With economic growth in the news following the mini-budget, Andrew Rylah, of Codicote Local History Society, looks at trade in medieval times in his regular Hertfordshire heritage column.

In recent weeks we’ve heard various proposals, with much disagreement, over how best to grow our economy.

Trade is obviously key, and if we look back to days of old, we can see several strategies used to develop Hertfordshire commerce – with some tactics being more devious than others.

Let’s look at some of the key factors and practices, that helped certain places develop into important market centres.

A strategic location was always important, none more so than along a major road.

Buntingford, located on the Roman road Ermine Street, developed for precisely that reason. The Knights Templars built Baldock in around 1140 where two Roman roads crossed the Icknield Way (a Celto-British word, potentially named for the Iceni tribe, of Boudicca fame). This road may have been old long before the Romans arrived.

The granting of a market was always a significant benefit. The word ‘chipping’ or ‘ceiping’ (from which we get ‘cheap’) means ‘market’, as in Chipping Barnet, which gained its market in 1199.

Codicote itself obtained permission to hold a market in 1267 and a fair in 1271, which helped develop the village (though it never became a major town).

Other towns obtained borough status, giving special privileges around the possession of land. Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Watford and Sawbridgeworth probably fall into this group.

Religion and business went hand in hand in medieval times. The Bishop of London acquired the town of Stortford in 1060 and supported its development. The priors of St Rohesia’s Cross were granted a market in 1189, from which the town of Royston developed.

Herts Advertiser: St Germain's Block in Verulamium Park, St AlbansSt Germain's Block in Verulamium Park, St Albans (Image: Maya Derrick)

But trade and growth didn’t always develop smoothly.

Verulamium, the original St Albans, had been a flourishing Roman town. Let’s fast forward to 948 when Ulsinus, abbot of St Albans, built two churches on Watling Street, another Roman road, and a third on the site of the Roman forum.

To ensure the new St Albans flourished, traffic was diverted through the town, away from the Roman settlement – which was also plundered for building materials.

After sealing Verulamium’s fate, it was left as the ‘hiding-place of robbers, body-snatchers and evil women’, probably an early example of fake news.

That wasn’t all. St Albans sought further means to get rid of competition. On the opposite bank of the River Ver lay the Saxon borough of Kingsbury.

Aelfric, the 7th abbot of St Albans, cunningly bought the great pool next to Kingsbury and drained it. Why? Many local inhabitants fished for a living and this led to an immediate economic decline in that settlement.

Victory having been achieved, King Canute (misrepresented as ordering the tide to stop) allowed the abbey to demolish all of Kingsbury apart from one royal possession. Fishpool Street and Kingsbury Mill are all that remain of that vanished community.

Confrontation seemed to be the lifeblood of the abbey. Townspeople besieged the abbey in 1327 after it claimed a monopoly of all milling facilities.

They demanded the abbey honour privileges granted to the people in Norman times. A subsequent arbitration confirmed all the town’s rights… except those of milling.

Not content, the abbey appealed to royal authority, and in 1332 the town had to surrender its rights and pay a significant fine to the abbey. It’s said that the abbot then set all the town’s milling querns into the floor of his house.

Competition between Ware and Hertford likewise made for troubled times. Ware grew in importance from its rich corn-growing ploughlands. Hertford had monopolies over navigation on the River Lea, and developed a strategic military position.

In 1247, Hertford representatives complained that citizens of Ware weren’t paying bridge tolls and were undermining Hertford’s markets with their own illegal ones.

To make matters worse, in 1275 Ware constructed weirs in the river to obstruct navigation to Hertford. Indeed, the latter’s trade was damaged so much that the town was referred to as ‘Hertford-by-Ware’.

This is just a snapshot of some early bids for growth, disputes and dirty tricks. Trade very often didn’t develop along smooth paths – not even when there were Roman roads to help!

Codicote Local History Society has started a new programme of monthly talks. Everyone is welcome. Also come to our special choir concert at St Giles Church, Codicote, on Saturday, October 15.

For details, contact Nicholas Maddex (nkmaddex@btinternet.com) or check www.codicotelocalhistorysociety.co.uk. Explore your interest in history today!


  • A History of Hertfordshire by Tony Rook, Phillimore 1984.
  • Wikipedia: Icknield Way.