Manchester History of the Middle Ages

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History of Manchester in the Middle Ages


The Salford Hundred

Very little is known about Manchester during the Middle Ages, and it was by no means an important town as it had been during Roman times. Few Englishmen would have even heard of the place, though Salford would have been well known as would Wigan, Preston and Lancaster. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, Manchester was a mere district of Salford, and the so-called Salford Hundred was a large Manor, covering all the lands between the River Ribble (Preston) in the north, and the River Mersey (at Stockport) in the south. The Salford Hundred and the barony of Manchester were in the ownership of the descendants of Rogier de Poitevin, a gift from William the Conqueror for services rendered in the invasion of Britain.
After the Black Death Plague in the late 14th century, the town began to grow as the textile industry began around the Cathedral area. In Hanging Ditch, (the remnants of a walkway between the Cathedral and the Corn Exchange - now 'The Triangle'), evidence of fulling and tanning industries has been found.

Chethams Library from an old print Long Millgate, manchester
Chethams' Library from the Irwell from an old print; Long Millgate in the 1870s - little changed since medieval times.

Early Textile Production in Manchester - Flemish Weavers

By 1322 there is mention of a fulling mill in old town records, and Hanging Ditch is thought to have been named after the manner in which fullers hung their cloth out to drain and dry over the ditch which was the River Irk (now culvetted over behind the present day Mitre Hotel). The Mill is referred to as being in "Meal Gate" (modern Long Millgate, near Victoria Station and Chetham's School).
Later, Flemish weavers moved to the area, fleeing from religious persecution in the Low Countries and brought with them new skills, linen, lace and bleaching. The district of Whitefield, now in the Borough of Bury, is thought to have been named because of Flemish occupation of the area and the manner in which they laid out their bleached cloth over the fields on either side of the main Manchester-Bury Road - hence the 'white fields' (now Whitefield).

A Castle and Collegiate Church

Few would know that Manchester once had a castle! It once stood on the spot now occupied by Chetham's School, and its defensive potential can still be seen from Hunts Bank near Victoria Station and the MEN Arena. It was unlikely to have been more than a wooden palisade on top of a raised natural embankment. The Gresleys, descendants of Poitevin, built their fortified Manor House here, remnants of which can still be seen in the raised stone walling from Hunts Bank.
So, medieval Manchester grew up around the collegiate church, now the cathedral, then the Parish Church of St Mary. At one end was Long Millgate, the main entrance into the town from the North (as it still is today), the Market Place (now long since gone) whose place was later marked by Market Stead Lane (contemporary Market Street), and Deansgate, from the South and the main road to Chester and Liverpool to the west.

Manchester as a Market Town

By the thirteenth century, Manchester had become a market town and had applied for and been granted the right to hold an annual fair in 1223, and the town had grown sufficiently to be granted a charter in 1301. In 1368, a stone bridge was erected over the River Irwell to connect Manchester directly to the City of Salford - the first record of any permanent bridge over the Irwell. The annual fair was held at Acresfield, then open land adjacent to the town, now St Ann's Square. By this time a regular Saturday market was being held, and people came from all over the region to buy their wares and provisions.

The Baronial Borough

Manchester became a Baronial Borough (thereby an independent self-governing entity) in 1301, still ruled by the Lord of the Manor, but with an appointed "boroughreeve" (or Mayor) who handled day-to-day administration of the borough. Manchester was to change very little thereafter until the 16th century.
Ironically, though the town of Manchester was neither important nor wealthy, the medieval parish was extremely well off, owning vast tracts of land, some 60 square miles, stretching from Prestwich (Prestwich-cum-Oldham as it was then) to the north, Ashton-under-Lyne and the River Tame to the east, Urmston in the west and Stockport in the South (practically the whole of contemporary Greater Manchester). When Thomas de la Warre was made Lord of the Manor in 1421, their was sufficient revenue (from rents and leaseholds on the lands which he and the church owned) to build his magnificent collegiate church and his own manor house (now Chetham's School). After the dissolution and the Reformation the lands reverted to the crown and were administered by John Dee for Queen Elizabeth I.

Manchester in early Tudor Times

In 1485 the Wars of the Roses began between the Houses of Lancaster (signified by the Red Rose), and of York (signified by a White Rose). Oddly, though these wars were going on all around, because of its relative obscurity, Manchester avoided any part in the conflict, and no blood was spilled on Manor soil throughout the whole conflict. Incidentally, when Henry VII acceded to the throne he united the red and white roses of the protagonists to form the combined red and white Tudor Rose. Henry VII, Richard of York's successor passed via Warrington through Manchester on a visit to his mother - the first reigning monarch every to visit Manchester!
Between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 17th century, Manchester was to develop from a small provincial township to a major industrial and commercial hub, pivotal in the county of Lancashire.

Sources: See Bibliography - Books about Manchester

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This page last updated 17 Jan 13.