go to table of contents  INTRODUCTION 

 Market investment and returns

Keywords: market holders administration expenditures revenues town planning urban design topography streets marketplace organization stalls commodities economy development competition urban decline


This section will examine further some of the matters raised in the previous section regarding the benefits and obligations of market-owners and factors affecting success or failure of markets, considering in particular the topography of market settlement sites.

Beresford [New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales and Gascony London: Lutterworth Press, 1967, p.98] stated that "Once a town was founded, its fortunes depended mainly on the vigour of the townsmen, and after the inital endowment, a founder could take up the role of a sleeping partner." This is not quite true, for the founder still had to ensure local facilities were such as to attract settlers, to provide for ongoing local administration, to finance enhancements (.e.g. licences for additional or alternative fairs or market days, expansions of residential areas) if the original foundation proved more successful than anticipated or if it was floundering, and to be prepared to defend his foundation from challenge or competition; yet certainly the skills and aptitudes of burgesses must have been a major factor in the success or failure of an investment in a market town, and the cash investment by the founder, beyond the cost of market licence, was probably not prohibitive – doubtless not exceeding the amount the investor hoped to recoup from new revenues; at Much Wenlock we see the licensee seeking to recoup the license fee from his tenants, beneficiaries of a market, but whether this was a common tactic we do no know. But human resources were not the only factor for, as Beresford was aware, besides the legal advantages with which the founder might endow his burgesses, the endowments of nature – that is, the suitability or advantages of the site, both in terms of local topography and communications with external resources (such as farmlands, a port, and other markets) – and the way the founder planned his town to make best use of those features could also be the difference between success and failure. Furthermore, founders or their successors (whether descendants, purchasers, or acquiring in other ways) sometimes found it necessary to extend or adapt the original plan, such as by adjusting times, durations or locations of commercial events, by adding streets – usually paved or gravelled – and tenement plots to accommodate a greater than expected number of settlers, or to adjust tenurial terms to changing socio-economic conditions.

The initial investment of a founder was in the site itself, by which we should understand the marketplace proper – at Tickhill (Yorks) where a burghal component was introduced probably in conjunction with, or following, the erection of a castle, the marketplace, focal point of the town, was in an area traditionally known as 'Sunderland', meaning land set aside for a special purpose – together with residential plots beside the marketplace and perhaps along sometimes new streets or lanes running off it, as well as (in some cases) a new church or chapel. It was not often that this involved acquiring new land (as was the case at New Winchelsea). Founders were already owners of sizable areas of land, and small towns did not consume vast tracts; it was usually preferable for market towns to be situated close to the founder's base, whether castle, manor-house, monastery, or episcopal palace. Although the site might have previously been wasteland or common grazing land, it was quite often part of an occupied village or land given to agricultural use; the founder had to surrender whatever income was generated by such uses in the expectation of a higher yield from its new use, and such evidence as we have shows that stallage and burgage rents yielded a substantially higher revenue, if those plots succeeded in finding tenants. In some locations a cheaper option was to use an existing village green for market events (with their peripheries given over to residential plots) which enabled them to continue to serve for grazing villagers' livestock; such areas were often excluded from post-medieval Inclosure legislation on the grounds that they were used for holding markets. An additional expense regarding dedicated marketplaces might be in levelling the land; archaeological investigations on a number of market sites have identified layers of gravel or cobbles (not always dateable), sometimes covered by sand or other lighter materials, laid down for this purpose and perhaps also to improve drainage. Although these are mostly associated with urban marketplaces, we must remember that market sites in rural villages are less likely to attract such investigation.

late Victorian terraced housing
Google satellite image of terraced housing at Enfield
Seigneurial income was generated not only directly from market activity but also from the value of a market in attracting new settlers, who were then a source of rents and other revenues. Provision for accommodating settlers often took the form of units of burgage plots laid out around, or along streets leading to, the market. The boundaries of these plots, where still discernible, evidence planning for a new town or burghal component of an existing settlement. Perhaps the nearest modern equivalent (at least in some regards) is seen in terraced housing estates. The example shown above, from the Bush Hill Park suburb of the London Borough of Enfield, constructed in the 1880s, shows part of a compact unit of long, narrow plots whose houses front, almost directly, onto a through-road – though not a commercial street, necessaries being furnished by small clusters of shops incorporated at various points in the estate – with each house backed by a garden providing for workshops, storage sheds, and cultivation of fruit and vegetables for household consumption. Service to the rears of the plots is provided by an alleyway.
street frontage of part of the terraced row
Frontage of part of the terraced row seen above.; photo: S. Alsford, 2010.
Each house, originally targeted at working-class renters, is about the width of a medieval perch, and was provided with two ground floor and two upper floor main rooms, plus a kitchen at rear with small upper room; the design was not so very different from the shop-with-solar buildings that evolved from medieval market stalls, though these terraced houses were not located in the vicinity of Enfield's market, and only those on corners incorporated shops, opening onto the street. Many of these cramped dwellings, once common in English towns, have now been demolished or much altered by redevelopment.

A variety of solutions could be adopted for accommodating market traders. One of the simplest and most common was to exploit places where informal encounters of buyers and sellers may already have been taking place: a stretch of the through-road, a crossroads or junction of roads, or the last stretch of a road leading to the gate of a castle or monastic house. Putting aside coastal emporia of the early Saxon period, it may prove that street-based markets, as opposed to dedicated 'squares' (or undeveloped plots of other shape) were the initial type of marketplaces; but the question needs closer study, and the location of market activity could have been influenced by various factors, such as size or layout of a settlement, chronology of growth, and the inclination of some particular manorial lord. The simplest and most common plan form for a new town – whether established within or adjacent to an existing village, or in an area without earlier settlement – consisted of building plots laid out along one or both sides of a single street within which market activity would take place. Because of this simplicity, such towns can be difficult to identify, but markets within such streets (whether newly-established in the context of town foundation, or existing through-roads) have tended to leave their trace as stretches that are clearly wider – that is, tenement plots have been laid out a little further back from the street, to create space for stalls out front without blocking through-traffic; such areas, sometimes appear on later maps as a bulge in part of the street, often described as cigar-shaped, or they may take a triangular or funnel-shaped form, particularly when other streets join with or converge on them. In many cases this design approach merely took advantage of an existing topographical feature, such as the junction of two or more roads or proximity to a river crossing, and did not necessarily entail town-founding, in the sense of imposing on the landscape some elaborate layout, or indeed any expansion of the existing settlement; but nor did it preclude such expansion, with more than one existing route becoming a focus for residential development, as a natural concomitant of a hoped-for increase in commercial activity. However, we have to be careful when looking for widened parts of streets, as a similar phenomenon could be the product of later encroachment or rebuilding narrowing adjacent stretches.

The name Market Street, or something similar, can still be found in many towns, and it is tempting (and sometimes true) to assume that market activity took place therein. But it cannot be taken as a certain indication of such activity historically; for the name might represent a post-medieval designation, or was sometimes applied to a route leading to a marketplace – and not necessarily a local one, as in the case of Fordham (Cambs.), where there are some indications of an unlicensed market, Market Street, evidenced by mid-fifteenth century, transitions into Newmarket Way, suggesting both may have been named because they ran towards Newmarket. A less common indicator of market activity could be heavy urine staining of the medieval level which, as in the case of excavations at the Buttermarket site in central Ipswich – also evidencing that adjacent St. Stephen's Lane was much wider in the eighth century than in later periods – has led to suspicion that livestock may have been marketed there [Ipswich Archaeological News, no.91 (Apr.2017), p.3].

A more elaborate approach, taken especially where the intent, from its origin, was to establish not simply a market but a market town, was to identify an area of uninhabited land, conveniently close to any existing settlement and its church, or castle, and to allocate part of it for commercial exchanges while laying out plots beside or around it – sometimes with additional streets leading off the marketplace – for the residences, storehouses, and workshops of actual or anticipated traders and artisans who would undertake a lead role in market activity, alongside farmers of the vicinity – for the bulk of the goods sold in market towns were foodstuffs, other staples, and animals, rather than artisanal products. While some towns were certainly planned around a grid of streets, it is too easy to perceive a grid pattern and assume it the original design plan, when it might in fact be the product of progressive stages of development, or the consequence of topographical determinants or later conversion of defensive/boundary earthworks into streets. Thus while it is reasonable to talk, with some confidence, about small morphological units as planned, in terms of deliberate layout of measured tenement plots around a public through-way, there may be less certainty about whether a larger and more complex community infrastructure was the product of any conscious master-plan.

Widened stretches of axial streets, or spaces within junctions of two or more roads, were probably adequate for most markets in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when commercial activity was not as regularized and intensive as it would later become. Larger spaces, specifically to host market activity, became more common features, and those market towns that most prospered might well identify more than one market area, with some specialization occurring in each, while the ground floor front rooms of houses around marketplaces became used as shops or taverns. Designation of areas for selling particular types of goods, whether in different parts of a town or within one large marketplace, is a tendency seen mainly where markets dealt not only in raw produce but in processed foods and/or manufactured goods. Where a dedicated marketplace was created, it was of course important that it be in a fairly central location, crossed or flanked by major streets via which travellers could be expected to pass through the town. Whether in a street or on a separate area of open land, these market places can usually be perceived on modern maps, despite post-medieval infill by permanent buildings, which hide the larger size of the original marketplace; many medieval marketplaces continued to host markets up to the twentieth century, when traffic issues or congestion in town centres was more likely to lead to their displacement to more peripheral sites, or to indoor locations – although even these trends have their roots in the medieval period. Fairs were even more likely to take place in some suburban area where space was more plentiful; yet many fairs were held within the streets of a town.

Over time, successful markets in communities with diversified economies were likely to develop organized layouts based on the types of goods for sale. The most common expression of this was the shambles – butchers' stalls segregated from other vendors and located in a dedicated part of the marketplace or perhaps just off it; this was prompted by health and safety considerations – bearing in mind that shambles might be used not just for the sale of meat, but for butchering carcasses, and sometimes even slaughtering beasts – and the associated need to supervise closely the sale of meat, very susceptible to degredation, while fishmongers might also be so segregated for much the same reasons. But we also often hear of other goods, such as corn, hay, poultry, and dairy products having their own areas within marketplaces, on lanes running off the marketplace, or at other locations in a town. The evolution of rows of stalls allocated to particular types of tradesmen tends to be a feature of marketplaces of larger or more prosperous boroughs (e.g. Norwich, Cambridge, Maldon), although not entirely absent in small towns. London of course was at the extreme of this course of development, with specialized markets and shopping streets throughout much of the city, rather than one large centralized marketplace. It is not clear to what extent market-owners were instrumental in shaping marketplace layout – certainly they contributed, by placing within the space small administrative structures such as toll-booths, lock-ups (cages), and later market houses – and to what extent stall-holders themselves were inclined to cluster in occupational groups. Rows of stalls might gradually evolve into shopping streets, as stalls were converted into shop-residences, but this too seems largely an unplanned development. The case of Hindon provides an example of the market-owner also constructing a well for market use, though how common this may have been is unknown.

There was a certain level of investment required in planning and laying out a new market town, attracting suitable settlers, acquiring royal licences for markets and fairs, allocating market spaces and perhaps providing stall/shop facilities (something explicitly evidenced at Epping Heath) for at least long-distance merchants who might visit with upper-scale commodities. On the other hand, some traders – perhaps particularly, but not exclusively, circuiting merchants – might carry with them lumber that could be assembled into stalls, which may have reduced their costs, if we assume the alternative as renting structures at each market visited. It is unclear how prevalent this practice may have been, though that the residents of the Yorkshire borough of Hedon – whose prescriptive market must have been adversely affected by the decline of Hedon as a Humberside port, as its harbour silted up in the Late Middle Ages – were compensated by being accorded not only a toll exemption at nearby Kingston-upon-Hull but also the concession that they need pay nothing if they took their own stalls to the market there [East Riding of Yorkshire Archives, Hedon Borough Records, DDHE/19/1], suggests that the right to self-supply was not everywhere a given. Itinerant traders not bringing with them their own stalls might simply sell from their carts, from packs carried on horseback, or goods they transported by pannier on their own backs; the term 'standings' was used for market spots assigned to traders who operated without erecting stalls. A list of tolls applicable at Manchester's market (1322) differentiates between horseloads of goods sold within the area occupied by the market-owner's stalls and those sold outside that area, with a lower rate of toll charged on the latter [William Farrer, ed. Lancashire Inquests, Extents, and Feudal Aids, Part II, Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society, vol.54 (1907), p.62]. The trade groupings in the layouts of many borough markets, although possibly owing something to natural development over time, suggest some measure of deliberate control over stall placement. It is not certain how much control was exercised in lesser markets, but concern over this issue is evidenced at Wakefield (Yorks.) in 1323, when a communal jury complained to the manorial court that holders of two stalls were wont to 'set up shop' in such a position in the marketplace as to obstruct shoppers' access to neighbouring stalls, and asked that the offending stalls be torn down and their rents assigned to other plots; the court ordered that this be done [J. Walker, ed. Court rolls of the Manor of Wakefield, vol.5, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, vol.109 (1944), p.12].

Market owners might also erect covered structures for petty vendors selling out of baskets (though these were mostly a late medieval development), and crosses to mark the focus or bounds of the marketplace, or to designate points where petty vendors might station themselves; many of these vendors were likely hucksters – at Nottingham, by mid-sixteenth century, we hear of such an area, at one end of the shambles, described as 'the women's market' [National Archives, C 1/1468/50]. One or more further structures might be used for payment of tolls and stallage rents, and/or to accommodate a court whose jurisdiction included market offences. In this regard we may note that the so-called Moot Hall at Elstow (Beds.) – a Late Medieval or Early Modern market hall erected on the village green (before modern times, known as the Green House) and hosting manorial court on its upper floor and half a dozen shops on the ground floor – when leased out in 1773 was said to contain hurdles, poles, boards and other gear for stalls, presumably used at the annual fair, Elstow having no licensed market. It seems likely that in a greater number of places most such structures belonged to the stall-holders, as illustrated for example by the case of Dunstable (Beds.), where one of a set of local customs, promulgated in 1221 at the instigation of the manorial lord, required that both residents and outsiders who sold from stalls on market day had to dismantle and remove them before day's end. Evidence from the post-medieval period shows costs to some market-owners for set-up and take-down of stalls, but there is no indication of such expenses during the Middle Ages, and they probably related only to structures for use by visiting traders.

In addition to construction of traders' facilities, there could be expected maintenance costs related to them, or to punitive instruments – in 1272 for example the king paid out 3s.6d for repairs to tumbrel and pillory in Windsor's marketplace – or to the marketplace itself (e.g. paving, sanitation), as well as wages and expenses of officials administering the market community and trading activities there. On the other hand, market matters were often handled in facilities and through officials, such as the lord's bailiff, already used for manorial administration. Associated costs could not have been so large as to outweigh the expected profits to be made off the top of the community and the commerce, or markets would not have been considered worthwhile investments. As already noted, in the early centuries the cost of a market licence was typically a palfrey or its cash equivalent, and a market owner might hope to recoup this in his first year's take, if the market site was already attracting lively, if informal, commerce. Yet almost all of the new urban foundations were gambles and so included both winners and losers; in the case of a number of markets we lack evidence as to how long they continued to operate after grant of a licence, and some of these quiet institutions may simply have proven unprofitable and been abandoned by their owners. Even prospering markets must have been adversely affected by the outbreaks of plague in the fourteenth century, which resulted in fewer labourers to tend to manorial agriculture, relocation of farm tenants as better or cheaper agricultural land became available, and a reduced consumer population, though historians debate the degree of impact and resilience at particular places. Chipping Dassett, a market settlement established in the Southend neighbourhood of the manor of Great Dassett (now Burton Dassett) was probably the outcome of a licence issued in 1267 to Bartholomew de Sudeley for market and a fair at the festival of St. James, which tied in to the dedication of the chapel built there; located midway between Warwick and Banbury, it seems to have performed well enough under the lordship of the de Sudeley family, early fourteenth century taxation records showing it the third wealthiest community in the county (after Coventry and Warwick). Today its site, partly covered by a motorway, is considered a deserted medieval settlement, marked only by ruins of the chapel and by cropmarks outlining former residential plots. Plague doubtless contributed, but we can also blame, to an extent, non-resident lords, after the failure of Sudeley male heirs, who were interested in Dassett only as a source of revenue, rather than as a community to be developed, and were prepared to evict tenants in order to convert land to sheep pasture.

The revenues from a market town – rents of traders and craftsmen drawn there, tolls on commerce, fees for stallage and the like, and fees for the judicial administration of offences and disputes – must have been expected to allow initial investment to be recouped and maintenance costs exceeded. Market revenues of longer-established, chartered boroughs appear – from the figures occasionally found in surviving records – to have been solid enough, though they did not necessarily go into corporate coffers of the burgesses. To take just one example, a manorial survey in 1305 of Oakham (Rut.), then held by the Earl of Cornwall, identifies annual income from tolls and other revenues from the market (licensed by the earl in 1252, though in existence at earlier date) as £13 6s.8d, a goodly sum, while similar revenues from the two annual fairs amounted to 50s., and shops that had arisen within the marketplace generated rents – varying from 6d. to 12d, with smaller amounts for a couple of probably undeveloped stall sites, and one shop incurring an increment of 18d., suggesting expansion beyond the original site – paid in quarterly instalments, which totalled almost 11s. annually; several dozen burgage properties generated rents due from the minority of burgesses, living in the town or its neighbouring hamlets, and a few villeins, while court profits were a separate item, though what percentage came from pleas concerning market or burgesses is indeterminable.[The Oakham Survey of 1305, Rutland Record Society, 1988, passim]

Although Ballard declared that "The market was the most valuable of all the franchises that could be annexed to a manor" [The Domesday Inquest, London: Methuen, 1906, p.181], this assertion is not quite as convincing when we look at pecuniary evidence (although markets also had other kinds of value) across time, and there were – even allowing for markets that were unlicensed and invisible – very many more manors without them than with them, while free warren (hunting rights) seems a more commonly desired franchise, and was combined with market licence in quite of few of Henry III's charter grants; but certainly there were plenty of manorial lords who saw the potential income as being worth the cost and effort to establish and maintain commercial institutions in an increasingly competitive environment. Ballard's statement might be considered to have some validity for the first couple of centuries following the Conquest, when a host of immigrant landlords sought to both stimulate and exploit their new landed assets, and focus commercial activity thereon; but by a later period the pecuniary value of markets varied from place to place. Newmarket records show that rents from market stalls and shops amounted to £1 26s.10d in 1402/03, but had risen to £4 14s.4d by 1438/39 and continued to rise, the market being, by close of the century, the most profitable asset of the manor. Similarly, accounts of the steward and receiver of the Earl of Lincoln for the earl's Honour of Halton (Ches.) show that, at £16 11s.6d in 1295/96 and £17 10d. nine years later, tolls from the borough market were the single most lucrative item of revenue, although representing only about 4‰ of the total income from Halton manor and hundred; a more modest sum (about 17s.) came from "markethgalt", which appears to be stallage payments made by traders elsewhere in the barony for the right to trade in their home vills, without any formal market context. By contrast, at Gilbert IV de Clare's death in 1295, the market and fair at his Suffolk caput of Clare were assessed at an annual value (i.e. income) of £6, but perquisites from judicial jurisdiction brought in almost as much, and property rents and profits from four local mills were each noticeably higher; the value of the commercial institutions represented only 3‰ of the total value of manor and borough, as assessed in 1317, and this does not take into consideration the sustenance, accommodations, and entertainment (hunting) value of the manor. [Peter May, "Newmarket 500 Years Ago," Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, vol. 33, pt.3 (1975) p.263; Jennifer Ward, "The Honour of Clare in Suffolk in the early middle ages," ibid., vol.30, pt.1 (1964) pp.96-97; P. Lyons, ed. Two 'compoti' of the Lancashire and Cheshire manors of Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, Chetham Society, vol.112 (1884), pp.46-47, 60, 152; William Beamont, An Account of the Rolls of the Honour of Halton, Warrington, 1879, pp.41, 44]

The potential value of tolls was offset to an extent by the growth in exemptions. At least some local residents of the market community might be granted such exemption, particularly if burgage tenants. Members of other communities might also be accorded exemptions, within the territorial range of the grantor's lordship, again particularly in the case of burgesses, but also villagers on ancient demesne. Less commonly found are temporary blanket exemptions to all-comers, as was publicly proclaimed in 1285 when the king ordered a Tuesday market and August fair to be held henceforth at Brading (Isle of Wight) and for anyone buying or selling there during the following five years to be free from paying toll. This was an attempt to stimulate business, just as granting burgage tenements within a newly laid-out development rent-free, for a limited period, was a move to attract tenants.

Smaller market communities had a greater challenge in building and maintaining trade within an increasingly competitive field; those unable to meet or sustain expectations often seem to have been abandoned or left to languish. In 1374 a petition from the 'poor tenants' of the royal manor of Geddington (Northants., non-urban), where the king instituted a market and fair during a visit he paid to his hunting-lodge there in 1248, entreated him to reduce the farm they paid for the depopulated manor; an inquisition found that the manor was not worth the amount of the farm, that ten cottages were tenantless and the market and fair, once valued at 20s.4d annually, now worth no more than 8d. due to lack of customers. Income from other revenue-generators (court, fishery, mills) were also shrinking and the village likely lacked any industry large enough to carry the local economy. Another sorry picture is painted of West Rasen (Lincs.) after its lord, John Pouger, died in December 1405: the manor-house was ill-maintained; the cumulative effect of outbreaks of plague had reduced the number of villeins on the manor from fifteen to two; large areas of the fields, both tenanted and demesne, had subsequently fallen out of cultivation, presumably due to lack of labour, while some had been rendered useless by annual flooding of the River Rase; other plots were being let at much reduced rents; though a watermill was still in operation, a windmill was not; the Thursday market (licensed 1219) and November fair (licensed 1237) were generating no income; and rights of judicial administration were producing only enough to cover the expenses of the steward presiding over the court.

The direct and indirect effects of plague may do much to explain Geddington's decline, perhaps along with a measure of seigneurial loss of interest at some point following grant of the market, construction in 1250 of a splendid bridge to carry the main road through the village across the River Ise, and Henry III's upgrades turning the hunting-lodge into a near-palatial complex; but Edward I perhaps associated the village with the death of his queen, for Geddington was one of the overnight stops of the procession returning her corpse to Westminster, and the Eleanor Cross erected there would have reminded him of her loss. The decay of West Rasen prior to 1405 is less easy to attribute to neglect from absentee lords, or their impoverishment, for it was the family seat and focus of Pouger's Lincolnshire holdings, yet he also had income from manors in several other counties. Around the time he came into his inheritance, Pouger had founded a chantry in the parish church, while shortly before his death he obtained episcopal permission to establish an oratory in the manor-house. He was prominent enough in the county to serve as one of its justices and two terms as its sheriff. His like-named heir, however, faced legal battles obtaining some of his father's estates and in 1410 felt insecure enough at West Rasen to purchase a royal confirmation of his market licence; he did not participate in county affairs to the extent his father had, although he once represented it at Parliament, and spent the last part of his life at Calais, for many years following which much of the family estate became tied up in dowers. It seems unlikely West Rasen's difficulties would have been resolved in that context, although construction over the river of a packhorse bridge, at some point in the fifteenth century, might be an indication of an effort to turn things around, albeit futile. Reduced agricultural productivity at West Rasen must had disadvantaged its market. To what extent the impotence of West Rasen's commercial institutions were due to competition, just a couple of miles away, from older such institutions (Tuesday market and September fair) at East Rasen – for which which have no evidence of similar decline, even though it lay on the same river – can only be speculated; but it was to the latter that the name of Market Rasen subsequently became attached. A different explanation for decline must be sought in the case of Morpeth, of which we hear, in 1403, that its fair had become toll-free, even though its 1200 licence and its 1285 extension in duration explicitly authorized toll collection. The situation was probably not one of toll income having dropped below collection costs, but rather of the need to stimulate a border-region commerce under threat from Scottish raiders. The cases of every market – growth, stagnation, or decline – can to some extent be discussed in terms of general economic or other trends, yet not fully understood without reference to particular local circumstances.

The long-term survival of many markets, however, suggests that revenues, even if diminishing over time, at the very least repaid capital and perating costs, and in most cases continued to bring in sufficient revenue for the markets to be seen as manorial assets, for their value did not lie exclusively in profits they generated. As population increased, the rise in prices of grain, and agricultural produce generally, from the late twelfth century through the thirteenth, prompted manorial lords to apply new agricultural techniques that allowed them to cultivate more intensively their demesnes, to convert more waste or wooded lands to farmland, and to make other investments in the production, storage, and distribution capabilities of their estates, while transportation services required of certain tenants also reflect, to an extent, lordly intent to produce surpluses that could be marketed. Furthermore, the presence of a local market servicing the lord and his tenants, toll-free, was itself beneficial, not least because markets helped provide a living for a number of those tenants, and so helped assure they could pay their rents.

Inquisitions post mortem, when they mention markets at all, sometimes provide a valuation, but it is not clear whether these annual values are based on actual figures from manorial accounts, or are rounded-off estimations by the jurors, whose knowledge of the matter may or may not have had a good foundation. It is not improbable that, where making an estimation, the jurors, or the escheator himself, would have undervalued revenues a little. Furthermore, the different revenues stemming from commercial events are only occasionally separated out, but more often lumped together so that we cannot tell what proportion belongs, say, to the market as opposed to a fair, or to judicial perquisites. The figures that we have vary widely – which ought to be expected – from place to place (some examples are given at different points in this study), and only an in-depth analysis, together with comparison with data from other sources (which are generally wanting), would show if they are trustworthy or reflect any patterns that accord with other economic evidence.

The tipping point governing success or failure was determined by factors such as advantageous or disavantageous topography (e.g. proximity or remoteness from a navigable waterway that facilitated long-distance transportation and serviced certain industries), the intensity of the competitive environment, the extent of determined seigneurial support and willingness to loosen reins on tenants, and exposure to national or international conflicts. Eynsham provides us with a good example of a town-founding project that foundered because of some of these, and other, factors. The earlier licensed markets had, as a rule, a better chance of establishing a niche in the commercial network – that is, of capturing a market share and building a reputation – than those licensed after the mid-thirteenth century. Many of the market towns remained modest in size and prosperity, servicing mainly local areas. Not a few, unable to capture a large enough market share of regional commerce to support the industrial and socio-political development that would warrant characterizing them as boroughs, slipped back into the rural role of villages. Those least favoured simply became depopulated over time, a process hastened by the Black Death. On the other hand, some of what are now considered England's leading cities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, arose as small market towns, even if it took the much later boost of mechanized industrialization to bring about their elevation into the upper echelons.

The trend of urbanization through the creation of market towns was curtailed by the outbreaks of plague in the third quarter of the fourteenth century – depopulation, associated drop in consumer demand, and loss of agricultural labour had an effect that could only partially be compensated for by higher wages increasing the purchasing power and quality of life of survivors. By the time of the recurrence of plague in 1361, the market at Hunmanby (Yorks.), for instance, was already being described as decayed, although it apparently continued to be held for some decades, and in 1388 the profits from market, fair and associated judicial administration were said to be sufficient only to pay the fees of their steward, clerk and bailiff. This loss of value was doubtless the case with many others, judging from the decline in licence renewals and drop-off in references to markets in inquisitions post mortem (relative to what we might reasonably expect). But by then most parts of England were well served by the network of large and small markets that had come into being in cities, towns, and villages; it might be argued that the plague provided a desirable brake to a trend that might otherwise have continued into a counter-productive excess of competitive effort. The trend had already begun to demonstrate 'evolutionary' characteristics, in terms of survival of the fittest, although most market failures post-dated the plague and its effects, both disruptive and re-orienting, on the economy in general. The market network was of course an important element in the growth of national prosperity, assisting with the emergence of a home-grown merchant class, improving standards of living, and facilitating efforts by the king and his lords, secular and ecclesiastical, to control regions, exploit the commerce going on there, and develop the economic resources, – animal, vegetable, mineral, and human – of the realm.

For many of the smaller market towns, particularly those of the Central Marches caught up in intermittent warfare, little medieval documentation has survived and archaeological excavation has been limited and patchy; a handful of cases have attracted more attention, such as Longtown, which is now fortunate enough to have, in the Ewyas Lacy Study Group,. an association of local historians working to assemble evidence of its heritage. Churches have tended to survive, often with elements of early fabric, although castles have not fared so well, and residential structures only in a small minority of instances. However, as these towns were not, on the whole, subject to massive redevelopment in post-medieval periods, cartographic information proves helpful in identifying likely medieval features.

It is not in many cases that we can point with confidence to a specific date of the emergence of an urban settlement. The grant of a market licence (or, in a smaller number of cases, fair grant) can often, though by no means invariably, be at least a rough indication of the foundation of a town, or the graduation from village to town within a developmental process that is inevitably – partly because of our limited knowledge, partly because of issues of interpretation – somewhat nebulous. The 'birth' dates associated with the particular towns examined in this study must be considered only approximate estimations, or in some cases very rough guesstimations, of the point at which a town, or a burghal component within a larger settlement, appears to have come into being.

One factor governing market success or failure that has not been given much attention by historians is the relative strength or weakness of the authority structures underlying town foundations. The abilities and experience of founders, the influence landlords had with their superiors (above all with the king) and the ability to fight off competition, the stability of dynastic lines, the reliability of fiscal resources, the extent of residential presence in the vicinity of a market, the twists and turns of national politics, all had potential to impact on the degree of success, or lack thereof, that a market town foundation experienced over time. An attempt is made, in the case-studies here, to consider that factor.



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