Medieval Essex

Medieval Essex

At the opening of the 14th century the Lord of the Manor still held complete sway over the families of Essex people living and working on his land. There were still those ranks of tenants first set out in Domesday Book, though by now there were more freemen who had raised themselves to the status of what we might call yeoman farmers through generations of hard work and good husbandry. Beneath them toiled the molmen whose tenancy of their land demanded a certain number of days of labour for the lord, though by now that custom had largely fallen into desuetude. Then came the villeins who held up to 30 acres of land, followed by the coterelli with only five acres or so, and the cotmen who kept their large families off ‘an acre and a cow’. The cotmen were harassed all ways – by compulsory work for their lord, by taxes for king and country, by dreadful living conditions and by plagues of incurable diseases. By the end of the 13th century most of the compulsory work for the lord and the old arrangement of payment of rents in kind had been commuted to money payment.

Under Edward I (1272-1307) Essex enjoyed the development of its markets and fairs established by royal charter. Growing towns needed these essential elements of trade though sometimes it was difficult to wrest such rights from the lord of the manor. On royal manors it was easier because the money or services required in return for the charter went straight to the king. It has been estimated that over 70 towns, some very small, gained charters for markets and fairs over the next two centuries. Colchester’s charter of incorporation as a borough dates from 1189; its power to hold a market and a midsummer fair was vested in it by that same Eudo Dapifer who built the castle. Its October fair was granted by Edward II. Maldon can proudly claim that its first charter, now missing, was granted in 1171.

Chelmsford’s first licence to hold a market appears to have been obtained in 1199 by the Bishop of London, Lord of the Manor, from King John. The following year a charter for an annual fair was granted. In the court held by the lord of the manor, often through his steward or agent, all the business of local government of the day was carried out with wrongdoers ‘presented’ for their crimes, from larceny, and the absence from stipulated days of work for the lord, to the illegal taking in of isolated bits of manorial land or roadside ‘waste’ and the non-payment of the many dues owing to the lord, including, for example, the best beast from a deceased person’s property, called a ‘heriot’. In the Chelmsford manorial records all these matters are set down in a clear hand, with market traders and customers being entered frequently. Their places of origin, all over the county, prove the growing importance of the developing county town.

Maldon, Colchester, Brightlingsea and Harwich were important east coast ports in the 14th century. Roads in those days, and particularly on the sticky Essex clay, were no more than rough tracks, impassable for weeks and months at a time in the wet winter months, so seaborne and riverborne traffic was the most efficient. Harwich gained its first charter for self government in 1318, a sign of its early importance as the ‘Gateway to Europe’. It was eventually granted two markets and two fairs. By 1332 it had been fortified – walled round against possible enemy attack as a valuable bridgehead in any invasion. Edward 111 and his army embarked here on the great expedition against the French in 1338.

Romford’s market was granted in 1247 and it still operates, though in a modern, pedestrianised town centre. Saffron Walden was so much in the hands of the powerful Mandevilles that it could not secure the control of its own market until 1618.  but the significance of the Mandevilles’ market lingers in street names today, and it is possible to re-create from entries in the town books the medieval grid system of the arrangement of the stalls, set out in rows by competing merchants – Fish Row. Tanners Row, and so on. So permanent did the stalls become that they evolved into shops in their own right, which meant that stallholclers of the modern age had to set out their wares in the market place itself. Thaxtcd’s charter was not granted until 1554, long after its real importance as it centre of trade had waned. The town was famous for its cutlers, whose craft drew customers from far beyond the county. That trade lasted for some 400 years from the 12th century.

The county can claim many links with the great national events of the 14th century. For instance, Robert Bruce who secured Scottish independence by his victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314, was born in Writtle in 1274. An ancient deed found in the church library at Hatfield Broad Oak is said 10 show that Bruce’s parents owned valuable property there.

In 1327, when Edward III was only 15 years old, he instigated the raising of a considerable contribution to the exchequer by calling for a tax or subsidy of one twentieth of the personal wealth of all people whose movable property was worth ten shillings or more. It was needed to raise and equip an army to resist the threat of invasion by Robert Bruce. The tax was to be collected county-wide, taken to Chelmsford and then sent on to Westminster as a lump sum. That would he a very complicated business today, but since the record shows that even Chelmsford at that time had only 43 people wealthy enough to qualify, the collection was manageable.

The Hundred Years’ War started in 1337, ten years after Edward 111 came to the throne. The expedition to the Low Countries in 1338 started a new phase in the war. This, and other campaigns carried on during Edward’s reign needed such vast sums of money that loans would not suffice. Essex men of some standing were called to Chelmsford to be harangued about the necessity for the war and were asked for sizable cash contributions, to be collected a fortnight later, in September 1337. However, this idea was abandoned in favour of the major towns in the county sending three or four men each to a Great Council at Westminster where, under further pressure, they voted the King a new tax on movable goods for three years. In 1340 and 1341 further swingeing taxes were introduced. More soldiers were needed as well. In 1346 Colchester had to provide 20 armed foot soldiers, and Chelmsford. Braintree, Saffron Walden and Waltham Holy Cross were also dunned in due proportion. What is more. Essex, as a county, was ordered to equip and send to the army 200 archers.

The Black Death of 1349 hit the county hard, decimating the population, and it was only one of more than 20 waves of disease which swept Essex in that century. Lack of labourers lead to the gradual breakdown of’ the old feudal manorial system. A new class of ‘free’ labourers was emerging. Sir Charles Oman explains in The Great Revolt of 1381: ‘The villein desiring to be quit of customary work and customary dues, in order that he may become a tenant at a fixed rent, and the landless labourer determined that at all costs he will get from his employer something more than the miserable pay allowed him by law.’ John Gower, personal friend of Chaucer, writing in these troubled times said, ‘Three things, all of the same sort, are merciless when they get the upper hand: a water-flood, a wasting fire and the common multitude of small folk. For these will never be checked by reason or discipline; and therefore, to speak in brief, the present world is so troubled by them that it is well to set a remedy thereunto.’

One of the remedies was the Statute of Labourers, proclaimed in 1350. It laid down that labourers were to serve masters at the rates obtaining prior to the plague. They could not move out of their parish to look for higher wages, and it was forbidden for anyone to give alms to able-bodied beggars; at this time the Church’s teaching of charity was very influential and men found they could get more from charity than they could from honest labour. A later statute added that runaway labourers could be branded F’ (i.e. Falsity) on their foreheads. Relations between employer and servant were so strained that for 200 years Essex was the battleground of an economic war. The stage was already set, here in Essex, for the principal acts in the drama and tragedy of the Peasants’ Revolt.

‘Who would ever have believed that rustics, and most inferior ones at that, would have dared to enter the chamber of the King and his mother with their filthy sticks: rebels, who had formerly belonged to the most lowly condition of serf, went in and out like lords?’ That is how Thomas Walsingham put it when writing his History of England 100 years after the Peasants’ Revolt.

What caused this sudden rising of the peasantry in 1381? Sir Richard Waldegrave, Speaker of the House of Commons at that time, blamed the extravagant life-style of the royal family and the court as perceived by the peasant, and the taxation which bore heavily on those who could least afford it. He was referring to the poll tax ordered to be collected in 1381. Such a tax was supposed to be a once-only sum of money, to be paid by everybody in the kingdom other than beggars and children, to replenish the King’s coffers after drastic expenditure on wars and high living.

This was not the first poll tax. There had been one in 1377 and another in 1379. The first was only a groat, the second was three groats, and still the war was bleeding the treasury. So in 1380 Parliament was forced to approve a third poll tax, of one shilling – another three groats – on everybody over 15 years old. Essex people were very reluctant to pay it. There was no end of deception; even the people forced to be collectors fiddled the books. Parliament was not pleased. It sent out commissioners to enquire into the shortfall, and since Essex was one of the worst places for evasion they came to Brentwood on 30th May 1381 to question representatives of the parishes on the bank of the Thames, including Corringham. Fobbing and Stanford-le- Hope. They stood their ground, and when the order was given to arrest one of them the others fired off arrows at the Commissioners and wielded sticks and threw stones to drive them out of Brentwood.

That was the spark which fired the tinder of revolt. The message went round Essex that the Thameside men had thrown out the toadies of Parliament and its poll tax. A judge, Sir Robert Belknap, was sent with a military escort to Brentwood to restore law and order. The crowd gathered again in a very threatening manner so the judge rushed off back to London and safety. Rumour was rife. All around the county men formed gangs to make evident their hatred of the poll tax. From Dunmow, Coggeshall. Braintree and Bocking they came, and they took out their feelings on the country house of the King’s Treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, at Cressing. He was safe in London, so they looted everything of value and set the place on fire. Men in this mob came from other places too: Barking, Brentwood, Felsted, Goldhanger, Hadleigh, the Hanningfields, Leigh and Chelmsford.

From Cressing they moved on to Coggeshall where the house of John Sewale, the King’s man in this area, was burnt down. They caught and killed John Sewell, the King’s ‘escheator’ or property agent. A new gang from Manningtree joined up with the main body who then collected all the royal and local manor records they could find and carried them to Chelmsford where, by 11th June, they were looking for the documents that Sewale kept in his house there concerning Assize and other government business. He was at home so they beat him, took all those records, piled them up in the High Street and had a great celebratory bonfire. They retained 40 or so of these documents, with their official seals in green wax attached, and tied them onto poles, carrying them as banners on their way to London. Hilda Grieve. Chelmsford’s historian, called it, ‘A united Essex taxpayers’ protest demonstration in the centre of the County Town.’

All around the county the hard-pressed peasantry and some men of greater substance, formed gangs, stormed manor houses and destroyed all the manor court records they could find, so that their lords could no longer lean on them with the full force of law and precedent. Chelmsford and Moulsham lost all their records before 1381 in this manner. The rebels wasted no time, for by the end of the next clay the had trudged all the way to Mile End, to meet the King just outside the City of London. Richard 11, then only 14 years old, went with his retinue of nobles to confront the Essex men. He negotiated with their leader and agreed that none would be punished and that conditions of service to their lords would be vastly improved.

The Essex men were well satisfied. They liked the bearing of this young king, trusted him and agreed to disperse. But some ruffians stayed to loot and pillage in London with the rebels from Kent under Wat Tyler and John Ball, who had reached London on 13th June. On the 15th these extremists met the King at Smithfield to press him still further with their demands. Everybody knows the end of the story: Wat Tyler insulted the King and was struck down by one of the nobles; Richard II bravely rode forward, faced the noisy mob, showed them he was their king, took control – and the rebels drifted away.

The clearing up began. The King moved to Waltham Abbey to start the process, then to the royal palace at Havering and finally, on 1st July, into Chelmsford. His message there was short: Villeins ye are and villeins ye shall remain. Five hundred Essex rebels shuffled into Chelmsford on that Monday, with bare feet and heads bowed in token of their penitence, and begged for mercy. They were ordered to hand over their leaders, who were tried and found guilty and around a dozen were immediately hanged on the gallows off Rainsford Road. After that the King moved on to deal with rebels from other counties. The revolt was over, the poll tax was paid, history moved on.

One strange custom practised in Essex until Elizabethan times or later had its origin in the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt. It was known as the holding of the Lawless Court, or the Court of Cockcrowing. This court, a meeting of all the tenants of the Lord of the Manor of Rochford, was held annually, just after midnight, in the yard of a house at King’s Hill, on the Wednesday after Michaelmas Day. Everybody joined a procession from the King’s Head inn, with flaming torches lighting their way while the noisier element of the crowd imitated the crowing of the cock.

When they got to the courthouse everybody maintained strict silence while the steward of the court read out, in a whisper, the name of each tenant, who answered in a whisper, confirming his presence and his tenancy. Then all knelt in homage to the lord of the manor. All the business was recorded, not in pen and ink in the courtbook but with a piece of coal on a slate. Those who did not answer their whispered summons were charged heavy fines. Then the court was closed with a whisper, torches were put out as dawn lit up the scene, everybody burst into cockcrowing again – and normal life was resumed in Rochford.

Despite the heavy taxation and the hardships endured by Essex people, including the loss of hundreds of their loved ones on the battlefields of France. England eventually lost all its French possessions. By 1453 Calais was the last outpost of English occupation of French soil.

Essex suffered another, more personal insult at the hands of King Richard in 1397. In 1227 Pleshey Castle and the lordship of all its lands had passed in marriage to the Bohun family, Earls of Hereford and Essex. Within 100 years the line had failed – only two girls were left. One of them. Eleanor, was married to Thomas of Woodstock, created Duke of Gloucester in 1385. His assassination and its consequences set a blood stain on the page of Pleshey’s story, as told by D W Coller in 1861:

‘The Duke of Gloucester was uncle to King Richard the Second, and highly distinguished for valour, probity and honour; but having great influence in public affairs, and being opposed to the measures pursued by his nephew’s favourite advisers, his destruction was determined upon, for which purpose he was treacherously decoyed from his castle of Pleshey, and forcibly conveyed to Paris, where he was murdered, in 1397.’

He died of suffocation, by being placed between two feather mattresses in the bedroom of an inn. His death was avenged, as Coller explains: ‘The tenants of the Duke did not remain long without an opportunity of showing their love for their lord and their hatred of his enemies. The Duke of Exeter, who was concerned in the conspiracy, contrived to secrete himself for a while, but was at last discovered by the country people while sitting at supper in the house of a friend. He was taken first to Chelmsford, and thence, for the sake of greater security, to Pleshey, the manor of their Lord, the Duke of Gloucester. No sooner did the tenants understand that Exeter was in their power, than, resolving themselves to be the avengers of their lord, they seized upon him, and cut off his head

This grisly episode led to a mention of Pleshey in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II when Gloucester’s sorrowing widow cries:

‘With all good speed at Pleshey visit me.

Alack, and what shall good old York there see

But empty lodgings and unfurnished wall,

Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones?

And what hear there for welcome but my groans?’

During the reigns of Henry IV, V and VI, 1399 to 1461, Essex developed quietly as it became increasingly affected by the expansion of’ London. Henry IV confirmed to the Commons that he intended to keep the ancient laws and statutes and to ‘do right to all men in mercy and in truth according to his oath.’

An unusual feature of these settled times is the way in which ‘Potash’ is used in the name of no less than 78 fields and six farms in Essex. Potassium carbonate, known to everybody then as ‘Potash’, was used in washing clothes, making soap, bleaching and dyeing from the Middle Ages down to the 18th century, and all those fields and farms were sites of the shed or hut which served as the potash factory.

This potash, for all its cleaning power, was made from nothing more than ashes filtered through water, producing lye. The lye was soaked up into wheat straw which was then burned and from those ashes the black potash was recovered. It was just a small step from potash to soap. By 1825 the potash man had been rendered redundant.

Evidence of the ignorance and superstition rife in Essex at this time, and right down to the 17th century, is found in Holinshed’s Chronicle, published in 1577. With belief in Satan as the doer of evil, and with no scientific explanation of natural disasters available, a simple flash of lightning caused more than a nine days’ wonder in Danbury. In 1402 Danbury church, high up on that remarkable hill, was struck by lightning which raced down the spire and destroyed the nave, aisle and part of the chancel. Local folk said it was definitely the work of the devil, and it was not long before a villager was found who stoutly asserted that, just before the lightning strike, he saw the devil go into the church – in the form of a monk! So Danbury qualified for an entry in those famous Chronicles: ‘Upon Corpus Christi day, in the year 1402, at evensong time, the Devil entered this church, in the likeness of a Grey Friar, and raged horribly, playing his parts like a Devill indeed, to the great astonishment and fear of the parishioners; and in the same houre, with a tempest of whirlewind and thunder, the top of the steeple was broken downe and half of the chancel scattered abroad.’

As to England’s government in general, G M Trevelyan puts it very neatly: ‘In Henry VI’s reign the medieval House of Commons reached its highest point of constitutional privilege, but failed to use it for the benefit of the nation. There was no friction between Parliament and Council, because both were controlled by the same aristocratic cliques, whose only contests were against each other.’ The Wars of the Roses were just such contests between the mighty barons. The fighting began in St Albans, very close to Essex, but that was the nearest it came. The intermittent battles affected other localities, but the vast majority suffered little. Trade and commerce continued as usual, with no more disturbance than the regular assault and battery from thieves and brigands.

The leading landowners of Essex, however, were much involved. For example, the Fitzlewes family of West Horndon held land in 24 locations in Essex and further increased their holdings by marriage with the dc Veres, Earls of Oxford. They backed the wrong side, the Lancastrians, and were relieved of most of their Essex possessions, though some were later restored to them. The 12th Earl of Oxford (1408-1462) and his eldest son were executed because they had plotted against the King in espousing the Lancastrian cause. One family which was rewarded for loyalty was the Bourchiers, founded by John de Bourchier in Essex in the first decade of the 14th century. His eldest son was created 1st Lord Bourchier in 1330, with nearly a score of Essex manors. The barony passed clown to Henry Bourchier, who was confirmed Earl of Essex and died in 1483, five days before his King. Edward IV.

The De Veres were returned to favour when the 13th Earl defended the King’s cause with such bravery at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry VII heaped honours on him and he lived in splendour in the castle built by his ancestors in 1140 at Castle Hedingham. In the summer of 1498 the King went to stay there for nearly a week. As he was leaving, the Earl had all his retainers, a kind of private army, lining the road to see off the King with cheers of loyalty. The King asked the Earl if all these men were his servants. The Earl shook his head. No, he said, they were his retainers, whom he had called in from his lands all around to honour the King. The King knew that this meant they were, in fact, a private army, and since he had made a law preventing his Barons having more than a basic number of armed retainers, he thanked the Earl for his hospitality. Pointed out that he was breaking the Statute of Retainers and fined him 1.500 marks – a colossal sum in the money of the day.