PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Nottingham rivers bridges construction renovation maintenance tolls endowments chantries widows political conflict revenues charity expenditures financial administration audits warden
Subject: Arrangements to rebuild the Trent bridge
Original source: Nottinghamshire Archives
Transcription in: W.H. Stevenson, ed. Records of the Borough of Nottingham, (London and Nottingham, 1882), vol.1, 182.
Original language: Latin
Location: Nottingham
Date: 1363


Edward, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland and Aquitaine, to all to whom these letters shall come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have granted to our well-beloved mayor, bailiffs, burgesses and reputable men of our town of Nottingham, our [rights of] passage across the waters of the Trent nearby the town of Nottingham. To have together with our ferry belonging to that passage, and all profits associated with that passage, from the present date for the term of five years next following. On condition that all those profits be put towards the repair and [re]building of the bridge called Hethebethebrigg, which has become ruinous, under the supervision and witness of our sheriff of Nottingham then in office, Stephen de Romylou constable of our castle at Nottingham, and Robert de Moreton, or at least two of them, of which we wish Stephen to be one. In testimony to which we have had these our letters made patent, to be in force for the said five years. Witnessed by myself at Westminster, 9 November 1363.


The arrangement at Nottingham was quite different from that made at Norwich and of a temporary nature, to provide for the refurbishment of a bridge so badly in disrepair that a ferry service had been put in place instead. The Trent, one of England's largest and longest rivers, navigable to a point just upstream of Nottingham, had been provided with a fortified bridge in 924 by Edward the Elder, in the process of retaking southern England from the Danes (the Trent marking the boundary of his kingdom). Henry II is said to have built its successor and what would later be known as the Trent Bridge was named in the Middle Ages the Hethbeth Bridge, the name apparently derived from Anglo-Saxon terms indicative of a wharf and a ford; that we come across it being referred to as "bridges" indicates that more than one structure was required to reach from firm land on one side to firm land on the other.

The new bridge, which was the last structure crossing the Trent as it headed for the sea, was sturdy enough to support a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where alms in support of the bridge were collected. The Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem seems to have been implicated in its maintenance in the early thirteenth century, and in 1231 the Archbishop of York granted an indulgence of 12 days to anyone giving alms to the bridge. In 1303 John le Palmer and his wife Alice obtained the king's permission to endow a chantry in the chapel with rents totalling £6.13s.5d; two chaplains were to celebrate daily for the souls of the founders, their ancestors, and all Christians who donated towards the maintenance of the bridge. This was an early reflection of borough interest in supporting the bridge, which was situated about a mile outside the town, for John le Palmer was one of the leading townsmen. He was either the brother or son of Adam le Palmer, who had been mayor in 1295/96; if the son, he himself served as one of the town's bailiffs in 1300/01, then as mayor in 1302/03 and again in 1306/07 and 1311/12. A second chapel was later built at the northern end of the bridge, and another multi-term mayor tempore Henry VI, John Plumptre, had a chantry there.

During the last of John le Palmer's mayoralties, his wife was instrumental in obtaining a royal grant of pontage (August 1311) to the townsmen of Nottingham, to support repairs to Hethbeth Bridge; it was to last for 5 years and the application of proceeds to the designated purpose was to be supervised by two burgesses, Hugh de Stapelford and Robert del Lound. Stapelford had already served a term as bailiff (1304/05) and would again during Palmer's mayoralty of 1311/12; he may have been related to Alice.

After her husband's death, Alice la Palmere threw herself even more into the work of the bridge. Whether John's death had any role in that is a subject for speculation. He had been in hot water for failing to appear before the court of King's Bench when sued for debt by Richard Ingram of Gedling (a village just northwest of Nottingham), and in 1309 had appeared before the king in an effort to win back lands of his that had been seized as a result, and to acknowledge his debt of 60s. In April 1315 he was named among 11 Nottingham men complicit in ringing the communal bell to summon the community to follow them on an assault on the castle there, which turned into an 8-day siege; also on the list of the accused was Robert Ingram, described as "late mayor" (and who was to serve again in that capacity on several later occasions).

The offence had in fact occurred prior to October 1313, when a royal commission of enquiry was appointed to investigate who had killed Walter de Thornton during his mayoralty of 1312/13 (i.e. following Palmer's last term); this murder had been preceded, it was claimed, by the making of a conspiracy to commit the act. The chief culprit, Roger le Orfevre, was arrested and imprisoned in the castle, contrary to the gaol rights of the borough, and the townsmen had apparently attacked the castellan and six soldiers making the arrest. Persons unknown subsequently managed to enter the castle by some secret passage and shave the head of the prisoner – perhaps with the intent of him pleading privilege of clergy? Roger was still in gaol in 1315, despite the borough authorities having obtained a confirmation of their royal charters of liberties, including judicial and police independence; it was this that apparently occasioned the siege.

It was around the time of this affair, which has the earmarks of a struggle between political factions, that John le Palmer seems to have died. We can only speculate whether Alice's dedication thereafter to the well-being of the bridge might have been some kind of self-imposed penance on behalf of her husband. More likely she was simply continuing a supportive role that she and her husband had while he was alive.

At any rate, in August 1314 we encounter the first of a series of special royal protections accorded Alice, widow of John le Palmer, on the grounds that she was engaged in rebuilding Hethbeth Bridge. Her efforts faced an enlarged challenge when work to date was partly undone by severe flooding of the Trent in 1315. In August 1315 the protection was renewed, for two years, and at the same time a three-year extension of the pontage of 1311 was granted. The king was sufficiently impressed by Alice's dedication, which was said to include the expenditure of substantial amounts of her personal money, that he requested the Prior of Thurgarton to provide what amounted to a corrody at the priory for Alice – bed and board there for life; his reason was that she be motivated to continue her work by the knowledge that, even if she exhausted her personal resources, she would be assured a suitable maintenance for the rest of her life.

In July 1318, the pontage was renewed once more, for four years; this time the grant was made directly to Alice and stated to be not only for the repair of Hethbeth Bridge but also for the construction of a second bridge between Hethbeth and territory in the vicinity of the manor of Gamston; the latter was subsequently referred to as the "bridge of the New Breach", suggesting that possibly Trent flood-waters had washed away part of the causeway and given rise to a new branch that needed bridging. Stapelford and Lound continued to act as supervisors of the project.

Possibly the Nottingham authorities came to resent the fact that the right to take tolls on wares being brought to the town for sale was now squarely in the hands of a private resident, or perhaps it was that the pontage began to prove an inconvenience in relation to other priorities of the administration. Perhaps even – although this may be stretching hypothesis too far – the pontage was a political football in the context of the factionalism in the town.

Be that as it may, within a few years we see a struggle for control developing. In January 1322 the king made a three-year grant of murage to the Nottingham authorities and, on the grounds that the need to enclose the town was urgent, he ordered Alice not to collect pontage during that period. Notwithstanding, he shortly after renewed Alice's protection, and again in 1323. It may be that Alice was presenting her case to the king for precedence, and the local authorities perhaps tried to counter this by suggesting to the king improprieties in the administration of the pontage, a not uncommon charge at this period. For in November 1323 the king appointed a commission to audit Alice's pontage accounts, to determine how much she had collected and how much she had spent on the bridges; the commissioners were empowered to pressure her to allocate the money to bridge repair if she had not done so. It would appear that the audit presented Alice's work in a good light, however, since in December 1324 she and Hugh de Stapelford were jointly given a new, three-year grant of pontage (to be supervised by burgesses William de Beston and John Dand), and just a few days later a further two-year protection. At the same time he ordered the mayor to cease collecting murage.

That mayor was William de Amyas, who also happened to be the husband of Margery, daughter of John le Palmer (and presumably Alice). Evidently he and his successors did not take kindly to this setback, for in May 1327 the king had to issue fresh cease-and-desist orders regarding the collection of murage while pontage was in effect, promising to re-grant murage once the pontage expired. Yet in the same month he reconfirmed the previous pontage grant and extended it for a further year, and in November further showed his favour and recognition of her personal effort and expense by exempting Alice from paying any taxes while engaged on bridge work.

Yet, before the extension of her grant could take effect, a new audit of accounts was put into motion, and the commissioners also instructed to survey the state of the bridge; again – and despite the fact that the commission of January 1328 marks the end of the initially three-year grant, one suspects Alice's opponents may have had the king's ear. Again the audit must have gone well, for the one-year extension was confirmed in August 1328. But the following year, during his second mayoralty, William de Amyas made a further attempt to derail Alice, complaining to the king that she had collected tolls but spent nothing on the bridge since the previous September; he added that he himself proposed to repair, at his own cost, all bridges between the Tounesbrigg (see below) and Hethbeth Bridge. For these reasons the king ordered Alice to stop collecting pontage.

It appears that Alice never resumed her efforts. In April 1332 the king made a new grant of murage to the Nottingham authorities, and in September 1334 we learn that Alice had died. It may not be significant, but when the escheator identified Alice's chosen heirs, they comprised daughters Matilda Stoyle and Agnes wife of Richard de Whatton, and granddaughters Elizabeth and Margery, who were the children of Sabrina, wife of Robert de Ufton (bailiff 1318/19). Margery Amyas' name was not on the list. Yet perhaps this does not reflect a rift, for Amyas was true to his word: he took over the task of completing and maintaining the bridges and the causeway that linked them. It was certainly in his interest to do so, both as a prospering merchant and as an owner of lands lying between the Leen and the Trent. Even before his death (1349) this responsibility had been taken over by the borough, which obtained control over pontage.

But the bridge's woes were not yet over. The ferry service mentioned in the fourth document above was instituted in 1362, when in November the king, in two separate orders issued on the same day, commissioned the constable of Nottingham castle and others to enquire who was responsible for keeping the bridge in repair and, when they found out, to force them to live up to their obligations, and he instructed the constable to have a barge and a boat made for ferrying travellers and cargoes across the Trent. He further ordered the imposition of tolls for crossing: ¼d. per pedestrian, ½d. per horse or empty cart, 1d. per loaded cart, and ¼d. per 10s. of value of any commercial goods transported across. These revenues were to pay the costs of building the barge and boat and, if the enquiry could not identify who should repair the bridge, thereafter be applied to bridge repair.

In these orders the Hethbeth Bridge was described as broken and ruinous, and dangerous to travellers; this was blamed on the Trent flooding. However, the uncertainty about who was supposed to maintain the bridge suggests the damage caused by the river may have been facilitated by a state of neglect, perhaps exacerbated by vandalism – for in a court case of 1324 one man accused another of assaulting him and claiming that he had stolen timber from the bridge. In February 1363, judicial enquiry having apparently failed to identify indisputably those responsible for maintaining the bridge, the sheriff of Nottingham was appointed to head a commission to engage masons, carpenters, sawyers and other workmen and labourers to repair the bridge, and the keepers of the king's forests in that area were given permission to fell timber and sell it to the use of this project. Two months later the sheriff was given a fresh commission to consult with masons, carpenters and other men of the county as to whether it were better to repair the existing structure or build a new bridge in a safer location, whether to build in timber or stone, how long and broad the bridge should be, etc.; as well, he was to find out if any money had been bequeathed to the bridge and, if so, who held that money (and then to force them to hand it over).

It was shortly after this that the Nottingham authorities decided it was politic, or in their best interest, to volunteer. Whether at their initiative or that of the sheriff, responsibility for repairing the bridge was turned over to them, along with the ferry service whose proceeds were to fund the work. It may be that, having rebuilt the bridge under the royal commission, even though they were not technically responsible for the entire structure, the borough authorities took over long-term responsibility for it. A plea to the Good Parliament (1376) about the dangerous disrepair of the bridge, with with a view to obtaining sanction for shared responsibility between town and county, and for appointing two bridge wardens – one to represent each partner – with the authority to build up a landed estate (without any mortmain implications) to provide ongoing funding for bridge maintenance, did not receive an immediately favourable response from the king. But it appears the town bit the bullet: in 1397 we find one or more townsmen farming revenues assigned to bridge maintenance, perhaps specifically the collection of alms for the bridge; if so, this arrangement was running into trouble, as the collectors were suing each other.

If that experiment went awry, then the bridge (or rather, what must have been a sequence of bridges) may again have been neglected yet again and begun falling into disrepair in the early years of the fifteenth century. It appears as the beneficiary of bequests in 1411 when Robert Squire (mayor 1401/02), having dictated his will, as an afterthought bequeathed 20s. towards the maintenance of the bridge, and again in 1414 when John Tannesley (mayor 1410/11) bequeathed £10 to the same. The civic authorities took a more direct approach at some time thereafter, instituting bridge-wardens to undertake responsibility. The first surviving account of this pair of officers, from1457/58, may mark the initiation of this approach, since the account's heading refers to the bridge having fallen into such disrepair that it collapsed and had to be rebuilt. The receipts section lists:

  • numerous bequests and donations, ranging from 1d. each from 21 burgesses to 40s.
  • half a dozen loans of modest sums
  • in-kind gifts of timber and stone
  • 5s.8d in profits from the ferryboats
  • 8s.6d in charitable donations from users of the ferry
  • amounts from a William Brig, in a context that suggest another farming contract to have preceded the appointment of bridge-wardens

The total received, apart from the in-kind gifts, was £11.19s.5d. It seems that there were persons designated to go around seeking charitable donations for the work – an initiative that had already been tried at Oxford for the support of the South Bridge, as well as at Rochester. In Oxford's case, the collector and the bridge-warden appear to have been one and the same. Unfortunately expenditures of Nottingham's bridge-wardens totalled £20.2s.11½d., so that – adding on the loans to be repaid – they were in the red for over £11.

The crisis indicated in the heading to the bridge-wardens' account was not restricted to the Hethbeth Bridge proper, but also to the Leen Bridge (also known as the Town's Bridge), whose causeway led from Nottingham to the larger bridge over the Trent. During one of the mayoralties of John Plumptre (1445/46) the king ordered a commission of enquiry – itself not improbably requested by the mayor – into who was responsible for maintenance of the "great bridge over the waters of the Leen":

"by which [bridge] daily and public crossing was regularly available to men, mounted and by foot, and to animals, carts and other transport vehicles, as well as other essential goods being carried both to the town as well as beyond it. It is now so greatly damaged and broken apart by fierce and unprecedented flooding due to rainy weather – only recently subsiding – that such crossing was completely hindered and impeded, as a result of which serious adversity and irreparable damage was caused to and experienced by our people." [Records of the Borough of Nottingham, vol.2, 224]
The terms of the inquiry supposed that the Nottinghamshire wapentakes were responsible for maintenance of the bridge and the enquiry was to ascertain if that were the case and, if so, was authorized to compel their inhabitants to take action in repairing the bridge.

The enquiry concluded that, although the Nottingham townsmen were responsible for maintaining a 46½ foot stretch of the bridge, viz. the northern end and two arches, six wapentakes were responsible for maintaining other stretches, comprising about twenty-two other arches (plus of course the piers separating them) and the southern end of the bridge: a total length of some 617½ feet. By August 1446 the men of Nottingham had repaired their stretch, and three wapentakes had likewise complied; the other wapentakes were to be subjected to distraint to force their compliance. Evidently this solution was only temporary, for in January 1458, an official record of the case was issued by the king, presumably at the request of the Nottingham authorities, as an instrument with which to pressure the wapentakes to uphold their responsibilities in view of the renewed crisis. That continued to be a problem: a writ has survived from 1482 permitting distraint of various men of the wapentakes, apparently to force them to contribute towards bridge repair.

A second account of the Hethbeth bridge-wardens has survived for the period immediately following the first, and covers three years. The same two men remained in the wardenship. Again reliance was being placed on bequests and donations; the two alms collectors were still active and having more success, raising £22.10s., but if not the number then the size of legacies was smaller. Despite the £41.1s.3d. raised, the expenditures on repairs combined with the deficit from the previous account still well exceeded revenues. Although no further accounts have survived before the 1480s, bridge-wardens continued to be a feature of Nottingham's bureaucracy. And there continued to be a place for the alms-collectors, their letter of reference from the authorities to be presented to potential donors having survived from 1467. They again fall into the spotlight in 1492, when one of the pair (described as a labourer) sued his colleague for allegedly having sold out his share in the farm to a miller.

In the latter part of the fifteenth century the bridge's welfare continued to rely largely on the generosity or civic-mindedness of townspeople, and a letter of accreditation issued by the authorities to the alms collectors for Hethbeth Bridge survives from 1467; it points out, to anyone who might read the letter, or hear it read out, that charitable gifts were an investment that could be redeemed on Judgement Day and that "it is meritorious to mend dangerous roads and perilous bridges, and especially the bridge of Hethbeth over the Trent, which has nothing whereby it may be sustained." [Records of the Borough of Nottingham, vol.2, 267]. This letter was cancelled when the alms collectors surrendered their commission; in 1492 we hear that another such letter was sold by one of the collectors to a third party, presumably along with the post itself, which provoked a lawsuit against him by his fellow-collector.

The lack of a permanent endowment was soon to begin to change, as the generosity of donors extended to gifts of land. Elena Gull and her brother, the rector of St. Peter's church, in 1480 granted property next to the rectory to a group of trustees representing the corporation, with the intent that after her death the revenues from the property be applied to bridge maintenance; the brother, William, was a past benefactor of the bridge, having donated 40 loads of stone in 1457/58. The bridge-warden's account of 1484/85 refers to other endowments. In addition the borough authorities had assigned some minor revenues from elsewhere in the civic budget, in the form of fines on men pursuing a trade without licence, and 1d. from each man taking out burgess status; but what it gave with one hand, it took back with the other, for the money received for farming out the alms had apparently been applied by the chamberlains to uses other than the bridge (a temporary measure).

Both the income and expenditures of that year were modest compared to those of the 1450s, and there was only a single bridge-warden at this period (a draper); the main concerns seem to have been renewing the piles, fixing "great holes" in the gravel-topped plank cover across the bridge, and breaking the ice the built up around the bridge in winter. With the growth of a landed endowment, however, came new expenses in maintaining those properties. The following year saw expenses back almost to their earlier level, but with a corresponding rise in revenues, almost covering the costs, and 1487/88 actually saw a surplus. In the middle of the sixteenth century additional property was acquired – including the lands of the Hospitallers (whose order had been suppressed some years earlier) – to form a permanent endowment to support bridge maintenance.

A small stretch of the medieval bridge still survives today (no longer over water), although long since superseded by a more capacious one.



The original refers to a barge, but in the context of a passage across the river, a ferryboat is evidently meant; the boat was likely flat-bottomed and rectangular, like a barge.

"letters made patent"
A document left open (i.e. public rather than private), with the Great Seal appended to the bottom.

The royal letters patent were addressed to her, even though the grant was to the town.

"related to Alice"
In 1320 Alice received permission from the king to alienate in mortmain 5 messuages and 5 bovates of land in Barton and Stapleford (villages a few miles southwest of Nottingham) to endow a chantry in the church of St. Helen, Stapleford, for the souls of Hugh de Stapelford, herself, and her ancestors.

"Roger le Orfevre"
His father Robert le Orfevre held repeated ballivalties for the entire period of 1305 to 1313 (and thus during Thorneton's mayoralty).

"occasioned the siege"
We should not ignore the fact, however, that the complainant against the townsmen, the castellan John de Segrave, had made himself particularly unpopular in the town through his highhandedness.

"took over the task"
Furthermore, as part of his extensive build-up of property in Nottingham and the surrounding region, he seems to have been taking over lands formerly owned by the Palmer family. In 1321 he had obtained from another John le Palmer a plot in the Saturday Market. In 1333 it was John, son of Richard de Whatton, selling part of his inheritance to Amyas. In April 1335 Elizabeth daughter of Robert de Ufton sold him a messuage in Stone Street and cottages in Tanner's Street. Between November 1335 and June 1336 he entered into a series of transactions to acquire lands just outside the walls that Elizabeth [Ufton?] had brought to her marriage with Robert de Crophull (mayor the following year), some of which were adjacent to property held by Matilda Stoyle and other formerly held by Alice le Palmer.

Extracts are itemized in Records of the Borough of Nottingham, vol.2, 364-68.

main menu

Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: November 26, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2004