The Towns of Medieval Hampshire

The Towns of Medieval Hampshire

Though the towns of medieval Hampshire had certain problems in common, problems of constitutional growth and of the development of local government, each flourishing community was also very different from the other, illustrating in many ways the differing social and economic aspects of civic life. The Sheriff of the county was not normally popular in Hampshire towns and there was a general wish to exclude him, though his power was strong and his duties of preserving law and order and collecting royal revenue through town bailiffs gave him frequent opportunities for interfering in municipal affairs. With the king’s consent the Sheriff could be excluded from towns which obtained permission to collect the royal revenues and make their own financial returns to the Exchequer as a fixed rent or ‘farm’. This right, to return the farm, was granted by royal charter; when it was a grant in perpetuity, known as a ‘fee-farm’, a very important stage in local constitutional development had been reached.

The movement towards independence was encouraged by the diminution of royal authority in the troubles of Stephen’s reign (1135-54), by the need to encourage urban revival in the particular cases of Winchester and Andover, both of which were burnt and pillaged in the civil war, and by. the examples of certain French towns where the townspeople formed themselves into ‘communes’, headed by an officer known as the mayor. In some Hampshire towns this commune or commonalty led the movement towards independence. In other towns it was the Merchant Gild (a group of influential and wealthy townsmen which regulated trade and also met regularly for social and commercial reasons) which formed a nucleus of opposition to the Sheriff and obtained charters of privileges from the king. These are such important points that it is worthwhile examining them in the light of what actually happened in certain particular towns.

Map 5 Medieval Southampton
Map 5 Medieval Southampton

In Southampton the right of the gildsmen to form their own gild as they had done in the time of Henry I was confirmed by Henry II in 1154. Yet the charter of 1199 given by King John granted the fee-farm of the town, with that of Portsmouth, to the townsmen ‘our men of Southampton’, not to the gildsmen. The fee-farm was then fixed at the annual rent of 1200. The first mention of a mayor of Southampton occurs before 1221, and a little later on, probably in 1230, a certain Benedict Ace became mayor. He apparently held office for a long period, but in October 1249 the townspeople obtained a promise from Henry III that they should never again be governed by a mayor. For some years Southampton was again ruled by bailiffs, until 1267-8 when the Alderman of the gild was the chief officer. For the next 50 or 60 years the gild’s was the chief voice in Southampton affairs, and the regular succession of mayors did not begin until 1333.

It was satisfactory for towns when they were able, by returning their own fee-farm, to exclude the Sheriff of the county from their financial affairs, but he could still interfere to enforce the king’s writs. Southampton reached a further stage of independence in 1447 when the town, by royal charter, became ‘the county of the town of Southampton’, with its own Sheriff, as well as mayor, and therefore with the right to make returns of writs direct to the king himself or to-his judicial officers. For this reason, Southampton enjoys a unique position in the later history of Hampshire towns: there is still a Sheriff who is always the mayor of the town in the year following his election as Sheriff.

Inland from Southampton, the town of Andover had markedly similar constitutional characteristics, the earliest Andover charter being a grant to the Gild Merchant there by Henry II in 1175-6, confirmed by John in 1201 on payment of 20 marks and a palfrey. There are many later confirmations and, unlike Southampton, a very fine series of gild records which make a unique contribution to the county’s medieval history, producing the most complete surviving account of a Merchant Gild from any Hampshire town. The Andover records show the gild to have been divided into two ‘houses’, an upper house, the ‘free’ gild, a lower house or veillein or hanse gild. Regular meetings were held to appoint new members, make trade regulations and elect bailiffs. The bailiff’s chief duty was to preside over an independent local court, dealing with the two districts into which Andover was divided, ‘in hundred’ and ‘out hundred’. There was no mayor and no commune.

It is a significant fact that in these two towns, Andover and Southampton, where the power of the gild for so long a period was so important, the majority of the inhabitants depended directly upon commerce for their livelihoods. Southampton was a port, with a flourishing wine trade with France, and a varied coastal trade. Andover’s importance in the medieval county was in the wool trade, for which the neighbouring Weyhill Fair was an important distribution centre. During the 13th century the wool trade was probably more important than the actual making of cloth, though cloth making was the subject of many regulations continually made by the gild.

Only three other Hampshire towns are known with certainty to have had Merchant Gilds besides those at Andover and Southampton, and in these, the towns of Petersfield, Portsmouth, and Winchester, the pattern of constitutional development was different, the gild privileges and customs of Winchester being used as a model for the other two centres. Petersfield was a manorial borough, belonging to William, Earl of Gloucester, but its burgesses were free enough to gain in Henry II’s reign the right of having a Merchant Gild on the model of that of Winchester. In Winchester the townspeople held their property as burgesses, with the right to dispose of their real estate as they wished without having to obtain permission from an overlord, and subject only to certain formalities in the city court. There was a Gild Merchant at least as early as the reign of Henry I, but the nucleus of free government was also certainly to be found in the essential freedoms of burgess tenure, and the fact that a city court had to meet regularly. By 1155, there would appear to have been two groups in the city both able to negotiate charters from Henry II, who made one grant to his citizens of Winchester confirming their ancient privileges, and another to members of the Gild Merchants, including freedom from toll. A mayor of Winchester is referred to in 1200, but the Gild Merchant remained the most powerful group in civic affairs until about 1278. Though for a short period in 1155 the Winchester prepositus or reeve, Stigand, accounted for the city’s farm direct to the Exchequer and not via the sheriff, it was perhaps difficult for a city whose towns people were much dependent economically on the frequent presence of the king and his sheriff to sustain a continuous demand to manage its own financial affairs. Not until 1327 did Winchester obtain the right to return its fee-farm. Membership of the Winchester Gild remained the nominal way, but a formal way only, of becoming a freeman of the city until the reform of the Corporation in 1835. The earliest surviving copy of Winchester’s local laws and trade regulations, the Usages, was probably compiled in about 1278 after some months of disturbance and obvious dissension between the gild and non gildsmen members of the Winchester Commune, and embodies many earlier customs and traditions. The gild had become a mere social club and in contrast to Andover, it was the Corporation of Winchester, the Commonalty of Twenty-Four led by a mayor who regulated the all-important cloth industry. Many towns all over England regarded Winchester’s particular and highly-developed forms of local government as a model to be followed in their own endeavours to gain privileges by royal charter.

A complication and a hindrance to Portsmouth’s growth was the claim of Southampton to include the town as being within the port of Southampton. Portsmouth’s first charter was granted by Richard I in 1194, a grant illustrating that town’s connection with Winchester, for the town was given a fair with the same liberties as those ‘who attended the fairs at Winchester and. Hoyland’, and burgesses were to hold their tenants ‘as freely as the citizens of Winchester and Oxford hold theirs’ In 1256 Portsmouth obtained the right to have a Gild Merchant, and the town’s custumal or code of byelaws, was finally drawn up at the end of the 13th century, a little later than its model, the Winchester Usages.

Amongst the smaller Hampshire towns, Basingstoke had no Merchant Gild but it was an important market centre for the north-west of the county. The impressive ruins of the Chapel of the Gild of the Holy Ghost (once housing the members of an important religious gild, a community whose interests were not only commercial) are a reminder Medieval that religious gilds formed an important part of medieval life. Airesford was an episcopal, manorial, town which flourished very largely because of an annual fair granted by John to Bishop Godfrey de Lucy. Romsey was an important road centre, a little town which grew up in the shelter of a great abbey, its development obviously related to the grants of markets made to various Abbesses of Romsey by Henry I, Henry II, and Henry III.

All Hampshire towns were closely united by their conscious know­ledge of each others’s constitutional development, embodied in royal charters granting privileges based on earlier similar grants to other towns, and by the economic ties of trade and commerce. Though many small towns and villages were virtually self-supporting, iron and salt were two vital commodities which had to be re-distributed. Southampton was the great parent distributing centre of necessities and luxuries alike and the famous fair on St. Giles’ Hill at Winchester provided a further opportunity for merchants to meet not only their Hampshire friends, but also traders from France, from Spain, the Low Countries and Italy, who sold wines, silks, strange fruits, pet monkeys and spices. The first sugar ever bought in England was purchased at Winchester in the reign of Henry III.

Every Hampshire town had, and still has, its own special features of topography and layout. Most of medieval Winchester was contained within a walled area pierced by five gates and at least one postern, a wall which probably followed the line of the Roman fortification. An early suburb outside the Westgate declined in importance as the area of the castle encroached on townspeople’s houses. There were later suburban developments at Hyde, around the new buildings of Hyde Abbey, and to the south of the city in the area known as the Alder­manry of Kingsgate. Moreover, a vast part of the town outside of the eastern wall was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, and his ‘Soke’ was a place of refuge to those craftsmen, especially cloth workers, who wished to escape from the tiresome commercial regulations of the Corporation. The maintenance of the walls of Winchester was a fairly continual financial burden levied on the citizens by means of the wall tax or murage. In Southampton the wall was of much later origin and the deficiency of the defences was one of the reasons why the French were able to pillage and sack the town so completely in 1338. Yet poor as the defences were, in Southampton as well as in Winchester, the medieval period, on the whole, was a period of commercial and industrial prosperity. There were many wealthy merchants who could build themselves houses of stone with a first-floor solar, amass large fortunes, and give away some of their money to the Church. In the 12th century a Southampton merchant, Gervase de Hampton, lived in his great West Hall, a large house with an upper room with an oriel window, with a series of small buildings around it, surrounded by a high wall, and having its own Pleasure garden. In Winchester, Thomas Palmer, alias Moraunt, a wealthy goldsmith had a rather more modest establishment in Calpe Street which was known as ‘Moraunt’s halle’ many years after Moraunt, its builder, had died. Marriage was often a business transaction leading to the accumulation of private fortunes and much real estate. The lady known as Dame Claramund who lived in a large house near St. Michael’s church at Southampton and who had two husbands, eventually owned a great many Southampton houses, and when she died in c. 1260 left part of her estate to God’s House and to the Priory of St. Denys. The many Winchester properties of Hugh de Craan, mayor or the city in 1357, 1365-6 and 1369-70, were partly the result of successful property speculations and partly the result of Craan’s marriage with a county heiress, Isabella, the widow of John de Ingepenne.

The majority of townsfolk were not wealthy, nor were they even very comfortably housed. Most town houses in Hampshire, not a ‘stone’ country, were of simple timber-framed construction with roofs of thatching of reeds or straw. In larger houses cooking was often done in a detached, single-storeyed kitchen in the back yard which was an inevitable feature of most town dwellings. Refuse was burnt, or buried in pits, or thrown out into the streets, though there were frequent attempts by the local authorities to prevent the more obvious abuses. Winchester forbade its burgesses to keep pigs in the High Street, its butchers to throw offal in the brooks, and all towns were supposed to enforce the national regulations concerning the quality of ale brewed and bread baked. All industrial processes, and all those people engaged in industry, whether as apprentices, journeymen, or master craftsmen, were subject in theory at least to stringent rules made by the local corporations or by the craft gilds, which eventually succeeded the Merchant Gild. Fines for industrial infringements were used to relieve needy brethren, help widows, or for social functions like the great torchlight procession of the craft gilds of Winchester on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Industry was domestic, carried on in the home, which was often a retail shop as well.

Before the Black Death, the majority of successful Hampshire merchants were probably general dealers, perhaps with large interests in the wholesale supply of wool or of wine, but ready to buy or sell anything in which they could see a useful profit. It was not always easy to know what to do with the large sums which they accumulated. After the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, and even before that date, some Hampshire Christians, the Dalrons, for example, went into the moneylending business. Others bought pieces of silver plate and jewellery to pass down to their heirs; many more made bequests to the many religious houses and no man who made a will ever forgot his own parish church. For the majority of successful Hampshire townspeople it was simple and lucrative to invest in real property, either in the town or in the neighbouring countryside where many citizens bought or leased small country estates. Thus there was movement between town and country and since most Hampshire medieval towns by modem standards were but large villages there was much mutual understanding and sympathy between rustic and townsmen.