Keywords: medieval, Leicester merchant guild Boston Stamford fairs commerce cloth wool skins shops booths stalls rental urban origins
Subject: Participation at the Stamford and Boston fairs
Original source: Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives, Merchant gild roll
Transcription in: Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1899), vol.1, 79-80.
Original language: Latin
Location: Leicester
Date: 1258


Memorandum that on 1 March 1258, Henry de Rodintone being mayor, it was ordained and granted by the whole community of the gild, in full Morningspeech, that all Leicester merchants who go to Stamford with cloth, wool, or [wool]fells at the time of the Stamford fair, are to have this merchandize transported to the shops in which Leicester merchandize is usually kept; there they are to have this merchandize unloaded and displayed in the presence of those nearby, and are to keep the merchandize (fells excepted) there for at least a day and a night. If they wish to move this merchandize elsewhere, they have full permission to take them wherever they wish, without hindrance. Each of them shall give 3d. per cloth, 6d. per sack of wool, and 3d. per hundred fells. If any of them contravenes this [ordinance] in any way, he shall be charged for the full [hire] of one shop.

Also, at the Boston fair all those merchants shall have and keep their aforementioned merchandize in the shops at which Leicester merchants have in the past been accustomed to have their cloth, so long as those shops are sufficient for all their aforementioned merchandize. The drapers are to be on the south side and the wool merchants on the north side. If any of them contravenes this [ordinance] he shall give 6s.8d per sack of wool as an amercement without any remission.


Stamford originated as a settlement on the north bank of the River Welland, which connected to the North Sea, with a secondary settlement on the south bank appearing later. A stone bridge was built in the twelfth century to connect the two banks, quite possibly preceded by an Anglo-Saxon wooden structure, but Stamford's name came from the even older stony ford, west of the settlement area, through which Ermine Street crossed the river. The latter half of the ninth century saw Scandinavian settlement and the emergence of a pottery industry (one indicator of the economic development resulting from the Viking invasions).

By mid-tenth century the northern settlement had acquired more significance, as one of the fortified Five Boroughs of the Danelaw, a planned town developed out of the existing settlement around an east-west street which connected at the western end to the neighbourhood of a church probably part of a royal estate; in that neighbourhood, at the edge of the borough, the Normans would erect a castle to control the western approach, the ford, and possibly a Saxo-Scandinavian marketplace (certainly one was present there by the twelfth century). In 918 Edward the Elder had erected a burh on the south bank, at the same time taking control of the north bank borough. In this period, Stamford had military and economic importance as an intermediate base on the line connecting Scandinavian-settled areas of East Anglia and northern England. Considerable minting is evidenced there from the 970s into mid-twelfth century. By the time of the Conquest, borough settlement had expanded into a number of suburban areas.

Stamford lay on the edge of the productive agricultural lands of Leicestershire and the heathland of Lincolnshire; grain and wool were in plentiful supply. In the twelfth century it had a reputation for producing woollen cloth of high quality (by English standards) which was exported as far afield as Italy. The Stamford pottery industry continued to flourish up to the mid-thirteenth century, when outcompeted by cheaper rural products. These factors, together with the good road and river connections passing through or by Stamford, may have encouraged the idea that a fair there might flourish. Its Sunday market is evidenced in the twelfth century, but was moved to Monday around the same time that we have the first mention of a fair there (1205). In 1228 the fair's owner, earl William de Warenne, complained it was suffering damage from the existence of a fair at Peterborough, where the abbey had held an 8-day fair in June prior to 1189, when Richard I confirmed it; however, the subject of the complaint was a second fair obtained by royal grant in 1227 and held for one day, in Lent, which was when Stamford's fair took place; nothing seems to have come of Warenne's complaint. The town proper did not acquire a fair until 1481.

The name Boston derives from a medieval term meaning either Botolph's stone (referring to a stone church) or Botolph's town, and its early historians tried to identify it with Icanho, a place where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the East Anglian monk, later Saint, Botolph founded a monastery in 654; that identification is no longer considered valid. Many English churches were later dedicated to him. Settlement at the site of Boston instead probably began in the ninth century, when one of several channels that the waters of the River Witham carved to reach the Wash (and thereby the North Sea) formed through the site, which was close to the coast. A parish church, dedicated to St. Botolph, is heard of in 1091, when granted by Count Alan of Brittany to St Mary's of York; it was associated with the eastern one of two fishing villages on the site, on opposite sides of the river, which became the two halves of the town, linked by a bridge (connecting to the south-west corner of the marketplace) probably around the mid-twelfth century, although not officially united as a single borough until 1545.

Although there is no indication it was a town at the time of Domesday, nor is there any indication the area had suffered, as some others had, from the devastations of the Conqueror's forces. Its location was probably already attracting trade as a port at this period and it was well positioned to take advantage of the growing North Sea trade. Like Torksey, it was closely linked with the important commercial centre of Lincoln; serving as an outport for that city – further up the Witham which, however, was wide enough only for barges. This connection, furthered by improved access, via the Foss Dyke, to other rivers leading into the interior, helped Boston become, by the close of the twelfth century, one of England's leading ports; despite that, it was of quite small size as a town, home to perhaps 800 persons by 1332, when even Stamford was more populous though Boston's higher tax assessment points to a wealthier population. Like Lynn, on the opposite side of the Wash, we see in Boston a phenomenon of rapid rise to prosperity.

Boston is also likely to have benefited from a role pre-Conquest as a market centre for the region, although more importantly it was a beneficiary of the Conquest, in terms of the consequent enhanced links with the continent, and the new masters of the region who would foster reclamation and development of the marshy eastern coastlands for agriculture and animal husbandry. Episcopal and comital confirmations of the 1091 grant, a generation later, included the right to erect stalls and booths in and around the churchyard and to rent them out to outsider merchants at the time of the fair. This eight-day fair began on the feast of St. Botolph (17 June) and by the 1330s, after approved and arrogated extensions, might run to late August, and sometimes into September; in 1218 the king attempted to restrict it to a length of eight days, but perhaps not wholly successfully, as an investigation in 1331 found that fair-owner and traders were colluding in keeping fair activities going longer. It had quickly become a success, generating up to £105 in profits by the late twelfth century, while in 1280 it earned £289 (prior to costs being deducted), a rather extraordinary amount, of which some £40 were from court fines and amercements alone; in 1227 Henry III instructed his financial officer to deliver £400 to the royal tailor for purchasing clothing at the Boston fair, and slightly lower amounts are evidenced for several later years, as well as purchases of falcons there for Henry. It is conceivable that Boston acquired its name from the fair, rather than the church; the earliest surviving references to the town consistently mention the fair as well. Both were under the lordship of the dukes of Brittany, by right of the earldom of Richmond, except for periods when in the king's hand – during one of which the residents were able to obtain their first royal charter in 1204, granting the beginnings of self-government. In the same year, a list (for taxation purposes) of 34 ports on the English coast together with the value of their foreign trade showed Boston second only to London

Church and fairground were the nucleus of the borough, although the fair stalls gradually spread across a wider part of the town (probably moving out of the churchyard proper), while some of the booths around the church and marketplace gradually turned into permanent buildings which were rented by foreign merchants at fair-time. The riverfront and streets leading off the marketplace became built up. A little further out, a horse market had come into being by about 1200.

Boston was a convenient port for merchants of the Hanseatic League, who established a base there, and for those of Flanders and Gascony, some of whom had houses in Boston during the reign of Edward I; all were interested in English wool, and to a lesser extent cloth. Even Italians were using Boston by 1275, buying wool at Stamford and shipping it from Boston and Lynn to France, from where it continued overland to Tuscany. Some Lincoln merchants also relocated to Boston, building themselves stone residences and warehouses there, while most wool-producing monastic houses of eastern and northern England also had a townhouse for purposes of trading. A list of Boston merchants compiled in 1298 suggests about half to be of foreign origins.

By mid-fourteenth century the fair had declined to the point where it was no longer one of national importance, and a growing number of stalls went unrented. The town went into a less pronounced decline, for its port remained, throughout the thirteenth and part of the fourteenth centuries, the busiest in the northern half of England. Wool from the Midlands, and perhaps Yorkshire producers too, was the leading export, with grain, salt (a product of salterns all around the shores of the Wash), and lead (from Derbyshire mines) also notable exports; wine was the main import, with Flemish cloth and Scandinavian metals and timber also significant. This important role in international trade enabled the town to support upper-range merchants such as vintners, spicers/apothecaries, and drapers, as well as goldsmiths. Local industries played a more modest role in its economy. Wool was increasingly sold by producers direct to middlemen, rather than through fairs. From mid-fourteenth century, as wool exports and cloth imports lost much ground to trade in products of the native cloth industry (an industry focused, however, in other parts of the country), and the haven between the Wash and Boston silted up, Flemings had even less reason to frequent the fairs, while the Italians preferred to trade through London and Southampton. Boston's economy as a whole became more localized in scope [a closer analysis of the changes over time can be found in S.H. Rigby, "Sore decay and fair dwellings: Boston and urban decline in the later Middle Ages", Midland History, vol. 10 (1985), pp.47-61.] Stamford likewise felt the effects of the same shifting sands.

The Boston and Stamford fairs both acquired international reputations. Although Leicester had its own fair (first mentioned 1228), those at Boston and Stamford provided opportunities to reach a wider clientele, notably foreign merchants active in exporting; the transfer of Leiceister's fair from August to February, then (1235) to May, was probably to avoid overlap with that at Boston. London adjourned its husting sessions during the Boston fair, to allow merchants to go there without jeopardizing litigation to which they were a party. Similarly, the Boston fair and perhaps that at Stamford provided a legitimate excuse for Leicester merchants to request postponements of litigation. Leicester's merchant gild organized participation of members in the fairs, usually renting a dozen or more stalls there, and extended its jurisdiction over those members' behaviour at fairs, dealing with legal matters arising at the fairs in the gild court after members returned to Leicester.

The Stamford fair was heavily frequented by Leicester merchants. Some entrants to the merchant gild arranged to pay instalments on their entrance fee at the fair, presumably out of profits made there. A lesser number of similar arrangements were made regarding Boston and Northampton fairs. Absence at the fairs was accepted as a legitimate excuse for not being able to attend the . In 1257 the gild had legislated against merchants using booths (here called shops) other than in a particular row that was reserved at Stamford each year for the gild, which paid the total cost of hiring the booths (seldage) – apparently 28s. at 2s. a booth – and then recouped some or all of this via a levy on the volume of merchandize its members took to sell at the fair. A similar ordinance was applied to Boston fair. Perhaps because of its own commitment, the gild wanted its members to use the booths reserved for the gild, but some merchants had other ideas, perhaps not liking the locations they were assigned, or wishing their practices or products to be less closely supervised by gild inspectors, who could more easily keep an eye members when grouped together. At Stamford some merchants preferred hiring different booths, while at Boston there were arguments between the drapers and wool merchants as to who should be where. The above ordinances tried to resolve these problems.

These arrangements made by the gild were evidently not working out to its satisfaction. Leicester merchants had lost interest in using the block of stalls rented by their gild; perhaps with the decline in Leicester's cloth industry they were looking for cheaper stalls, or equally possibly they preferred not to make it easy for gild wardens to oversee their business activities – in 1260 the gild prohibited its members from partnering with outsiders in bringing back goods to Leicester, as this could be used fraudulently to avoid tolls otherwise payable on the merchandize of outsiders. In 1258 the gild sent a representative to Stamford to negotiate an end to the contract for the booths, and the following year one Leicester merchant accused two others of obstructing his use of the booth which had fallen to him by lot in the previous fair at Boston.

In 1261, further revisions were made regarding the Boston fair. While cloth could not be sold elsewhere than in the row assigned to Leicester drapers, any of them who chose to lodge elsewhere than the booths was allowed to take his merchandize with him for safekeeping, but not to offer it for sale at the lodging place. Furthermore each draper was required to pay, before leaving the fair, his share of seldage on the booths on the south side of the row, and the same for wool merchants regarding the booths on the north side of the row – regardless of whether they used those booths or others.



Mornspeche and morowspeche were commonly used terms for merchant gild meetings, and are also found applied to meetings of socio-religious and craft gilds too, though general meetings of members did not take place as regularly as we might infer from those terms.

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Created: October 28, 2014. © Stephen Alsford, 2014