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 Welsh Marches (Herefordshire and Shropshire)

Keywords: medieval Herefordshire Shropshire boundaries topography rivers roads bridges transportation fortifications urban origins rontier towns castle-towns markets agriculture land reclamation mills landholding economy development monasteries town-founding bishops

The area of Britain that later became the border between England and Wales has, for most of its history, had an agricultural character, with most settlement of a rural nature, and even today is relatively sparsely populated. That border was long in a state of flux, for the region straddling it was contested. This region became known as the Welsh Marches, though precisely when is debated [see for example Max Lieberman, "The Medieval 'Marches' of Normandy and Wales", English Historical Review, vol.125 (2010), pp. 1357-81]. 'March' was a medieval term applied to borderlands, particularly where they formed a buffer zone between separate powers, over which each asserted, and at times effected, a measure of subjugation and jurisdiction. When the Anglo-Saxons divided their kingdoms into counties (or shires), for administrative purposes, Shropshire (initially) and Herefordshire were – along with Cheshire (not covered by this study) – the principal counties within what would become the Welsh Marches, and for a time much of the boundary between England and Wales was defined by the great dike attributed to the powerful Mercian king Offa (757-96), stretching from the mouth of the River Wye to the estuary of the River Dee.

Both counties encompass a wide range of landscapes, including river valleys, rugged but mineral-rich hills and ridges, particularly in areas approaching the frontier, and flat fertile plains where most of the larger settlements tended to develop. Historically, agriculture – with emphasis on animal husbandry more than arable farming – has played a predominant role in the economies of both Shropshire and Herefordshire. Though some of the land was agriculturally rich, much of it was heavily wooded, which retarded the spread of settlement before the Middle Ages.

Shropshire map
Market towns of medieval Shropshire; adapted from the EUS map.

These counties are inland areas, with no coastline and few major rivers – some are long, but were not wide and deep enough to carry large cargo-bearing vessels; this, combined with lack of a well-maintained road system, was an obstacle to exporting produce from the region. Nonetheless, most larger and older settlements of the Marches tend to be on rivers or important land routes. The Severn – Britain's longest river, and the main route for long-distance trade through Shropshire – connected to a sizable estuary, on which Bristol established itself as the dominant market and port; by the early thirteenth century, and likely long before, barges were transporting goods along the Severn between Shrewsbury and Bristol, while later in the century Gascon wine was being carried by river from Bristol to Bridgnorth, while the region's better-quality cider was shipped from Bristol to London. Bristol merchants became much involved in the commerce of Marches towns, much as London merchants did in market towns of south-eastern England. The River Wye also connected to the Severn Estuary and was navigable at certain times of the year, so that cargoes might be shipped downstream to Chepstow, or a combination of river and land transport used to carry goods. Even Hereford was serviced to an extent by the Wye and Edward I attempted to keep it clear of weirs and other obstructions. In granting murage to Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury, Henry III included tolls leviable on vessels bringing goods by river.

Not only were few rivers sustainedly navigable, they presented obstacles to land traffic, thus placing importance on sites of fords and on bridge-building, at which points settlements were likely to develop; a bridge built at Ludlow, for example, was intended to boost the prospects of a newly-founded town there, by improving access for travelling merchants, while a similar initiative at Atcham was part of a larger effort to upgrade it from village to market town, ultimately unsuccessful. If the region's rivers were only serviceable to a point, as regards commerce, more reliance had to be placed on land routes, although, apart from bridge-building, we know little about efforts to maintain or improve the roads. One major north-south road connected Bristol and Chester, passing through and benefitting several Shropshire towns, and in 1102 the king is recorded as levelling and widening a stretch of it by removing trees along either side; but this was as much for the security of travellers as for ease of travel. The importance of safe roads, not least during droving season, is reflected in the levy on vills and manors, during the thirteenth century, of a special tax known as stretward, to finance stationing guards along them. We know less about minor routes linking market towns, although some tried to avoid the steep slopes that were difficult for carts loaded with hay or timber; many goods – even heavy sacks of salt or smaller kegs of wine – were carried by packhorses, better able to negotiate slopes.

Herefordshire map
Market towns of medieval Herefordshire; adapted from the EUS map.

The Roman conquest had taken some time to extend its efforts into what would become the Marches. Its initial western frontier was the Fosse Way, running from Exeter to Lincoln, which they guarded with a series of forts and supply depots. But the threat from unconquered peoples further west drew the Romans into the area of both future shires, with relatively little difficulty: although the Britons there had erected plenty of hill-top forts – which may have doubled as centrally-located places where neighbouring tribes met to trade – they apparently lacked the human resources, or perhaps the leadership, to put up a well-organized defence. The Roman presence there did not leave much of a legacy of urbanization, although one or two later towns can trace their roots back to Roman forts or civil settlements, and their social impact was less one of Romanization than of Christianization; the two principal towns of the shires studied here, Shrewsbury and Hereford, were not important Roman sites, but would acquire prominence partly as centres of ecclesiastical authority. However, the Romans left military roads, relatively straight and direct, supplementing older routes making use of ridgeways to avoid thickly wooded valleys; this communication network both had an influence on later urbanization and served itinerant traders as well as drovers taking livestock to market, as far away as London – the main droving routes through the Marches went via Worcester and Tewkesbury, passing various Marches communities en route.

After the departure of Roman forces, much of the future Marches was under control of the earlier Welsh kingdoms and principalities, which faced incursion from Picts, Angles, and Saxons. Our knowledge deficit regarding this period is what puts the 'dark' in Dark Ages. Saxon expansion across the Severn is credited to Saxon kings of the sixth and seventh centuries, though their kingdom established there was absorbed into Mercia by King Offa, who put up his dyke to protect Mercia from warlike Welsh tribes that continued to contest the region; at one point Offa had to drive the Welsh king of Powys out of Shrewsbury. But the county names are not recorded until the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes reference to them under entries for the early eleventh century. They probably took form as shires in relation to efforts by Alfred the Great, his son Edward the Elder, and Edward's sister Æthelflæd of Mercia, to establish a defensive infrastructure – which entailed the construction of numerous burhs, some in the Marches (including at Shrewsbury), as population refuge centres and army bases, and then taking the offensive against Danish invaders; the Church had earlier contributed to the restoration of law and order by providing diocesan organization in Hereford.

The Marches remained an uneasy area, with both Saxons and Welsh looking to consolidate what they already held and expand into the other's territory if opportunity allowed, or at least carry out border raids. The Welsh had some strong leaders in the first half of the eleventh century, but on the English side Earl Godwin and his sons had landed interests and offered opposition.

When the Normans ousted the Saxons as overlords of England, they were faced with borderlands constantly threatened by the Welsh, a widespread and hostile English populace, and, in comparison to Normandy, an inadequate number of towns (large or small), defensive bases (i.e. castles), and Church infrastructure through which their dominion could be enforced. To consolidate their hold on their new territory, they had to reverse these defects. This had begun in fact in the time of Edward the Confessor, who installed some of his Norman supporters in Herefordshire, they building castles at Hereford, Richard's Castle and Ewyas Harold, before being driven out by Godwinson supporters. After the Conquest, William of Normandy saw one of his priorities as controlling the border region, which is first called the March of Wales in Domesday Book. Dealing decisively with that area was not just a matter of self-protection, however; we must also allow for the aggressive and expansionist cultural proclivities of the Normans. It was not practicable to attempt a well-orchestrated conquest of Wales while Norman hold on England remained tenuous. Nonetheless the approach taken to the Welsh Marches – to establish fortified bases from which to oppose Welsh incursions and to conduct offensive operations – was driven primarily by political and strategic concerns, rather than the economic exploitation which took prime place in the foundation of towns and markets in most other parts of England.

Western areas of middle England were relatively lightly settled and towns that developed there were mostly fairly small. Wales itself, during the centuries between the departure of Roman forces and the Norman Conquest, was without towns, and there is little sign of settlements that could be considered proto-urban; nor of markets, except where needed to supply bases of secular authority or religious communities, around both of which accumulated settlers pursuing mainly agricultural occupations. Yet by the close of the thirteenth century the Marches had become as urbanized as most parts of England, both in terms of the number of towns and the proportion of the population living in towns; most residents of that region had access to at least one market to which they could travel and return within a day's journey.

The earliest Welsh towns were a consequence of Norman colonization, and so concentrated in border areas: within the Marches and on the south coast of Wales. Given the frontier character of the the Marches, it is hardly surprising that the greatest concentration of early Norman castles was erected there – the more significant ones later replaced by stronger, stone structures, though (once English control was felt secure, and particularly after the war with Glendower was over) eventually disused militarily and abandoned in favour of more comfortable, though often fortified, manor-houses, or former monastic buildings redeveloped into country seats once the Dissolution made them available to wealthy laymen. Nor is it surprising that many new urban foundations there – a greater proportion than in most parts of England – were castle-towns, for castles offered a measure of security to commercial activity and so attracted settlement of foreigners in the wake of the Conqueror. They were thus a means of colonizing the area with men loyal to the Norman regime and of ensuring garrisons and other loyalists could be supplied through local markets, which in turn prospered partly thanks to the presence of garrisons and the growing population drawn by protective castles whose outer defences often extended around the civilian residential area. By contrast with borderland or coastal shires, castle-towns are not quite so evident in the more central, less vulnerable counties, such as Bedfordshire, for example, though wherever castles were built they tended to attract settlers to the vicinity and needed a source of supplies fairly close at hand. However, as the importance of the castles diminished over the course of the Middle Ages, the associated towns risked decline if they had not developed a vibrant economy and a wider customer base for their markets, particularly given that they had to sustain themselves under threat of continued attack from Welsh raiders (until the conquest of Wales was completed) or the forces of rival Marcher lords. The intermittent border warfare is a factor in the low survival rate of documentation from the region. Though there is not always documentary evidence that castle-towns had markets, such facilities were self-evidently essential to the viability of such settlements, and the layout of castle-towns often suggests the incorporation of space for a marketplace.

The pro-active colonization/urbanization approach was not limited to the borderlands, but is evidenced across England, and was important in the north, while the plantation of fortified towns would later be used by Edward I to secure his hold on Gascony. Yet it was, in the Marches, perhaps more the product of strategic considerations and a broad-based effort, rather than the result of multiple individual initiatives (as in eastern England).

Domesday makes very little mention of any markets in either county, not even in boroughs such as Shrewsbury, Quatford, or Clifford, although reference to Hereford as a port implies a market function and we do encounter a casual reference to its marketplace under the entry for a nearby vill; but this silence is not unusual for Domesday. Although the association of Much Wenlock's Sunday market, and the markets of Shrewsbury and Wellington, with the edges of churchyards is suggestive of Anglo-Saxon trading coordinated with church-going, there is no reason to think the development of a market network in Herefordshire and Shropshire was significantly underway before the late twelfth century, or was driven by trends other than the emergence of the Marcher lordships and the growth of informal commerce, even though the latter phenomenon is itself rarely documented. As elsewhere in England, minster churches and manors that played administrative roles for wider areas of holdings may have both acted as early but undocumented market centres for a regional populace and have attracted some longer-distance commerce. On the other hand, recorded grants of royal licences do not necessarily indicate the initiation of market activity. Also as elsewhere, the establishment of markets was clearly associated in many cases with the emergence of towns, whether through new foundations or the promotion of villages, with the intent – often speculative – of building commercial activity. It is not hard to appreciate how the establishment of the Marches and the creation of a chain of castles and castle-towns there stimulated the growth of commerce in the region.

Not all Marches markets survived through the Middle Ages. Seigneurial incomes from them, inconsistently recorded, vary widely and trade was dominated by goods readily available locally, such as grain, vegetables, and firewood, along with livestock and animal products (meat, hides, wool, pells, cheese), while pricier or more specialized items that had to come from further afield (e.g. cloth, wine, salt, spices, and fish) may have been obtained mainly from markets in the more important boroughs, or at fairs – though the fairs instituted in Shropshire and Herefordshire were too far west to feature regularly on the circuits of foreign merchants, or even those from other parts of England, except perhaps woolmongers. But even the markets that faded or disappeared have often left some mark on the local topography.

Despite the seeming scarcity of markets in the Marches before the thirteenth century, the two centuries following the Conquest saw that region altered considerably, not just through the erection of castles, but the establishment of towns, villages, and new religious foundations, and through the clearance of large tracts of forest or waste-land to make room for new communities, or expand those already established, and for the arable areas laid out around them, farmed using the open field system. Domesday provides only a little evidence of assarting, but it is all from Herefordshire. In parts of the region arable farming was already intensive by 1066, while in other, more lightly populated areas with poorer soil, or on moors, heaths, and other upland areas, and in remaining woodlands, pastoral farming was the norm. Population growth went hand-in-hand with the expansion of land under cultivation. Following the climatic crisis of the fourteenth century, bringing failed harvests and followed by plague, there was a transfer to pastoral farming using fields enclosed by hedges, ditches, or other boundary markers. Sizable areas of fertile pastureland supported large flocks of sheep – by far the most common livestock kept in the Marches – and so the wool trade played a large part in sustaining the region's economy from the twelfth century, although the decline in arable farming, combined with the effects of plague, caused some communities to shrink and, eventually, even disappear. Even though not ideal for carrying large-scale commerce, rivers supported a fishing industry and powered water-mills. As elsewhere in England, windmills became more common around the twelfth century, and fulling mills appeared in the thirteenth, as a cloth industry developed.

Religious houses seem to have played a large role in the construction of new fulling mills, or conversion of other mills to that use. While monasticism had spread into the borderlands during the Saxon period, this process was slow, as was the development of parish churches in the region. After the Conquest the process gained momentum – for the revival of monasticism in continental Europe was well underway and was part of the cultural tradition brought into England by the Normans – with Benedictine foundations appearing by the early twelfth century and Cistercian houses a little later. Some of the more important religious sites were at Hereford, Leominster, and Wenlock, while others were not associated with towns. These houses, like the secular manorial lords, played a role in the increased cultivation of foodstuffs, the expansion of population and its nucleation into settlements, the growth of the trade in wool, grain, and other regional products, such as cider, and the establishment of markets to service those processes.

Whereas, prior to the Conquest, Saxon kings and their leading magnates, as well as the bishops of Hereford and Chester, held sizable estates in Shropshire and Herefordshire, by 1086 there was very little terra regis and the greatest lay landowners were the earls of Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester – whom King William considered among his most reliable supporters – backed by lesser lords given a share of Marches territory. These Marcher lords were charged with keeping the region pacified, through subjugation of areas around the holdings granted them, and with extending the Norman kingdom by building a zone between Wales and England controlled by a chain of castles and fortified towns; this zone thus became highly Normanized, and the customs of Breteuil were a common importation into the towns that Marcher lords founded or took over, for William Fitz-Osbern, Earl of Hereford, had founded Breteuil and, even though William is not directly associated with any town foundation in England except for a colonial component at Hereford, small Normandy towns like Breteuil must have provided models for the Norman urbanization of the Marches. On the other hand, the border region saw an interplay between English and Welsh inhabitants – each with their own languages and customs – for various purposes but particularly for trade; each area of the Marches was, for administrative purposes, designated as an englishry or welshry, although the distinction was breaking down during the thirteenth century.

. The Norman Marcher lords were – after nerves had been rattled by a rebellion led by the Mercian noble, Edric the Wild – allowed a good deal of autonomy to accomplish these aims, to govern the lands they amassed, and even to wage war with one another for control of territory; this independence included the right to establish castles, boroughs, and markets without seeking royal permission. By the end of the twelfth century other families were emerging as Marcher lords, such as the Fitz-Alans, Fitz-Warins, Mortimers, Le Stranges, and Corbets, all of whom engaged in the foundation of towns and/or markets, both in the Marches and further afield. A number of monasteries had also become large landowners and in the region, while the bishops of Hereford (who were Marcher lords) and the cathedral chapter were also active in setting up markets on diocesan estates. Over time the baronial feuding for control of assets spread further down the social scale, so that (to take one example) by 1377 relatively minor landowners Adam de Peshale and Hugh Wrottesley – the former the holder of a manor with market at the planned borough of Talgarth, and the latter his would-be successor as manorial lord, until Adam reneged on the deal (though Hugh had already purchased a renewal of the market licence in his name) – could each petition the king with allegations that the other was using armed force to obstruct their participation at fairs and markets of the region [National Archives, SC 8/146/ 7271, 7282].

Bishop Richard de Capella stands out as particularly pro-active, during a relatively short episcopate (1121-27), in developing economic infrastructure in Herefordshire. As a former official of the Chancery, Capella had overseen the drafting and sealing of market grants to other prominent ecclesiastics who were appreciating the benefits that could be realized from fostering market settlements. He obtained a fair for Hereford and partnered with the king in building a bridge there to cross the Wye, and he appears to have been the founder of towns at Bromyard, Ledbury, and possibly Leominster. Succeeding bishops continued the policy of promoting urban development within their diocese, which included part of Shropshire, though in that county the bishops of Bath and Wells and of Coventry and Lichfield also established markets on some of their manorial holdings. The theoretical annual financial value of these boroughs to a later Bishop of Hereford is illustrated by a survey of episcopal lands, compiled about 1288 but from one or more sources that were a few years older (probably an earlier survey in 1285)[A.T. Bannister, ed. A Transcript of the 'Red Book': A Detailed Account of the Hereford Bishopric Estates in the Thirteenth Century, Camden Miscellany, vol.15 (1929)]. Annual revenues were estimated at £13 1s. 6½d from Bromyard, £27 10s. 7½d. from Ledbury, and £10 15s. from Ross-on-Wye, although the mathematical calculations appear suspect. Besides rents, these receipts included market tolls and court fines at Bromyard and Ledbury, profits from the fair at Bromyard, and lease of a water-mill and windmill at Ledbury. In addition to the aforementioned Herefordshire towns, the survey of episcopal estates also shows them with towns at Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, and at Prestbury, Gloucestershire. The latter then had 30 rent-paying burgages along with numerous other non-burgess residents of (effectively) villein status, whom the bishop had given permission to live there; it had been in episcopal hands by the time of Domesday, though a town was probably not established within Prestbury until Bishop Peter de Aigueblanche's acquisition of a market licence in 1249.

Although the king built many of the urban castles that appeared across England in the century following the Conquest (e.g. at Norwich and Colchester), his role in founding castles, towns, or markets in the Marches was less pronounced. It has been argued that there was greater decentralization of control of key defences, away from the Anglo-Saxon burh model, as a public fortification, towards private castles [Michael Fradley, The Old in the New: Urban Castle Imposition in Anglo-Norman England, AD 1050-1150, Ph.D thesis, University of Exeter, 2011, p.320]. Certainly this is true of the Marches.

By the beginning of Henry III's reign, if not earlier, market towns were developing around a number of castles in the defensive chain that had been established, such as at Kilpeck, Richards Castle, Clun, Ewyas Harold, and Ludlow. Usually these civil settlements were enclosed within an outer bailey of the castle, or within their own fortified circuit, linked to the adjacent castle – such urban enclosures typically featuring a central street with a marketplace at one end. Topographic indicators thus fill gaps that exist in documentary evidence. Elsewhere in Europe this juxtaposition of fortification and commercial settlement was equally common. We should not think, however, that the urban element was merely an appendage to the castle. Over time the castles lost importance and decayed. But the towns' enterprising merchants and artisans had become less dependent on such sources of employment and more engaged in the opening up of trade with the native Welsh and the English settlements established in newly-conquered regions of Wales. Furthermore the reduced military use of castles provided opportunities to civil settlement to expand into or beyond decommissioned baileys. But some of the castle-towns too, struggling with intermittent border warfare and then the devastating effects of plague on population and trades, declined to the condition of villages or, in the case of Kilpeck, were abandoned altogether.

Market towns in Herefordshire and Shropshire

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Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: July 6, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2018-2019