Medieval Leighton Buzzard

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This article will explore the nature of the medieval township or 'vill' with Leighton Buzzard as an example. Leighton Buzzard lies beside the River Ouzel, at a bridging point, on gently rising ground above the level of flooding.

The original town would have consisted of the High Street, which was laid out ascending this low rise with the Market Square at the top, two main roads - North Street and Lake Street leading north-east and south-east respectively and the area around the bridge (originally called Lovel End) and the church, unusually at the bottom of the slope.

The Domesday Book states that a market was held in Leighton and it may well have origins in the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon period. It is not known where it was held. No evidence exists to suggest that the market of 1086 was not in the present Market Square, but it may have been elsewhere, closer to the bridge over the River Ouzel and around the church, for example, and it is possible that the present site may have been a piece of early medieval town planning. This may help to explain why All Saints church is not at the top of the slope and in the prime location of the town, as would normally be expected - perhaps the prime location, the market, shifted in the 12th century but the church, naturally, remained in its established position.

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The typical layout of an early medieval market town consisted of burgage plots, that is to say strips of land running back directly from and at right angles to the High Street and/or Market Place. Despite such burgage plots, Leighton Buzzard never achieved borough status and thus never had burgesses (freemen of a borough who acted as officials). Perhaps it would be better to refer to 'shoprows' rather than burgage plots as the term shoprow was used in a document of 1491: "…one void piece of land lying in the Shoprows in Leighton on the south part between the Highway on the north part and the Highway near the Motehall leading to the Hethe". This unusual description seems to refer to a piece of land on the "island site", called Middle Row, in the Market Square - the Motehall, or Moot Hall, being the later Town Hall, itself later a Fire Station. The nearby Market Cross is 15th century, though it may stand on the site of an earlier one.

Cattle at Leighton Market c.1900 [Z1130/72]Cattle at Leighton Market c.1900 [Z1130/72]
Cattle at Leighton Market c.1900 [Z1130/72]

Leighton Buzzard was clearly a reasonably thriving market town in the early Middle Ages but must, like everywhere else in Europe, have received a set back with the advent of the Black Death. This came to England in 1348, the first case being recorded in Melcombe Regis, now Weymouth in Dorset. It had reached Leighton Buzzard by the next year as evidenced by the deaths of two successive vicars of All Saints in that year.

There has been a market in Leighton Buzzard since at least 1086, when it was recorded in Domesday Book. The right to hold it was granted to the Lord of the Manor, who farmed out (leased) the rights to collect dues. Leighton Buzzard was a Royal Manor until granted to the Abbey of Fontevrault in 1164 after which time it was held by the Abbey but reverted to the Crown when the country was at war with France. It was finally removed from Fontevrault around 1414 and passed to Sir John Phelip. The markets were held every Tuesday and there were also fairs, these are little mentioned in surviving documents, but by the 19th century they were held six times a year.

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