(Many thanks to Stephan Lorenz for permission to use his outstanding artwork. You can see more of Stephan’s work at his website)
2015 marks the 700th anniversary of Tring as a market town. King Edward II, an ambiguous figure in every other respect, did the right thing by Tring with this valuable coming-of-age token on 1 September 1315. Celebrations can be expected to begin soon, culminating in a fortnight of events in summer 2015.
Whether celebrations followed the original award of the charter in 1315 is open to doubt. Produce on the first market stalls was probably meagre and of low quality – the Great Famine was in an early, devastating stage.
An image of Tring as it was in 1315 might be helpful. To set the scene requires going back no further than the Norman bean-counters’ Domesday Book (1086). Tring at that time was important enough to give its name to a ‘hundred’, a district with its own court. The Tring Hundred stretched as far as Kings Langley. The population of the ‘town’ has been estimated at 200.
If Tring’s numbers grew at the rate estimated for the country as a whole, this might have become 600 by 1315. That would be about 120 dwellings – a substantial number when the typical village was 20-30 families. Most of those dwellings would have been wooden frames filled in with wattle and daub, without glazing or chimneys. Not all Tring’s residents, however many they were, would have had a surname; very few of them would have been able to read. There were exceptions, of course; someone called Henry de Tring was the Abbot of Rufford, in Nottinghamshire, in 1315.
Wealthy townsfolk had glass in their windows from the late 12th century and the luxury was becoming more widespread by 1300. There may have been enough to sustain early-adopter window-cleaners in Tring, with its several manors and associated bigger houses:
- Tring itself, or Tringe Magna, which belonged to the Abbey of Faversham when the market charter was awarded in 1315
- Pendley, enlarged after the Norman Conquest by land taken from Tring. Apparently Pendley was ‘a great town’ in the early 1400s, home to ‘tailors, shoemakers, cardmakers and divers others’. Their versatility didn’t save them; the residents were turfed out when the lord of the manor ‘cast down’ the homes and relocated them westwards in the 15th century
- Bunstrux; the manor house was just up the hill and across the road from where the Black Horse now stands on Frogmore St
- Dunsley appears to have been a manor. It became part of Pendley in the 15th century and merged into the Tring Park estate. A farm replaced the manor house in the 19th century, and there were clusters of buildings there and beside what is now the Memorial Garden
- Another manor, apparently held by the rector, stood somewhere in the old town centre. It was a long, timber-framed house, perhaps dating as far back as the 13th century. A History of the County of Hertfordshire says it stood ‘a little way back from the [High St], opposite the present Post Office’, but that begs the question of where the Post Office was in 1908. Or, indeed, the High St. ‘The town of Tring is built along the Akeman Street, which in the town is called High Street,’ it notes, not especially helpfully
- Miswell, although it isn’t certain that this manor still existed in 1315 – it may have been merged into Tring.
Buildings known to have stood in Tring 700 years ago and left a trace can be counted on the fingers of one finger:
- Most of the Church of St Peter and St Paul dates from the 15th century, but ‘in point of size has probably grown very little since the 13th’ and can be dated back to Norman times. According to local historian Sheila Richards the stocks, pillory, whipping post and ducking stool were to be found in the churchyard.
- Medieval Tring, according to Sheila Richards, probably amounted to a cluster of cottages close to the church and smallholders’ plots along the east side of Akeman St and Park St. There was a mill in Tring as long ago as 1291 – Gamnel and Goldfield were the sites of the last surviving ones.
- Records of taxes on harvests and animals indicate a healthy number of relatively prosperous residents early in the 14th century – Tring paid the third highest return in the Dacorum Hundred after Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted. Prosperity implies trade. Perhaps an informal market – unchartered territory, so to speak – operated before 1315. The market was probably held in the area south of the church, and as traders sought more permanent structures the High St developed.
The history of the Abbey of Faversham records that ‘Edward II on 1 September, 1315, granted a market on Tuesday at Tring and a fair there on the vigil, the feast, and the morrow of Sts Peter and Paul and the seven days following.’
Some authorities say the market, like today’s Charter Market, was held on Friday. The anniversary Charter Farmers Market will take place on 4 July 2015.
Edward II’s turbulent reign was passing through a period of relative calm in 1315. His first ‘favourite’, Piers Gaveston, was dead and his second, Hugh Despenser, some way in the future. The debacle of Bannockburn (1314) obliged the King to compromise with his recalcitrant barons. The threat of civil war, almost constant in Edward II’s reign, receded for a while.
As though spotting a vacuum, Nature stepped in. Torrential rains in late 1314 were followed by a cold winter and a very wet spring. 1315 was the start of what became known as the Great Famine across Europe. That the famine affected this area is not in doubt; in August 1315 no bread could be found for the visiting King Edward II and his attendants in St Albans.
This is a speculative and incomplete reconstruction. Two barriers, high but not insurmountable, are immediately apparent to anyone looking into this era:
- The historical record’s perverse concentration on the few people who owned things as opposed to the many who struggled for them
- The same record’s use of ancient, obscure and inadvertently humorous terminology – infangthef, for example, and frankpledge, and free warren*.
1 Infangthef The privilege of lords of some manors to sit in judgment over thieves caught in their area.
2 Frankpledge An ordering of society under which all men and their households were bound by a common responsibility to keep the peace.
3 Free warren The entitlement to kill game within a stipulated area, often a wood.
The Tring Tiles* date from around this time – a little later, perhaps, suggesting that their maker was active in 1315. On 10 rectangular clay tiles they portray a version of Christ’s childhood in a comic-strip style that is emphatically not inspired by the Synoptic Gospels. For example, Christ is seen repeatedly striking dead other little boys who have annoyed him, and subsequently reviving them. The tiles provide a remarkable insight into the faith and the church politics of the time.
* So called because eight were purchased in a Tring ‘curiosity shop’ in the mid 19th century – they’re now in the British Museum. The other two apparently came from an unnamed church in Tring under renovation, and have ended up at the V&A.