A Brief History of Birmingham

Medieval Birmingham

1066 - c1530


The period from the end of the Roman Empire to the Norman Invasion is often now called the Early Middle Ages. The Middle Ages proper is usually taken as the period from the Norman Conquest 1066 until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. After a period warmer than the present c1000-1250, the climate grew considerably cooler from 1250-1500; it is known as the Medieval Cool Period. The subsequent period, 1500-1850 is known as the Little Ice Age. The population of England increased from c1 500 000 in 1086 to as much as c6 000 000 by 1300. A run of bad harvests from 1312 and torrential rains led to the Great Famine of 1315-1317, followed by the Black Death from 1348. The population did not recover to its highest medieval level until c1750. Large areas of cultivated land reverted to nature during this time.


The medieval village of Birmingham was developed by its Norman lords into a successful market town. The area's agricultural trade became concentrated on the town and this encouraged the development of agriculture-related industries. At the beginning of this period settlements were scattered and villages were tiny if indeed they yet existed. As time went on the area developed with a mixture of individual farmsteads typical of a wooded area with room for expansion and open strip fields which were worked in common. Documentary evidence exists for a large number of farms and watermills many of which continued until the 19th century.


Birmingham Manor House in Moat Lane is known to have been occupied by the de Bermingham family from at least the 12th century. Its moat was circular which confirms a 12th century date. Observations during the 1960s Bull Ring development and road construction in 2000 prior to the building of the new Bull Ring centre suggest that a stone manor house stood within the moat with a range of outbuildings. The manor house was rebuilt in the 13th century, again in stone. The de Berminghams owned the manor until 1536 and were the longest surviving Norman lords in the area. However, when Edward de Bermingham died in 1538, the manor reverted to the Crown. A new house was then built within the moat in about 1740 in a classical style by wealthy Birmingham manufacturer, John Francis. Some of the earlier timber-framed buildings remained for use as outbuildings. In 1815 the moat was filled and all earlier buildings demolished to make way for the open market, and later Smithfield Meat Market. The site is now covered by the Wholesale Markets.


The first Bull Ring development was certainly the work of Peter de Birmingham. Peter had inherited a manor with little agricultural potential. Both before and after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the manor had been valued at only 20 shillings, one of the poorer manors in the area. Neigbouring Aston was worth four times as much. The manor was fairly small with little woodland and consisted of a substantial area of unproductive heathland (See Birmingham Heath below.).


From William [FitzAnsculf of Dudley Castle} Richard [presumably Richard de Birmingham] holds 4 hides in Birmingham. Land for 6 ploughteams. In the demesne [the lord's own land]1 hide. 5 villeins & 4 bordars with 2 ploughteams. Woodland half a league long & 2 furlongs [wide]. The value was and is 20 shillings. Wulfwin [Richard's Anglo-Saxon predecessor] held it freely in the time of King Edward.


In 1166 the lord of the manor, Peter de Birmingham bought from King Henry II the right to hold a market every Thursday at his 'castle'. It may well be that an informal market already took place outside St Martin's Church and that Peter was capitalising on this. Under the charter, outsiders had to pay tolls to come into the market; Birmingham townspeople did not. Merchants and traders were thus encouraged to live in Birmingham town and so pay a rent to the lord at a rate many times greater than an agricultural rent would have produced. All over England medieval lords set up markets, but Peter's, probably because it was the earliest in Warwickshire and on the Birmingham plateau, was the most successful.


The charter was confirmed by Richard I in 1189 for Peter's son William at his town, not at his castle, of Birmingham. It is likely that Peter or William had laid Birmingham out as a new town with building plots for rent. This was probably the first time that there was a 'proper' village round a village green, the Bull Ring, where the market took place.


The buildings of the medieval town spread from Digbeth and Deritend up the hill to the Bull Ring and along the High Street. There was additional building from the Bull Ring along Edgbaston Street. From a Domesday population of some 50 people in the manor, by 1300 the town had a population of perhaps 1500 people. However, as a result of the Black Death c1350, this may have been cut this to 750 or to as low as 500. It was to be another 200 years before the population was to reach that figure again.


Very little documentary evidence survives of medieval Birmingham. Not a single document is known to have survived between the 1086 Domesday Book and the 1166 Market Charter and very little survives from the Middle Ages. All the manorial court rolls and the accounts of the manorial bailiffs have been lost. It is left to conjecture how it was Birmingham, rather than any one of a number of similar small villages, that developed into a prosperous market town with the beginnings of industry. However, there are clues.


Within a hundred years of the Market Charter Birmingham grew from a small farming village into a thriving town which attracted merchants, craftsmen, manufacturers and many local immigrants. Surviving records from other markets nearby show the sort of trading that went on. Vegetables and corn, sheep and cattle and horses were sold, as well as coal, salt, millstones and various metals. People could buy a wide range of goods, including some from abroad: aniseed, almonds, basketry, iron goods, liquorice, oranges, pomegranates, pottery, prunes, silk, spices, tinware, white paper, white soap and wine.


Birmingham merchants are known to have traded regularly with London and with the major ports of Kings Lynn and Bristol. Records show that they sold cloth made from local wool, fulled, dyed and woven locally, as well as locally produced leather and leather goods and small metal goods. During excavations prior to the building of the new Bull Ring in 2003, evidence of a number of industries was found, some of it relating to agriculture as would be expected in a small market town, but also a much wider range including the manufacture of buttons, flax and hemp, glass, leather, pottery and metal working. Birmingham was well behind Coventry in woollen cloth production. Coventry market handled 95% of Warwickshire cloth. Birmingham, although second in turnover, handled only 1.5%. Nonetheless, cloth making and selling was important to the town. Other trades also centred on the market, making and selling agricultural equipment of wood or iron, or processing agricultural products, and leather goods.


Although the farmland of the manor of Birmingham was not particularly good, tenants in all manors owed labour service to their lord on the demesne, which entailed carrying out farmwork on the lord's own land. As people moved to Birmingham for the market trade, some tenants grew rich enough to pay cash for the lord to employ labour rather than use their own labour or they paid for labourers to carry out their dues. The town increasingly became less a farming village and increasingly dependent on its market trade and associated industries. In 1226 amongst individuals paying cash instead of doing the hay-making themselves were merchants, weavers, a tailor and a smith.
Fairs were important occasions both commercially and socially. They drew large numbers of people from the local area as well as from further afield and enabled commerce to be conducted between merchants. In 1250 Henry III granted to William de Bermingham the right to hold a four-day fair starting on the eve of Ascension Day (Ascension is 40 days after Easter.). And in 1251 permission was also given to hold a two-day fair beginning on the eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist, 24 June. The dates were later found to be too close together and by 1752 the fairs had been moved to Michaelmas, 29 September, when people were in town to pay their half-yearly, and to Whit Tuesday, seven weeks after Easter.


It is not known whether there was an early church on the site of St Martin's-in-the-Bull Ring. As the town grew richer during the 12th century, either the church was built or rebuilt by the de Birminghams, and other rich local people in keeping with its place at the centre of a thriving market town. Nothing now remains of the 12th-century building except for the foundations of the tower, some internal stonework in the tower and the tombs of some of the medieval lords: Sir William de Birmingham c1325 the five diagonal lozenges of whose shield form part of the City's arms, Sir Fulk de Birmingham c1350 and Sir John de Birmingham c1380.


The oldest document relating to Birmingham held in Birmingham Reference Library records the conveyance of land in the foreign of Birmingham from Robert, son of John Philip of Birmingham to John Stodleye, burgess of Birmingham. The foreign was the agricultural part of the manor outside the borough, outside the specified area reserved for housing and trade. A burgess was one who paid rent in the borough and had certain privileges, primarily those of not paying market tolls and freedom from labour obligations to the lord of the manor. Town rents were generally up to 40 times more expensive than agricultural rents; thus a thriving market town was very profitable for a manorial lord. This is further evidence of Birmingham's status as a town and no longer a village.


The Augustinian Priory Hospital of St Thomas the Apostle was a monastery endowed by wealthy Birmingham merchants before 1286. It had extensive lands in Birmingham, Aston and Saltley whose rents helped pay for the care of the poor and the sick. This priory, along with thousands of others across the country, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. The buildings were demolished and the lands sold off. The Minories is on the site of the Priory buildings, Old Square stands on the site of the Priory Close and Corporation Street is built over the graveyard. During the construction of the houses in Old Square in 1696 the cellars were said to have shown evidence of the Priory's foundations. Birmingham's first historian, William Hutton rescued a fragment of moulded masonry which may now be seen in Birmingham Museum. The streetnames, Upper Priory and Lower Priory survive as Priory Queensway to the present. The western side of the priory estate was the prior's coneygre ie. 'rabbit warren'. Rabbits were introduced by the Normans from the Mediterranean during the 12th century. At that time they were only half-hardy animals and mounds of soft earth had to be dug to allow them to make burrows. Their meat and fur were luxury items. By the 1300s there were many warrens and rabbits were an established species providing a ready and cheaply maintained supply of meat throughout the year. The warren, in the area around the Town Hall and Central Library, gave a former name to Colmore Row and Steelhouse Lane which was known as Priors Conyngre Lane until the 19th century.


The Order of the Knights Templar was a Christian military order whose international power and wealth threatened especially the interests of the French King. He had the Pope persecute and ban the Order in 1312. The Master of the Order was imprisoned in London and had brought from his wardrobe personal property amongst which were pecie de Birmingham, ie. Birmingham pieces, 22 items valued at 98 shillings. A gold clasp (not from Birmingham) was listed as worth 5 shillings. It is not known what the pieces were; they were obviously valuable and small enough to be taken easily into prison. Possibly they were gold or silver eating or drinking vessels or jewellery. The important point is that the term 'Birmingham pieces' is not explained: it must have been well known to people in London. Already at this time Birmingham may have been famous for precious metalworking or jewellery.


Fires in the timber-framed houses in medieval towns were not uncommon. The larger the town, the closer the houses and the greater the danger of fire spreading. Indeed some historians use the fact of a 'great fire' as evidence that a settlement had developed from a village into a town. In 1313 Thomas de Turkebi claimed in a Halesowen court case that all his documents had been burned ad magnam combustionem ville de Birmingham, 'in the great fire of the town of Birmingham'. As the evidence was accepted without question, it is clear that Birmingham was a town of some size and that the Great Fire of Birmingham locally a well known event. In 1327, the year in which Sir William de Birmingham was summoned to Parliament, the Lay Subsidy Rolls, a tax on movable goods, show that Birmingham had become the third biggest town in Warwickshire, still well behind Coventry, but now overtaking the county town of Warwick.


The Guild of the Holy Cross was founded in 1392 by wealthy merchants who set up almshouses for the poor, paid for the town midwife and two priests at St Martin's Church, maintained a chiming clock at the Guild Hall in New Street and were responsible for the upkeep of some roads in the town. Most importantly for the town's economy they maintained the River Rea bridges at Deritend, a major route into the town. Wealthier townspeople were now beginning to take over some of the responsibilities of the absentee lord of the manor and to govern themselves. As a religious guild, the Holy Cross was abolished by Henry VIII in 1547 and the Guild Hall became King Edward VI Grammar School.


The town grew in larger and wealthier throughout the Middle Ages and first appeared on a map, known after a later owner as Gough's Map and dating from c1360. It is represented by a picture of a house, a symbol for the smallest towns shown on the map.