A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.
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The outstanding feature of the later medieval history of Wilton is the rapid decline of the borough between the 13th and 15th centuries; all the evidence goes to show that while Wilton of the 12th century was still a prosperous and flourishing borough, by the 15th century the importance of the town had dwindled so much that it was in a state of decay and amounted to little more than an unimportant suburb of New Salisbury. The decay was gradual, but certain landmarks point to significant stages in the progress of the decline.
Twelfth-century evidence, such as it is, all points to the importance of Wilton, (fn. 1) and it is noteworthy that this century witnessed the foundation of the hospitals of St. Giles and St. John. (fn. 2) In the early 13th century there must have been a considerable urban population, for as late as 1245 the Black Friars thought it worth while to establish a community in Wilton; (fn. 3) indeed only a populous borough could have supported the eight parish churches which certainly survived up to the 13th century. (fn. 4) Wilton remained the seat of the county court throughout the Middle Ages, and the justices of the eyre always sat first in the county court at Wilton. (fn. 5) In addition to its purely administrative importance, Wilton remained the seat of a mint until the mid13th century. (fn. 6) The economic importance of the mint together with the annual fair and thrice-weekly markets undoubtedly maintained conditions of prosperity, which were further enhanced as long as the men of Wilton held the monopoly of the routes from the west of Salisbury.
Despite these advantages, and indeed at the very period when the municipal liberties of Wilton were so markedly expanding, there is evidence of serious economic decline, which became very rapid from the mid-13th century onwards. It may even be that the root of the decline lay further back in the 12th century itself, for we know that the prosperity of Wilton received a serious, if temporary, check during the civil wars of the reign of Stephen; most of the warfare up to 1148 took place in an area likely to affect Wilton, (fn. 7) and in 1143 Stephen is said to have fortified the town and built a castle there. Later Wilton itself was burnt and the nunnery violated. (fn. 8) But it is evident that a decline of a more permanent nature must slowly have been developing towards the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, for in 1230 the farm of the town was reduced from £40 to £30, more particularly because of the poverty of the men of Wilton. (fn. 9) A state of poverty must therefore have existed for many years before the Crown was convinced of the necessity for a permanent reduction of the farm; but this is the first concrete evidence we possess of such poverty.
Events in the 13th century undoubtedly accelerated this decline, whatever were its remoter causes. The building of Harnham Bridge in 1244 (fn. 10) to give direct access from the west to New Salisbury destroyed the long monopoly of Wilton over the route, and seriously affected the prosperity of the Wilton markets; six years later the final closing of the Wilton mint robbed the town of yet another commercial advantage. The building of Harnham Bridge was undoubtedly a cause of decline, for it was built to attract trade to New Salisbury. But its very success was also a symptom of something more profound, for if Wilton had been the pre-eminent market of the district the loss of the monopoly of the route might have affected the town less seriously than it did; it seems, however, that Wilton had for some time been enjoying only a false monopoly.
The heart of the problem lay in the rapid growth of New Salisbury whose striking economic development (fn. 11) was at variance with the privileges enjoyed by the royal borough of Wilton; there was no development in Wilton comparable to the growth of the great cloth industry of Salisbury, and no evidence of any growth at all in the older town. It was highly significant that in 1280 the Friars Preachers moved from Wilton where they had settled only 35 years before and, leaving only a small church and cell there, took up new quarters in Fisherton Anger, a growing suburb of Salisbury, where they found a more populous industrial district in which to work. (fn. 12) In these circumstances the men of Salisbury found the monopolies of Wilton insupportable. The building of Harnham Bridge resolved one point in their favour, but there remained the question of markets. As will be shown below, (fn. 13) Wilton had the exclusive right of holding markets on three days a week, during which time no market was to be held within three miles of the borough. This stipulation affected Salisbury as lying within that orbit, (fn. 14) and, indeed, the charter of Henry III to Salisbury (fn. 15) bestowed the right of only one weekly market, for the king would grant nothing detrimental to his own borough of Wilton. But in spite of this it is evident that when markets were held in both places on the same day it was Salisbury which was able to capture the trade, and merchants were prepared to risk a heavy penalty provided that they could trade their goods in a better market; thus royal action was powerless to cut across the natural line of economic development, and the decline of Wilton as a trading centre took place very rapidly in the course of the next two centuries.
In the early years of Edward I's reign the transfer of the county court from Wilton to either Devizes or Marlborough was seriously considered, and in 1280 a jury was empanelled to determine which of these towns would suit the king's interests best as the seat of the county court. Two-thirds of the jury maintained that either Marlborough or Devizes would suit the king better, since they were both in the king's hands; but the remaining third argued that if the court left Wilton, the royal gaol and castle of Old Salisbury would suffer in the absence of nearby court business. (fn. 16) In fact the court remained at Wilton, never to leave it except for a few years in the 17th century when, through the influence of the high sheriff, it was removed to Devizes. (fn. 17)
Of each Wiltshire eyre, until the last in 1289, the chief session was held in the county court at Wilton, though for much of the 13th century New Salisbury and Marlborough were also visited. (fn. 18) The 'four knights', or 'justices', commissioned from 1220 to try possessory assizes, at first always sat at Wilton. After 1226 other towns were also chosen, though to the end of the comparatively short period during which 'four knights' were thus commissioned, Wilton remained one of the commoner meetingplaces of the commissioners. The 'knights' disappeared about 1242 and in the ensuing fifty years the professional justices, who heard civil pleas within the county, did not sit at fixed places. (fn. 19) When in the 1290s a regular circuit system covering the whole of England began to be evolved, the Wiltshire justices met preponderantly at Salisbury. Wilton was not cut out, but between 1274 and 1291 was, as far as is known, visited only twice, and between 1292 and 1340 more than eight times less often than New Salisbury. It was last visited in 1331. (fn. 20)
When in 1236 'four knights' began to be commissioned for the delivery of Old Salisbury gaol they were ordered to meet at Wilton. (fn. 21) The next two appointed places were 'Salisbury', presumably Old Salisbury itself. (fn. 22) The meeting-places throughout the rest of the 13th century have not been ascertained, if indeed they are ascertainable, but after 1302, from which time our evidence seems tolerably complete, Wilton was chosen only once. (fn. 23)
The fact is that by the time the circuit system was perfected New Salisbury was a more populous and comfortable place than Wilton, and therefore a more convenient one at which to hear civil pleas. With criminal pleas it was rather different. Until Old Salisbury was depopulated that city was perhaps as good a place as any other for the trial of suspected felons. When however the old city began to decay in the middle of the 14th century it was natural to try the prisoners in the New Salisbury. The new city was nearer to Salisbury castle than Wilton, and was also the favoured resort of civil litigants. It was therefore Salisbury and not Wilton that became the assize town when that phrase begins to bear its modern meaning. The county court, on the other hand, required the presence of neither the king's justices nor of suspected felons and it was natural to allow Wilton to remain as its meeting-place.
Wilton did not submit to its exclusion without a struggle. At the sessions at Salisbury in 1337 the burgesses argued that the royal injunction to the justices to allow them their 'liberties' as expressed in Edward III's confirmation of Henry I's charter meant not merely that the burgesses should be quit of external pleas, but that the assizes should be held at Wilton and not elsewhere. The first argument seems to have been accepted, for the justices were ordered to try pleas affecting the burgesses of Wilton at Wilton, though there is no evidence that such trials occurred. The matter was re-opened at the Salisbury assizes of 1356, when the arguments of 1337 were unsuccessfully repeated. (fn. 24) In 1363, perhaps in response to a further petition, the burgesses did persuade the Crown to insert in a new charter a clause expressly granting freedom from external pleas. (fn. 25) While the dispute was thus closed to the satisfaction of the burgesses, the new declaratory clause was never interpreted in such a way as to secure the convocation of an assize in Wilton.
By the mid-15th century continued economic decline had brought the fortunes of Wilton to a new low level, and the successful competition of Salisbury was more than ever marked. In 1414 an attempt had been made to revive the prosperity of the town by the grant of a fair, the duration of which was extended the next year. (fn. 26) But the many symptoms of decay evident in the 15th century point to the failure of these efforts. By the 15th century nearly all the churches of the borough were in decay or total ruin; everywhere bridges were in need of repair, guild rents were falling and vacant, and decaying tenements told the same story of decline. Eight shops under the Guildhall, which up to 1410 had been rented each at 9s. a year, fell vacant so many times that by 1429 their rent was permanently lowered to 7s. a year; the stalls in the market place, originally rented at 4s. a year, were first reduced to a rent of 2s. and finally fell into total decay; a guild tenement in West Street, which in 1410 brought in 6s. a year was reduced to a rent of 5s. in 1436, and the annual rent of another tenement at the end of Frog Lane was reduced from 12s. to 5s. (fn. 27) The topography of Wilton in the 16th century shows the effect of this decline with the disappearance of the many churches and buildings which had symbolized its former prosperity. It is thus incorrect to attribute the decline of Wilton in any way to the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, for the decay of the town had been in progress for some three hundred years before, although the rate of decline had been accelerated in the course of the 14th and 15th centuries.