Other Towns in the Middle Ages

Other Towns in the Middle Ages

Apart from Dover, Sandwich, Hythe and New Romney, the other Kent towns of some size in the Middle Ages were, first and foremost, Canterbury, followed at a considerable distance by Rochester, Faversham, Maidstone, Cranbrook, Tonbridge and Gravesend. Most of them were important as centres of communication. At Canterbury the roads from Lympne, Dover, Richborough and Reculver met, and Watling Street crossed the River Stour. Faversham lay just to the north of Watling Street, beside the Creek with its useful harbour. At Rochester, like Canterbury of importance since Roman times, a bridge carried Watling Street across the River Medway. Gravesend developed as a centre of communication because, water transport being quicker and easier than transport by road, most passengers and goods from or into Kent were carried by river between London and Gravesend. Maidstone stood at the point where the east-west road crossed the Medway, and where it intercepted the road running southward from Rochester into the Weald. The town of Tonbridge grew up around the castle which guarded the river crossing. The only town that owed its importance primarily to industry was Cranbrook.

Each of the larger towns was a market for the surrounding countryside. Canterbury had markets on two days in the week, and like Maidstone held four fairs a year. Several smaller towns also had weekly markets, including St Mary Cray, Dartford, Wrotham, Sevenoaks, Malling, Milton Regis, Lenham and Ashford. All the towns, even a city such as Canterbury which was the ecclesiastical capital of England, owed much of their prosperity to the fertility and richness of the countryside in which they were situated. Places like Bexley and Chislehurst, now densely populated, were insignificant villages in the Middle Ages because the soil was too poor to support a prosperous agricul­tural industry. Even in the largest towns no man was far removed from the land and many of the townsmen worked on their fields just outside the town itself.

Towns fitted somewhat uneasily into the feudal order of things. Some, such as Canterbury, Dover and Rochester, managed to get themselves accepted virtually as tenants-in-chief, that is, the burgesses held their town directly from the king in return for an annual fee-farm rent, and thus avoided subjection to any manorial lord. To the townspeople such an arrangement was both profitable and convenient.

Some towns succeeded in obtaining from the Crown the grant of valuable privileges and exemptions. As noticed in the last chapter, Henry II granted charters to certain of the Cinque Ports. Canterbury received a charter during the same reign, and Rochester and Faversham were granted charters by Henry III. The burgesses of these towns, like those of the Cinque Ports, were to be free of tax or duty wherever they traded in England. They were authorised to establish their own civil courts so that such legal actions as those concerned with land or with debts could be determined locally and the townsmen were exempted from attendance at the Shire Court. Serious criminal cases were still reserved for trial by the king’s judges when they came to take the county assizes two or three times a year, but the town itself, and not the sheriff, was made responsible for apprehending criminals. And when taxes and subsidies had to be raised, the towns themselves collected their contributions instead of the sheriff’s officers doing so. These privileges and exemptions were highly prized.

The men of Gravesend in 1401 received confirmation from Henry IV of their monopoly, already enjoyed for 200 years, of the ‘long ferry’ from that town to London. The right of monopoly carried with it the duty to convey passengers at a fixed rate of a halfpenny per passenger, and in 1292 some of the watermen who had been charging a penny were called upon to answer for their extortion before the Judge of Assize. The watermen were difficult to control because they were not, as were most tradesmen and artificers, organised into a trade guild. The advantages of a guild were that it regulated apprentice­ships, ensured proper standards of workmanship, protected its members against unfair (and sometimes any) competition, and helped them in their old age. Maidstone in the 16th century had six guilds, or companies, namely Artificers, Cordwainers, Drapers, Haberdashers, Mercers and Victuallers, whilst Gravesend had only two, Mercers and Victuallers. By Queen Elizabeth’s reign men were assigned to either company, irrespective of their occupation; trade guilds had by then become merely part of the machinery for governing the town. Earlier than the trade guilds were the merchant guilds, such as those established at Canterbury and Rochester, which gave their members valuable privileges in the local market and made it difficult for ‘foreigners’, as those who were not freemen of the town were called, to compete with them.

The earlier royal charters did not define the way in which the government of the town should be carried on. That was left for the burgesses to settle for themselves. However, in the 15th and 16th centuries some towns found it desirable to obtain a charter from the Crown prescribing the manner in which the town should be governed. Canterbury, for example, was granted such a charter by Henry VI in 1448. Until about the year 1200 the chief magistrate of Canterbury was known as the portreeve, and then for nearly 250 years the office was held jointly by two ‘bailiffs’. For some reason not now known, the citizens decided about 1446 or 1447 that they would prefer a single ‘mayor’, and it was thought proper that the change should be made by royal charter. Tenterden also received a charter from Henry VI, and a few years later Edward IV granted Rochester a charter conferring on the chief magistrate the title of mayor, instead of bailiff.

The borough of Queenborough is of quite different origin from the others. As part of the defence of England at the time of his French Wars Edward III rebuilt the castle of Sheppey, and bestowed upon the castle and the surrounding district the title of Queenborough, in honour of his queen, Philippa, and gave it the status of a free borough. By the 17th century the castle was ruinous and obsolete as a defence work, so it was demolished.

Faversham possesses a fine series of no fewer than 14 charters granted by the Crown between 1252 and 1547. It was not a ‘free’ borough, but was in the lordship of the abbot of Faversham. Disputes between the abbot and the burgesses about their respective rights were frequent. At the time of Henry III the abbot chose the mayor annually from three men presented to him by the townsmen, but afterwards they obtained the privilege of submitting only one person to be sworn by the abbot into the office of mayor. In 1546, after the abbey had been dissolved, Henry VIII granted the town a charter providing for the government to be in the hands of a mayor, 12 jurats, and 44 freemen.

Maidstone’s first charter was granted by Edward VI in 1548. The reason for the grant of the charter is explained in the preamble: for many years past the government of the town had been thought to belong to certain inhabitants called the portreeve and brethren, but recently the legality of the arrangement had been brought into question and it was necessary for a royal charter to be granted in order to put the government of the town on a lawful basis. Accordingly the king ordained that the town should have a mayor, to be elected every year, and a body of 13 jurats, holding office for life, who should have the same powers of government as the mayor and jurats at Canterbury. Because of the part which the inhab­itants of Maidstone took in Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554 Queen Mary deprived the town of its charter, but five years later Queen Elizabeth made a grant of a new charter, with wider powers. The mayor was now given the status of a justice of the peace; the inhabitants were to be ex­empt from jury-service outside the town; and they were empowered to elect two Members of Parliament. They also were authorised to hold a weekly market and a fair four times a year, with a Court of Piepowder (that is a court to settle summarily disputes arising at a market or fair) and to establish a grammar school.

Another town to which a charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth was Gravesend—strictly, Gravesend and Milton. Difficulties had arisen because the confirmation of the long ferry monopoly by Henry IV was to ‘the men of Gravesend’. But who, exactly, were ‘the men of Gravesend’ possessing this right, and who was to bring a legal action if the monopoly was infringed? It was difficulties of this sort that led the medieval lawyers to hit upon the device of ‘incorporation’, that is the treating of a group of persons, such as the Dean and Chapter of a Cathedral, the Fellows of a College, or the mayor, jurats and commonalty of a town, as a single legal person able to bring and to defend legal proceedings and able to own land in perpetuity. Normally, a group of persons could acquire a corporate existence of this sort only by royal grant. By Queen Elizabeth’s charter of 1562 the inhabitants of Gravesend were made a corpora­tion, to be governed by two portreeves and 10 jurats. An alteration was made by a new charter granted in 1568 which recited that inconveniences had arisen from there being two portreeves (it is not difficult to guess the kind of differences that might have arisen between them), and ordained that for the future the town should be governed by a portreeve, to be chosen annually, 12 jurats, and 24 ‘Capital Inhabitants’, who should together constitute the Common Council. The charter included the usual grants of market, fair, municipal court and power to tax the inhabitants. The monopoly of the long ferry to London was confirmed on payment of 5s. a year to the Crown. The ferry remained for centuries an important part of the town’s business. The barges, which held forty or more passengers and with luck made the journey in one tide, that is five or six hours, were apparently Corporation property, the various inhabitants who had the right taking it in turn to sail (or row, if the wind failed) the barge to or from London.

The Common Council in 1595 laid down a number of regulations about the ferry; the fare was not to be more than 2d. a passenger, but unless the passengers were prepared to make up the total fare to 4s. the master of the boat was not obliged to sail; the crew was to consist of a steersman and at least four rowers, or five in foul weather; and an attempt was made to protect the barge-traffic against competition from the private enterprise ventures of smaller vessels known as tiltboats, lighthorsemen and wherries. The regulations also required a proper scheme of apprenticeship to be adopted, referring to the number of drownings that had happened in consequence of barge-masters employing ‘boys and others of small skill and evil nurture’. Perhaps it was the character of the local boys that had caused the Corporation, at least as early as 1580, to establish a school wherein the master was required to teach ‘his scollers manners and holisome learning according to the lawes of this Realme’.

The oldest schools in Kent are the King’s School at Canterbury, and King’s School, Rochester. Each was associated with the adjacent cathedral and as to their dates of foundation perhaps it is safest to say that both had already had a long (though possibly not continuous) history by the time that the corpora­tions of Maidstone and Gravesend established their schools during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Sevenoaks School was founded in 1432 by Sir William Sennocke, Lord Mayor of London, for the free instruction of poor children. At Tenterden a free grammar school must already have been in existence by 1521 because in that year a gift was made to it. In a ‘Free Grammar School’ it was only instruction in Latin and Greek that was free; if the scholars required to be taught other subjects such as English, writing or arithmetic, they had to pay a fee to the master. It was a rule of the school which Sir Andrew Judd (another Lord Mayor of London) founded at Tonbridge in 1553 that the pupils before admission should be able to write competently, and to read perfectly, both English and Latin.

The increasing prosperity of the county resulted in the establishment of several new schools during the Elizabethan period. Simon Lynch founded a ‘free and perpetual grammar school’ at Cranbrook, Sir Roger Manwood, a notable lawyer and Chief Baron of the Exchequer, gave extensive lands to Sandwich Corporation to endow a grammar school in his native town, and William Lambe, clothworker, established a similar school at Sutton Valence. The Queen herself, out of the lands which accrued to the Crown on the dissolution of Faversham Abbey, endowed a school ‘for the education of the youth inhabiting there’. An earlier school had existed in the town, associated with the abbey. The Elizabethan school building, which stands a little to the north of the church, was built in 1587 and remained in use as a school for nearly three hundred years.

There were a good many more school foundations during the 17th century, of which the most important were Edward Gibbon’s at Benenden in 1602; John Southiands’ at New Romney in 1610; Sir Norton Knatchbull’s Grammar School at Ashford in 1636/7 (the original building of which still stands in the church­yard); Launcelot Bathurst’s at Staplehurst in 1639, for teaching ‘poor children reading, writing and their duty towards God and man’; William Cleave’s at Yalding in 1665, for teaching ‘English, Writing, Accounts and the Catechism’; John Horsemonden’s Free Grammar School at Goudhurst in 1670, for the teaching of Greek and Latin ‘and so many of the tongues, arts and sciences as the pupils should be willing to learn’; Sir Eliab Harvey’s school at Folkestone in 1674, for the teaching of ‘writing and reading and (if they wish it) Latin’ (these pious founders seem to have had a touching faith in the pupils’ desire for learning); Lady Boswell’s at Sevenoaks in 1675, for 15 poor children to be taught ‘reading, writing, casting accounts and the Church catechism’; and, to extend the century by one year, Sir Joseph Williamson’s School at Rochester, in 1701, for instruction in ‘mathe-matics and all other things which might fit and encourage [the pupils] to the sea-service, or arts and callings leading or relating thereto’.

These various schools were by no means all of equal size and importance. The same is true of the towns themselves. Only eight of them, for example, sent representatives to Parliament: Canterbury and Rochester; the Cinque Ports (Dover, Sandwich, Hythe and New Romney); Queenborougb which was enfranchised in 1571, when it possessed only 23 inhabited houses; and Maidstone which was granted the right to return members to Parliament by Queen Elizabeth’s charter of 1559. The enfranchisement of Maidstone and Queenborough was probably intended less as a benefit to the towns themselves than as a help to the Queen in achieving an agreeable House of Commons. The county itself was represented by two Knights of the Shire, who usually carried more influence in the House than the borough representatives.

Finally as a very approximate indication of the relative wealth of the towns of Kent in the earlier part of the 17th century, here are their assessments to Ship-money in 1636, when the total burden laid on the county was £8,000:

Canterbury 300
Dover, Folkestone, Faversham, Margate, St Peter’s,
Birchington, Kingsdown, Ringwould, etc. 330
Sandwich, Deal, Walmer, Ramsgate,
Fordwich, Sarre, etc. 250
Cranbrook 200
New Romney, Lydd, Old Romney, Dengemarsh,
Broomhill, etc. 180
Maidstone 160
Tenterden 90
Rochester 80
Gravesend 40
Hythe 40
Queenborough 10

The most surprising item in this list is the comparatively heavy assessment of Cranbrook; the reason for it, already hinted at, will appear more fully in the next chapter.