The Day Plymouth Opened for business 27th January 1254

by Neill Mitchell

Published March 2012

What we know, with certainty, of Plymouths early beginnings is that what we know is, in fact, very little! Our well-thumbed histories are liberal in their use of terms such as it is thought that, or it is likely, evidence suggests, it is reasonable to assume, etc. etc., in respect of possible Roman, Saxon, Danish or other settlement.

We do know that Exeter (the Roman Garrison town of Isca Dumnoniorum) is well-recorded as having been a prominent settlement for more than 1000 years before anything remotely resembling the beginnings of Plymouth register on Devons time line. 

However, by the time Henry III ascended England’s Throne in 1216, there do seem to have been some stirrings at the mouth of the River Plym, perhaps a small fishing settlement (evolving under the name of Sutton Prior) and seemingly engendering early maritime trade in salt and tin. More tangible was the documented existence by then of a Priory and Convent, just up-stream at Plympton.

Apparently resentful of the manner in which the powers of his Plantagenet father, King John, had been reined in by the bullish Anglo-Norman Barons through the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, Henry III held the Barons in disdain. Hence, he chose to spend much of his 56-year Reign (1216 – 1272) resident with his wife (Eleanor of Provence) in Gascony, France and duly holding Court at Bazas. 

As a consequence, not only were the deliberations and Letters Patent of Henrys Court duly recorded upon Englands vellum Patent Rolls (still kept up to date under the stewardship of the Master of the Rolls and archived at Kew), but they also feature upon the French Roles Gascons, I in Paris. For Plymouth, both sets of Rolls include corresponding entries of particular significance, as they record the exact date upon which we may reasonably view our settlement as having been formally opened for business. That date being the 27th January 1254.

The English Patent entry reads simply (in response to a petition from the Prior at Plympton) that The King was pleased to sign the following:-

(Court at Bazas)

Charter granting to the prior and convent of Plymton and their successors a weekly market on Thursday at Sutton, co. Devon, and a yearly fair there on the eve, the day and the morrow of St. John the Baptist [24th June] . 

This is shown as having been witnessed at Court by:-

W. bishop of Bath and P.bishop of Hereford

H. de Boun, earl of Hereford and Essex

John de Plessetus, earl of Warwick

John Maunsel, provost of Beverley

John de Burgo

John son of Alan

Robert de Sancto Johanne

Roger de Sumery

William de Grey

William Gernum

Imbert Pugeys

Ralph de Bakepuz

and others

The annual Fair was subsequently to become prominent in the commercial life of Plymouth well into into the 19th century, comparable in its regional importance to that of the famed 600-year profile of Scarborough Fair in Yorkshire. It would also be accompanied by assize (the price fixing of bread and ale) and the administering of public punishments by pillory and (to much public glee!) ducking stool in Sutton Pool.

Happily, an unbroken 758 years on from the grant of Henry’s market charter, Plymouth is most certainly still open for business today!

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