village as a crossroads neighbourhood between, at one end, the adjacent sites of parish church (also rebuilt, with impressive additions, during Selwood's abbacy) and manor-house and, at the other end, the main road (now named after Selwood, whose surname suggests his family lived not far from Mells, in which parish his father is documented as holding property) through the village [E. Williams et al., "New Street, Mells: A Building Survey of an Uncompleted Late Medieval Planned Development" Somerset Archaeology and Natural History, vol.130 (1986) pp.115-117]. For whatever reason – proximity to Frome, with its long-established (though only recently licensed) market, possibly a disincentive, or Selwood's successor perhaps less interested in Mells and curtailng the venture – what resembles, in several regards, a burghal component initiative was not completed to plan, new houses being put up, terrace-style, only along one street (known as New Street). Whether, had the project been fully realized, the abbey would have gone on to seek a market licence for Mells, we cannot know, but we may note that some Mells residents were already prospering from the cloth trade, that coal and iron ore were mined in the area around Mells, and that fairs were held there in a later period – Collinson's assertion [The History and Antiquities of Somerset, vol.3 (1791), p.463] that a mid-fourteenth century abbot had already obtained a market grant, derived from a Glastonbury monk's history of the abbey (a continuation of William of Malmesbury), cannot be substantiated from published national records, which include a manorial extent made at the Dissolution.

Historians have noticed that far fewer markets are seen in the Early Modern period than were licensed during the medieval centuries [the issue has most recently received attention from James Masschaele, "The multiplicity of medieval markets reconsidered", Journal of Historical Geography, vol.20 (1994), pp.255-71]. Explaining this diminution is not a simple matter. To an extent it may be due to inadequacy or misinterpretation of our sources. Some licences – which tend to be our principal evidence of markets – may not have been translated into operating institutions immediately or ever; a market granted by Henry III to Joan de Sanford at Great Missenden (Bucks.), for instance, was regranted in 1367 to Thomas de Mussenden, noting that neither Joan nor her heirs had ever implemented the licence, and in 1449 the grant was reissued to a subsequent Thomas' heir, Nicholas Inwardeby, in terms that hint at another hiatus in operation [Devon Archives and Local Studies Service, 1038 M/T/4/29]. Or markets that were put into operation never really got off the ground, or again were abandoned by some later owner as their yields fell, and we are usually at risk of arguing from silence – although the hundredal enquiries and quo warranto proceedings of the thirteenth century, along with inquisitions post mortem, document, and manorial records show or imply a number of markets that were actually in operation. The decay, shrinkage, abandonment, or partial supercession (by other modes of commerce) of some markets is documented, though less well, in a number of cases – Norfolk in particular having a number of market-endowed settlements that are now categorized as deserted villages – this generally appearing a phenomenon better evidenced in the late medieval or Tudor periods. But it is often hard to tell, certainly from silence, whether a market has ceased operation and, if so, precisely when. Yet the ups and downs of particular markets also owes something to an evolutionary process, not itself commented on, and perhaps not perceived, by contemporaries, in which the earlier and better-established markets, with their associated settlements of craft-oriented and/or mercantile operatives, were better able to weather hard times, while newer foundations lacked the resilience to flourish in an environment that had become increasingly competitive and where supply had perhaps outgrown demand. As usual, it is dangerous to generalize, or to assume that any generalization is valid for all regions of the country.

Those new towns which were well-placed, in terms of being on road-based or river-based routes carrying trade, and were not excessively vulnerable to hostile action in border settings, were likely to prosper, at least before the calamities of the fourteenth century: bad harvests, epidemics, foreign wars, burdensome taxation to pay for those wars, and social unrest. But the speculative fever that drove the creation of new towns and markets, while to some degree kept in check by a strategic business sense of manorial lords and by the formal licensing system, produced in some regions more such facilities than the volume of commerce, or perhaps the volume of rural produce, could support, so that it became a situation of survival of the most competitive; even market communities granted borough charters were not assured success, as illustrated by the Shropshire examples of Burford and Lydham.

Nonetheless, the foundation of planned market settlements within established communities continued, to and beyond the close of the Middle Ages, to be seen as a viable strategy for manorial improvement. Grant of market licences remained a standard tool that kings could use to reward supporters, as illustrated by the licence issued in 1468 to John de la Zouche, a Yorkist mainstay, for Castle Cary (Somers.); though not situated on roads of more than regional importance, it was a large village, perhaps church-focused, well before a castle was inserted (probably pre-dating the Anarchy) though that had, by 1486, been abandoned as baronial residence in favour of moated manor-house erected nearby. Development of the settlement took place within or immediately outside the outer bailey, and so Castle Cary could be considered a castle-town. It may have been around the time of the Zouche licence that a marketplace, flanked on three sides by rows of tenement plots, was laid out alongside the through-road (High Street, at that point); although market activity is evidenced at earlier date, the Zouche licence could signify an attempt to stimulate local commerce. Participation in the cloth trade was perhaps more instrumental in keeping the local economy alive, but there was relatively little further physical development of Castle Cary in the post-medieval period. Though a market charter was granted in 1614 and a Market House built, on the site of the medieval market cross, shortly thereafter – perhaps a further effort to revive market activity – the market was reported in 1791 as having long been discontinued [Collinson, cited by A.W. Grafton, "Charter for Market and Fairs at Castle Cary Granted by Edward IV," Notes & Queries for Somerset and Dorset, vol.6 (1899), p.131]. VCH and EUS authors concur in considering medieval Castle Cary borderline urban, though in the post-medieval period it was considered, at times, a market town.

A clearer instance of a failed market initiative is Fifield Bavant in Wiltshire. It had no conspicuous advantages for its site, though connected to Salisbury by the River Ebble (after it joined the Avon) and lying near, but not on, a road connecting the same city to Shaftesbury, via Wilton, which lay slightly closer than Salisbury; roads emanating from the hamlet of Fifield, however, were only local in destination. Nor did it acquire any reputation as a good source of produce, wool, or livestock and there is no indication of any industry developing there. The lands which became the parish of Fifield appear to have granted by the king to Wilton Abbey in 955, though that association was no longer evident by Domesday, in which we see two estates that subsequently amalgamated to form the manor. This was held, during Henry III's reign, by the Scudamore family, descending, through marriage to an heiress, to the Bavant family, from which it took its permanent name. Peter de Scudamore purchased, in 1267, licences for a Friday market and short fair at Martinmas (the parish church being dedicated to St. Martin, whose festival is in November) for his manor of Fifield Escudemor, as well as a Thursday market and September fair for his home-base manor of Upton Escudemor (, near, but not on, a Salisbury-Bath route, and sandwiched between Westbury andWarminster, at the latter of which the family also held a manor). His rationale for these investments is not clear. There is no indication Peter laid out any burgage plots around Fifield's market, probably held in a stretch of the through-road which linked the church and almost adjacent manor-house to a crossing of the Ebble. Perhaps Scudamore fell prey to the fervour for market-founding – which was about reaching its peak, though there were still a few niches to be found within the market network – hoped that owning such institutions might improve his social standing, or sought to tap into long-distance commerce frequenting prospering Wiltshire towns, capturing a share of that and otherwise relying on business activity from residents of the hamlets surrounding Fifield and the disposal of his demesne produce surplus.

He must have been disappointed with the outcome, for there is nothing to show his commercial institutions prospering, nor having any great promise of doing so. Domesday records only a few residents at Fifield and nearby hamlets were not particularly populous either; taxation evidence from the fourteenth century shows Fifield parish the least populous, and poorest of its hundred. St. Martin's was one of the smallest churches of the county, underwent very little renovation and no expansion during the Late Middle Ages, and its rectory offered only a poor living. There is no later reference to market or fair at Fifield (nor those at Upton), so – even though Peter Scudamore lived until ca.1293) we cannot be sure whether they were put into effect or, if so, how long operated before abandonment; neither the Bavants, nor any later manorial lord, considered it worthwhile to renew the licence. About the best that can be said of Fifield's commercial institutions is that they appear to have been unobjectionable to other market operators in that part of Wiltshire, though Fifield's proximity to the important market centre of Salisbury cannot have helped its prospects, and the relatively late date of the licence gave Fifeld's market an uphill challenge as regards competitiveness. By 1362 the manor farm, neglected, was falling into disrepair and the manor had barely a dozen tenants. Decline continued in the post-medieval period and Fifield Bavant shrank to be one of the smallest villages in Wiltshire, a clear indication – though by no means an isolated example – of how gambling on markets was no sure thing.

There was evidently a good deal of competition for a share in trade – often well-planned and sometimes aggressive – with legal battles ending in licence cancellations or settlements between parties (doubtless more common than surviving records show), although in many cases we do not know the resolution. The thirteenth century saw numbers of foundations of markets and new towns peak, but the majority of markets that came into operation in that period did not survive into the post-medieval period [P.T.H. Unwin, "Towns and Trade 1066-1500", in R.A. Dodgshon and R.A. Butlin, An Historical Geography of England and Wales, 2nd ed., London: Academic Press, 1990, pp.131-32]. Market saturation of most regions, together with the adversities of the fourteenth century, brought the medieval era of town-founding to a gradual close. The Industrial Revolution would stimulate a new, if more modest, wave of such activity along not dissimilar lines. In 1749, for example, Humphrey Senhouse built the town of Maryport, on a site on the Cumberland coast where a small harbour already existed, intending to capture a share of the coal trade, there being a growing number of collieries in the hinterland; by the end of the century several hundred families were settled on plots laid out in the grid-pattern of streets and worshipped at a church built for them by Senhouse, while iron-smelting and ship-building industries had sprung up, though a plan to dig a canal to Newcastle had not come to fruition. In this later era too further development of the commercial network and of urbanization was stimulated by improvements to the transportation infrastructure; but instead of the establishment of wharves along rivers and bridges over them, it was the advent of the railways.

The developing medieval transportation infrastructure interconnected major commercial hubs (redistribution centres) with lesser market sites ( collection centres for raw and manufactured goods). The former were mainly cities and select coastal ports, while many of the latter were urban communities whose industrial activities could be stimulated by the import of raw materials, by the aggregation of artisans, and by institutional organization of artisanal activities, while trade was fostered by the emergence of mercantile specialists accumulating the business connections and capital that enabled them to participate, with increasing effectiveness, in long-distance trade. These trends – in conjunction with other factors such as national regulation of economic matters and the development of credit instruments (if not with the degree of sophistication seen abroad, notably in Italy) – help justify a perception of post-Conquest England as a participant (if not a leading one) in the 'Commercial Revolution' of the Middle Ages.

The prime movers in this development of commerce are generally seen as merchants, and their importance cannot be gainsaid. Yet we must allow a not insignificant role to the seigneurial elite, who controlled much of the nation's wealth (landed), and used some of it to build the market network. Many of them were accustomed, whether directly or through their officials, to managing feudal assets for the purpose of revenue extraction and had sufficient business acumen – or at least could learn from the examples set by their fellows – to appreciate how they might leverage those assets to create new revenue streams through the growth of commerce; like most medieval financial assets, markets were capable of being leased or farmed out to others, as well as being partitioned among heirs, for what interested their owners was the revenue from them rather than their role as commercial institutions or communal facilities. Though this landed elite were not, for the most part, the agents directly involved in commerce, without their promotion of commercial activity, as suppliers of produce and of opportunities, we might wonder whether a native class of professional merchants, as opposed to itinerant chapmen, would have emerged quite so rapidly as it did, in the face of competition from foreign merchants. This 'sponsored' development of English commerce and a mercantile class, which gradually came to operate in a commercial sphere independent of feudal relations, would do much to reshape English society, including the landholding nobility itself.

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Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: August 4, 2020 © Stephen Alsford, 2018-2020