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Introduction to the history of medieval boroughs


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Problems of definition |  Continuity or creation? |  Wiks, burhs, and ports
PLANNED/PLANTED TOWNS |  Growth of self-government |  Urban economy |  Urban society
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Origins: planned / planted towns

(above) Detail from William Smith's view of Bristol, 1568. Bristol was a flourishing port with a mint at the beginning of the 11th century, but its origins and measure of planning that may have gone into its layout are still uncertain. Impetus to settle there came from the protective and commercial benefits of the Rivers Avon (south) and Frome (a tributary). Early settlement lay on raised ground between these two; it was much smaller than in this depiction, a defensive bank defining its perimeter – still visible in 1568 in the almost circular course of the inner ring road – later replaced by a wall. The north-south road between bridges across the two rivers, and a cross-cutting east-west road were the original foci for habitation, their names – respectively Broad Street/High Street and Corn Street/Wine Street – indicating their importance and the commercial character of the settlement. It was the river crossing which gave Bristol its name, derived from Saxon terms meaning "place of assembly by the bridge".

Those core features were what an artist chose to highlight, in an illustration (at right) for Ricart's Kalendar of 1479, to represent the medieval town: the four main streets converging at the marketplace, with its high cross (erected 1373); the inner walls with the four gates – St. John's to the north, guarding the entrance from the Frome bridge, St. Nicholas' gate to the south (the saints names reflecting the addition of churches onto the gate structures) near the Avon bridge, St. Leonard's gate to the west giving access to the far end of the quayside along the Frome, and the New Gate on the east side near the Norman castle (built by 1088), which sealed off the land-based access to the peninsula formed by the two rivers and became the administrative centre for the earldom of Gloucester until 1175. By the end of the 13th century, large suburbs had developed in all directions of the compass, all but the northern one (where most of the major religious houses were established) protected by new lines of walls.


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Created: April 5, 1999. Last update: August 30, 2001 © Stephen Alsford, 1999-2003

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The contents of ORB are copyright © 2003 Kathryn M. Talarico except as otherwise indicated herein.