Looking back at Essex on the Edge

Jennifer Ward – Essex’s pre-eminent medieval expert – looks back on ‘Essex on the Edge’ our fantastic conference back on the 18th May which examined Essex’s medieval history as a county on the Edge of England, London and rebellion.

The Essex Record Office Study Day this year took place on 18 May, and concentrated on new research being undertaken for Volume XII (on Harwich) of the Victoria County History of Essex, as well as on the Hundred Years War and the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  It was organised by the Essex Record Office, the Victoria County History and the Friends of Historic Essex, and proved to be an enjoyable and informative day.  The lectures were excellent and have given us much to think about, and there was plenty of time for everyone there to meet and exchange news of ongoing research and other concerns.

The first lecture was given by Neil Wiffen of the Essex Record Office staff on Supplying the Army: the Contribution of Essex to Provisioning the Forces of Edward III, c. 1337.  Neil has long been interested in the Hundred Years War, and, as he pointed out, the provision of food and equipment for the soldiers has not been studied as much as the campaigns and battles.  Before the king departed on a campaign, orders were sent to the sheriff of each county to collect particular provisions and take them to the port of embarkation.  The list for Essex in 1337 included specific quantities of wheat, malt, bacon pigs and cheese.  The collection of these goods proved difficult as men were unwilling to hand over goods for which they might not be paid, goods might be scarce at a time of poor harvests, and/or the time between the order to the sheriff and the king’s departure might be too short to collect the goods.  Essex did not produce all the goods asked for in 1337, and this often happened in subsequent years as well.  It will be interesting to see if Neil’s work sparks off further research.

Herbert Eiden preparing for his paper about life in Fourteenth and Fifteenth century Harwich.

Neil was followed by Herbert Eiden, the deputy editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, speaking on Life in Fourteenth and Fifteenth-Century Harwich as seen through the Court Rolls.  Harwich was a ‘new town’ of the Middle Ages, first mentioned in the records in the mid-1190s.  A few court rolls survive for the fourteenth century and most of the rolls for the fifteenth century.  They throw light on law and order, the urban economy, and the links with the town’s lords, the dukes of Norfolk; both men and women appear in the rolls, involved in cases of robbery, housebreaking, wounding and the hue and cry.  The assize of bread and ale was enforced, and a licensing system evolved for the brewing of ale and beer.

After lunch, the editor of the Essex Victoria County History, Chris Thornton, spoke on Overseas Immigrants in Harwich in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.  Interest in immigrants of the Middle Ages has grown since the universities of York and Sheffield published their national survey of English immigrants online, and a book has also been published.  These men and women were more numerous and settled in a greater number of places than used to be thought.  Immigrants from the Low Countries and Germany are found in Harwich, many working as servants, and also involved in crafts such as shoe-making.  The richest immigrants were often beer-brewers, often brewing beer with hops which lasted longer than English ale.  Although there was some resentment among the English, these men prospered and many settled for life in the town and brought up their children to whom they bequeathed their goods.

Speakers; Chris Thornton and Ken Crowe examining a map of Harwich ahead of their papers at Essex on the Edge.

Ken Crowe, the fourth speaker, is leading a group in Southend researching its history in the nineteenth and twentieth century for the Victoria County History.  For his lecture, Ken chose a topic from his own research, The Abbeys of Barking and Stratford Langthorne: Dissolution, Dismantling and Recycling.  Henry VIII claimed for himself all the material and goods from the monasteries dissolved in 1536-40, and the stone from these two houses was re-used in royal palaces.  Certain buildings remained on site untouched; we can still see the Curfew Tower at Barking, and at Stratford Langthorne  a chapel and the main gatehouse were not demolished until the nineteenth century.  At the present day, much of the site is covered by the railway.  The dismantling and later history of the monasteries has not been much studied, and the lecture gave us yet another insight into the possibilities of new research.

The Essex Record Office, Victoria County History and the Friends of Historic Essex are to be congratulated on the organisation and lectures of the study day. The audience was shown how new research is opening up familiar topics, and how local historians can build on these foundations and extend our knowledge of Essex history through their use of the documents at the Essex Record Office.   We look forward to learning more at future study days and wish the Record Office and the Victoria County History every success in their work.

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