Towns & Townsmen
While most people in the Middle Ages lived in villages, there were a surprisingly large number of towns in the county, most of them Saxon in origin. Bath and Ilchester could trace their foundations back to Roman times, and were still surrounded by their ancient defences. Most others, probably dated from the late Saxon period, and by the time of Domesday Book there were a further 11 places—Milborne Port, Bruton, Langport, Axbridge, Taunton, Frome, Milverton, Yeovil, Watchet, South Petherton, and Crewkerne—which for one reason or another could be called urban in character. Some were called boroughs, implying a form of corporate government, some were the sites of mints, some had an important church, some were fortified, and some possessed a valuable market. Bath in the 11th century probably had a population of a thousand; Ilchester came next in size with about half that number, and was soon to be the county town, where judges and sheriffs held their courts, and where offenders were imprisoned. Taunton, the centre of a vast manor belonging to the bishops of Winchester, perhaps had 300 inhabitants, and was followed by the small towns of Milbome Port, Langport, and Axbridge.
Within the next 200 years more towns had developed, either as extensions of established villages or as completely new foundations. The old settlement on Cleeve ‘Hill, probably given its defences in the 10th century against possible Viking attack, a place where coins were minted, and where the church of St Decuman had been established, was probably given up in the 11th century as more settled times came. Its people moved down the hill to the level ground by the little bay, back, perhaps, to the place where their ancestors had once lived. There, by the end of the 13th century, their town of Watchet was described as a borough. It was never large in the Middle Ages and had only 63 burgesses in 1377. Storms in the 1450s damaged the little harbour and swept away a whole street of houses, but it expanded a little after repairs were made to the quay in the 16th century, and remained a tiny urban centre, still a significant producer of finished cloth and partner in cross-Channel trade.
Wells and Bridgwater were two success stories in the 12th and 13th centuries. The removal of the bishop’s seat from Wells to Bath in the late 11th century was a serious blow to the town, but Bishop Robert of Lewes (1136-66) gave its citizens a charter of privileges and, probably long before the early years of the 14th century, their industry had made Wells the largest urban centre in the county, with a population of nearly 1,000 in 1377. To be sure, many of these were clergy, but there were others whose businesses had brought them considerable wealth. Such a man was Thomas Tanner, six times mayor of the city, who died in 1401 leaving a substantial endowment for a chantry in the parish church of St Cuthbert. His riches had not, however, always been gained by a too strict adherence to the law. In 1390 he was accused in the Court of Exchequer of evading payments of subsidy on goods imported or exported by him in his three ships, operating either from Redcliffe in Bristol, or from Crabhole or Rooksmill on the river Axe. In one year he exported cloth and corn to Spain worth £640 and imported wine, nails, and salt to the value of £359 6s. 8d. In a later case held in the same court it was reported that Tanner had in 1398 purchased cloth for £200 from an Irish boat in the Scilly Isles, thus trading illegally with the enemy. By that time Tanner was dead, and his widow ably defended herself by declaring that the Crown’s case was insufficient in law since the exact quantity of cloth was not specified.
Bridgwater’s rise was if anything more rapid. It was nearly as large as Wells by the end of the 14th century, and owed its prosperity to its position on the river Parrett. The bridge over the river which gave the place its name by the time of Domesday, was later guarded by a strong castle, and served as a barrier to all inland trade. Bridgwater men took full advantage, making charges for all goods unloaded at its quays whether bound for immediate customers Or simply to be trans-shipped, to be taken up-river to Langport and Ilchester. By the end of the Middle Ages local landowners and lawyers were anxious to be associated with its prosperous merchants, the most powerful of whom was probably John Kendall. Kendall seems to have begun his business in Taunton, but in the 1450s he moved to Bridgwater. He was mayor and M.P. several times, and a merchant prosperous enough to have contacts with no less a man than Humphrey Stafford of Southwick. Stafford, for a short time earl of Devon, was defeated by the Nevilles at the battle of Edgecote in 1469, and fled to Somerset, presumably hoping to find shelter on his estate of Enmore or to take ship from Bridgwater. He was, instead, murdered in the town by Neville associates, but Kendall, one of his executors, was influential enough to be able to arrange the late earl’s funeral at Glastonbury Abbey and to dispose of his estates.
Bath and Taunton among the old towns continued to prosper, both firmly grounded on an economy in which cloth played a prominent part. No medieval parish churches survive in Bath to compare with the magnificence of St Mary’s, Taunton, nor St John’s, Yeovil. In the smaller towns such as Ilminster, Crewkerne, Axbridge, Glastonbury, and Bruton, the parish churches are eloquent witnesses as well to the prosperity as to the religious devotion of Somerset’s medieval townsmen. The tower of St Mary’s, Taunton, was raised over a period of nearly thirty years from the late 1480s. Cash, pipes of woad, rolls of cloth, a hogshead of iron and a pipe of wine were left during that period by Taunton’s merchants, tuckers and drapers, contributing to the long process of construction, including the gift of lower pinnacles under the will of Richard Best in 1502, and the tracery of two belfry windows paid for by William Nethway in 1514.
There were much more modest successes, and one or two failures, in urban development, often in places where landlords tried to create totally new towns. Bishop Jocelin of Wells, lord of Chard, successfully developed an area north of the old village there about 1235, creating a wide street and offering building plots each side of it for sale. Market squares at Somerton and Montacute were less successful in the long term: the market place at Somerton was laid out before 1290 and traffic was diverted from the old route north of the church. The income from the ‘new borough’ thus created increased the value of the estate for its owner, Queen Eleanor, but the town’s general prosperity declined in the 14th century and, having for a brief time been the county town, it sank further in the 15th. Montacute’s borough still remains in name, the result of two attempts by the landlord-monks to raise cash to solve their short-term financial difficulties.
There were some abject failures. The bishops of Bath and Wells attempted urban plantations at Rackley as a port on the Axe in Compton Bishop parish in 1189, and another at Southwick, near Langport, by 1308. The Chapter of Wells tried a similar venture with little more success at Newport in North Curry, its name revealing its origins. Dowend (by 1159), Lower Weare (early 13th century), and Stoford (by 1273) were similar attempts by lay lords, only Stoford remaining to show how it was laid out in a regular grid pattern.
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Mace, furred gown, a mayor and corporation, courts and borough constables were the outward and visible signs of town government created by charters from Crown or feudal lord. Bath had .a mayor by the 1220s, elected annually in their Guildhall. They adopted the church of St Mary Stalls, standing within a few yards/m of the west door of the abbey church, and in 1355 endowed a perpetual chantry for all the citizens. But not until 1417, when they won a battle with the priory over precedence in bell-ringing in the city, could the citizens claim any real independence.
Wells was given a mayor under a royal charter in 1341, but Bishop – Ralph of Shrewsbury, as lord of the town, quickly persuaded the Crown of its error and the charter was withdrawn. The senior burgess was, however, called master or mayor by the early 15th century, and the burgesses had by then achieved a good deal of independence. Their fine civic achievement was the water supply, flowing like their power from the bishop’s palace, but channelled according to their own designs in leaden pipes to the conduit in the Market Place for domestic use, and then along the sides of their main street as a means of cleansing the public highway.
Bridgwater’s corporate power was organised to manage the port, and its prosperity is declared in the spire of its parish church, built in 1366-7 by a rare parish rate to the designs of Nicholas Waleys. The charter which gave the town a mayor was issued in 1468 specifically to stimulate its economy.
The men of Taunton probably had less independence from the bishops of Winchester, but their records have not survived to show how they governed themselves. Their wills, however, show a proper concern for public works as well as religious duty. Alexander Tuse in 1490 gave £5 to repair the highway from his house for some distance into the country, and Henry Bishop in 1493 gave £4 to make and mend the Tone bridge breast high. John Tose in 1502 helped to repair the highways between Taunton and Bathpool, and between North Petherton and Bridgwater.
Axbridge and Ilchester, Milborne Port and Langport had corporations whose origins lay in the Middle Ages and which survived in attenuated form until the 19th century. The people of Somerton in the 14th century had some sort of corporate status, but only their seal survives to tell the tale. Glastonbury, dominated by the abbey, achieved some independence through their churchwardens. Their surviving deeds describe in some detail their many properties in the town centre, a close-knit pattern of houses, shops, alleys and thoroughfares, a pattern still to be seen there and at Wells, Axbridge, and Bruton, and in parts of Frome and Bridgwater, but changed out of all recognition at Bath.
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Markets and mints were characteristics of 11th-century urban life, and towns flourished where trade continued to grow. The manufacture of woollen cloth, while not exclusively urban based, provided stimulus to Taunton and other places from the early 13th century, and established Bruton, Frome, Bath, Wells, and Shepton Mallet as manufacturing and distribution centres from the 14th century onwards. The trade gilds in the larger towns suggest a typical medieval self-sufficiency. Wells, whose records survive best, possesses lists of men elected freemen of the city from 1377; and by the middle of the 16th century the city’s craftsmen were organised into seven gilds: hammermen, cordwainers, butchers, weavers, tuckers, mercers, and tailors, the last four all connected with the cloth trade. llchester, Wells, Bruton, Taunton, Frome, Bridgwater, Yeovil, and Langport supported small foreign communities in the mid 15th century, mostly from the Low Countries and France, and often engaged in the manufacturing trades. Bridgwater was perhaps naturally the most cosmopolitan town, for its merchants traded with France and Ireland, Spain and Portugal, and foreign ships were frequently drawn up at its quays. The accounts of the water bailiffs, dating from Henry VII’s reign, record the goods coming into the port, unloaded either by hand or with the aid of the corporation’s crane—regular shipments of wine, iron, salt, herring, coal, dyestuffs, millstones, oil, and cider; smaller quantities of salmon, pilchards, fruit, honey; rare entries of timber for arrows, caps, domestic ware, and bells.
The profits of the port went to the coffers of the corporation. In 1495 the total income from import dues and town rents came to £22 16s. 9½d. Out of that came the fees of the mayor (£5), the recorder, and others, the bailiff’s expenses in going to Taunton and Minehead, and money advanced for the town’s members of parliament. There were spikes and nails bought to repair the crane, glass to replace broken windows in the Common House, and locks and keys made for the coffer there by John Smith the Fleming. Gifts of wine were made to the prior of St John’s hospital and to the Greyfriars in the town, and to the king’s pursuivant. All the rest was spent on entertainment. John Pery of Huntworth brought a buck for the mayor and burgesses, the gift of Lord Daubeney, Lord Chamberlain and lord of part of the town. Clement of Haygrove was paid for turning it into pasties. And throughout the year there were travelling players and minstrels to be paid. Perhaps the shepherds’ pageant at Corpus Christi was a local affair, and one group of minstrels came from Bristol; but there were others sponsored by the king, the king’s mother (lord of most of the town), and minstrels of the earl of Arundel. Somerset’s other towns must similarly have experienced something of the same rich and varied texture of life, a contrast to the more predictable life of the countryside.