Lenton priory: its activities in trade and commerce.

The contribution of the monasteries of England to her economic development is well known. In this development, the monasteries of Nottinghamshire played their part. Reference to a map of Nottinghamshire showing vills mentioned in Domesday reveals a large district, consisting chiefly of Bunter sandstone country, in which settlements were few.1 On or near this, the nucleus of the forest area of the county, were situated five of the thirteen monasteries of the county—Blyth, Mattersey, Welbeck, Worksop and Rufford. Very near the Bunter area were Newstead, Felley and the house of nuns at Wallingwells. As the monastic houses of Yorkshire helped that county to recover from, the Conqueror's devastation, so the monastic houses of Nottinghamshire helped to develop an area which poor soil and difficulties of water supply rendered comparatively unattractive to settlers. How inhospitable this region was in the Middle Ages is illustrated by the request made by Abbot Redman, commissary-general of the Abbot of Premontre, to be met at Papplewick and escorted safely through Sherwood Forest to Welbeck.2 On a number of occasions monasteries in the Forest area were granted permission to enclose considerable tracts of land—one grant to Newstead relating to 180 acres of waste in the forest hay of Linby, which the monks were allowed to enclose and bring into cultivation.3 Although Lenton Priory enjoyed some privileges in Sherwood Forest, its true contribution to economic development was made in other ways. There is reliable evidence, for example, of the priory’s connection with the wool trade. Together with the monasteries ot Rufford, Welbeck, Mattersey, Worksop, Sheltord and Newstead, Lenton Priory sold wool to foreign merchants in the 13th century.4 In the 15th century the prior and convent acquired an interest in the coal which, from an early date, had been worked in the western portion of the county where seams come to the surface. During the year 1459, from the Carthusians of Beauvale, the monks of Lenton obtained a portion of the “underground coals” in Newfield —2 acres in all—for a term of seven years. At the expiration of the lease the pits were to be filled up unless the prior of Beauvale wished them to be left open.5

By far the most interesting of Lenton Priory's connections with trade and commerce was the great Martinmas fair. In 1270 Thurgarton Priory was given the privilege of holding an annual fair.6 In 1403 Mattersey was given the right to hold two annual fairs.7 But no Nottinghamshire fair, whether in monastic or secular hands, has received from historians the attention accorded to Lenton. This is explained partly by its importance and partly by the existence of two agree­ments which provide many interesting details of the organisation of a medieval fair These agreements were made—one about 1300 and the other in 1516—between the Prior and Convent of Lenton and the Mayor and Burgesses of Nottingham. This material was described by Dr. Cunningham in his English Industry and Commerce,8 as presenting “a very vivid picture of the arrangements that were made for the business of a fair.” More recently another authority upon English Economic History, L.F. Salzman, M.A., F.S.A., has, in his book English Trade in the Middle Ages,9 made still greater use of the interesting details available about Lenton Fair. Owing to the absence of satisfactory evidence, the truth of Thoroton's statement that Lenton Fair was established in the reign of Henry I must be questioned.10 It is clear, however, that permission to hold a fair was granted to the monks of Lenton not later than the reign of Henry II.11 It was to be held at the feast of St. Martin (November 11th) for eight days. Henry III, for whom the prior of Lenton performed many services and from whom he received many privileges, extended the duration of the fair. On April 4th, 1230, the king made a grant to the prior allowing four days in addition to the eight days granted previously. The fair was now to be held on “the day before the vigil, the vigil, the feast, and the morrow of St. Martin and the 9 [sic] days following, in all 12 days.”12 Owing to the opposition of the burgesses of Nottingham, the  duration of  the fair was reduced about 1300 to the original eight days.

The friction between the monks of Lenton and the burgesses of Nottingham is typical of the struggle for commercial privileges in England in the Middle Ages. Where a fair was held in or near a borough, there was frequently a good deal of friction and bad feeling if the borough had not the control of the fair or only had a share in such control.13 By the agreement of 1300 a compromise was reached. In return for the surrender of four days of the fair the prior received the promise of the burgesses that no market would be held in Nottingham during the eight days of the fair, and food and other goods should only be sold “in houses, doors and windows” during that time.

The complete agreement may be seen in the Records of the Borough of Nottingham. Nottingham traders had to pay 12d. for each covered booth they hired. They were to be assigned places according to their trade standing, the best being placed with the best of other foreign merchants, the middle class with the middle class, and so on. Stallage varied with the type of booth. For each booth, uncovered or covered with their own material, 8d. was the price paid, by merchants selling “Blakkes” and everyday cloth. Sellers of iron paid 2d. for a booth and 2d. extra if a special standing was required in addition. No charge for stallage was made to tanners and shoemakers, who did not require a standing. Merchants hiring a booth without a special standing were charged 2d. Those who were very poor were to be excused payment. The size of each booth, excluding any pentices that the merchants put up, was to be 8 feet in length and the same in depth.14

Permanent peace was not achieved by these arrangements. In 1516 on the recommendation of the King, Sir Thomas Lovell, Steward of the Priory and Governor of Nottingham Castle, acted as mediator between mayor and prior. The mayor again disputed the rights of the prior as to Lenton Fair, and the prior complained that the mayor had usurped privileges and had exacted dues which belonged exclusively to the prior.15 From the agreement sealed on August 6th, 1513, it is plain that the mayor was able to drive a harder bargain than his predecessor had done at the end of the 13th century, and that there had been extensive develop­ments in the organisation of the fair since that date.

Now, the burgesses of Nottingham were to be given priority over other strangers in the assignment of shops and stalls provided they applied before Michaelmas, and were to pay fourpence in the shilling less rent. Granted exemption from toll themselves, the burgesses accepted responsibility for seeing that their customers paid their half of the toll called the “Countertolle or Gayn Tolle.” In the agreement is set forth a schedule of rents for shops, stalls and booths, which reveals that the site was now laid out on a definite plan with substantial buildings. At the north-west corner of the church was the Goldsmith’s Row, consisting of four bays 10 feet in length and producing in rent 4s. 0d. for every bay. The Saddler’s Row was composed of five bays, four at 20d. each and the fifth at 2s. 0d. In the Mercer’s Row, the most important section, the first shop had a length of 35 feet and a depth of 18 feet. It was let for 19s. 6d. Other shops, with frontages from 9 feet to 12 feet, produced on an average 10s. 0d. Reference is also made to the Skinner’s Row, the Fisher's Row and the “Draperie”; the latter consisting of fourteen bays on the south side and thirteen on the north. The three “cokeries” or cook-shops of the fair were let at 6s. 8d. each. Whether any of the booths were permanent the agreement does not disclose, but it is probable that they were only temporary structures.16

Additional details of Lenton Fair may be gleaned from a number of sources. In the Borough Records of Nottingham are interesting records of the hireling who visited Lenton Fair and neglected his master’s sheep; of the person who sent “bad ale that was not good,” and of William de Clifton who stole from a house in Nottingham bows intended for sale at Lenton.17 How far even the gentry were dependent upon fairs for the supplies may be seen from the references made to purchases from from Lenton Fair. A chalice bequeathed to the church at Nuttall, in 1462, had been bought at Lenton Fair. Similarly, Richard Willoughby, Esq., purchased at the fair two embroidered cloths which he soon afterwards bequeathed to the church of Wollaton.18 Among the 16th-century accounts of the Willoughby family several references to Lenton Fair occur. For example in 1521 41 shillings were “delyvered to my Lady when she went to Lenton Fayre,” and the same year 20s. 0d. were paid to “Mystrys Esabell wen she went to Lentun fayre wyth my lady.”19 According to a valuation of 1387 the fair brought to monks annually£35 beyond outgoings. Godfrey states that the yearly profit derived from Lenton Fair at the Dissolution was £12, but does not mention the source of his information.20

(1) See Victoria County History of Nottinghamshire, Vol. II, pp. 246-247.
(2) V.C.H., Notts., Vol. II, p. 134.
(3) Ibid., p.113. Other grants are mentioned in the histories of Notts, monasteries given in the V.C.H.
(4) Cunningham: English Industry and Commerce, 628 (App.). The interest of the Cistercians in the wool trade is well known. It is interesting to find six Nottinghamshire monasteries, in addition to the Cistercian house of Rufford, with a share in the wool trade.
(5) V.C.H., Notts., Vol. II, p. 325.
(6) V.C.H., Notts., Vol II, p. 122.
(7) Ibid., p. 141.
(8) W. Cunningham, D.D.: Growth of English Industry and Commerce during the Early and Middle Ages, 1910, p. 181.
(9) Clarendon Press, 1931, pp.  147,  149, 150.
(10) Thoroton, Throsby's Edition, Vol. II, p. 203.
(11) Godfrey: pp. 106-7.
(12) Calendar of Charter Rolls, Vol. I, 1226-1257.
(13) Salzman: English Trade in the Middle Ages, p. 144.
(14) Records of the Borough of Nottingham, Vol. II, 1155-1399, p. 61 et seq. Salzman: English Trade in the Middle Ages, pp. 147, 149. Godfrey: pp. 304-307.
(15) Godfrey: p. 311.
(16) Godfrey: p. 312. Salzman: pp. 149-150. Borough Records of Nottingham, Vol. III, p. 345.
(17) Records of the Borough of Nottingham, pp. 232, 346, 348, printed in Godfrey, pp. 308-310.
(18) Godfrey: p. 311.
(19) Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission on the manuscripts of Lord Middleton, pp. 332, 337. See also pp. 369, 374, 386, 435, 456.
(20) Godfrey: pp. 151-2, 312.