Was Nevern really a borough?

Were there really 18 burgage plots within the castle? Can we believe the claim by George Owen, 16th/17th century antiquarian and lord of Cemais, that Nevern was once a borough, with special privileges?
Dr Rob Anthony explains, and examines the evidence.

“The town of Nevern, being some time a borough & having a portreeve & courts belonging to it, is now decayed & become rural and the privileges discontinued. It consists of 18 burgages & takes the name of the river Nevern that passes by the town.”

Even although no modern historian to date has been able to identify the manuscript on which he based his claim, George Owen of Henllys, antiquarian and lord of Cemais, in his Second Booke of the Description of Penbrokeshire (1600), seemed to be certain of his facts.

In his Description of Wales (1194), Gerald of Wales was unimpressed by the Welsh practice (he claimed) of not living in towns or villages, but only in huts of wattle in the remote countryside. This may be an exaggeration but it is true that, in 12th century Wales, houses of stone were vanishingly rare: the construction, by the Lord Rhys (Rhys ap Gruffudd, Prince of Deheubarth) in the 1160s of an array of large stone buildings high on Nevern Castle’s south boundary would have been exceptional, and much remarked upon.

It is also true that towns, in the modern sense, did not start to develop in Wales until about 1100 and then as a result of the Norman practice of granting borough (and market) status to encourage their foundation and local economic development. According to Ken Murphy (1997): ‘Virtually every pre-industrial town in Wales was founded between the last quarter of the eleventh century and the first quarter of the fourteenth.’ Many of these ‘planted’ towns failed to flourish, or even take off; some, perhaps like Nevern, disappeared often because of competition from a more successful neighbour.

What were planted towns?

Anglo-Norman towns—the foundation of which were often accompanied by the building of a castle and church—were granted borough and sometimes (under a separate grant) market status by charter, a legal document. The date of a charter usually corresponded with the procurement of a suitable site and the setting out of burgage plots on the ground by a locator, an agent of the king or lord. Locatores were then expected to identify suitable applicants to become tenants of the plots, called ‘free’ burgesses. These burgesses were ‘free’ of, for example, labour services, market tolls and the requirement to obtain a licence to bake or brew, and they could sell or mortgage land without the lord’s consent. These privileges distinguished burgesses from ordinary people in town and country. The lord in his castle received the rent (often 12d per year) from the letting of each plot under burgage tenure, and received also tolls from market stalls.

The objective was to create a local economy by generating trade, revenue and profit, not forgetting a source of food and other supplies for the castle. In Wales, where the Anglo-Normans took two centuries to suppress the Welsh, defence and control were also important considerations; planted towns in Wales (which usually had walls) were initially populated, not by the local Welsh, but by those who had the Norman seal of approval, including (particularly in Pembrokeshire) Flemish immigrants. The Welsh were (with prostitutes and lepers) literally kept at the gate and allowed in to trade only at specific times. Even three hundred years later, not more than about 20% of a Welsh population of c.300,000 lived in towns.

Newport and its burgage plots, 1434 with thanks to Ken Murphy, CEO, Dyfed Archaeological Trust

Welsh princes were quick to grasp the economic and other advantages arising from the creation of towns and were soon copying the Anglo-Norman practice of granting borough and market charters.
The impact of borough plantation on the layout of historic towns and cities was profound and its effect remains highly visible today, particularly in Wales.

Newport (Pembs) is an excellent example of a former planted town and borough, with its streets laid out in a grid pattern framing burgage plots and overlooked by castle and church; and with a market-place for the conduct of trade. A distant echo of the medieval system can be found in the town to this day with its ceremonial mayor, court leet and beating of the bounds.

Was Nevern a borough?

Robert FitzMartin had already, by 1135, constructed and strengthened his castle at Nevern reflecting the importance of the place as the secular and ecclesiastical centre of Cemais. As a Marcher lord, Robert (and his son William) claimed rights arising as a result of conquest of lands that had never been under the control of the English king—including the important prerogative of granting borough and market status to potential townships.

Thus it appears plausible that Nevern, the chief place of Cemais, with a significant ecclesiastical history and already in possession of a castle and church, could have been a suitable candidate for borough status. But George Owen’s claim of such status should be treated with caution: He spent a great deal of time and energy, in the face of hostility and legal challenges from the local gentry, in attempting to enforce rights he believed belonged to his (purchased) barony of Cemais; and further efforts in trying to establish direct descent from the FitzMartins. A little tweaking of history in pursuit of these objectives, and the elevation of his status, would, therefore, hardly be unexpected.

No borough charter for Nevern survives (about half the charters concerning Welsh towns have disappeared). But the absence of a physical document was not necessarily fatal for, in appropriate circumstances, the law would presume a grant of charter with all the usual rights, duties and privileges such grant implied.

What are burgage plots?

Burgage plots came in all shapes and sizes, depending on the topography or natural features of the site. The chief (and defining) characteristic is that they were long and narrow—this being the most convenient form for fitting the maximum number of plots into a given area. The plan above of historic Newport’s plots, still recognisable today, clearly demonstrates this principle.

With the granting of a plot came the right for the burgess to construct a house on it, which might also incorporate a shop (often gable end to the street), and workshops for the manufacture of goods. The burgess might also excavate, for storage, a cellar or undercroft. Any part of the plot remaining could be cultivated for produce. In Nevern, the buildings would have been constructed of locally sourced wood, or timber-framed with wattle and daub infill, and the roofs almost certainly thatched. In Newport, the archaeological evidence suggests that houses were built of ‘clom’ (a mixture of mud and straw) and thatched with reed from the estuary.

There are three possible sites for Nevern’s claimed burgage plots.

Enclosed area is about 20,000 sq ft
(Bing Maps)

First, the Castle bailey. If each of George Owen’s 18 burgage plots was a (modest) 20 feet wide by 100 feet long (2 x 10 ‘Pembrokeshire poles’) then their total area would be 20 x 100 x 18 or 36,000 square feet. The report of the recent excavations (2008-2018) of the Castle mentions a ‘defended town’ on the eastern side of a substantial ditch formerly running south-north across the bailey, where traces of wooden houses were uncovered. This area is about 20,000 square feet (roughly half an acre), so could not have accommodated all of Owen’s claimed 18 plots.

Secondly, a field south of Castle Farm and over the road from (and parallel to) the western bank and ditch of the Castle. An archaeological survey, conducted in 2012, revealed no clear evidence of burgage plots.

The third, and most likely, option is under (or adjacent to) the modern village of Nevern.

But, regardless of the above, it seems unlikely that a borough consisting of only 18 burgage plots would have been able to sustain a portreeve (mayor) or courts, as claimed by George Owen.

Why should any borough of Nevern have failed?

In 1195, as a last throw of the dice in the almost century-long violent game between the families of Robert FitzMartin and the Lord Rhys, the latter’s son, Hywel Sais, burned and badly damaged Nevern Castle to stop it from being re-occupied by the former’s son, William FitzMartin. This was probably the impetus for William to build, in about 1197, a new castle near the Nevern estuary (later moved south to a more defensible site near the church), and to create (‘plant’) a new town, Newport, only two miles from Nevern. There is no doubt that Newport enjoyed borough status: although the original charter granted by William in about 1197 is lost, his son Nicholas issued in about 1241 a new one which survives, confirming the rights and privileges of Newport’s burgesses.

Despite two devastating attacks by the Welsh in the 13th century—surprisingly, the town never had walls—Newport survived and, in 1434, possessed 233 burgage plots held by 76 burgesses. Its site, on fertile land sloping up from an accessible estuary, was much superior to that of Nevern. This factor, and Nevern’s proximity to its neighbour, the new chief place of Cemais, meant that it would never have been able to compete, economically or strategically. Even if George Owen did not fabricate the evidence and there was indeed a borough of Nevern, then it failed.

I am grateful to Ken Murphy, CEO, Dyfed Archaeological Trust; Dr Chris Caple, Durham University, director of the Nevern Castle excavations (2008-18); and Dr Alan Wills, for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.

Sources:

Maurice Beresford, New Towns of the Middle Ages (Gloucester, 1988)

Edward F. Cousins and Robert Anthony, The Law of Markets and Fairs (London, 1998)

Christopher Caple, Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer (Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, 2021)

Keith D. Lilley, The Norman Town in Dyfed (Birmingham, 1995)

Dillwyn Miles, A Book on Nevern (Llandysul, 1998)

Dillwyn Miles, The Ancient Borough of Newport (Haverfordwest, 1998)

Dillwyn Miles (ed.), The Description of Pembrokeshire (George Owen of Henllys) (Llandysul, 1994)

Kenneth Murphy, Small Boroughs in South-West Wales in Landscape and Settlement in Medieval Wales, ed. Nancy Edwards (Oxford, 1996)

Kenneth Murphy, Excavations in Three Burgage Plots in the Medieval Town of Newport, Dyfed (Dyfed Archaeological Trust, 1991)

Philip Poucher, Castle Farm, Nevern, Pembrokeshire: Geophysical Survey (DAT, 2012)

Ian Soulsby, The Towns of Medieval Wales (Southampton, 1983)

Lewis Thorpe (ed. and trans.), Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales (Harmondsworth, 1984)

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