Medieval Merchants, Towns and Trade

Medieval Merchants, Towns and Trade

The agrarian expansion of medieval Northumberland was accompanied by a parallel growth in both regional exports and internal trade. The county’s grain produce was mainly for local consumption, and the main exports came from pastoral activity: the hides of cattle and the wool of sheep. In medieval England such trade. was not carried on in a free market, but was strictly regulated: rights to sell and trade were monopolies and privileges granted by royal and baronial charters, usually in return for higher rents and taxes. At least as early as the mid-12th century Newcastle established its rights for the export of hides, wool and woolfells (wool on the skin) from the region. The internal history of the town and its charters will be studied in Chapter X. In accounts for about 1290, Newcastle headed the list of English ports for the export of leather. At this time the export of wool was growing in importance, and Edward I’s decision to raise money by customs dues on wool and hides meant detailed records of many of these exports were kept and have survived. Northern wool was coarse and of poor quality compared with the best English fleeces. In 1337 it sold at five marks a sack (about 26 stones), against Herefordshire’s 12 marks and Shropshire’s ten. But although it had to pay customs dues at the same rate, it was still a profitable export. In the early 14th century Newcastle ranked sixth in English wool exports. There had been a notable expansion during Edward’s reign: for Easter 1292-93, Newcastle exported 841 sacks of wool, 8,042 woolfells and 55 lasts of hides (a last was 200 hides). By 1304-5 the trade was 1910 sacks of wool and 35,000 woolfells.

Medieval Towns and Markets
Medieval Towns and Markets

From the customs accounts we can see the details of the trade. Plate 13 shows the customs entry for the sailing of John Prest’s ship the Backebrad on 20 April 1297. The captain took some wool on his own account, but his cargo included about 20 sacks for Peter Sampson (line 2), eight for Richard of Embleton, and eight for Walter of Cowgate. The main destinations at this time were the clothmakers of Flanders. Already the exporting and shipping businesses were becoming separate, and many of the ships were foreign. In a seven-year period, out of 205 sailings from Newcastle, 170  were sailings of 162 foreign ships, the vast majority making a single journey. Twenty-two came from Middleburg, 17 from Calais, 13 from St. Valery, and 12 from Barfleur, though a few single sailings went to northerly ports like Groningen and Lubeck. The ships themselves were mostly very small, less than 100 tons, and smaller than North Sea drifters. The export trade itself was largely in English and local hands. Out of 216 merchants who traded through Newcastle in the same seven years, 138 were foreign (mainly from Flanders), but they made mostly small, single shipments. Seven belonged to the Italian trading societies, and these ran larger shipments, such as James Glare of Florence, who exported 871/2 sacks between 1287 and 1293 for the Society of the White Circles, and Villan Iscoldi, representative of the Black Circles, exported 52 sacks in 1297. The bulk was handled, however, by the English merchants, especially the 50 based in Newcastle.

In the 1296 Subsidy we can identify the major traders. The richest individual was Samson le Cutiller, assessed at £53 14s. 4.s. (53.72p), who paid more tax than whole groups of villages in the county. (By comparison, Sir Richard Craster, a typical county knight, was assessed at X10 45. 8d. [XIO.23p].) Hugh Gerardin and Isolda de Pampeden (Pandon) were jointly assessed at £84 in St. Nicholas’s parish. Gerardin shipped 110 sacks and 520 woolfells in 1293-96. Other important merchants were Peter Graper, exporting 103 sacks in 1292-97, Peter Sampson with 77 sacks in the 1290s, and Adam of Hoga who was based in Wooler. In 1308 Richard of Embleton was personally responsible for an eighth of the town’s exports.

If customs were paid at Newcastle, the wool could actually be shipped from another northern port. In July 1 292 James Clare paid dues on 16 sacks of wool, which were carted at Alnwick. three days later and shipped from Berwick. The proximity of the Scottish border encouraged smuggling. The Scottish port of Berwick had lower dues, and when it was in English hands in 1340 Newcastle burgesses complained that Northumbrian wool was being sent north to pay only half a mark a sack, instead of three at Newcastle. Smuggling was also encouraged by the staple port system which was introduced in 1313  to ease customs collections. All wool exports had to be channelled through certain ports, sometimes a group of home ports, sometimes Continental ports. Newcastle often got exemption from the system, but whenever exports were forced to go through a port like Calais, Newcastle’s trade (which was mainly with markets further north) became much more costly. Many prominent merchants smuggled, even the customs officers. In 1341-42 William de Acton was fined 200 marks for exporting 14 sacks of uncustomed wool, and John of Denton 250 marks, and in 1364 a group chartered the Katherine to take coal from Newcastle, but in fact loaded it with 16 sacks of wool and 600 woolfells for uncustomed export to Zeeland.

The Scottish wars had a major influence on trade. The hide and wool trades were disrupted, shipping became more hazardous, and special taxes were demanded to fund the war. But war-contracts could also be lucrative for some merchants, and in 1332 John of Denton provided 393 quarters of wheat, 202 of oats, and 22 tuns of wine for the King’s forces. Although wool remained the major export, Newcastle merchants exploited commodities found in the immediate vicinity, and so less liable to disruption. Grindstones from the Gateshead Fells were a standard export down to the 18th century, giving rise to the 17th-century saying that ‘three things were to be found the world over—a Scot, a rat, and a Newcastle grindstone’. Coal from local mines became a significant trade commodity (see Chapter XIII), though it was not dominant until the 16th century. Atrade balance for 1508-9 constructed by I. S. W. Blanchard values the coal trade at £225, but wool at £498. Lead exports, mainly from Weardale, had grown to £267 worth.

The medieval trading pattern ended in the early 16th century, with the collapse of the cloth-trade in the West Brabant towns, Newcastle’s main wool market, in the 1520s. Home cloth production in England was also taking much of the wool. In its place came the coal trade, and also an expansion of the Baltic or Eastland trade. Newcastle had a long history of trade with the Baltic, but for a long time it had been mainly carried in ships of the Hanseatic league of cities, who excluded English ships from the Baltic. In the 1390s there had been a brief English breakthrough, and in 1394 the cargo and crew of the Good Year, owned by Roger Thornton and others of Newcastle, were seized by the Hanseatic towns of Wismar and Rostock in a dispute over customs dues. The cargo of cloth and wine was valued at 200 marks. In the 16th century the Danish Sound was re-opened to English ships and, in 1537, 52 Newcastle ships entered the Baltic.

The Tyne’s imports were much more diversified than the exports. In 1336 Richard Galloway, Robert de Shilvington and Adam Tredflour loaded the Petit Cuthbert of Newcastle at St. Valery-sur-Somme in France with cob-nuts, herring, cockles, ‘blandurer’ apples, woad, a carpet and a coverlet. From the Baltic came wooden boards, furs and corn. Wine imports, especially for Durham Priory, were important, and merchants like Robert de Castro acted as the Prior’s agents.

Behind the regional exports and imports lay a network of internal trade and markets. Newcastle again dominated the scene, but at a local level there were many regular markets and fairs spread across the county, each usually based on a baronial administrative centre. So in 1257 Henry III confirmed to Roger de Merlay a Friday market at Netherwitton and a yearly fair of eight days on the eve, during and six days after St. Lawrence’s Day (10  August), unless the market or fair were ‘hurtful to neighbouring markets and fairs’. At the markets tolls were charged on many of the commodities, enabling us to identify the significant items. Grain was sold at most markets. Exotic groceries like pepper, cinnamon, almonds and figs appear in the accounts at Berwick, Newbiggin and Newcastle. Corbridge was the centre for ironware, selling horse-shoes by the thousand and nails by the two thousand. It also held the great cattle fair on Stagshawbank on Old Midsummer day (24 June). The record of an interesting transaction here in 1298 has survived. Robert of Hepple and John of Ireland bought up 72 oxen, ironware and wagons, probably to supply Edward I’s army, but they purchased around the fair in small lots through many different agents so that news should not get out that there was a single big purchase on.

Between these regular markets and the great regional centre of Newcastle were a number of urban centres or burghs, distinguished from the surrounding countryside by their special rights and tenures. Like Newcastle, these centres gained or were granted privileges (e.g., freedom from market tolls and from labour services) by the King or local barons in return for taxes and rents. The old Anglo-Saxon burghs had been purely administrative centres, and several were in decline by the 13th century: Newburn is last heard of as a burgh in 1201, and in 1296 Rothbury was taxed at the rural rate. Corbridge, however, was the second town in Northumberland, with a population of about 1,500 people. Just as the agrarian expansion saw the creation of new villages in the Northumbrian landscape, so the commercial expansion led to the creation of ‘new towns’ and the planned expansion of old settlements. The incentive for the King or feudal lord was the increased rents from burgage property, tolls on market sales to outsiders, the presence of local craftsmen and general improvement of his estate. The King also charged higher taxes on borough wealth: in the 1296 Subsidy villagers paid one-eleventh of their assessed wealth, but burgesses paid one-seventh. Many of these local trading monopolies lasted a long time. Ainwick got a charter in 1157-85, and as late as 1 735 the Merchants’ Company of Ainwick voted that ‘John Boulton of Warkworth be proceeded against for frequenting Alnwick market and selling lint’. At Morpeth a charter of the de Merlays gave Newminster monastery a piece of land ‘ad capud novae villae de Morpath quam fundavi’, ‘to the top of the new town of Morpeth which I founded’. Hexham was expanded as centre of the York archbishopric’s lands in the county. At Warkworth the main burgh, like others at Norham and elsewhere, was probably not intended as an urban centre, but rather as a rural settlement with more tenurial and personal freedom than the normal countryside, in return for providing craftsmen and services for the baronial centre.

The difficulties of medieval road travel meant coastal trade was important and several of the new burghs were ports. At Warenmouth, near Bamburgh, William Heron got a grant in 1 257 of all the liberties of Newcastle for his proposed new town, probably intended as a port for Bamburgh. At Ainmouth there was a ‘burgh of St. Waleric’ established by 1 147 as an outport for Ainwick, and separately represented before the 1256 Assizes, where cases indicated tanning, stone exports and wine imports. In 1296 it was assessed at more than Morpeth. The plan of Ainmouth today still shows the planned burgage settlement carved out of Lesbury Common. At North Shields the Prior of Tynemouth tried to create a port, and by 1290 it was reported there were quays, bakeries, breweries, and about 100 houses. It was a good site, especially with the increasing silting of the Tyne up river, but it naturally came into conflict with the claims of the Newcastle burgesses to a monopoly over the whole tidal river. As Dr. Constance Fraser has commented: ‘the advantages and dis­advantages of restriction on trading facilities must have been the constant preoccupation of the 14th-century merchant—liberty for himself and restriction for his rivals’. In 1290 petition and counter-petition were made in Parliament by the Newcastle burgesses and the Prior; Newcastle won, largely by suggesting to Edward I that he might lose customs dues, and North Shields was suppressed, though it re-established itself after 1390.

Many of the medieval new towns failed. Already by 1 296 Waren­mouth’s few taxpayers paid at the rural rate, and by the 16th century its very site was forgotten, though its legal status continued until it was dug out of the law books for final burial in the 1 835 Municipal Corporations Act. On the north side of the river at Warkworth the ‘novus villa’ or Newton mentioned in 1249 never succeeded as a fishing port, though the regular lines of the burgage layout can still be traced today. Other towns suffered through the economic decline of the 14th-century and the Scottish wars.