A Tour of Medieval Marlow

A talk by Andy Ford,  21 March 2013

On 21 March, Andy Ford gave a talk to AIM members and guests on the subject of medieval Marlow.  Specifically, Andy focused on the year 1280 as the historical document known as the Hundred Rolls gives a fascinating picture of Marlow at that time.

This period was arguably the highpoint of the Middle Ages when the country – including Marlow – benefited from a sustained population growth after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and an expansion of arable farming.  In the period between 1066 and 1280, Marlow had expanded rapidly and had clearly emerged as a prominent trading port and town on the river Thames with a population of perhaps as many as 1,000 people by the end of the thirteenth century.

Andy explained how the Hundred Rolls document gives a picture of Marlow as a bustling urban centre, describing how more than 130 different individuals held over 100 separate plots of land.  These individuals were mainly wealthier peasants and artisans, and their names often give an indication to the trade that they followed –Robert Piscator (fisherman), Ralph Tinctor (dyer), Agnes le Savoner (soapmaker).  A surprisingly large number of the landholders of the time were women.  The names of the individuals also shows how deeply embedded Norman-French culture had become by 1280 as very few of the people recorded now had native English names, as well as the extent of migration into Marlow from other areas – sometimes no further than Medmenham, but occasionally as far as Newbury.

Andy then described the town as it might have appeared in 1280 when these people resided in it.  Unfortunately, there are no buildings in modern-day Marlow that date back to this period, but archaeological excavations and other research over the last 20 years and more do enable us to build up a picture of what the town would have looked like.

Andy described the general layout of the town at the time, its centre being along modern-day St Peter Street and the High Street.  Prominent buildings of the time would have been the church (replaced in the nineteenth century by the present church), a number of mills along the river, at least one tithe barn and a bridge over the Thames.  Most of the residences would have been small, timber-framed houses with wattle and daub walls.  A small number of houses in the current High Street give an indication of what these would have looked like.  Later buildings from the following century were the Old Rectory in St Peter’s Street and a hospital along Spittal Street.

Andy explained the importance of trade to the success of the town.  In addition to a long-established market, Marlow was clearly a busy port along the river providing supplies of grain and firewood to the expanding urban market in London.  Some historians have estimated that more than 75% of the grain grown in the surrounding fields at this time was destined for sale in the capital.  The bridge over the river was also a key element in Marlow’s success as a place for trade, although maintenance of the structure seemed an almost constant task and was a major financial burden on the town and local communities.

Andy finished by explaining how, in common with much of the rest of England, Marlow began a process of decline from the late thirteenth century as the limits of productivity from the land were reached and it became more difficult to sustain the expanding population.  There was a series of poor harvests and consequent famines in the early fourteenth century prior to the arrival of the Black Death in the middle of the century, which had a devastating impact across the country – all of which is probably material for another talk some other time!

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