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Where is Medieval Wigan


Wigan Parish Church


After the Roman occupation some form of native settlement in the area is suggested by such British place-names as Bryn, Makerfield and Ince. The existence too of later Anglo-Saxon and occasional Norse names ( such as Scholes) attests to some continuity of occupation in the post-Roman period. The name Wigan first appears in its present form in 1199, and probably derives from an Old English personal name, ‘Wicga or ‘Wiga’,meaning a champion’ .The place-name evidence together with the improbable story of a Dark Age battle in the Parson’s Meadow area  constitutes the sum total of the evidence for a pre-Conquest settlement at Wigan.

At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, Wigan formed part of the Hundred of Newton, which comprised two parishes, Winwick and an unnamed settlement containing  the church of the manor of Newton which possessed one plough land, exempt from all dues . It is generally accepted that the latter Wigan, although the first rector and lord of the manor of Wigan (the two titles being concomitant at this period) is not named until 1199 . It is possible that the advowson, or patronage, of the parish church rested directly with the lords of
Newton prior to this date. All Saints  had certainly become the parish church by the beginning of the 13th century  although the only surviving elements of this phase in the present building (rebuilt in 1849) are parts of the tower and two grave-slabs, probably of 14th century date. Wigan was one of three ancient churches in the area (Leigh and Standish being the others) until the establishment of chapelries in such surrounding villages as Hindley, Ashton, Atherton and Astley, during the 17thcentury.

As previously mentioned, during the medieval period the rector of Wigan Parish Church was also lord of the  manor of Wigan. Consequently, Wigan Hall, which was situated on the western side of New Market Street, fulfilled the dual role of rectory and manor house. The building was rebuilt in both the 16th and the 19th centuries, and little is known of its original form apart from the fact that, like many of the wealthy homesteads that grew up in the surrounding villages during the 13th and 14th centuries it was protected by a surrounding, moat. The moat was still visible in 1619, for a glebe terrier of that year refers to walks, on the outside of the mote ditch” . To the north of the hall lay the ‘Mesnes’, or the principal demesne lands of the manor although manorial-holdings extended also to other parts of the town such as, for example, the significantly-named Parson’s Meadow.

The street pattern of the medieval town is. clearly reflected in the modern plan.of Wigan. The main thoroughfares of. Wallgate and Standishgate entered the triangular market place from-the south and
north respectively; Hallgate led westward to Wigan Hall, and Millgate eastward to the River Douglas, where the rector and lord of the  manor’s corn mill stood from at least the 14th century, and where the
people of Wigan were required by law to take their corn for milling. It is not known whether the River Douglas was bridged to the east of the town, but there is clear documentary evidence for the existence of the ‘Atom’ or Adam Bridge, leading south-westwards from the town, towards Pemberton, as early as the 14th century. In 1334 it was said to
be “so broken that there was no crossing”, and the grant of pontage in 1333 was probably made in order that a tax might be levied-for its repair.

ln the area between Millgate and the Douglas were a number of-wells and springs. quotes a deed of pre-1293 which refer,to “Le Haly Welle Kar” (or Holy Well Field) ‘between the land of Nicholas de Tildesleye and the water of Dogles”. It’s interesting to note that one of the few medieval features revealed.during GMAU’s . – excavations at the Wiend/Millgate site was a well.

Much debate has centred around the so-called ‘Roman Walls’ of Wigan gives two descriptions of the earth works as-they, appeared in the 19th century, of which that; of the Rev E A.P Gray in 1879 may be quoted:

“There was an agger or earthwork, with a ditch outside it, running round the hill this crossed ;” the Standish gate at the bottom of the hill,
near the point where Dicconson Street and Church Street now meet, .it followed the course of the former street, and then turning to the left .
crossed the Mesnes close to where New Market Street now runs turning again it seems,to have enclosed the Hall Gate, and (roughly-speaking), to have gone down King Street..West, across the Wall Gate and down King-Street to the Free Library, where it bent northwards and crossed the Mill Gate, where the later walls did  after this point it would naturally run along the top of the slope overlooking the Douglas far as St. George’s Church,-where it turned down Church Street to the place from which we started”.

The area thus enclosed would have occupied some :25 ha. considerably larger than most major Roman settlements. A more likely explanation is that the earthworks are of medieval or Civil War date. Whilst medieval town defences are unusual in the North-West , it seems surprising that-Civil War defences should have become obscurely ‘Roman’ as early, as 1836. Morris suggests that the.defences could represent an ostentatious attempt by the burgesses of medieval Wigan to, assert their new-found civic prestige, although it. seems equally likely that the defences correspond to those ‘mood walls’, or entrenchments, thrown up to defend the-town in 1642-3 .

It was in the mid 13th century that the. medieval, town made its greatest civic and commercial progress. In 1245 Wigan was granted the right to hold a market every Monday, and a three-day fair at All Saints festival . In 1258 a second fair at Ascension was added. At this period the rector and lord of-the manor was one John Mansell  a close advisor of Henry III and, like most incumbents at the time, .absentee. Through his influence at court, Manse Il obtained on 26 August 1246 a charter-making .Wigan a free borough. The original document is now lost, but a confirmatory charter of Edward II, written in 1314, still survives. Wigan thus became one of the four royal boroughs of Lancashire, and its citizens received the rights and .privileges of freemen or ‘burgesses’, including exemption from market stalls, the right to form, merchants’ guilds and the right to rent a ‘burgage plot’ of 5,roods (or just over an acre of land) as free tenants of the lord of the manor. The characteristically elongated burgage plots of the medieval borough can still be identified on Mather’s 1827 map of Wigan and probably account too for the medieval cultivation soil observed during excavations on the Wiend.

The burgesses comprised two categories: ‘in burgesses’ from the town and ‘out burgesses’ from the surrounding areas. They had the right to elect a common council of mayor, aldermen and bailiffs (the latter to assist in the maintenance of law), and retained the privilege of sending two representatives to Parliament until as late as 1885.

Not only did the granting of the charter, market and fair provide Wigan with a commercial pre eminence over the surrounding districts, but it
also provided a judicial framework for the administration of the town. The charter established a ‘porte-mof’, or local court, for the settlement of trading disputes. This presumably sat in an early moot hall, or in the
manor house itself, since the existence of a moot hall is not specifically mentioned until 1422. This building stood in the market place near the parish church, and engravings of it show it to have consisted of a hipped-roofed building surmounting an arcade of four pairs of pillars. A central door and balcony would have served for the issuing of proclamations to the townspeople, while the belfry above contained the market bell.

The open ground floor would have housed stalls, and was fronted by the market cross on its stepped plinth. The moot hall had become ruinous by 1720, and its functions were taken over by a new town
hall. It was rebuilt, however, to survive until the demolition of both it and the market cross in 1867-8.

It is clear that by the 16th century many of the traditional manorial rights were being exercised by the mayor and corporation, rather than by the
mainly-absentee lords of the manor. This was most apparent in the administration of justice, where the judicial powers of the burgesses had become broadened to encompass types of crime not within the strictly commercial brief of the porte-mote. The administration of such punishments as the cucking stool (or ducking stool), the scold’s bridle, and the whipping post and stocks (both of which were situated in the
market place), or incarceration in the Brideswell prison (which stood in Millgate until c1880), had devolved almost entirely into the hands of the
corporation. Similarly, the same body had instituted a second market day (Friday) without sanction of the lord of the manor. This ‘usurpation’ of the lord’s powers led to frequent and acrimonious dispute until the 17th century , when a compromise solution was agreed: although it was not until I860 that all the lord’s traditional rights were finally bought by the corporation .

The 16th century saw an expansion of Wigan’s traditional industries. The traveller and writer John Leland noted, on his visit to Wigan in the 1530s, that coal mining (of importance since the Roman period) was making an increasing impact on the landscape . The textile industry too, which was first recorded in the-area in the late 13th century, had become well established by the Tudor period and was using local wool and flax in addition to importing Irish flax The metalworking industries, particularly bell founding and pewter manufacture, were also becoming of increasing importance at this period.

The growing industrial prosperity of the town continued undiminished into the 17th century. However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1641, and the events that followed, represented a severe setback to the fortunes of the town . During the Civil War .Lancashire broadly, divided between the Royalists in the west and the Parliamentarians in the east. Wigan housed the garrison of the Royalist Earl of Derby, and maintained its Royalist sympathies throughout the conflict. However, like many small strategic garrison towns in the Civil War, Wigan suffered a series of very damaging periods of occupation by hostile forces, as well as a number of skirmishes of varying severity. These culminated in the so-called Battle of Wigan Lane in 1651, when the Royalist forces were finally defeated and their leader. Thomas Tyldesley of Myerscough, was killed

The war and its aftermath – which included a period of punitive taxation under the Commonwealth and  series of outbreaks of the plague dealt a blow to the prosperity of the town that not even the rewards of the Restoration could reverse. It was not until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that Wigan once again rose to industrial and commercial prosperity.

Mathers map of wigan

Mather’s map of  Wigan. 1827

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