Medieval Newcastle begins with the building of the royal castle by William I’s son, Robert, in 1080. There is no evidence of any earlier village around the site of the castle, although there were Anglo-Saxon settlements in the vicinity of Pandon and Monkchester (possibly around St. Andrew’s church). The castle, of the motte-and-bailey type, was made of wood and earth, and the present stone Keep and castle walls were built between 1 168 and 1 179. Around this fortress and the bridge built across the Tyne, on the line of the present Swing Bridge, there rapidly grew up a flourishing trading community and town.
The importance of legal privileges in medieval trading has already been noted, and Newcastle’s rapid growth was as much due to its gaining trading monopolies and efficiently enforcing them as to it$ location, port facilities and commercial enterprise. The ‘Laws of Newcastle’, dating from 1100-1139, are the earliest evidence of these gains. The oldest surviving copy is a manuscript only 11 inches by three-and-a-half inches, to be found in the Public Record Office in London. It records and confirms the rights of the Newcastle burgesses: ‘No merchant, unless he be a burgess may buy (outside) the town either wool or leather or other merchandise, nor within the the borough except (of) burgesses’, and ‘No one but a burgess may buy webs (cloth) to dye, nor make nor cut them’, together with other regulations, such as ‘If a plea arise between a burgess and a merchant, it shall be concluded before the third ebb of the tide’, and ‘If a ship have put in at Tynemouth and wishes to depart, the burgesses may buy what they will’.
The medieval town grew up mainly on the higher ground to the north of the Castle, with the markets around St. Nicholas’s church in the present Groat and Bigg markets, though buildings followed The Side down the steep descent to the bridge and marshy shore of the river. Growth to the east was restricted by the steep ravines of two small rivers no longer visible. The Lort Burn rose in the Leazes and descended down the line of Grey Street and Dean Street, entering the Tyne at the Sandhill, then an unreclaimed margin of the river. Further east Pandon Burn ran down from Barras Bridge to enter the Tyne at the east end of the present Quayside. The topographic problems faced by medieval Newcastle can only be recaptured today by walking the old town on foot. Early growth was confined to the west side of the Lort Burn. By 1175 Westgate was a main street, and around St. Andrew’s church Nevgate Street was growing.
During the 13th century the town expanded rapidly. In 1220 a new parish of St. John’s, Westgate, was carved out of the existing St. Nicholas’s and St. Andrew’s parishes, and by 1290 there was a continuous line of properties from St. Andrew’s through the Bigg Market to St. Nicholas’s. St. Bartholomew’s nunnery had been established beside this road in the 12th century, and in the 13th century a number of friaries came to Newcastle: the Dominicans (1261), Franciscans (1274), Carmelites (1278), and Austins (1290). The Vicas Peregrinorum or Pilgrim Street, running down the east bank of the Lort Burn from the Franciscan friary to All Hallows (as All Saints was then known) and the Sandhill, is first mentioned in the 13th century. Between this street and the main markets around St. Nicholas’s, two paths crossed the Lort Burn at High Bridge and Low Bridge, still to be found today. Lower down, almost at The Side, the Painter Heugh (now a derelict alley off Dean Street) went down from Pilgrim Street to the Lort, and is mentioned in 1373. Historians such as Bourne assure us that the river ebbed and flowed as far as Low Bridge and even High Bridge. Certainly the lower parts of the Lort Burn to the foot of The Side were navigable. By 1337 though, the Sandhill was being reclaimed from the river, for there were building plots on it, and in 1393 a royal proclamation cleared the Sandhill of stalls and merchandise for use as an open spaces It was on the Sandhill that several of the noblemen on the wrong side at the Battle of Hexham in 1464 were beheaded.
East of the town was the industrial village of Pandon, where fullers, dyers and brewers lived. In 1269-70 a fuller called John le Surays lived in Crosswellgate (now Pandon Street), and in 1278 the inhabitants petitioned the King because the Carmelite friars were monopolising Crosswell spring, which the dyers and fullers needed for their trade, and the merchants and sailors for drinking. The Pandon burn was crossed by Stockbridge, and this and Cowgate recall the location of the town’s byres for the cows grazed on the Town Moor. Although much of Newcastle’s trade was carried in foreign ships, there was clearly a small shipbuilding industry in the town, for in 1294 Newcastle was one of the ports ordered to build a galley for Edward I’s fleet. The records of the galley’s construction indicate that the vessel, designed to take up to 120 oars, was probably built in Pandon, and certainly docked there after being damaged during ‘trials’ up the coast to Bamburgh. In 1299 Newcastle formally annexed the suburb of Pandon. Between the Sandhill and Pandon, below All Hallows church, the Quayside was Igradually being reclaimed from the river, and the dense, narrow lanes or chares began to be built. These were, however, very liable to flooding and in Edward III’s reign 140 houses at the Pandon end were destroyed, and about 67 people drowned. As the port grew the areas around the Sandhill and Quayside, the lower town, became more important in the late middle ages.
The growth of the town was reflected in its ranking fourth in wealth in 1334, behind London, Bristol and York. After the plague the 1377 poll tax ranked it twelfth, with 2,647 taxpayers. An indication of its status is that Henry III had set up a mint in the town in 1249. Walls for the expanded town were begun about 1265, when a special murage toll was imposed on trade. The Newgate wall and stretch to the south west were built by 1285, and in the south east the wall had to be re-directed to encompass Pandon. The final curtain wall, over two miles long with seven gateways, 19 towers and 30 turrets, was not completed until after 1318, but the impetus of the Scottish wars forced the townsmen to complete the outer ditch or King’s Dykes a few years earlier. Around Newgate this ditch could be flooded. Along the Quayside the wall ran from Sandgate to the Sandhill, with 17 watergates giving access to the river.
As the town and its commerce expanded, so it began to press for some municipal independence. During the 12th century the town was controlled by a royal bailiff, but in 1170 and 1213 it managed to negotiate some financial and judicial independence in exchange for annual payments to the King, set at £100 after 1213. Daniel, son of Nicholas, was chief bailiff in 1216 and is usually regarded as the first mayor, though royal approval for the title only came in 1251. We know nothing of the selection procedure for the mayor, but both the office and the town were controlled by the leading merchants. Until 1300 two families, the Scots and Carliols, monopolised the office, but after 1300 a number of the other leading wool merchants appear, such as Peter Graper, Richard Acton, John Denton, Richard Galloway, and Robert Angerton. Richard of Embleton held the office 23 times between 1305 and 1332.
Under the ‘Laws of Newcastle’ there were no legal or trading distinctions amongst the burgesses. However, in 1216 King John had allowed the formation of a merchant guild in Newcastle, and the leading exporters and importers began to gain control of all trading as well as politics. In 1305 a group of ‘poor burgesses’, claiming that the rich burgesses ‘by sinister collusion among themselves’ were stopping them using their trading rights as burgesses, preventing them selling wine, cloth or groceries, or dealing in hides and wool. For the rich burgesses Nicholas de Carliol claimed that the 1216 grant gave exclusive rights to the guild, but he could prove no legal basis for this, and the poor burgesses won their case. It was, however a temporary victory.
A crisis occurred in the control of town government during the 1340s, centred on John of Denton. Denton, a wool exporter and war-contractor, was mayor in 1333, 1336-7 and 1340, and alienated many in the town by his profiteering, opportunism and suspected corruption. In 1337 all the jurors on an enquiry into the value of land were his relatives, and they implied that certain plots, which really belonged to the Corporation, were owned by the King, who promptly rented them to Denton, including ‘the Mydding Place’ on the Sandhill. In particular Denton clashed with the Galloways and Scots. At his re-election in 1341, one group of burgesses elected a rival candidate and seized the town gates, and there was rioting. The King took over and ordered an enquiry.
This gave the lesser burgesses a chance to act, and they suggested a new charter, which was adopted in 1342. This included weekly statements of the town accounts and a formal election system to stop disputes. Between 1308 and 1342 12 companies or ‘mysteries’ had been created within the burgesses: the merchant companies of the woollen merchants (drapers), corn merchants (boothmen), and silk merchants (mercers), and nine lesser crafts companies including the skinners, butchers, smiths and bakers. The election procedure was intricate: each mystery elected two men, and the 24 elected four. These four co-opted another eight, and this group of 12 then elected another 12, and this final 24 elected the mayor! It was clearly a system highly susceptible to pressure and influence.
In 1343 Galloway and his supporters won, and in 1344 they arrested Denton on a charge of aiding the Scottish army. Denton refused to plead, knowing the jury was rigged, and died in jail. Edward III reacted by taking over the town, and setting up a hunt for Denton’s ‘murderers’. In the summer of 1345 he restored the town’s rights, allowing the election of Robert Shilvington, but insisted • on an even ‘safer’ election procedure. Now the mayor and four bailiffs elected seven men, and the group of 12 elected four. These four proceeded as in the 1342 system, but the new rules even more effectively perpetuated the ruling group. The 1342 system was restored in 1371, but it made no dent in the oligarchic control. In 1400 the town became an independent county wiih its own sheriff.
Great merchants like Robert Rhodes, Robert Whelpington, and the Harding dynasty dominated the town in the 15th century. Greatest of all was Roger Thornton, whom later centuries portrayed as the Dick Whittington of Newcastle. In the words of an old verse:
‘At the Westgate came Thornton in
With a hap, and a halfpenny, and a lambskin.’
In reality Thornton came from a landed family, probably in North Yorkshire, but he did rise to be a leading merchant, exporting wool and investing in Durham lead-mines, and mayor of Newcastle 10 times between 1400 and 1425. His reputation lived on because of his benefactions to the town, notably the Maison Dieu, built on the Sandhill in 1412 for 13 poor men and women, and later granted by Thornton’s son for town use for wedding receptions. The east end of this building survived as part of the Guildhall until 1823. (Similarly, Rhodes probably provided the fine steeple of St. Nicholas’s that we still see.) Roger Thornton lived in Broad Chare by the Quayside, and his will in 1429 showed the extent of his property. He had a main London house called Tannersheld in Cheapside, several estates in Northumberland (especially Netherwitton, where his family survived into the 18th century), and numerous houses and plots all over Newcastle. Thornton was buried in All Hallows, with a huge monument of which the magnificent Flemish brass plate with its engraved figures still survives.
Disputes over the trading rights of burgesses continued. In 1438-9 there was an agreement that all burgesses had the right directly to purchase from ships and strangers for their own use (as agreed in the 1342 charter), but not to re-sell, and in 1477 Henry Redpeth, a tailor, was fined 4s. 4d. (22p) for retailing lint and other goods. After a further dispute the royal Star Chamber in 1516 confirmed the trading monopoly of the merchant companies (which had grouped into a Merchant Adventurers’ Guild), and altered the election system so that the four men nominated by the 24 had to be former mayors, aldermen or sheriffs, so further strengthening the ruling group. A number of new companies were formed in the 15th century to represent various town crafts and control apprenticeship and behaviour. So in 1442 a Barber-Surgeons company was incorporated to regulate shaving and primitive medical practices: no foreigner (including Scotsmen) was to be taken as an apprentice, no member or apprentice should shave in the town on a Sunday, nor should they interfere with each other’s patients. At the annual procession of all the guilds on Corpus Christi day, this company had to meet at Newgate and after the procession perform the Miracle Play of the ‘Baptizing of Christ’.