The stakes are placed, the staff is raised and a new town is born

Morpathia pics'Boundary point
Morpathia pics'Boundary point

In this week’s Morpathia, Roger Hawkins looks at early Morpeth and how the town began.

LAST autumn we looked at where the original village near St Mary’s Church might have been, and how the name of Morpeth came about.

We now look at the town of Morpeth, those medieval streets and yards surrounded by the great bend of the River Wansbeck.

Its history, unlike that of the village, is relatively well known

In the Middle Ages, if a nobleman wanted to develop his estates, a town was the way to do it. He could raise tolls from markets and fairs, and the townspeople could take to trade, and so afford higher rents.

Although medieval people were deeply concerned for the welfare of their eternal souls, in every other respect they lived for the present — or at least only for the foreseeable future.

Castles were updated for the latest military technology, and if not were put to lesser uses and allowed to decay.

Churches were demolished with scarcely a thought, and replaced with new. It was the same with towns.

One might think that new towns were invented in the 20th century, but they sprang up all over the country in the Middle Ages. Some survived, some didn’t.

In 1257 Roger de Merley III paid good money to have a market at Netherwitton. It did not prove a profitable investment.

What is the oldest man-made thing in Morpeth — Morpeth north of the river, that is? The Chantry? Chantry Bridge? The Clock Tower?

None of those. The oldest thing is a series of dimensionless points in Oldgate, dating from some time in the late 12th Century.

Picture to yourself a working party emerging from the outer ward of the castle at Ha’ Hill — now the tennis courts — led by Baron de Merley’s bailiff.

He carries a T-shaped staff like a crutch, but walks perfectly well without it. Two serfs follow him with hammers, a cart-load of wooden stakes and a coiled rope.

To be clear, what follows is not history, but historical reconstruction — a made-up story. The evidence to support it, however, is with us to this day.

It is about the third week of September, well after the harvest.

The lord’s cattle have already taken off the best of the after-eatage.

Making their way through the ford, the little party crosses to the north side.

The south, where the castle stands, is not suitable for farming — all hills and valleys and steep slopes.

But the north side has near 100 acres of good land, south-facing, sloping gently down from Cottingwood, and all belonging to the lord’s demesne.

The King’s highway runs through it, an unimpressive track that alternates between mud and dry dust, according to the weather.

The great field is divided for convenience into four main ‘cultures’.

We in the 21st century can only guess what separated them, but without doubt one thing was the King’s highway.

One culture — the one they are heading for — was where Oldgate is now.

Another, the Berehaugh, lay to the south of Bridge Street.

A third occupied the angle between Newgate Street and Bridge Street, and the fourth the opposite side of Newgate Street.

Back in the 12th century, progressive abbots of monasteries in the affluent south experimented with enclosing parts of their demesne lands.

But Morpeth was in the north and secular nobles were more conservative so we can be tolerably sure that the lord’s cattle wandered freely across the demesne, supervised only by a cowherd and his dog.

The three men follow the dusty track to where it swings away northwards. They themselves carry on westwards.

The bailiff is not happy. He told the young lord, argued as well as he knew how, that this wasn’t the place for the new town.

What’s wrong with the corner of the South Field, between the church and Loansdean Hill, he wanted to know?

It’s on the King’s highway just the same, and the road from Whalton comes in there. And the soil there doesn’t compare with here.

All young Lord Roger could say was that the villeins wouldn’t like it. Rubbish. He could give them twice as much land over at the Gubeon in lieu, and never notice the difference.

Old Lord Roger would’ve had more sense. Still, not mine to reason why. I’m just the bailiff with 20 years’ experience managing the demesne. There’ll be no more ploughing of this bit of it again, ever.

The stakes are about a yard-and-a-half long. The bailiff calls the serfs to bring one of the longer ones and the sledge hammer. He stands back, gesturing one of them to move back and forward, then side to side.

Where to put the new road? Should it go straight down the middle of the culture, so the plots are equal both sides, about three-quarters of a furlong each?

Or should he set it on the same line as the highway coming from the ford? If we do that, the plots to the south will get a full furlong each, and those on the north only about half as much.

He decides. In goes the stake with a few well-placed strokes, leaving the top half standing well proud of the stubble.

Now he sends the serfs away to the far end of the culture.

The T-shaped staff has a raised notch at either end on top. Standing back a little from the first stake, he peers over the notches and again gestures left and right while one of them manoeuvres the second stake to where he wants it. One final check. Right, knock it in.

Now for the road. The bailiff takes the rope. It’s 30ft long — two rods — with knots to mark the divisions. The road wants to be three rods or 45ft wide. Measuring from the first stake, he marks the exact place with his staff. More blows with the big hammer. Then the same at the other end.

Now for the burgage plots – both men hard at work now, hammering in stakes where the bailiff shows them. Some people want more land, some less, so he makes some plots 1½ rods wide, though actually a bit more, some 2½ rods and a few five.

All done. Let’s get back before it rains.

Sources: Serf from J.G. Edgar, Danes, Saxons and Normans, 1863. Bailiff from F.W. Fairholt, Costume in England, 1846. Fairholt’s drawing is from a medieval picture of Noah with his carpenter’s axe, but it gives us a fair idea of the dress of a 12th Century man of the middle-rank. The Anglo-Saxon foot was about 13ins long. The English rod was 15ft from Anglo-Saxon times. An Act of Parliament of c.1300 left the rod unchanged, but made the foot 12ins, hence the bailiff’s 15ft became 16½ft. See Sir C.M. Watson, British Weights and Measures. All books can be found on See also English Units in Wikipedia.