A slip of the pen which could have led the way

Early Morpeth 4
Early Morpeth 4

This week’s Morpathia article by ROGER HAWKINS looks at Early Morpeth as the town grows.

WE looked last week at the probable boundaries of the original town. It’s a matter of choice whether you think it was just Oldgate, which then extended into what are now the Market Place and the western end of Bridge Street, or whether they were included in the town from the start.

What is beyond doubt is that it was successful. So successful that it made legal history.

During the reign of Henry II, 1154-1189, the lord of Mitford, Roger Bertram I, paid 50 marks (£33. 6s. 8d.) for a market and fair. It flourished, but in 1199 King John gave Roger de Merley II a weekly market at Morpeth. After this Mitford lost its trade. Such was its decay that in 1250 Roger Bertram III brought an action for damages in the sheriff’s court of Northumberland against his distant cousin, Roger de Merley III. The King, Henry III, intervened and stopped the action, telling the court that ‘it longeth not to your jurisdiction.’

Roger de Merley III inherited in 1239 and died in 1266. He twice made major extensions to the town. Hodgson (History of Morpeth, p.58) goes in some detail into the terms of an undated charter by which Roger gave his free burgesses 46 tofts of his demesne lands on the east side of the existing town. The Latin text of the charter, which is quite short, is no. 3 on p.118.

It is admirably clear. Of the 46 tofts, ‘sixteen were situated in the culture called Berehalgh, at the east end of the town; sixteen on the culture of Staniflat, between – ‘inter’ in the Latin – Cottingburn and the Monks’ Way, on the east; and fourteen tofts between Cottingburn and the same road, on the west.’

This looks straightforward, except that the landmarks have gone. Cottingburn is presumably unchanged, and Berehalgh was almost certainly the land south of Bridge Street. But we don’t know where Staniflat or the Monks’ Way were.

Hodgson made the reasonable assumption that the 46 tofts were all on Bridge Street. And because of the references to 16 tofts on the east and 14 on the west, he took the Monks’ Way to be the north-south route of Cottingwood Lane and what are now Wellway and Sanderson Arcade.

But would the monks ever have any occasion go that way? The Monks’ Way is more likely to have been Copper Chare and Howard Terrace, this being a direct route for the monastery to bring supplies of salt and fish from the coast. But if so, why would the charter refer to the Monks’ Way at all? It is beyond the bounds of possibility that the burgages on Bridge Street would have gone so far back.

The problem may be due to a slip of the pen.

The Latin ‘inter’means ‘between,’ ‘among,’ or ‘in the midst,’ but the medieval clerk who drew up the charter may have meant ‘infra,’ meaning ‘below Cottingburn and the Monks’ Way.’ If so, it would make more sense.

Several years ago, I tackled the question by counting the burgage plots on Wood’s 1826 town map. It isn’t as straightforward as you might think because by that time, some 600 years after the town was laid out, some plots had been amalgamated and others divided. As a result, counting the strips becomes an intuitive art rather than a precise enumeration.

If you stop to wonder where the boundary is between one plot and the next, you’re lost. I was encouraged, therefore, to find that, when I repeated the exercise for the purpose of this article, I arrived at much the same numbers as before.

If you refer to Wood’s map, see last week’s Morpeth Herald, I think that the original town, including the Market Place and Bridge Street up to and including the Jewellers’ Guild, contained about 60 burgages, 30 on the north side and 30 on the south, give or take a couple in each case.

These figures do not include the town hall. It was the lord of the manor’s toll booth in medieval times. Vanburgh built the town hall in 1714, and it remained in the ownership of the barony until the First World War..

Nor do my figures include the short east-west plots on each side of the Market Place. I assume that those on the west side were created by sub-dividing the plots in Oldgate from Oldgate Gallery to Boots the Chemist, and on the east from the plots now represented by Joe’s Pet Supplies, Facets and Grainger Games.

Starting from Brumell and Sample and going east, I counted about 27 burgages on the north side of Bridge Street and 16 on the south. If Hodgson was right about the three cultures – and I think he was – then these figures tie up reasonably well with the numbers in the charter, viz. 30 on the north and 16 on the south. Again, on the south side I am only counting as far as Snow’s (what old residents knew as Appleby’s Corner) on the basis that the Chantry site was too small to make a satisfactory burgage.

No doubt encouraged by his town’s rampant success, Roger III gave his free burgesses yet another extension. Hodgson quotes the Latin text as no. 2 on p. 118.

It was the entire culture north of the existing town. Its boundaries are again defined exactly, but again, apart from the Wansbeck and the Cottingburn, we cannot be sure where the landmarks were.

One was St Thomas’s Well which, if folk memory has preserved its location correctly, is marked by a circle of mossy stones in the Rotary Garden.

Two others, the toft of Henry Doghet and ‘Spen’ are lost to us, but taking it altogether, as Hodgson does, it is pretty clear that it was all the land on both sides of Newgate Street to just short of Buller’s Green.

Having defined the property so exactly, the charter then, in Hodgson’s words, says that ‘below that culture – ‘infra’ in Latin – he gave the said burgesses his 43 tofts and half an acre in free burgage.’ This makes no sense, and here I feel confident of a mistake. The word should really be ‘intra’, meaning within the culture, not below it.

In this case, the numbers do not help us. There are about 70 burgages on Newgate Street, taking both sides together. My impression is that much of it remained unbuilt on until the 18th century, but it may be that it filled up, and was then largely abandoned when the Black Death reached Morpeth in about 1350.

For old maps of Morpeth, visit the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn, or communities.northumber land.gov.uk