18.10.24, Rigby, Boston 1086-1225

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David Roffe

The Medieval Review 18.10.24

Rigby, Stephen H. Boston, 1086-1225: A Medieval Boom Town. Lincoln UK: Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2017. pp. xii, 136. ISBN: 978-0-903582-56-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Robert Roffe
Institute of Historical Research, London, UK
david@roffe.co.uk

As the subtitle of this book indicates, the Lincolnshire town of Boston exploded onto the European stage in the early twelfth century. All but invisible in Domesday Book, some sixty or so years later the town was prominent enough to appear in the Arabic geographical encyclopaedia compiled by Muhammad al-Idrisi at the court of Roger II in Sicily and by the early thirteenth century it was rivalling London in the extent of its trade. The rest is history: thereafter Boston was one of the great mercantile centres of Europe for the rest of the Middle Ages. In Boston, 1086-1225Stephen Rigby seeks to account for this phenomenal rise from the mud of the silt fen of eastern England on which the town was built.

The book is divided into six parts. The first deals with the earliest years of Boston. Rigby gives short shrift to earlier notions that the town was the location of St Botolph's monastery of Icanho; that was most likely situated at Iken in Suffolk. The first explicit notice of a settlement occurs in the grant by Count Alan of Brittany of St Botolph's church in Boston, to St Mary's abbey, York, sometime before 1093, but it is probable that the same is represented by one of the two churches that are recorded in the Domesday account of the neighbouring village of Skirbeck. It seems unlikely, however, that Boston was anything more than a small settlement at that time. Rigby asserts that there is no evidence for earlier commercial activity and the recorded statistics for Skirbeck preclude a large population. Boston was little more than a fishing village in 1086. The first signs of urbanization appear in the early twelfth century with notices of a fair and it is suggested that its development was an essentially seigneurial initiative.

Accordingly Part 2 explores the structure of lordship and the topography of the early town. Bisected by the River Witham, Boston was divided between four lords. To the east was the Richmond fee and St Mary's soke. The configuration of the earliest streets indicates that this part of the town was a planned settlement laid out around the church and the market place with subsequent expansion to the south. Rigby provides a fine analysis of its early layout, in the process dispelling past myths and misunderstandings around town walls, a castle, and priories. To the west of the river were the equally early Croun and Tattershall fees. Although it has often been asserted that both were subordinate to the Richmond fee, Rigby shows that the Crown fee at least was an equal partner, notably in enjoying issues of the fair in its own right, which assumed an active role in the development of the town. Nevertheless, it seems likely that it was the Richmond fee which was the main motor of urbanization.

In Part 3 the trade of the town is examined. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw a general change in shipping from small trading vessels to large ones requiring deep water moorings. As a consequence, estuary ports grew as transhipment points for inland markets. Boston became the out port for Lincoln and beyond and grew accordingly. It traded with Scandinavia, Germany, and the Low Countries. Wool was its most substantial export, but Derbyshire lead was also a significant commodity. Imports were predominantly furs from the Baltic, cloth from Flemish towns, and wine from France. The fair, the subject of Part 4, was the main forum of exchange. With St Ives, Stamford, and Winchester, it was a major emporium in northern Europe and as such was a substantial source of income for the lords of Boston. The town itself, however, never developed any industry of its own beyond that which serviced its trading functions.

The mercantile success of Boston is apparently belied by its social structure and administration, the subject of Part 5. It was never termed a borough in the Middle Ages--it had to wait until the sixteenth century for incorporation--and was, it seems, always subject to its various lords: a charter of 1204 was no more than a temporary grant of custody of the eastern part of the town while the Richmond fee was in the hands of the king. The townsmen were personally free--as Rigby demonstrates, they held by socage tenure--but they were always subject to the various courts of their lords and never enjoyed extensive liberties. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that there was ever any discord. Boston was a thorough-going seigneurial town that flourished in spite of the fact.

The history of Boston, then, runs counter to the received understanding of the development of boroughs and burghal consciousness, implicitly challenging notions of 'feudal' society versus urban freedom and countryside versus town. In the brief conclusion that constitutes the final part of the book Boston is characterized as a new town that owed its success to lords who seized the opportunity to develop trade at an early period, taking advantage of changes in shipping that afforded new possibilities for turning a profit.

This brief volume is a welcome addition to urban historiography in general and the history of Boston in particular. The town has long suffered from the good fortune of having a fine antiquarian history. Pishey Thompson's The History and Antiquities of Boston and the Villages of Skirbeck, Fishtoft, Freiston, Butterwick, Bennington, Leverton, Leake, and Wrangle; Comprising the Hundred of Skirbeck in the County of Lincoln, published in 1856, has long discouraged new research into the town; there have been some notable additions to an understanding of its later development, but little of its early history. Rigby is not the first to go back to the sources, but he has done so in greater depth than anyone else and in the process has dispelled many misconceptions and uncovered much new evidence. His conclusions are also welcome. The demonstration that 'liberties' are not essential to successful urbanization is a further rehearsal of the inadequacies of the feudalism construct.

We might question, however, whether his concept of lordship, and the manor that articulated it, also needs deconstructing. Rigby's medieval world is one in which lords were, if only implicitly, the chief agents of change. A more nuanced view is possible. Lordship was not monolithic in any part of England, let alone in the siltlands in which Boston was situated. There society was characterized by freedom and a high degree of communal organization. Lordship sat lightly on this society, usually being confined to customary dues and quit rents. [1] It is intrinsically unlikely that this character did not have an input into the emergence of Boston. Evidence of sorts for communal agency is afforded by the place-name, not discussed here: its earliest forms are Botelvestan, Botuluestan, Botoluestan and the like, signifying 'St Botolph's stone'. St Botolph names are closely associated with boundaries of one sort and another and stone must surely indicate a communal meeting place. Boston was in origin indubitably liminal as such sites typically were, straddling as it did the boundary between the wapentakes of Kirton and Wolmersty/Skirbeck, and extending into three separate complexes of land and lordship (St Mary's soke was granted out of the Richmond fee). It has all the characteristics of early trading places in Lincolnshire and beyond.

Might we see here, then, an alternative view of the origins of Boston as a trading place or at least a counterpart to Rigby's exclusively seigneurial mechanisms? This speculation is not necessarily contradicted by the evidence adduced by the author. It might be hazarded that such trading places were initially seasonal, but it is a moot point whether Domesday Book accurately represents this type of settlement. It is notoriously unreliable in its account of socage tenure and in the Holland division of Lincolnshire many sokemen in particular are omitted. The low level of population recorded in the three entries that can be identified as the later Boston is thus a potentially poor indicator of the density of settlement in 1086. However that might be, positing an underlying free society certainly helps to explain the existence of socage tenure in the later Middle Ages. The so-called 'manorial' rights of each lord were not so very different from the dues that burgesses elsewhere might pay for their freedom. In this context it is clear that the lords' interests were aligned with those of the townsmen in that increased issues depended on their success. We should perhaps perceive of a partnership of interest, then, rather than an exclusively seigneurial enterprise.

This re-reading, though, is by no means a criticism of Rigby's research; on the contrary, it is a tribute to the thought that his stimulating book provokes. It will no doubt inspire further debate on the origins of Boston and the nature of urbanization more generally. The volume is illustrated with clear maps and plans and a series of colour plates bound in towards the end of the volume. There are comprehensive endnotes on the primary and secondary sources consulted, a glossary of medieval terms, and an index. The Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology are to be congratulated for bringing to a wider audience a fine piece of research.

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Note:

1. David Roffe, "The Historical Context," Anglo-Saxon Settlement on the Siltland of Eastern England (Lincolnshire Archaeology and Heritage Reports Series 7, 2005), 264-288.

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