Introduction to the history of medieval boroughs


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Problems of definition |  Continuity or creation? |  Wiks, burhs, and ports
PLANNED/PLANTED TOWNS |  Growth of self-government |  Urban economy |  Urban society
Sources of our knowledge |  further reading

Origins: planned / planted towns

(above) Detail from William Smith's view of Bristol, 1568. Bristol was a flourishing port with a mint at the beginning of the 11th century, but its origins and measure of planning that may have gone into its layout are still uncertain. Impetus to settle there came from the protective and commercial benefits of the Rivers Avon (south) and Frome (a tributary). Early settlement lay on raised ground between these two; it was much smaller than in this depiction, a defensive bank defining its perimeter – still visible in 1568 in the almost circular course of the inner ring road – later replaced by a wall. The north-south road between bridges across the two rivers, and a cross-cutting east-west road were the original foci for habitation, their names – respectively Broad Street/High Street and Corn Street/Wine Street – indicating their importance and the commercial character of the settlement. It was the river crossing which gave Bristol its name, derived from Saxon terms meaning "place of assembly by the bridge".

Those core features were what an artist chose to highlight, in an illustration (at right) for Ricart's Kalendar of 1479, to represent symbolically the medieval town: the four main streets converging at the marketplace, with its high cross (erected 1373); the inner walls with the four gates – St. John's to the north, guarding the entrance from the Frome bridge, St. Nicholas' gate to the south (the saints names reflecting the addition of churches onto the gate structures) near the Avon bridge, St. Leonard's gate to the west giving access to the far end of the quayside along the Frome, and the New Gate on the east side near the Norman castle (built by 1088), which sealed off the land-based access to the peninsula formed by the two rivers and became the administrative centre for the earldom of Gloucester until 1175. By the end of the 13th century, large suburbs had developed in all directions of the compass, all but the northern one (where most of the major religious houses were established) protected by new lines of walls.

The "lower town" of Carcassonne, in France, also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis, came into being after an unsuccessful siege (1240) of the fortified hilltop city resulted in the destruction of two suburban settlements between the hill and the River Aude. The displaced settlers were authorized by the king to establish a new town, independently administered, on flat ground on the far side of the Aude. Its streets were laid out on a grid pattern around a central marketplace, with two parishes – on either side of the marketplace – corresponding to the old settlements, and an entrance gateway on each side of the rectangle. This modern illustration of the planned town shows how it might have looked by the late fourteenth century, after a devastating assault by the Black Prince (1355) had necessitated extensive rebuilding in the town and strengthening of the defensive enclosure. Growing prosperity from its merchants' and weavers' involvement in the international cloth trade helped the planted lower town gradually eclipse its better defended but less well-situated parent.


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Created: April 5, 1999. Last update: January 5, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 1999-2019