East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, free-fair

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1810.

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Francis Blomefield, 'East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, free-fair', in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11( London, 1810), British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp345-351 [accessed 24 July 2024].

Francis Blomefield, 'East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, free-fair', in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11( London, 1810), British History Online, accessed July 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp345-351.

Francis Blomefield. "East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, free-fair". An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11. (London, 1810), , British History Online. Web. 24 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp345-351.


We have before had occasion to mention the annual concourse of people to the spot where Yarmouth now stands, for the several purposes of catching, curing, and disposing of herrings, whence we inferred the origin of the free-fair; in which it appears, the fishermen of the Cinque Ports were principals, and thence claimed and actually undertook, the government or that annual resort. We shall here, then, resume the subject, and, for the better information of the reader, relate such particulars of the Cinque Perls as may be a necessary elucidation of their connections, and consequent disputes with Yarmouth.

Les Cinque Ports that is, the Five Ports, from their eastern situation on the coast of England, immediatelo opposite to that of France, had acquired the reputation of sending out the most expert mariners of any in the kingdom, and were accordingly much confided in by the Kings of England, from whom they obtained a particular policy and jurisdiction of their own, were nominated, by way of eminence, the Cinque Ports, and were governed by some nobleman, bearing the title of Lord Warden.

The five principal towns, from which they are denominated, are Hastings, Dover, Hithe, Romney, and Sandwich, to which several members were added.

Camden says, that William the Conqueror first appointed a warden of the Cinque Ports, who, from the several customs and privileges granted them, continues to have the authority of an admiral, and issues out warrants in his own name. This officer, or limenarcha, the same author adds, seems to have been created in imitation of the Roman littoris Saxonici comes, or tractûs maritimi comes, the earl of the Saxon shore, or earl of the sea coast, an officer with nine sea-ports under his charge, established for the defence of the coasts.

Their grand privileges come from King John; who being distressed to fit out a fleet of ships for the recovery of his Norman dominions, lately lost, indulged them with a charter, on condition that they should provide for him 57 ships for forty days, at their own charge, as often as the wars he was engaged in, should give him occasion to demand them.

Amongst their liberties, the barons of the Cinque Ports had some privileges granted at Yarmouth; or rather, they were confirmed; for they had holden them by prescription long before. But these privileges interfering with some of those granted to the burgesses of Yarmouth, by the same King, occasioned such confusion, discords, outrages, and domestic wars, as perhaps were never before known, for so long a time, between any two communities in the British dominions; and which were sometimes carried to such horrid extremities, that the whole nation was alarmed at their mutual depredations.

These seem to have originated from the idea that each entertained of their own importance from these newly acquired grants, and a consequent tenacity of their particular privileges, at that time, perhaps, scarcely ascertained. And this appears the more probable, if we consider, that (as we have before intimated) the sole management of the fair, whence the town arose, was originally in the Cinque Ports, though afterwards in conjunction with the King's provost, and, after the incorporation, with the bailiffs of the town.

At the time when our Kings had real, as well as nominal possessions in France, the fishermen from the coasts of France, Flanders, Holland, Zealand, &c. as well as those of England, resorted to this fair, together with a great number of merchants and traders from most of our capital inland towns; whence the several orders, dites, and decrees, issued from the throne, for the mutual advantage of the bailiffs of Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports, will not appear extraordinary.

That the Cinque Ports first sent bailiffs to Yarmouth, to superintend the fair, we have before observed; and though that parade has been a long time discontinued, a short account of it may not be unentertaining.

The number of bailiffs sent was not always the same. In the 13th of Edward I. we find ten in commission: but it is to be observed that only the five ports and the two ancient towns (Rye and Winchelsea) were concerned in sending them, the members being exempted. In that year, we find Hastings sent one bailiff, Dover one, Hithe two, Rye one, Romney two, Winchelsea two, and Sandwich one. They were generally preceded, in their formal entry, &c. by four serjeants; the two first carrying white rods, the next a banner, or standard, the other a horn.

When seven bailiffs were sent, they were the seven representatives of the aforementioned seven towns, each town sending one. When eight came, two were from Winchelsea, and one from each other town. When nine came, two were from Winchelsea, and two from Dover or Hithe, the rest one each. When there came ten, two were from Winchelsea, two from Dover, two from Hithe, and one each from the remaining four towns. But this order was not always inviolably preserved, as may be seen by the foregoing instance of the 13th of Edward I.

After Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports had obtained their respective charters, the frequent riots, and dissensions between them, on account of their liberties and privileges, occasioned the granting that famous ordinance, called the dite, whereby King Edward I. in his 5th year, confirmed den and strond to the Cinque Ports, at Yarmouth, and granted them several other liberties there, which he further confirmed, in his charter to them the following year. And by a special pardon granted to Yarmouth by that King, in his 10th year, it appears that several trespasses and damages were done to the ports, upon the sea coast, as far as Shoreham and Portsmouth, by the people of Yarmouth, for which they were fined 1000l. nor does this appear to be the first instance of that nature.

Fresh differences and controversies afterwards arising, and many other outrages continuing to be committed, a new charter was granted to each party in the 26th of that King, and in his 33d year another ordinance was made for the better accommodating of differences between them. This seems to have been in consequence of an inquisition taken before two of his majesty's justices, appointed by special commission, in the 31st of that King, by which it appears, upon the oath of twenty good and lawful men, that Yarmouth had sustained damages by the Ports-men to the enormous amount of £20138.; a prodigious sum at that time.

It was also recorded by Hollingshed, in his Chronicle, that in the 25th of the said King, "That King passing into Flanders, to the assistance of the earl thereof, being no sooner on land, but the men of the Ports and Yarmouth, through an old grudge long depending between them, fell together and fought on the sea with such fury, that, notwithstanding the King's commandment to the contrary, twenty-five ships of Yarmouth, and their partakers, were burnt, &c." But Manship observes that in the town's record of that year, he did not find that so many were burnt; but by a complaint and presentment made to his majesty, it appears that thirty seven ships were greatly damaged by the Ports-men, 171 men killed, and goods to the value of £15350. were spoiled and taken from them, "of which," continues he, "a grievous requital was not long after made by the men of Yarmouth, against the Ports-men."

These disturbances continuing till the reign of Edward III. that King, in his 10th year, made another ordinance for the preservation of peace between them; which proving yet ineffectual, further agreements were made in his 31st and 33d years. These still had not the desired effect. The calms of peace succeeded the storms of riot and confusion, only to make way for a succeeding one, often more fatal than the former, till the 10th of Richard II. when these enormities had arisen to such a height, that they not only involved whole families in all the calamities of ruin and distress, deprived the poor of their comfort, and the rich of their possessions, but interrupted the affairs of the public, and were alarming to the whole nation. In that year, therefore, the King made another agreement between them, which he commanded to be proclaimed throughout all his dominions, both at home and abroad, and to be kept under a grievous penalty to be inflicted on the first offender. By means of this proclamation, a more peaceable conduct was observed to each other for some time; but scarce a year passed without some little contest or petty disturbance, till matters were finally settled, to their mutual satisfaction, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, at least for that time. But to return:

In the 31st of Edward III. the statute of herrings was enacted; at which time we find the whole legislature interested in these alarming disputes: and deliberating on, and making laws and ordinances for their better government. The original of this statute is in French, a translation of which is as follows:

"Forasmuch as the commons of the realm of England, at the parliament holden at Westminster the Monday next after the week of Easter, the year of the reign of our lord the King, Edward the Third, of England xxxi, and of France xviii, have complained them to our lord the King, because the people of Great Yarmouth do encounter the fishers bringing herring to the said town in the time of the fair, and do buy and forestall the herring before they do come to the town. And also the hostelers of the said town, that lodge the fishers coming thither with their herring, will not suffer the said fishers to sell their said herring, nor meddle with the sale thereof, but sell them at their own will, as dear as they will, and give to the fishers that pleaseth them, whereby the fishers do withdraw themselves to come thither, and so is the herring set at much greater price than ever it was, to the great damage of our lord the King, of the lords, and of all the people. Wherefore our lord the King, seeing the mischiefs in this behalf, by the assent of the great men and all the commons, hath ordained and stablished remedy upon the said mischiefs, in the form as followeth.

"First, That no herring be bought or sold in the sea, till the fishers be come in the haven with their herring, and that the cable of the ship be drawn to land.

"Item, That the fishers be free to sell their herring to all that come to the fair of Great Yarmouth, without any disturbance of their hostelers or any other. And when the fishers will sell their merchandizes in the port, they shall have their hostelers with them, if they there will be, and in their presence, and in the presence of other merchants, openly shall sell their merchandizes.

"And that every man claim his part for the taking (i. e. the price) after the rate of the same merchandizes so sold; and the said sale shall be made from the sun-rising, to the sun-setting, and not before nor after, upon forfeiture of the same merchandizes.

"And that the said fishers be free to buy their victuals, and that which they need, where it shall please them. And that no hostelers, nor other, buy any for to hang in their houses, by covin, nor in other manner, at an higher price the last than 40s. but less in as much as he may, according as he may agree with the seller.

"And that no hosteler, nor any of their servants, nor any other, whosoever he be, coming to the said fair, shall go by land, nor by sea, to forestall herring, privily nor openly, but the herring shall come freely unsold unto the haven. Nor that any pyker make buying of fresh herring in the haven of Yarmouth, betwixt the feasts of St. Michael and St. Martin, upon pain of imprisonment at the King's will, and to forfeit all the herring so bought. And that no vessel, called pyker, of London, nor of none other place, shall enter into the said haven, in order to enhance the fair, in damage of the people, upon the pain of forfeiture of their vessel, and all their chattels found therein.

"And that all the hostelers be sworn before the wardens of the said fair, and enjoined, upon a great forfeiture to the King, to receive their guests well and conveniently, and to aid and ease them reasonably, taking of every last that shall be sold to other merchants than to the said hostelers 40d. And that of herring sold to the same hostelers to take into their own houses, the same hostelers shall take nothing. And because of the profits which they shall have of victuals sold to their said guests, and of the advantages that they have more than other of curage of herring so by them bought, and hanging in their houses. And that the hostelers, because of this ordinance, do not refuse their guests, but receive them, and intreat them in good and friendly manner, as they have done before time. And that they, for the advantage of 40d. the last, take upon them for the payment of all the herring that shall be sold by their assent to any persons. And the hundred of herring shall be accounted by six score, and the last by ten thousand. And that the merchants of Yarmouth, of London, or elsewhere, sell the thousand of herring to the people at the rate of the price of the last. And that the people of Yarmouth sell the last of red herring bought for 40s. fresh within 40 days, for half a mark of gain, and not above. And that the people of London, at such fair, shall bring the last from Yarmouth to London for one mark of gain, and not above. And also two lasts of shotten herring fresh, shall be sold for the price assessed of the buying of a last of full herring, and so of more and less after the same rate; and of shotten herring red, the two lasts shall be sold dearer by a mark than the last of herring full red, and that because the curage of the last of shotten herring, draweth to as much as the last of full herring; and so of more and less, according to the same rate.

"And that the ships called the pykers shall freely buy fresh herring, and all other merchandizes of fishes, in Kyrkly, and elsewhere upon the coasts of the sea, without impeachment or disturbance of the hostelers of Yarmouth, or of any other; so always than no more herring be discharged in the road of Kyrkly out of the fishers ships, but as much as may reasonably suffice to the charge of the pykers that thither shall come for the same cause. And that the fishers be compelled to bring all the remnant of their herring to the said fair, to sell there, so that none sell herring in any place about the haven of Yarmouth, by seven miles, except in the three towns of Yarmouth; that is to say, Eston, Weston and Southton, unless it be herring of their own fishing. And our lord the King doth will, that the Barons of the Five-Ports shall cause to be kept and governed the said fair, according to the composition late made between them and the people of the town of Yarmouth, confirmed by the King's grandfather, and that the said Barons, and the bailiffs of Great Yarmouth, cause to be kept these present ordinances, in all points, and to be cried in every Sunday between St. Michael and St. Martin, upon the pain to lose their franchise, and to be punished at the King's will. And that the people of Yarmouth suffer the said Barons of the Five-Ports to govern and rule the said fair, after the purport of the said composition, and due execution to be made of this ordinance, upon the pain last aforesaid.

"And these ordinances, in the right of buying and selling of herring, shall be holden in all the towns of England where herring is taken and searched (i. e. dried) upon the pains aforesaid.

In the 17th year of Queen Elizabeth, a fresh contest arose between Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports, concerning prenomination in the proclamation and stile of the court. To determine which, with some other controversies, both parties had agreed to a deputation in London; but that of the Cinque Ports not appearing according to agreement, the burgesses write to them a letter, which concludes thus:

"Trulie the cawses whereuppon theis quarrells doe rise, doe brede of yourseltes, and that within theis fewe yeres wherin you onelye seke superioritie over us, whiche before your predecessors never challenged, that is prenominacion in the proclamacion and in the style of the courte, whiche we alweis have had, as appereth by oure auncient records, at whiche tyme if yow of righte oughte to have had the prenominacion, neither were we then of habilitie to witheholde it from yow, neither were yow of that weakness to forbeare in, and therefore in common reason you should knowe youre privileges as well then as now; and for the effecte of the proclamacion, you knowe that time hath so changed all things, as not one article thereof is performed, no not that whiche youre owne people may very well performe, and are thereunto, bothe by statute and proclamacion, commanded; that is, in the delivere of ther herrings withe us; for if they can delyver at Lowestofte, they will bringe verye fewe or none to us, notwithstanding many promises yerely made by youre baylives for the reformacion thereof. And althoughe we have lately tollerated youre baylives to have prenominacion, to oure discredytt, wherbye yow seak advantage against us, we meane not to contynewe soche injurye against ourselfes; but if yow shall be contented with the use of soche privileges here, as youre predecessors of olde tyme, and till of late have frequented, we will accepte yow as oure frends, and use yow with that frendshippe and curtesye as apperteynethe, as knowethe God, who assiste you in all youre counsells. At Yarmouth the 20th day of August, anno 1575.

"Your lovinge frends, the bailyffs, burgesses, and comynaltye of Great Yarmouth."

Amongst many schemes, for effecting a more perfect and permanent reconciliation between these contending parties, at this time in agitation, it was proposed to make Yarmonth a member of the Cinque Ports, as appears by a motion made for that purpose by the bailiffs of the Cinque Ports, the 16th of October, in the 16th of Elizabeth, to which the major part of the corporation of Yarmouth assented. And on the 29th of the same month, it was agreed, at an assembly then holden, "That the two following things be remembered at the Parliament: viz. to make this town a member of the Cinque Ports, and that the setts on the waters be granted to the town in fee." But whether this was ever brought before the house, or by what means it "was not effected, does not appear.

In the 18th of Elizabeth, however, all matters were finally settled by commissioners appointed for that purpose, and an award published, to the satisfaction of both parties, the purport of which is as follows:

I. That the bailiffs of the Cinque Ports, in conjunction with those of Yarmouth, shall, during the fair, administer justice and keep the peace, as usual.

II. That the said bailiffs, in conjunction, shall have the holding and determining all pleas, moved or depending and determinable, during the fair, according to the lawe-merchaunte.

III. That the prison there shall be kept jointly by the said bailiffs, for all prisoners committed or remaining there during the fair. And at their first coming, to view the prisoners and enquire the cause of their imprisonment.

IV. That the prenomination of the style of the court be (alternis vicibus) one year to Yarmouth, the next to the Cinque Ports. And the nomination of the first turn to be made by two of the commissioners, one on either side.

V. That the bailiffs of the Cinque Ports, as well as those of Yarmouth, with their several usual officers and ornaments, do assemble together at the usual place, and then, in the name of all the bailiffs there present, without particular nomination or prenomination of either party, proclaim the fair, as usual.

VI. That the Cinque Ports bailiffs exert themselves to prevent their own fishers, and others, from discharging any herrings or other merchandize, during the fair, at any place within seven miles of Yarmouth, except at Yarmouth, agreeable to the edict made between Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports

VII. That the usual party inquest, half ports-men and half Yarmouth men, impannelled to enquire into offences committed during the fair, be continued as before.

VIII. That the composition of six pounds per annum, paid by Yarmouth to the Cinque Ports, in lieu of a toll of four pence for every vessel arriving during the fair, shall be reduced to three pound ten shillings only, which shall be considered in full payment and no arrears demanded; no boats or ships belonging to the Cinque Ports being chargeable with the said four-pence.

IX. That the inhabitants of the Cinque Ports, with their members, shall be free of all taxes and customs, for their ships and goods, and enjoy all their customary privileges, not contrary to these articles. And that they may dispose of their herrings, as usual, without interruption from the bailiffs of Yarmouth.

X. That the bailiffs of the Cinque Ports shall award no supersedeas of themselves to set any person at liberty, committed by the warrant of the bailiffs of Yarmouth, without the consent of one or both of the said bailiffs. And, on the contrary, the bailiffs of Yarmouth shall not do the like, with respect to any person committed by the ports bailiffs without a like consent from them. But that every surpersedeus, or other discharge, shall be by the consent of one or both of the bailiffs who granted the warrant during the fair.

According to the indorsement of these articles, the first prenomination after, was in the Cinque Ports, determined by the two commissioners appointed, by casting lots.

After this, we do not find any thing material upon record, contrary to peace and good order, till 1634, when Edward Owner, one of the bailiffs of Yarmouth, refused the Ports bailiffs their usual seat with them, and otherwise insulted them, which caused them to petition to the Earl of Arundel and Surry, then Earl Marshal, who accommodated the difference, and recommended a more courteous carriage, and friendly demeanor, in future.

All animosities, at least of any import, seem here to have terminated, there being nothing upon record contrary to that supposition. But in 1662, for what reason does not appear, the annual composition of 3l. 6s. was not paid to the bailiffs of the Cinque Ports, nor does it seem that the ports sent any more bailiffs in a public capacity, after that time. Some of their fishermen, indeed, called by the people of Yarmouth, West countrymen, did continue to come, in different numbers, as occasion required, till the year 1756, since which time not one of them has come to the fair.

From sometime in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, till the abovementioned year, when Yarmouth discontinued payment of the composition, the Ports had only sent two bailiffs to the fair; the manner of whose election, to that office, the order of their procession and reception at Yarmouth, may not be unentertaining to the reader.