Medieval trade and industry


Victoria County History



Elizabeth Crittal (editor)

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'Wilton: Medieval trade and industry', A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6 (1962), pp. 12-15. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41765 Date accessed: 18 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The economic importance of Wilton in the postConquest period attracted a number of Jews who settled there; this Jewish community evidently became an important one, for Wilton was one of the 27 centres of the kingdom in which chests for the registration of debts owed to the Jews were established at the end of 12th century. (fn. 1) In 1256 William Isembard, Mayor of Wilton, and Abraham Russell, one of the leading Jews of the Wilton community, were removed from the keepership of the chest of the Jews on account of fraudulent practices. The mayor was hanged at London while Russell escaped, although his wife soon recovered the administration of his goods. (fn. 2) When Simon de Montfort pardoned the Christian debtors of the Jews in 1264, the Wilton community suffered so heavily that they, in company with the communities of Cambridge and London, received special protection in consideration of their heavy losses, (fn. 3) and some 22 burgesses of Wilton were nominated to safeguard the Jews of their town. (fn. 4)

The permanent presence of a Jewish community in the town would have been unlikely if Wilton had not contained a considerable urban population devoted to industrial and commercial pursuits. The evidence, scanty as it is, suggests that at least up to the 13th century, some considerable number of men must have been engaged in a variety of crafts, although, since most of these crafts were declining by the end of the 13th century, there is little evidence of this earlier industrial activity at the close of the Middle Ages. The only craft guild of which there is any record is that of the tailors, and this was still surviving in the late 15th century; the absence of reference to any other craft guilds may be explained either by the exceptionally early decline of these guilds in 13th-century Wilton, or by the longsurviving importance of the Guild Merchant, which may have discouraged the formation of craft guilds, and sought to retain some of the wealthier craftsmen within its own ranks.

Although the subsidy rolls give only an incomplete list of occupations, from incidental mentions of occupation in the records of the 13th and 14th centuries it is possible to determine the more important industrial pursuits of the town. A number of goldsmiths practised their craft in the late 13th century; seven of them are known amongst the burgesses of the Guild Merchant in the last two decades of the century; (fn. 5) two others are mentioned in the early 14th century, (fn. 6) but since these are only chance survivals the list is almost certainly not allinclusive. The allied crafts of the skinners and glovers were also active in medieval Wilton, although the extent of their local importance is not known; four skinners are known to have been active in the late 13th century, (fn. 7) and another name occurs in the first part of the 14th century; (fn. 8) again the list is not an inclusive one. It is possible that at one time the glovers were fairly numerous for they appear to have inhabited a quarter known as Glover Street. Since, however, the name of this street apparently disappears in the course of the 14th century it may be assumed that the glovers' craft had declined in importance, although Wilton glovers are mentioned as late as the mid-15th century, (fn. 9) so that it is unlikely that the craft died out altogether. But above all, according to a descriptive list of the various characteristics of English towns in the 13th century, (fn. 10) Wilton of the mid-13th century was famed for its needle-making. This is supported by the evidence of occupational surnames in the late 13th century for mention is made of Thomas le Nedler, (fn. 11) Robert, (fn. 12) Richard and Gilbert le Aguiler, (fn. 13) while Nedlers Street and Nedlers Bridge clearly indicate the quarter where these craftsmen lived. But Nedlers Street, like Glover Street, had vanished at the close of the Middle Ages, and there is no record of the needlers' craft after the 13th century, although its early importance is unquestionable.

In addition to the skinners and glovers, there is evidence that the allied crafts of the tanners and dubbers were at one time fairly important in the town's industry. Records of the last two decades of the 13th century reveal the names of five tanners who were living and working in Wilton at the time, (fn. 14) and isolated references from the 13th to the 15th century record the names of various dubbers. (fn. 15) There is no means of estimating how important these crafts may have been at an earlier period, but it is quite certain that they did not wholly die out in the Middle Ages, although continuing only on a very modest scale.

There were always a number of tailors at work in Wilton, and more is known about them since their guild survived at least into the late 15th century. It has been seen that the mayor and comburgenses maintained complete authority over the craft guild, (fn. 16) and in 1464 the two wardens and six masters of the guild, all living within the borough, came before the town authorities to seek authority for the enactment of a guild ordinance. The content of this may be inferred from the fact that five years later the two wardens again came before the mayor and his brethren to complain that Thomas Benyngham had violated this ordinance by working secretly in the house of John Rodman; (fn. 17) in 1483 seven tailors were fined for contravention of guild ordinances. (fn. 18) Sixteenth-century town records contain no mention of the tailors' guild, and it is not known when the organization finally died out.

Indirect evidence suggests that a group of linenworkers was active in Wilton certainly as late as the 13th century. In 1254 the queen and Richard, Earl of Cornwall received as a gift for the coming feast of the Ascension in addition to various cloths of gold and silk, some 500 ells of 'tele de Wilton'. (fn. 19) When the burgesses secured the confirmation of their charter from John, 700 ells of linen cloth formed part of the payment, (fn. 20) and in 1249 the Sheriff of Wiltshire was ordered to obtain 2,000 ells of linen cloth at Wilton, and send them to the Keeper of the Wardrobe in London. (fn. 21) It is not possible to estimate how much woollen cloth was being manufactured in Wilton in the 13th and 14th centuries, but it seems likely that the one fulling mill on the Nadder of which there is record (fn. 22) may not have provided for more than purely local needs. It is possible to identify two dyers living in Wilton in the 1330's, William le Fox (fn. 23) and John le Crocker; (fn. 24) it appears that William le Fox was not wealthy in comparison with many of his fellow burgesses, but nothing is known of the comparative wealth of John le Crocker. It seems at all events clear that Wilton was not in any way competing with the growing cloth industry of New Salisbury, and this failure to do so would account above all for the rapidity of Wilton's decline at the close of the Middle Ages. At the same time the local textile industry never entirely died out, and from the 15th century occasional references to weavers (fn. 25) of Wilton have survived, although it is conceivable that these may have been working for the clothiers of Salisbury.

In contrast to the scanty evidence of industrial activity, which can only hint at an earlier importance, the evidence of the early trading and commercial activity of Wilton is in a sense much more positive. The charter of Henry I exempting the burgesses from financial exactions on their trade with other towns can only have set the seal on an already existing commercial activity, which had manifested itself in the formation of a Guild Merchant. While the charter secured the privileges of external trade, the fairs and markets attracted an immense amount of trade to the town until the rivalry of New Salisbury made itself effectively felt. Details of the great market struggle with New Salisbury (fn. 26) are significant for what they disclose of the trade of the past, in the number and variety of the merchants, who formerly would have brought their meat, fish, cloth, wax, and miscellaneous merchandise, skins, iron, grain, oxen and other animals to trade in the Wilton market. In the 13th century royal purveyors frequently made purchases on the king's behalf at Wilton; before Easter 1235 the bailiffs of Wilton were ordered to arrange the purchase of twenty oxen for the king, (fn. 27) and the purveyors of oxen, cows, and sheep also made their purchases at Wilton and elsewhere for Easter 1256 and 1257, although the king was remaining at Westminster at Easter 1257. (fn. 28)

Traders of towns nearby and further afield came to buy and sell in the Wilton markets and chance references record the presence of men from Bristol, (fn. 29) Sherborne, Dorchester (Dors.), and Winchester as well as New Salisbury (fn. 30) in the late 13th century. Wilton men themselves traded over the country and although they were rarely described as merchants they were sometimes designated as spicers, (fn. 31) mercers, (fn. 32) 'lyndrapers', (fn. 33) mealmongers, (fn. 34) or ironmongers, (fn. 35) denoting perhaps a more specialized line of trade. In 1248–9 five men of Wilton were fined for selling cloth (of unspecified origin) contrary to the assize, (fn. 36) and two others were similarly accused in 1267–8. (fn. 37)

Thirteenth-century Wilton was a local centre for the distributive trade in wine; in 1236 and 1237 the bailiffs of Wilton were ordered to proclaim the assize price of wine to be sold within the borough, (fn. 38) and in 1242 it was ordered that no wines should be sold in Guildford, Wilton, or Salisbury until all the king's wines had been sold there. (fn. 39) In 1248–9 four burgesses and one woman of Wilton were fined for selling wine contrary to the assize, (fn. 40) and five others similarly in 1267–8. (fn. 41) Of the 69 tuns of wine sold contrary to the assize in Wilton in 1280–1, 29 tuns had been sold by the men of Wilton and the remainder by traders of Sherborne, Dorchester, New Salisbury, and Winchester together with one Gascon merchant, (fn. 42) and of the 125 tuns likewise sold contrary to the assize in 1288–9, 76 tuns had been sold by a Gascon, 15 by a merchant of Winchester and the remaining 34 by the men of Wilton. (fn. 43) Wilton merchants purchased wine direct from the merchant vintners of Gascony either at Southampton or at Winchester and acknowledged their debts for the same at Winchester. In the late 13th century, John Isembard, merchant of Wilton, and Peter of Barford of Wilton acknowledged a debt of £4 for wines purchased from a Gascon merchant; in the same year Isembard acknowledged a debt of £5 to another Gascon merchant (fn. 44) and in 1288–9 a further debt of £25 11s. 8d. to yet another Gascon merchant; (fn. 45) in 1291–2 Peter of Barford acknowledged another debt of £3 2s., (fn. 46) while in 1290–1 William le Orfevre, burgess of Wilton, acknowledged a debt of £4 to a Gascon merchant. (fn. 47) Both Peter of Barford and John Isembard were amongst the Wilton merchants mentioned above as selling wines in Wilton contrary to the assize.

The decline of Wilton's markets and fairs at the turn of the 13th century struck a mortal blow at the commercial element of the town, and may well have reacted unfavourably on the amount of capital available for industrial development. But though the vital centre of trade moved away from Wilton, commercial activity did not altogether cease, for the charter of privileges, constantly renewed, maintained favourable conditions of trade with other towns, and in the 15th century Wilton merchants were still travelling with letters patent exemplifying these privileges. (fn. 48)

The internal trade of the town, particularly in respect of victualling, was subject to severe regulation and control, as in the case of all medieval towns. (fn. 49) At the end of the 13th century at least fourteen bakers were at work in Wilton and the suburbs, and all fourteen were fined for evading the regulations governing their trade, some of them twice or more in a single year, and the fines for a second offence were heavy, amounting to 10s. or even 20s. (fn. 50) Baking was of course a specialized occupation, while brewing was undertaken in a number of dwellings. The accounts of the lord's bailiff record numerous fines for contravention of the assize, sometimes as many as 20 or 30 separate cases in a year, and as many as 45 in 1294–5; details of these accounts make it clear that all ranks of town society, from the wealthiest burgess downwards were engaged in the production and sale of ale and cider, although there was a degree of specialization among a group of about a dozen victuallers, many of them women.

Evidence from the late 15th century shows that a determined effort was being made by the mayor and burgesses to limit the number of brewers and to confine their brewing to certain days of the week. In 1469 it was ordained that no one except the common brewers of the borough was to brew without licence of the mayor under penalty of 20s. to the common box; (fn. 51) in 1474 it was agreed that the mayor and burgesses should assign separate days of brewing to the common brewers of the borough and suburbs, offenders being fined 2s.; accordingly each Monday was assigned to one group of five brewers, each Wednesday to another group of five, and each Friday to alternate groups of two. (fn. 52) In 1478 the mayor and burgesses, with the assent of the brewers of the borough, fixed the retail price of ale per gallon according to three qualities, (fn. 53) and five days later it was agreed that the nine common brewers should each only brew once a week. (fn. 54) Similar rulings with slight alterations were made in 1501, 1503, 1504, 1518, 1527, 1541, 1549 and 1567, (fn. 55) but by the 16th century the number of common brewers had dwindled to three. Taverners were also rigidly controlled; in 1557 the four licensed inn-holders of the borough were named and were ordered under penalty of 40s. to set out their wines in front of the tavern door. (fn. 56)

Butchers, fishmongers, and other victuallers were subjected to an equally rigorous control common to the times. Late 13th-century evidence records the punishment of regrators, (fn. 57) while the General Entry Book of the corporation notes many restrictive practices as to the times of selling victuals, (fn. 58) and the time and place where butchers might kill animals for meat. (fn. 59) Whether these practices were a cause or a consequence of the stagnation of the town it is difficult to say, but they are certainly in line with the increasingly monopolistic control of the small governing body, and were undoubtedly adverse to the economic life of the borough and by no means indicative of vitality.


1 C. Roth, History of the Jews in Eng. 91.
2 Cal. Close, 1256–9, 357.
3 C. Roth, op. cit. 64.
4 Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 521.
5 J. I. 1/1001 m. 29d.; K. B. 27/26 m. 23; S. C. 6/1089/13; Wilton Corp. MSS. Misc. Deeds.
6 C 133/95/9; Wilton Corp. MSS. Misc. Deeds.
7 S. C. 6/1089/10; K. B. 27/127 m. 42.
8 E 179/196/17.
9 K. B. 9/133/10.
10 Bodl. Douce MS. 98, f. 194d.; Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, 105; J. C. Tinguy, 'English towns with their 13th-century characteristics' (History Teachers' Miscellany v), 9.
11 K. B. 27/171 m. 57.
12 S. C. 6/1089/10.
13 Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 521.
14 J. I. 1/999 m. 1,/1000 m. 15d.,/1006, m. 61; S. C. 6/1089/10; E 119/1; C 133/95/9.
15 K. B. 27/129 m. 6; K. B. 9/133/10.
16 See p. 11.
17 Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk., f. 11.
18 Ibid. f. 44.
19 Cal. Close, 1253–4, 228.
20 See p. 10.
21 Cal. Close, 1247–51, 199.
22 See p. 21.
23 E 179/196/17; Cal. Pat. 1374–7, 102.
24 Wilton Corp. MSS. Deeds.
25 K. B. 9/133/10.
26 See p. 17.
27 Cal. Close, 1234–7, 52.
28 Cal. Pat. 1247–58, 512, 591.
29 J. I. 1/998 m. 37.
30 J. I. 1/1001, m.29 d.,/1006, m. 61r. and d.
31 Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 521.
32 J.I. 1/998, m. 37.
33 C. P. 25(1)/253/31/5.
34 E 179/196/17.
35 Wilton Corp. MSS. Deeds.
36 J. I. 1/996, m. 25d.
37 J. I. 1/998, m. 37.
38 Cal. Close, 1234–7, 386, 523.
39 Ibid. 1237–42, 393.
40 J. I. 1/996, m. 25d.
41 J. I. 1/998, m. 37.
42 J. I. 1/1001, m. 29d.
43 J. I. 1/1006, m. 61r. and d.
44 C 202/G3.
45 C 202/G5.
46 C 202/G11.
47 C 202/G7.
48 See p. 10.
49 The lord of the borough held the assize of bread and ale, and levied 'brewgeld': see p. 12.
50 S. C. 6/1089/13; E 119/1.
51 Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk. f.45.
52 Ibid. f.4.
53 Ibid. f. 38.
54 Ibid. f. 3.
55 Ibid. ff. 80, 101, 117, 158, 176, 179, 212.
56 Ibid. f. 197.
57 S. C. 6/1089/11.
58 Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk. f. 33.
59 Ibid. f. 60.