A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
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When the Anglo-Saxons first settled in Coventry, probably well after the time when both Angles and Saxons had moved into the Avon Valley from the Fenland and Oxford areas, (fn. 3) considerable forest clearance was necessary; the banks of the River Sherbourne provided a suitable site, but the heavy clay soil and general infertility of the area made development difficult. Anglo-Saxon Coventry was probably a small, not very prosperous place, surrounded by numerous even smaller communities where the forest had been cleared. (fn. 4) The foundation of a nunnery may have attracted some trade, but the Danish incursions of 1016, when the nunnery was destroyed, interrupted this development; one positive result of the event was the introduction of a new racial strain. (fn. 5) Leofric and Godiva gave fresh impetus to the growth of the town by founding and richly endowing a Benedictine abbey.
By the time of the Domesday Survey Coventry was still a small and relatively undeveloped rural community, comparing unfavourably in size, population, and economic resources with Warwick, Tysoe, Brailes, Stoneleigh, and several other places in Warwickshire. (fn. 6) Coventry had, however, a larger population and more plough teams - 20 and 3 in demesne - than most places in the county, although its hidage was comparatively low. (fn. 7) Its recorded population consisted of 50 villeins, 12 bordars, and 7 serfs in demesne. Its woodland was large, being two leagues long and two broad, and it had a mill worth 3s. The value of the place had decreased by £1 to £11 since the time of King Edward. (fn. 8)
The division of the vill into two halves between 1101 and 1113 provided the conditions for an economic differentiation as well as a jurisdictional one. Grants of privileges were subsequently made either to the prior's tenants or to the earl's tenants. The rights claimed by the prior c. 1130 included toll and forsteall, (fn. 9) the former having been granted to the priory in the only genuine writ known to have been issued in its favour by Edward the Confessor. (fn. 10) The status of free burgesses had been granted to the earl's tenants during or before the earldom of Ranulf I (1120-29). Between 1149 and 1153 Earl Ranulf II confirmed to the burgesses their tenure in free burgage, and, as well as granting them a portmote and a justicia elected from among themselves, promised security to merchants coming to trade in the town and granted two years' freedom from all financial exactions to newcomers who had begun to build. (fn. 11) The economy of the Earl's Half was clearly expanding. By 1267 some of the prior's tenants also enjoyed the status of free burgesses, although it is not known when this privilege was granted. They were sufficiently prosperous, too, to obtain the grant of a guild merchant in 1267, but they lost this means of acquiring a monopoly of trade in Coventry when challenged by the more politically organized tenants of the Earl's Half. (fn. 12) Instead the priory explored other means of raising money to pay its debts. (fn. 13)
Earl Hugh II, in a charter granted between 1161 and 1175, forbade his officials and tenants to enter the prior's fee or his market against his will, or to make any exactions against his tenants; to prevent any misunderstanding he defined the boundary between the two halves. (fn. 14) Indeed Hugh seems to have been at pains to remove any excuse for incidents between the tenants of the two halves. His son Ranulf III was granted in 1218 a yearly eight-day Trinity fair at Coventry. (fn. 15) This was later known as Corpus Christi or the Great Fair. In the early 14th century the earl's men claimed that they had for long bought and sold goods daily in Earl Street. (fn. 16) Before 1346 there appears to have been a market in the Earl's Half for in that year the burgesses were granted the market and fair formerly held there by Queen Isabel. (fn. 17) It is perhaps significant, however, that street names connected with markets (fn. 18) were, almost without exception, to be found in the Prior's Half: Corn Market (13th century), later known as Cross Cheaping; Poultry (1309-10), by the great gate of the Priory; Ironmonger Row (13th century); Great Butchery (Flesshameles, 14th century); Potter Row (14th century); and Little Butcher Row, Spicer Stoke (occurring first in 1411), for example. Again, fish was sold outside the Priory Gate in the 13th century (fn. 19) and in Spicer Stoke in 1411; (fn. 20) corn, oats, and peas were sold at West Orchard in the early 15th century; (fn. 21) the sheep market was held at the junction of Rood Lane and Cook Street; (fn. 22) cloth was originally sold at the Old Drapery at the corner of Palmer Lane; (fn. 23) and bread and oatmeal were sold at the gaol door, (fn. 24) just within the boundary of the Prior's Half.
A dispute in 1308-9 emphasised the differentiation between the two halves. The prior charged certain men with selling cloth, cendal, silk, belts, spicery, and other goods in Earl Street in the Earl's Half, outside the prior's market, which he claimed to have held in his half from time immemorial every Friday to the exclusion of any other market in the town. (fn. 25) The prior could cite no charter in evidence; the grant of a yearly fair on St. Leger's day (Oct. 2) and seven days following in 1227 (fn. 26) and its transfer to St. George's day (Apr. 23) twelve years later (fn. 27) were authenticated, but not a market. The merchants charged with the offence cited the charter from Earl Ranulf which gave them the same liberties as those held by the free burgesses of Lincoln, and they claimed that they had sold merchandise in the Earl's Half from time immemorial, not only on Fridays, but every day of the week. The prior, however, claimed that the practice was recent and judgement was given that the earl's tenants were not to sell on Fridays except in the prior's market. (fn. 28)
A broader picture of society in Coventry emerges in 1280: (fn. 29) in general it is a picture seen through the prior's eyes, with himself as lord of the town, holding half from the king in chief for the service of two knights and the other half from the heirs of Roger de Montalt. In the Prior's Half there was a Friday market and an eight days' fair once a year and he had free warren in his demesne. He had a coroner and the various judicial privileges already mentioned, his burgesses owed suit twice a year to his court. In the Earl's Half there was woodland in which the inhabitants of the whole town claimed common pasture. The prior claimed there a six days' fair once a year, judicial privileges, and assize of bread and wine. He claimed the suit of the burgesses twice a year at his court and he mentioned other courts for the whole town. Throughout the town there was freedom from toll, except from toll of horses but from this the burgesses were exempt; the burgesses, however, claimed toll of horses from their own tenants. (fn. 30)
In the Prior's Half there were 157 burgage holdings and 105 cottages. (fn. 31) Thirty-six holdings were described as messuages, 43 as curtilages, 5 as crofts, and 9 as tenements, and there were 41 selions, 6 butts of land, 3 gardens, 4 ovens, 4 stalls, and 3 shops. There were 272 holders of these properties (though fewer actual individuals), 45 of whom are stated to have held by charter and one for service. In the Earl's Half there were 93 burgage holdings and 247 cottages. Forty-three and a half holdings were described as messuages, 61 as curtilages, 24 as crofts, one as a meadow, and 7 as tenements, and there were 2 carucates, 8 mills, and one oven. There were 319 holders of these properties (though fewer actual individuals), 28 of whom held in return for the service of 47 men and 2 in frankalmoign. Within Cheylesmore itself there were 20 free tenants, all of whom held by charter, having 16 messuages, 3 curtilages, one oven, one cellar, and one shop.
By the later 13th century great changes had thus taken place on the five hides described as Coventry in the Domesday Survey. They were no longer a single rural entity; tenants in both halves had acquired the status of free burgesses, both halves had their charter fairs and their prescriptive markets, and the earl's burgesses held their own court under an elective justice. The town was a road centre with bars at the main entries, a ditch and rampart, and suburbs to the north, east, and west. (fn. 32) During the 12th and 13th centuries there are also clear indications of the trades which were to characterize the town and of the beginnings of the connexion of certain areas with certain trades. (fn. 33)
The occupations of 305 tradesmen, collected from 12th- and 13th-century deeds, are shown in Table 1, together with the areas of the town with which they were connected. This is, of course, no more than a sample of the population, drawn from only those people who acquired or granted away land or who witnessed such transactions. Many of the people described as, for example, drapers, skinners, grocers, and fishmongers, may well have been primarily merchants, and similarly those called simply 'merchants' may have been wool or cloth merchants, or drapers, skinners, grocers, fishmongers, or general dealers.
The table suggests that the cloth-making industry was already predominant and that its participants lived mainly across the east-west axis of the town. As might be expected, the producers and purveyors of food were well scattered, their concentration into certain areas not becoming apparent until a later date. Tanners were the largest group engaged in the leather or fur trades, which were mostly located in Spon Street, while smiths, the largest group among metal working trades, were found mostly in the northern part of the town. Those described as merchants naturally occupied the wealthier area - Much Park Street, Earl Street, Gosford Street, and Cheylesmore Lane.
During the next century and a half the city attained the height of its prosperity and in 1377 it was apparently the fourth largest in the kingdom. (fn. 34) For this period evidence is both more abundant and more definite and the crafts were becoming more highly organised. It is therefore instructive to compare figures for the 14th and 15th centuries with those for the 12th and 13th. Sources searched for the 14th and early 15th centuries (fn. 35) have provided the names of some 739 tradesmen, and their occupations are shown in Table 2. It is true that this is again only a sample of the population, but the figures suggest some significant changes from the occupational structure of the 12th and 13th centuries. The same reservations about the terms used to describe merchants apply here as to the earlier period.
From Table 2 it appears that between a quarter and a third of those who appear in surviving Coventry records were in the 14th and early 15th centuries involved in some aspect of the wool or cloth trades. Of these nearly a quarter were drapers, who tended to live in the Earl Street and Gosford Street areas, and about a fifth dyers who, as might be expected, were to be found near the river. Some indication of the productivity of the Coventry industry is given in the aulnage accounts for 1397-8 and 1405-6. The numbers of cloths exposed for sale in the town in those years were said to be 3,105¾ and 1,108½ respectively, out of a total of about 50,000 for the whole country. These accounts show, too, that a great variety of persons were selling cloths. Many were members of the Trinity Guild and were prominent townspeople, but not all were drapers or even clothworkers; many were merely small craftsmen and shopkeepers. (fn. 36)
Among the workers in leather and fur recorded nearly a half were shoemakers. Tanners lived mostly outside the gates, even before the leet ordered in 1457 that leather was not to be curried within the city walls; the order was repeated in 1460 and in 1463. (fn. 37) As in the earlier period, those described as merchants or mercers mostly lived in the Gosford Street and Earl Street area, which was still the most wealthy part of the town, but they had greatly increased in numbers and accounted for between a fifth and a sixth, compared with a tenth previously, of the sample of the population dealt with. The producers and purveyors of food now accounted for only about a tenth, compared with about a fifth before. They were still fairly scattered, but were beginning to be found more in some areas than in others and streets were being called after them. The outstanding example is that of the butchers, who were almost exclusively in Great and Little Butcheries, West Orchard, and Cross Cheaping, with a few in Well Street and New Street. Street names such as Pepper Lane, Salter Lane, and Spicer Stoke occur for the first time, as far as is known, during this period. The concentration of metal workers in certain areas is more obvious: girdlers, the most numerous, were mainly in Earl Street; wiredrawers were mostly in Gosford Street and Mill Lane; cardmakers were mostly in Earl Street; ironmongers in Ironmonger and Potter Rows, Well Street, and Bishop Street; and goldsmiths in Spicer Stoke. Smiths were to be found in various parts of the town, although Smiths Row occurs as early as the late 13th century. About a third of those occupied in the building trades were masons and a quarter carpenters, the former being found in the Bishop Street and Cook Street area and the latter in Smithford Street. One of the glaziers was John Thornton, the maker of the great east window at York Minster, who lived in St. John's Bridges. (fn. 38) 'Passengers', who are perhaps most likely to have been carriers, were numerous and of some importance for, out of a total of 21 noted, 18 appear in the register of the Trinity Guild, 2 occur on the Statute Merchant roll for debt, (fn. 39) and the last appears in the priory rental as holding a tenement in St. Nicholas Street. (fn. 40) Among the barber-surgeons was an alchemist: in 1478 the Crown ordered that he was to be allowed to continue in peace his work on the transmutation of metals. (fn. 41) The 8 workmen noted were probably unskilled labourers employed in various trades or crafts. Agricultural trades appear in the sources used for the first time.
The occupational structure of the city in the mid 15th century is revealed in a list of the crafts and their members who were able to contribute armour for the defence of the city in 1450. This list confirms the general conclusions drawn from fragmentary sources for the 12th and 13th, and 14th and early 15th centuries. Table 3 is made up from a list in the leet book. Of 603 persons contributing jacks, 244 were engaged in the wool or cloth trades, 126 were in the metal-working trades, 83 were in the leather and fur trades, 60 were producers or purveyors of food, 38 were mercers, 20 were wood workers, 17 were engaged in one or other of the building trades, and 15 were barbers; the table also shows how many members of each craft had been or were city officials and were therefore of greater relative importance in the constitutional and probably in the economic life of the town. (fn. 42)
One further guide to the city's occupational structure is provided in a survey of 1522 which lists 635 people, representing 90 different crafts and trades. (fn. 43) The dozen leading occupations are shown in Table 4.
|Leading Occupations in a Survey of 1522|
It is thus clear that in the economic life of Coventry the cloth trade was outstanding and the metal-working and leather and fur trades also of some consequence, not only in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the peak of the city's prosperity was reached, but even in the late 12th and 13th centuries. The cloth trade was still outstanding in the early 16th century, despite the slump which it was experiencing. The numbers engaged in the leading crafts were proportionately high, they were mainly property owners, and many of them were influential, not only in their guilds, but in the government of the city. In 1450 mercers, drapers, dyers, weavers, tailors and shearmen, fullers, girdlers, wiredrawers, smiths, shoemakers, and whittawers had among their number men who held or had formerly held office in the city. (fn. 44)
The economic development of the city was furthered by a series of royal charters granted during the middle decades of the 14th century, (fn. 45) and in this period, too, the long-standing rivalry between the two halves was settled. In 1334 and 1344 charters exempted Coventry merchants from toll, pavage, and other duties throughout the kingdom. (fn. 46) In 1340 the Guild Merchant of St. Mary was founded, (fn. 47) in 1342 the Guild of St. John the Baptist, (fn. 48) and in 1343 the Guild of St. Katherine. (fn. 49) The granting of privileges to merchants and the creation of the guilds led up to the charter of 1345, when the earl's tenants obtained the right to have a mayor and bailiffs, cognizance of pleas, and a seal for Statute Merchant recognizances. Ten years later the tripartite indenture, drawn up between Queen Isabel, the mayor and bailiffs, and the prior, settled differences between the two halves, defined boundaries and made it possible for the city to develop as a whole. (fn. 50) In 1364 the Holy Trinity Guild was founded. (fn. 51) All the guilds created during these 24 years - with the exception of the Corpus Christi Guild, founded in 1348 in the Prior's Half (fn. 52) - were joined together by 1392 as the Guild of the Holy Trinity, St. Mary, St. John the Baptist, and St. Katherine (the Trinity Guild for short). (fn. 53) The Trinity Guild incorporated the functions of all its constituent members and became an outstanding factor in the municipal, economic, and social life of the city. Expansion was furthered, too, by Queen Isabel's regularization in 1346 of her tenants' fair and market, (fn. 54) and by the establishment by 1351 of the new Drapery in Bayley Lane in the Earl's Half. (fn. 55)
The rapid development of Coventry from a rural community in the 11th century to a centre of many flourishing trades and of road communications by the end of the 13th, presupposes a considerable interest in foreign trade. There is, in fact, much evidence for this and for the activities of Coventry merchants. In the 13th and earlier 14th centuries the emphasis was on the export of wool. Roger le Chaumberleng had a licence to export twenty sacks of wool in 1279; (fn. 56) thirteen wool merchants of Coventry were invited by the king in 1322 to discuss their affairs with him at York; (fn. 57) loans to the king were frequently made in wool; and at Dordrecht in 1343 eight Coventry merchants were among those from whom wool was seized for the king's use. (fn. 58) Throughout the 14th century many of the influential men of the town were also wool merchants: (fn. 59) they include John Ward, first mayor of Coventry, (fn. 60) Roger le Bray, (fn. 61) Jordan Shepey, second mayor, John Shepey, (fn. 62) and John Botoner, of the wealthy family which rebuilt St. Michael's Church. Botoner was given a licence in 1372 to export 68 sacks of wool from London. (fn. 63) Coventry merchants' trade was not, however, confined to wool. William Clifford and William Merford were licensed in 1387 to buy 800 quarters of wheat in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire and to export them from Bristol, Newport, or Chepstow for the use of the King of Castile and the Duke of Lancaster. (fn. 64) Even more important in this later period was the export of cloth. In 1390-91 a Coventry-owned ship was carrying cloth from Bristol to Portugal for seven merchants from various parts of the country, (fn. 65) and Coventry merchants were also exporting cloth to the Baltic. (fn. 66) Coventry was apparently known as a market for oil, probably olive oil, for in 1236 the sheriff of Warwickshire was to have good oil for table use bought in Coventry; (fn. 67) and two centuries later oil was being imported into Coventry through Southampton. (fn. 68)
Already by the late 14th century the emphasis had shifted to the cloth trade, raw materials being imported and the finished article exported; in the 15th century, however, there were still some important wool merchants, like Robert Onley, a merchant of the Staple, who was mayor in 1475. (fn. 69) The external trade of Coventry passed mainly through the ports of London, Bristol, Southampton, and Boston. (fn. 70) As has been noted her merchants had been granted freedom from toll, pavage, pontage, and murage in respect of their merchandise throughout the realm in 1334; (fn. 71) London, Bristol, and Southampton did not always recognise this exemption, but agreements were made with London in 1334, 1338, and 1473, (fn. 72) with Southampton in 1456, (fn. 73) and with Bristol in 1500. (fn. 74) The chief commodity imported into Coventry through Southampton from the late 1420s to 1478 was woad for dyeing Coventry blue cloth. (fn. 75) Woad was also imported through Bristol, with alum, wax, wine, and iron and other metal goods. (fn. 76) There is also evidence for trade with Ireland, Iceland, and Finmark, probably mainly in fish, Coventry fishmongers importing fish from Iceland in exchange for cloth and other manufactured goods. (fn. 77) Another export was alabaster. (fn. 78) The extent of this external trade suggests considerable industrial activity in the town, particularly in the cloth and metal trades.