Despite the national and international importance of the port of Boston in the High Middle Ages, remarkably little of its early history is documented. Antiquarians have identified the place with the Icanho where St Botolf founded a monastery in 654 because the name, Botuluestan in the mediaeval period, means 'St Botolf's Stone' or 'St Botolf's Church'. But such an account of its origins does not withstand close scrutiny, for the community was apparently situated in the kingdom of East Anglia, which does not seem to have embraced the Lincolnshire fenland in the mid seventh century. Iken in Suffolk has been tentatively identified as the site. But there is no evidence to to associate the place with Icanho apart from the personal name Ica which they share as a place-name element, and recent research has suggested that it is more likely to be found at Hadstock (Essex), formerly Cadenho, where an early church dedicated to St Botolf with a possibly seventh-century fabric still stands. Boston appears to have come into existence at a much later date. In the Middle Saxon period the river Witham debouched through various channels into the Wash, but its main estuary appears to have been through Wainfleet Haven to the north-east of Boston. It was probably not until the ninth century that the present outfall came into being and the alluvial banks on which the town is sited were formed.

The first dateable reference to settlement on this site occurs in the Pipe Roll of 1130, but the parish church of St Botolf is named in 1091 when Count Alan of Brittany granted it to the monastery of St Mary of York. Some have claimed that this transaction marks the foundation of a priory, like that of St Mary Magdelene at Lincoln, around which Boston grew, and others that it signals the foundation of a completely new town by its Breton lord. However, there is no evidence that the church was ever collegiate, and little sign of a conscious plantation. Early charters do suggest some seigneurial regulation of development: Earl Stephen allowed his man Geoffrey d'Auredus to build whatever house he would, apparently an unusual privilege, and the monks of Easby were instructed to build a messuage that was comparable to Kirkstead Abbey's. But such is not beyond the control that any manorial lord exercised in the course of routine administration, and there is little sign in the present street plan of conscious planning.

The grant of the church was probably far less momentous, for it seems to merely mark the endowment of a favoured foundation with a valuable parish church which served an already burgeoning community. No explicit notice of the town is found in Domesday Book, but it was clearly in existence when the survey was compiled in 1086. Two churches are recorded in Count Alan of Brittany's inland and soke of Drayton in Skirbeck, and, with all the parish churches in the area otherwise accounted for, one almost certainly represents St Botolf's. The estate would seem to have embraced the whole of Boston on the east of the Witham which ever after was parcel of the Honour of Brittany and Richmond. Boston west of the river was included in Guy de Craon's manor of Wyberton, and Skirbeck Quarter to the south was represented by Eudo son of Spirewic's soke of Tattershall in Skirbeck. This division of interests does not attest the fragmentation of a discrete estate, a process which is such a common feature of the tenurial topography of Lincolnshire. Until the twelfth century Boston was situated in two separate vills which were located in different wapentakes, and throughout its history the two halves of the town remained closely associated with their eleventh-century contexts: to the west of the river the town intercommoned on Holland Fen with the wapentake of Kirton, while the east looked to East and West Fens with Skirbeck. A similar division is observable in the parochial structure of the town - Skirbeck Quarter rendered its tithes to the church of Skirbeck rather than St Botolf's, and west Boston may have been in the parish of Wyberton - and the fact points to the recent origins of Boston as a community and settlement. Nevertheless, the town was probably already a considerable port and may have been quite prosperous in 1086. The survey was based upon returns of tenants-in-chief and geld records and therefore tends to highlight nexus of tribute and administration rather than primary centres of economic wealth: throughout much of the account of Holland the names of estates are those of local government units rather than settlement nuclei. Wyberton and Skirbeck, then, were not necessarily the only nor the main centres of the fees of Count Alan, Eudo son of Spirewic and Guy de Craon. Indeed, the relatively high value of Guy's manor of Wyberton - the other two are not separately valued - points to extraordinary activity and suggests that, like Lynn, Boston had probably already become a fixed point of exchange.

Boston, then, evidently pre-dates the grant of the church to St Mary's of York. Its origins are probably to be found in its role as a pre-Conquest market centre. In contrast with most churches in the eleventh century, St Botolf's is unlikely to be have ever been associated with a seigneurial residence - the land was soke of Drayton where the caput of the manor was situated. Rather it appears to have been a market church, for when it was confirmed to St Mary's Abbey in 1125x1135 by the bishop of Lincoln its privileges included the right to set up stalls and booths in and near the churchyard and letting them to foreign merchants in the time of the fair. Until at least the mid thirteenth century the churchyard and adjacent Market Place constituted the fairground. It is likely, then, that Boston derived its name from the fair that commenced on the feast of St Botolf rather than from the church itself. With the revival of North Sea trade in the early eleventh century, many such markets developed in the fenland. Initially any convenient creek was probably used to land merchandise at the outfalls of the fenland rivers, but gradually more permanent points of exchange emerged. Salt workings, as at Lynn, often provided the primary attraction. Boston, however, probably owed its permanent establishment to its position. The Witham was a primary line of communication for it provided the major commercial and industrial centre of Lincoln with access to the sea. However, it was narrow and winding, and it is likely that sea-going merchant craft had always had to transfer their merchandise to flat-bottomed barges at the coast. Sited at the mouth of the Witham, Boston was a natural point for transhipment, and its importance to the citizens of Lincoln was recognised from an early date: they enjoyed financial privileges in the town and maintained an establishment on the west bank of Boston.


Throughout the Middle Ages the Richmond fee on the east bank of the river remained the social and economic centre of the town. The Barditch, a ditch with internal bank first noticed in c.1160, encircled the settlement to north, east, and south (see map 1). Although revetted in stone in many places, there is no evidence that it was ever considered a defensive work, and throughout the Middle Ages it seems to have been used as a common sewer. It may originally have had no other function than to mark the boundary between the new town and the territory of Skirbeck from which Boston differentiated itself, for the area to the east was said to lie in Skirbeck. Within its confines, the nucleus of the settlement was always the church of St Botolf and the fairground. Initially temporary booths were set up within the area as the demand required, but gradually permanent buildings were erected - the tenements to the south of the church and west of the Market Place appear to be infill of this type - and, with the lord's right to the profits of leasing reserved, the fair became established throughout the town generally. By the late thirteenth century, the churchyard was probably reserved for less profane activity, for increasingly the use of churches for commercial exchange was considered unseemly, but the area in its vicinity was given over to large houses which were rented by merchants from the Low Countries, France, and Germany. Wormgate, to the north of the church and fronting on the river was also early developed, as was the row to the east of the market place. Monastic charters indicate that many of these properties originally ran up to the line of the Barditch, and there is some evidence for standard units. Subdivision, however, is attested from the late twelfth century, and the area was densely populated by the thirteenth. The river frontage to the south of St Botolf's was similarly developed, although at a slightly later date, for access to the Witham was at a premium.

Less evidence of land use survives for South End east of South Street, but there are indications that it was more slowly developed and never intensively occupied in the mediaeval period. At least two, and possibly three, friaries were situated in the area. The Black Friary was established just to the south of the Market Place sometime before 1288 when the church and convent were burnt down with a good part of the town of Boston. Nothing is known of its original founder and its early endowment, but the rebuilt church, which seems to have been complete by 1309, occupied a large area between Shodfriar Lane on the north, St Mary's Guildhall on the south, South Street to the west, and Barditch to the east. It may have been somewhat larger than its predecessor since in 1292 it was granted two substantial plots of land, and significantly no house is noted on either. The cemetery was situated opposite the convent to the east of the Barditch. The site of the Grey Friary has not been so closely identified, but it seems to have been in the area of the Grammar School and likewise had a cemetery to the east of the Barditch. It was founded sometime before 1268 by merchants of the Hanseatic League, and it probably functioned as the church of the Steelyard. In 1322 a messuage and half an acre of land was granted for the enlargement of the precinct, and the friars received a further addition to this land in 1348. The site of the Augustinian Friary is more elusive. The convent was founded on one acre and a rood of land granted by Andrew son Robert atte Gote in 1318, two acres one rood acquired from John de la Gotere in 1327, and a messuage and half an acre granted by John de Multon, parson of Skirbeck, and John Mosse of Leek. The name Gote probably refers to St John's Gowt and indicates that the friary was situated at the south end of town. No evidence has been found to locate it more precisely, and it has usually been sited adjacent to St John's Hospital in Skirbeck. But the fact that the endowment was in Boston, and the house is always referred to as the Austin Canons of Boston suggests that it was situated within the Barditch.

All three friaries, then, were very close to the original nucleus of the town, and their foundation with the minimum of negotiation and consolidation of holdings suggests that the South End of Boston was relatively undeveloped in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Indeed, in the late twelfth century the land may have been given over to farming, for the virgate within the Barditch that Eudo son Sigar gave to Bardney in 1157x1163 was almost certainly situated in this area. That there was little pressure on land within the town is further suggested by the scale of development beyond the Barditch. By c.1200 a horse market was to be found in what was later called Wide Bargate, and the area seems to have attracted some occupation, for by the fifteenth century the Corpus Christi Guild and St Peter's Guild held property in the vicinity and gave their names to the eponymous streets of the present day. But apart from this quarter, there seems to have been little settlement outside of the Barditch - the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and its church were situated to the south-east in Skirbeck, the Steelyard of the Hanse may have occupied the river bank to the south, and the Hussey Tower, a manor house of the fifteenth century, was built to the east - and the land was given over to agriculture.

The holdings on the west bank of the Witham were tenurially distinct from the Richmond fee, and, indeed, the two halves of the town were not constituted as a single borough until Boston was incorporated in 1545. In origin, however, the quarter was probably secondary to the major nucleus in the development of the town and was economically a dependent of it. Both the Craon and Tattershall fees had extensive commercial rights such as tronage and pesage and enjoyed the fair of Holland at the same time as Boston fair. But, the liberties were derived from the franchise of the Earl of Richmond, and they paid an annual composition in recognition of his right. It would therefore seem that it was the growth of trade on the east bank that stimulated development on the west. Already in the late eleventh century ships had probably been docking on both sides of the river, but the construction of a bridge, which probably followed that of a sluice by Alan de Craon in 1142, must have aided the growth of the western half of the town. There is little sign of planning: as on the east, settlement was originally temporary - the caput of the Craon fee was almost certainly in Tytton, a hamlet of Wyberton, and Eudo son of Spirewic's in Tattershall - and later focused around the bridgehead. The site was never intensively occupied. As late as 1307 it was possible for the White Friars to find sufficient land to rebuild their church which had originally been founded to the east of the river, and in the mid fourteenth century various messuages and land were further acquired to expand their house and graveyard to beyond the Skirbeck Quarter boundary. Little evidence survives for the Tattershall fee, but it seems similarly to have been sparsely populated.

Boston, then, was never large. In extent it was considerably smaller than Lincoln and Stamford - it may have been more comparable in size to market towns like Bourne and Spalding - and its population was always modest in the Middle Ages. In 1086 only 44 individuals in the whole of the hundred of Skirbeck are recorded in Domesday Book. These are likely to be heads of households and the record is certainly incomplete, but there were probably no more than about 250 people living in the area. There are no further data for calculating population until 1332 when the returns of the lay subsidy suggest that there were about 800 people living in the town. Significantly, there were more tax-payers in Stamford, but the town yielded less tax. It would therefore seem that there was a smaller proportion of less well-to-do inhabitants in Boston. In 1377 there were 817 taxpayers which may suggest that there had been some growth in the town. But in the fifteenth century the population seems to have declined.


Despite its modest size, Boston nevertheless eclipsed its neighbours in both wealth and importance in the first two hundred years of its existence. In origin, like Torksey, effectively a suburb of Lincoln, the town soon overtook its economic parent with the development of large scale wool production in the East Midlands and the expansion of trade with northern Europe from the twelfth century. From what can only have been a modestly prosperous settlement in 1086, Boston had become a wealthy town by 1204 which was second only to the city of London in the amount of tax that it paid. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it was the major port in the north of England. Initially the main export was wool: in the years 1280-1290 it was the principal point of export for the great producers in the East Midlands and probably Yorkshire, shipping an average of 10,000 sacks per year to the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and much of Europe. But grain, lead, and salt were also important exports throughout the period. Imports were even more diverse. Wine was probably the most important merchandise - as an entry point it can only have been surpassed by London in the mid fourteenth century - but cloth, canvas, and linen from Flanders, iron, copper, and timber from Sweden and the Baltic, dyes, dried fruit, and spices from the Mediterranean, and fish from Norway and Iceland via Bergen were also significant commodities. The annual fair attracted merchants from all over Europe and, along with the fairs of St Ives and Winchester, was the most important commercial gathering in England. Such was its trade that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Boston was one of the great commercial centres of Northern Europe.

The town was also a local market where produce from the surrounding countryside was bought and sold. Thirteenth and fourteenth century pottery found in the town was made in Bourne, Potter Hanworth, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Grimston and may indicate something of Boston's hinterland. Various craftsmen and traders such as drapers, vintners, spicers, goldsmiths, and tanners are recorded within the town. But, if not associated with Boston's wider trading network, they almost certainly represent an infrastructure of services. Archaeological evidence further attests to butchering, boot and shoe making, some wood and metal working, but Boston was never a major centre of primary production. In its essentials it was an entrep_t, and the fact greatly influenced the composition of its society. Little work has been undertaken on social structure in Boston, but the town must have been influenced, if not dominated, by outside interests. It was not only the citizens of Lincoln who were represented in the town. At least 31 religious houses from Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and beyond held tenements, and since many derived their income from the production of wool, it can be supposed that most of them were used to expedite its export. The Hanseatic League had a guildhall there from the mid thirteenth century, and many English and foreign traders maintained establishments in the town.

This social mix inevitably had a profound affect on the administration of Boston. It is apparent that the considerable profits of market, fair, and tenements were enjoyed by the feudal interests which dominated the town. Rights akin to the borough customs - freedom from the administration of the county and the conduct of certain pleas - were granted to the men of Boston 'forever' in 1204. But this seems to have been a species of royal extortion, which is witnessed elsewhere, during the escheat of the Honour of Richmond and conferred something less than self government. The townsmen had previously compounded with the Count of Brittany for such dues, and no doubt continued to do so when the honour was granted to Peter of Savoy in 1241, but generally it would seem that the honour presided over the court of east Boston and maintained full control of its more important issues such as those of the fair - the odd and varying sums that they received indicate that dues were never farmed. West of the Witham the Craon fee likewise had its own court, and, despite the foundation of various religious guilds and a Staplers guild, a corporate and communal identity does not seem to have been established until the sixteenth century when the feudal interests had been eclipsed and the town's economy had become more localised. The issues of the town were evidently of such great value in the mediaeval period that the various lords were reluctant to alienate them, but at the same time their interests were sufficiently in tune with the townsmen - they were as much interested in the free operation of trade as the inhabitants - that a charter of liberties was never necessary.


From the mid fourteenth century, Boston's fortunes began to change, and it had to gradually adapt itself to a new role as a more local centre. In its English hinterland famine, plague, and a fall in population led to a decline in the economy and reinforced changes in the East Midlands consequent on the movement of cloth production to new rural centres in East Anglia and the Cotswolds. The established eastern towns like Lincoln, Stamford, and Spalding began to decline, and Boston's exports of wool fell off with the expansion of the new domestic cloth manufactories. Cloth initially took up its place - the town was fifth behind Bristol, Exeter, Southampton, and London in terms of volume in the mid fourteenth century - but other ports closer to the production centres soon took its trade and it was never replaced by another commodity. Changes were no less drastic in the European market as wars disrupted trade with the Low Countries and high duties discouraged trade. Various attempts were made to halt the decline and protect Boston's prosperity - the staple was established in the town in 1369 at the expense of Lincoln, and trade guilds were established or became more restrictive in their operation. But such measures were of little avail. The fair declined in importance - in the fourteenth century it became increasingly difficult to lease stalls and empty spaces were found in the town. With the removal of the staple to Calais trade became more and more local, and by the sixteenth century Boston was in decay. The infrastructure of the port suffered and exacerbated the problem. Despite the construction of a another sluice in the river, the haven was allowed to silt up and the volume of shipping further declined: in 1565 Boston had very few ships and these were small and mostly in the coaster trade, and in 1584 it was said that nothing had left the port that year apart from 240 quarters of barley and wheat. It was not until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the port and town regained some modest prosperity as a market and local harbour.

ã David Roffe, 2000.