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 a fortress.

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 east gate.

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 to Wallingford.

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.

Wallingford’s 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.