The clue to Modbury’s origins lies in the Saxon name Moot Burgh, for moot means meeting-place, especially for a court of judicature, and burgh a defensible position. It was also a port, a trading centre, having a portreeve to oversee all transactions by the early tenth century.
In 1155 a charter from the Lord of the Manor, Roger de Valletort, allowed markets and fairs to be held regularly. The earliest written reference to a borough town appears to be 1238, when it is recorded that Henry the wool carder was outlawed for killing Benedict le Combere, a crime which involved Modbury Burgh with the itinerant justices of the Crown.
A burgess, one who held a freehold within the borough, enjoyed certain privileges, such as paying no tolls at the fair, nor for weighing goods at the town beam. When Yves, Vicar of Modbury, c.1250, gave a burgage to the monks, they too enjoyed these privileges. Freeholders were also eligible to participate in the government of the town; moreover, their burgage plots were tithe free.
The main streets of the borough, once paved with cobbles, had a drainage channel running down the centre of each. As three of those streets are steep, all water and debris eventually found its way into the two brooks, which became one near Poundwell. The problems this created show up time and again in the 18th century Borough Accounts, which refer to ‘cleansing the Brook in Galloping Street and Poundwell’, ‘carrying away rubbish taken from the Brook’ and ‘amending the flood hatch at Tucker’s Brook’.
Features of the streetscape now lost to us are houses overhanging the streets on pillars (the last to be removed were at 5 & 6 Broad Street in 1870), and water conduits and other public structures sited in the middle of the streets.
The Shambles, where meat was sold, was a long and narrow structure standing in the middle of the level section of Church Street. It has been described as ‘a large building in the earliest style of municipal architecture, massively constructed of oak and chestnut on a granite base’.
At the Market Cross stood an open building known as the Round House. Here corn and yarn were traded and all proclamations made, including the ceremony to proclaim the fair, with decorated glove hoisted atop the market bell.
When a View of the Borough Bounds was taken in 1803, a written record was made of the established boundary points. First, the officials proceeded from the Market Cross up Church Street into Moon’s Lane, ‘as far as a gutter hole in the wall… a short space from the end of the Dry House there’. Based on locations identified in the 1803 document, the geographical extent of the Borough can be traced.
The Court Leet
Courts Leet came into existence through basic attempts by people living in trade communities to set up a system of local self-government to hold and guard their markets from unfair competition, and also to keep the peace. Freemen of a place pledged themselves for the good conduct of, or damage done by, each other: a commitment known as frankpledge. They became a governing body and assembled for meetings — the Court Leet.
After the Norman manorial system was introduced the Lord of the Manor of Modbury became Lord of the Borough also, responsible to the king for the good conduct of a borough administered and run by the Leet. The customary right of the people to their own self-government prevailed: the Lord was empowered by the people to allow the court to meet, whenever it wished, in the Court House at Modbury House. The situation at Modbury gives every indication that, by the time of the Norman conquest, the Court Leet was not only in existence, but too well established to be overruled.
The Leet met three times a year: The Easter Court Leet for the purpose of good government during the Great Fair; the Michaelmas Fulfilling Court, when officers for the ensuing year were chosen; the Michaelmas Court Leet, when officers chosen at the Fulfilling Court assumed office. In later years the Michaelmas courts were held at one and the same time.
In addition there was a Piepowder Court (literally, Court of the Pedlars) held during every Fair or Market.
Once a year the first point of assembly was Palm Cross Green for the View of Frankpledge, it being necessary for members of the Leet to view, or see, the township they represented. This custom continued after the destruction of the Court House of the Lord (Modbury House) in the seventeenth century. The View of Frankpledge was followed by the annual dinner, interspersed with court business.
The Leet was made up of a jury consisting of men (no less than 12, no more than 23), eligible if they held a freehold within the borough. The jury was, by custom, sworn in three at a time, one among them being elected foreman and sworn in first. Other officials appointed were Ale-tasters (2); Pig Drovers (2); Treasurers (2); Constables (2); a Scavenger, Crier and Bailiff, Portreeve and Deputy, plus a Toll-taker for the Fair. At one time Searchers and Sealers of Leather were also appointed; however, by the mid-nineteenth century these were no longer needed as the leather trade had declined.
The jurymen were on oath to report every crime or misdemeanor committed within the jurisdiction of the Court Leet, ranging from murder, as in the case of Henry the wool carder (1238), clipping coinage of the realm, or using false weights, to eavesdropping.
Inevitably, because of the introduction of other legal machinery, the former strength of the Court Leet as a court of law has diminished over the years, until its jurisdiction has been mainly limited to markets and fairs, and the state of the streets. In 1857 there were 12 fines of 6d. each for broken kerbs, and 8 for obstructing the streets with timber, again 6d. each. In that same year half a crown was claimed by the Leet on the death of each freeholder and for each plot of land changing hands.
In 1904 Claude Legassick Crispin, Lord of the Borough, urged the free tenants of Modbury to ensure that the borough rates were paid, because otherwise the customs and ancient rights of the town were in danger of being lost. The Easter Leet continued until 1908. All remaining vestiges of the Leet are now absorbed by the Parish Council, though Modbury still has a Town Crier and the Fair has been revived.
The Portreeve was the most important official of the Court Leet. The title denotes both the origin and the chief duty, for port, a trading centre, and gerefa, reeve, are Saxon words. Portreeves were first introduced by Edward the Elder (899-925)
As well as overseeing markets and fairs, the Portreeve was the leader of the town community, with power to call the freemen together at any time. The appointment was for one year, chosen by the freemen at the Michaelmas Fulfilling Court and assuming office at the following Leet. He was sometimes addressed as ‘Mr. Mayor’.
Modbury’s last Portreeve was Mr. Will Rogers in 1963, since when the custom has been discontinued, having lasted for at least 1000 years.
Author: Nancy Savery