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Bastides or Planned Towns

Photographs copyright 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: view of the town wall at Conwy Castle

Cadw 1990, 1995

Castles were often the starting point - literally the foundation stones - of new towns that sprang up in their shadows. In early medieval times, the concepts of townships and town life were still alien to the Welsh. Then came castles, bringing with them new commercial and trading opportunities and the first glimmers of an urban life as new communities grew up around their walls.

Early Norman towns - at Monmouth and Chepstow, for example - had their earth and timber defences and protective gates. In later times these were rebuilt in stone. Moreover, sophisticated, complete systems of defence were constructed, often part-and-parcel of total, purpose-built townships. This 'bastide' approach was first perfected in France, where defended towns were planned on a straightforward rectangular grid. Edward I was introduced to bastides during his expeditions in Gascony, subsequently applying the overall idea to his late 13th-century north Wales campaigns, where most of his new castles were built in tandem with fortified townships.

Castle and town became an integral unit with sturdy defensive walls extending from the immediate precincts of the fortress to encompass the entire community. Conwy's circuit of town walls (above right) is a particularly fine example of this approach, surviving complete for over three-quarters of a mile with 21 towers and three original gateways. Wales' other set of fine surviving set of town walls are found at Denbigh (below).

 

 

A bastide was the medieval word for a new town planted in open country. They were often laid out with straight streets crossing one another at right angles. Similar grid plans extend back to Roman times (as at Caerwent or at Chester), and were again repeated in Anglo-Saxon burhs such as Wareham (Dorset) and Wallingford (Berkshire).

New towns were usually created for economic purposes. A Saxon abbot of St. Albans, for example, diverted Watling Street to pass through a new market-place at his abbey's gate. A town as well as an abbey was planted on the site of the Battle of Hastings, and in 13th-century Wales a new town was laid out along the main road between Cardiff and Neath, at Cowbridge. Castles, too, particularly when planted in open country, needed a local market for supplies of all kinds.

The medieval arrangement of creating a bastide or new town was comparatively simple. It was a system designed for the mutual benefit of the king, the landowner, and the new townsfolk, and it provided an efficient way of marketing surplus food and other goods. The landowner would charge a rent for a building plot (a burgage), on which the settler (a burgess), would erect his house and shop, which were often combined. The king would be petitioned to grant a weekly market and at least one fair a year, and the burgesses might sometimes be given royal permission to collect a tax to build defences with responsibility to provide their own local protection.

A burgess was a free man, able to acquire property and to devote himself to his craft or to the buying and selling of goods without the burdens of labor services to his lord which were common in the countryside. In many cases, the burgesses would collectively elect their mayor and council to manage urban affairs. Elsewhere, as at Flint, the constable of the castle often served as the mayor of the town.

Over seventy bastides were planted in south-western France in the late 13th century, particularly in English-held Gascony. King Edward I was involved with such plantations, and he had met with striking success. In his conquest of north Wales, the town plantations such as Flint, Caernarfon, and Conwy were to provide administrative centers as part of the royal plan for total control and lasting English settlement. These towns quickly transformed the economic life and pattern of marketing in the areas of Wales where they were introduced.

 

"In discussing the development of Edwardian towns in north Wales, it is important to remember that these new "settlers" faced tremendous obstacles in what was basically hostile territory. Edward's new towns were populated with English settlers in the midst of defeated native Welsh populations. In the early years especially, English settlers had to be on constant alert against attack, and often the castle was the last place of refuge. In many instances, buildings and crops within and outside towns were destroyed as the result of raids by a frustrated native population. In time, most of Edward's new towns did achieve a kind of uneasy peace with their neighbors, however Welshmen were often forbidden to enter a town or conduct trade within its walls or in the surrounding districts. In some cases, if a Welshman was found within the town walls after sundown, he could be taken to the castle and hanged. Restrictions against the Welsh varied in severity from town to town, but these unequal privileges caused tensions and frustrations that culminated in the Glyn Dwr revolt, a remarkable national uprising during the early years of the 15th century. The burgesses may well have enjoyed special privileges within the walls of Edward's new towns, but those privileges often came at a terrible price.

Nevertheless, although Edward's castles in Wales were at times little more than lonely outposts and mere symbols of English control in hostile territory, they were in fact extremely effective in preventing the Welsh from permanently reversing Edward's victories of 1277 and 1282 and regaining control of the region. Edward's castles time and time again proved their worth, never more so than during the Glyn Dwr revolt."

Jeffrey L. Thomas

 


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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas