Newmarket: Reconstructing a Local Medieval Marketplace

Reconstructing a Local Medieval Marketplace

For the larger towns of late medieval England, it is often possible to recreate the marketplace, its layout and attendees. However, this is a much more difficult task for the small market settlements that proliferated across the country. The Records of Medieval Newmarket, with a unique range of fifteenth-century courts – general, market, fair and leet – and accompanying account rolls, therefore provides an unparalleled opportunity to explore a small market in some depth. 

The 1472/3 account rolls from Newmarket are highly unusual in the detail they provide of the market stalls and holdings. Through careful analysis, it is possible to reconstruct the marketplace and where particular commodities were sold. As can be seen in the accompanying image, the market cross (in the King’s Way) highlighted the presence of the market to people travelling into the settlement. Gathered around the tollbooth in the main marketplace were the butchers and second-hand clothes dealers of the Shraggery, where they could be closely monitored. Closer to the Guildhall and watercourse were the barkers – linked to tanning of leather – and cordwainers, two trades that required easy access to water supplies. A broader section of the market, behind the main tenements on the King’s Way, comprised the Drapery and Mercery and was devoted to the cloth trade. 

Map drawn by David Addy

But who was hiring these stalls and selling in the marketplace? The evidence of Newmarket’s fifteenth-century court rolls and accounts suggests it was often outsiders who came into the settlement to ply their trade.  The first group of traders attracted to Newmarket were people from smaller, nearby settlements who predominantly engaged in agriculture and husbandry and who brought their produce to Newmarket to sell at the market. Of sixty-one different places which are named as the home settlements of people who had contacts with Newmarket, forty-one were within a twelve mile radius. There are also notable examples of local traders in the court rolls, with references to fines being levied against bakers from Ashley, Burwell, Bottisham, Ely, Fordham, Kentford and Haverhill. In addition, a number of butchers and graziers trading in Newmarket came from the Cambridgeshire vills of Kirtling, Cheveley and Ashley where they probably grazed their cattle on the very land that is so important today for the rearing of racehorses. These butchers included at least six members of the Farewell family who came from both Ashley and nearby Kirtling, such as Ralph Farewell of Ashley, who rented three shops in the Butchery row of the market between 1411 and 1437. Ralph Farewell also acted as a bailiff, juror and pledge in the Newmarket market court, and in his will of 1447 he left bequests to the fabric of both of the two Newmarket chapels.  

Newmarket was also located both near to a number of important cloth-producing areas and between these areas and wool-producing areas. At this time, cloth was being produced throughout Suffolk although the areas to the south of the county and into Essex were growing in importance. The wool for this growing cloth industry was also being produced in a range of areas around Newmarket, particularly in the Breckland and parts of High Suffolk. Through its prime position at the junction of several important roads, Newmarket played a role in the collection and distribution network, even if low-level compared to Colchester or Bury St. Edmunds. Large amounts of both wool and cloth are referred to in debt cases, whilst a significant number of drapers and mercers were trading in the settlement. For example, from the account roll of 1472/73, it is possible to identify at least twenty-three shops and stalls in the row known as the Drapery, whilst other rows which probably also dealt with wool and cloth included the Mercery, with at least nine and a half shops or stalls, and the Old Drapery with two. In particular, a large number of men from Bury St Edmunds can be identified as holding shops or stalls in Newmarket, and many of these were associated with cloth, such as John Hog, draper of Bury St Edmunds, who rented a vacant place in the Drapery in 1412. 

This is just a glimpse into how the Records of Medieval Newmarket can help us to recreate the marketplace and the traders who frequented it. We can bring to life again the vibrancy of everyday commercial interactions that took place in small markets across late medieval England. 

This blog post was written by Professor James Davis and Dr Joanne Sear, who have co-edited Records of Medieval Newmarket (Boydell, Suffolk Records Society, 2023). 

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts