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Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700


Medieval and early modern urban elites often liked to present their cities as harmonious and ordered. Processions and performances to demonstrate this order often marked the transfer of power from one civic leader to another, and annual ceremonies for religious festivals (like Corpus Christi) emphasised this solidarity. The reality could be quite different, and disagreement often murmured behind the scenes, which could spill into open contest in periods when repeated riots and disturbances gave the impression of conflict rather than order. Citizens - or freemen, or burgesses - were politically aware, and often very sensitive to any perceived affront against their liberties, whether it came from an over-mighty faction in the city government, from a rival city, or from the intervention of a regional or national power. Sometimes these contests were commercial as well as political - the privilege of trading within a town, of using a particular weight or measure, or of access to common resources, could all be critically important in making a living in the city. 

Here we focus on how and why town and city dwellers contested space in Durham and Newcastle, two very different urban centres. Below are six illustrative equity cases from the Court of Exchequer, each bringing out a different contest relating to space, albeit with some overlapping features. Spaces were not always permanently set, lines on a map. We have claims by both Durham and Newcastle freemen of their right to pasture cows on land that was geographically outside their town or city, but was asserted to be within their liberty for particular times of the year. Common access to space was also required for raising Newcastle’s militia, for the laying of timber for ships and boats, for passage to the river wharves, and for the disposal of solid waste – in other words, a cross-section of the town’s functions. It might seem rather sedate to settle disputes through the courts in this way ­– although enclosure and the curtailing of civic privileges was known to provoke at least the threat of violent uprising too – but legal proceedings reveal passionate contest as well as cool legal calculation, such as in the case between the Bishop and Mayor of Durham, which included fisticuffs in the courthouse.

Although these exchequer court cases all date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is clear that contests over space often had a long trajectory. Very rarely were these sorts of disputes settled quickly: the same contests would often reappear with different participants or with a slightly different flavour. Towns like Newcastle, if they were to protect their valuable commercial privileges, constantly had to reassert them against the challenges of Gateshead and the Bishopric of Durham, North Shields, or their own fractious freemen. There was no space to be complacent: such protection required the continual reissue and copying of crucial documents, along with the conscious embedding of urban memory.