John, by the Grace of God, et cetera. Know ye that we have given and granted, and have confirmed, by this present charter, to our beloved and faithful William Brewer, that Bridgwater shall be a free borough and that there be a free market there, and a fair every year that shall last during eight days, that is to say, from the day of the nativity of the Blessed John the Baptist; with paagio (tolls for pasturage), pontage (tolls for using the bridge), passage (ferry money), lastage (tolls for loading and unloading vessels), stallage (for stalls at the fair or market), with all the other liberties and free customs appertaining to a free borough, and to a market and fair. We grant also to the aforesaid William that the aforesaid burgesses of the aforesaid borough be free burgesses, and be quit of all toll, pontage, passage, lastage and stallage, and have all liberties and free customs and quittances which appertain to us through our land, except the City of London. Wherefore we will and firmly ordain that the aforesaid William, and his heirs after him, have and hold all the things aforesaid well and in peace, happily and quietly, wholly and fully, and honourably, with all their liberties and free customs as aforesaid.
There were in fact three charters. One granting permission to build a castle, another permitting the free borough and a third permitting various fairs and markets. The freedom of the burgages was a significant benefit to the townsfolk. Until the granting of the charter, anyone who worked the land was obliged to give occasional days of service to the lord of the manor. Inevitably this obligation would be called on at the very time the individual was busiest, perhaps at harvest time. The end of serfdom meant that an individual could pay a tax instead, probably about a day’s pay. The going rate was a shilling per burgage per year and the penalty for non-payment was to have one’s doors sealed up until settlement was made. The burgesses were allowed to hold their own court once a month on a Monday to deal with minor crimes; trespass, fraud, debt and environmental issues such as ditch clearance, the removal of offal, short measure, trading too close to someone selling the same items and regrating. This latter offence is committed when an item is bought and then sold at a higher price on the same day.
Under Brewer’s guardianship, the town began to prosper. He built the bridge, originally a wooden affair. Between 1200 and 1210, he built the castle, a magnificent castle, to defend the bridge and the town.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans