The Late Middle Ages

The Late Middle Ages

Map of Medieval Castles and Boroughs


The population of the county increased continuously from 1086 up to the time of the great plague in the mid-14th century, and this increased pressure on the land. There were more ‘assarts’, areas of woodland cleared and converted to arable land, and Edward I even sold parts of his Clarendon Forest during this period for the purpose, while Maiden Bradley Priory was granted leave to enclose parts of Selwood Forest on the opposite side of the county.

Improved management of much farmland was also undertaken by large landlords, especially by the great church landowners. It was largely inspired by a period of inflation in the early 13th century when prices rose and real wages fell, so that demesne farming became very profitable. Much capital was then sunk on the great estates in farm buildings, for example by the abbots of Malmesbury on their compact estate round that town and the bishops of Winchester at Downton, East Knoyle and Fonthill manors. The abbots of Malmesbury also carried out extensive reclamation in the late 13th century, improving the marshy land at Rowmarsh and Fowlswick and inclosing former common land for the protection and improvement of stock. On the Downton estates of the bishops of Winchester, that of Lacock owned by the abbey there, and on the estates of the abbots of Glastonbury, in the north and south of the county, particular instructions for the spreading of dung were introduced. On most estates it had now become ‘customary’, and therefore obligatory, for tenants to plough their lord’s land three times a year instead of twice as formerly.

Generally the manors of the chalk-stream areas adopted a two-field system, leaving fields uncultivated in alternate years, while much of the new arable fields on the heavy clay in the north, and also some of the new fields taken from old chalk pastures, were farmed under the more efficient three-field system which needed a fallow period only once in three years. Neither system was universal and the more primitive two-field system remained the more common for a century or so. An even cruder system was used in some areas, for example at Stoford on Wilton Abbey land, where tenants had to work 12 days each a year ‘denchering’ the demesne land. In this the soil was allowed to relapse into weeds and wild grasses before being ploughed, when the turves, after being turned to ash by slow burning in piles, were scattered over the ground. Following this, crops were grown until all the goodness was gone and the process was repeated. (A modified system known as ‘Burnbake’ was practised on some downland until the 20th century and is commemorated in local field names.)

Most of Wiltshire’s arable land was cultivated on the common-field system widespread in central England, in which the community of each manor worked huge unenclosed fields in strip allotments. Each occupier had a certain number of long narrow strips scattered about the manor’s fields. Less commonly, meadow land was divided in the same manner. After harvest and in times of fallow, both arable and meadow were opened to common pasture by the community or, more strictly, by the lord and his tenants, who also had common pasturage of the ‘waste’, with rights to collect firewood, furze and turf. All these activities were controlled, theoretically in common, by those attending the manorial court.

It is not clear when this change to ‘common fields’ from the former individual fields of Celtic and Roman times took place, but it probably originated with late Saxon settlement. There is little documentary evidence of their existence in the county, or anywhere else, before the 13th century though they had doubtless existed for a long time before.

New towns

Population was growing not only in country areas but also in the towns, and a number of established towns were extended and new towns were planted by the great landlords of the early 13th century so as to obtain revenue from their markets. The Bishop of Winchester did the former at Downton in 1208 and the latter at Hindon in 1219. Other examples, more usually large extensions to existing places like that at Downton rather than a wholly new settlement as epitomised by Hindon, are Sherston, Wootton Bassett (which obtained its charter in 1219), Old Swindon and Highworth in northern Wiltshire, and Lacock (charter of 1232), Heytesbury (charter 1214) and Warminster in the west.

Such places were distinguished by a rectangular grid of ‘burgage’ plots and a wide market-place. Not all were successful and both those of the bishops of Winchester, Downton and Hindon, never progressed far from their original framework. One, however, which involved moving a community from a cramped and hostile environment to a lush, green-field site was spectacularly successful. This was the removal of the cathedral and its staff from Old Salisbury’s hilltop to the confluence of the Avon and Nadder and the creation of a new town and market around it.

New Salisbury

The planning of the new town was given much thought. Precise plans for the layout of the buildings in its Close were approved by the Chapter in 1213, Pope Honorius III was asked to sanction the move in 1217 and his bull approving it was issued in 1219. A churchyard was consecrated, a temporary wooden chapel was erected, a residence for the bishop was completed and construction of the new cathedral begun in 1220.

The foundation stones were laid by Bishop Richard Poore, the greatest driving force in the enterprise, and by the Sheriff, William Longespée and his Countess Ela. By 1225 the east end had been completed and three altars consecrated. There was a slight hiccup in the building about 1244, for the pope had to grant indulgences to those willing to contribute to its completion, but it was consecrated in 1258 in the presence of King Henry III, who had himself been generous in his gifts to the church. In 1266 its lead roofing and its separate belfry tower to the north were complete. It was now the most unified in style of all the English cathedrals, having been completed, except for the spectacular central tower and spire added about 1334, within 60 years.

Salisbury Cathedral was an ideal expression of the ‘Early English’ style, severely rectangular in plan with clearly separate parts, two pairs of transepts, all chapels facing east, a prominent north porch and a screen at the western end wider than nave and aisles and covered with sculpture. It was intended by its designers Nicholas of Ely and Canon Elias of Dereham, to be seen as it still is, in a sea of green with canonical houses round the fringe of its large Close, where both designers resided.

The size and layout of the new town were generous and much larger than those of any previous town. Eighty-three acres were allotted to the Close and 120 for urban development, with another 57 acres of somewhat marshy ground east of the Close kept in reserve. Hindon only covered about thirty acres overall. The layout was determined by a wish to maintain privacy for the Close and the need to provide water to most streets by little canals from the River Avon. It was modified to fit the hamlet of St Martin, which was then confusingly called the ‘old town’, and the major existing roads, of which the most important was that from Milton Hill to a ford over the Avon at Fisherton Bridge. The whole site had to be above general flood level and within easy reach of its water supply, which was eventually taken from the leat to the bishop’s mill at Fisherton.

A large market-place was provided at the junction of the two older roads, the east-west from Winchester to Wilton and that from Old Salisbury, and the main building blocks, which have been called ‘chequers’ since the 15th century at least, were laid out in rectangular form to the north and east of the market-place. The Close itself was divorced and protected from the town by the Close Ditch, which was its chief defence until the building of the Close wall in the second quarter of the 14th century. The north-south Endless Street was probably planned as a through route to a river crossing south of the town, so as to by-pass the older line of Castle Street and High Street which continued straight through the Close, but Endless Street was severed by defences north of the town and never developed the importance of the older route.

A new bridge was provided south of the town in 1240, the Harnham Bridge, now called by its later name of Aylswade, which provided easier access to the south-west and contributed considerably to the relative decay of Wilton. A new hospital of St Nicholas to care for the poor, sick and travellers was built about 1230 and a university college, the de Vaux or Valley college, was founded in 1260. This new college attracted teachers of a high calibre as well as students from Oxford and Cambridge, and it has been suggested that Salisbury might have rivalled the older universities if the rent of rooms made high by its commercial success had not put off the poorer students.

As it was, the success of New Salisbury was soon manifest. In the poll tax returns for 1377, 3,226 names were recorded for New Salisbury and only 10 for Old.

An industrial revolution

Increasing export of wool and other agricultural products through Bristol to the west and through Southampton to the south-east added to the prosperity generated in the county by the success of its new market centre, while the young and ill-organised cloth industry was spreading through old and new towns and then out into the countryside to escape the restrictions of urban taxation and guilds. Wool and corn had for long kept Wiltshire prosperous; the growth of the woollen cloth industry was to make it part of the most industrialised area in the country. At the tax assessment of 1225, in the time of Henry III, Wiltshire was fourteenth in wealth of the English counties. By 1334, under Edward III, it had risen to twelfth, while the new city of Salisbury was now the country’s twelfth richest town.

The main cause was a revolution in the West Country caused by the introduction and spread of fulling mills. Up to the end of the 12th century the spinning of wool was done by spinsters, women working at home, the weaving by men on a single loom, also at home, while the cleaning and felting was done by ‘walkers’ (later called fullers or tuckers) who trod the cloth for hours in tubs filled with water, stale urine and fullers’ earth. Right at the end of the century there was a spread up the Wiltshire and Somerset rivers of fulling mills which made the latter processes easier and cheaper and led to the profitable vertical integration of the cloth industry. Such mills usually involved only the simple conversion of water-driven corn-mills by the substitution of large trip hammers for the more complicated gearing, wheels and stones of the corn-grinders to produce machines which could undertake the heavy and continuous process of felting.

The first documentary evidence for such mills in Wiltshire is at Stanley Abbey near Chippenham in 1189, but a royal mill at Elcot near Marlborough which was rebuilt in 1237 may be as old. By the late 13th century there were other such mills at Downton, Mere, Stratford-subCastle, near Old Salisbury, Harnham, near New Salisbury, and at Steeple Langford, a few miles up the Wylye.

Clothiers, or clothers, i.e. those who organised the manufacture of woollen cloth, were by the end of the 12th century becoming as unpopular as millers and attempts were made to control their trade and their ambitions; by a ‘Law of Weavers and Fullers’ which applied to Beverley, Oxford, Winchester and Marlborough they were prevented from becoming freemen of those towns, though such inhibitions only promoted an exodus to the country areas. Thus Bedwyn, Marlborough and Cricklade, which had been early cloth-making centres, soon lost ground to rural areas while Salisbury remained a centre for another four centuries but was sustained more and more by its prosperous markets. Meanwhile fulling mills spread from Salisbury up the River Wylye and up the Bristol Avon and its tributary the By Brook.

Owners of fulling mills started integrating the industry in the 13th and 14th centuries by buying wool from its major producers or from wool-staplers, sending it out as piece-work to women spinners, sending the spun yarn as piece-work to male weavers and bringing it back to their mills for cleaning, felting and stretching. They then sold it as white cloth through local markets, or exported it; the London-based Merchant Adventurers Company came to command a near monopoly through their London headquarters at Blackwell Hall. As demand for coloured and then fancy cloths arose, the fullers sent the cloths to dyers and finishing shops, which they often owned themselves. Such changes, however, took some centuries to complete and their main trade was in white cloth, usually ‘broadcloth’ two yards in width.

Decline and plague

There were bad times in the 14th century. The expansion of the population and the encroachment of arable farming onto marginal land meant that more and more people lived at subsistence levels and were prone to famine in times of bad harvest. A run of bad harvests occurred in the early 14th century and brought widespread starvation; the same period saw epidemic disease in farm animals. On the Winchester estates in south-east Wiltshire the number of oxen was halved in the 1320s and there was a decline in the amount of arable land on most big estates during the century. At Durrington it fell from 300 acres in 1324 to 213 in 1359, while at Downton it declined from over 800 in 1208 to 300 in 1347. Part of this decline in acreage was due to the simultaneous expansion of wool and cloth export markets which increased the demand for sheep runs at the expense of arable land. But prices were also beginning to fall by the middle of the 14th century and the growth of the population slowed or stopped.

Into a period of agricultural depression and only two years after the spectacular English victory over the French at Crécy (1346), the greatest plague in European history reached this country. This was the bubonic plague known as the ‘Black Death’, which entered Wessex through Melcombe Regis in the summer of 1348 and then through Bristol and other ports, on flea-infested rats, and spread rapidly through the country. Its effect was dramatic, particularly on the undernourished peasants, though it was no respecter of lords and priests. Of tenants on the Glastonbury Abbey estates in Wiltshire some fifty-five per cent died. Of the canons of Ivychurch Priory, south of Salisbury, 13 out of the 14 died and at Durrington, which may have been a more typical estate, 18 of the 41 tenants died. ‘God is deaf nowadays’, said a priest, ‘prayers have no powere the plague to stay’, and it was a terrifying time. The plague returned in later years and following centuries, but never with such devastating effect.

Apart from a widespread reduction in the population and the occasional disappearance of a medieval hamlet, which was more common in Dorset and Somerset, the chief consequences were the shortage of labour, the rise in real wages resulting from competition for the services of the survivors and the freedom given to landless but land-tied peasants to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

The Ordinances and Statute of Labourers were passed by Parliament in 1349 and 1351 at the request of a new middle-class of smaller gentry and larger tenant-farmers, to make it illegal for farm-labourers to accept wages higher than they were two years before the plague. These laws could be and were ignored by the younger landless peasants, who could leave their manors, to which they were legally bound, and find work and better wages elsewhere from an employer who would not ask too many questions, but it was impossible for a married man with children, who could not leave home and whose cost of provisions would now exceed his wages, to ignore them.

The combination of restrictions and attempted enforcement of them contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in which labourers from south-east England captured London, murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury and were only dispersed after false promises from King Richard II. The revolt, however, had little effect on Wiltshire where most of the provisions of the new laws were presumably ignored, as only minor troubles are recorded in manor court rolls, such as that tenants at Urchfont refused to make beer for the Abbess of St Mary, Winchester, and tenants at Malmesbury left town in the autumn to avoid gathering the lord’s harvest.


There was a considerable increase in parkland during the 14th century and much of it may have been associated with rural depopulation. Colerne had a new park of 200 acres by 1311, Castle Combe one by 1328, which was raided for its rabbits by local parsons in 1392. There were other new parks, two at Vastern near Wootton Bassett in 1334, at Oakwood in 1347, Lydiard Tregoze in 1348 and Everleigh in 1361 while two areas were added to an existing park at Rowcombe near Tisbury. In a slightly different category was Aldbourne’s great chase which was producing rabbits by the thousand, nearly a thousand, worth £14, being supplied for the royal household in 1434. Increases in timber, hunting or rabbits were, however, small compared with the growth and rationalisation of the wool and woollen-cloth industry.

Towns: the 14th century

Before dealing further with the devlopment of the cloth industry a word should be said about the towns in the 14th century. Unfortunately we have no comparable figures for Wiltshire towns before and after the Great Plague but we have some which show their relative importance in the 2nd and 4th quarters of the century. The first list is a valuation of movable property in towns and other places, the second the number of poll-tax payers. The two lists may be subject to gross inaccuracies and cannot be used with confidence to indicate the changes in individual towns over the century: we can only be sure of the unchallenged position of Salisbury which in each count has a value five times larger than any other place.

In 1334 the first 15 in order of valuation for taxation were:

‘Town’ £s value ‘Town’ £s value
Salisbury 7,500 Mere 157
Bremhill 232 Aldbourne 155
Corsham 225 Chariton nr Downton 150
Wanborough 210 Amesbury 146
Donhead & hamlets 198 Hannington 140
West Lavington 180 Tisbury 135
Chippenham Boro’ 173 Potterne 130
Melksham 157

In 1377 the top 15 towns by numbers of poll-tax payers were

‘Town’ Number of payers ‘Town’ Number of payers
Salisbury 3,226 Corsham 341
Wilton 639 Warminster 340
Melksham 511 Longbridge Deverill 322
Mere 489 Purton 318
Marlborough 462 Devizes 302
Malmesbury 402 Tisbury 281
Donhead 359 Damerham (now Hants) 271
Lacock 355


Near the end of the 14th century Wiltshire was probably tenth of English counties in population, as it had been at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, but fourth in taxable capacity. Its apparent wealth was due largely to the successful cloth industry of Salisbury.


The rationalisation of the supply of wool was led by the Hungerfords, who had estates across the county from Mildenhall in the east to Wellow and Farleigh (Hungerford) in Somerset. They made Heytesbury in the Wylye valley their main breeding centre in the 14th century and later their main rearing centre for lambs brought or sent up to thirty miles to and from other manors. The same specialisation was shown on the Glastonbury Abbey estates and on those of the bishops of Winchester. Heytesbury remained for many years the main wool warehouse of the Hungerford manors and an important wool store even when the Hungerfords moved their estate headquarters to Farleigh in Somerset. The Winchester manors sent their wool to places in Hampshire and the Glastonbury estates sent theirs into Somerset.Both Hungerford and Winchester estates kept flocks of over a thousand sheep on many of their manors and the Glastonbury flocks were often little smaller. But in the late 14th century there was another big slump in farm prices and from then until late in the next century the large landowners withdrew from direct farming and relied on the renting of land, rather than sale of wool and grain, to maintain their incomes. The position of the smaller tenant, whether serf or freeman, improved during the 15th century as he was able to acquire low-rented additional land and to escape from the burden of forced labour on the lord of the manor’s demesne.


The pattern of the cloth-making industry was changing. In a table of cloths, approved by ‘aulnagers’, the court officials appointed to enforce standard measure and collect tax on cloth, of the time of Henry V, i.e. in the early 15th century, Salisbury was still much the most dominant producer with 1,309 cloths approved in one year, though some of these may have been brought into Salisbury by producers from up the Wylye valley. Nearby Wilton is credited with only 67 cloths, Devizes with 140, the Warminster area with 129, Mere with 80 and Castle Combe with seventy-one. Production was moving west.

Castle Combe, in the north-west corner of the county, is now the most picturesque village in Wiltshire, but its industrial growth in the 15th century affords the most dramatic illustration of the new industry. It was on a fast-flowing tributary of the Avon, the By Brook, not too distant from the port of Bristol and close to the source of the best English wool, the Cotswolds. Under the lordship of the Norfolk knight, Sir John Fastolf (a name that may have suggested Falstaff to Shakespeare), three fulling mills, a gig-mill for mechanical shearing of cloth, fifty new houses and a church tower decorated with symbols of the cloth industry were all built within the first half of the century. Sir John equipped his own men-at-arms to fight in France in a livery of red and white cloth made at Castle Combe, and for this purpose bought there up to a thousand yards of cloth a year. His village, alone among Wiltshire cloth producers, became famous for its red dyes, and cloth was sent there from Bath and Cirencester for dyeing. ‘Castlecombes’ were soon recognised as a trade name for’ these red-dyed woollens. The county was not otherwise renowned for its dyeing, though the fine striped cloth of Salisbury known as Rays was already famous.

Before the end of the 15th century the industry had spread over the whole of West Wiltshire and now stretched from Malmesbury to Westbury, and from Bradford to Devizes, an area that was now looking more to Bristol than to London for its sales.

The Church

Monastic life in the one and half centuries after the Black Death was maintained but with less enthusiasm and less public support. The number of monks declined and only in the nunneries, which were tending to become a refuge for unmarried women of ‘gentle’ birth, was there pressure on available accommodation. There was some limited revolt against the luxury of Church and monasteries; the early Protestant movement known as Lollardy became popular at the end of the 14th century and was supported by John Montague, Earl of Salisbury, although he was made to make public penance to his bishop. Early in the next century two men were prosecuted by the Church for spreading Protestant doctrines. But economic grievances were often centred on Church property and at the time of the unrest associated with Jack Cade’s popular revolt of 1450, a crowd attacked the cathedral at Salisbury and there were other attacks on Church property at Biddestone, Devizes, Tilshead and Wilton. Later on the same day as the attack at Salisbury, a mob led by men from that town dragged Bishop Ayscough from the priory church of Edington. He was unpopular for he was also the king’s chaplain and adviser. In the words of the contemporary account:

William Ascoghe . . . was slayn of his owen parisshens and peple . . . after that he had said Masse and was drawn from the auter and led up to an hill ther beside, in his awbe and his stole aboute his necke; and ther they slew him horribly, their fader and their bisshope, and spoilid him unto the nakid skyn, and rente his blody shirte in to pecis.

The mob went on to plunder the priory. Nevertheless Wiltshire was   predominantly conservative in church matters though there were seeds of Protestantism in the manufacturing west, which would welcome the reforms of the next century.


The Wiltshire clothiers left their mark on the county’s churches. The churches of St Thomas and of St Edmund at Salisbury were completely rebuilt by the town’s richer merchants. St Mary’s at Devizes was rebuilt for another cloth merchant, the church at Seend was given a fine north aisle by the clothier John Stokys, who had the cloth-maker’s shears carved on its wall, and Trowbridge church was largely rebuilt for two rich clothiers. The most notable building is perhaps the church of Steeple Ashton, one of the most handsome and richly ornamented in the county, which was largely rebuilt for two clothiers, Robert Long and Walter Lucas, between 1480 and 1500, and designed and built by a mason who was another clothier. Many large and elaborate porches were added to churches at this time, as it had become the custom for much business to be conducted in such places.In addition, newly-rich clothiers built substantial manor houses. The most unified and attractive is the manor house at Great Chalfield, built by Thomas Tropenell at the end of the 15th century. Others are South Wraxall, probably built for Robert Long, and Westwood Manor, built for Thomas Horton, the clothier of Bradford who also built the best tower in the county on his parish church next door.