Story Of London

Elizabethan England: The Cities and Towns

Holinshed’s Chronicles, from which came most of the material for the Shakespearean plays, were published in 1577. One of Holinshed’s collaborators was William Harrison, chaplain to Lord Cobham, who wrote the Descriptions of Britain and England for the chronicles. They have preserved for us a vivid and detailed picture of the England which Elizabeth inherited. This series will present a slightly abridged version in which the language has been modernised for clarity. In this, our second, extract Harrison enumerates the main cities and Towns of England. Lack of information meant that he could not present a complete listing but what he did leave us is fascinating. He also gives us one of the few contemporary views of that great Tudor problem, land enclosure.

Elizabeth Enthroned
We read that in ancient times there were twenty eight flamines and arch-flamines in the southern part of this Island as many great cities under their jurisdiction. [Note 1] In our own time there are only one or two fewer cities and each of these likewise contains one bishop or archbishop who, in matters spiritual, has jurisdiction over the city. It follows therefore that there are as many cities in England and Wales s there are bishoprics and archbishoprics. It may seem that the combined dioceses of Lichfield and Coventry and Bath and Wells would extend the number of cities and bishoprics to twenty-nine but this is not the case. Since one bishopric, [Note 2] can relate to only one see and can only be located in one place, after which the Bishop takes his name, it follows that these pairs are to be taken as a single city.
I would like to present a list of all the towns and villages in England and Wales together with their longitudes and latitudes but I cannot yet gather all of the information that this would require. It is different in the case of the cities, however, because we have the bishoprics to guide us since the seat of every see has been granted the prerogative to refer to itself as a city and to establish its own laws within its walls. This privilege, however, has also been granted to a number of the ancient towns of England, especially in the north where many more are to be found than in the south.

The names therefore of our cities are these:

St. Davids
St. Asaph

So far as towns and villages are concerned, this I will say: they were more numerous in the three or four hundred years before our own time. I have seen from the various records of charters and donations which were made to various religious settlements such as Glastonbury, Abingdon, Ramsey, Ely, etc. of which not even the ruins are to be found today. Leland, [Note 3]in various places in his work, notes many examples of the decay of whole parishes within the great cities and towns. He gives particular instances of places where six, eight twelve or even more churches have been allowed to fall into decay and disuse. Although the Saxons built many towns and villages, and the Normans even more when they first arrived, yet since the first two hundred years after the latter conquest, so many have fallen into decay that the ancient number of them is very much reduced.

Ranulph, the monk of Chester, tells us of general survey made in the fourth, sixteenth, and nineteenth years of the reign of William the Conqueror, surnamed the Bastard. In this it was found that (notwithstanding that the Danes had overthrown a great many) there were 52,000 towns, 45,002 parish churches, and 75,000 knights’ fees, of which the clergy held 28,015. [Note 4] He adds moreover that there were many others built since that time, within the space of a hundred years after the coming of the Bastard. These were in lieu of or recompense for those that William Rufus pulled down in order to construct his New Forest.

According to an old book which I have, and which appears to have been written by an under-sheriff of Nottingham, I find that in the time of Edward IV there were 45,120 parish churches, and only 60,216 knights’ fees, of which the clergy held as before 28,015, or at least 28,000. No matter how you look at it, if the Estimations of those who write in our own time are at all accurate you will not find above 17,000 towns and villages, and 9210 knights’ fees in the whole, which is little more than a quarter of the original number. Similarly, in times past in Lincoln there have been fifty two parish churches, and detailed records exist for thirty-eight of these, but now, if there are twenty-four that is all. This has all come about through the appropriations of monasteries and religious houses – a terrible canker and an enemy to religion.

England in 1592But to leave this sorry catalogue of such a great disaster, coming about, as I said, by encroaching upon and joining house to house and laying land to land. By means of it, the inhabitants of many places of our country are devoured and eaten up, and their houses either altogether pulled down or allowed to decay little by little. Even sometimes when some poor man lives in one of them and who, not being able to repair it, allows it to fall down. And then he thinks himself well-treated if he has an acre of ground allotted to him, on which to keep a cow, or to grow cabbages, radishes, parsnips, carrots, melons, pompons or such like stuff. [Note 5] These items are usually the principal food by which he and his poor household live since they can do no better. And as for wheaten bread, they eat it when they can afford the price of it, contenting themselves in the meantime with bread made of oats or barley – a poor state of affairs God knows! However it, what do our great encroachers care?, [Note 6] But in many places where rich men had lived for a long time in good tenements, there are now no houses at all, but hop-yards, and sheds for poles, or sometimes gardens, as can be seen in Castle Hedingham, and various other places. But to proceed.

Our land in England is divided between counties which consist mainly of open countryside and those which are mostly covered in woodland. The houses in the first are uniformly built together in every town, with streets and lanes, whereas in the woodland counties (except here and there in great market towns) they are scattered around, with each landholder living on his own holding. And, as in many of largest market towns, there are normally three or four hundred families or mansions, and two thousand communicants (or sometimes more), so in the other areas, whether they be woodland or open countryside, we find not often above forty, fifty, or three score households, and two or three hundred communicants. Of these, the greatest part nevertheless are very poor folks, oftentimes without any rights of ownership, since the land of the parish is owned by a few men, even to the extent sometimes that the entire parish land is owned by one or two or three men and the rest are compelled either to be the hired servants of these or else must beg their bread in misery from door to door.

There are some, according to Leland, who when they have gained ownership of these lands, refuse to let the houses remain upon them for the use of the poor but connive with the lord of the manor to demolish them completely. They argue that to allow these house to remain would only attract beggars to the area who would become an increased burden on the parish. But alas! these pitiful men cannot see that they themselves lay the greatest log upon their neighbours’ necks. For, since the exchequer still collects the normal amount of taxes from a parish, it is the rest of parish the that must bear the entire burden. For the encroachers argue that they are taxed in other ways and are not liable for such and such. It is not unknown that where the king had seven pounds thirteen shillings in tax collected from fifty wealthy householders of a parish in England, now, a gentleman having three parts of the town in his own hands, four households bear all of the payment. Leland has identified this as a common plague and enormity, both in the heart of the land and along the coasts.

Certainly, many people complain about the increase of poverty, but blame God, as though he were at fault for increasing the population, or the absence of wars which keep the population down, claiming that the land was never so full, etc. But very few men actually see the root cause. Yet the Romans knew it. In their day there were prescribed limits to every man’s tenure and the amount of land he could occupy. I could, if called on to do so, list here the number of religious houses and monasteries, with the names of their founders, that have ever been in this island. But, since it is a thing of small importance, I pass it over as something outside the scope of my present work.

Yet, here I will commend many of the inhabitants of the monasteries, especially monks, because they allowed the establishment of many pleasant boroughs and hamlets in the vicinity of their houses, even though they otherwise pretended to be men separated from the world. But alas, their covetous minds, either in seeking to increase their revenues or to satisfy their carnal desires, got the better of them. For, taking into their minds from time to time to visit their tenants, they often caused great wickedness, and made those hamlets little better than brothel-houses. This was especially the case where there were no nunneries close by or they had no easy access to them. But why do I waste my time in recounting this filthiness? Would to God the memory of them might perish with the malefactors!

My purpose at the end of this chapter was to have set down a table of the parish churches and market towns throughout all England and Wales; but, since I cannot do that because I have not all the information I need, I am forced to abandon my purpose. Still, from the following list, based on the information I do have, the reader will get an idea of what I would like to have been able to do for all the shires in England, if I had been able.

ShiresMarket TownsParishes
London within the walls and without120

These figures were given to me by a friend of mine. If his travelling and his patron’s funding are anything to go by, I have not doubt but that before long we will see the details of all the shires of England set out in the same way that Ortelius has set out the details of other countries of the world. This will bring great benefit to our nation and be to the everlasting fame of my friend and his patron.


1 [Flamines:] Harrison is referring to England and wales in the Roman period. The Flamen was the Roman priest who officiated at the rites dedicated to a particular deity. He is using the French version of the word and equating Flamen with Bishop.Back

2 [Definition of City]Harrison here follows the mind-set of his time in which the superior jurisdiction was tht of God. The Monarch was subject to no-one but God, the ultimate source of justice. There is some confusion surrounding the definition of an English city. Even in modern times it is sometimes claimed that to be a city an urban area must have a cathedral. This is not the case. Cities are created by Royal Charter and that alone. In mediaeval times the charters were granted to the most important towns in a region. The Ecclesiastical authorities would naturally base their main centres in these same places. Back

3 [Leland:] Harrison here is referring to the Itinerary of the great antiquary John Leland (1506-1552). He was appointed “kings antiquary” by Henry VIII in 1533 and had power to search for records of antiquity in the cathedrals, colleges, abbeys and priories of England. He has left a detailed description of his travel in the Itinerary. His notes are the earliest descriptions we have of places in England at the end of the mediaevel period.Back

4 [Knights’ fees:] In the feudal system, this was the amount of land for which the services of a knight were due to the monarch.Back

5 [Pompons]The original name for pumpkins.Back

6 [Encroachers:] Harrison is here referring to one of the most heated topics in Tudor England, the problems of enclosure. Essentially, this involved the creation of great estates for pasture by amalgamating small holdings previously used as arable land. There were also frequent “enclosures” for private use of what had been common land and this produced a very heated debate.Back

Harrison’s abridged text in the original Elizabethan language is available on-line at Bartleby