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Development of towns and burgage plots

The burgage system in Britain originated before the Norman conquest and continued during the medieval period throughout Europe, its impact on the urban plan of many of our market towns and cities evident today in the freehold plots which still adopt the boundaries and overall design surveyed and laid out many hundreds of years ago.

Burgage plots in England partly owe their existence to a strategic plan to combat large scale Danish invasion in the second half of the 9th century. In England a series of ‘burhs’, small strategically placed defensive urban centres, were developed by the Anglo-Saxons during the reign of Alfred the Great (871 to 
899); some characterised by a planned layout in grid form dating from the late 9th century. The 'Burghal Hidage' is an Anglo-Saxon document providing a list of over thirty fortified burhs, most being in the Kingdom of Wessex, some in south Mercia, as key strategic strongholds in Alfred’s strategy of ‘defence in depth’ as a response to the threat of Danish raids and possible invasion. Theoretically, each burh could militarily support its neighbouring burh, each being within a days march of the other.

Some of these early burhs were built on the remains of Roman defensive structures or towns, some on bronze age fortifications, others built new with earthen ramparts. While most traces of these original structures have gone, the echo of the original burh sometimes remains in the pattern of streets, burgage boundaries and drainage systems. The burh had a greater structure of organisation, a public stronghold for the district, its defences sometimes upgraded. In Scotland, the earliest boroughs, including Edinburgh, were established in the 12th century during the reign of David I.





















The Anglo-Saxon centres of Winchester (left) built within the walled roman town and (right) the earthwork bank and ditch at Wareham, originally topped by timber-faced ramparts. Both provided key defensive centres in the burghal hidage system.


The Roman town of Venta Belgarum (market place of the Belgae) was largely abandoned in the 4th century, then rebuilt and revitalised during the reign of Alfred as Wintan ceastre (today's Winchester) the capital of Wessex, a strategic and ready made fortification. The Saxon town was rebuilt with its streets laid out in a grid pattern aligned with the roman wall and street plan (below left) but not formed on the Roman chequer board pattern, the focus being on the length of the High Street which formed the backbone of the town with connecting service and secondary parallel streets formed to serve this band of dense, prime plots adjacent the main thoroughfare with its river crossing and city gates to the East and West. The pattern of streets and plots established in the late 9th century is still discernible today (below right). The standard 'pole' measure applies to many of the plots fronting the High Street which measure one or more poles in width. 























In the first half of the 10th century, the Viking threat having receded, royal reforms were made by kings Edward and Athelston giving impetus to the development of the burhs, which had hitherto been developed with defence in mind, as centres of commerce for a more confident local population and improving, safer communications. By drawing in settlers, merchants and traders, centres for administration, palaces and ecclesiastical centres could be established, all of which looked towards commerce to maintain them. 

The burgage system


The title ‘burgess’ appears with the development of towns as an inhabitant of the burh or borough: a freeman who enjoyed full rights of citizenship, the term ‘burgage’ pertaining to the right to vote for local officials. Townspeople and incomers who were entitled in law to practice their trade could rent a burgage plot, becoming a burgess by virtue of freehold ownership. The system developed as a post-feudal opportunity for land owners - the Lord of the Manor, Abbott or the Church leader. Rather than offering traditional feudal labour and services, a burgess paid a fixed rent in money for a burgage plot. Many burgesses came from considerable distances to take up a plot while most lived quite locally and often retained business/familial interests in the country around the town.


This system remained in place for many hundreds of years as more borough towns were established nationwide. As the freeholder, the burgess could sell or pass on his valuable plot as long as he had the relevant permission. With time, the townspeople might subsequently aspire to become a self-governing community by obtaining the the granting of a royal charter of Incorporation. If the King created a 'free borough', freeholders were allowed to buy and sell their properties much as we do today. Primary plots were often an extension of the town's limit into open farm or parkland owned by the manor or ecclesiastical centre such as an abbey, thus extending the limits of the town. With time and prosperity, these larger primary plots were divided into narrower, smaller plots offering ever narrower units with street frontages offering valuable shop space to more tradespeople and shop-keepers.

With footfall and income in mind, landowners encouraged burgage plot schemes which had easy access to good communications by road or river, ideally close to the main marketplace which might be immediately adjacent the church. By developing a busy and secure centre for trade with a market and good communications, the landowner could maximise their return on square footage. This early town planning, establishing extensive areas of burgage plots provided ground rent while the town developed and grew in size, created opportunities as a centre for trade improving accordingly and with the establishment of additional markets, fairs and tolls, so did taxes for the landowner, king or queen. Not all boroughs thrived or attained town status. These have been described as 'failed boroughs', a process that could take a century or more but these may equally have served as manorial 'enterprise zones' 1. 

Where centred on the marketplace/High Street and main streets, space was at a premium and with the benefits of increased footfall, the owner of a prime spot could now focus on their trade or craft, selling their goods from a shop or workshop to passing trade and wider community which visited the market to buy and sell goods. They lived behind or above the shop and built accommodation, workshops, undercrofts and storage for their families, staff, tools, raw materials and stock.



Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, mapped in 1923 (above), almost a complete medieval plan with surviving medieval architecture and network of alleys and lanes in evidence today. Tewkesbury provides an example of a tight burgage plot pattern laid out in the 11th century with primary plots measuring 4 x 40 perches (1 acre), subsequently subdivided as units of perch or part perch width to create long narrow plots. With the founding of an Abbey, burgeoning medieval cloth making industry and good river communications, the town thrived for centuries. But with the general downturn in the country's economy the town became less prosperous and by the 19th century, industry being built closer to the railway system which had bypassed Tewkesbury, meant a decline in the town's population and the local economy suffered. With little development until the 1960s, historic compensation remains in the survival of a significant number of tight-knit medieval buildings, alleys and lanes on and around its main streets and near complete plots.

​The development of towns as growing centres of commerce came from a time of relative peace after the Norman conquest when improvements in agriculture and an increase in the population to work the land as serfs provided a surplus. This surplus needed a market and accordingly towns developed across the UK giving rise to the growth and proliferation of markets, guilds, fairs and urban institutions. The English economy fared well for two hundred years with growing export markets in the Low Countries for products - primarily wool but others such as salt and herring - until the early 14th century when overpopulation, poor harvests and depleted soils through over-farming resulted in the Great Famine, this was followed by the Black death in the mid 14th century which wiped out nearly half the population of the Britain.

While local trade formed the majority of transactions, towns could not exist simply by trading with the surrounding country as a closed economy. This provided greater commercial opportunity for exporting valuable goods over distance and gave rise to the merchant class; middlemen who organised the logistics of movement of goods nationally and internationally. Each town was also a collection point or conduit for goods - regional surpluses as commodities, passing through and being traded in the towns either as the raw material or finished product on its journey to large cities or for export to markets abroad. 


The aftermath of the Black Death of the 14th century brought a greater share of prosperity to the working population. With fewer people to do the work, workers could ask for more money for their labours on the land. But with a smaller population, demand for produce fell, resulting in less profit from agriculture, the decline of the feudal system and the rise of the modern 'farming' system of land rented for cash and creation of the 'gentry' class. In the latter part of the 14th century the failed Peasants' Revolt, a popular uprising in defiance of a nationwide poll tax, signalled the undermining the the old feudal order which resulted in less taxation of the individual.


Although Lavenham in Suffolk (left) dates to Anglo-Saxon times, it is best known as a medieval wool town (despite its small size, at one time the fourteenth wealthiest town in England). It was granted its market charter in 1257 and exported its famous blue broadcloth as far afield as Russia.
It is acknowledged as the best example of a medieval wool town in England.  By 1150 Lincoln (right) was was one of the most prosperous towns in England based on wealth from the export of wool and cloth exported to Flanders. Lincoln's weavers set up a guild in 1130 to produce Lincoln Cloth, especially the fine dyed "scarlet" and "green". By the 13th c Lincoln was England's third largest city and a favoured by royalty.


The wool trade had been the backbone of the English economy since the mid 13th century and it was on this vital, profitable export that much of the subsequent taxes were levied - many millions (up to ten million) of fleeces being exported to the continent each year. Wool from Scotland, Wales, the Cotswolds, the South West and Lincolnshire were the most expensive in medieval Europe, it's quality pre-eminent. The profits from this industry gave rise to the wool churches and wool towns such as Lincoln and Boston (In the early 13th century Boston paid more tax than any other town except London through profits from wool), Lavenham and Sudbury in Suffolk and later, towns and cities in the South West such as Malmesbury, Bristol, Cirencester, Gloucester and Exeter (which enjoyed prosperity from wool, it's processing and weaving from the 16th to the 18th Century).  Its importance is illustrated by the fact that the greater part of the Italian cloth industry and almost all of the industry of the Low Countries depended on English wool. Such was the dependence on English wool that without it (during shortages, embargoes or war) these regions faced starvation.

By the early 1400 the export trade in woven cloth had grown sufficiently to re-shape the UK's economy with English wool and cloth dominating the European markets for two hundred years. This wealth encouraged the development of a thriving merchant class (middlemen) to manage the industry, wool becoming England's most profitable export. From the vast tracts of land of the Cistercian Monks to the smallest field of a peasant, sheep were reared. It even contributed to the onset of the 'hundred years war' as Flanders was the chief market for English wool and export taxes on wool comprised a large part of the English royal revenues, Edward III took a keen interest in Flanders, much to the French king's annoyance, as he claimed supreme authority of the region. Burgesses of the wool town of Shrewsbury successfully managed to keep a hold of their lucrative trade in local wool when the Henry III, grateful for the town's support in the Barons' War, passed a law that in Shropshire, wool could only be traded in market towns. 


To develop commercial security for the burhs, merchant and trade guilds were established to control commerce by virtue of membership and guild processes with influence in local government. Laws were introduced providing special privileges and protections for trade together with the establishment of coinage mints, courts 'moot', standards of weights and measures. A 'reeve' was appointed to oversee the smooth running of the burh assisted by a layer of officials some who ran the town day to day. Royal and manorial appointments were given to moneyers and exchangers while other officials ensuring laws were observed, and that the the king received his taxes.


Properties, certainly those nearer the markets or main shopping street, had a shop at the front and some a cellar (undercroft) below. A double height hall was the main room of the house often at the back of the house in which people lived and ate. A fire sat in the middle of the room, its smoke blackening the timbers of the high roof above. With time the fire would move to a hearth against a stone hearth and a chimney hood made to draw smoke through a flue to a chimney above. Behind the hall were service rooms and at one end a partial first floor which provided bedrooms (solars). The kitchen was at the very rear of the house and often had a gap or courtyard between it and the main house as a firebreak to help prevent the spread of fire from one building to the other. Day to day prosperity came from the many large and frequent fairs held in the towns and the markets (often several in one town) selling their specialities. Those without a shop front to sell from would sell at the market. The relationship with the surrounding countryside remained strong with many burgesses having economic, familial and social ties to the rural economy. Most would have come to the town to take up burgess plots from perhaps no more than the twenty miles surrounding the town, many from far nearer. 

With prosperity came improvements to living conditions and the built home. Some prosperous inhabitants of the town, merchants or officials, would have been living in a more salubrious two storey town houses since the 12th or 13th century. These houses would have been much sturdier and secure, made either of stone where available or constructed with cleverly jointed sawn oak timbers and a lath and plaster infill to form the panels between the timbers, all lime washed externally to further weather proof the structure and also inside to bring as much light as possible through the small shuttered windows into the beaten earth or flag floored rooms. Walls and ceilings were sometimes decorated with gypsum plaster ornamentation. 


In larger towns a system of ‘wards’ developed with the residents formed into a police system with responsibility for their immediate neighbourhood, often taking tolls at the burh gate and taking maintaining the repairs to their ward gate, towers and walls. As well as being liable for the built infrastructure, townspeople also had to be prepared to defend the burh with arms and take responsibility for the general benefit and running of the town as a whole. With time the merchants ultimately became the most powerful corporate body within the town, often occupying key roles in government such as mayor, with the ability to award posts to allies and men of their own guild whose financial and social status in the town ever improved. 


Richard Goddard, Past & Present No. 210 2011, pp. 3-31




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