What is a burgage plot?
A burgage plot is usually characterised as a long walled plot, garden or yard, behind a building, the front of which faces one of the older streets in a town or city with medieval origins. Burgage plots are seldom seen, hidden for centuries behind historic terraces of dense houses, shops and workshops, offices Taverns and Inns. They are part of the fabric of many of the UK's medieval towns and cities, the basic cells. The development of the Burgage system has been instrumental in shaping urban growth and economic, political and social freedoms for nearly a thousand years, changing feudal Britain into a country of property owners; business people working for themselves.
Developed around the ideal of maximising income from the manor's land, a landowner would sacrifice and divide up an area of farmland or parkland, often many acres, into a series of roughly equal smaller areas, Ideally close to the advantages of market, main road, fortification or religious centre (or mix of these) in order to make the exercise profitable. 'Primary' burgage plots varied in size and formed a new suburb to an existing settlement or alternatively formed a wholly new planned town. Winchelsea is a wonderful example of post conquest town planning. Plots were rented for a nominal amount to 'freemen' - incomers/settlers who saw a a potentially profitable commercial opportunity.
Measured in 'perches' and differing in area dependent on location, subdivision and subletting of plots began almost as soon as the primary plots were awarded as illustrated here resulting in a greater number of the characteristic long thin plots with reduced street frontage found in medieval settlements.
Behind the medieval street fronts of our towns and cities, narrow burgage plots, subdivided larger plots, form the fabric of early urban growth providing home, workplace and commercial opportunity for medieval burgesses. As a freeholder, a burgess could develop a business, become a landlord and vote in local elections. The burgage system fundamentally changed the relationship between landowner and freeman.
The burgage system fundamentally changed the relationship of the freeman with the landowner. Where previously the feudal system tied individuals to the manor, 'burgage' legally meant that rather than giving service to the manor, the burgess, who had to be a desirable freeman in order to acquire a burgage, paid a fixed annual monetary rent to the landowner, often one shilling for the primary plot. This presented the burgess with the opportunity to become an entrepreneur by virtue of trade, talent and business acumen. The burgess had the right to vote in town elections at a time when the political and urban landscape was developing and thus influence and drive the fortunes of of the town for himself and others. The burgess was allowed to sub-divide his plot, creating a number of smaller plots for rents. He could also sell or bequeath his plot much as a freeholder does today.
Burgage plots which have escaped 20th century development are rare. Being at the centre of our business centres, development and necessary change are inevitable as towns grow and evolve. But where they do remain, they provide an opportunity to learn from an early urban landscape more often obliterated. The substantial boundary walls that form the boundaries, sometimes many hundreds of feet in length may still exist amalgamated into later buildings yet enjoy limited protection, the gardens and yards in-between are often overlooked as an important historical record of one of the key social and political spaces in urban development.
Some burgage plots in the city of York date from the 10th century and their original layout has remained surprisingly intact to this day while in Wells, Somerset, a few plots remained intact until the 1980s, virtually unchanged since the 14th century. In the North of England the plots were also called 'rigs' and 'tofts' in Scotland (tofts are also mentioned in East Anglia). In Ireland they were called 'buiríos'.
Many medieval plot patterns were still evident in the early 20th century (left) before post-war urban development. Long, high walls (middle) characterise the burgage plot. Despite remodelled frontages, many medieval architectural features remain at the rear of properties such as 15th century open halls (right), often helping explain how the plot was used as home and workplace.
As a means of better understanding our urban social and built history, the burgage plot is a historical/social artefact, a crucial element of the urban infrastructure. The plots, their walls and buildings - extended and adapted over time as need and as fashion dictated for shops, dwellings, Inn or workshop, leaving a greater or lesser yard or garden - inform our understanding of the places in which townspeople have lived and worked for many hundreds of years, while providing insights into the early evolution of our townscapes and development of the marketplace, often overlooked in the historical record.
About the website
This website was put together as a starting point for information about and to encourage an interest in medieval urban history with the burgage system as its focus. These extraordinary medieval living and working units tucked away in the UK’s smallest towns and greatest cities have played a fundamental part in the country's urban history and the change from a feudal existence to one of freedom, ownership and choices. Hopefully the contents and links to the extraordinary body of work available is useful to those with an interest in the development of towns for discovering more about the buildings, their walls, medieval origins, subsequent history and the benefits of future preservation for these important spaces whether enthusiast, plot owner or for the school project.
Please take a look at the site contents to get a better idea of why these plots are as important today as they were a thousand years ago. There is a forum where users can discuss the many facets of burgage plots and the urban landscape from medieval times up to the present. There are a number of links which I hope people find useful about the plots, medieval life, architecture and town life.
Burgage plots can provide rich detail about everyday town life, gathered by looking in the less obvious places, often hidden from view.
I am an enthusiastic amateur with an interest in maintaining, conserving and retaining our amazing buildings and under-sung spaces which have historical significance but are often erased by development. When it comes to burgages, the concern is that the relationship between the built asset and the space in which they sit is often seen as less than important. While built heritage assets enjoy significant protection, the setting of the burgage plot and its ancient walls are fair game for developers who argue that the 'infill' of a house into the garden space won't impact on the walls and can't be seen from the listed building. The counter argument is that the setting of the building at the street front and its unique relationship with its plot, often seven or eight hundred years old, in some instances a thousand years, does matter. Simply put, the one defines the other, that the space is preserved is crucial to our understanding of the burgage plot system and its place in a very long urban history. If we aren't vigilant when it comes to protecting the few remaining key historical 'spaces' within our built landscape, they are lost forever.
Burgage plots are irreplaceable once gone and we need to be on our guard to ensure their survival as the pace of development is relentless. Care and conservation matter. If this site serves as a starting point for those with an interest to take their interest further, I'm happy. If you see anything awry, please let me know and I'll do my best to address the issue where I can.