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What makes a place a "town"?

Some people say that to have a town you need a market, a charter (a legal document granting rights or privileges) and a jury of twelve. Others say that you need burghers (freemen or citizens of a borough) and a mayor instead of a reeve (a reeve looked after the affairs in the medieval village), and defences, such as a town wall.

Here are some elements shared by many medieval towns in England. But not every town had all these elements. For example, only a few towns in Herefordshire had defences. 

  • Defences
  • Street grid
  • Markets and fairs
  • Mint (where you make coins)
  • A Charter from the king, saying you could hold a market or fair
  • Religious organisation (cathedral, monastery, churches...)
  • Population (you couldn't have a town with just 20 people)
  • Judicial Centre (law court)
  • Housing
  • Shops and production of goods (craft people organised into guilds). Professor C. Dyer defines a town as a place that supported a wide range of professions (25 or more)

The Romans had towns in England, but the early Saxons did not build towns - they had trading or manufacturing centres. It was Alfred the Great in the 10th century who started towns (burhs) to defend settlements from Viking raids. During the time of the Domesday Survey Hereford was the only town in this county.

Town Charters were sealed with the seal of the lord who granted the charter. The seal was made of wax and was meant to prove the authenticity of the document it sealed.

For more information on medieval towns in Herefordshire, see the sections listed in the menu on the left.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002]