Markets & Fairs
In medieval Shropshire, the majority of the population made their living through agriculture and livestock farming. Most lived where they worked, with relatively few in towns. Farmers at first brought their produce to informal markets held in the grounds of their local village church after worship. As settlements grew bigger, their markets grew in size also and became more attractive for offering a wider choice of goods and prices.
Markets fall into two categories: prescriptive and granted. Many of the oldest fairs were prescriptive which meant that they had been held “time out of memory”. Other markets were set up by a specific grant from the monarch or lord of the manor. By 1066, the right to establish a market was considered to be a royal franchise only and all such requests were supposed to be made to the monarch. However, it wasn’t until the 13th Century that monarchs began to crack down on this and royal grants were then recorded on the charter rolls. These royal grants are detailed and specific, naming the grantee and the day of the week for the market. The location of the market was noted, usually at a manor belonging to the grantee. A typical charter granted a market and a fair at the same place. From the reign of King John onwards, monarchs also insisted on the right to approve any alterations to the timing, duration or location of existing markets. For example, anyone wishing to change the day of the market was obliged to secure a grant recording this royal licence. A town which had a market charter was then known as a market town.
The advantage of having a charter was that a new market town could not be established within a certain travelling distance of an existing one. This limit was usually a day's travelling to and from the market. If the travel time exceeded this standard, a new market town could be established in that locality. As a result of this limit, official market towns often petitioned the monarch to close down illegal markets in other towns. These distances are still law in England today. Other markets can be held, provided they are licensed by the holder of a royal charter, which tends currently to be the local town council. Failing that, the Crown can grant a licence called a “Letter Close”. A market charter made it hard for a rival market to set up close by as the charter granted privileges to the town and the traders such as exemptions from tolls and taxes (on particular days) which its rival markets did not enjoy. Those attending the market to buy goods thus gained benefit from lower costs and no tolls. This meant that traders using an uncharted market faced costs for taking goods to and from the market and paying extra trading taxes to the town. A chartered town also benefited by attracting people to the town. The area over which the town's powers extended was clearly defined and this area was known as the borough. By becoming a free borough, this gave the town powers to hold a court, levy fines and create local laws.
Markets were originally located where transport was easiest, such as at a crossroads or close to a river ford. Later on, they took place in a wide main street or central market square. These provided room for people to set up stalls and booths on market days. Often the town erected a market cross in the centre of the town to obtain God's blessing on the trade. Market towns often featured a market hall as well, with administrative or civic quarters on the upper floor above a covered trading area. Markets were places where face-to-face trading took place, at a set time and place each week. They were subject to regulation, often laid out in a market charter. Many markets operated as prescriptive markets, having existed “time out of mind” and were subject to the regulation of the local manorial court. The number of markets declined during the 20th Century as shopping habits changed with supermarkets and shopping centres.
Fairs were like markets, prescriptive and chartered. The same principles apply except that the activity was mainly a feast with entertainment, although the opportunity was taken to sell goods in bulk. They were usually held on religious saints’ days or the anniversary of when a church was dedicated. They were often held on the same day as a market and at the same location but this was not always the case. Many charter fairs date back to medieval times, especially during the 13th century. Although many started with street entertainers and food stalls, nowadays most are the venue for travelling funfairs run by showmen.
Many prescriptive fairs date from Roman times, being holidays where workmen had the day off work. These early fairs were called a “wake” or a “vigilia” and many formed the basis for later chartered fairs. In an era in which communications and travel were difficult and often dangerous, the fair system was a good way for commerce to occur. During the 12th century, many towns acquired the right from the Crown to hold an annual fair, usually serving a local customer base and lasting for two or three days. Dozens of stalls would be established and hundreds of pounds of goods bought and sold. Special courts, called Courts of Piepowders would be established to govern the events and settle disputes; this would include establishing local law and order, imposing systems of weights and measures; monitoring legal contracts and other features of medieval trade.
Towards the end of the medieval period, the position of fairs began to decline. One important shift was that some merchants began to establish permanent premises and could supply goods when required. Rather than the customer buying from periodic chartered fairs, they could now buy goods direct from the merchant. As an example of this, the household accounts of Henry III show that the monarch bought 75% of his requirements from the great fairs; by the time of Edward II the majority was being bought directly from the major merchants.
Gazetteer of Markets & Fairs
More information at Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516
Markets in the larger towns often had a special building where traders could set up their stalls under cover. This could either be in a large building or a building with open sides at ground level and offices upstairs that would act as a guildhall, town hall or moot hall.
Shrewsbury Market Hall
The list below shows market halls in Shropshire that are still standing.
Albrighton - SJ814040
Bishop’s Castle - SO324890
Bridgnorth - SO716930
Church Stretton - SO453937
Cleobury Mortimer - SO674758
Clun - SO301809
Ironbridge - SJ673035
Ludlow - SO511747
Market Drayton - SJ675342
Newport - SJ745191
Oakengates - SJ697109
Oswestry - SJ290296
Shrewsbury - SJ491125
Wellington - SJ650116
Wem - SJ512289
Whitchurch - SJ542416