Atchm Market towns - Shropshire - Acton Burnell
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 1269 : Acton Burnell

Keywords: Acton Burnell statutes manors crossroads fortifications royal service bishops town-founding borough market licences burgage tenure urban decline

Acton was a Domesday manor, with some fortification by ca.1200, located near a junction of two roads, one of which was a packhorse track leading shortly to Watling Street. There was no significant watercourse in the vicinity.

By 1182 Acton was in the hands of the Burnell family, as sub-tenants of the Corbets, and it was Robert Burnell who in 1269 founded and chartered a borough at his birthplace, and obtained for it the king's grant of a Tuesday market and two fairs; in the early 1280s he built there a second fortified manor-house – with an outbuilding large enough to host a parliament in 1283 (whose De Mercatoribus, a reform prompted by the growth of commerce, was known as the statute of Acton Burnell) – though the house barely deserves the name 'castle' usually applied to it, for it was intended primarily as a country residence rather than a defensive structure. Robert also rebuilt the village church. His early career was as a Chancery clerk, and then as a clerk of the household of Prince Edward, rising to serve as the prince's chancellor (1265-70); he was a close advisor to Edward as prince and from 1270 one of the men delegated to look after the prince's affairs while absent on crusade, and then as regent until he returned in 1274, when the king made him England's chancellor. Having already (1270) tried, unsuccessfully, to have Robert elected Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1275 Edward had him elected Bishop of Bath and Wells. Bishop Robert remained a trusted advisor to Edward I up to the former's death in 1292, a central figure in Edward's administration.

In return for his services, royal favours enabled him to become very wealthy and at his death he owned 82 manors in 19 counties, some held as episcopal estates, but many in his own right. It is not surprising then to find him obtaining market or fair licences for several of them, including the Cheshire salt-town of Nantwich (1283), Somerset boroughs of Axbridge (1279), Bath (1284), and Chard (1291, converted to a planned town by a previous bishop in 1236), and Somerset manors of Wiveliscombe (1285, possibly already a town) and Bishop's Lydeard (1291) all held as bishop. Apart from the market and fairs obtained for his home base of Acton Burnell, all the royal licences were acquired by Robert Burnell after becoming bishop. Robert's nephew and heir, Philip Burnell, perhaps through the agency of the chancellor, obtained licence for a market and fair at his manor of Malpas (Cheshire) in 1281, and is the likely founder of the borough there, heard of a few years later.

The town at Acton Burnell focused on the crossroads slightly west of the church, which itself was on the west side of the manorial enclosure. Property plots were laid out around all four branches of the crossroads, and burgage tenure was a prominent component of the borough charter of 1269. Where the marketplace may have been is not evident from the modern topography; if at the crossroads, then it was of a very modest size. Perhaps it was never expected to be a great commercial success, but was desired by Robert Burnell to act in a supportive role to the manor-house. Yet his borough charter is careful to reserve to himself the revenues from market and fairs, rather than concede these to the burgesses – justifying this on the grounds it was the customary arrangement – but it is less clear whether such institutions at Acton pre-existed the charter.

In 1301 47 burgages were recorded there, but only 36 in 1315. In 1364 Acton Burnell, along with its market and fair, was still in the hands of the Burnell family, although Robert's immediate heir, Philip, dissipated the wealth he inherited. Robert's urban foundation too failed to prosper, even as just a small market town, and has left relatively little trace in the documentary record; the market is last mentioned in a royal confirmation of 1364 and by the fifteenth century Acton had the character of a village.

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Created: December 31, 2018. Last update: June 15, 2019
© Stephen Alsford, 2018-2019