PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Norwich Leicester Northampton bridge maintenance repairs contracts transportation revenues benevolence shops rent endowments tolls officers financial administration York
Subject: Bridge repairs and maintenance
Original source: 1. Norfolk Record Office, Norwich records, Liber Albus. f4; 2. Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives, Mayor's account; 3. Public Record Office, Patent Roll, 9 Edward III, p.1, m.24
Transcription in: 1. William Hudson and John Cottingham Tingey, eds. The Records of the City of Norwich, vol.1 (Norwich: Jarrold, 1910), 259-60; 2. Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1901), vol.1, 323-24; 3. Christopher Markham, ed., The Records of the Borough of Northampton, (Northampton, 1898), vol.1, 65-66.
Original language: Latin (translation of item 3 by Markham)
Location: Norwich, Leicester, Northampton
Date: late 13th and early 14th centuries


[1. Contracting out of bridge maintenance at Norwich]

To all true Christians, present and future, who see or hear this charter, the bailiffs and community of citizens of Norwich give greetings in God everlasting. Let all of you know that we, by common accord, have appointed and delegated to our fellow citizen Walter de Moutone taverner authority to act in our behalf in regard to collecting annual rents belonging to us for [support of] the bridge of Fyebridge in the city. Namely: from the shop that Bartholomew de Acre holds on the bridge at its south end, which shop owes twelve pence; from the messuage of William Price in the parish of St. Mary Combust, which messuage owes four pence; and from the messuage that Reginald Wynter holds in Fybriggate, in St. Saviour parish, which messuage owes eight pence. We have also granted to Walter one of our shops in Cook Row, situated between the fee of the house of Holy Trinity of Norwich on the south, and the fee of Nicholas de Castello on the north, to lease out to whomever he wishes in our name and all revenues of whatever kind issuing from that shop annually are to be received for the benefit and maintenance of the bridge when that is necessary. On condition that Walter keeps our shop in proper repair. We also wish and grant that Walter receive legacies of all kinds or other monies that chance to be granted or are in any way directed towards the support of the bridge.

On condition that Walter capably and conscientiously maintain the bridge in regard to whatever it needs, both [the parts] in the river and out of it, so that each and every person crossing there on whatever business is able to pass over as easily or more so than usual.

Furthermore we have granted in good faith that Walter may build booths at will on the bridge and on the causeway associated with that bridge on its north side, and also beyond the communal watering spot there, to whatever extent he may build within the law, avoiding any injury. From which booths and structures Walter is permitted to receive revenues and profits of whatever kind and apply them as he wishes to the maintenance of the bridge and to his own uses, without opposition from anyone, as long as he maintains the bridge satisfactorily.

All these matters mentioned above, in all regards, just as specified above, we have granted to Walter and his heirs and assigns to possess in perpetuity, in peace and quiet, without opposition from ourselves or our successors, as long as the same Walter or his heirs or assigns capably and conscientiously maintain the aforesaid bridge in the manner specified. In testimony of which, and in assurance of all things as stated above, we have set our common seal to this document. These being witnesses: Roger de Tudenham, William de Refham, Walter Knot, Bartholomew de Acre, then bailiffs of Norwich, Adam Clerk, Paul de Pagrave, James Nade, Roger de Wyleby, Roger de Morlee, John Bate, Roger de Penteneye, Thomas de Lincoln, William Albon, John de Poringlonde, Geoffrey de Bungeye, William de Burwode, William de Rollesby, William Pikot, William But, Vincent de Kirkebi, John de Wroxham, William de Depe, William de Welles, Nicholas Champanie, Nicholas de la Bothe, Odo Mercator, Robert de Donewico, Geoffrey le Mercer, John the clerk, and others. Drawn up on 1 August, 1283, in the eleventh year of King Edward the son of King Henry.

[2. Expenditure on repairs to a Leicester bridge, 1319 (tabulated to make for easier reading)]

Expenses of paving the North Bridge:
For a cart hired for two days in mid-May to carry gravel, at 1s.4d a day 2s.8d
For a man digging up gravel and filling the cart with it 3½d.
For two men gathering stones out of the river, for one day 3½d.
For a cart hired for two and a half days, during the week leading up to 25 July, to transport gravel out of Abbot's Field, at 16d. a day 3s.4d
For a man digging up gravel during the same period 5d.
For a cart hired to transport stones out of the Saturday Market on one day in that same week 16d.
For one man hired to fill the carts 1¾d.
For a cart hired for two and a half days, during the week following 25 July, to transport stones and sand 3s.4d
For a man helping him [i.e. the carter?] during that period 5d
For a cart hired for four days prior to 1 August and on the Saturday following, to carry stones, sand and gravel 6s.
For a man in charge of the cart during the same period 8d.
For the purchase of 50 cartloads of rocks, at 3d a cartload 12s.6d
For the wages of Laurence Cementarius 6s.8d
For the repair of a wooden mallet broken in the work 1½d.
For [a replacement for] a pickaxe broken in the work 2d.
Total 38s.4d

[3. Royal grant of pontage to Northampton, 20 April 1335]

The good men of the town of Northampton have for the reparation and amendment of the bridge which leads over river Nen without the south gate of the same town which is in a great measure dilapidated and gone to decay a like subsidy on articles coming to Northampton for sale to be taken for three years by the hands of William Lodelowe, Walter de Burgh and William de Burgh of Northampton and of every of them.


In medieval England, communication, the movement of armies, and transport of provisions, as well as of goods part of international commerce, relied on navigable waterways and passable roads. Bridges were intersections between the two, places where goods might be loaded or unloaded, or even bartered. Safe and sturdy bridges were an important part of the economic and military infrastructures, superseding earlier but riskier and unreliable fords; the best were capable of supporting heavily-laden carts, which were a more cost-effective form of transport than packhorses. Since the locations of most towns were determined by the proximity to rivers (and often by proximity to a crossing place), building and maintaining bridges was naturally a concern of urban authorities – as indeed it was of the national government, the king imposing special obligations on local landowners to maintain fortifications and bridges in their regions. Good bridges, along with causeways leading through marshy land, could be an economic asset to the towns towards which they directed travellers, and the lack of a bridge could jeopardize an urban economy; as the names Cambridge and Boroughbridge illustrate, the presence of a bridge could be the key feature of a settlement, even bring a town into being.

Fye Bridge was (and is) the most important of four medieval bridges crossing the stretch of Wensum dividing the northern from the southern part of Norwich. The other bridges, from west to east, were Coslany Bridge, Blackfriars (or New) Bridge, and Whitefriars (or St. Martin's) Bridge. The relatively large number of bridges at this period – for York and London only had one each, and medieval Rome three – may have been to serve the northern hinterland, from where provisions were brought in to the city market, it has been suggested [James Campbell, Historic Towns: Norwich, London: Scolar Press, 1975, 14]. It may also owe something to the fact that this stretch of the Wensum banks was, along with the market area, the most densely populated part of the city. Fye Bridge was the oldest and must have been the most important to commerce, sitting as it did on the principal north-south route through the city, which passed through Tombland, the one-time city centre and now site of the city fair, before splitting to take travellers and merchants out of Norwich into the fertile lands to the south-east, or along the old Roman road to Suffolk and, ultimately, London. Immediately east of Fye Bridge, on the south bank, lay what was the city's main quayside in the thirteenth century. South-east of the city, clustered in a five mile stretch of the Yare were bridges at Trowse, Harford, Earlham and Cringleford, indicative of the economic links between city and countryside.

The importance to the city of the arrangement with Walter de Moutone is reflected in the character of the witness list, made up of many of the leading citizens. Furthermore, when in 1290 an ex-bailiff handed over a collection of the most important city documents to the city court – mostly royal charters of liberties – the agreement with Moutone was named among them. How long the arrangement with Moutone and his heirs lasted is not known. But by 1346, the 12d. due from the shop on Fye Bridge was being listed in the city rental and the rent collected by the city, suggesting that the arrangement was no longer in effect.

Prior to this arrangement, the cost of maintaining the bridge – and other bridges serving the city – was handled at least partly, and perhaps predominantly, through gifts or bequests from leading citizens, who were those most reliant on the bridges for commerce. Small bequests, by way of alms, to the bridges were not uncommon in the wills of wealthier citizens. For instance, in 1272 Walter de Dunwich (bailiff on at least 5 occasions between 1253 and 1271) included in his lengthy will the following:

To the repair of the bridge of Coslanye, 2s., of the bridge of Fibrigge, 2s., of the bridge of Neubrigge, 2s., of the bridge of St. Martin, 2s.: to the repair of the bridge of Trows, 2s., of the bridge of Herteford, 2s., of the bridge of Cringleford, 2s., of the bridge of Earlham, 2s.
[Hudson and Tingey, op.cit., vol.2, 361]

Bridges remained a target for benefactors, even after civic authorities had taken on more responsibility for their maintenance, probably because those benefactors owed something of their success in business to good bridges, but also because the bridges were constantly in need of attention. Furthermore, building and repairing bridges was considered one of the seven works of Corporal Mercy, and supporting this cause benefited the soul. To give a few examples of bequests:

Whether the extent of benefaction during life was as great is doubtful, but it was not wholly absent. One of the more extreme cases is the offer by John Caldwell, many years before his death, to shoulder most of the cost of building a new bridge to connect his town, Ipswich, with neighbouring Stoke. Another is that of Nicholas Blackburn of York, who had been involved during his life in seeing to the construction of a bridge on the road connecting that city with Richmond, and possibly three other bridges in the area around York, and who at his death made provision for aiding the authorities responsible for cosntruction and maintenance of those bridges. His widow pursued this further to ensure the construction programme was completed.

Bridge building and maintenance was, strictly speaking, a responsibility of the community of land-holders from late Anglo-Saxon times; it continued to be so: whether the commuity was the shire, the hundred, the borough, the parish, or the ward. While the community could furnish manual labour, bridge-building expertise and good construction materials presented a greater challenge and a large expense. Thus the benevolence of the wealthy towards bridges was a form of alms directed to the relief of the poorer members of the community, who would otherwise have had to contribute to bridge costs. Another form of benevolence is seen in the socio-religious gild for which Birmingham obtained sanction in 1392, with a view to it performing unspecified charitable works at the direction of the bailiffs and community. Whatever the original intention, its membership, encompassing the more prosperous townspeople, took on responsibility for public works such as building the town hall; and (an investigation in 1547 determined) it "maintained there ... and kept in good repair two great stone bridges and various rough and dangerous highways, the costs of which the town itself is unable to support" [Toulmin Smith, ed., English Gilds, Early English Text Society, old series, no.40 (1870), 249]. It was not uncommon for gilds to be founded with the purpose of raising money for improvements to the fabric or quality of life of the community.

The appointment of officials with responsibility for the upkeep of bridges was not uncommon in the larger towns. Such are first heard of at York in the early thirteenth century. They were responsible for the bridge over the Ouse, one of two major bridges inside the city, the other being the Foss Bridge. What precisely were their duties or the revenues at their disposal we do not know, but probably as at Nottingham the former was the upkeep of the bridges and the latter were voluntary contributions. That annual revenues from property endowments were available by the late fourteenth century is indicated by a city rental of 1377, which lists numerous rents collected by the wardens of both bridges; in the same year the Ouse Bridge underwent major renovations – the timing is just coincidental. But it was not until 1393 that the king authorized the city to hold property to provide financial support for those two bridges and the three others in the suburbs, as well as the chapel on the Ouse Bridge. After which other rents and leases already held by the city, but collected by the chamberlains, were transferred to the wardens.

In the opening years of the fifteenth century, several royal grants of pontage financed major work on the bridges – in the case of the Foss Bridge perhaps a complete rebuild. Such grants were made only to finance capital works, were temporary, and sometimes required a local authority to demonstrate itself incapable of shouldering the expense itself – although this was probably often assumed when a major rebuild was required. Northampton's grant in 1335 followed only days after Nottingham had received the right to exact a similar toll in order to finance work on Hethbeth Bridge, again with three burgesses to supervise the collection of the revenue and presumably administer it for the purpose intended. Around the same time Southampton was also seeking royal support for road and bridge maintenance, by requesting he reduce their fee farm. This alternate tack may have been because pontage was limited in the revenue it could provide, so many towns sooner or later obtaining royal charters exempting their citizens from having to pay it (e.g. Dublin, Leicester), or having made reciprocal arrangements to that effect with other towns (e.g. Winchester/London); Southampton itself had obtained exemption from pontage as early as 1189. At Maldon, royal support was sought in the form of an exemption from the expense of sending representatives to parliament.

It was from the same period when York received permission to collect pontage that accounts of the bridgemasters, as they were then styled, begin to survive, reflecting the more involved financial arrangements. Possibly the work of the early fifteenth century did all that was necessary, for little is heard during the rest of the century of work on the bridges themselves, as opposed to the buildings that stood atop them, except that in 1489 a special toll was levied from wagons transporting goods into the city, to finance work on city bridges and streets.

Under the post-1393 system, each bridge had two wardens responsible for collecting the revenues from dozens of properties and using them to pay the costs associated with those properties and with the Ouse Bridge chapel, yet not apparently with the bridges themselves; their oath of office made no mention of any duty towards the bridges proper. Bridgemaster posts were filled from across the spectrum of the citizenry, although not from the same elite who shouldered the highest borough offices, until the late fifteenth century when the post was a training ground for chamberlains, which itself was a first step towards higher offices. Their surpluses were turned over to the city chamberlains, who might apply some to bridge maintenance if required, although tolls collected for passage over Ouse Bridge were also used for that purpose. Thus it might be considered that the bridgemasters were really more responsible for civic realty than for the city bridges.

Two annually elected "bridgemen" (pontinarii, or sometimes prepositi ecclesie et pontis) were a feature of Henley's local government, once we can see it through the regular records that have survived only from the close of the fourteenth century; but we have reference to a single similar officer in the thirteenth. Like their York counterparts they accounted for rents intended for application to the upkeep of the town bridge and town church. Many of those rents came to the borough from a grant in mortmain in 1385, involving revenues from 115 properties, with the intent of maintaining the bridge and a chantry in the church. It seems the church absorbed more of the money than the bridge, and just how much attention the bridge received is uncertain. In 1498, when two of its arches needed rebuilding, a special fund was raised – contributions appear to have been voluntary, and made by the leading townsmen – to be collected by persons other than the bridge-keepers.

At Worcester it is stated (1466) that the bailiffs and particularly the chamberlains were responsible for the upkeep of the bridge. The latter were to examine the state of the bridge quarterly and decide if any work was necessary. The hope was to address problems before they became serious and the bridge dangerous. There is no reference to dedicated bridge-wardens, however.

Although some towns thus put considerable effort into maintaining public bridges, the records of most towns are largely silent on the matter. It may be that in many of these cases the responsibility remained with the community itself, at least in the case of lesser bridges, and no special officers or funds were provided to address needs. At Coventry in 1434, the order was issued that:

the bridge in Palmer Lane is to be rebuilt by the wardens, and with the help of [the residents of] the wards neighbouring thereon
[ M. Harris, ed., The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register, Early English Text Society, O.S., vol.134 (1907), 157]

At Leicester pontage was one of various revenues that in the twelfth century the king had granted to the earl of Leicester, as lord of the borough; he leased it to the burgesses ca.1254 and sold it outright to them in 1361. Whether he had used the proceeds to maintain town bridges is unknown; this may not have been pontage in that sense, but simply a toll levied at bridges, an efficient collection point. There was a story about how this pontage had originally been a toll on dead-wood salvaged from the forest, and how its collection was transferred to the bridges, nearby one of which the earl's collector built a house as a base for his work; how much of this was folk memory and how much fabrication to try to do away with the earl's pontage is uncertain.

Since the town had no direct recourse to the king for grants of pontage that benefited various other boroughs, its authorities resorted instead to local taxations to raise money for projects such as the repairs to North Bridge in 1299 – for which over £21 was levied. This was a form of community participation, and perhaps a form of commutation so that skilled labourers could be hired instead of relying on the townsmen at large. In 1324 the town petitioned parliament for a special pontage, but it was the earl who received such a grant in 1330, with a renewal in 1336; the resentment this caused is suggested by the earl's collector complaining to Leicester's merchant gild, in 1333, that a gildsman had intimidated him and disrupted his work.

In addition to these forms of mandatory payments, a passing reference in 1262 indicates that alms were also collected on the town bridges, although whether this money was for bridge maintenance (as seems likely) is not indicated. About the same time the borough acknowledged that it owed mayor Henry de Rodington £2.2s.11½d for money he had paid out of his own pocket for bridge repair. In 1365/66 we again hear of the collection of alms for bridge work, with the parish churches being used as collection points. Other references in the 1350s suggest that the local authorities were by then directing some court fines towards the bridges.

Costs for repairs to the North Bridge are itemized in the financial accounts of the mayor in 1307/08, 1318/19, and 1319/20, and appear occasionally throughout the 1320s, while work on the West Bridge is documented in 1314 and was the subject of a lengthy account of the Receiver in 1325/26. For the latter the costs were just over £28, and money received for the project fell short at £23.17s.10d, not including an unspecified claim for remuneration made by the Receiver for his work on the project. The greater part of the revenue came from alms collected at the cross – probably the High Cross at the intersection of the two main roads leading into the town from the North and West gates – with lesser amounts from other collections taken up and contributed by the mayor (presumably from the town treasury). This was evidently a major project, lasting from June to January, and calling for: the purchase of substantial quantities of stone; the hire of up to 16 carts at a time; the employment of up to 8 masons at a time and, during one three-week period, of 78 labourers (some working day and night); the use of boats; the acquisition of new equipment such as three wheelbarrows; and the hire of a house as a base of operations and to store equipment.

In the mayoral account for 1365/66, repairs to Leicester's West Bridge and North Bridge – each located just outside the entrances to the town through the west and north gates – loom large, with about £4.8s. being spent on each. The work on the former engaged three masons for three weeks, assisted by two labourers, while two others were set to quarrying rock and were aided occasionally by some of the abbot's men. Men were also hired to retrieve stones from the river, and others repave the renovated bridge, while tilers were put to work roofing a small building atop the bridge – probably the chapel built over the easternmost arch. The work was supervised by one of the town bailiffs. In the case of the North Bridge a more extensive repaving, along with improvements to the walls on either side of the bridge, seems to have been the goal. There is no mention of special provision to pay for these projects, but we hear much of alms-collecting for the purpose as well as a reference to tolls applied to it; the remaining cost may have been anticipated in the local tax imposed on the community that year, as was the more expensive project of rebuilding the dilapidated town hall.

In 1379 – just four years after the quest for self-government had obtained a shot in the arm, via important concessions from the Duke of Lancaster, then lord of the town – in the context of a reorganization of financial administration, responsibility for maintenance and repairs to the town walls and ditches, gates, bridges, pavements and community buildings was turned over from the mayor to the chamberlains. These developments encouraged townspeople to give or bequeath properties, or reversions of properties, to borough government. Two trusted gildsmen were put to work acquiring houses, land and rents on behalf of local government, and on September 14, 1392 they obtained from the king, then in Nottingham, licence to give 8 houses, 15 cottages, 2 shops, various fields and meadows, and about 30s. in rents to the mayor and community, for the purpose of repairing and improving six bridges; such permission being necessary to overcome the prohibition of alienation in mortmain. Later that month, back in Leicester, the pair formally transferred the properties to mayor and community, and then having obtained licence from the Duke and of Sir John de Beaumont, of whom some of the properties were held, repeated the transaction a few days later before the Duke's steward of Leicester.

Billson [Mediaeval Leicester, Leicester, 1920, 100] thought the bridges were just a pretext and – since there is no further surviving evidence to associate the estate and bridge maintenance – that bridge maintenance continued to be supported from voluntary donations. However, bearing in mind the instances of York and London, it is credible that the maintenance of the bridges, along with other public works, was the aim of boosting borough revenues, even if the income from these properties went into a common pot, and donations towards bridge maintenance continued to be encouraged.



"Walter de Moutone"
Also known as Walter le Taverner. He served as a city bailiff in 1290/91.

"St. Mary Combust"
The name of this church (along with another in the same part of the city) holds the memory of a major fire in the parish, and perhaps this devastation helps explain why population here was low. The depopulated parish was later absorbed into St. Saviour's.

"Cook Row"
The stretch of Fybriggate south of the bridge.

"house of Holy Trinity"
I.e. the cathedral-priory.

The original is soldas. A seld could mean a shed or storehouse, but also – and in this context more likely – a modest shop: not as sizable a structure as we would envisage today by the term, but more fixed than a market stall; it was probably a stall with an enclosure for security and protection from the elements. The schoppam granted by the city to Walter earlier in the document was more likely to be the bottom floor of a large building, with living quarters above.

The original has caloram, which the editor plausibly suggests to mean a causeway (normally calcetam, the transcription may be in error). At that period the Wensum was marshier and wider and the bridge was probably approached by a raised causeway on one or both sides. In 1896 the remains of a huge timber causeway, a hundred yards long, of uncertain date (but pre-Conquest) was found connecting higher ground above the river at the point where Fye Bridge later stood.

"avoiding any injury"
I.e. he was not being given carte blanche, but was expected to build within constraints, so as to avoid causing any public nuisance or infringing anyone's rights.

The list comprises the 4 bailiffs, 24 other citizens, and the clerk who drafted or supervised the drafting of the document – probably John de Ely the town clerk. Of the 24 citizens: Clerk, Pagrave, Nade, Wyleby and Burwode would serve as bailiffs in the following two years (Nade having held the post prior to 1282/83 as well); Morley was also a previous bailiff and would serve again; Bate, Pentney, and Lincoln had also already held the ballivalty; Poringlonde, Bungeye, But were future bailiffs and Mercator too if the same as Odo de la Bothe (the forename being uncommon). The high status of these personnel seems to suggest that the 24 might have been the town council for that year, although we cannot be sure of this; at the least the symbolic number is significant. Furthermore the order of the names hints at a cursus honorum.

"in mid-May"
A loose rendering of ante festum Ascensionis domini, the Ascension falling on May 17 that year. I have similarly modernized other festival dates in the original.


Much as today the cost of building new highways in North America is sometimes recouped by making them toll roads in their early years of operation, except that pontage is generally assumed to have preceded or have been concurrent with the work.

"six bridges"
Likely the major bridges crossing the different arms of the Soar; five of them – North Bridge, Frogmire Bridge (Little Bridge in the Middle Ages), West Bridge, Bow Bridge and Braunston Bridge (medieval name unknown) – were clustered around the north and west entrances to Leicester, with the sixth being Cow Bridge, at the east end of town which led to the communal pasture.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: January 8, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2019