2021 marks the 731st anniversary of the granting of a borough charter to establish the town of Altrincham. The late medieval town occupied the area now known as the Old Market Place, which lies on the eastern slopes of Bowdon Hill in Trafford, Greater Manchester, and was sited on a terrace at roughly 45m above sea level. The present market cross was erected in 1990 on the 700th anniversary of the borough charter, although a market cross is recorded in the market area of the borough much earlier. As readers of this blog will be aware I’ve been recording buildings around the Old Market and digging the occasional archaeological hole for many years with the South Trafford Archaeological Group and the help of Altrincham History Society. So far, the archaeological evidence has taken the physical story back to the 14th century, whilst the latest discovery, made just before the pandemic hit, was the standing remains of a timber cruck building hidden behand a later brick-built facade.
The Founding of the Borough
Altrincham was a planned town created in 1290 by the local manorial lords, the Massey family, through a borough charter. As a planned town with a regular weekly market, encompassing an area carved from the surrounding manors of Bowdon, Dunham, and Hale, Altrincham was radically different from the rest of the settlement pattern of this part of northern Cheshire (one of dispersed farmsteads and the occasional village), and was the only new settlement type established during the later medieval period in this area.
Medieval boroughs were urban centres, where not all the population earned their living from farming. They had an authorised market and fair with much of the population of the town earning their living from trade rather than farming. These markets were operated by a self-regulating town community of tradesmen, known as burgesses, who fixed the tolls and trading arrangements with the agreement of the lord of the manor. The burgesses made their profit from their deals, but the market and fair were owned by the lord of the manor who collected the dues, such as for the stalls (the stallage), and for people coming to the market (the lastage). As Altrincham History Society have pointed out, one oddity with the Altrincham borough charter is that it does not explicitly mention a market, although its existence is implied by references to the rights of stallage and tolls within that document. Boroughs were not usually created without a market so that these references imply that a market existed before 1290, although there is no archaeological evidence for settlement before this date (as yet, although the nearby Timperley Old Hall saw some activity in the late Saxon period). No separate market charter survives so that it is unclear whether this was an official market or whether this market grew up by custom. In either case the lack of documentary references to Altrincham before 1290 suggests that the market was not significantly older than the creation of the borough.
In small towns like Altrincham, where trade did not occupy their whole existence, the burgesses had to supplement their income with crafts and farming, and such boroughs were partly rural in their economy. Research by Altrincham History Society and Bowdon History Society shows that access to common pasture for cattle, and freedom to cut peat were important privileges and were freely allowed in the Massey estates in Altrincham, Dunham, Sunderland (the area roughly between Clay Lane, Davenport Green, and Hale Barns), and Timperley. As well as a plot of town land, known as a burgage, each burgess had one acre in ‘the fields’; an area which included Town Field on the north-western side of the borough. This includes the modern are of High Bank which was investigated by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit and the South Trafford Archaeological Group in 1981. For the burgage plot and the acre strip there was an annual chief-rent of 12d.
The Late Medieval Borough
Altrincham was a seigneurial borough, that is it was established and owned by the local lord of the manor, in this case Hamo de Massey V. There were a number of reasons, both economic and social, for the creation of such a borough. In the case of Altrincham Don Bayliss (the first Chair of Altrincham History Society) suggested in 1992 that the financial problems of baron Hamo V may have been a spur, although there was a general trend in the 13th century towards the establishment of markets and boroughs by local manorial lords in order to exploit the rise in trade created by an expanding population. Such an investment in property and commercial development by the creation of a market borough had a number of benefits for the local lord. Its size reflected the status of its founder, and the market would generate income for the local lord in terms of tolls and dues.
The core of the new borough was the Old Market Place, Market Street and Church Street, although other areas may have been part of the original planned town. In these areas plots of land, known as burgages, were laid out. Each burgage was rectangular in shape, laid off at right-angles from the streets with the narrow end fronting the roadway. The street frontage of a burgage was usually the location of the medieval town house. According to the Altrincham borough charter these burgages were two perches in width and five in length, suggesting a plot of land 48 feet (14.63m) by 120 feet (35.58m). A number of these old burgage plots have survived as boundaries and building lines into the 21st century, along with the fragmentary remains of several timber-framed buildings of the later medieval and 16th and early 17th centuries.
The number of burgages in Altrincham is not listed in the Charter, as was often the case, and thus it is not known precisely how many there were. However, a Dunham rental of 1348/9 lists 120 burgages at that date. If accurate, then this figure would have put Altrincham amongst the second rank of towns in the medieval North West; equal in number to the royal borough of Macclesfield (on whose charter the Altrincham grant may have been based), but ahead of Congleton which had 80, Stockport which may have had around 60, and Knutsford with only 38. However, since such planned towns were speculative, often not all burgage plots were occupied, as has been demonstrated at Frodsham. This may explain why a Dunham rental of 1348 records only 45 burgesses, although undoubtedly the Black Death in this year also had an impact on the number of burgages occupied. Nevertheless, the fact that only fourteen burgesses held one burgage, whilst 31 held between two and nine burgages each, suggests that the town had already reached its economic limit by this date.
When I attended the old Altrincham County Grammar School in the 1970s, with its uniform of green blazers, and a red and yellow badge with a lion rampant, I didn’t realise that this was the heraldic symbol for the old borough. It’s a design that still survives in use for the now ceremonial court leet of Altrincham, an institution that can trace its roots by to the 1290 Charter, and to which I was fortunate enough to be elected in 2019, a a freeman burgess.