go to table of contents  INTRODUCTION 

 Underpinnings of the market town network

Keywords: market attributes urban origins towns occupations economy development commerce industry wik burh productive sites manorial system roads minster churches marketplace stalls shops fairs festivals evecheapings town-founding burgage tenure Higham Ferrers castle-towns Bingham deserted villages

This section of the study, continuing somewhat into the next, will, at the risk of being repetitive, give further consideration to markets, and to a lesser degree fairs, in regard to some of their inherent characteristics and some of the contextual factors underlying development of a commercial network. Based on the foregoing discussion, a working definition, a little more elaborate than the usual simple dictionary definition and applicable to both markets and fairs during the Middle Ages, may be posited as: regular public congregations, at set places and times, of producers, middlemen, and consumers, primarily for the purpose of effecting, according to established norms, transactions involving the remunerated distribution, or redistribution, (whether present or future) of a wide range of raw and processed commodities, whereby the owner-operator of the event is expected to regulate proceedings and permitted to exact taxes, fees, or fines from certain types of participant. Most of the discussion that follows relates to some aspect of this definition.

As already discussed urbanization and the growth of a market network were two phenomena closely linked in medieval England. This is not to discount the role of non-urban markets, which appear even more numerous (although an unknown number may actually represent urbanization ambitions never realized), but over the course of time, as commercial competitiveness played out, it tended to be the urban markets that controlled a growing share of trade, and even among those it was the stronger, better diversified occupationally, and more adaptable that were able to maintain a market role in times of economic downturn. At their essence, market towns, by attracting settlers with specialized skills and diverse aptitudes, were able to function as points for the collection and redistribution of the surplus agricultural produce or raw resources of the surrounding countryside (above all, grain and wool), and as outlets for furnishing regional residents with craft products such as processed foods, clothing, tools and utensils. Peasant and yeomen farmers may have been the backbone of markets, in terms of the volume of goods for sale, but artisans might supply specialized products that could win a reputation for particular markets. The most common of the processed or manufactured goods would be produced locally in modest quantities – hence we typically find in towns of all sizes occupations such as brewers, bakers, butchers, smiths, and makers of woollen cloth and leather shoes – but the less common items (e.g. salt) or those more specialized or valuable were likely to be brought in from further afield. Occupations involved in processing agricultural raw materials tended to concentrate in settlements of an urban or proto-urban character; tanners, shoemakers and other leather-workers are a notable example, although it would be going too far to suggest that the presence of a high volume of leather-workers within a local occupational structure can be used as a defining characteristic of a community that was, or was becoming, urban.

Analysis of occupational structure can, however, be muddied by the entrepreneurial proclivity of medieval townsmen to engage in more than one field of economic activity at the same time (for craftspeople often seem to have engaged, to some extent, in producing agricultural materials for household consumption or for sale) or to shift their main area of operations at need, season, or opportunity, so that the same individual can be qualified by different occupations on different occasions; on the other hand, there is the problem of differentiating men of the same name who were in different occupations. Furthermore there is inconsistency regarding the recording of occupational qualifiers. The wiks are an early instance of seemingly deliberate efforts by members of the Anglo-Saxon elite to establish certain sites, usually at coastal locations, as foci for commerce – including long-distance trade in prestige objects (e.g. dress accessories) the elite themselves needed to maintain their own status, through both display and gifting. However, as foodstuffs, textiles, basketry, and wooden objects tend to leave less trace in the archaeological record than metals or leatherware, we cannot be certain as to the range of goods that exchanged hands at wiks. The transition to market-led exchange was more one of supplementation than supercession.

Not only commerce but also industry could be a catalyst for the beginnings of urban development – well before the textile industries played such a large role in stimulating urbanization – for in addition to the wiks there are places (not necessarily coastal) for which archaeologists have coined the term 'productive sites' as a category with a role in the incipient phase of development of a market-based economy in the Early Middle Ages. The term does not strictly refer to industrial production but rather the discovery at such places – both urban and rural – of particular types of manufactured items or of coins (including foreign coins) in quantities that are larger than might be expected from such locations, and allow us to infer the presence of industrial and associated commercial activities, these seeming natural concomitants. Alternatively, coin assemblages might be connected with various forms of tribute (potentially including taxes and tolls), and indicative of administrative centres whose lords lay at the centre of social relationships characterized by mutual obligations; in this context, markets served to 'convert' coins into other material goods and to redistribute coinage. The term has been criticized, however, as suggesting a homogeneity that remains to be demonstrated; nor can we be certain that such sites were centres not only of production but of consumption, though some trading is likely enough to have occurred. 'Productive sites', by extension, has also come to be applied to places where specialized and organized industrial activity – notably metalworking, but also ceramics production or textile-making – can be posited. Common, though not universal, characteristics of these sites include that they:

Most of these 'productive sites' are associated primarily with the Middle Saxon period (e.g. Ramsbury) and industrial activity seems to have diminished or disappeared in later periods. Yet specialized industries would continue to play a key role in the development of urban market centres throughout the Middle Ages – the growth of the cloth-making industry, and its specializations, being the widespread example, though it was the manufacture of cutlery that became fundamental to Thaxted's economy and at Torksey pottery. A small number of market towns developed because of the salt extraction industry, and should probably be included in the category of towns whose origins lie in 'productive sites' (as per the extended definition). These were not simply the salt wiches of Cheshire and Worcestershire, but also coastal settlements such as Lynn and Wainfleet (Lincs.) where salt was harvested from the marshes bordering the Wash; Wainfleet appears a late example of a productive site that was developing into a market town. We can only conclude that there was no single model for the gestation of towns in early medieval England, but that the shaping of social relationships, the regulation of economic activity, and the exploitation of the landscape and its resources, by kings and other members of the Anglo-Saxon elite, both secular and ecclesiastical, are the context for the process of re-urbanization.

If we can say, tentatively, that every settlement of any size needed a market, formal or informal, it is also true that every market came to need a community of traders and consumers close at hand, even though a percentage of the buying and selling would likely be carried out by visitors. As far as we can tell from the sparse surviving evidence, larger market centres tended to have a greater variety of goods for sale, and to attract larger numbers of visiting buyers and sellers, but merchants were prepared to travel varying distances to small markets in order to obtain those commodities central to their business interests or to aggregate raw resources that they could re-sell in bulk elsewhere (in larger markets, at fairs, or abroad). As agricultural productivity improved, population expanded, creating higher demand but also a division of land so that many had to supplement what they produced, from that land, with purchased goods, quality of life expectations grew for at least the wealthier strata of the population, and economic transactions became increasingly monetized (that is, growing need for cash), the volume of trade increased, and so too the need, or opportunity, for a denser network of markets.

The desire by landlords to exploit that opportunity was an important factor in creating this network, which was shaped initially as much by feudal geography and the intent of feudal lords to earn money from their territorial resources as by the directions followed by established communication routes, which would naturally draw traders through areas of rural resources towards centres of consumer populations. Those routes had more enduring influence in determining which manorial markets would flourish and which would fail. The landed lords were providing for their own needs, in terms of goods and services. They were diversifying the use of land on their estates and increasing the value of some of that land (through higher rents). They were widening the range of their revenue sources. They were managing a growing surplus of worker population by providing options for self-realization (which might be hoped to counter fugitive tendencies among their peasant tenants. At the same time, as Richard Britnell has pointed out ["The Making of Witham", History Studies, vol.1 (1968), p18], they were building a local consumer group for estate produce – people who did not have their own land to farm but relied on the local market to supply it. However, the flip side of this coin was that the proliferation of market settlements with burghal characteristics produced a more competitive economic environment in which only the fittest would survive.

The pace and extent of medieval urbanization varied from one part of the country to another; outbreaks of war for instance, tended to slow or halt the process, at least in some areas. On the other hand, military exigencies could benefit some, as for example in March 1370 when the king ordered that anyone in the eastern counties with victuals for sale should take them only to those market towns within twelve leagues of the port of Orwell, where he was planning to assemble an army (this shortly being countermanded due to popular complaints such as that of the Cambridge scholars that no victuals were coming to feed their university town), or in the following year when sheriffs of eastern and southern counties were instructed to buy up large quantities of grain and malt for provisioning Calais and other English strongholds in its vicinity.

Prior to the crises of the fourteenth century, and even allowing for a bias in our perception caused by the spread of bureaucratic record-keeping, which gives the historian a better picture of what was going on, the general trend was one of growth. Although historians tend to focus on larger towns that have left us richer documentation and have been the beneficiaries of greater archaeological investigation, much of the urban growth took the form of the hundreds of small towns, whose inhabitants – though only numbering (around the early fourteenth century) from a few hundred to just above a thousand or so per town, collectively represented around half of the urban population of medieval England – formed communities less complex in socio-economic terms and less advanced in terms of powers of self-government than the boroughs that are most to the fore within the strands of national history. Hertfordshire, for example, had only five places acknowledged as boroughs by the close of the eleventh century, all of them small settlements of a partly rural character (burgesses forming a minority of the populations), and a handful of other probable market settlements. About two centuries later, to address increased demand for goods and services from a population that had more than doubled, "around sixteen places in Hertfordshire were recognizable as towns." [T.R. Slater and Nigel Goose, A County of Small Towns: The development of Hertfordshire's urban landscape to c.1800, University of Hertfordshire Press 2008, p.46] Sixteen markets, urban and rural, had been established within Hertfordshire by 1200 and another nineteen by 1350, giving the county, which bordered on the great consumer base and commercial centre of London, a relatively high market saturation. On the whole, however, small towns were primarily centres of exchange for the immediate area around the town, though also serving to some degree as redistribution points for local produce to be acquired by long-distance merchants. The local trades and industries tended not to be very specialized, for they catered mainly to the normal demands of households for staple foodstuffs (bread, ale, meat, fish, dairy products) and clothing (cloth and leather).

Much of this is equally true of the four counties whose market settlements have been examined in the context of the present study. Some markets appear to have been established primarily to serve the needs of local residents, perhaps particularly the seigneurial household, and of farmers of the immediate surrounds, while the emergence of other markets along important routes connecting provincial centres, or at waterside locations accessible to the sea, suggest an intent to tap into long-distance commerce. Those market settlements advantageously situated on or close by navigable rivers or well-used through-roads could expect to serve a distributive function that went beyond the needs of the locality, and this tended to engender a relatively high occupational diversity. Whereas the kinds of occupational activities seen in the smallest towns, or in burghal components established within or next to villages, were, for the most part, those responding to the most basic needs of the community for food, clothing, and shelter. Such activities were secondary to the predominantly agricultural pursuits of that community – that is, they exploited the locally-produced resources of agriculture and animal husbandry, through repurposing. In some cases the presence or proximity of a religious house, with a slightly wider range of needs to be catered for, attracted a wider range of occupations to the lay community. It is often hard to differentiate large villages from small towns, or to judge the point where one transitions to the other; the appearance of a market on-site is not a very good guide for dating such transitions, nor is evidence of the existence of burgages or burgesses at such places; nonetheless they are in many cases the best indicators available to us. In recent times the term 'medieval town' has been misleadingly expanded – largely courtesy of the tourism industry; it is properly applied to settlements that had urban status or an urban character at some point during the Middle Ages, and not to medieval villages that became towns in the post-medieval period. It should be noted that, in a few of the cases of market sites examined in this study it remains questionable whether they had urban status or character.

While some Roman (or older) military or colonial sites became the basis for the development of a number of medieval towns, this had less to do with continued occupation (which was negligible in most cases) than with good geographic location, survival of a defensive enclosure, and the adoption of such sites for early ecclesiastical or royal administration, which in turn attracted providers of goods and services to settle there. Roman buildings were often levelled, or cannibalized for construction materials. The well-built Roman roads were made use of by the Anglo-Saxons, who often established settlements within easy access of, though less commonly directly on, them; one consequence was that such roads came to serve as boundaries between manors or parishes. Yet as those roads came into increasing use by commercial traffic, where they were crossed by other roads created potential points for members of different communities to trade, and so small towns might develop at those points in the post-Conquest period; some of these towns consequently straddled administrative boundaries.

The Anglo-Saxon royal families gradually secured their hold on their kingdoms by building networks of royal estates serving as administrative centres. The Christianization of England in the Early Middle Ages involved the establishment of minster churches, initially to spearhead conversion and later to administer a growing network of lesser places of worship; the minster system faded away after the Conquest, its buildings replaced by parish churches. At sites where topographical and other evidence suggest the presence of a combination of minster church, lay settlement, marketplace, and sometimes royal residence and/or indications of a planned layout, there is a strong presumption of an urban or proto-urban character. Any site where periodic gatherings of people took place – whether church services or or court sessions – were likely to attract traders and be candidates for the planned development of towns. The case of Hovingham suggests that, despite markets generally being perceived as fixed events, if there was insufficient commercial activity to warrant that, they might be held irregularly.

The proximity of marketplace and church was not simply a matter of business agreements being made in the sight of God, and finalized sometimes with an oath or the giving of God's-penny. Churches were typically erected on higher ground within a locality, away from insalubrious marshy or flood-prone land around the edge of rivers beside which towns tended to grow up; public gatherings such as markets would also want to avoid those areas, and early settlement riverside might sometimes relocate to dryer ground. Furthermore, their raised sites increased the role of churches as local beacons, indicating to arriving commercial travellers the likely location of market activity. Even after many markets had been moved out of churchyards, the association with divine oversight of commercial transactions was retained through the neighbouring presence of a church (or chapel), or the erection of a cross at either the focus or the boundary of a marketplace, to designate the functional and jurisdictional nature of the space; such crosses were often superseded in the Late Middle Ages, or later, by covered market houses. Where a parish church was not close at hand to a marketplace, we often find a chapel built to serve those using the market or residing nearby; doubtless it was hoped that some of the money changing hands in a market context might end up as offerings in the chapel.

The association of market events with known, regular times was an ancient one, and periodicity is considered an fundamental characteristic of the medieval market network. Domesday provides several examples of manorial markets held on fixed days: Saturday at the Suffolk competitors Eye and Hoxne, and at Wallingford (Berks.), Sunday at St. Germans (Cornwall) which had been out-competed by the Count of Mortain's nearby market at the castle-town of Trematon, for which Domesday also evidences seigneurial revenues from the market. Sundays provided the opportunity for trading to take place in or beside churchyards, and was probably a common day for informal markets to occur, since a congregation of worshippers was predictable. The Church objected to the practice, on the grounds that Sunday markets attracted parishioners away from Mass and disrupted services with their noise; it tried to suppress them, with limited success. As late as 1449, parliament was being petitioned against markets and fairs – by that date, many owned and operated by the Church itself – taking place on Sundays or on major religious festivals of the year, on the aforementioned grounds, and also because: they were a form of manual labour, in regard to the transport of consumer goods and erection of booths or stalls (a Saxon term meaning stands, or standing places); they encouraged wordly covetousness and the commission of sin, through argumentative and deceitful commercial bargaining, making of false oaths, and drunkenness. Several Saxon kings had prohibited market activity on Sundays, though the repetition itself implies non-compliance. Papal prohibition of market activity on days of worship had more effect, and in 1285 the Statute of Winton (cap.6) concluded with a terse prohibition of markets or fairs being held in churchyards, as incompatible with religious pursuits. The present study includes a number of instances where markets were changed from Sunday to a weekday. Yet old habits die hard, and in 1351 the Archbishop of Canterbury had to reiterate the Church's prohibition on people going to markets on Sunday, while in 1390 the king ordered the market at Betley (Staffs.) to be taken into his hands if an inquisition confirmed the allegation that a descendant of the original licensee (1227) had, to the detriment of the devout populace, changed the day from Thursday to Sunday without a new licence and so was unjustly taking profits therefrom. In 1380 the burgesses of Appleby-in-Westmorland, in the context of a plea of impoverishment aimed at winning a reduction in the borough farm and taxes, argued that market revenues had been severely reduced due to merchants frequenting instead unlicensed events held in and beside churchyards at five or six other places within about a ten-mile radius – in fact, of these Kirby Stephen and Morland had received licences from Edward III (for markets on days other than Sunday), suggesting that the complaint may have been directed against evechepyngs or other informal gatherings for commercial activity following church services; the king ordered that these unauthorized kirkemarkettys cease and desist, but whether this was successfully enforced is unknown. A similar complaint from the burgesses of Stafford, against unauthorized Sunday markets at several other nearby boroughs, was investigated two years later, although again the licence records refer to days other than Sunday. Even ecclesiastical institutions could ignore the objection to Sunday markets; Waltham Abbey, for instance, seems to have held its market on Sundays as late as 1560, while the Chester sheriffs' book for 1512/13 records the presentment of two men and two women for selling merchandize in a local cemetery, and of the sexton and another official of the church for allowing them to do so. Even the 1449 petition seeking a ban on holding or attending commercial events on days of worship excepted the retail of victuals.

Nonetheless, there was some movement away from Sunday markets, and Saturday seems to have become the preferred substitute, though not a universal option, because of the legal principle aimed at avoiding direct competition between neighbouring markets. A quick-and-dirty analysis of Letters' Gazetteer entries indicates – bearing in mind that we are looking at a market network developed over the course of several centuries, with Sunday apparently a customary day in earlier centuries, before the licensing system was implemented, and that a number of markets were shifted (sometimes more than once) to a different day over the course of their histories – that the least common market-day was Sunday, followed by Saturday and then Friday, with Monday the most popular (about twice as common as Friday) and with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday about equally favoured; but there were so many variables at play in choice of market-day that such analysis can only be impressionistic, and it would be dangerous to over-interpret these statistics. In the selection of Sunday, adherence to doctrine was perhaps occasionally trumped by protection of income or other pragmatic concerns; in 212, for example, the Abbot of Westminster was willing to purchase a licence for a prescriptive market in order to restore market-day to Sunday from Saturday, this being for a market at Ashwell (Herts.) that one of his successors would claim to have been part and parcel of a manor granted the abbey by the Confessor. A licence did not, however, guarantee a market would be held on the day authorized. In a relatively small number of cases, and probably for a variety of reasons, licences were not immediately put into effect, and might require additional authorization when eventually they were implemented, or even a new licence with change of day. A variant of this situation is seen at Hovingham (Yorks.), for which manor Roger Mowbray in 1252 acquired licence for a Thursday market and August fair. But, some forty years later, his like-named son was accused by the king's attorney, in quo warranto proceedings, of not holding the events as licensed. To which Roger replied that Hovingham lay in a sparsely populated region – he might also have mentioned that it was very hilly, making transportation more difficult – and that only when there was enough local demand for a market or fair was one held, the former on Mondays.

The advantages inherent in regularizing market-day in any given locality was likely an early characteristic, and perhaps implicit in use of the term 'market' in legal contexts. The sparse and scattered evidence we have of markets in the pre-licensing period suggests they were probably held once a week, consistently on the same weekday, often the day of worship. A weekly occurrence of markets must have owed something to household needs for fresh supplies in an age when few foodstuffs had preservatives; while meat might be kept for extended periods salted, fish cured, or herbs dried, one of the most basic food sources – flour – more rapidly deteriorated in quality in a time before wheat germ was removed from grain during the milling process. Even though it would take months before unrefined flour became inedible, it would begin to harden within little more than a week; so it would have been desirable for households to buy fresh grain on about a weekly basis. Fairs were not focused as much on processed comestibles and could take place on an annual basis, usually at a convenient time to the availability of a large quantity of surplus goods (e.g. wool crop) that could be traded wholesale. Though held less frequently than markets, they had a longer, typically multi-day, duration whichpermitted a wider catchment area for participants.

Market licences also point to an official market-day once a week, when consumers and vendors – both locals and outsiders – could be assured that market activity would take place and presumably a market supervisor would be on hand to collect tolls and deal with problems. This does not seem to have precluded trading taking place on other days – the evolution of shops facilitating everyday shopping – but borough regulations show that the authorities' preference was to restrict market activity in terms of place and time, although the latter tended to apply to a specific period during the day, rather than confining market activity to a specific day. The general impression is that, in the larger towns, some level of market activity might take place on multiple days of the week, though perhaps with one or more particular days designated for formal and full markets, presumably for the benefit of hinterland farmers and itinerant merchants. An ordinance of 1347 may reflect both the longer-standing principle underlying a market, and the pressures that were undermining that principle:

"It is ordained by the whole commonality, that no butcher having a shop, or part of a shop, have any table standing in the market on any day in the week except only Saturday, and that then the market being finished, all tables be carried away and amoved, and in some certain place, where best they can, without nuisance, be laid up, and that on other days in their shops, those having shops, or part of a shop, may sell flesh. But if any foreigner come with flesh on other days on which the market is holden who have not shops, nor part of a shop, it shall be lawful for them to hire tables from the treasurers, and to sell their flesh, nevertheless that the market being finished, the tables aforesaid being amoved, as above is said;"
[Peter Bryan and Nick Wise, "A Reconstruction of the Medieval Cambridge Market Place," Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, vol.91 (2002), p.29]
Traders who failed to remove their stalls at the end of market-day were threatened with confiscation of the structure and amercement.

The association of fairs with gatherings for religious ceremonies is also suggested, by the fact that fairs all focused around particular Christian festivals – in quite a few cases the feast-day of the saint to which a local church, or (less commonly) an altar within that church, was dedicated, although coordination of the fair with the availability of local produce for wholesale was evidently also influential in determining the timing of a fair. The latter factor would seem self-evident to the modern mind, the former factor needs brief explanation: since the well-being and good fortune of the parish and its residents depended partly on the favour of its (implicit) patron saint, it was natural to expect that church services, wakes or other celebratory activities at the saint's festival would attract an exceptionally large congregation, making it a convenient occasion for the conduct of commerce; by the same token, outsiders looking to sell or buy, if they knew the dedications of local churches, could plan travel to capitalize on such events. The associations between fair dates and church dedications, when ascertainable, are mostly straightforward, although in a few cases (such as at Harwich) less obvious; many associations may be inconspicuous because inspired by undocumented altars within churches, by some even more obscure personal devotion, or simply for reasons we cannot identify. For example, in 1333 John de Wroxhale, his son and wife licensed a market and a fair at the festival of SS. Philip and James for their manor of Powerstock (Dorset). Although the church there was dedicated to St. Mary, churches dedicated to St. James – not one of the more common dedications – are found in other manors with associations to the Wrokeshale family, such as at Eastbury (Berks.), East Chelborough (Dorset), and both South and North Wraxall (Wilts.), in which last Geoffrey de Wrokeshale founded a chantry dedicated to St. Mary and All Saints, whilst Eleanor de Gorges (née Wrokeshale) licensed (1291) a fair on All Souls for the Somerset Wraxall (whose church was dedicated to All Saints), and the church at the Dorset Wraxall (very close to Powerstock) was dedicated to St. Mary. We cannot be certain that the Wrokeshales were the manorial lords who erected all these churches, but Domesday makes no mention of them, though at least two retain some Norman fabric. Dedicating churches to the Virgin Mary was commonplace, but perhaps St. James the Great had some personal significance to the family, albeit that it was not a Christian name given to any known family member.

In some cases the coincidence of fair date and church dedication can help identify the location of the fair; but we must be cautious in using dedication as a predictive tool. For instance, in 1328 royal licence was issued for a market and fair at the festival of St. Katherine, to be held at Fritton (Norf.); however, there are two manors so-named in that county, with a third formerly on the Suffolk border, and, as luck would have it, the former both have churches with the relatively uncommon dedication to the aforementioned saint, so that we must call on other information – such as that in the grant itself and in Blomefield's county history – to narrow down to the Fritton in Morningthorpe parish, in south Norfolk. Taking another example from the same county, the fair licensed (1305) by the lord of Billingford for the festival of All Saints might support the notion that of the two such-named places, that in South Norfolk is meant, its parish church having that dedication; but it is rather the Breckland Billingford (with church dedicated to St. Peter) where the fair was in fact held. Ecclesiastical seigneurs in particular seem, in their choice of timing for fairs, to have been less consistently influenced by local church dedication.

Despite the practical advantages of having fairs coincide with locally important festivals, and putting aside preferences stemming from personal piety, many, fair founders seem to have taken into consideration other practicalities of timing; when, for instance, in 1305 the townsmen of the port of Rye asked the king to alter the date of their licensed fair from early September to mid-August, it was on the grounds that people of their region needed to be out at sea, fishing, at the former period, thus diminishing attendance at the fair. Predictably, fairs were fewer in the winter months when travel, both by land or sea, was more challenging, and more plentiful during sheep-shearing season and at crop harvest time. We know of a mere handful of fairs that occurred during January, at places all with markets and all but one in the southern half of England. Half of these fairs were first documented only in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Furthermore, most were in towns (e.g. Lynn, Salisbury, Plymouth, Barnsley), where commerce was not dependent on agricultural/pastoral produce, and where there often already existed at least one older fair held in a more amenable season. The only instances whose timing may have been selected in relation to a saint of mainly local significance are those at Westminster (Edward the Confessor) and at Cawston (Norf.) – the sole non-urban setting for a January fair – where the church of St. Agnes played a key part in festivities that included the blessing of a plough.

All January fairs were short events, except that at Lynn, which extended for some weeks. In the adjacent months of February and December the numbers rose only to about two dozen and three dozen, respectively – the tally for December perhaps being artificially boosted by inclusion of the festival dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of merchants, and of other traders and artisans of various kinds, as well as of fishermen, sailors, and travellers in general; Graham Jones [Church Dedications and Landed Units of Lordship and Administration in the Pre-Reformation Diocese of Worcester, University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1996, p.126] has noted a pronounced but unsurprising urban bias for dedications of churches, chapels, and altars to St. Nicholas, whose cult quickly acquired popularity in England during the initial post-Conquest centuries – there were, for example, eleven such dedications in mercantile Bristol by the late fourteenth century. The choice of St. Nicholas as dedication for a marketside church has been noted in a number of the case studies presented here. This association persisted into relatively recent times: East Grafton (Wilts), for which a market licence was acquired in 1347, was originally a manor within the parish of Great Bedwyn, but in 1844 obtained its own parish, for which a church was built – at one corner of a triangular green which likely served as marketplace – and dedicated to St. Nicholas. However, the Translation of St. Nicholas in May attracted fewer than a dozen fairs – at least, explicitly (but see Harwich).

By contrast with St. Nicholas, none of the saints who were, in various parts of Europe, patrons of farmers or agricultural labourers left much, if any, mark in terms either of festivals around which fairs were held or dedications of parish churches in market settlements, with the arguable exceptions of: St. Benedict (a scarcity the more surprising given the modest number of commercial institutions licensed by Benedictine houses), his main festival (March) being a little early to be useful for fairs, though his translation (July) was an occasional choice; and St. Botolph (June), whose popularity was primarily, though not exclusively, in eastern England. March saw about the same number of fairs as December, then the number almost doubled in April – thanks partly to those around the festival of St. George, a patron saint of agricultural workers, whose cult acquired growing popularity in England from the thirteenth century. In May fairs spiked to almost triple the April number, doubling again in June, and then increasing only more gradually until September, when there may have been around four hundred fairs taking place across England, Michaelmas and the Nativity of the Virgin Mary looming large. Numbers dropped drastically in October, but underwent a small resurgence in November, perhaps due to the importance of the festival of All Saints.

This rough survey, conducted on information in Letters' Gazetteer, does not differentiate between prescriptive and licensed fairs, nor account for changes in numbers across the course of the Late Middle Ages, as new fairs were introduced and existing ones failed; it should be considered only as impressionistic. Whether there might possibly be any correlation between the choice of dedications for new churches built in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries and the more productive months for trading must be left to future investigators.

The term 'fair' derives from the Latin feria meaning a festival or holy-day (other than Sundays) when a special market event was held; that a fair was indeed essentially a market writ large may be posited from the adoption of the Latin nundinae to refer to fairs, although for the Romans it meant markets, which took place every ninth day. A note in one manuscript of Britton's treatise on Common Law differentiated markets and fairs in the following way:

A fair is a market of all manner of victual, and of all manner of other things, as of horses and other beasts, and birds, and also of aveer de poyz [avoirdupois], as spiceries and other such things ; also of gold, silver, tin, and other metals, of precious stones, linen, cloth, furs, arms, and all kinds of merchandise; and this once a year. But markets in country towns may be one day in the week ; in boroughs, two days ; in cities, three. But in London and in a town having the same liberties as London, every day of the week, save Sunday.
[Francis Morgan Nichols, Britton: An English translation and notes, Washington: John Byrne, 1901, vol.1, p.326n.]

The assignment of fairs to specific festivals was surely more than just a dating convention that would help traders remember when fairs occurred; the association goes back to the Early Middle Ages [First report of the Royal Commission on Market Rights and Tolls, London: H.M.S.O., 1889, p.1] and its continuation throughout the medieval period was intended to take advantage of days when normal work was suspended and when the local populace congregated at church, or, conversely, perhaps to use the attraction of fairs to create larger congregations for festival observances. However, in order to draw buyers and sellers from far afield, some of them itinerant, who might not be able to attend on the saint's day itself, fairs were seldom limited to the day of the festival. Three days tended to be the usual minimum, although some were initially granted longer durations, while a smaller number (the more successful, in terms of volume of business and appeal to foreign merchants) grew, through subsequent increments, to durations up to a couple of weeks; it is hard to imagine how effectively judicial administration, even at piepowder speed, could have been carried out without at least a three-day duration. The selection of dates owed at least as much to the season when major items of produce were expected to be ready for sale in bulk; when a sixteenth-century statute banned fairs and markets from taking place on Sundays and on certain key festivals, it excepted Sundays during harvest-time. Fair durations included the eve of the festival, and commercial events on such vigils or wakes may represent an early variant of fairs, whereby buying and selling took place, often in or adjacent to churchyards, but without any tolls being leviable, unless the organizer had obtained royal grant of that right [On wakes see the Report of the Royal Commission on Market Rights, p.2];. they came increasingly to be perceived as illicit and to spawn less reputable manifestations known as evecheapings, explicitly outlawed in London – where no market was supposed to be held after the bells of St. Paul's rang curfew at sundown – and craft gilds there were generally opposed to them [George Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London, London: Methuen, 1908, p.73; Gwyn Williams, Medieval London: From Commune to Capital, rev.ed. London: Athlone Press, 1970, pp.184, 186], as undermining gild efforts to keep workmanship standards high by limiting participation in their industries, e.g. craft ordinances of 1398 prohibiting city leather-sellers from sending their wares to such events. Although the medieval term evechepyng is unlikely to have played a role in the much later mergence of the concept of black market, we may note that both share the attribute of being clandestine outlets for goods sold, typically in unsupervised and often suspect transactions in which prices, quantities, or qualities of wares might not conform to standards. Even down to modern times, and with the exception of formal night markets (which have more of a recreational than business character, and are primarily an Asian phenomenon), licit open air markets have remained preponderantly daylight events, for good reasons.

birds-eye view of the site of Old Sarum
Google satellite image of the site of Old Sarum
The principal remains of medieval settlement atop the long-settled hillfort site are the ruins of the castle, with its own ditch and embankment surrounding the mound atop which were the keep, palace, and inner bailey, and the outline of the cathedral, shown by exposed foundation stones, with its cloister also just visible. What, besides ancillary buildings of the cathedral-priory, occupied the remainder of the large area within the stone walls encompassing the site, has long been the subject of speculation, with civil settlement thought to have focused mainly on suburbs outside the eastern and western gateways to the hilltop.
model of Old Sarum
Model of Old Sarum, made 1927 by John B. Thorp; photo: Kurt Kastner. This file has been made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
This model, most recently exhibited in Salisbury Cathedral, represents a conjectural reconstruction of Old Sarum as it might have appeared ca 1200, with a civil settlement filling the area not occupied by castle or cathedral-priory. It was made for display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire museum but (thatinterpretation having gone out of fashion), replaced with one that relocated most residential buildings to the suburbs. Very recent archaeological discoveries, however, suggest the older interpretation may yet be more accurate, though market activity was perhaps extra-mural.

The gradual revival of internal trading in the Early Middle Ages encouraged centralization of economic activities, while the revival of maritime commerce gave rise to specialized trading centres, mainly on the coasts. The associated return to coinage, as a medium of economic transactions, and the creation of a network of burhs reinforced this centralizing trend; Offa's burhs, for instance, were erected not simply to consolidate control over territories of which he became sovereign, but to create commercial centres that tied Mercia's economy in to those of southern and eastern England. In the Anglo-Saxon period kings were the pre-eminent founders or patrons of towns and, because of the desire to assure the security of economic assets and monitor the legality of commercial transactions, deliberately sought to associate markets and towns. The establishment of mints at selected places is a further indication of the kind of economic activity there which is considered a fundamental characteristic of urban life, as well as the intent by the monarchy to exercise some control of such activity; furthermore, since coins were an indicator of royal authority, the mints had a propaganda value, their output identifying territories that had returned under the control of Anglo-Saxon monarchs. While the period of creation of the burhs, particularly in southern and western England, may have been prompted primarily by defensive concerns, they were also seen as important bases for keeping regional populations supplied with the necessities of life. However, this does not necessarily imply the existence of markets in terms of formal events held regularly on a particular day of the week, as they were later to become. Nor can we imagine that, despite the apparent intent of some Anglo-Saxon kings, commerce could be confined to urban markets, and any such notion was soon abandoned by the authorities. Yet historical developments continued to favour urban settlements as foci of trade and places where trade could more effectively be regulated.

Even greater momentum was provided to urbanization after the Conquest. The establishment of Norman dominance in England was not assured by the Battle of Hastings; that was only a first step. The process of subjugating the various regions relied on the efforts not just of William of Normandy but of his principal followers and supporters, and this necessitated a relaxation of the earlier dominance of monarchic control over established towns and the development of new ones. That process of subjugation can be generalized, at the risk of over-simplifying, as entailing the following steps:

  1. Securing tenure of the land, beginning with allocations of seigneurial manors from the Crown and followed by taking possession and imposing lordship. This often involved identifying strategic locations within those manors, such as river crossings, crossroads, or existing towns, and installing fortified residences there; but nor should we discount the need to assert Norman authority within a Saxon landscape, by supplanting Saxon manor-houses or fortifications with Norman equivalents.
  2. Fostering the development of settlements, whether new or existing, in a way that both consolidated lordship and facilitated (in the Norman model) profitable exploitation of landed resources;.
  3. Acculturation, in terms of introducing imported institutions, behavioural habits, and speakers of French – in some cases fusing these elements with those already found in situ, and developing a new Anglo-Norman culture out of the merger; in the case of towns this was effected in part through concessions of liberties and privileges..

The second of these steps tended to be drawn out across multiple generations of seigneurial families. It included: subinfeudation within estates (to assure military and administrative support); foundation of new religious houses, often with ties to the continent; enticing new settlers – particularly foreigners who would strengthen military and cultural dominance and develop commerce and industry; establishment and. formalizing markets and fairs, in part to improve the supply line (also linking more to the continent); and founding new towns or, more often, urban units within or adjacent to, existing rural, or occasionally urban, settlements – Normans were very familiar with small market towns and the kinds of concessions necessary to such communities to entice settlers. Here we are concerned with those last two aspects of market and town development, which were closely related: rather than viewing them as an irresoluble chicken-and-egg issue, we might do better to think of them as hand-in-glove phenomena.

The new Norman monarchy relied, for control and administration of the realm, on the continued loyalty of the magnates and prelates to whom it distributed estates throughout England. Land (including the associated sets of rights and relationships) was the principal asset of the ruling class, but the fragmentation of baronial holdings hindered the development of deeply emotional territorial attachments that might have threatened monarchic overlordship, and instead the importance of land lay in how it could be used to generate wealth, power, and social status; this allowed it to become increasingly commoditized over the course of the Middle Ages. In return for this decentralized administration, the Crown relaxed its dominance of the urban sector and the profits stemming therefrom, enabling the new landlords to exploit their domains by creating purpose-built commercial settlements – small market towns – or through additions to existing Saxon villages and towns. While places where people congregated for other purposes, such as churchyards, or were likely to cross paths, such as at crossroads, were natural foci for business transactions to take place, most did not develop into formal marketplaces. It required seigneurial initiative to recognize the commercial potential and to both foster and cash in on it, by acquiring a market licence and/or by establishing a settlement of traders and artisans to service the nascent market. Markets might be fostered to serve existing communities – including those of castles and monasteries – or to encourage the growth of new ones. It is especially, though not exclusively, true of the pre-Conquest period that "many markets and fairs were at places important for other reasons" [Richard H. Britnell, The Commercialisation of English Society 1100-1500, 2nd. ed. Manchester: University Press, 1996, p.22]. These included the Anglo-Saxon burhs (as refuges for population) and royal manors serving as administrative centres of hundreds; in these cases the king was the market-founder and his motivation was as much to facilitate policing of commerce as to develop a source of revenue for the Crown [Richard Britnell, "English Markets and Royal Administration before 1200," Economic History Review, 2nd ser., vol.31 (1978), pp.183-96.]

The landed nobility also particularly favoured their chief manors, especially when they were administrative centres for hundredal jurisdiction; such places needed for other purposes courts and officials that would also be necessary for administering, policing, and resolving disputes related to markets. Once markets had been defined as a right to be licensed by the king, the location of markets became more subject to speculative ventures; the Norman-Angevin period saw both monastic and lay lords engaging in the installation of markets on their estates. Yet by the same period the market network had grown to a point where competition meant that success was not automatically guaranteed to any new market foundation, and provision had to be made to mitigate the risks; to a small extent this was regulated by the greater landlords, some of whom might prohibit competitive markets within their estates, or shift market locations, as Geoffrey de Mandeville did by moving the market from Newport to Saffron Walden; in some cases rivals resorted to extra-legal tactics, as exemplified in the trade war between Southminster and Bradwell. But it was principally achieved through the licensing system, which by prohibiting harmful competition provided an avenue for resolution of competitive disputes. Although many markets were established in what would always remain villages, royal grants of market rights were, in a large minority of cases, associated with the emergence of urban communities.

Not always did the Normans choose to favour established towns; they were nervous about those that had previously been bases of royal Saxon power, as potential centres of rebellion, and this expressed itself through a variety of strategies, ranging from neglect, through disempowerment, to intimidation. Their inclination was not simply to take over the existing networks of control, communications, and commerce, but to put their own stamp on them. Furthermore, the Norman approach to landholding favoured more centralized, or geographically coherent, estates, compared to the Anglo-Saxon model; this was more prone to the generation of surplus produce requiring redistribution.

The new seigneurial elite thus not only inherited an existing pattern of urban or quasi-urban centres but sought to expand it, capitalizing on population growth: an increase in the number of producers and consumers – not dramatic or unvaryingly rapid growth, but overall upwards until the advent of cataclysmic disease in the mid-fourteenth century. This should be understood not so much as a combined effort by manorial lords to develop commerce as a whole, but as multiple independent initiatives each aimed at capturing a share of commerce for personal profit; yet the result was to build an infrastructure that supported a nationwide distributive network for goods. This was done partly through entirely new foundations, often associated with castles or religious houses, and partly through additions to rural villages: sometimes adjacent, sometimes linked by a street which served as the backbone of the new town; in either case the new settlements were characterised by intensive occupation (relative to villages) of initially small areas and by a degree of planning, in terms of street layouts, designation of space for markets and (where applicable) quaysides, and rental allocation of regularized property plots, which contemporary documents refer to as burgages this taken by historians as an indicator of urban status. Burgages were characteristically long and narrow, so as to maximize the number of plot frontages facing onto a main street and/or marketplace, while provided with rear (service) access from a back lane. This shape also enabled tenants to sub-divide their properties by building at the rear and obtaining income from rent (normally at a higher rate than the original burgage rent). While the existence of back lanes may be indicative of planning, though not invariably so, they cannot be considered definitive characteristics of planned towns, for they can be found in non-urban market settlements, and even some marketless villages (e.g. Kingsthorpe, Northants.). Similarly, rows of narrow and deep plots are not necessarily an indication of burgages, for they can be found in some villages too, particularly those whose developmental layout was essentially linear.

The case of Battle provides us with one of the best-documented instances of early town planning in England, while that of New Winchelsea is one of the later examples. Winchelsea is also one of the largest in size and most complex in layout of the planned new towns – but then it had a sizable population ready to be accommodated – of whose urban character there can be no question. Whereas at the other end of the scale are a large number of foundations so small that today that would not even be considered neighbourhoods, let alone towns; indeed, the question of their medieval urbanity is often in the balance.

What seems to be a less common occurrence, judging from surviving records, is exemplified by the relatively well-documented case of Higham Ferrers, whose early importance is suggested by it being one of only a small handful of places in Northamptonshire for which a market is recorded in Domesday Book. The village of Higham not only lay at the junction of roads connecting to several boroughs but was the manorial administrative centre of a hundred. In November 1250 its lord, William de Ferrars, Earl of Derby, who had a residential castle at Higham, acquired licence for a fair to supplement the existing market; this was a prelude to his charter of March or September 1251 (confirmed by the king in December), promoting Higham to liber burgus status. That act was perhaps only an acknowledgement that Higham had already developed an urban character. Although there is some indication that an area of burgages was laid out, later known as Newlands, around this time, the earl jump-started the growth of an urban community through the simple expedient of emancipating 92 householders, abolishing their feudal services, and converting the tenure of their existing homes to burgages. This personnel (both male and female) already included, beyond the occupations typical to a village (such as miller and smith) a number of individuals who would have been contributing to local commerce: a couple of cooks, a butcher, baker, waferer (who made a kind of cake, or waffle), fisherman, cobbler, pedlar, barker, skinner, tailor, and a bureller (maker of a coarse cloth). The earl's act probably did not cover the entire community, but only the southern part of the village in the vicinity of the through-road and the marketplace, positioned at about the centre of the stretch of through-road around which Higham developed; a neighbourhood within the northern part of Higham continued to be known as Bond End, suggesting that tenants there continued to be of servile status. There may have already been some burgage tenement holders before 1251, perhaps in Newlands, for the long witness list to the earl's charter includef not only his manorial officials but also several residents of Higham; some of these latter might have been serfs who were not being emancipated, but they were more likely all freemen – and included one described as a merchant and a second whose surname may point to a chapman. By 1314 there were 101 burgages in Higham Ferrers, occupying just a small percentage of the total acreage of the place, and only 110 in 1591, which does not suggest any surge of prosperity or population growth resulted from the upgrade of the place to borough status; although sub-division of burgages would have addressed some of this, there was not sufficient demand to warrant laying out new residential areas.

Another illustrative example can be found in the historical development of Bingham (Notts.), a Saxon settlement quite near the Fosse Way and not far from the Trent; it was the namesake of its wapentake and possibly administrative centre of a Saxon royal estate. By the sixteenth century Bingham had grown into a small market town, settlement concentrated around several east-west routes. At the time of Domesday the population was divided among three Saxon manors, but after the Conquest these were united in the hands of Roger de Builli (or Busli). The caput of his Nottinghamshire estates was at Blyth, much further north, and Roger had in 1088 granted fair and market rights to a priory, dedicated to St. Mary, he had founded there; quo warranto proceedings of 1292 have left us an itemized list of commercial tolls leviable there, showing goods sold in the market to have included wool, timber, bread, salmon, and livestock. A later (by 1284) manorial lord – not descended from Roger, but grandson of a Nottingham merchant – adopting the placename as his surname, thought it worthwhile to acquire for Bingham in 1314 a licence for fair and market (probably formalizing something already in existence), to service his own manor and the villages of the immediate region, one of the more densely populated parts of the county; the Bingham and Blyth markets were both Thursday events. Domesday does not reference a church at Bingham, but a rector is heard of in 1226; the existing structure, dedicated originally to St. Mary and All Saints, is thought to have been begun in the early thirteenth century, though there is some indication of a preceding building. It may have been in conjunction with the licence acquisition, or possibly earlier, that a new and planned area of settlement was laid out around a large marketplace beside (or overlaying) one of the east-west roads and a little south of the manor-house; plot boundaries indicate regulated sizes, and the rectilinear plan-form suggests deliberate planning, although this form might be the outcome of a series of discreet developmental phases. The market settlement became the centre of the budding town; a second piece of open ground, slightly further west, is believed to have hosted the fairs. At the eastern end of the road passing by (or through) the marketplace and, further along, passing the church, a large field, now known as Crow Close, some 800 m. east of the marketplace, was the first site of earthworks (including house platforms) to be interpreted as a deserted village, something not yet confirmed by excavation, while a recent geophysical survey did little more than confirm the topographical evidence. The suggestion that Crow Close might have been the original focus of settlement at Bingham appears doubtful; more likely is was a hamlet beyond the main area of settlement, or perhaps one of the smaller manors mentioned in Domesday. Why it declined and became depopulated is not certain, but probably due to a number of causes, including susceptibility of the site to flooding, relocation of residents after the marketplace area was developed, gradual attrition from medieval and later plagues, and the trend towards enclosure and/or repurposing of agricultural land during the post-medieval centuries; other hamlets in the vicinity of Bingham may have suffered similar fates but without leaving such pronounced traces in the landscape.

One key element of the new town foundations was redirecting the time and energy of the burgess residents away from the toil of feudal obligations towards artisanal or mercantile pursuits; not that all new towns were completely freed from such obligations – at Egremont in Cumberland, for example, each burgage owed one day's reaping in the lord's fields – but they were at least much reduced and those that remained were, in general, predictable rather than arbitrary. As James Tait [Mediaeval Manchester and the Beginnings of Lancashire, Manchester: University Press, 1904, p.43] noted, albeit framed as an over-generalization, the Norman baron "was keenly alive to the income that could be drawn from a town under his control, as well as to the development of his estates which it facilitated. The profits of markets and fairs, and the increased revenue from the manorial mills and ovens, far more than compensated him for the loss of the townsmen's labour services." This was not true of all Norman manorial lords, but it was certainly true of a good number, and a few of them pursued this avenue of revenue-earning with some determination, realizing that a flourishing market or fair would increase the overall value of the manor in the event of a future exchange, sale, or mortgage.

The site for a market was often the chief manor, or caput, of a lord, where people already gathered for events at church or court, and administrative mechanisms were already in place; however, we occasionally find cases of markets being licensed by the lords of secondary, rather than capital, manors within a township. Furthermore, it was by no means universal procedure to furnish every caput with a licensed market. For instance, Cogges (Oxon.) was the caput of the Arsic barony; yet, although the family founded a priory there, and later (1212/13), Robert Arsic introduced a planned Newland into the settlement, siphoning off much of the population of an older village nearer the priory, no formal market was instituted, likely because of the successful market at neighbouring Witney, itself the site of a new town component founded by a Bishop of Wincester in 1208/09. This omission may be part of the explanation why the Cogges Newland failed to attract enough settlers to take up all of the plots made available, although it may also owe something to division of the manor between Robert's female heirs, and subsequent alienation of one of the moieties to a family that used it as a dower manor rather than a caput.

Markets – especially those located in towns – and fairs had a place in the fabric of national government, and this may have been part of the reason why grants of them were generally excluded from Acts of Rsumption; this role was notably in the administration of weights and measures, in the hated practice of purveyance of supplies for the royal household and armies, and as venues for shrieval announcements (sometimes made on repeated consecutive market days) of new or renewed legislation, judicial summonses, or other decisions or prohibitions of the king stemming from recent parliaments. On the other hand, but less frequently, they could be the targets of local or regional troublemakers attempting to stir up the public or to intimidate particular communities. Marketplaces were similarly used for other public proclamations, whether initiating from the king or from ecclesiastical or borough authorities [this is detailed by James Masschaele, "The Public Space of the Marketplace", Speculum, vol.77 (2002) pp.391-98]; they were, for example, supposed to be used – or at least so the king's attorney claimed during the quo warranto proceedings of Edward I's reign – to make announcements about stray animals that had been impounded, to give owners the opportunity to reclaim before the finder could claim possession. But the role of marketplaces as public spaces went further than this. They – perhaps especially in smaller towns, where there were few other spaces for large, secular, public gatherings – and the taverns which tended to flank them, were places of public interaction of local residents and of locals with visitors, for the exchange of information (whether business-oriented, news, or gossip), and at times, for public entertainment, or for haranguing sermons delivered by friars. They were also used for humiliation punishments – which restrained offenders at spots where they could be subject to public view and ridicule, and so required an audience – applied to fraudulent or deceptive traders or artisans, to cutpurses (who also favoured marketplaces for their pursuits), to those who infringed social norms or were nuisances to their neighbours, or to other troublesome members of the community. They were conspicuous reminders of the local authority's influence over social control; the local community might, in its turn, use its marketplace as a venue through which to express its own power, by gathering there for protest purposes. [again, see Masschaele, op. cit., pp.400-06, 415-17.] Most commonly, however, they were places for casual conversation, haggling, selling, and buying; lively markets tend to be more appealing to potential users than lethargic ones.

While the new markets must have been intended to meet local needs and cater predominantly to small-scale exchanges, their founders were also doubtless hoping that it might prove possible to build a larger trade attracting itinerant merchants, and this may explain why some marketplaces, before being encroached upon in later times, seem unnecessarily capacious to the modern eye, although that must also have been due to the sale of large items, notably livestock. The owners, or tenants, of great estates, whether secular or ecclesiastical, were consumers of types of goods that were less likely to be produced locally and had grain, wool, and livestock to be sold in quantities that interested primarily mercantile wholesalers; so markets and fairs provided them not just with income but with a needed service. Thus the development and licensing of markets can be considered, in modern terms, as investments in commercial ventures. Monasteries and bishoprics might be understood, from this perspective, as the medieval version of commercial corporations: producing goods; exploiting land and developing infrastructure; employing a relatively large, diversified, and often skilled workforce; planning and organizing entrepreneurial ventures (such as land reclamation and town-founding). Tenant farmers likewise needed outlets through which to sell their surplus produce, particularly as there was a growing need for cash to pay rents and taxes, while for industry to grow beyond small-scale operations there had to be ways to distribute manufactured goods to wider-based consumer groups. The Crown generally encouraged its magnates in the development of new towns – while controlling the practice to a degree through the process of licensing markets – since towns provided it with revenues – not least through the ability to tax inhabitants at the higher, borough rate – and it is no coincidence that the peak of town-founding activity took place during a period of foreign wars, when both king and his leading warriors were in need of additional funding to support their military efforts.

Well before Edward I's conquest of Wales, the effort to turn the contiguous English counties along the Welsh border into a buffer zone prompted a wave of castle-building, establishment of monastic houses, and development of a commercial infrastructure and revenue streams by the owners of manorial estates, the last notably in the form of stimulating development of villages into towns through the establishment of licensed markets at such locations. It was not enough to expand, by conquest, into the border zone, it had to be held and absorbed into the English kingdom; colonization was required to achieve this. Furthermore, Norman lords who were asked to spearhead this expansion needed the motivation not simply of acquiring more lands, but of building the profits they could obtain from those lands. When William I sanctioned his most trusted followers, notably the earls of Hereford (William Fitz-Osbern) and Shrewsbury (Roger de Montgomery), and their followers – men such as Walter I de Lacy, one-time lieutenant of William Fitz-Osbern, then beneficiary of forfeited estates after Roger Fitz-Osbern was punished for revolt (1075) – to build castles along the Welsh border, it was implicit that this entail support mechanisms, such as settlements of suppliers of goods and services, without requiring royal confirmation for each initiative. In certain respects this area of the country became the most Normanized, as the conquering elite not only established castle-towns and imported their countrymen as garrisons and urban communities, but also granted the latter privileges and customs modelled on those of the homeland – most famously the Normandy town of Breteuil. However, the frontier zone remained a disturbed region and it was hard to retain settlers where the threat of incursions jeopardized not only commerce but life and limb.

It is notable that many of these foundations came about through deliberate interventions by an authority looking to benefit from, or piggyback on, the concomitant growths of population and of commerce. The establishment of castle-town combinations, whether in new foundations such as Bridgnorth or in existing Saxon towns, was a common practice, particularly in frontier regions, imported from Normandy by the Conqueror's companions, and imitated by ecclesiastical lords at monastic towns such as Battle. Though the term 'castle-town; would seem to have been coined by historians, it may be that settlements where there existed both castle and market came to be seen by medieval minds as having urban status, as the case of Rayleigh hints. The connection of castle-towns and markets is documented, by a couple of examples, as early as Domesday Book. This strategy provided the lord with both a defensible residence, and a close-at-hand population of traders and artisans who serviced the needs of the lord's family and garrison, and could be easily supervised and dominated. Beyond those pragmatic considerations, it may be that fostering the growth of a civilian settlement beside a castle was a natural manifestation of lordship, a conspicuous demonstration to others that a castle was not simply a defensive stronghold but a focal point for both dominating the landscape and for re-shaping it as a generator of wealth and power; sometimes the castle bailey was built across a stretch of a through-road. Castle-towns also provided centres from which first to assert then later consolidate control of the region: militarily, politically, and economically.

The choice of site for such towns was then dictated by proximity or convenient access to the castle, and it was the castle's needs that dictated placement. The prime consideration in situating the castle was defensibility; this might mean positioning atop a high point, such as hill or ridge, or adjacent to a river, which provided a natural defence on at least one side; in cases of castles built in established towns, the choice was often to situate them in an angle of existing fortified enclosure. On the basis of a survey of some fifty castle-towns, Michael Fradley has concluded that "the relationship between the urban castle and the principal water course appears to be one of the few near-essential requirements in its positioning" [The Old in the New: Urban Castle Imposition in Anglo-Norman England, AD 1050-1150, PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 2011, p.278]. The same appears to be true in many cases where colonies of French settlers were established within, or as suburbs of, towns. Not only did rivers provide protection (both in terms of a barrier to land-based forces and control over an incursion route of water-based forces or of a river crossing) and water for domestic needs, but they fuelled economic development, supplied certain industrial needs (e.g. milling, tanning), served as a source of fish for consumption or sale, and were a route for importing supplies or exporting local produce. Castle founders could tap into them to create moats and fish-ponds, while colony founders might have felt that situating colonists with good river access gave them an economic advantage.

Though the castle-town model is particularly common in the Marches, because an area constantly under threat, there is no shortage of examples elsewhere, such as Marlborough and Trowbridge in Wiltshire, or Ongar and Walden in Essex, where the aim was often to supplant existing Saxon power-bases. While castles and monasteries were natural magnets for laymen seeking a fixed clientele for goods or services, settlement adjacent to them was a process that, to at least some (and probably a large) extent, was fostered and controlled by the local lords, such as the Norman earls of Shrewsbury; whose urban planning aimed at making efficient use of space to accommodate immigrants and creating an ordered arrangement with appropriate facilities that both attracted settlers – particularly those engaged in commercial or artisanal pursuits – and made them and their occupational activities easier to administer. But we should beware of thinking that the presence of castle or monastery was a pre-requisite for the establishment of a successful urban foundation, as the example of Lynn and New Winchelsea illustrate. Nor was the presence of a castle, or some other fortification, a guarantee of economic success; while it might stimulate settlement, commerce and industry – perhaps particularly during the Norman and Angevin periods – in a later age we sometimes find, as the castles themselves lost military value and were not well maintained, their outer defences levelled and converted to residential areas, even or the settlement relocating to an economically more advantageous location, as at New Salisbury.

While we cannot assume that the erection of a castle necessarily predicates contemporary establishment of a market settlement, it often represents the first stage in a more drawn-out developmental process which may not, however, be straightforward. For instance, around 1140, in the context of the Anarchy, a motte-and-bailey castle was created, or an existing Saxon ringwork modified, at the manor of Sheriff Hutton (Yorks.), probably by Bertram de Bulmer, who had succeeded his father as sheriff of the county (1128-30, with additional term 1154-63). This was at what would become the east end of an elongated settlement; at around the same period new, planned, residential areas were introduced close to this castle, along two sides of a triangular green, and a church erected at one corner of the green, with local footpaths (perhaps once droveways) connecting to the green. In the thirteenth century settlement spread westwards, around a single east-west street, realigning an earlier route and wide enough to support market activity; residential plots on either side stretched to parallel back lanes. A second green was added, and the castle area expanded with a new bailey and a deer park. A further phase of development may have begun in the early fourteenth century, after the Raby branch of the Neville family, through marriage to Bertram's daughter/heiress and by buying out other rights-holders, consolidated an existing tenancy there into lordship. It culminated in John de Neville, 3rd Baron Neville, one of Edward III's most active military commanders, acquiring a market licence for Hutton in 1378 (and, on the same occasion, one for Clavering, Essex) and, in 1382, permission to build a new, stronger castle at the west end of the settlement, near where the main street met a road to York; one back lane was displaced in the castle-building process and the plots there truncated. Part of this developmental phase involved extending the main village green south, into a rectangular shape, to accommodate market activity, while slightly relocating those properties which had occupied the extension area; this marketplace, on one side of a central site along the main street, perhaps with an access route from the new castle, was later known as Pavement Hill, which might suggest the area had at some point been paved to support stalls (albeit subsequently reverting to a grassy green). [E. Dennison. Archaeological and architectural Survey, Sheriff Hutton Castle, North Yorkshire, unpublished report, E.D.A. Services, 1998, passim.]

A slightly similar developmental process is seen at Clavering, where an existing but small Saxon settlement became larger and more clustered after the introduction, prior to the Conquest, of a church and a ringwork fortification near the incipient River Stort, though the village remained small and with dispersed elements at a number of greens carved out of the wooded landscape. In the early years of the fourteenth century there was a shift in focus when a new manor-house was erected elsewhere in the village to supersede Clavering's fortification, but a later reversion to the neighbourhood of the church and outskirts of the old castle site – where there was a ford across the river – with expansion of residential blocks around each of the three foci, perhaps partly due to migration from the outlying green-edge hamlets, which the presence of a market would have encouraged, particularly in the difficult times of the fourteenth century – it may have been to help manorial economies to recover from the effects of the Black Death that John Nevill purchased market licences.

In 1379 John licensed a market at Staindrop (Durham), which was close to Raby Castle. Staindrop was another village centered along a single wide main street, partly flanked on either side by village green, with long medieval tenement plots facing onto the same and, on at least one side, stretching to a back lane; the castle and its deer park were some distance to the north (rather than at one end of the main street) and perhaps at one time had an adjacent settlement by the name of Raby. Staindrop's layout is thought to date to the era of Nevill lordship, but it is not certain precisely what influence the Nevills had on the village's development, beyond rebuilding the castle (from 1367) to serve as the family caput, and enlarging Staindrop's church, which John Nevill made collegiate. Located at the east end of the village and evidencing Saxon origins, the church later became a family burial-place. The green was also cobbled at some point, before being grassed over again, after the corn market was discontinued in the nineteenth century. [Heritage, Landscape and Design: Staindrop Conservation Area Appraisal, Druham County Council, 2012, passim.] Hutton, Clavering, Staindrop, and other castles and market settlements helped the Nevills become one of the most powerful families in northern England by the end of the fourteenth century. For his first wife, John had married into the powerful Percy family and their son Ralph would be created Earl of Westmorland. John's second wife was an heiress of the line of Barons Latimer, and their son John was the 6th baron, though he died childless and his lands (but not his title) went to his half-brother, earl Ralph. Two of the earliest Latimer barons had licensed Yorkshire markets at Terrington and Sinnington, which must have come under John Nevill's control for a time.

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Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: November 5, 2021 © Stephen Alsford, 2018-2021