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The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
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Gwent Local History No. 45, 1978

Mediaeval Caerleon - 1

by Eija Kennerley

Even in present-day Caerleon some people still speak of it as a "city". This description can be traced back to the travel writers of the last century and earlier who, being romantics, were influenced by the town's Roman past and connected the Latin 'civitas' with its derivation, the city.

Maurice Beresford writes: "In native Welsh society any town-like elements in the economy were most likely to develop organically alongside the manor residence of a prince or chief. Some of these manors had their castles, and in the 13th century they sheltered boroughs even before being taken over by Edward I." Beresford regards a list of jurors in an Assize Roll the earliest authentic record of a town's existence. In the Patent Rolls of 1253 is a mandate to Walerand le Tieis and Nicholas Lupus to make legal enquiries by jury in Caerleon. In the same document Caerleon is called a town. (1)

The manor of Caerleon had possibly existed since or even before the Norman Conquest. The study of medieval manors generally is such a specialised area that the present writer feels it may be better to mention only a few facts concerned with the subject.

William Rees and G. H. Holmes indicate that the lowland areas, Caerleon included, in South Wales were really run in the general Norman and English manner and cannot be considered Welsh. There are many small details concerning Caerleon manor to be found in the Public Record Office, but no larger surveys before 1539-40 and the 17th century, by which time the manor in the medieval sense had actually ceased to exist. There certainly was cultivation of oats and perhaps apples for cider, but the main agricultural industry was cattle holding. The manor was scattered in the countryside and the centre most probably was the castle, no special manor house. There is information on reeves, especially one called Gilbert Huclet, of the year l293-4 (2) and another called Simon Wyngham a little later. (3) The duties of the reeves were the same as elsewhere. It is possible that the office of the reeve developed into that of the mayor, because at least Simon Wyngham later is called mayor.

Even if we cannot say that the town or borough of Caerleon developed directly from the manor, the organisation of the manor certainly had something to do with it. The development of the borough cannot really be traced, only some facts indicating the status can be pointed out.
A borough usually is taken to mean a fairly compact, corporated community where its citizens, burghers, have their burgages, that is, property for which they pay a fixed rent. In the development towards a borough the decisive stage was reached when the community pledged to pay "a certain sum on condition of getting the amount of the dues fixed" and of taking over the internal administration of them. (4) There is no evidence when this happened in Caerleon - if ever. However, there is plenty of evidence that Caerleon was called "borough" and that it had a mayor, from the end of the 13th century.

In the Inquisitio Post Mortem of Gilbert de Clare, 1296, Caerleon is described as follows:
"A Castle, two carucates of land, 50 acres meadow, two mills, 102s. rent of the borough and of cottars, lOs. rent of free foreign tenants, 40s. prise of ale in the borough, 5s. toll of the market and fair and a fishery and weir, held of the king in chief, service unknown, and charged with £10 7s. 4d. yearly to the abbot of Neth" (5)

In this document are several indications of Caerleon being a borough and probably a long established one. The first of these is obvious, namely the use of the title, and borough rent. The toll of the market and the prise of ale are also sure signs of borough organization. A fair does not necessarily indicate a borough or even a town, as fairs could be set up anywhere in the countryside as well. Foreign tenants were found in boroughs only.

The mention of land measures, the mills and the fishery are all quite usual in connection with medieval towns and boroughs, most of which really were more like villages with winding lanes, gardens, ponds, fields and pastures.

Caerleon borough had its liberties, freedom from tolls, etc.:
1315, Dec. 5. To John Abel, escheator this side Trent. Order to deliver to Matilda, late the wife of Gilbert de Clare… the castle and town of Kaerlion, with the liberty of the same. (6)

Tait says of the liberties of the boroughs: "… these chartered privileges were usually and especially at first of a negative rather than positive kind. The simpler sort exempted the recipient from some onerous service or payment. The most valuable of the latter kind was a general exemption from local tolls, which was sometimes extended to the foreign dominions of the Crown". Indeed, Caerleon had this freedom, as we can see below.

Caerleon never had an independent charter but was included with other places in the charters received by the king's favourite, Hugh le Despenser, the younger:

1322: Gift, for good services rendered and to be rendered by Hugh le Despenser, the younger … castles and manors of Usk, Tregruk and Kaerlion … and the advowsons of the churches of … Caerlion Abbey… (7)

1324: Grant to Hugh le Despenser, the younger, that he and his heirs and their burgesses and other tenants of Kaerdif, Usk, Kaerlion, Neuport, Coubridge, Neeth and Kenefec in Wales, shall be quit of all their goods and merchandise of tolls, murage, pontage, pavage, lestage, stallage, picage, tronage, quayage, terrage, and all other customs through all the king's realm, and his duchy of Aquitaine, and his land of Ireland and elsewhere in his power, excepting the customs of wools, hides, wool fells and wines. (8)

In spite of the lamentable end of Hugh le Despenser and Edward II, these liberties were confirmed by Edward III and later kings.

In the charter of 1324 murage is mentioned, but this does not necessarily mean that Caerleon was a walled town. The word may point to any of the other towns, e.g. Cardiff. However, more than two centuries later Leland wrote: "The Ruines of the Walles of the Town yet remayne… " Also, there are documents which mention town or castle walls, e.g., a Bargain and Sale of 1622, concerning a house near, connected or actually being the house now called the Hanbury Arms:

"adjoining the highway leading from the gate or Courte House of the town towards the water side, the town and town Walls, the garden of…" (9)

The gate mentioned in the above document comes up in many documents, and in the 17th century surveys. There also are references to a usual feature in a medieval town, namely a "clockhouse", e.g.:

1617: "abutting on the highway from the gate called Clock-house…" (10)

which indeed seems to say that they were the same building. Even earlier than that, in 1539, the "clockhouse" is mentioned.

As to the early burgages, one has to conjecture only, as there is no evidence. In the Inquisitio Post Mortem of Gilbert the Red (de C'lare), 1296, rent of the borough is said to be 102 shillings. This gives the impression that there were about one hundred burgages. In his History of Cardiff William Rees gives some numbers of burgages in Cardiff and Newport in the 13th and 14th centuries:

1262 - 405 burgages
1296 - 421 burgages
1316 - 380 burgages

1263 - 242 burgages
1306 - 228 burgages
1314 - 275 burgages

Rees writes: "The burgage or half-burgage of the burgess seems to have been regarded in the charter as his absolute property, equivalent to a freehold from which he could not be displaced provided he paid the annual rent of 1s. and discharged the town dues. He could dispose of his burgage by sale or by agreement with the heir, the chattels of the deceased going to his wife and children. No payment to the lord of the best beast as heriot could be demanded on the death of a burgess or of relief on the succession of the heir, as was the custom in the manor. He could brew and bake for his own use, free of payment of the usual toll to the lord, and he could install on his site a horse-mill or hand-mill for grinding corn. He could arrange the marriage of his son or daughter without the permission of the lord".

Holmes gives information of the revenue the lord received from the town of Caerleon between the years 1338-9. It was £55 3s. 9d., which was a great sum and actually the largest of all the revenues from boroughs which had belonged to the de Clare family before 1314. In the years 1329-30 it had been only very little less: £55 0s. 10d.

Two pieces of unusual information make one think that conditions for making good profits existed in the economic life of the town in the Middle Ages. About twenty years before the Inquisitio Post Mortem of Gilbert the Red, two Jews lived in Caerleon. In 1261 John Esmund of Chespesle was bonded to "Aron, son of Josseus, of Karleun, the Jew", (11) and 1278 another Jew, David, had just died and an order to the Sheriff of Gloucester (as the de Clares were earls of Gloucester and Hertford) was sent from the king to go in person to Caerleon and receive the goods of the said David from the bailiffs. (12) The ability of the Semitic race to make money later made their position more and more difficult and there was general persecution, leading to final expulsion in 1290.

One certain sign of borough organisation is the existence of the office of the mayor. There are no officials like that found by the writer, however, before the year 1403 and that one second-hand, given by J. E. Lloyd. In a letter from the mayor and burgesses of Caerleon to the mayor of Monmouth the troubles caused by the rebellion of Owen Glyndwr are discussed, but the mayor's name is not given. (13) Simon or Symone Wyngham's name occurs in 1415, but this is also second-hand. (14) As was mentioned before, he was a reeve a little earlier. However, his name is again in the Extent of William Herbert, of 1458-59, in connection with some land in Caerleon. (15)

The following names of mayors occur in the next century:

John Matthews 1526-27 (16)
William Johns 1527 (17)
John Morgan 1533 (18)
Philip David John (19)
William Vacchan 1539-40 (20)
Walter John Saundor 1554 (21)
Rice Johns, alderman 1577-78 (22)
William John Yehan 1581 (23)
Alexander Lewis, alderman, before 1594 (24)

From the end of the 16th century onwards, until quite recent times, no names of mayors can be found, and the same applies to aldermen.

For the functions of the mayor and the legal processes of the town there was a Session House in Caerleon at least in the year 1587 (25) but there is no way of knowing where it stood or how long it had existed before that date. Of course it could be the building which was also called Clockhouse, or an earlier market house.

The beadle's office is occasionally mentioned. In 1539-40 the beadle was William ap Ieuan, probably the former vicar and clerk. He received £11 7s. 6d. for the expenses of the office, and his robe cost 8d., and for each court he received 12d. (26)

Nothing has so far come to light in regard to the way the different officials were elected and how long they officiated. One has to assume that the general usage in the country, with small local variations, applied to Caerleon.

As to the appearance of the town, hardly anything is known. We must imagine a straggly village, with muddy, winding lanes, with tiny, thatched houses built of rubble and mud. The main cluster of houses was around the castle, and there were many along the river, now disappeared without trace. A street called Heol y Coed existed approximately where the Castle Lane now runs, from High Street to Mill Street, and at the corner of that and the High Street was New Inn, pulled down in the 1660's. (27) The public house now called the Bull Inn, probably also existed in the 16th century, as well as the house now called The Priory. Hanbury Arms, then a private dwelling, stood near the wooden bridge - and, of course, there were still some Roman remains to be seen. The castle had its keep, perhaps ruined, and its bailey which still stood in the 17th century.

Although the name of this article is Medieval Caerleon, the reader has certainly noticed that it deals with later periods. Generally the Middle Ages are understood to finish approximately at the Reformation. In the case of ordinary life in towns and villages, this kind of division into periods is mere theory and has been done for the sake of historians' convenience. We can take it for granted that life in Caerleon was "medieval" at least one century after the Reformation. Medieval institutions like the manor had gradually disappeared, but life went on in the same way, without anyone noticing any lines of division between the Middle Ages and modern times.


1. Cal. of Patent Rolls, 37 Hen III, p. 227.
2. GwRO, Photocopy of PRO/Min.Acc. 920/13.
3. GwRO/MAN/C/36/0058.
4. Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor, p. 320.
5. Cal. of Inquisitions, Vol. III, 371.
6. Cal. of Close Rolls, 8 Edw. II.
7. Cal. of Charter Rolls, 9 July 1322.
8. Id. 4 March 1324.
9. GwRO/JCH/0876.
10. GwRO/260/4981. Also 1618: "town clockhouse", GwRO/D.583.170, and Gl.RO/D/DF/2949, year 1539.
11. A Descriptive Catal. of Ancient Deeds, Vol. IV, D.277.
12. Cal. of Fine Rolls, Vol. I, 16 Feb. 1278.
13. The original is in the Cotton MSS.
14. J. Bradney, Hist. of Monmouthshire, Christchurch.
15. GwRO/MAN/B/77/0001.
16. Cal. of Patent Rolls, 18 Hen.V111, 9 March 1527.
17. 'A Catal. of Star Chamber Proceedings relating to Wales, ed. by Ifan ab Owen Edwards (B. of Celtic Studies publ.).
18. Blacker Morgan, Memoires of the Morgan Family, Vol. 1.
19. An Inventory of Early Chancery Proceedings, concerning Wales, ed. by E. A. Lewis (B. of Celtic Studies publ.).
20. Survey of Caerleon Manor 1539/40, copy by J. Bradney, NLW.
21. GwRO/260/5045.
22. GwRO/260/5501.
23. Gl.RO/D/DF/2961.
24. Gl.RO/D/DF/1736.
25. Starchamber Proceedings.
26. Survey 1539/40.
27. Gl.RO/D/DE/2965; 2912.

Printed sources:

Maurice Beresford: New Towns in the Middle Ages.
James Tait: The medieval English Borough.
M. Weinbaum: British Borough Charters, 1307-1660.
Leland: Itinerary.
W. Rees: Cardiff, History of the City.
W. Rees: South Wales and the March 1285-1415.
G. H. Holmes: Estates of the higher Nobility in fourteenth-century England.
J. E. Lloyd: Owen Glyndower.
E. M. Carus Wilson: Studies in English Trade in the 15th century.
J. H. Thomas: Town Government in the Middle Ages.


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