A Tale of Two Towns and Two Castles
Nottingham and Wallingford compared
It may seem to
you somewhat perverse that I should propose to talk about Nottingham and Wallingford. Today
the towns are like chalk and cheese. From your perspective, I suspect, Nottingham is very much a
post-industrial northern town. There are affluent areas, although they tend to
be in the suburbs, but its culture is flinty working class. No longer Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,
perhaps, but still decidedly ‘up-north’. By contrast, for me, a northern lad, Wallingford is a
much softer place: genteel, middle class, quintessentially English. We all have
our preconceptions and prejudices. Nevertheless, I think it is true to say that
a world has always separated Nottingham and Wallingford. I suspect that there was never a time at which the history of one
directly touched the other. However, having said all that, there are some
remarkable parallels between the medieval histories of the two towns that, I
believe, are worth closer examination.
I touched on something of the
parallels last year when I attempted to dissect the character of Wallingford through
time. Then I argued, following Katharine, that Robert d’Oilly inherited not
only the lands of his father-in-law Wigod of Wallingford but also his office. I
concluded that the liberty of the honour of Wallingford was
essentially a pre-Conquest institution and cited Nottingham as an example of a
place where a constable also inherited pre-Conquest lands and functions. That,
however, does not exhaust the similarities between the two towns. Today I want
to explore the parallels in more detail to see if they can suggest a model for
the development of Wallingford and the relationship of castle and town.
The history of Nottingham, as with so many
towns, starts with a river crossing. The River Trent plays much the same role
in the East Midlands as the Thames does in the south. Draining into the Humber estuary, it was the main
line of communication between the North Sea and the heartlands of Mercia.
It was, then, a vital strategic link in the East
Midlands and Nottingham dominated it. The
town is sited atop a cliff on the north bank at its lowest fordable point where
the main road between the south and the north crossed the flood plain of the river.
Throughout the medieval period and beyond Nottingham was the key to the control of the North.
According to Asser writing in the
late ninth century, it was called Tigguacubauc
in the Middle Saxon period, a British name meaning ‘house of caves’. Nottingham is still famous for
its caves. The Old English name, Snotingeham,
‘the settlement of the people of Snot’ (I jest not), suggests a wider
territory, perhaps encompassing much of the land around the present town on
both sides of the Trent. The Danes over-wintered there in 868 and it was probably their
defences that were repaired by Edward the Elder, king of Wessex,
in 918. Two years later Edward returned and built a second borough south of the
river – its site is unknown - and a bridge. Thereafter it remained English with
only a brief interlude of hostile Danish occupation between 939 and 942.
Although Nottingham had a defined
territory in the reign of Athelstan – it took in southern Nottinghamshire and
south Derbyshire – there does not seems to have been a burghal system like that
of Wessex at this time. Or at least we don’t know about one. We only have
evidence for later in the century. You will, no doubt, be familiar with the
idea that Lincoln, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, and Stamford was an alliance of Danish boroughs. However, in reality they never
seem to have acted together before the mid tenth century. In fact, quite the
contrary. The Five Boroughs of the Northern Danelaw, as described in the late
tenth-century Wantage Code, is clearly a later English institution. Like
Alfred’s burghal system, it was defensive in nature, its target here being Yorkshire and the North which
remained Danish until 954 and thereafter bandit country well into the eleventh
century. Nottingham may well have been its administrative centre.
By 1016 the Five Boroughs had given way to the shires of the East Midlands and Nottingham had became the
county town of Nottinghamshire. On the eve of the Conquest, there was a massive
concentration of royal and comital estates in the shire which is unparalleled
in the East Midlands. Nottingham itself was above all a royal settlement. Domesday Book records no
lords in the borough other than the king and earl. Ecclesiastical structure
attests the essential accuracy of this picture. There were only ever three
churches in medieval Nottingham and in 1066 there was probably just the one. St Mary’s church, on
top of the hill within the English Borough, was a major royal foundation which
signals the dominance of the king.
Nottingham was no less important
thereafter. The castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068 to secure the
route to the north, was one of the first to be built in the East Midlands. It was entrusted
to William Peverel and he was granted an extensive honour in Nottinghamshire,
Derbyshire and Northamptonshire for the support of his office. The Nottinghamshire
element of the fee looks like a post-Conquest castlery. And, indeed, it has
usually been treated as such. In reality, however, the block of land had a
decidedly pre-Conquest identity in much the same way as did the honour of Wallingford. In
1086 William held Earl Tosti’s estate to the west of the English Borough in Nottingham where the honour met
throughout the Middle Ages. In addition he held the comital manor of Clifton to the
south of the borough. His remaining estates, almost all the lands around Nottingham, had been held by
the earl’s thegns, many of whom continued to hold at the time of Domesday under much the same terms as
they had in 1066. William Peverel seems to have assumed the military functions
of the pre-Conquest earldom and its apparatus
He did so, however, as a minister. William was never the lord of Nottingham and he held the
castle in his capacity as constable of the king. Much of his lands may also
have been held ex officio. A block of
the Derbyshire lands of his fee and a number of Nottinghamshire manors are
explicitly said to be held in custody in Domesday Book. Nevertheless, the honour
passed to his son William II Peverel in 1113 who held the castle and town for
King Stephen during the Anarchy. For his pains, he forfeited the honour in 1155.
The fee was briefly held by Rannulf of Chester but, on his death in the same
year, it escheated to the crown. Thereafter, it remained royal demesne
throughout the Middle Ages. Like the honour of Wallingford, it was
a royal appanage and was considered to be a liberty.
The castle was one of the major
fortresses in the North. Prince John held it against King Richard and it was
besieged in 1194. In the civil war of 1215-16 it became the headquarters of the
king’s government north of the Trent. Henry III spent vast sums of money strengthening and extending the defences,
more than on almost all the other castles in the realm. In the thirteenth
century it was a garrison and arsenal, being used for the storage of siege
engines and the like. It was, though, not just a fortress. In the 1250s Henry
III ordered a new keep to be built and specified that it should have windows
overlooking both the town and the Trent. He minutely supervised the furnishing
of its rooms. The castle, then, was also a favoured residence and it was to be appreciated
as such by Henry’s successors. By the fourteenth century it had become more a palace
than a fortress and so it was used throughout the Middle Ages. Royal interest
in the site continued until the reign of Elizabeth.
The history of Nottingham and its castle in
the medieval period is characterized above all by unremitting royal oversight
and control. The parallels with Wallingford are resounding. I hardly need remind this audience of the pivotal
role of our town here in the defence of Wessex in
the ninth and tenth centuries and the control of the middle Thames valley thereafter. Here
too after the Conquest was one of the earliest and biggest castles in the
country and the provisions for its defence also drew on Anglo-Saxon
arrangements. It was to remain a royal stronghold and palace for much of the
Middle Ages. Nottingham and Wallingford are remarkably similar. What, then, can the experience of the one
tell us about the other? I think quite a lot.
One of the things we ‘know’ about
the major boroughs of the later Anglo-Saxon period is that mercantile activity went
hand in hand with fortification. Boroughs were as much about secure trading as
defence. Nowadays we are, perhaps, less likely to think in terms of a single
town plan, but it cannot be doubted, it is argued, that markets and merchants
tenements were an integral part of the pre-Conquest townscape. Domesday shows
us vibrant urban communities with structural links to the countryside – the
contributory manors – that were all about trade. The construction of castles
after the Conquest further stimulated growth.
This is a picture that clearly had some reality in the Danelaw..
Cities and towns like York, Lincoln, and Stamford were powerhouses of economic growth and trade from at least the
early tenth century. Their phenomenal growth has come to characterize all the
boroughs of the Danelaw. In the past it has been assumed that Nottingham was no different.
However, archaeological excavation in the 1970s and early 1980s, still unfortunately
unpublished, has changed that view. There is, in fact, little evidence for a
Danish borough in Nottingham after the as yet unlocated winter camp of 868. The boroughs of the
southern Danelaw took the brunt of the campaign of English conquest in the late
ninth and early tenth centuries and Nottingham probably remained in the sphere of York and largely
undefended. It was re-fortified and garrisoned with English and Danes by Edward
the Elder in 918 in what can be seen as a peace treaty, but it did not become a
frontline borough until 920 when the Danish regime at York was superseded
by the vikings of Dublin.
It was probably from that date that Nottingham was fortified with a
massive timber rampart and ditch encompassing an area 500 by 600 metres which
came to define the English borough for the first time. The defences were
re-modelled in the mid tenth century, but there is little evidence of what we
might call urban activity. No vestiges of industry have been found, apart from
a small pottery kiln in Halifax
Place that seems to have
produced wares only for the high status site on High Pavement, the main street
of the settlement, with which it was associated. There is some evidence for
planning in the later tenth century in the east of the borough – terracing and
the like were picked up in an excavation between Woolpack Lane and Barker Gate
– but plots were large and the building on them small. There was always a great
deal of space in the borough.
Economic activity is, of course, difficult to measure. But if the
output of mints is some sort of proxy, then it was always modest before the
Conquest. Neighbouring boroughs were much more productive. In particular,
considerably more coin was produced in Derby some twenty
kilometres to the west. The two boroughs were, in fact, closely related. The
tolls of Derby belonged to Nottingham until the twelfth century and the sheriff of Nottingham administered both
boroughs. Derby was never defended and it is very likely that it was a mercantile
suburb, as it were, of Nottingham. Before the Conquest Nottingham itself seems to have been primarily
This may seems bizarre to you, indeed most unlikely. But it is a
pattern of development that is well attested in the Middle Saxon period. The
manifold functions that we associate with towns – market, courts, churches etc –
were at that time often dispersed among a number of settlements. This is best
exemplified with the pairing of wics,
markets, with burhs. So, Hamwih was twinned with Winchester, Londonwic with London etc. I am
suggesting here that it is precisely this pattern that persisted into the late
Saxon period in Nottingham. As a regional centre of royal power, the borough commanded food
rents from the surrounding royal estates and they supplied most of its needs.
It was the very strength of royal power and the resources that it could command
that made mercantile activity, if not otiose, then less essential.
The construction of the castle saw significant changes in the
topography and society of Nottingham, but in the long run did not fundamentally affect this tributary
economy. The castle itself was built on what appears to have been an unoccupied
site on Castle Rock some 500 metres to the west of the borough. However, a
French borough was founded sometime between 1067 and 1086 in the space between,
perhaps with the specific aim of
servicing the stronghold. As you can see, it was planned in relation to the
We have no information on the relationship of the castle with either the French or English
borough in the first hundred years of its existence. Thereafter, though, it was
little more than a grand backdrop to the town of little economic value.
Although an arsenal and favoured residence, the castle was rarely occupied.
Henry II visited only seven times between 1153 and 1185 and Henry III thirteen
times between 1226 and 1264. From 1226 to 1405 three, five and seven year gaps
between royal visits were the norm. None lasted more than a few weeks at most. Much
of the time there was only a skeleton staff in place, probably not more than a
handful of people. Building campaigns increased the numbers, especially in the
reigns of Henry II, Henry III, and Edward III. Local labour was used from time
to time but the King’s Works supplied almost all of the craftsmen. Much of the
materials used was also sourced outside Nottingham, usually from royal manors in the region.
The castle was largely irrelevant to the development of the town.
The French Borough was a stimulus of kinds. As far as can be determined all of
the holdings recorded in Domesday Book were located in the new Borough. It
would therefore seem that the institution introduced a degree of tenurial
heterogeneity that was theretofore unprecedented. Significantly, St Nicholas’
church was situated within the new borough and the third church, St Peter’s,
nearby. It is certainly true that, with the construction of the Saturday Market
between the English and French Boroughs, perhaps in the twelfth century, the
centre of gravity of Nottingham shifted decisively to the west. Nevertheless, Nottingham was always a small
town, ranking well below most towns in the East
Midlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries. Although it received its first charter of liberties in c.1155, it could never compete with the
likes of Lincoln and Stamford. By then it had missed the boat.
Nottingham, then, was a major
royal centre both before and after the Conquest, but the borough never
developed a particularly vibrant economy. Did Wallingford have a
similar trajectory in the medieval period? The similarities in the history of
the two settlements suggests to me that we should take the possibility
seriously. Hitherto, I think, we have tended to assume that since Wallingford
was one of the most importance royal centres both before and after the
Conquest, it must have also been on a par with, say, Oxford and Winchester with
a flourishing mercantile economy. We have been left with the considerable
reality of a ‘decline’ in the thirteenth century that defies explanation. Why
should Wallingford not have been as successful as its neighbours? If royal control
stifled development as it seems to have done in Nottingham, then perhaps we
shall have an answer. Wallingford too had always been a fortress.
The power of the crown in Wallingford is
clear from the Domesday account of the borough. King Edward the Confessor and
William the Conqueror after him were lords of the town. That, of course, is
true of all the more important boroughs in England
at the time. What distinguishes Wallingford, however, is the large number of ministri, royal servant, who also held land there. Foremost amongst
these in 1066 was a garrison of housecarls, that is household troops. Other
such garrisons may well have been found at other places, but this remains the
only reference to such. It suggests that the king attached special importance
Equally significant is the absence of the earl. After his conquest
of England in 1017, King Cnut had kept Berkshire in his own hands. Subsequently, the earldom, and the control of the
fyrd that it suggested, passed to the Godwine family. The few manors in the
county held by Earl Harold in 1066 may have been appurtenant to the office.
There is no record of a comital fee in Wallingford,
however. Defence of the borough, and presumably oversight of the army, was
assigned to a minister, Wigod of Wallingford, probably as a staller.
The social structure of the borough reflects that degree of control.
A large number of properties were attached to rural manors in the surrounding
areas. Elsewhere such links are usually taken to indicate mercantile activity.
Most of these in Wallingford, by contrast, would appear to be primarily related to military
obligations. As you will recall, there is a concentration of the manors in
Oxfordshire east of the River Thame, the probable territory of Wallingford
beyond the Thames. Although their lords probably enjoyed some of the king’s customs, many
dues were reserved. Few, if any, of the fees had their own courts in the later
Middle Ages. Above all, they generally do not seem to have had ecclesiastical
rights. Of the eleven medieval churches in the town only St Mary’s and possibly
Holy Trinity, is known to have belonged to one of the manors. The remainder were
the king’s or subsequently came into his hands.
credentials as a major royal centre before the Conquest are as strong as those
of Nottingham. Of its economy we know little. There is no evidence of significant
industry, although this is perhaps not surprising for a Wessex
borough at this time. I know nothing of the output of the mint. I look forward
to hearing more this afternoon from Gareth Williams. What is clear is that the
extent of development was always limited. The south-east quadrant of the
borough was the only area of the town that was intensively settled. Wallingford was no
Lincoln or York which experienced rapid growth at this time.
I have already suggested that Nottingham’s needs were probably satisfied by food rents and renders from
surrounding royal estates. Wallingford provides eloquent evidence of the process. In the Domesday account
of the borough it is stated that ‘they who dwelt there did service for the king
with horses or by water as far as Blewbury, Reading, Sutton
Courtenay [and] Benson [Oxon.]’. The passage surely indicates the provisioning
of the garrison and town from the surrounding royal manors. Do we see here the
mainspring of Wallingford’s economy?
If we are looking for a mercantile twin, then Oxford is the
obvious candidate. Its links with Wallingford are not as pronounced as Nottingham’s with Derby, but are nevertheless there. As far as I know, there is no evidence
of overlapping toll boundaries. But both boroughs were subject to the same
administration from the time of the Conquest. Robert d’Oilly built both castles
and was presumably constable of both until Miles Crispin, his son-in-law, was
appointed to Wallingford in the 1080s. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Oxfordshire and
Berkshire shared a sheriff and the county court met on the boundary between
the two at the southern end of the causeway at Oxford. Of earlier
links there is no evidence.
The construction of the castle can have had little impact on this
putative tributary economy. From 1067 to 1153 when it was surrendered to Henry
II, it may have been relatively intensively used by its lords, but none would
have been in permanent residence. Thereafter, royal visitors were of necessity
infrequent. All the factors that divorced Nottingham castle from the borough of Nottingham probably applied with equal force to Wallingford. We
have not as yet, I confess, examined the documentation explicitly in these
terms. But preliminary analysis of the building accounts of the early fourteenth
century, for example, show that expertise was organized by the King’s Works and
materials were sourced outside the town. Wallingford Castle, at
most, provided jobs for a handful of labourers.
I would suggest, then, that our initial conundrum – the apparent
rapid decline of Wallingford as it emerges into the light of record – is an illusion. The level
of economic activity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was probably
not much different in kind from that of the first 300 years of its history. ‘Service
industries’ there were. The goldsmiths, vintners, and the like no doubt
supplied the castle, the priory, and the various functionaries within them. But
Wallingford was not an urban community if we mean by that a society driven by a
self-sustaining industrial and mercantile economy. Its mainspring was otherwise.
It was the demands of its military role that dictated its fortunes and,
paradoxically, in those terms it may well have been the construction of the
castle that impinged upon it most adversely. The defence of the burh brought
all manner of free men into Wallingford before the Conquest. Castle guard, by contrast, was confined to a
military elite. It is probably no
coincidence that the urban appurtenances of rural manors became little more than
a source of income in the hundred year after the Conquest. The fact of neither
a borough nor a castle guaranteed urban development.
In asserting this, I do not seek to pre-judge the chronology of
urbanization elsewhere. Richard Holt has recently argued that in origin all boroughs
were fortresses and it was not until the mid tenth to early eleventh centuries
that they became towns. By ‘all’ I take
him to mean the boroughs of Wessex
and western Mercia, and I might doubt that urbanization is so late in some of them. Be
that as it may, however, I would argue that the mechanisms I have outlined prevented
the development of Wallingford when other boroughs jumped ahead. Royal power was at once the
making of the borough and its unmaking.