Markets and fairs are still part of our everyday life and we therefore never give a thought to how or why they began. At a time when the Church was in its ascendency, in the 11th to 13th centuries, the Norman aristocracy were keen to see villages thrive and grow and more importantly, the Church was always keen to earn more income. Markets and fairs could only be held by a franchise from the King and although a few markets existed before the Norman Conquest (as in Hertford), most franchises were issued during the reigns of King John and Henry III.

    The earliest markets in the 12th century were held on church property as in Europe, usually in the churchyard and as these early markets were held on Sundays, they had a captive crowd of customers. However, this was soon felt to be desecration, using the church cemetery for commerce and from the time of Edward I (1239-1307), markets were strictly forbidden on church land by the Statute of Winton. This was also known as the Statute of Winchester and another of its laws was the introduction of hue and cry, an attempt to make every member of the public responsible for policing the country. Markets were from this time held on any spare piece of land which was available.

    Markets were allowed only for one day per week and had to be in a set place on the same day each week. Churches originally became involved in markets as a source of extra income and this was lost when markets were banned from the churchyards. Fairs also needed a royal franchise and were usually for the purpose of worshipping a particular Saint. They could not be held on church property either and were often held on the village green where one existed. Fairs, from the Latin feria, meaning ‘holy day,’ could be held once a year for one named Saint but could last several days or even longer.  These again comprised many stalls and tents for market trading, but there was also an element of fun and merry-making, which attracted crowds. People enjoying themselves spent more freely. There were musicians, singers, acrobats and stilt-walkers and jesters such as Merry Andrews and later Silly Billys. There was often an archery contest and fast food and drinks on tap. The idea of worship soon became dissipated and fairs in time became anything but religious celebrations.

    Judging by the list of people who were granted a market and fair franchise, it would seem that they were given out to the lords of the manor, although the aristocracy held many of them. They could also be inherited.  Dr. Samantha Letters is the lady responsible for listing all the markets and fairs in England and Wales, a tremendous and ongoing task. Although she lists Stanstead Abbotts, this is only to state that there is no record of any market ever being held at Stanstead Abbotts. There is no explanation given, but may possibly be due to the fact that the lord of the manor was the Abbot of Waltham Holy Cross who held many other manors. It does state, however, that its 7 burgesses mentioned in the Domesday Survey were probably those of Hertford and not Stanstead Abbotts. This is, of course, not necessarily true and is only her opinion.

    Stanstead St. Margarets, a 17th century name for Thele, is listed as having a franchise given to John de Luvtot (Lovetot) in 1281 and the market was held at the manor house.  John Lovetot became lord of Thele manor when he married Margaret de Bohun and the manor house at this time was near the church. A fair was also allowed from this date and was held in the name of John the Baptist, on the Saint’s day, 24th June each year.

    Other nearby medieval markets were at Eastwick (1253 and 1378) held by Richard de Tany; Hoddesdon (1253), held by Richard de Boxe, and Ware (1199) held by Robert, Earl of Leicester.

Ron Dale


Copyright: Samantha Letters, Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England, Wales, to 1516. updated 15 July 2010)