Contrasting fortunes and freedoms of the boroughs

Morpeth market
Morpeth market

UNTIL the time of Henry VIII, Bedlingtonshire was separate from Northumberland.

It had its own courts and law officers, appointed under commission from the Bishop of Durham. In other respects it was just an agricultural village.

However, although the inhabitants were mostly serfs, they had commuted almost all of their servile obligations for money, including one to supply a thrave of corn to Kepier Hospital in Durham for every carucate of land they held.

They had no week-work and only some relatively light labour services, such as repairing the bishop’s hall and mill, which were probably survivals from Anglo-Saxon times.

The only industries mentioned in Boldon Book are corn mills and salt pans.

Successive bishops of Durham kept a tight rein on their tenants and did not easily allow them to set up corporations or trade guilds.

They did have boroughs at Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Durham, Gateshead, Stockton and Wearmouth, but burgesses and guild brethren tended to have unwelcome ideas of their own.

It is no accident that while Newcastle and Morpeth had corporations, Gateshead had little better than an apology for one and Bedlington none at all.

Gateshead’s earliest charter was given to it by Bishop Hugh du Puiset, or Pudsey. The bishop enjoyed hunting in the forests around Gateshead and had a small manor house there for a hunting lodge. The inhabitants of Gateshead complained about the oppressions they suffered at the hands of his forester so Bishop Hugh granted them their first charter in about 1167:

‘Hugh by the grace of God, Bishop of Durham,

‘To all barons and men, French and English, of his whole bishoprick, greeting.’

(Eight paragraphs follow, allowing the burgesses to collect turves, firewood etc. for their own use, and fixing the level of the fees they have to pay the forester.)

‘And every burgess of Gateshead shall have with regard to his burgage, the same liberty as the burgesses of Newcastle have with regard to their burgages.

‘And wherever the burgesses of Gateshead or their chattels shall come on our territory, he shall have the peace of God and Saint Cuthbert, so that no one must do them any injury or take any exaction from them.

‘We have granted also to the said burgesses that they shall have common pasture and thatch for their houses, and all commodities they can have from the Saltwell meadows as they were wont.’

The liberty ‘as the burgesses of Newcastle have’ was that a burgess might ‘give his land or sell it and go where he pleases freely and quietly unless there is a suit against it’. In other words, they had the bishop’s leave to dispose of their own property and to travel through his lordship’s territories without paying extra.

It isn’t fair, of course, to judge a 12th Century document by modern standards. A serf could neither leave his village nor sell his tenement. It belonged to the lord of the manor.

When he died, his son had to pay a heriot (customary fine, usually the best beast) to his lord before he could enter upon his tenure.

So the bishop’s charter confirms that his burgesses of Gateshead were free men, not serfs, even if he still left the possibility open of enforcing some of the old obligations. At the least, he would expect them to do ‘suit and service’. That is, to attend his court baron when summoned in the customary manner.

Madeline Hope Dodds, writing in Archaeologia Aeliana in 1915, describes the limitations of the Gateshead charter thus:

‘The charter of Gateshead is little more than a forest charter…chiefly composed of rules for the taking of wood and undergrowth in the forest, and of exemptions from the jurisdiction of the forester; it is not dated and does not contain the names of any witnesses…The usual clauses relating to exemption from trial by battle, enfranchisement of a villein by residence, or assizes of bread and beer are absent. The chief official of the borough is never named.

This charter is scarcely a borough charter, as it grants the least possible amount of privileges which go to make a borough.’

As for the peace of God, in County Durham one did not talk about the King’s peace, but the Bishop’s peace, and I think this is what we should understand by the peace of God.

In short, the bishop gave his word to maintain law and order.

The peace of St Cuthbert was different.

A great fair was held at Durham on September 4, the feast of the Translation of St Cuthbert. Among the labour dues of the serfs of the vills closest to Durham was the liability to build booths for St Cuthbert’s fair.

In the run-up to it, all the thegns, drengs and such other upright and honest men (probi homines) as held land from St Cuthbert were required to assemble at Durham to confirm his peace.

St Cuthbert’s peace lasted from seven days before till seven days after the fair, long enough to allow people to take their goods to the fair to sell and to bring their purchases home again.

It was no small thing in those days to be able to travel and move your goods or animals about over a large area in what we would regard as normal safety, even if it was only for a fortnight.

Gateshead was worth 60 marks in Boldon Book, plus 22/6 for the land held by one Osmund.

This was not its entire value since the bishop kept a quarter of the arable land, plus the meadows and certain assarts (i.e. land reclaimed from the waste) in his own hand. This makes £41 2s. 6d, plus the meadows, etc.

By my reckoning, adding up pennies, shillings and marks, Bedlingtonshire yielded £60 1s. 0d, plus renders in service or kind.

Gateshead did not even have a market at the time of Boldon Book, though one was established in the early 14th Century.

Contrast the policy of the bishops towards their tenants with that of Roger de Merley II, who became Baron of Morpeth in 1188, only five years after the date of Boldon Book:

‘To all men who shall hear and see these writings, Roger de Merley salutes you.

‘Know that I, Roger de Merley, give, grant and by this my present charter have confirmed to my free burgesses of the town of Morpeth, to them and their heirs, to hold and to have in perpetuity from me and my heirs, all the liberties and free customs, as honourably, freely and wholly as the charter of our lord the king sets forth, that I have by his gift.’

It is witnessed by 11 named individuals, two of them members of the Conyers family, and many others (et multi aliis).

We have no exact date for Roger II’s charter, but in 1200 he got the King’s permission to hold a weekly market. Town, market and corporation between them created a situation in which trade and manufacturing could flourish in an orderly and well-regulated environment.