Charter markets and fairs

The history of charter markets and how they developed is quite fascinating and stretches back over 800 years.

A charter market or fair is a street market or fair which was established by Royal Charter., with many dating back to the Middle Ages. As they are today, markets and fairs were trading institutions held at regular intervals. In medieval England and Wales, it was common for a market to be held once a week, on a set day and in a set place.

For a fair, the rule of thumb was different. They would be held annually, on a set date, held in a set place and normally associated with the feast of a particular saint. A fair might last only a single day or over a number of days, ranging from two or three days to a week or more.

From 1199 to 1516, Royal grants of markets and fairs were generally recorded in charters. As such, markets and fairs fall into two categories: prescriptive and granted. Many of the oldest and most successful markets and fairs were held by prescriptive right, or in other words, by custom.

Unfortunately – and perhaps understandably, evidence from before the thirteenth century is often unavailable meaning that accurately identifying prescriptive markets and fairs from around and certainly before that point is often problematic, and sketchy at best.

The second category of markets and fairs is those set up by a grant. By 1066, the right to establish a market or fair was considered to be via a Royal franchise. However, it is not until the thirteenth century that there is evidence that the King enforced his right to licence all markets and fairs.

From 1199 onwards, Royal grants were recorded on the charter rolls. These Royal grants were detailed and specific, as they named the grantee, stated the day of the week for the market - or the feast day, and duration of the fair. The location of the market or fair was also noted, usually at a manor belonging to the grantee, with its exact site occasionally specified.


A typical charter granted a market and a fair at the same place.

From at least the reign of John onwards, the King also insisted on his right to approve any alterations to the timing, duration or location of existing markets and fairs. For example, anyone wishing to change the day of his market was obliged to secure a grant recording this Royal licence.

With its roots in Roman times, Borough Market in London can lay claim to being Britain’s oldest food market, mentioned by name in 1276 with documents and granted its first royal charter in 1406. The market moved from its nearby original location (on a bridge - long-since vanished - built by King Canute) to the current site close to the Thames behind Southwark cathedral in 1756, where it thrives.

However there are a host of other Charter Markets around the UK with equally rich histories.

Droitwich in Worcestershire had a mint between 1042 and 1066 and was a borough in 1086. Although no specific mention of a market at Droitwich has been found, a market has been recorded there thanks to the presence of the mint and the borough.

Cirencester’s Friday Charter Market is also up there as one of the oldest charter markets in the country and was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

Lancaster became a town at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century, but gained its first charter and the right to hold weekly market and an annual fair in 1193.

Yorkshire has its fair share of markets and Bedale in North Yorkshire is one of the oldest, having been granted its Market Charter in 1251 by Henry III.

Salisbury in Wiltshire had a market by 1219, a tradition which is still held twice-weekly today in the Market Place. Back in January it was even awarded the distinguished honour of being Best Large Community Market for 2017.

In addition to these great examples, a whole host of other historic Charter Markets can be found right across the UK, including at Banbury in Oxfordshire, Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, Bromley in Kent, Evesham in Worcestershire and Ledbury in Herefordshire to name but a few.