Medieval Towns in Staffordshire

Our speaker in October was David Wilkinson, formerly archaeologist at Stafford Borough Council, whose talk was an overview of Town development in the County from late Saxon times to 1500. He said that the definition of 'towns' included those which had both shops and traders; unlike our modern towns with coffee shops in addition to ordinary shops.

Boroughs are usually older, larger and more successful towns. Borough status had to be granted by the King as only he could give a Licence for a Market to be held. However, some places were granted Borough status by the Church and "Seigneurial Boroughs" were granted by the feudal Lords. Such towns were known as a Burghs after 1066 and this usually meant a fortified town. The wealthier inhabitants were burghers and their individual land holdings were known as burgage plots. However, the main activity was always the Market.

There had been small Roman settlements, which had started as forts, covering just 4-5 acres; examples include Chesterton, Rocester and Wall. Their civilian populations were small, perhaps just 200 people who provided services for the soldiers; but there was no continuity and these settlements did not always become Burgs later. In the hilly areas farming and sheep rearing were the main activities and here there were fewer towns. Trade, included coastal trade despite Staffordshire being land-locked. There are no major rivers in the county and even the Trent was considered a "small" river.

Alfred the Great (849-899) created burghs in Wessex, 28 of which were fortified in imitation of a Roman fort. In 913, Ælthelfleada founded a burg in Stafford during a campaign to recover England from the Danes. Tamworth was a Saxon burgh, the main residence of Penda and Offa, Kings of Mercia, although the site of their palace has never been discovered. Tamworth Castle itself was built after 1066. David told us that the Royal Boroughs, including Stafford, Tamworth, Tutbury and Newcastle-under-Lyme were founded in the 12th century by either Henry II or the Earl of Chester.

Under the feudal system, the King and Church controlled township rights, although some of the powerful feudal families such as the de Ferrers in Tamworth also made grants. Tutbury was founded by Henry de Ferrers and his wife Berta. The burgh was built round the castle. There were 42 traders; but possibly only a single street (Monk Street?). The town had borough status by 1086. Two hundred years later a new borough was created - but Tutbury is now just a village.

Newcastle-under-Lyme a centre of iron making in the 4th century, has one long street the Ironmarket, which obviously derives its name from the type of manufactured goods sold there. The town grew up in the 12th century around the castle, receiving its first charter in 1173. In 1235 Henry III turned Newcastle into a free borough, granting it the right to have a Guild.

Other boroughs in Staffordshire include Burton-on-Trent, Kinver and Newborough. Church boroughs were granted by both the Bishop of Lichfield and the Abbot of Burton. In 1200 Eccleshall was founded by the Bishop and Abbots Bromley by the Abbot. David asked whether Lichfield was a borough in the Bishop's record?.

Stafford had its origin in the Island of Bethner, or Betheney, the hermitage of St Bertilin. (Also spelt Beorthelm, Bertelin, Bertram or Bertelm). St Bertoline's Church at Barthomley, in Cheshire, is the only church dedicated to this saint. However, there are some remains of his shrine near the west end of St Mary's collegiate church in Stafford. This site was excavated in the 1950s and a timber structure was found with four Saxon ovens. Remains of wheat and oats point to a 'bannock', suggesting that the original oatcake was from Stafford rather than from Stoke! A pottery kiln was also discovered, one of six found in Staffordshire all dating from the 9th century. No pottery dating from after 1066 was found in Stafford, although potery manufacture later became an important industry.

Stafford's charter was renewed in 1206; the citizens paid for this and thus provided income for the monarch. John Speed's 17th century map of Stafford (published in 1611) shows four gateways and a watermill, with a town layout very similar to the present day. There are several theories as to the original area of the burgh and the remains of a gate were removed in the 1970s to make way for a traffic island!

David then considered various markets of Staffordshire. Markets are a major feature of a thriving burgh or borough, often located by a water supply, which was an essential provision. (Lichfield's was close to a conduit as was Cannock's). Market crosses were prevalent and market areas were often placed near churches; for example at Eccleshall and at Abbots Bromley. In 1522, Bishop James Denton (d. 1533) refurbished the old cross in Lichfield with eight arches of stone and a round vault over the top to keep people dry.

In Wolverhampton, St. Peter's Church is of interest with its Saxon Cross, near to the market place in Queen's Square. Here the markets consist of the Cloth Market, Corn Market, Horsefair and Cloth Hall. In 1258, Wolverhampton was granted the right to hold markets and fairs. The main industry then was weaving wool.

Seigneurial boroughs in the County included Walsall, granted in 1198 by William II (William Rufus); and also Leek, granted in 1214 by the Earl of Chester. Walsall, Leek and Uttoxeter all have a market cross. There were some chartered markets; for example Cheadle, which also had a market cross. Brewood was granted a charter for a Friday market in 1221 by Henry III and the King also recognised a later market in 1259. However, the chartered markets were not boroughs.

Some markets were specifically named for their produce: such as Swine Market and Breadmarket. Agricultural produce included live animals, butchered in the street, and processed food such as bread and butter. Manufactured goods included ironmongery, cloth and leather. Burton-on-Trent may possibly have had two markets; with one along High Street and another close to the site of the Benedictine Abbey by St Modwen's Church.

With successful markets, the towns grew; gaining inns for travellers, courts for trials and pillories for the punishment of criminals. Such towns expanded with more shops, civic buildings and Town Halls. Some were lost, like Church Eaton. However, Rugeley, although listed in 1086, never became a borough and Stoke-on-Trent also did not gain borough status in medieval times.

David's comprehensive presentation covered a complex and intriguing aspect of our history, which is central to the way our communities have developed.

Further reading:

a. Palliser D.M. and Pinnock A.C; "The Markets of Medieval Staffordshire" in the North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume XI (1971), pp 63-73

b. Palliser D.M. "The Boroughs of Medieval Staffordshire" in the North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume XII (1972), pp 49-63

There is also an account of the Staffordshire Boroughs in Chapter 5 of David Pallisers 1976 book "The Staffordshire Landscape".

More about the Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon Stafford can be found on the website "Archaeology Data Source".

Lorna Bushell
October 2023