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 1200 Writtle

Keywords: Writtle royal demesne manors royal residences hunting planted towns borough topography travel routes streets mills churches priory hermits greens marketplace manorial court trading licences butchers market offences fairs comerce competition Chelmsford Bishop's Stortford shops economy agriculture occupations baking brewing leather crafts cloth industry urban decline

Writtle was not accorded a place in the Essex branch of the Extensive Urban Survey; although a noncommittally titled Historic Settlement Assessment was later produced for the county council, it was not made accessible through the online repository of EUS reports. This absence may have been because its history has not been the subject of much close examination from the perspective of urban history, though K.C. Newton's postgraduate study of the manor in 1967 was published a few years later, after he had become the county archivist [I have not had access to this work]. Nor has Writtle yet been covered in the Essex VCH. Several points in its history remain based largely on tradition – some of it dubious. Only limited archaeological investigation has taken place there, mostly during the development of the modern Writtle College near a site associated with the tradition of a 'royal palace'. A good series of manorial court rolls has survived, but beginning only in 1379 (which suggests earlier rolls fell victim to the Peasants Revolt – that for the year or so preceding the revolt probably being a working document in possession of the local bailiff or clerk of the court, and thus out of harm's way, when the rebels struck).

It was in the roll for 1382/83 [ERO, D/DP M190 m.3] that Beresford and Finberg [English Medieval Boroughs: A hand-list, Newton Abbot, 1973, p.111] encountered a reference to the court convicting two butchers for residing extra burgum; in fact the roll for the following year [ERO, D/DP M191 m.8] has a similar item, though with a significant difference: three butchers were convicted of plying their trades (presumably in the marketplace) despite dwelling outside the market. Each butcher was fined a ploughshare, valued at 16d. and described as the customary fine – a much higher amount than that documented at Berden for the same offence. Another instance of this occurs in Writtle's court roll for 1401/02. It looks as though this was not so much a fine for unwarranted trading, but purchase of a licence by a non-burgess to trade in Writtle's marketplace; this seems confirmed by the 1433/34 roll, which records two butchers each giving a ploughshare in return for a licence to sell meat. Given these references to a borough and its association with the marketplace, we may reasonably suspect a planted market settlement whose residents had the right to conduct commerce in the market toll-free. This is despite that the topography gives only slight indication of burgage plots, nor is there any documentary evidence of the landless messuages that might also represent burgages; furthermore, there are no evident back lanes that are often a feature of planted burghal components – the street now known as Back Road looks to be associated with later development just beyond the core.

One of the largest Essex parishes, Writtle is situated on the western bank of the River Wid, a tributary of the Can, those two rivers joining before meeting the Chelmer. It is just west of Chelmsford and was within Chelmsford Hundred, an area that seems never to have been granted to any barony, but remained in royal hands, under shrieval administration. This proximity to Chelmsford would bring the two communities into direct economic competition.

Antiquarian writers claimed Writtle was the site of a Roman military station or even part of the settlement known as Caesaromagus. Archaeology has not borne this out, though there has been identified a stretch of a metalled Roman road, wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic, which must have forded the Wid, close to its convergence with the Can; this is suspected to have been part of the main London to Colchester route or possibly a secondary road connecting to it, though perhaps not until the decay of a Roman bridge over the Chelmer obliged traffic to divert through Writtle during the Saxon period. This placement on an important road probably helps explain why, by the time of Domesday, Writtle's households numbered between 178 and 186, many of them in the village itself, making it exceptionally large in terms of territory and population – much larger than Chelmsford was at that time. Its value had substantially increased between 1066 and 1086; a large number of sheep is documented, and ample woodland for foraging pigs, although the actual number of these was well below capacity. The woodland was one of four royal forests in Essex and a deer park was established there before the end of the twelfth century. Domesday gives no indication of any burgesses, but we may well suspect market activity within so large a settlement.

With Harold as the manorial lord in 1066, and William sharing that role in 1086 with the Bishop of Hereford – whose much smaller and less populous estate had originally been part of the royal manor, but assigned by Harold to his priest – and the Count of Boulogne (his being a manor at Roxwell, a hamlet north-west of Writtle), it appears that Writtle was ancient demesne of the Crown [so argues Round in vol.1 of the Essex VCH p.336] and possibly the type of high-status royal estate where we might expect to find a market. Writtle might have been the hundredal market centre and perhaps its administrative centre before Chelmsford emerged to take on that role; it may or may not be significant that the hundredal inquisition for Chelmsford Hundred, in Edward I's early years, took its jurors from the king's manor at Writtle, while in 1237 the sheriff of Essex was to proclaim throughout the county a public meeting at Writtle to discuss how to deal with outlaws roaming the woods.

King John built one of his hunting-lodges at Writtle in 1211, enclosed by a moat, and continued use was made of it by his son and grandson. Though the Crown reserved the lodge and hunting rights in park and woods, the manor itself had, however, been assigned on a life lease in 1205 to Thomas Neville, a moderately high-ranking royal bureaucrat, and in 1230, again on a life lease, to Ralph Neville, who served Henry III as chancellor and was also Bishop of Chichester – several other members of the family being associated either with the Exchequer or Chichester cathedral, while one had been John's chief forester – before being granted to Isabel de Bruce in 1241 (in part exchange for her surrendering her share of inheritance from her brother, the earl of Chester). The seigneurial families of Bruce and, subsequently, Bohun and Stafford (dukes of Buckingham) progressively redeveloped the lodge facilities and expanded them beyond the moat – this encouraging local tradition, after the buildings were abandoned, decayed and largely collapsed (during the sixteenth century) to exaggerate its status to that of a palace; the exaggeration was not extravagant, however, for archaeology has shown that it became a fairly substantial residence, with chapel, gatehouse, gaol and farm buildings.

During her early years of tenure, Isabel de Bruce was alleged to have cleared some of the forest from the manor, though there is nothing that points to this being associated with the development of central Writtle. Investment by the Bohuns in keeping the manor-house in good repair suggests that they were at least occasionally in residence, and when Earl Humphrey de Bohun obtained royal licence, in 1347, to crenellate various of his manor-houses, Writtle's was among those named. Humphrey's like-named nephew, the last Bohun Earl of Essex, left a still-young widow, Joan Fitz-Alan, daughter of an Earl of Arundel, as countess; she held substantial estates in Essex and elsewhere and, never remarrying, had the energy and inclination to devote to exploiting them. After the Peasants' Revolt she drew back from direct farming, but fostered the development of fulling and dyeing industries. There is no direct evidence Writtle benefited from that policy, but one of several mills known to have stood within Writtle parish – two associated with the royal manor were, during John's reign, being leased by Ralph de Wrytela and then his sons – became used for fulling cloth; it was perhaps the same one owned in 1360 by the Bohuns, which stood near the junction of the Can and Wid. By 1404 the countess had leased out the manor, and the same practice was later followed by the Staffords (whose claim to a share in Bohun property came via marriage to Joan's grand-daughter).

At the time of Domesday, both the episcopal landed interest – part of which was still assigned to a church – and references to a priest suggest that Writtle's present church, none of whose architectural features pre-date the early thirteenth century, was likely a replacement or expansion of one in existence by mid-eleventh century, perhaps originating as the manorial chapel. The church and its revenues were granted in 1143 to the Priory of Bermondsey, but in 1204 John gave them to a hospital at Rome serving English pilgrims journeying there; the pope had founded the hospital on condition it be maintained by English funds. Rebuilding of the church in the 1230s included establishment of a priory just south of the churchyard, to generate more revenue to support the hospital. Though the priory escaped the royal seizures of alien houses in the fourteenth century, its revenue declined and it, along with Writtle's church, were sold (1399) to a Bishop of Winchester, who made them part of his endowment of an Oxford college. Before that time, however, the rectory manor at Writtle – possibly part of the Domesday manor held by the Bishop of Hereford – had become known as Roman's Fee. due to its Italian association.

More authentic evidence of a Roman presence – besides stray finds of pottery and a few burial urns – has come from a site just west of Writtle, which yielded a wider range of objects, some suggestive of commerce (coins, scales, weights, amphorae fragments) and a complex of small buildings, one of which was used as a butchery whose products were not being consumed on-site, so were probably for trade. Also from the re-use of Roman tile and brick – not only in the chancel of the church, but to construct, in Stephen's reign and with his material support, in a remote, woodland hamlet of the parish, a hermitage that became known as Bedesman's Berg; whether these construction materials were scavenged locally cannot be said, but it is possible. The hermitage attracted enough monks to form a small community, which shortly became a cell of St. John's Abbey at Colchester; one member of the community, Walter of Berwe is seen in the 1382/83 court roll as party to a plea of debt. De la Berwe, occasionally rendered Berughe, is found as a local by-name in other instances, not restricted to the monks (for a domestic servant bore the name in 1368). There is no evidence, however, to associate this appellation with any borough at Writtle; almost every instance of its occurrence seems connected to the monks, and it likely derives from the topography of the hermitage.

Similarly, when, in 1430/31, leet court proceedings began to be recorded under headings of the manor's wards, one of these was Wykestreet – again mentioned in a tax roll from 1490 [E.R.O. D/DP O7/2], which distinguishes the area from Writtle proper; while this might suggest a market street, wyke could equally refer to a farmstead. Likewise, the 1473 reference to a Tunestrate (Tonstrete in 1517) is intriguing – bringing to mind Chelmsford's Tunmanmead (a meadow held by the townsmen) – but inconclusive. We cannot confidently draw urban inferences from any of these place-names.

The royal estate described in Domesday may already have been polyfocal at that time, with settlement nucleating around a number of greens, including hamlets at Oxney to the west, Radley (further west), and Edney (south-west), as well as a number of dispersed farmsteads, some moated. Over the course of the Middle Ages much of the manor was parcelled out into smaller estates with manorial status, while what had been the royal manor passed through other hands, including those of the aristocratic families already mentioned. Growth in population and economy must have been, in the long run, inhibited by the gradual rise of Chelmsford from a small village into a planned market town, eventually displacing Colchester as the county town.

Writtle village proper was focused on a church-flanked green; the borough component probably comprised the tenements along at least the northern and western sides of the triangular green – some of the oldest surviving domestic buildings are among them – which was, by the fourteenth century, and maybe as early as the thirteenth, known as Greenbury Green (a suggestive name); later it was also called Little Green, Writtle Green, or simply The Green. Just beyond the eastern corner of this triangle was a crossroads, with road connections to the river-crossing and the hunting-lodge. One of the arms commences as an unusually wide space in which lay a narrow strip known as St. John's Green, whose flanking property plots (especially those on the west side) may indicate a separate morphological unit; the derivation of the name is unclear, for there was neither church nor chapel of this dedication in Writtle, nor in any neighbouring parish, until at Moulsham (formerly a chapelry, between Writtle and Chelmsford), St. John's church was built in the nineteenth century. The manors of Moulsham and Chelmsford were, in the Tudor period, acquired by the Mildmay family, which later became connected by marriage to the St. John family, but this is a very tenuous chain.

Writtle's church was dedicated to All Saints and lay just south of the larger green, while the hunting-lodge was less than half a mile north of it. In this type of manorial layout – assuming lodge and today's church to have occupied the same sites as earlier such structures, (though the eleventh-century manor-house implied by writs of King Stephen dated at Writtle could conceivably have been closer to the church, Newton suspecting the site later occupied by the priory) – we could expect an open area positioned somewhere between the two to have served as marketplace. Greenbury Green fits that bill, though its primary role would have been as common pasture; it has a watering hole at one end. The very few late Anglo-Saxon sherds found within Writtle village – there being no finds at all from earlier post-Roman centuries – were retrieved along the western edge of the green, except for one on a Bridge Street property (beyond the east end of the green). Animals grazing on that green were contained and protected by a ditch-bank barrier, and the space could be referred to as 'within the bars'. Stretches of what may be the same ditch and bank have been identified east and north of Greenbury Green, suggesting that the common grazing area was once much larger, before parts were carved out for residential plots, leaving Greenbury and St. John's Greens as remnants. Large amounts of bone excavated from the green point to butchery or other processing of animal carcasses having taken place thereon, or in the surrounds, consistent with a marketplace function. North and east of this common land would likely have been demesne fields and meadows.

It remains unclear, however, whether Greenbury Green or St. John's Green was the site of a market. The stocks were on the former, while of the four ale-tasters elected for the manor in 1440, two were to serve infra barres. An annual fee of a halfpenny, known as Green-silver, was due the lord of Writtle from each front door facing onto Greenbury [Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, London, 1717, n.p.]; this looks too small to be a burgage rent, but could conceivably have been a licence for the resident to trade outside his house or on the green, though perhaps more likely a fee for grazing livestock on the green; at any event, it tends to support the impression of a distinctive neighbourhood around the green. The hundredal inquisition of 1273 reported, as an encroachment, that during the tenure of the Bruce family one Reginald the Merchant had taken up occupation of a plot on the green (which green is not specified) and had built a house there, while other plots on the green had been occupied by Richard the Cook and Geoffrey the Chaloner; just possibly this evidences the development of the St. John's Green unit of Writtle. Richard the Cook was also presented for having built a windmill on common land somewhere in the vicinity. The 1288/89 manorial court roll includes a minor amercement of Richard Smith for failing to scour his ditch next to the cross in the borough; this was perhaps a market-cross, but we are left none the wiser as to the precise location.

One of the buildings at the eastern end of the Green, referred to in recent centuries as The Leete, may have been used, at least in the post-medieval period, for those manorial court sessions that would have reviewed commercial offences; Morant stated that the leet court was held at Green-bury in a structure near to where a market house later stood [Alan Bayford, "The Old Manse, adjacent to 3, The Green," Writtle News, no.209 (October 2015), p.27], though the court baron was held at the manor-house. Greenbury came to be treated as a manorial unit in its own right, though probably administered as part of the main seigneurial manor (later referred to as The Lordship). On the other hand, the location of St. John's Green as part of a wide through-route, flanked by streets lined with residential properties, could point to market activity there. A seigneurial toll imposed on carts passing through Greenbury on their way to Chelmsford [Catherine Collins, Archaeological Test Pit Excavations in Writtle, Essex 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, Access Cambridge Archaeology, 2017, p.22, information derived from antiquarian sources – e.g. Charnock, On Ancient Manorial Customs in the County of Essex, London: 1870, p.8 – as far back as the early eighteenth century, also in the i.p.m. on John de Bohun, 1304], probably derived from a right (liberum cheminagium) seen associated with tenure of the manorial woods as early as 1241. Into the northern end of St. John's Green ran a road known as 'lollefordstrat' (now Lawford Lane), which was referred to as the king's highway in 1292 and evidently led to a river-crossing and thence to Chelmsford; only later was this superseded by Bridge Street (no bridge being documented until the post-medieval period), which connected to Greenbury Green, resulting in a gradual decline in use of Lawford Lane. Lawford Lane is now thought to have been part of the Roman road that crossed the ford; in Writtle it turned south through what was later St. John's Green and passed Greenbury, before turning south-west again towards London.

The earliest mention of a market at Writtle in royal records is found in the Pipe Roll for 1204, when it belonged to the king. This reference, to a market in the principal manor of a hundred, suggests that one may have been in existence for some time [Britnell, "English Markets and Royal Administration before 1200," Economic History Review, 2nd. ser., vol.31 (1978) pp.185-86]. Yet the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs indicates that a market grant by John (1199) to the Bishop of London, William de Sanctæ Mariæ Ecclesia, and the chapter of St. Paul's had been seen (presumably in diocesan records) by Newton, as had the grant of an annual fair in 1201 – the same year that this bishop licensed a fair at Chelmsford. We do not know when the episcopal fair at Writtle took place, but it may well have been not long before, or after, the Chelmsford fair held at the beginning of May.

Such market or fair rights required a territorial location, meaning that London's bishops must have held property in Writtle. Domesday reports that two hides and 20 acres of land there were held, after the Conquest, by the Bishop of Hereford, of which one hide had been assigned by King Harold to the church and its priest, and the other remained held of the king. The priest's hide is probably what was later known as the rectory fee and would have incorporated the churchyard and perhaps other land adjacent. If the second hide were adjacent to the first it might well have incorporated Greenbury Green. Those hides could conceivably have been acquired by some London bishop from his Hereford colleague, by purchase or exchange; there is reference to Bishop Maurice having a manor there ca.1100 [Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum 1066-1154, ed. H.A. Cronne and R.H.C. Davis, vol.2 (1956), p.460].

London's bishops were among the highest-ranking, but not the wealthiest, English ecclesiastics, recipients of endowments of land from Saxon and Norman kings, and influential at court; their manor at Chelmsford may itself have been carved out of the royal estate of Writtle [Hilda Grieve, The Sleepers and the Shadows. Chelmsford: a town, its people and its past, Essex Record Office Publication no.100, vol.1 (1988), p.3]. The twelfth-century bishops pursued a policy of developing Chelmsford manor, one or other of them: erecting a church there; building bridges to re-establish the old route of the London-Colchester road and to connect Chelmsford and neighbouring Moulsham, so that they might be incorporated in a single parish; obtaining a market charter (1199) and fair grant (1201); and following up by founding a new town at Chelmsford around the marketplace. That market charter and town foundation were also the work of the aforementioned Bishop William, who could not have found it too difficult to persuade the king to support his initiatives. William had served Richard I well, both as a government official (notably in the Exchequer) and as one of those who tracked down the king when a captive in Germany; relations with John, initially good, temporarily soured during the interdict crisis of 1211-13. William had been elected bishop in September 1198, consecrated just days before John's coronation the following year, and – needing to bolster diocesan revenues to pay for the rebuilding of St. Paul's (damaged during the Anarchy) – wasted no time in obtaining from the new king confirmation of existing diocesan privileges and grants of new ones, including exemption for St. Paul's and its tenants from tolls throughout the realm. William was also a witness to the king's grant of Writtle church to the Rome hospital in 1204, which could suggest he had an interest in the church beyond normal diocesan concern.

It is hard not to see the market and fair grants for Writtle as part of this same policy of building revenue generation from market settlements; while the overall intent was to enrich Chelmsford – previously not a large contributor to diocesan income – from the commerce travelling between the two most important towns in Essex, Writtle still held a good share of that commerce, so it made sense to tap into trading activity taking place there too and perhaps to augment it by attracting new, rent-paying settlers. Bishop William's foundation of a town at Braintree (confirmed by John in 1200), in the same region of Essex, between Colchester and London, may be seen in the same light. The absence of documentation for town foundation at Writtle might be just a matter of survival, but it may also be that Writtle was already sufficiently populous and occupationally diverse to support existing market activity and few or no incentives for settlers were needed, perhaps other than allocating land for residential plots beside the marketplace, likely at low rents and free of labour obligations.

Further west and just beyond the border with Hertfordshire, but connected to Braintree by a road through Great Dunmow and also on a London-Cambridge route, Bishop's Stortford, a manor acquired from the Conqueror by an earlier bishop of London, was also furnished with an episcopal fair (ca. 1187); though we do not hear of a market there until 1346 – by which time the settlement, a baronial caput with modest castle, had borough status, or at least a burghal component – this market is likely to have existed perhaps as far back as the pre-Conquest period, at the cross-roads, one branch of which, the present High Street, was known as Cornmarket Street in the thirteenth century. In 1204 Bishop William obtained from the king permission for the disafforestation of the causeway leading, through the Essex forest, from Stortford to Colchester. A still later bishop licensed a market at Orsett, further off from Chelmsford but closer to London, near the Thames estuary, and another episcopal market existed, unlicensed, at Southminster, some miles south of the Blackwater estuary. It would be going too far to suggest that the bishops built up a market network of their own in Essex, but certainly they seem conscious of trade routes through the county and sought to capitalize on them at various points.

Later references, however, suggest a Writtle market in the hands of the lay lord of the manor. The Pipe Roll for 1230 reported a profit of four marks from Writtle's market. A charter of Robert Bruce in 1288 (known from the king's confirmation in 1292) approved a gift by a Great Baddow man to Writtle's church of a pasture in Writtle said to be flanked by the king's highway running from Writtle's market to Chelmsford, to fund an anniversary mass for the donor. Robert's inquisition post mortem in 1304 refers to the market, but indicates it was being farmed out for 20s. a year. His like-named son, who forfeited his estates after accepting the Scottish throne, is said in 1328 to have made a profit of only two marks from market and fair, while accounts from 1361 and 1377 again show the market and fair revenues being farmed out, for a modest half mark. A survey of 1419 refers to the market as something of the past, indicating that an event once held on Mondays had been allowed to lapse.

This does not necessarily mean that all commercial activity had ceased in the marketplace, but that trade or traders on which tolls were leviable were failing to produce sufficient profits to warrant the administrative effort. The manorial court still heard cases relating to commercial transactions – such as that of John Pynchon (1470) who was amerced 4d. for purchasing in the marketplace a bushel of mussels, from an outsider, for 6d., then reselling them there for 10d. – but such transactions may have become more ad hoc and less easy to supervise without the structure of a formal market. Chelmsford's market, held on Fridays, is hardly likely to have monopolized all commerce in the area – indeed, that the bishop of London seems to have coordinated, chronologically, establishing markets and fairs at Chelmsford and Writtle could be interpreted either as a competitive tactic or as a complementary one – but it may have drawn away much of the commerce subject to tolls. We may note that the market grant to Chelmsford occurred before the licensing system had fully developed, and did not include the anti-competition proviso that later became standard. The emergence of shops may also have undercut Writtle's weekly market. There is no reference to shops in any of the medieval property transactions documented by final concords, but local records make some reference to them. One may be implied by the grant, in 1441, of part of the marketplace to a tailor whose house faced onto it. Grants of vacant plots in the marketplace are recorded in court rolls for 1383/84 and 1386/87; the latter plot (16 feet by 13 feet) which lay next to the shop of William Pachere, had previously been occupied by a shop and the new grantee was authorized to erect his own shop there.

Just as there appear to have been two markets (or perhaps market days) at Writtle, there also came to be a second fair, although it was not until August 1306 that the king decided he wanted a fair at his manor of Writtle and ordered the sheriff to see to it; the manor had just returned to his hands, having been forfeited by Robert Bruce after, as newly-crowned King of Scotland (March) he took up arms against Edward I. That this fair was to take place at the festival of All Saints (tying it to the parish church) and the week that followed, tends to support the likelihood that the episcopal fair occurred earlier in the year. A shorter fair at All Saints had in fact been licensed in 1219 by William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury and uncle of Henry III, who at the beginning of that king's reign had been granted the royal manor of Writtle at farm, although he surrendered it in 1222, as the adolescent Henry was starting to assert his independence. There is no indication that a subsequent farmer of the manor, Lord Chancellor Ralph Neville, renewed the licence in his name – even though the grant of the manor had been for life and was confirmed to him after the downfall of Hubert de Burgh's caretaker government. Nor did the Bruces when they came into possession of the manor. There is neither reason nor need to think that the fair instituted in 1306 was a direct successor of that of 1219. Edward I's belief that Writtle could support a longer fair may have been justified by the level of commercial activity at that time, but by 1419 the fair had been eroded to a single-day event in early November. All Saints was not a very common time of the year for fairs, particularly in East Anglia or south-eastern England, being late for wool and even for the grain harvest; yet livestock might have been the main focus, and at that time of year Writtle's fair faced little competition in Essex or in Hertfordshire.

This seeming dichotomy of commercial institutions – also suggested by the hundredal enquiries, whose jurors for Chelmsford Hundred reported that administration of the assize of bread and ale was claimed both by the main manor (then in the hands of the de Bruce family) and the rectory manor – may explain why both Greenbury Green and St. John's Green both look good candidates for marketplaces. The existence of two separately-owned markets held on separate sites, and presumably days apart (to escape the definition of direct competition), within a small community was uncommon, but not unknown. We might think of the Tuesday and Saturday markets at Lynn, the outcome of progressive development of the town, although ownership was shared, rather than divided, between the town's ecclesiastical and secular lords; the situation was similar in some respects at Coventry, with separate markets in the prior's and the earl's fees, and perhaps at Colchester, again with lay- and ecclesiastically-owned markets. We also know of other cases, when manors were partitioned between heirs, with shares of a market (understood as a revenue) allocated to each heir, although when the market town of Olney (Bucks.) was subject to partitioning in 1284 it was stated that the market (understood as a physical location) was not susceptible to division; but there is no reason to think that the market(s) at Writtle were owned in shares.

Regardless of how its markets performed, evidence from national tax assessments indicates that Writtle prospered for a while, even though it expanded relatively little; in the time of Henry III its tallage was assessed at an amount greater than the royal manors of Newport and Hatfield Regis and on a par with Hertford, while data from the poll tax of 1377 indicates population size comparable to that of Maldon and Thaxted, though we must remember that this included a large rural area, not just Writtle's market-focused nucleus. The royal lodge may have attracted new settlement in its direction, but the postulated marketplaces remained the core of the settlement. The bulk of the medieval pottery sherds excavated from a series of test pits during the last decade were from the core area of Greenbury Green, St. John's Green, Lawford Lane, and the church and priory. The large quantity of sherds dateable to the period between the time of Domesday, when Writtle was already sizeable, and the fourteenth century is an indication of population growth during that period [Collins, op.cit., p.109], notwithstanding competition from Chelmsford. While the vicissitudes of the fourteenth century must have impacted Writtle to some extent, this is not reflected in the volume of late medieval pottery finds, which have been greater than the number of high medieval sherds; the western side of Greenbury Green continued to be a focus for activity, and St. John's Green an area of increased activity, whereas the neighbourhood northeast of the core (i.e. towards the seigneurial residence, whose importance had diminished) saw reduced activity and perhaps some relocation of residents into the core.

However, Writtle's court rolls from the time of Henry VI give an impression of reduced commercial vitality. By the sixteenth century – with the royal manor fragmented by subinfeudation, the area of demesne under cultivation much reduced, and its former manor-house decaying – Writtle was evidently in decline, Chelmsford having become the main draw for commerce and for new settlers. Data from the 1524/25 lay subsidy shows Chelmsford the highest-ranking Essex town in wealth, and Writtle at the bottom of the list; yet the data from the 1327 subsidy showed it in third place, and that of 1334 in fifth (again partly because the parish was large and populous) [Elizabeth Allan, Chepyng Walden/Saffron Walden, 1438-90: A Small Town, PhD thesis, University of Leicester, 2010, pp.13, 35, 38]. The rise of Chelmsford likely attracted away some of Writtle's more talented or ambitious residents, which could have hindered any prospects for a drive towards development of an urban identity. A few Writtle men gravitated towards Colchester as Chelmsford came to the fore; though the number documented as taking up citizenship there is very small, it included Thomas Stampe, who would serve as the borough's town clerk in the opening years of the fifteenth century – a good example of the sort of educated individual, versed in the law, who might otherwise have led the Writtle community to obtain more independence from its manorial lords. The manorial court roll for 1382/83 mentions a charter issued by Robert de Bruce exempting one of his sub-manors from heriot, but this would have been only a small advance.

As for the basis of Writtle's earlier prosperity, this is not easy to assess with confidence. It almost goes without saying that agricultural produce must have played a significant part in Writtle's trade, yet any large-scale commerce in this has left little mark in the record. A royal mandate of 1214 to the Maldon authorities, that they should allow Thomas de Neville – who was then described as archdeacon of Salisbury, though more significantly he was farmer of the king's manor of Writtle – to ship to Flanders as much of his grain as he wished to sell, provides an early instance, but an almost isolated one until John Bedell of Writtle was licensed in 1366 to export 200 quarters of wheat, again through Maldon. Parts of Essex had benefited from the wool trade and from the growth of London as a consumer market. It is probable enough that wool and cheese were commodities commonly traded in Writtle's markets; in this regard it is worth noting that a fairly well-to-do family of cheesemongers of the surname de Writele is evidenced in London during the first half of the fourteenth century, while another Londoner of that surname was a woolmonger. Writtle may not, however, have been a major beneficiary of the wool trade and its usual consequence, cloth-making, was not an industry quick to develop; but nor was it isolated from those economic activities. A linendraper, wealthy enough to have land for disposal, is heard of there in 1227/28 and (if we can trust a surname) a hatter in 1292, but this hardly suggests a local cloth industry of any size during that century.

The picture improves once we have manorial records, notably though not exclusively the court rolls. They document a level of occupational diversity more commensurate with a small market town. As usual, many of the non-agricultural occupations related to the food processing and building industries. Butchers have already been mentioned, and reference to an area known as 'le Bocherye' may indicate a shambles within the marketplace; this was not necessarily a full-time occupation in all cases, for butcher John Playford from 1386/87 found contract work on repairs to the manor-house and, by the turn of the century, was more commonly described as a carpenter. A few tilers are also encountered, again some working on the manor-house, although at least one engaged in producing, not simply installing, tiles. Bakers are mentioned in the rolls for 1391/92 and 1473/74 – the latter when being sued by a Little Waltham man for the price of wheat supplied – and in a different source in 1414; in 1482 there is mention of the bakehouse of Adam Gray, described as both farmer and baker. Equally unsurprisingly, domestic brewing is in evidence: thirteen infringers of the assize of ale were dealt with in 1388/89, in 1391/92 Agatha, daughter of Giles Criour, was amerced 8d. for selling ale she had brewed, before the ale-taster had the chance to evaluate its quality, while in 1393/94 Anna Morice was adjudged the same for taking down her alestake and refusing to sell her ale to neighbours who were waiting outside her house. In 1400 we hear of a dedicated brewhouse. None of this is beyond what we might expect of any good-sized rural community, nor is evidence of the leather trades, in the persons of a glover (1404/05), two tanners (1411), a cobbler (1464/65), a cordwainer (1476/77), and two leather-dressers (1445/46) amerced for selling shoes at excessive prices. Barbers and a carter indicate types of local services we should also anticipate finding. More unusual are a locksmith (1425/26) and schoolmaster John Chapman, who occurs in the roll for 1403, though in a deed of 1379 (witnessed at Writtle) he is said to be of Chelmsford and may rather have pursued his occupation there.

The growth of cloth-making is also evidenced, though still not to the extent to suggest a large industry, and there is nothing to tie it clearly to the progressive lordship of Joan de Bohun. The manor continued to pasture flocks of sheep – in quite large numbers, to judge from the regular reports in the court rolls of those which had died of murrain. The roll for 1398/99 makes reference to a weaver, who seems to have been renting a windmill and a watermill at Writtle, while a separate source mentioned another weaver in 1387; the same court roll records pleas of debt related to fulling services and the dyeing of wool, and a dyer appears in a document from 1378. Stephen Rive appears to have been a later weaver, for in 1463 he was said to bear the alias of Webbe. More interesting are references to coverlet-makers in 1436/37, 1447, and 1459/60; the first two occur in the context of suits of detinue of yarn supplied by customers for the fabrication of coverlets, while the third saw a coverlet-weaver being sworn into tithing, possibly indicating a new settler. However, Writtle does not seem to have attracted any emigrant Flemish cloth-workers in the Late Middle Ages. In 1405 fuller John Friday was the plaintiff in a case related to the rebuilding and lease of a fulling mill called Pacchingmelle, which does not appear to be either of the aforementioned royal mills, known as the great mill (a water-mill) and the little mill; This fuller is heard of again in 1409 and 1426, so evidently the volume of his business furnished a living. A tailor, other than the one already mentioned above, is seen in the 1410/11 court roll, but no drapers, although a draper named John de Writele was active in London in the early years of Edward III.

Other individuals primarily focused on marketing goods are equally scarce. A chandler is heard of in 1420/21, when sued by a London chandler for the cost of linseed and oil sold, and the Writtle resident known as Reginald Mercator has already been mentioned. But these are slim pickings, not much enlarged by evidence of debts due, or owed by, Writtle men – London tradesmen were parties to a majority of these, but the numbers involved are not so large that we can postulate a high degree of involvement of Londoners in Writtle's economic activities, nor do they give any real hint of a mercantile element within Writtle's population.

Men of business such as those noted above – artisans, stall-holders, service providers – give us the visible sample, the presumed tip of the iceberg, of the residents of any burghal component that may have existed at Writtle to fuel a local economy based primarily on agricultural and pastoral products and industry spun off (no pun intended) from those products. It might be stretching the evidence too far, however, to characterize the community as urban, other than meeting the most basic criteria of definition. Yet the references, mentioned above, to a burgus associated with the market, seems fairly strong evidence of the existence of a burghal component within Writtle. Despite indicators of decline at Writtle by the close of the Middle Ages, the volume of pottery recovered by archaeologists from the core area – even though little represents imported wares – indicates it was doing well enough; brewing was the only local industry of note in the Tudor era. Yet there remained enough wealth across the local community that alterations and additions to the church could be funded.

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