Origins and early growth |
Development of local government
Buildings and fortifications | ECONOMY | Information sources
Map of Ipswich at the close of the Middle Ages
Ipswich bailiffs, coroners, chamberlains, and treasurers
Appendix 1: Account of the setting up of self-government in A.D. 1200
Appendix 2: Calendar of usages and customs of Ipswich
Appendix 3: Oaths of officers and burgesses
Appendix 4: Account of revenues and expenditures, 1446/47
Archaeology has shown that local industry and foreign trade were associated with Ipswich from the time of its earliest settlement. Ipswich shared the same advantages as other East Anglian towns on or near the coast, in terms of convenient location for trade with the Baltic, Scandinavia, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, and northern France and in terms of access to the river system penetrating into the fertile agricultural lands of inner East Anglia. During the Late Anglo-Saxon period East Anglia was becoming one of the most heavily populated and prosperous parts of England, despite the disruptions of the Danish invasions. In fact, the influx of Scandinavian settlers contributed to the process, since they brought new blood into the towns and new hands to turn forests into fields the production of surplus food being necessary to the growth of urban populations focusing more on commerce and industry. Ipswich was a prime beneficiary of this, and industrial activities increased during the period of Scandinavian domination.
From the seventh to ninth centuries Ipswich was the main production centre for Ipswich ware, a sturdy type of pottery that is found throughout East Anglia during that period and as far afield as Yorkshire and Kent. With the Scandinavian settlement, however, a new pottery style, known as Thetford ware superseded Ipswich ware. Other industries weaving, leatherwork, antler-working, and metalworking have been revealed by archaeology, but not on the same scale or apparent organization as the pottery industry, which was concentrated in the north-eastern part of the town. Craft activities of various types were also well-evidenced in the buildings lining what was later known as the Buttermarket, which can be considered at the core of the Middle Saxon town, whereas residents in peripheral neighbourhoods were probably more involved in occupations related to agriculture and animal husbandry. But Ipswich's economy was based primarily on commerce and industry and it can be considered one of those emporia evidenced as early players in the revival of international trade in the West; such trade centres are found elsewhere in England and around other coasts of Europe. The nobility of East Anglia were consumers of finer quality imported pottery, as well as cloth, wine and other imports. The ruling Wuffing family likely was influential in directing trade northwards, to the land from which they had migrated. By the mid-tenth century a royal mint had been established at Ipswich.
In the post-Conquest period at least, Cornhill was the 'town centre' and there were several taverns nearby. Market stalls lined the surrounding streets, with the meat and dairy markets to the south of Cornhill. The quayside was another focus for occupation and commerce; trading here was probably of a wholesale nature, as opposed to the retail markets in the centre of the town. According to a complaint made by the bailiffs in 1230, about a rival market in Woodbridge, Tuesday was the principal market day in Ipswich.
In contrast to Lynn where the location of markets was dictated primarily by proximity to the quayside, the location of Ipswich markets away from the quay, along the ridge running through the centre of town, suggests that goods brought by land were at one time as important to the town's economy as water-carried trade. There were various specialized markets and, from a list of tolls levied on different merchandise, we see that there were separate locations associated with particular categories of product (although not rigidly):
Tolls were charged by the volume of merchandise (e.g. cartload, wheel-barrow, barrel), or for individual items in cases such as the presumably luxury items of porpoise and salmon. In addition, those selling their goods from stalls had to pay an annual fee called stallage. Bakers who had stalls paid 3d a year for them (6d for non-residents); instead of tolls on their bread, however, they paid a farthing a day to sell in the market, while those selling from their homes negotiated an annual (licence) fee with the town authorities.
The various market tolls were an important source of revenue for Ipswich throughout the Late Middle Ages. Other principal sources of income by mid-fifteenth century were rentals and leases of property owned by the community houses, lands, mills, and market stalls entrance fees paid by new burgesses, and fines imposed by the courts; the licenses for exemption of outsiders from certain tolls were not very lucrative by this period. However, these sources were outbalanced by the outgoings, chief among which was the fee farm, although the costs of maintaining community properties and general costs of government (officers' salaries and business expenses) were also not inconsiderable. Despite an income of £88, in 1446/47 the borough ran up a deficit of £20. There were problems at this period with collecting all the revenues expected and chamberlains were often considered to be in arrears from their account (probably through no fault of their own); there are several references to debts owed by the borough for the fees of officers or its representatives to parliament. In 1451, in order to cover the expenses of obtaining a new charter (presumably that of 1446, unless there was then a new iniative which proved unsuccessful), a general levy had to be made on the community: 3s.4d from each portman, 20d from each burgess, 12d from each foreigner.
By contrast, in 1286 (during the period of wardenship) the sheriff accounted for over £93 in revenues for a year and a half and could boast of a surplus of almost £17 over the expenses of administering the borough, in part because of a savings on salaries of town officers (only a sergeant of the court and a couple of toll-collectors being needed by the sheriff).
During the reign of Edward III, we may suspect that borough revenues were managing to cover expenditures (if barely) since the farming out of several sources of revenue produced income by itself sufficient to meet most or all of the fee farm. Although the town mills are seen being leased out in 1285 and 1308 (and this is likely to have been standard practice), the systematic leasing of a range of revenue sources seems to have begun as an experiment in 1334, when the meat market was farmed to two new burgesses for £9.6s.8d a year, for a seven-year period. In 1339 the experiment was much expanded to include the corn market (£20), fish market (£8.13s.4d, with a slight discount if war with France jeopardized the seas), the petty goods market (£4.3s.4d), and the borough's half of the Woodbridge market (£1.4s.); the quay, the community-owned mills (the New Mill and Horswade Mill, with Odenholm meadow subsequently attached to the latter), hawgable, and "forwardeselver" (possibly estreats) were also available for farm, although there does not seem to have been any immediate takers. The mills later brought in £5 to £8 annually. Tronage and the carriage of bulk merchandise from the quay to merchants' warehouses and cellars were later added to the farm of the quay, to make it more attractive, but the initial amount of £20 likely proved unprofitable and in some years it was difficult to find a farmer, until the cost of the lease was halved. The tolls on broom were also added a small item bringing only 5s. into the borough coffers. By 1347 the total revenue to the borough was amounting to over £58. A century later, in 1451, one man was prepared to pay £48 as one year's farm for a parcel of revenue sources: the Great Custom, customs collected at the quay and the Wool-house, the crane, the "petybeam" at the quay (probably for tronage), administration of weights and measures, the Flesh-house together with tolls on meat and wool-pells, tolls collected at St. George's fair (April) and St. James' fair (July), and foreign fines. In 1469 the tolls from St. James fair were to be applied to the care of lepers.
The Black Death only briefly disrupted this situation, but loss of key records prevents us from knowing how far into the second half of the century this practice was continued. A general decline in court business (and therefore borough income from it) in the third quarter of the century hints at a more general economic decline in the town, but efforts were made towards the end of the century to systematize revenue collection better, through chamberlains and sergeants. By 1415 the revenue from court business was at about the same level as in the 1446/47 accounts: £6.3s.2d from court estreats and £10.3s.4d from leet estreats.
In mid-fifteenth century, the borough authorities were making fresh efforts to regulate trade and commerce in the town. Mercers were forbidden, in 1434, to store wool in any private house unless the community warehouse was full. In 1446 there are references to stalls for the sale of fulled cloth in the moothall, as well as a draper's stall and a tavern under the moothall. In 1448 it was ordained that the fuller's market take place only in a room above the moothall, and the draper's market only under the moothall any cloth sold elsewhere would be confiscated; a similar stipulation was made for wool and mercery markets, to be held only in the Wool-house, which was situated above the butchery. A regulation of 1454 required all outsiders bringing merchandise into town to have it weighed by the Common Crane (at the quay), and not elsewhere without prior arrangement with the chamberlains, entailing payment of a cranage fee (3d). 1473 saw the prohibition of residents of the town having their grain ground at any mill other than the town mill (Horswade?), while at the same time the miller was instructed not to charge excessive fees, and the following year put in place (among a set of ordinances) the requirement that all merchandise be measured and weighed before being shipped out, while two months later a committee was appointed to reassess local tolls and customs on different kinds of merchandise. All these initiatives were aimed not merely at regulating commerce but at ensuring the borough had its cut of the profits therefrom.
The Merchant Gild doubtless had some role in the regulation, or at least the fostering, of local trade and commerce; probably more so in the early thirteenth century than in later periods. We do not know precisely what, since it is rarely mentioned in the surviving borough records, and its own records have not survived. It was essentially the commercial face of the borough, which must have become redundant in some regards as the borough increasingly took control (as reflected in the custumal) of commercial matters. In 1325 it resurfaced in its aspect of a socio-religious association the Corpus Christi Gild whose alderman had to account before bailiffs and portmen for the property and debts of the fraternity, and which retained a connection with St. Mary Tower. Occasionally there is mention of the gildhall which, since identified in the fifteenth century with court sessions, must have been another alias of the moothall/tolhouse. In 1446 we still hear of the election of alderman and associates (now reduced to 2) by "bailiffs, portmen and the entire community", and the alderman's monopoly on commerce in stones is reiterated. By this period one of the functions of the gild was to present an annual pageant on Corpus Christi day, financed by the borough; groups of craft gilds were each assigned a specific tableau to represent, while the different orders of friars, as well as the Priors of the two local priories and the bailiffs and portmen all had particular role to play. In fact, judging from the financial account of the Gild for 1478/79, the celebrations on Corpus Christi day including a large feast may have been the sole significant function of the Merchant Gild; all burgesses, both intrinsic and foreign, were expected to contribute 4d a quarter towards it and all could attend the feast with their wives and bring a guest for an extra 4d. The income from the monopoly on sale of certain stones was now assigned to hiring a chaplain to pray for gild brethren. In 1482 it was reaffirmed that foreign burgesses must pay a quarterly fee to the Gild or lose their burgess rights.
The early importance of Ipswich as a market for regional agricultural produce is indicated by the number of manors that purchased exemptions from tolls on grain and other produce. Even in the late fourteenth century, grain featured prominently among exports of local merchants. Wool and cloth exports and wine imports became more important in trade as the fourteenth century progressed, although even in the earliest surviving court roll (from 1255/56) we find recognizances of debts for the purchase of cloths, which appear both to be Suffolk product and imports from Ypres. Customs accounts show that a wide-ranging trade was carried on with Flanders and the Low Countries. Ipswich's easy access to the North Sea made it a good point of departure for relatively swift voyages to those regions. It was probably also a convenient port from which to ship wool to the staple towns of Calais and Middelburg. Merchants from London and the Midlands were using it to target these markets, it being advisable to spread risk, in the unstable environment of international hostilties, by using a range of overseas routes; and Dutch merchants found it a useful access point into England. Ipswich was used quite a bit as a port by Colchester merchants; the national customs system had Colchester, Harwich and Maldon as subsidiary ports to Ipswich.
Suffolk had a smaller role in the wool trade than Norfolk; of the four East Anglian towns designated in the fourteenth century as Staple towns (i.e. the sole authorized centres for the sale of wool), three were in Norfolk Norwich, Lynn and Yarmouth and the fourth was Ipswich. East Anglian wool was not of the highest quality, and its economic importance was gradually supplanted by the cloth-making industry. There are indications of cloth-making at Ipswich in the twelfth century; by the thirteenth century, the town was known locally for its cloth, linen, and hemp. But this was on a minor scale; commerce was of more importance to the town's prosperity than was industry. Wool continued to play a prominent role in exports from Ipswich throughout the Late Middle Ages, although it never rivalled Boston or Lynn in the wool trade (nor Yarmouth in the fish trade). Cloth began to appear among exports from the thirteenth century and became an increasingly important commodity in the fifteenth, but its trade was dominated not by local merchants but rather by the Merchant Adventurers (founded in London, with branches in Ipswich and other towns) and, by the end of the Middle Ages, the merchants of the German Hanse. A cloth-finishing industry tried to establish itself in fifteenth-century Ipswich, but discord between wool-producers, merchants and clothiers made the industry susceptible to the influence of London and Hanse merchants.
Petitions from "the poor burgesses" of Ipswich to the king in 1399 and again in 1402 complain of a decline in prosperity as a result of the burdensome fee farm and royal tallages, losses in shipping, and emigration of some of the wealthier burgesses. While such complaints are not entirely to be taken at face value, being devices to seek lower taxation or additional privileges (such as being made a staple town), evidence presented above suggests that the borough may not have been keeping its head above water, financially. Nonetheless, it does not appear to have been in dire straits; its diversified economy allowed it to weather the medieval fluctuations in the fortunes of commerce fairly well.
On the whole Ipswich seems to have moved from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century in better shape than many towns, including other east coast ports. In that comparatively peaceful period, Ipswich merchants were attempting to compete in foreign trade (as well as in trade passing through their own port) with more market-savvy rivals from the Low Countries and the German Hanse, as well as with better-capitalized Londoners. They had modest footholds in markets of the Baltic, Flanders, and English possessions in France, and were just beginning to penetrate markets in Spain. They were most successful dealing in cloth, as regards exports, and Gascon wine regarding imports. But, as the century wore on, changing conditions such as deteriorating international relations, the Crown's loss of first Normandy and later Gascony, friction between English merchants and foreign competitors, coinage and credit problems caused by bullion shortages, the uncertainties engendered by civil war, and grain shortages resulting from a series of bad harvests adversely affected the English economy in general and the share of English merchants in international trade. The Gascon wine trade collapsed, English merchants were blocked from Baltic markets, the focus of cloth manufacture and commerce shifted to smaller Suffolk towns. Ipswich merchants lost much of their share of overseas trade to foreigners, particularly Hanse merchants, and to wealthier London merchants who could weather the depressed conditions. These outsiders kept Ipswich's role in international commerce alive until political conditions, domestic and foreign, stabilized under Edward IV and certain sectors of the local economy began to revive somewhat patchily, yet overall perhaps better than that of many other English towns with cloth once more pushing Ipswich's merchants back into the export trade.