Towns & Countryside in the Middle Ages


The four Domesday boroughs were survivals of the defensive system developed in late Saxon times, with Barnstaple and Tomes, as better trading sites, re­placing the earlier Pilton and Halwell. Barnstaple later claimed a charter from Athelstan giving wide privileges and independence to its burgesses, but there is much doubt whether this ever existed. Apart from Lydford, the boroughs stood at points where rivers could be bridged and which could also be reached by sea-going vessels. Their future growth was therefore assured; but Lydford,. well-sited only for defence, was bound to decay when trade became the necessary basis of a town. Okehampton and Tavistock replaced it as markets.

After the Conquest, and particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there was a surprising growth of ‘boroughs’ in Devon, though many of them were never towns. The prime difference between borough and manor was the holding of land by burgage tenure, involving personal freedom, a small money rent, and liberty to sell and leave (as distinct from a villein-holding owing labour service). Many lords founded boroughs on their estates by the simple process of staking out plots and inviting settlers, in the hope that a market would grow up from which they could collect toll. Borough-founding of this kind was a ‘real-estate speculation’, and always included the grant of a weekly market and often also an annual fair. It did not necessarily mean that the burgage-holders achieved freedom from the lord’s court, or the right to elect their own officials and act as a corporate body, which were marks of the borough in the fullest sense. When travel was difficult there was room for many market centres in an area as large as Devon, though not all places which had a market became even nominally boroughs.

In 1238 we find fourteen new places Ashburton, Bideford, Bradninch, 4Colyford, Crediton, Honiton, Kenton, Modbury, Okehampton, Plympton, South

Molton, Tavistock, Tiverton and Torrington – regarded as important enough to send their own representatives (distinct from those of the Hun­dreds) before the King’s Justices of Assizes; and Kingsbridge was also by then accepted as a borough. Many other places which already claimed the title, however, were far too insignificant to be so recog­nised. Likewise, with regular borough represent­ation in Parliament from 1295 onwards, only those places with considerable wealth and population for the period were summoned to send burgesses. The original list of 1295 included Exeter, Totnes and Barnstaple of the ancient boroughs, and Plympton, Tavistock and Torrington of the newer creations. Ashburton, Bideford, Honiton, Lydford, Modbury, Okehampton and South Molton were also occa­sionally summoned in the early days, but soon dropped out, and Torrington petitioned with suc­cess against the trouble and expense of sending members. Ashburton, Plympton and Tavistock had all grown with the development of tin-mining, and Honiton and South Molton (with Tiverton and other places) through the growing cloth industry.

So far, Plymouth and Dartmouth were con­spicuous by their absence; but their rise in the thirteenth century was rapid, as their excellent har­bours attracted trade from the English possessions in France. Dartmouth drew ahead first, being repre­sented once under Edward I and regularly from Edward III’s reign, and receiving its mayoral char­ter in 1342. But Plymouth, which had the distinction of being incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1439, later outstripped its rival. Even the larger boroughs, though of real importance, were tiny by modern standards. The population of Exeter in the Middle Ages probably never exceeded 4000, and Plymouth 2500, while the rest ranged downwards from about 1500 at Totnes and Barnstaple. Trade or industry were needed to make a town, and those ‘boroughs’ which failed to attract either remained, for all prac­tical purposes, farming villages. A comparison of the map with that of the population in 1851  will show which of the medieval boroughs developed, and which remained examples of misplaced optimism. The line between a failed borough and a village which never claimed that distinction is so fine that it is not always traceable in the records.

At Exeter the Roman wall was kept in repair, and at Totnes and Barnstaple store walls and gates replaced the earlier stockades early in the twelfth century. The only other Devon town to be walled was Plymouth, after French raids during the Hundred Years War had made defences necessary. Here the castle was built early in the fifteenth century, and a rampart, thrown up as a temporary defence, was replaced with a stone wall about 1485.

In the countryside, the period between the Nor­man Conquest and the Black Death of 1349 (which had later outbreaks), was one of increasing popu­lation and consequently of pressure on farmable land, resulting in much opening up of areas pre­viously untouched. Many new farms and hamlets were established in forest clearings or on the poorer soils of moor and heath, helped by grants from manorial lords of free tenancy requiring a small money rent but not labour service. Many of the villein class could afford to buy their freedom (which was done by means of a fictitious lawsuit in which a third party claimed them and the lord gave a quit-claim), and so emerged as free tenants on previous ‘waste’. But the Black Death is estimated to have cut back the population of the county to its

Domesday level – perhaps from 120,000 to 80,000 – and so to have caused the abandonment of much marginal land at a time when labour shortage offered the survivors a better living on richer soils. This effect was compounded by a marked worsening of climate towards colder and wetter conditions, which set in about 1 300 and lasted for some centu­ries. Traces of the withdrawal may still be seen in the remains of walls enclosing long-abandoned plots on the Dartmoor slopes. In the excavated stone foundations of the settlement at Houndtor near Widecombe, corn-parching ovens were found at a height and on a soil where no one would later have tried to grow cereals.

In the thirteenth century, helped by the intro­duction of the water-powered fulling or ‘tucking’ mill for processing cloth, the woollen industry spread widely into the countryside, giving rise to the common Devon surname of ‘Tucker’. In the twelfth century, tinners began to work the alluvial ores of stream-beds on the Dartmoor fringes, and for a time prospered greatly. The stones and sand were smelted in ‘blowing houses’ with a charcoal-fired furnace and a bellows worked by the stream, and the resulting tin was cast into massive blocks in granite moulds. The Crown took its share of the profits, requiring these to be taken to the nearest ‘coinage’ town – Chagford, Ashburton, Plympton or Tavistock – where a corner (French coin) was chipped off and assayed for quality, the block weighed and stamped, and the duty paid. From the wide variations in the amount produced and the numbers working from time to time, the industry seems to have been partly if not wholly a by-employment for men who otherwise worked on the land. It required close regulation, and was overseen by a Warden of the Stannaries (Latin stannum – tin) who had the use of the grim prison built at Lydford in 1 195 for offenders. The Stannary Parliament which met at Crockerntor is not recorded till 1494, but it, or something like it, probably met much earlier.