Lordship of towns in medieval England: Lay seigneurs in the West Midlands and Welsh March, 1066–1348

Steven Christopher Spishak, Fordham University


This dissertation considers how medieval English lords dealt with their urban holdings and wielded authority over urban tenants. The role of townspeople in the diminishment of seigneurial power has been well-studied, but the role lords played in that shift has been less explored. The concept of lordship is developed, with urban lordship—lordship in towns—as a flavor of lordship, along with feudal and manorial lordship. The commercialization of English society and the increased number of towns and urban dwellers is described. Lords treated their urban tenants differently from their rural or military tenants, because in order to conduct their trade, townspeople required release from many of the demands that reinforced the social hierarchy. Lords faced a dilemma: they wished to maximize their income from the tolls and taxes that accompanied commercial prosperity, but since this was best accomplished by freeing townspeople from traditional exactions, profits usually came at the expense of seigneurial authority. Through a case study of four counties near the Welsh border, where lordship was particularly potent, the importance of towns to lords is examined. The study focuses on lay lords (rather than well-studied kings or churchmen), because they held half of England's towns, average-sized settlements more representative of England's urban landscape than large boroughs. The evidence suggests that by the Plague, lordship in towns had lost much of the potency that it had known at the time of the Conquest. Part of this loss was forced upon lords; part was voluntary. Royal legal reforms stripped lords of much of their exclusive hold on coercive power. Due to their own increasing hunger for profit, lords granted freedoms to townspeople that reduced their role in their tenants' lives and (ironically) limited their long-term ability to make money. Overt power gave way to influence, and urban lords had become mere landlords: often, the only point of contact with townspeople was rent-collection. The apparent sacrifice of power for wealth suggests that for the average lay urban lord, by the Black Death the direct exercise of authority was giving way to wealth as being the key to social rank.

Subject Area

Middle Ages

Recommended Citation

Spishak, Steven Christopher, "Lordship of towns in medieval England: Lay seigneurs in the West Midlands and Welsh March, 1066–1348" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3077261.