Post-classical history

Chapter 3

THE GROWTH AND DECLINE OF TOWNS

Richard Whittington was the third son of a Gloucestershire knightly family. He was by no means impoverished but was not likely to inherit any of the family estates. Relocating to London, he became a successful mercer. This word was derived from the Old Frenchmercier, which itself came from the Latin word merx, meaning ‘goods’. During the Middle Ages the term came to describe a dealer in high-quality textile fabrics, especially silk and other fine materials. Whittington became a very successful trader and was a major supplier to the royal court after about 1388. Between 1392 and 1394 he sold goods to King Richard II worth somewhere in the region of £3,500. He exported woollen cloth and there is evidence that he also began moneylending from the late 1380s. By 1397 he was lending large sums of money to the king. His economic power was rapidly translated into political influence.

In 1384 Whittington had become a member of the council of the City of London and, in 1392, he was one of the city’s delegation to King Richard II at Nottingham. By 1393 Richard was an alderman and an influential member of the Mercers’ Company. When the current mayor died in June 1397, Whittington was imposed on the city by the king as Lord Mayor of London. As mayor, Whittington successfully negotiated a deal which allowed the city authorities to buy back lost freedoms for the sum of £10,000. He was elected mayor in 1398.

When Richard II was deposed in 1399, Whittington cultivated an equally positive relationship with the new king, Henry IV, and then with his successor, Henry V. Whittington was again elected mayor in 1406 and 1419. In 1416 he became a Member of Parliament. Whittington died in March 1423. His tremendous achievements are recorded in the late rhyme – supposedly relating to a boyhood temptation to leave London and try elsewhere – which he allegedly heard sung out by the bells of London churches: Turn again Whittington, thou worthy citizen, thrice lord mayor of London. The reality, though, sheds more light on the powerful economic and political position of town merchants than the pantomime image does.

The career of someone like Whittington would have been impossible without the huge growth in towns and their influence which had occurred since 1066. While this had its roots in late Anglo-Saxon England, it was given fresh impetus by the Norman Conquest. This reveals itself clearly in the case of London, where the Norman impact on London was massive – with a new palace at Westminster and a new St Paul’s, as well as the building of fortifications at Baynard’s Castle and the Tower of London. In addition, the period following the Conquest saw the building of 11 new monasteries and 100 parish churches. The Conquest also coincided with a leap in London’s population. From a figure of about 8,000 in 750, the population of London rose to 25,000 by 1100 and 100,000 in 1300. Incidentally it probably halved around 1350 and had risen to about 120,000 in 1558.

The increased number of new religious houses also had a large impact on the growing city. A huge area outside the City walls was occupied by monasteries: for example, St John Clerkenwell, St Mary Clerkenwell, St Mary Graces, St Mary Spital, Westminster, Bermondsey and Merton. They were each significant economic communities with great effects on their local area, and even their end in the sixteenth century provided a stimulus to the economic growth of London as their property and land passed into private hands.

However, there were other, more destructive, effects of the Norman Conquest on English towns. At Oxford the building of the Norman castle flattened an entire quarter of the town. Lincoln and Warwick each lost 166 houses and 27 were demolished in Cambridge for the same reason. In some towns, such as Southampton and Norwich, new French Quarters were established and, while these may have increased trade, the land for their construction may have been seized from the indigenous population.

The union of Normandy and England acted as a stimulus to long-distance trade and with it the growth of certain key towns. But towns were not a Norman invention. They were a Europe-wide phenomenon and in England their roots lay in the Anglo-Saxon period after 750. Neither was the increasingly rapid growth of towns after 1066 due to a particular Norman set of ingredients. Towns would have increased in number and importance whether the Conquest had happened or not. However, the impact of an aggressive group of arrivistes, keen to make the most of the new financial opportunities brought by the Conquest, can only have added to the cocktail of reasons why town growth accelerated after 1100.

Towns and trade

By 1300 perhaps as many as 20 per cent of the English population lived in urban centres, most of which acted as market centres for their local areas. They provided rural communities with the products they could not individually provide for themselves, such as clothing and specialist iron tools. They also provided a market for the sale of farming produce from the demesne land of local estates. In this way they enabled local lords to turn the products of their estates into cash. The largest towns had the largest hinterlands, with which they were closely connected. London, for example, relied on grain supplies from about ten different counties. This in turn affected other towns which were part of the supply network connecting farms with the capital. So, Faversham (Kent), Ware (Hertfordshire) and Henley-on-Thames (Oxfordshire) all acted as gathering places for grain which was then transported on to London. The distance involved varied according to ease of transportation and the relationship between effort and eventual profit. Consequently, items such as fuel travelled shorter distances than drovers and their cattle. On a related theme, the concentration of available luxury goods in the largest towns (either imported through them, or produced there) likewise drew in purchasers from considerable distances. So, for example, wax and spices from London and parchment from Oxford were both purchased by the bishop of Hereford – despite both towns being considerable distances from Hereford.1

Many towns were established after 1066, while others had a history which stretched back far before the Conquest and some, of course, had been important centres in Roman Britain (although had not been continually urban since then). But many were new towns of the Middle Ages. In these cases ambitious local lords had seen the advantages a town could bring and invested in setting one up to make the most of a town’s money-making opportunities. Boston was just such a new town which had, by 1300, become an international port. Some new developments started with very high hopes indeed. When the Knights Templar established Baldock (Hertfordshire) in 1168 its name was derived from Baldac, the medieval form of Baghdad in Iraq. Baldock never quite came to rival the famous and ancient Middle Eastern city.

The importance of the establishment of new towns is revealed in the fact that between 1200 and 1300 the number of boroughs (originally a defended place but later possessing certain rights, such as self-government) jumped by over 100 per cent, from about 220 to about 500. Of these towns about 25 per cent were directly administered by the Crown. An insight into the Crown’s interest in urban development is provided by Edward I. When he wanted to give a gift to the nurse attending to his baby son (the future Edward II) the ideal gift was a burghal plot in a town; later, in 1297, he called together the first recorded meeting of English town planners to help rebuild the town of Berwick, and the king himself wheeled a symbolic wheelbarrow of earth as work on the town’s defences started. However, important as the input was of the English Crown, this left 75 per cent of towns which had been set up by local lords. The Church too saw the advantages of developing towns on its estates, and 25 per cent of the national total were administered by the Church. The returns to those who established towns, or who invested in them, could be impressive.

Of all the industries located in towns, the largest was the cloth industry. The large number of people living in towns provided a good-sized labour pool for the many different stages involved in the industry, from preparing the wool through to processing the finished cloth. During the thirteenth century the cloth trade was a major source of the prosperity of towns such as Beverley, Lincoln, Stamford and York. Regional specialization meant that certain locations were associated with particular products, including ‘Lincoln scarlet’ and ‘Bristol red’. This high-quality cloth was consumed on the domestic as well as on the international market. Other towns were associated with other trades and products, varying from knives at Thaxted (Essex) to herrings at Great Yarmouth (Norfolk).

The benefits enjoyed by townspeople

Towns also offered a wide range of attractions for those living there. As well as providing new job prospects they also offered opportunities for escaping villeins to lose themselves in a large population. It was this that caused towns to grow as a proportion of the national population from about 10 per cent in 1086 to perhaps approaching 20 per cent by 1300. This growth was driven by migration from surrounding areas. In fact, the unhealthy state of a town such as London meant that it was only this inward migration which was capable of sustaining its growth through the Middle Ages. Even in a smaller town such as Exeter it seems that about 27 per cent of its inhabitants migrated from up to 40 miles (64 km) away.2 This movement ranged from poor peasants looking for opportunities to improve their economic situation, to wealthier artisans making the most of the trading opportunities through renting a plot of town land. The immigrants often included a surprising proportion of women.

However, towns were very varied. By 1377, the year of the Poll Tax levy, London – with a population of about 50,000 – was far larger than any other town in England. Far below it were the four towns of Bristol, Coventry, Norwich and York, with populations between 8,000 and 15,000. The next tier of towns, such as Lincoln, had populations ranging from 5,000 to 8,000. The fourth tier consisted of 27 towns, such as Stamford (Lincolnshire), with populations between 2,000 and 5,000. Finally there were some 5,000 towns, such as Grimsby (Lincolnshire) or Stow-on-the-Wold (Gloucestershire) with populations smaller than 2,000.

One clear characteristic of towns was a distinct set of rights (borough freedoms) which outsiders did not enjoy. Not that there was one clear and tidy definition of what these were. Instead, there was a typically English set of arrangements which varied from place to place. Some towns, it is true, had been granted borough charters by a lord. These laid out the rights and privileges enjoyed by those living there. Others, however, had evolved a series of local customs. Some of these towns later formalized these in a charter, but some did not. Probably the most obvious characteristic of an English medieval town was that the properties within it were rented out at relatively low rent and that those who rented were not liable for any kind of labour service. These plots of land could be freely sold or given as a gift, and none of this needed the agreement of the lord who owned the land. This is technically known as burgage tenure. The word burgage, like borough, is derived from the Old English word burg or burh, meaning a defended place or town. This burgage tenure was an attractive proposition to a population who were all too familiar with the humiliating restrictions and unpaid workload which often went with renting land in the countryside. The person who rented land in a town had freedoms that a villein in the countryside could only dream of. Furthermore, inflation in the thirteenth century made the cost of renting these urban plots even more attractive.

Towns thrived on trade. Owners of town land had the right to hold fairs and weekly markets and were free from the tolls which had to be paid by outsiders visiting these. The yearly cycle of fairs started for many thirteenth-century continental merchants with Stamford before Easter, through Boston in July, to Winchester in September and on to Northampton in November. Townspeople celebrated their membership of an exclusive club and kept outsiders at a disadvantage. Their freedoms often included the right to transport goods across the kingdom without paying tolls. In some towns these privileges were not enjoyed by all townspeople but were restricted to those traders and craftsmen who were members of the guild merchant. We shall return to the guilds shortly, but suffice to say that this arrangement was a device to restrict access to the wealth brought by trade to even smaller numbers. And it was an access worth having. In Southampton members of the guild merchant had the right of first refusal of goods brought into the city; they could run a tavern and buy items such as honey, herrings and salt without being restricted to market days and fairs. At Lynn (Norfolk) ‘foreign traders’ could not stay in the town longer than 40 days and such restrictions were the norm.

In many towns these freedoms were enjoyed by all the inhabitants. However, as the Middle Ages progressed they became more restricted and a distinction grew up between those traders and manufacturers who had been granted the ‘freedom’ of the town and the majority of the town population with fewer privileges. This ‘freedom’ of the town could be gained through inheritance, purchase or apprenticeship; the exact situation varied from town to town. In Norwich in 1415, the town’s authorities raised money by forcing all shopkeepers to buy the ‘freedom’ of the borough. After this anyone owning a shop could trade for two years but then had to buy the freedom of the town, or shut the shop.

Over time, more and more towns enjoyed the benefits of self-government and elected their own mayors and bailiffs. This occurred when the burgesses (citizens) of a town clubbed together and paid a fixed fee to the lord who had originally owned the land on which the town lay. The fee compensated the lord for the loss of income from the rents and tolls of the town and meant that these in future belonged to the town itself. This payment was called a farm, from the Old French word ferme and the medieval Latin wordfirma, meaning a fixed payment. This trend exploded after 1189 because both Richard I and King John were short of cash and found granting charters and selling town rights attractive financial propositions. Urban self-rule therefore grew most swiftly in royal boroughs.

Some private lords tried to resist this trend. Church landlords, such as those who controlled the towns of Abingdon, Bury, Cirencester, Dunstable, Reading and St Albans, found themselves the targets of resentful townspeople keen to press their rights for more freedom to regulate their own affairs. In 1327 in Bury, townspeople plundered the abbey and imprisoned some of the monks in an attempt to force the abbot to grant them greater self-government. There was trouble here again in 1381 (during the Peasants’ Revolt) and it is revealing that Bury was the only town excluded from Richard II’s general pardon, issued in December 1381. Only the Reformation, in the 1530s, broke the abbot’s control.

In these self-governing towns it was the town authorities who were now responsible for carrying out royal instructions; no longer were they under the authority of the sheriff of the shire. They had come of age as communities. In Beverley (Yorkshire) the present guildhall dates from 1501 and still contains the silver fifteenth-century waits chains worn by musicians employed to play on civic occasions. Similar items make up the oldest of the regalia in Exeter, where three of the silver waits chains were made in the fifteenth century. They are believed to be those which records state were remade in 1476–7 at a cost of 14 shillings. These are tangible links to the town privileges and sense of community from the Middle Ages.

In Bristol in 1373, this urban autonomy reached its logical conclusion when the city also became a county in its own right. It was followed in this by other English towns: York (1396), Newcastle (1400), Norwich (1404), Lincoln (1409), Hull (1440) and Chester (1506). Such confident and self-regulating towns had their mayors and councils, seals and seats of government. They frequently excluded ‘lesser trades’ from occupying these positions. The Somerset city of Wells (albeit a tiny city) excluded butchers from all local offices between 1377 and 1500. In the same way the town governments of Exeter and York in the fifteenth century were dominated by merchants, with only lesser posts open to members of the craft guilds.

Nevertheless, even if such powerful officials looked to their own interests, they were political realists and showed a surprising degree of respect for the traditional customs and expectations of their communities. Real conflict could occur when financial charges were made on the population without respect for traditional rights or consultation with representatives of the wider town community. Towns were certainly not democracies, but they were not run by oligarchies who could afford to ignore the less-wealthy members of the urban community. But when it came to active participation in government, the trend during the fifteenth century was to reduce popular involvement and restrict access to the corridors of power. This meant that Late Medieval town councils were often made up of the wealthiest members of urban society, replacing more open assemblies. Increasingly, those eligible for the post of mayor became restricted to the elite. This state of affairs could become so extreme that the top leadership became self-selecting, such as happened in Bristol in 1499 and Exeter in 1504. This leadership no longer had to fear the violence and disorder which had sometimes occurred at election times.

The guilds

Within these towns, traders and manufacturers were grouped into guilds, which administered their mysteries (professional knowledge, rules and arrangements). These organizations were made up of three main groups. The first were the masters, who owned their own workshops, or shops. They bought in raw materials and owned the tools and equipment of the trade. In addition, they sold on the finished products. Many used the wealth they accumulated to further expand their businesses. As a fifteenth-century rhyme put it: ‘money makythe the man’. Most were limited, however, by the small scale of their enterprises. In London in 1456, the largest known workshop employed only eleven apprentices and seven servants. None in York in this period was as large. The second group were the journeymen. Having been trained but not yet acquired their own premises, these skilled workers were employed by the masters. They enjoyed higher status than other people employed by the masters because they were on their way to becoming masters too one day, if all went well. Some had their own organizations as a mark of their importance within the town. The third group were the apprentices. These provided free labour to the masters, while learning the trade. The expectations on both sides were laid down inindentures. There could be a huge gulf between the most wealthy masters and the skilled workers they employed. Some of the wealthiest of the elites in cities such as London, Bristol and York had little in common with the other townspeople with whom they did business. However, many merchants operated on a much smaller scale and were not much better off than successful craftspeople, even if these seemed below them on the social scale.

In some trades the skilled masters no longer bought in the raw materials themselves and instead became employed by others who controlled the supply of raw materials. Examples of such powerful suppliers were the wool merchants in some areas of the textile trade. These elites often determined to control those who depended on them. In Leicester the weavers and fullers were excluded from the merchant guild, although it set the prices for their work. In Winchester the town’s merchants so dominated the politics of the town that weavers and fullers were banned from selling cloth except to the merchants, who then sold it on, to their advantage. From 1400 to 1500 the process in which more and more power in the lucrative textile industry was gathered into fewer and fewer hands accelerated. In time the wealthy merchants who could afford to purchase huge quantities of wool dominated all aspects of the trade and employed large numbers of different kinds of skilled workers – carders, spinners, weavers, shearmen and fullers. The merchants then supplied the finished cloth to drapers, who sold it in their shops. This system of transferring items from stage to stage in the production process was called putting out, and these wealthy clothiers remained the owners of the product and the employers of those working on it throughout all these stages. By the early sixteenth century this pattern had replaced that of the fourteenth century in which many independent small-scale producers had existed.

The guild system grew up in English towns mainly during the fourteenth century, though it was under way in the biggest towns from the 1280s. Before guilds became so important, wages and conditions were often decided by the town authorities. And there had been apprentices learning their trades long before the guilds brought together large numbers of craftspeople and formalized their arrangements. The guilds, though, were useful in keeping the elites in control of their areas of expertise. By insisting on long apprenticeships they could limit those coming into the trade and so reduce competition. By limiting the number of apprentices a master could take on, they stopped more energetic masters from dominating the trade of a town and forcing other masters out of business. Powerful guildsmen did their best to prevent their journeymen from organizing their own groups to press for higher wages, as happened in London, in 1396. The journeymen saddlers had been attempting to set up a guild in honour of the Virgin Mary but the organizers of the saddlers’ craft guild considered this a front for a trade union and clearly felt threatened by this show of independence. Similarly, by fixing prices the craft guilds established cartels which worked to their own mutual benefit. In 1484, when the Coventry town authorities tried to intervene in the setting of prices for bread, the bakers refused to produce any – and so made the point that they alone should fix the prices. Guilds also regulated working hours: banning night work and work on Sundays and other holy days.

During the fifteenth century the guilds in the largest towns gained many functions beyond regulating manufacturing and trade. They took on a religious role by promoting the feasts of their patron saints, they paid for candles and ceremonies in local churches and they organized ceremonies such as the great processions on the celebrations of Corpus Christi and at midsummer. In fact the Mystery Plays (see Chapter 8) performed around Corpus Christi took their names from the guilds, or mysteries, who organized them. Indeed it is possible that in some towns it was as crafts organized themselves to pay for these events in the fourteenth century that craft guilds formed in these places. Often different guilds took different parts in a way which promoted their crafts – so the fishmongers provided fish for Gospel scenes by Lake Galilee, goldsmiths made gifts for the Wise Men to bring to the baby Jesus, and carpenters might build Noah’s ark. In York in 1425, when the cooks’ guild gave up the selling of fish they stopped their contribution to the play put on by the fishermen. They clearly no longer saw a connection between themselves and this particular part of the play cycle.

The guilds also offered mutual support to their members and assisted widows and organized funerals. At Killingholme (Lincolnshire), guild members each paid a half-penny to support other guild members in need. For many poorer townspeople in the fifteenth century, the support of their guild at time of death was the equivalent of the prayers and Masses said for the souls of wealthier citizens in chantries, which were paid for from richer citizens’ more substantial estates.

By the mid-fifteenth century many of the most powerful guilds dominated the government of towns such as Bristol. In this way they operated as ‘both judge and jury’ in ensuring that towns were run in their interests. Another metaphor might be ‘both poachers and gamekeepers’, since, by the mid- to late sixteenth century, such powerful merchants evaded royal customs duties to an astonishing degree and persecuted any ‘whistleblowers’. This ‘white ruff crime’ could account for as much as 50 per cent of the export trade of many of Bristol’s wealthiest merchants.3

Merchant Adventurers and foreign investors

By this time a new kind of trading association was coming to prominence – the Merchant Adventurers. These were different from the traders’ guilds of the earlier Middle Ages in their scale, their ambitions and in their commitment to long-distance trade. It was this group which had come to dominate the commercial life of Bristol by the sixteenth century.

Bristol’s Merchant Adventurers remind us that a significant amount of trade was conducted over considerable distances. In an excavation of a merchant property in Cuckoo Lane, Southampton, dating from about 1280, a seal from Normandy was found in the rubbish pit.4 Clearly, Southampton was at the hub of a major trading network – and it was not alone. Some of the goods imported were at the end of a chain of transactions which stretched into Asia. Particularly valuable was the trade in pepper and spices, which commanded huge sums of money. Export goods, however, were less exotic, ranging from English finished cloth to tin (from Cornwall and Devon) and lead (from Wales and the Pennines). What is very clear is that the yearly total value of trade in and out of England was enormous. In 1204 it may have been as high as £75,000 and in 1304 perhaps as much as £500,000.5

The importance of international trade was recognized by the Crown, which required payment for granting permission to merchants to trade abroad. In this way William Whittoke was granted his licence to ‘pass over the sea’ in 1390 and yet another William Whittok faced a royal command to the sheriff of Southampton in 1345 to seize his ship, goods, chattels and lands since he had travelled ‘to the parts of Normandy, and has unladed the ship there for the benefit of the king’s enemies.’6

This growth in international trade provided opportunities for enterprising bankers. By the thirteenth century the headquarters of the Riccardi merchants of Lucca, Italy, had been established in London, adjacent to the area south-west of The Poultry named Bucklersbury. This was the first financial trading house in the city. After the expulsion of the Jews, in 1290, Lombard bankers financed the crown and other major players in the English economy. By the middle of the fourteenth century the Florentine banking companies of the Bardi, Peruzzi and Frescobaldi had joined the Riccardi in London. In fact the first English gold coin – the florin – took its name from these Florentine bankers. Florentine merchants might make a profit up to 15 per cent on their trading in English wool. This was not a very high rate of return and still left plenty of profit to be enjoyed within the English economy. On average, by comparison, the London Grocers’ Company between 1450 and 1479 averaged profits of 10 per cent. And English wool merchants might expect a 20-per-cent return on their export of wool to the continent.7

Other European players developed a keen interest in English international trade. German merchants of the Hanseatic trading league set up a base at the Steelyard near London Bridge and dominated the fourteenth-century London export trade. The German merchants were allowed to have an alderman of their own choice, provided he was a freeman of the City. At first these were foreigners but before the end of the fourteenth century two City aldermen were elected in succession by the merchants to be their alderman, one of them being William Walworth, who killed Wat Tyler at the climax of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.

Other foreigners were also involved in English trade goods. European cloth workers were encouraged, after 1337, to assist in the development of finished cloth. These skilled newcomers included Flemings, who were bitterly resented by many English textile workers and a number were murdered during the Peasants’ Revolt. Until this time the main English woollen exports had been of raw wool. This involvement of skilled continental craftspeople boosted the growing English textile industry, which, despite periodic trade slumps, remained a major exporter throughout the fifteenth century. Exports of raw wool peaked at 46,382 sacks in 1308. However, from 1360 wool exports began to lose ground to the export of finished cloth, and by 1420 more finished cloth was exported than raw wool. This rapid expansion of the textile industry led to towns such as Stamford and Norwich becoming major manufacturing centres of finished cloth. In fact the type of cloth known as worsted takes its name from a village close to Norwich. The capital also benefited from these developments, and London’s expansion continued as cloth production stimulated the economy. London’s dominance was seen in many other fifteenth-century industries too, including gold smithing, bell founding, brass making and the growing market in spices. However, as some towns – and especially London – boomed, ports such as Hull and Yarmouth suffered due to the decline in the export of raw wool.

Cloth production was not the only trade assisted by European involvement. Dutch immigrants brought skills in leather working and gold smithing; they were also at the cutting edge of fifteenth-century technologies such as printing, clock manufacturing, optics and even brick making. Prior to the late fourteenth century few buildings in England were made from bricks; instead construction relied on timber and wattle walls, or stone for the wealthy. By the end of the Middle Ages bricks were increasingly used in major construction projects. Overall the number of so-called ‘aliens’ in London rose from 1,500 in 1440 to 3,000 in 1501.

Town planning

While the population and organization of towns, which we have examined so far, has been studied for generations it is more recent research which is giving us a clearer insight into the actual layout and physical structure of medieval towns. Typical towns were set out in so-called burghal plots– long, rectangular areas of land with frontages giving access to the street. When activities outgrew the town boundaries the town itself might grow as new areas were added; often revealed in surviving suburb names such as Newlandand Newtown. While many inhabitants of towns lived in very cramped conditions, richer citizens could often afford a large enough plot of land with a garden behind the buildings.

In terms of zones within these cities, the most sought-after location was in the centre, in what would today be described as the central business district (CBD). The main difference between the CBD in the Middle Ages and modern urban developments was that this area was also the residential (as well as the trading) area for those able to afford to live there. Only the poorer citizens were zoned on the edges of the town, or beyond its boundaries. Commuting – such as it was – was the experience of the poor, not the rich. Other aspects of zoning occurred in the grouping together of similar trades. Goldsmiths, woodworkers and fishmongers, for example, would often be located in similar areas. This is often reflected in surviving street names such as Fish Row and Butcher Row, and even in such names as Grope Lane, found in a number of cities and revealing areas of medieval prostitution (often close to market areas). When a trade produced particularly unpleasant side effects (such as butchery and tanning) there would often be town ordinances – supported by the energetic efforts of suffering neighbours – to try to ensure that these were located away from prime sites and, if possible, beyond town boundaries.

Excavations in Cambridge have revealed how stable town property boundaries could be over a thousand years of town growth, even when the use of these plots has changed greatly. Twentieth-century boundaries often follow the line of sixteenth-, thirteenth- and even eleventh-century boundaries.8 This was a continuity which, due to insufficient survival of documentary evidence, only archaeology could prove. These plots changed in use as declining trade saw Cambridge reinvent itself as a monastic and then a university town.

Provision of clean water was crucial to survival in the crowded confines of even the smallest town. Excavations in Cambridge revealed that when eleventh-century plots were laid out in a new suburb, south-east of the town’s boundary ditch, each property had its own well. Such is the continuity of urban sites that these were the first of a series of wells in each property which continued to be used until the coming of piped water in the nineteenth century. The earliest of these wells (constructed between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries) had wickerwork reinforcing the sides. As a general rule these gave way to constructions lined with timber-planked barrels in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, stone-lined ones from the sixteenth century and eventually brick shafts from the seventeenth century. Concerns about the supply of clean water affected all towns. By 1285 the Great Conduit had been built in order to supply London with clean water. Its intact fountain house has been excavated under the modern road of Cheapside.

Despite the way in which medieval towns were represented on contemporary illustrations and maps, only the major towns such as Exeter and York were fully walled. In the case of most other towns their walls and gates were products of civic pride rather than realistic forms of defence. At Beverley (Yorkshire), the early fifteenth-century North Bar Gate was designed to impress visitors, not to repel attackers. Within town boundaries there were many open areas as well as houses and shops. Churches and priories often occupied large areas and the latter had their own open spaces within the urban landscape.

Whether walled or otherwise, these medieval towns relied on the transportation of goods – both raw materials and foodstuffs – into towns and finished products out of towns. Clearly, the largest towns could not rely on the local market alone for their economic well-being. Connections to markets and suppliers further afield was crucial. Modern research has suggested that transport costs were not a barrier to trade. Figures for transport costs were in the region of about 2 per cent of the selling price of goods sent by road and about 6 per cent of selling costs for bulkier and heavier items sent by ship or barge.9 Most of the bridges which would support long-distance trade in England until the 1750s were in place by 1300. While there was no national system of road construction and maintenance, many towns and landlords contributed to improvements of their local road system, including bridges.

Over the Middle Ages a shift from ox-drawn to horse-drawn carts speeded up the movement of heavy goods, and lighter goods were carried by packhorse. Inland waterways supplemented the roads and played an important part in the movement of heavy and bulky goods. However, until the canal building of the second half of the eighteenth century, rivers could not provide a comprehensive network. The same limitations of geography applied equally to transport by sea using the heavily built ships known from written sources as hulks and cogs.

Two steps forward, one step back?

Clearly, the Middle Ages were a period of both progress and regression in the growth and development of towns. For many towns their development was marked by contrasting periods of ‘boom and bust’. There certainly was no clear upward trajectory of growth. A classic example is that of Northampton. Its urban life started as a ‘frontier town’ in the late ninth century on the border of the Danelaw and Mercia (a once-independent kingdom whose remnant was absorbed into Greater Wessex in 918 by Edward the Elder). It was already the site of a minster church with an adjacent Mercian royal palace. Rapid growth took place in the tenth century and this accelerated in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. By 1200 its walled interior was the third largest in the country after London and Norwich, and it still boasts the largest market place in England. Northampton’s walled area grew from 50 acres (20 hectares) to 220 acres (89 hectares). This growth meant that by 1200 it was a major urban centre of national importance. From the twelfth century, suburbs grew up outside the four main gates of the walled town.

However, by the fourteenth century Northampton’s growth had stalled and it had fallen back to once again being no more than a middle-ranking county town. Areas which had once seen urban use reverted to gardens and allotments. While the town centre continued to be intensively occupied, its back streets and suburbs showed signs of being ‘more sensitive to the ebb and flow of a town’s economic fortunes’ and this can be demonstrated in other medieval towns too. For Northampton, its medieval history can be told in distinct phases: an eighth-century Mercian church and royal centre; tenth-century growth into a town of regional importance; twelfth-century rapid expansion; fourteenth-century contraction of more marginal sites on its edges and suburbs; and late-fifteenth-century contraction across the whole town, which continued into the sixteenth century. By about 1520 almost the whole south-west quarter of the town was given over to the polluting activities of tanners.10

By 1450 a Europe-wide economic depression was at its worst point. Population decline as a result of plague combined with a shortage of precious metals to reduce the volume of international trade. English prices and income from agricultural produce were already low, and this wider reduction in trading activity hit towns hard. The fall in population had begun to affect towns before 1400. This decline in urban numbers meant that there were fewer people to consume products within towns, and these numbers were not made up by inward migration from the country to the town as in the past. This was because, with low rural rents and higher wages (along with a lessening of rural restrictions on villeins), there was less incentive to ‘escape’ to the town. Problems in the early fifteenth century were aggravated by war in France, which disrupted trade, drained manpower and required a high level of taxation and an outflow of precious metal to finance it. As if this was not bad enough, in northern England heavy rainfall between 1438 and 1440 hit the farming economy, which had further repercussions for town-based trade.

A recovery in the cloth trade later in the fifteenth century assisted recovery in some exporting towns but, since cloth production was now more a rural than an urban industry, this did not arrest urban decay overall – although it did assist in the growth of smaller towns in Essex, Somerset, Suffolk and Wiltshire. Here the close relationship between the spinners, weavers and dyers of the villages, and the larger markets in places such as Exeter and Salisbury was mutually advantageous. A similarly positive picture applied to the capital. However, London’s continuing growth (with a population of about 120,000 by 1558) was not representative of many English towns. Indeed, its increasing monopoly of export trade meant that its growth was at the expense of other towns such as Boston and Hull, which had earlier benefited from trade which was lost to London after 1440. These last two ports also suffered due to English merchants being excluded from trade in the Baltic, following hostilities with towns of the north German Hanseatic League in 1467–74. Many other towns, such as Bristol, Colchester, Grimsby, Lincoln, Winchester and York also experienced significant economic decline and falling populations in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, with massive problems revealed in Coventry in the 1520s. This degree of change could be dramatic. The populations of Boston, Lincoln and York fell by about 50 per cent between the 1370s and the 1520s and there was a significant shrinkage in the built-up areas of towns such as Beverley, Leicester and Stamford.

It must be admitted though that there were exceptions to this picture of stagnation after 1400. Norwich and Exeter remained buoyant, while newer towns such as Taunton grew. The revival of exports to the continent (most notably the Netherlands) between 1470 and 1490 assisted some southern cities such as Bristol, and we have already seen how Exeter and Salisbury benefited from a close relationship with their local cloth manufacturers. And those urban merchants and manufacturers who were able to weather the unsettled economic times might even prosper to a surprising degree. Recent evidence from New Buckenham (Norfolk), along with tree-ring dating of timbers from buildings in other towns, suggests there was a significant rebuilding of urban properties between 1450 and 1530. This was long before the commonly accepted period of the ‘Great Rebuilding’, thought to have occurred c.1570–1640, which may have applied more to rural areas.11

Overall, then, the vibrant urban growth of the earlier Middle Ages had been replaced by a more mixed pattern. Evidence from taxation returns from the 1520s suggests an urban population of about 18 per cent of the national population. This is similar to the proportion in the 1370s. So, towns continued to be a significant part of national life but the trajectory of growth had flattened off and reached a plateau in a number of cases. It would not be until the later sixteenth century that the upward direction would be resumed. But that is another story.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!