Towns in the Middle Ages

North East towns 1100AD – 1500AD

Throughout Medieval times the north was ravaged by Scottish raids, but this did not deter the development of early towns and boroughs. For many centuries York had been the only real city in the region in terms of population, but towns and cities like Durham were steadily growing along with important river and sea ports like Hartlepool and Yarm.

Durham Cathedral western towers
Western towers of Durham Cathedral and River Wear viewed from the central tower © David Simpson


Gateshead belonged to the Bishops of Durham in medieval times but was often claimed by the Newcastle merchants as their own. In 1334 King Edward banned Newcastle’s mayor and bailiffs from mooring ships here and in 1344 the Bishop of Durham prosecuted Newcastle merchants f or wrecking his quays at Gateshead and Whickham.

Old Tyne Bridge
The Medieval bridge at Newcastle on the site of the earlier Roman bridge.

Disputes over the Tyne Bridge were another problem. In 1415 the Bishop obtained a suit from the King’s Court recovering his third of the bridge taken from him by the Newcastle mayor. The problem was that the Bishops did not always maintain their side of the bridge and this was damaging Newcastle’s trade. Newcastle would not succeed in annexing Gateshead until the sixteenth century.

Cathedral and castle Blackgate Newcastle
Newcastle © David


For trade and commerce, Newcastle rapidly rose to become the dominant town in the North East of England. In 1286 Newcastle was the leading English port for exporting leather from local livestock. The border wars that ravaged the countryside destroyed this trade, but coal was beginning to dominate. In 1291, 80 quarters of coal were sent to Corfe Castle in Dorset from Newcastle and coal was shipped to London from at least 1305. Newcastle’s walls were falling into decay but still protected the town from the Scots and enabled trade to continue. Newcastle was the fourth wealthiest town in England by 1334 after London, Bristol and York and the 11th largest in 1372 with 2,637 tax payers.

North and South Shields : monks versus merchants

The monks of Tynemouth and Durham respectively attempted to develop medieval ports either side of the Tyne but were met with strong resistance from the merchants of Newcastle who often petitioned the king. In 1303 King Edward banned markets, fairs and the unloading and loading o f ships by the Tynemouth Priors. In 1258 the Newcastle merchants persuaded the Priors of Durham not to develop port facilities at South Shields and in 1303 Edward banned loading and unloading of ships there by the Durham Priors.

Gateway Bishop Auckland
Gateway Bishop Auckland  © David Simpson

Barnard Castle and Bishop Auckland

Bishop Auckland was a borough by 1242 and grew around the twelfth century manor of Auckland Palace. Most of the palace has a seventeenth century façade built around genuine Medieval buildings. Barnard Castle was founded around 1093 by Guy Baliol and the town grew around the castle. His successor Bernard Baliol named the castle and the town.

Old Bridge, Berwick.
Old Bridge, Berwick © David Simpson

Berwick – a wealthy Scottish town

Berwick reached the height of prosperity as a Scottish town in 1286 when its customs contributed to the Scottish Exchequer the equivalent of about a quarter of that of all England. The remarkable thing is that trade ever developed at all in this troubled border town which changed hands between England and Scotland no less than 13 times between 1018 and 1482. The most important Medieval features at Berwick were its castle and defensive walls which were replaced in Elizabethan times.

Old houses in the village, Billingham Green.
Old houses in the village, Billingham Green © David Simpson

Billingham – a medieval manor

Billingham was an important Medieval manor and from at least 1229 the Bishop of Durham took customs from ships landing on the Tees here. From as early as 1314 a bridge and causeway linked Billingham to Norton across a swampy beck. A Friday market was gra nted to Sedgefield north of Billingham in 1312 and although a market was held at Billingham before 1497 it was illegal and banned by the Bishop of Durham.

Ankers House, Chester-le-Street
Ankers House, Chester-le-Street  © John Simpson

Chester-le-Street and its anchorage

The parish church at Chester-le-Street was once collegiate – administered by a semi-monastic college of canons. The church has an anchorage or cell where a succession of anchorites (hermits) lived from 1383 until the reign of Henry VIII. Anchorites lived their whole life in solitary confinement.

Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne

Darlington : two Boroughs in one

Knowledge of Medieval Darlington is frustratingly limited and no borough charter survives. It was two separate Medieval boroughs called Darlington Borough, and Bondgate-in-Darlington, although the Boldon Buke of 1183 treats them as one. The borough inhabitants, usually businessmen, owned their own properties whereas those people in Bondgate were allowed to live there as long as they worked on the landowner’s land (usually the Bishop’s).

They held their homes in a ‘bond-tenure’, hence the name of the street which is commonly found in North-East towns. Darlington’s Market Place and street lay-out are Medieval in origin but the most important Medieval feature of Darlington is St Cuthbert’s, a collegiate church administered by a vicar and four prebends. A wool trade existed in Darlington from at least the fourteenth century when John and William Durham of Darlington exported wool for the king through Hartlepool.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

Durham : the Prince Bishop’s city

A market place existed on Palace Green in Durham until the twelfth century when it was moved to its present location by Bishop Flambard to reduce the fire risk to the cathedral. The city received a retrospective charter in 1179 confirmed by the Pope. Medieval hospitals were established at Kepier and Sherburn in the twelfth century and a Medieval manor house built at Crook Hall in 1386. All of these features can still be seen.

Sandwell Gate, Old Hartlepool
Sandwell Gate, Old Hartlepool © David Simpson

Hartlepool : Bruce v the Bishop

Hartlepool was the most important Medieval port in Durham but there was some dispute over whether it belonged to tenants of the King or the Bishop. King John granted a Wednesday market and Royal status in 1201 but the status was not recognised by the Bis hops of Durham who issued a new charter in 1230.

The De Brus or Bruce family owned Hartlepool in Medieval times and often disobeyed the bishops, claiming to be Royal tenants. Hartlepool was confiscated from Robert Bruce when he became King of Scotland in 1306 but he came back later to sack the town in 1312 and 1322. Edward II fled here after fighting Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. Franciscan Grey Friars existed at Hartlepool from 1258.

The Hotspur gate, Alnwick from Bondgate Within © David Simpson

Morpeth, Alnwick, Hexham

Morpeth was granted a market by John in 1199 and Alnwick received a market in 1291. Hexham and its abbey belonged to the Archbishops of York who built a jail here in 1330. Hexham ‘Moot Hall’ dates from around 1400.

Stockton and the bishops

Stockton was the site of a Medieval hall belonging to the Bishops of Durham. It was described as a castle in 1376. A chapel was established at Stockton in 1234 and a market in 1310 by Bishop Bek. Shipbuilding was recorded at Stockton in 1470 when a great ship was constructed for the Bishop of Durham. Built of wood, it required the working of 32 stones of iron into nails at six and a half pence per stone.

The Seal of Bishop Pudsey
The Seal of Bishop Pudsey


Sunderland, more usually known in Medieval times as Wearmouth, received a charter from Bishop Pudsey in 1179 giving its merchants the same rights as Newcastle’s, but Sunderland never really developed as a Medieval port. This was due to the difficulties of developing a port in the Wear gorge and the fact that the Wearside coal was deep and inaccessible. Nevertheless Sunderland was shipping cargoes of coal to Whitby Abbey in 1396 and ships were built here from 1346 by Thomas Menvill of Hendon.

Richmond, North Yorkshire
Above: Richmond market place and castle from an old postcard

North Yorkshire towns

Northallerton had a Medieval castle and still has a twelfth centuty church. Bedale was granted a market in 1251 which is still held today. Other towns which saw growth in Medieval times were Knaresborough, Richmond and Middleham which developed around their Norman castles.

Yarm High Street
Yarm High Street © David Simpson

Yarm : a medieval port

In 1205 King John’s customs toll from Yarm returned £43 compared to 17 shillings from the port of Coatham near Redcar. Yarm was the site of a market and fair from 1207 when Peter De Brus granted licences for both and a Dominican Friary was established he re in 1260. Until 1400 Yarm was linked to Egglescliffe in Durham by a ford. In that year Bishop Skirlaw of Durham built a bridge across the Tees which still stands today.

Gisborough Priory.
Gisborough Priory © David Simpson

Guisborough, Coatham and Cargo Fleet

Guisborough grew around a priory founded by Robert Brus in 1120 and the town developed further after a market was granted by Henry III in 1263. Coatham near Redcar was a Medieval port, where a market and fair were granted in 1257. Redcar was described as “a poore fishing toune” in 1510. A Medieval fishing port also existed on the Tees at a place called Caldecoates now known as Cargo Fleet.

Bootham Bar and York Minster
Bootham Bar and York Minster from an old postcard.

York – a medieval metropolis

York was by far the largest town in the North in Medieval times with a population of over 10,000. Two Norman castles were built here and the English government often moved to York in the fourteenth century during English campaigns against the Scots.

The Shambles is a fine example of a Medieval street and other Medieval buildings include the Guildhall, King’s Manor, Merchant Adventurer’s Hall and Merchant Taylors Hall, St Mary’s Abbey, 19 Medieval churches and, of course, the Minster. Religious mystery plays w ere performed in Medieval York, Durham and Newcastle.

Hull and Leeds

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, cloth making was recorded in Leeds village in 1275, but was already an established trade. Hull started life as Wyke village on the little River Hull. Edward I established a port here in 1293 renaming it Kingston on Hull.

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