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 ca. 1130 : Newport

Keywords: Newport new towns borough manors fishing churches burgage tenure burgesses liberties merchant guild Betley market licences fairs tolls quo warranto topography economy

Newport was created at the inner edge of Shropshire, within the manor of Edgmond, held in 1086 by Earl Roger, who built a church there around 1096. It returned into the king's hand through the forfeiture of Robert de Bellesme and was farmed by the sheriff for over a century thereafter. During this time an urban component was added just north of the existing settlement. Newport's name itself characterizes it as a new town foundation, and exemplifies how 'port' was synonymous with 'borough' in that period; a royal charter of the 1160s confirmed to the burgesses of Novus Burgus all the liberties and rightful customs had in the time of Henry I. Although it is not mentioned in the charter, the burgesses are later seen tasked with conveying to the king's table (wherever that might be at any given time on his travels, though in practice probably restricted to when he was in the region) fish from a lake or large pond that had been created on the manor by damming a brook; this viviary had its own dedicated keeper/fisherman, the first-documented of whom bore the surname de Novo Burgo. The service is not mentioned in Henry II's confirmation because part and package of the rights and obligations addressed in general terms; the Audleys subsequently became the beneficiaries of this service. Domesday mentions a fishery in Edgmond manor, and it may have been the fishing in the lakes of the vicinity that attracted early settlers, although the Domesday entry portrays a locality that was under-settled, with no village evident.

The new town was furnished with a parish church of its own, whose dedication was to St. Nicholas, one of the patron saints of fishermen (perhaps reflecting the value of the fish-pond to the manor), sailors, travellers in general, and traders, – and so often found in association with churches adjacent to marketplaces or river crossings. Newport's church was distinct from, though less well endowed than, the parish church of Edgmond; though one royal charter lumped the two together as both foundations of Earl Roger, Eyton [vol.9, p.127] noted that this was a natural error. We have reference to the priest at New Borough ca.1136 and to the church itself within the following decade. so we can reasonably associate its erection with the foundation of the new town in Henry I's reign. The Pipe Roll of 1159 records an aid paid by the borough. That the burgesses held by a burgage rent of one shilling is indicated in 1176 when, after the eyre justices had discovered three new houses to have been erected on plots in the borough, the annual amount for which at that period the sheriff was still answerable was increased by 3s. Whether these houses represented expansion of the new town or first-time takers of some of the plots originally laid out, is not certain, but the increase of the increment to 6s. in 1185, listed in the Pipe Roll under the heading of encroachments, suggests expansion that was ongoing, if slow.

In about 1218 Henry III assigned the revenue from Edgmond manor, for which the sheriff was answerable, to Henry de Aldithele (Audley), as partial remuneration for his services to the king. This arrangement continued into 1226, but at the beginning of the following year the king committed the manor of 'New Borough' to Aldithele, on the same justification, then a few months later issued a charter granting Audley and his heirs the manor of Edgmond with New Borough; in lieu of the annual revenue the king had received from the manor, Henry was to provide each year a sparrow-hawk, plus perhaps the increment for the new houses, mentioned above, although there seems to have been uncertainty at the Exchequer about that liability. The distinction made between the manor of Edgmond and town of New Borough, even though the latter was part of the former, and they were geographically adjacent, may have had something to do with the borough's status as a hundred (in terms of court jurisdiction rather than as a large territorial unit). Henry d'Aldithele's initial action as manorial and borough lord was to arrange for a judicial enquiry into the ownership of a number of properties in Newport, including a burgage, to ensure they had been legitimately acquired by their tenants; we do not know the outcome.

The later hundredal inquisitions learned that Henry had built a mill on the manor, perhaps to serve the townspeople; this may have been the later-known water-mill situated on the brook just beyond the dam at the viviary, the Newport Pool. It is notable, in view of what occurred two decades later (see below) that presentments of the local juries included no complaints about the manorial administration – i.e. the exercise of franchises granted by the king – though they had enough to say of extortions by external officials, and mentioned some legal disputes involving the burgesses of New Borough – which, despite its name, was referred to in the record of proceedings as a town. The name of the town is rendered as Newport in the record of the 1259 assizes – although at the 1221 assizes Neuport appears as surname of one of the borough's jury members – and again in 1285 when it was described as a free borough held by the burgesses of Nicholas de Audeley, who had, and used, a court, gallows, market and fair there.

It may be that Nicholas, or a predecessor, had granted the borough at farm to its residents, as was certainly the case by mid-fourteenth century. That the burgesses were organized is suggested by a limitation on the service of fish provision, made them 1247/53 by James, the son of Henry de Aldithele, in return for a payment of £5; and in 1292 Nicholas de Audley granted the burgesses some lands in common. From 1292 the borough and manor began to be represented at judicial assizes by separate juries, though they combined their presentments, and the burgesses claimed at the assizes of that year to have long had a merchant gild, as well as assizes of bread and ale, and a court – which could only have come through a seigneurial grant delegating such jurisdiction. It may have been the gildsmen who, taking advantage of Edward I's presence at Shrewsbury, in 1287 petitioned and paid for his confirmation of Henry II's borough charter to Newport; but this was perhaps all they could afford, for the only additional privilege gained – an exemption from paying murage tolls at other English towns – was said to be granted as a favour to a burgess who may have provided some hospitality to the king at some time.

The family of Henry de Aldithele (ca.1175-1246) was descended from a follower of the Conqueror and had established itself in a Staffordshire castle at Audley, although later generations fabricated an origins legend that had it from Aldithley in Normandy. His father Adam, the first of the family to formally adopt de Aldithele as a surname, appears to have been associated with his overlord, Bertram de Verdun, in the shrievalty of Warwickshire and Leicestershire in the 1170s, perhaps as under-sheriff. Henry himself, and/or his brother James, served as constable to Hugh de Lacy, Earl of Ulster, during John's reign; after Hugh's disgrace, James went on to act as Justiciar of Ireland, while Henry attached himself to the royalist Earl of Chester, Ranulph de Blundevill, from whom he obtained grants of land. Henry's second wife was the daughter of a Seneschal of Chester.

It was as the earl's deputy that Henry served as under-sheriff of Shropshire (1217-20) and he would go on to be appointed to the combined shrievalty of Shropshire and Staffordshire in 1227 and again in 1229. He proved a reliable and capable agent of the king in the Welsh Marches, acting as a military commander, constable of castles on the Welsh border, and being seen entrusted with royal funds and with redeployment of the king's wine, along with other duties. In 1233 he replaced the Earl of Lincoln as warden of Shrewsbury, then in 1237 he was ordered to establish himself in Cheshire to hold the county for the king when the Earl of Chester's death left a temporary power vacuum. He undertook numerous royal commissions in the Marches, some of a diplomatic nature. His rewards – besides the personal profits he could generate from his offices – included not only Edgmond but also, in1230 while accompanying the king to Brittany, leaving his shrieval duties to deputies, the manor of Forde (now Longford, just south of Edgmond). Henry's business acumen is seen in his administration of Forde: he promptly farmed it out to the manorial residents, which provided him with a net profit four times as great as the amount payable annually to the king for the manor; in addition he was allowed to levy tallages on those residents; and (to the annoyance of residents, who complained to the hundredal enquiry of 1255) he ruined one local wood by selling a thousand oaks to Shrewsbury burgess Richard Pride, and cleared another wood in order to rent out the land.

From a William de Betley, Henry de Aldithele acquired land at Heighley, situated between Madeley and Audley in Staffordshire, where he built or rebuilt a castle (ca. 1226-33) and made it the caput of the family estates; the family were not often in residence at Edgmond and the manor-house there became neglected. Around the same time (ca.1227) he also built Redcliff Castle at Hawkstone (near Market Drayton), with a little royal support. In 1220 he obtained royal licence for a fair and market at Betley (Staffs., near the Cheshire border). Those commercial institutions may not have got off the ground immediately, for possibly Henry's title to Betley was not firm enough (whether he held it outright or as sub-tenant is not clear); in 1226/27 the vill of Betley was among a number of lands whose acquisition by Henry received royal confirmation, and in 1227 the Betley licence was renewed and orders obtained for the sheriff to proclaim the market and fair throughout the county and see that they were held. It is believed Henry established a new town at Betley at the same time, for in an inquisition post mortem into Audley lands in 1298 we hear of 30 burgages there along with 26 properties held by other tenures. This market's performance was only moderately good, however; after an unlicensed change of day which put the market in conflict with that of Newcastle-under-Lyme, the king seized control of it temporarily. In 1223 Henry de Aldithele founded Hulton Abbey (Staffs.) as a daughter house of Combermere Abbey, with the usual intent that it function partly as a chantry for his family, though its endowments were very modest; this would be Henry's burial place.

Henry de Aldithele thus built up the family's estates and influence in parts of Shropshire and Staffordshire, as well as other counties. He was able to make good marriages for his children: one daughter married Peter de Montfort, another the Welsh lord of Bromfield. His eldest son and successor, James, married Ela de Longespée and followed in family footsteps: as a staunch royalist, set by Henry III to counter Peter de Montfort's influence in Shropshire; as sheriff of Staffordshire and Shropshire; as a Justiciar of Ireland, and as a Justice of Chester. In 1252 he acquired a market licence for the manor of Talke (Staffs.). James' elder sons all succeeded in turn but died without issue, so the family line was continued by the youngest son, Nicholas, whose career seems undistinguished, beyond military service. In the person of his son, also Nicholas, the title of Baron Audley was accorded (1313), although two generations later yet another Nicholas proved the last of the male line.

No licence for Newport's market and fair exists, nor should we expect one. In 1283 we hear of 10s. in toll profits from the market, but this represented only a one-sixth share of Newport, so the total amount in tolls was more respectable; in 1316/17 market and fair tolls were valued at £7 6s., (as compared to annual revenues of £5 13s. from judicial administration, and £4 1s. from rents). In 1292 Nicholas de Aldeleye, grandson of Henry, was required, in a plea of quo warranto, to justify holding market and fair, along with the assize of bread and ale and other legal jurisdiction, in Edgmond New Borough, as well as legal jurisdiction in other of his manors. This challenge seems to have stemmed, at least in part, from presentments at the assizes earlier in the year by the jury of Bradford Hundred, which questioned his right to judicial jurisdiction; the burgesses (who, as mentioned above, had claimed exercise of some of these rights) were themselves subsequently subjected to quo warranto proceedings.

In regard to the Newport situation Nicholas presented the charter by which Henry III had granted the manor of Edgmond, along with New Borough and their appurtenances, to his ancestor Henry de Aldeleye. He stated that the market and fair had existed in the borough when the king was the immediate lord of the manor and that – apparently referring to Henry I's foundation of the borough – it was possessed of franchises and free customs that implied judicial jurisdiction; he and his predecessors had therefore continued to operate the commercial institutions, administer the assizes, and hold great court sessions twice a year. Some support for Nicholas' defence is given by the judicial assizes of 1203 (prior to the Audley lordship) when a jury complained that the assize of bread was not being administered in New Borough, as evidently the jury thought it ought be. The king's attorney was sceptical about Nicholas' argument, responding that the royal charter made no reference to specific franchises, which ought to be documented explicitly in legal instruments. The case was adjourned for further consideration and we do not know its eventual outcome, but the inquisition post mortem on Nicholas shows him still receiving income from the market and fair tolls, with an estimated value of 60s.

Newport is an example of a town built around a single axial street. The Newport Pool was situated north of the town, and the manorial enclosure south of the town, with possible pre-urban settlement just north of the enclosure. Along the east side of the enclosure ran a north-south through-road, which widened out into the future High Street as it headed towards the church of St. Nicholas. Immediately south of the churchyard the street widened even more into a funnel shape. This must have been the focus of the marketplace, and it was there the Booth Hall was erected at date unknown, presumably for toll collection. A guildhall, in existence by the late fifteenth century, facing onto the High Street about midway between churchyard and manorial enclosure, was probably the base of the merchant gild. Market activity likely took place along the widened part of the High Street, not just in the funnel-shaped area below the church, but perhaps also north of the church, where the street remained wide until almshouses were erected there in the 1440s. The through-road was the axial street of the new town and the burgages – by 1316 there may have been as many as 81 – were laid out fronting onto both sides of the High Street. The only other street heard of in medieval records may have been that, later called New Street, connecting to a back lane running along the rear of at least some of those burgage plots on the west side of the street. Plots on the east side ran back to a stream, which was serving tanneries in the post-medieval period, and probably also the Middle Ages; such an intent could have been part of the original design for the new town, though it would have ruined the value of the watercourse for most domestic uses. Victoria Buteux [Central Marches Historic Towns Survey: Archaeological Assessment of Newport, Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester County Archaeological Service Report 332, 1996, p.5] observes that "Cartographic evidence suggests that the burgage plots were not laid out all at the same time" and this seems to accord with documentary evidence of expansion, noted above.

Newport's market appears to have done fairly well; it is mentioned in 1386, along with the fair, still in Audley hands. The town's taxation assessment in 1334 is further indication of its growing prosperity, as is the creation, around 1309, of a water system, piping water from a spring to supply cisterns in the High Street. Leather-working was an important local industry in mid-fourteenth century and trade in fish, furs, cloth (including luxury cloths), and mined raw materials is also evidenced, pointing to a commerce that was more than local in scope. Most lords of the manor were absentees and by 1421 the manor-house was ruinous; but the small market town continued to do well enough without their close oversight. Economic decline and loss of urban status did not occur until the nineteenth century.

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Created: December 31, 2018.
© Stephen Alsford, 2018