Merchants and Traders

Posted by: Michael Gilbert Comments: 0

On 15th October 2022 Fenland Heritage Network with Spalding Gentlemen’s Society held their annual symposium. This year’s theme was ‘Merchants and Traders‘ and looked at the Medieval and Early Modern Trade in the Wash.

It was an excellent day with 76 visitors coming along to hear from six expert speakers.

The programme  for the day and the details of the talks below – if you would like more information please get in touch.

Key-Note Speaker:                   Alison Fairman (Boston Hanse)

Links with Europe – the Boston Hanse Group.

1.   The Rise and Fall of Medieval Boston

Professor Stephen Rigby

2.   Medieval Lynn and the German Hanse

Dr Paul Richards

3.   Merchants and Port Books in Jacobean Kings Lynn

Dr Alan Metters

4.   East Anglian Women and Trade in the Fifteenth Century

Dr Dustin Frazier Wood

5.   Medieval Fenland Merchants: John Masse and Nicholas Alwyn

Dr Michael Gilbert

Alison Fairman BEM

‘Boston Hanse’

Alison graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Trent Park Training College.  Moving to Boston with her family she was a founder member of Boston’s Citizens Advice Bureau, trained as an adviser and became a manager, specialising in social policy and the exploitation of workers in agriculture.  After 20 years she retired and was a founder member of the Boston Hanse Group and Boston in Bloom. She still volunteers for them and is a trustee of Boston Preservation Trust and St Botolph’s Restoration Trust. She is a Freeman of the Borough of Boston.
The Hanseatic League played a prominent role in the history of England and in particular the ports of the East Coast. The links with Europe through Boston and Lynn not only allowed these settlements to prosper in the medieval period but had a profound influence on the economy of the region. This talk introduces the themes that will be discussed in the symposium linking past and present and emphasising the importance of our ongoing links with the Continent.


Professor Stephen Rigby

‘The Rise and Fall of Medieval Boston’

Stephen H. Rigby is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Social and Economic History at the University of Manchester. Educated at the universities of Sheffield and London, he has published on a range of different aspects of medieval English history but has a particular interest in the history of the Lincolnshire towns of Boston and Grimsby.
This paper traces the rise and fall of Boston as one of England’s major ports. Although the town was not named in Domesday Book )1-86), by the early thirteenth century it was one of the leading ports in the country. In the thirteenth century, Boston’s fair was one of the most important in the country and when the records of the royal customs begin at the end of the century, it was the leading port for the export of wool when this was the country’s leading export. Alien merchants, including Flemings, Italians and Germans were especially prominent in the port’s trade. However, in the early fourteenth century, the volume of imports and exports went into decline as the wool trade and the fair declined and as Lincoln’s cloth industry suffered. The late fourteenth century did witness a revival of the port’s trade with English merchants now monopolizing wool exports and exports of manufactured cloth, particularly by Hanseatic merchants, being of increasing significance. This proved, however, to be an Indian summer and in the fifteenth century all of the branches of the port’s trade went into marked decline as London came to monopolize England’s overseas trade.


Dr Paul Richards

‘Medieval Lynn and the German Hanse‘

Born and bred in King’s Lynn Paul Richards studied at University for both BA and PhD degrees in History followed by teacher training.  He taught in further and higher education.  Paul was a borough councillor (King’s Lynn and West Norfolk) and Mayor (1998-2000) before becoming an Honorary Alderman. In 2013 he was commissioned as a Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk and in 2015 made an Honorary Borough Freeman.  Paul has written several books about his home town.
Whilst previous histories of England and the German Hanse have carried sections on the east coast ports, the place of King’s Lynn in the Anglo-Hanseatic medieval world warrants an independent study.  Together with Boston it became a senior trading partner of the German Hanseatic towns which dominated the overseas commerce of late medieval northern Europe.  This talk investigates the character of the German Hanse and why King’s Lynn was a prime destination for its ships.


Dr Michael Gilbert

‘Medieval Fenland Merchants: John Masse and Nicholas Alwyn’

After a career as an engineer in the energy sector Michael moved into the academic world later in life taking a MA in Medieval History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He then completed a Doctorate at the Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester. His thesis ‘The Changing Landscape and Economy of Wisbech Hundred 1250-1550’ explored the evolution of the Fenland market town and its hinterland through the turmoil of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He is currently working on a transcription of the Spalding Town Husband Accounts with Dr Hannah Reeve for the Lincoln Record Society and on a History of Late Medieval Wisbech.
This paper attempts to link the major exporting centres at Boston and Lynn with the communities in their hinterlands through the lives of prominent local merchants and traders. It shows how the market towns of Spalding and Wisbech were integrated into the late medieval economic structure of the region.


The focus of the discussion is on the evidence of the life of John Masse of Wisbech, a merchant who diversified into other occupations and became a leading citizen of the town. It also touches on the life of Nicholas Alwyn who was born in Spalding but made his fortune as a London merchant becoming the Lord Mayor at the end of the fifteenth century. Despite his career being centred in the Capital he never lost his local links, extending the family home at Ayscoughfee Hall and investing heavily in Fenland infrastructure.


Dr Alan Metters

‘Merchants and Port Books in Jacobean Kings Lynn’

Alan Metters was a history scholar at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. After graduation he did a PGCE at the University of Bristol and then embarked on a teaching career at Wymondham College, Norfolk. He moved on to Norwich City College, eventually becoming Head of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences. He helped to develop new Access to Higher Education courses, serving as chairman of the East Anglian Access Consortium and of the Cambridge Access Validating Agency, and created a Combined Arts degree scheme at City College in association with what was then known as Anglia Polytechnic University. Alongside his early teaching duties he studied part-time for a PhD at the University of East Anglia with a thesis on ‘The Rulers and Merchants of King’s Lynn in the Early Seventeenth Century’. He has edited a number of volumes for the Norfolk Record Society, of which he has been honorary secretary since 2003 – The Parliamentary Survey of Dean and Chapter Properties in and around Norwich in 1649 (1988); The King’s Lynn Port Books, 1610-1614 (2009); and, with others, The Papers of Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey, volume VI, 1608-1613 (2017). Volume VII of the Bacon  Papers, covering 1614-1622, is due for publication in 2023; and a final Addenda and Miscellanea volume is also in the pipeline. He wrote a centenary history of City College in 1991, has contributed articles to Norfolk Archaeology and the International Journal of Maritime History, has also written book reviews for Teaching History, while serving as a branch officer and as a member of the national council of the Historical Association, and currently helps to edit articles for the Norwich Society’s Aspects of Norwich series. He is a fellow of both the Historical Association and the Royal Historical Society.
Port books (PRO/TNA E190 series) were introduced as part of a new system of customs administration in 1565 and, in theory at least, the series lasted down to 1799 when it was officially discontinued . The extant manuscripts were then stored in sacks in very poor conditions, leaving them open to the weather and, being parchment, to the depredations of rats. As a result, their survival rate has been poor, most of the London port books for example being completely lost. The documents which we still have for early seventeenth-century King’s Lynn are sparsely spread but a decent sample survives for the overseas trade of the decade 1604-14, albeit it with a much thinner coverage of the coastal trade.

A further problem with port books, as for any customs records, was routine corruption and the incidence of smuggling, with the consequent issue of just how much valid information can really be derived from them. In Elizabethan Lynn the case of Francis Shaxton and his accomplices has aroused severe doubt about the reliability of any port book data. Shaxton (an alderman and mayor) was described by Neville Williams as ‘the most notorious smuggler in eastern England’ and King’s Lynn as ‘of all the outports … at this time the worst’!

Even so, the amount of information in port books remains considerable, and if used with due caution and subjected to exhaustive analysis, with judicious cross-referencing, they can illustrate general patterns of trade and some of the people engaged in it, as this talk will try to show. It will give an overview of all the overseas trading connections of the port and of the main commodities traded – with Scotland (still technically a foreign country, if not quite as foreign as it was before 1603), the Netherlands, northern Europe and the Baltic, France, Spain and Portugal, and even the Mediterranean when harvest conditions in the hinterland were favourable. Commercial contacts with Iceland are more difficult to unravel, partly because of the confusion over whether the annual venture was a trading or a fishing expedition. The coastal trade, perhaps four times greater by volume than Lynn’s overseas trade, was dominated by inward coal shipments from Newcastle and Sunderland, these cargoes always ascribed in the documents to the shipmasters rather than the actual merchant-owners, but there were also significant trades with Hull, Boston (being regularly ‘supplied’ from Lynn), Yarmouth, Dunwich (for fish), Colchester, London, Faversham, Newhaven and Topsham. Where we have evidence for both overseas and coastal trade in the same years, the movements of individual ships can also sometimes be followed.


Dr Dustin Frazier Wood

‘East Anglian Women and Trade in the Fifteenth Century’

Dustin M. Frazier Wood is Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Roehampton, where he teaches medieval history and literature, and leads the university’s Cultural Heritage programme. He is also Librarian and Archivist to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Dustin’s research focuses on the study and reception of medieval history in the post-medieval period, particularly the transmission and study of medieval manuscripts and artefacts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His most recent book is Anglo-Saxonism and the Idea of Englishness in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Boydell, 2020), and recent articles have ranged from palaeography and library history to visual art to the interplay of science and antiquarianism in the Enlightenment.
Popular perceptions and representations of medieval society normally cast medieval women in one of a few roles. They are pious nuns and abbesses, potential or actual mothers married off to secure political alliances for their male relatives, warrior queens who come to (usually) bad ends, or symbols of temptation. All are common tropes advanced by medieval historians, almost exclusively men. This presentation considers medieval women in their own words through analysis of two crucial sources for fifteenth-century history. The first is The Booke of Margery Kempe: the first autobiography in English, written by the wealthy Margery Kempe of King’s Lynn. Like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Kempe was a wealthy woman and merchant in her own right as well as a mystic who criss-crossed England and Europe on a series of pilgrimages along routes well known to her for their trade connections. The second is a selection of The Paston Letters written by Agnes and Margaret Paston and the women of their family circle, all living in Norfolk during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Over several generations the women of the Paston family wrote of their management of the family’s financial affairs while their husbands, sons and fathers were for the most part away in Cambridge, London or in battles. Both works present women engaged in trade, travel and politics on their own terms and to achieve goals that were both familial and personal. Their language makes their knowledge of trade clear not only through their descriptions of the buying and selling of both everyday and rare goods, but in their knowledge of foreign markets, their integration into networks such as the Hanseatic League, and their clear knowledge of the relationship between trade and politics. Far from stock characters or damsels in distress, this presentation will argue that late medieval women should be understood as important – and often independent – economic actors.








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