You are in [Themes] [Markets and Fairs] [Hungerford's Market in the Middle Ages]

This article was written by Norman Hidden and published in"Berkshire Old and New, No 15, 1998.

A definitive account of the origin of the town of Hungerford has yet to be written. The name does not occur in the Domesday Book of 1086, though other parts of what was later to become the parish of Hungerford appear, such as Eddington north of the river Kennet and Standen in the south. The clear implication is that Hungerford did not exist in 1086. Yet within a century it seems to have developed sufficiently to possess its own 'community of burgesses' and a common seal (1).' Such sudden development may have coincided with a sweeping new town lay-out which occurred during the lordship of the Earls of Leicester and for which the lord would undoubtedly have been responsible (2). The new lay-out offered burgesses a form of tenure which gave them much greater freedom from their feudal superior than they had had in the past. In return the lord hoped to benefit from an increase in the town's commercial prosperity, particularly through his right to the market tolls.

The Intersection

This new lay-out moved the town away from the church and sited it along a north-south (Oxford - Salisbury - Southampton) trade route. Within the town, running southwards from the river Kennet, this road was known as the High Street (alta strata). It was crossed midway by another, and more ancient, road which ran east to west (present day Park Street and Church Street). It was at the intersection of these two routes that the townsmen erected a market cross and set up their market place.

In the 12th century markets sprang up throughout the kingdom, and local merchants benefited from the protection afforded by the lords, as Hungerford's Market in the Middle Ages the weekly market brought in folk from many miles around, often on foot. These weekly markets were a great and exciting event in the community's life, both in an economic and in a social sense.

A record of a case in the Berkshire Eyre, that is, the king's court of itinerant justices, in the year 1248 may illustrate some of these points (3). William, son of Henry, is alleged to have dug two dikes (fossa) in ShefIord which impeded Geoffrey of Oakhanger from going to Hungerford market as conveniently as he had been wont to do. GeofIrey clearly regarded such an obstruction to his market-going as a serious matter; and so did the justices who ordered the dikes to be destroyed and awarded GeofIrey damages. At the same time the references to ShefIord and Oakhanger show the attraction of the market for the residents of such outlying rural areas.

Two members of the jury of this Eyre, who came from Hungerford, were named Mercator, that is, merchant. This was a period in history when names were occupations and occupations became names, so clearly the merchant influence was strong even in such an otherwise basically rural society. Wealthy merchants may have travelled some considerable distance to do business or even settle in such a thriving small market town. In his history The Jews of Oxford Cecil Roth describes this enterprising community as extending its activities along the Thames and Kennet valleys, and quotes instances of these Oxford traders in Hungerford in 1244 and 1253 (4). Indeed, in 1278 there is a reference in the Close Rolls to one of them as a local man, 'Meyr de Hongreford' (5).

As far back as we have knowledge market day was held in Hungerford on Wednesdays. In 1296 an inquisition post mortem shows that the tolls of the market belonged to the Earl of Lancaster, overlord of the manor of Hungerford (6). In 1341 these tolls were estimated by local jurors to be worth 40 shillings per annum. In 1394, however, their value had dropped to 23s 10½d (7).In addition to the weekly market there was an annual fair in August on the feast day of St Lawrence, patron saint of the parish church. This fair is mentioned in another inquisition post mortem in 1361, which shows the tolls of the fair likewise going to the lord of the manor (8). Through the marriage of Blanche, a female descendant of the house of Lancaster the overlordship passed to her husband John of Gaunt, with whose name the town's history is so closely associated.

The town has claimed for several centuries that John of Gaunt granted it various rights and privileges, the charters for which were unfortunately lost. From this uncertainty there developed a confusion over such matters as fishing rights and who should receive the market tolls. Later attention has focussed so invariably upon the issues of the inhabitants' fishing rights that 15th century uncertainty concerning the market tolls has been much overlooked. In the Ministers' accounts of 1431/2 and again in 1487/8 the townsmen had to re-iterate their claim to exemption from rendenng market tolls to the Duchy of Lancaster, 'inasmuch as they allege themselves excused by charter' (9). By 1487/8 it was not so much the market toll receipts which concerned the townsmen but the wider freedom which the lost charter had given them.

The centre of the market was marked by a cross (also called the high cross or the holy cross). At some date a market house was erected there and
this was where the tolls were collected. The soil of the roadway where the tolls were collected belonged to the lord and therefore a rent was payable to
him for this particular use. We find in the Ministers' Accounts for 1431/2 and subsequently an item of 1d rent paid to the lord from 'the site of the Cross in the middle of the market there' (10). In a town rental circa 1470 there is an entry of 1d per domo Sti. Crucis in medio vill, that is, for the house of
the Holy Cro
ss in the town centre (11). The usual plan for a market house was for the ground floor to be open to the street on three sides through arches, but closed at one end where a small room housed the various measures and implements of the market clerk. Frequently the building included a an upper
chamber which might be used for one or more of a variety of purposes, such as a court house or town hall, chaplains school house, or simply leased for an income.

By the reign of Edward VI the Cross House may have been nearing the end of its useful existence. It was then still leased, 'in the tenure of Roger
Tuggy' at a rent of 4 shillings per annum (12). Within a year of the same date another document refers to 'Iez Standynges' in the town market place, of
which one tenement called the Cross House was assessed at 7s. 4d. rent, but because of its decay this rent was reduced by 3s. 4d.(13). In 1552 a town survey lists the Cross House at its usual quit rent of 1d; in 1591 it was leased by Philip Seimor at a rent of 20s. p.a. with a quit rent raised to 2d. (14).

In a presentment of 1607 we are told that the townsmen of Hungerford have built a new town hall or court house (15). 'There is also near adjoining unto the town hall one market house for corn, with a loft over the same, from which there is paid a yearly quit rent to the king of 2d.' There seems little doubt that this is the old Cross House, let to Philip Seimor in 159l. Whether the upper chamber of this served also as the old Court House which the new town hall had replaced, is not clear.

One central building, however, does not of itself make a market, whatever it is called and whatever its uses. Around the Cross house and along both sides of the wide High Street, both to the north and to the south of the cross were the stalls and stall holders. Unfortunately our records of these, containing reference to empty and abandoned stalls, suggests that they date from a period when the market was no longer in its heyday. In 1431 the list
was as follows (16):

- a group of 3 stalls leased by the tanners,

- one stall leased to Richard Bocher,

- 3 stalls 'demised to divers men for market days',

- one vacant site demised for a stall to be built thereon,

- one stall 'of new rent' demised to Robert Fisher,

- one stall to John Baron, butcher,

- one to Thomas Knoll, one to Ralph Draper,

- one to Will Home and another plot or site,

- one stall to John Draper,

- an empty site demised to Williarn Webbe 'lying opposite the tenement of John Blache on the west side, for making of one stall',

- one empty stall site to John Smith,

- another empty plot for a stall 'opposite the tenement of the rector',

- one site to John Warnewell,

- one plot of ground in the market to Walter Wygmore,

- another to Williarn Wynde,

- a plot for a stall to Ralph Tanner,

- a stall to Simon Wygmore 'next to the stall of WaIter Wygmore'.

This is a total of 14 stalls and 9 sites. Rents for individual stall holders were 4d, except for Robert Fisher and Walter Wygmore whose rent in each case was 6d. Stalls varied in size from 8 feet x 3 feet to 10 feet x 8 feet. Although the sites 'for a stall to be built thereon' suggest that the market was in a period of expansion, some of the sites may have been granted some time previously and remained undeveloped. This is suggested by the fact that some stalls still standing may have been abandoned, for the section of the accounts which deals with 'decayed' (uncollectable) rents includes a separate entry for the 3 stalls in the market place next to the Cross (the rent corresponds to that for the 3 stalls 'demised to divers men for market days') and also for the stall of Robert Fisher.

Stalls at first are likely to have been temporary structures - the word used for them 'shamell', meaning literally a 'bench'. It is possible that later references in the accounts to 'stalls' may refer to more permanent structures, whereas 'sites' may indicate removable stalls. Thus, for example, in 1431/2 Richard Bocher has 'one stall of new building' and Walter Webbe is granted a site 'for one stall to be built thereon.' The quit rent paid, of course, was for
the site rather than for the stall itself. Where a stall prospered in business, year after year, there would be an inevitable tendency to erect a more permanent structure and to set up booths or to convert a street-facing room in a house into a shop. Thomas Dighton's 'little shop standing in the street' in
1573 is very likely a late relic of these booths (17).

In addition to these details the Accounts provide a record of the dates on which the leases were granted (usually to last for a term of lives). The earliest of the leases thus granted or regranted in 1431 would seem to have been Richard Bocher's in 1395. Later accounts show that the holdings might continue within a family for several generations. In such cases the name of the original holder remains in the series of accounts. Thus as late as 1509/10 some of the 1431 rental names still appear, even though circa 1470 their stalls were said to be 'in decay'. Where there are stall-holding changes, these are to new holders of different surnames, and such changes indicate a 'tenable' stall rather than one 'in decay'. Most stalls still paid a uniform annual rent of 4d, but exceptions to this were the three stalls near the market cross let to 'diverse men' (a total rent of 16d) and the stalls of the tanners (3s.6d).

A town rental drawn up circa 1470 contains two lists, one of 'tenable' stalls, another of stalls 'in decay'. By this date the number of tenable stalls has been reduced to seven and the number of stalls in decay has increased to eleven (18). Whatever the state of the market in 1431, clearly it had been in decline since that date. The next town rental in 1552 continues to list seven stalls, two held by Nicholas Baker, two by the fanner of the lands of a newly dissolved priory, one by a chantry and two by John Aley (19). In the 1573 town rental there are no references to stalls, nor are there in any subsequent survey. This does not mean that the market had ceased but probably reflects the stalemate in town and manorial administrative relations which followed the loss of the town 'charters'.

Ministers' Accounts do not usually record the occupations of the stall holders, though we have reference to the (anonymous) tanners and to John Baron the 'bocher' (or butcher), whose stall had previously been held by John Bocher. Indeed the surnames of the 1431 stall holders may give us a fair indication of some of the trades flourishing - fisher, butcher, draper, weaver (Webbe), tanner are among them. One of the most interesting entries is that which relates to 'le travers' - a word which would seem to mean 'the workshop." It is first found in a manorial court roll for 1480 where it is recorded that Thomas Bukland alias Smith paid 2d. quit rent for a 'travers' 8 foot by 3 foot in the High Street for shoeing horses (ad equos ferrandum). The site was 'facing the lord's hospice' and had been granted to Thomas in 1466. In 1552 this was one of Nicholas Baker's two stalls. Hungerford's market did not cease to exist after the Middle Ages, but its nature changed in that instead of being the most important single economic activity, the drive behind all the others, it became more of a supplement to other activities - instances for example of tanning, fulling, dyeing, brewing, fishing, sheep- farming frequently occur - most of which could sustain themselves even without the market's added benefits. In the early seventeenth century, once the town achieved settlement of its long-disputed borough status the market enjoyed a notable resurgence; its later role in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is a subject which may well repay further study.

Today there is nothing that remains of the old market - the Cross House in the middle of the street has been demolished, the stalls temporary or permanent have gone, no sparks fly from the shoesmith's 'travers'. Only the configuration of the street itself may remind us of these past centuries. The 'cross', made into a little jink in the road by the not-quite-perfect intersection of the High Street and the east-west road, remains. The width of the High Street at-this point (disguised though it is by car parking, so that the traffic way seems far narrower than it really is) helps us realise that a market house could have stood there and still allow a roadway to slip by on either side.

The continuing width of the street, both to north and south, reveals where the numerous stalls may have crowded on the road and onto the pavements.


1 S R Wigram, Cartulary of St Frideswide 's (Oxford, 1895) ii p 330.

2 GC Astill, Historic Towns in Berkshire (Reading, Berkshire Archaeological Committee 1978) p 29.

3 M T Clanchy, The Berkshire Eyre of 1248, Selden Society, vo1.90. 1973, p 27.

4 C Roth, The Jews of Medieval Oxford Oxford Historical Society, new series IX 1951.

5 Chancery Records, C 54 Close Rolls, 1278.

6 Victoria County History Berkshire, iv p. 187.

7 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Ministers' Accounts, Public Record Office, DL 29/728/11981.

8 PRO, Chan. Inq. p.m. 35 Ed III, pt 1, 122.

9 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Ministers' Accounts, PRO, DL 29/691/11193, DL 29/683/11061.

10 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Ministers' Accounts, PRO, DL 29/683/11061.

11 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Rentals and Surveys, PRO, DL 43/1/4.

12 Exchequer Records, Particulars for Grants of the possessions of colleges and chantries, PRO, E 36/258 f 148.

13 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Ministers' Accounts, PRO, DL 29/723/11779.

14 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Miscellaneous Books, PRO, DL 42/117.

15 Berkshire Record Office, Hungerford Manorial Records, H/M6.

16 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Ministers' Accounts, PRO, DL 29/683/11061.

17 Berkshire Record Office, H/M5.

18 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Rentals and Surveys, PRO, DL 43/1/4.

19 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Miscellaneous Books, PRO, DL 42/108 f91. 

20 Duchy of Lancaster Records, Ministers' Accounts, PRO, DL 29/683/11061.

See also:

- Markets and Fairs

- Parish Magazines

Rural Calendar

Town Halls


Steam fairs on the Common, 1970-78

Peter Wyatt's "Recollections of a Country Fair"