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medieval new towns

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W. G. Hoskins, ‘The Origin and Rise of Market Harborough’ (1949; repr. in Hoskins, Provincial England, 1964), was a pioneering study of how a new town was deliberately planned on a virgin site, in this case on the Leicestershire–Northamptonshire border, in the parish of Great Bowden. Hoskins noted the town's sudden appearance in the records, suggesting a foundation date in the 1160s or 1170s, and the significant topographical evidence including the absence of a churchyard around the fine medieval church (for the rectors of Great Bowden insisted on burials at the old parish centre). Local studies of such towns formed an important section of M. W. Beresford and J. K. St Joseph, Medieval England: An Aerial Survey (1958, 2nd edn, 1979), and the whole subject was examined at length in M. W. Beresford, New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales and Gascony (1967), which made comparisons with French bastides in an area still ruled by the kings of England in the 13th and 14th centuries. Studies of medieval new towns are also featured in the county volumes of the Hodder and Stoughton series of landscape histories.

The fortified burhs of the kings of Wessex sometimes developed into towns. Wareham (Dorset) retains the earthen ramparts that surrounded the Anglo‐Saxon town. The majority of towns with the largest recorded populations in the poll tax return of 1377 were already in existence before the Norman Conquest. However, some of the most successful towns of later times originated as deliberate acts of plantation in the 12th, 13th, and early 14th centuries. The process came to a sudden end with the Black Death.

These new towns were sometimes created by the king, but were often the result of decisions taken by mighty lay and ecclesiastical lords. Edward I (r. 1272–1307) was a great planter; for example, in 1293 he took over a small town known as Wyke, which had been founded by the Cistercian abbey of Meaux, and laid out the much larger settlement of Kingston upon Hull, or Hull as it became known for short. Place‐names such as Kingston, Newtown, Newmarket, Newport, etc. are good indications of planned towns. Many of these new towns were associated with a castle, and some had their own fortifications in the form of walls, ditches, and gates. A notable series of new towns dating from 1277 to 1296 were planted alongside Edward I's castles in North Wales, e.g. at Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, Flint, and Harlech. The impact of planted new towns in Anglo‐Norman Ireland was less dramatic. The most successful were the ones associated with powerful lords. See John Bradley, ‘The Topography and Layout of Medieval Drogheda’, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal, 19 (1978), and R. A. Butlin (ed.), The Development of the Irish Town (1977).

The new towns are characterized by a regular, compact plan. Often they were laid out on a grid pattern, with a central marketplace (see markets), spaces for religious buildings, and symmetrical building‐plots of a standard size (see burgage plots). Many were placed on fresh sites; for example, the original settlement on the hilltop of Old Sarum was abandoned in favour of a new grid pattern alongside Salisbury Cathedral. A famous example is New Winchelsea (Sussex), which was founded in the 1280s after Old Winchelsea had disappeared under the sea. A rental of 1292 shows that the grid pattern that is still evident on the ground was already occupied by buildings. By the 16th century, however, the sea had retreated and the harbour had silted up. Winchelsea declined and is now smaller than it was in the 13th century. A number of other failed plantations have been identified.


Subjects: History

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