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The medieval origins of Preston, later a Royal Borough

Posted on - 2nd July, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News
Prestonā€™s original Town Hall and medieval market square Pic: The Harris
Prestonā€™s original Town Hall and medieval market square Pic: The Harris

Preston did not have a castle and walls, like Lancaster and York. Rather, Prestonā€™s origins lie in its strategic location and its use as a market centre. The growth of the town was organic, and not imposed by a military occupation. Preston lies on high ground with a connection to the sea via the River Ribble. It was also at an important road junction.

The Royal Borough

The origin of the word borough is the medieval word burgh, meaning a unit of local government. It is also the derivation of burgesses, who were the officials of a town and had special rights. Royal boroughs were granted by a charter from the King. Preston first became a Royal Borough in 1179. Burgesses had to pay 100 Marks to be allowed to trade in the county. Being a burgess also conveyed other privileges. As a result, there was an element of self-government for the region. For example Preston managed its own courts.

Most wealth in the middle ages was derived from land, hence most burgesses would have held land in and around Preston. They often held several burgess plots and fields, as well as shops and other buildings.

The development of the early town

The early town grew up around the church and Church Street. It is also thought that the first market was situated in front of the church. The present structure was built in 1853. However, there has been a church on the site since at least 1094, when it was first mentioned in documents. The official name is theĀ Minster Church of St John the Evangelist.

Preston Minster Pic: Tony Worrall
Preston Minster Pic: Tony Worrall
Early Preston #1, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt
Early Preston #1, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt

Later the burgage plots grew down Church Street and along Fishergate. The plots had a narrow front on to the street, and often had bigger fields in between. The ownerā€™s house usually fronted on to the street. Technically the plots were owned by the king and rented to the owner.

Early Preston #2, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt
Early Preston #2, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt

As Preston grew as an important regional centre, the old market place proved to be inadequate. The burgess plots to the north of Church Street were cleared to create a larger market place. The location of the Town Hall may also date from this period, however there must have been a manor house there earlier. Additionally, the burgess plots to the east and west were flipped to provide shop fronts facing the market place.

Early Preston #3, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt
Early Preston #3, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt

Next, building commenced down Friargate. The medieval town plan was maintained as late as 1680, when the map below was drawn by Dr Kuerden. It continued to influence the development of the town centre into the 19th century.

Preston in 1680 #4, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt
Preston in 1680 #4, map from A History of Preston by David Hunt

Follow Geoffrey on Twitter for more Preston history.

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