Who created the medieval new towns?

Maurice Beresford’s volume “New Town’s of the Middle Ages” (1967) was one of the first major texts to study in detail the planted towns from the 11th to 14th centuries; it is undoubtedly the seminal volume and centre piece to this area of study.

New, or ‘planted’, towns were very common in Britain from the Norman Conquest until the mid-14th century. They were often set up as profit making exercises by kings, lords, barons and bishops, however, it has been argued that many of those set up in Wales were in so in order to control the region.

The Process of Town Foundation

Throughout the studies of medieval new towns, little has been discussed about the processes that led to the foundation and ultimately the success or failure of these new boroughs. Keith Lilley, however, provides an excellent insight into such processes and proposes a model of the stages in the formation of a new town.

Lilley (2005) proposes that in first two stages the location of the new town is set. This was not a decision that was made solely by the founding lord, indeed “selecting a site for a new town would require consultation with local landowners whose property would be required for urban development”.

Stages three and four consist of the design, surveying and laying out of the plan on the ground. It is at this point, that the men appointed to lay out a new town, as detailed in foundation charters such as New Winchelsea and Gotowre-super-Mare, become supervisors at the located site. Unfortunately, there is almost a complete lack of evidence of these phases.

The planned layout of New Winchelsea, East Sussex
The planned layout of New Winchelsea, East Sussex

The final stage comes with the granting of the towns charter. This comes when “the plots and the streets [have been] laid out, and building ready to begin, or already begun”. Urban privileges often offered “special legal and economic incentives to newcomers” in order to entice to the new borough.

Reasons for new ventures

For a town, or a part of one, to have been planned and planted, there would have been a specific purpose behind such a venture. Whilst this purpose will differ on an individual town-by-town basis, this section highlights some examples from the thirteenth century.

As mentioned above there were four main categories of town founders in the medieval period; kings, bishops, monasteries and a variety of laymen, normally seigniorial lords.

With the exception of the period 1086-1100, royal town foundations were a relatively small proportion, less than one quarter, of all foundations. This period may be marked by the Norman royal house attempting to gain a certain degree of economic control over its new land and to potentially stimulate urban growth. Edward I, in the thirteenth century was a keen town planner having witnessed his fathers ‘bastide’ foundations in the Gascon region of France. It is apparent that the majority of royal town foundations were successful and “soon rivalled more long-established towns, in terms of both wealth and population”. However, the royal foundations were not always guaranteed success. In the 1280s Edward I founded two new towns, the subject of this project, Gotowre-super-Mare, and Bere in Meirionnydd, Wales, which both failed at an early stage. A clear indication of the motives of Edward I when planning New Berwick is shown in a writ. It states that the town was to be laid out “for the greater profit of Ourselves and of merchants coming to dwell there, and of others who happen to reside there”.
Whilst the founders, or lords, did not make profit from tolls on trade, as charters often stated that the burgesses were free of toll, it was the levying of fines that generated much income. This was as a result of breaking the strict regulations placed upon the fairs and markets. Rent paid from tenants of burgage plots could also turn into a lucrative source of income, especially if the plots were well situated in a thriving town centre. For those lords that owned much land, particularly agricultural land, the rewards of planting a successful town could be substantial;. The increase in food demand and the need for raw materials that would come from the lord’s land would then be traded in the markets of the plantation. This would in turn have a significant affect on the lord’s income. A new town could also act as the stimulus to the production of goods of the local hinterland by offering a new and potentially extensive market.

Selected Bibliography

Aston, M., and J. Bond, 2000. The Landscape of Towns. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.

Beresford, M., 1967. New Towns of the Middle Ages. London: Lutterworth.

Hindle, P., 2002. Medieval Town Plans. Buckinghamshire: Shire Archaeology.

Lilley, K. D., 2005. Urban Landscapes and their Design: Creating Town from Country in the Middle Ages. In K. Giles and C. Dyer (eds) Town and Country in the Middle Ages. Leeds: Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 22.

Lilley, K. D., 2002. Urban Life In The Middle Ages 1000-1450. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Schofield, J., and A. Vince, 2003. Medieval Towns (Second Edition). London: Continuum.

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5 thoughts on “Who created the medieval new towns?

  1. Very interesting article, which I found informative and will help with a university essay I am writing at the moment. I was wondering where the ‘“special legal and economic incentives to newcomers” in order to entice to the new borough’ quote came from?
    Thanks
    Greg

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Greg, thanks for the comments. What is the essay about?

    As for the reference I believe it is on page 236 of:

    Lilley, K. D., 2005. Urban Landscapes and their Design: Creating Town from Country in the Middle Ages. In K. Giles and C. Dyer (eds) Town and Country in the Middle Ages. Leeds: Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 22.

    It’s a interesting read, as is Keith Lilley’s full book:

    Lilley, K. D., 2002. Urban Life In The Middle Ages 1000-1450. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

    If I can help in any other way, please let me know.

    Thanks

    Andy

    Like

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