NN comment: Northampton should be regarded as a heritage town with the Market Square at its core

Northampton's history could bring people back into the town centre says local historian

Earlier this week we reported on concerns about proposals for Northampton’s Market Square. Today we bring you a piece by local historian Mike Ingram about the history of the area and an alternative plan to improve it.

By Mike Ingram

Northampton has a unique and unrivalled history that dates back to 3,500BC. It was a royal town, and the town crest which can be traced back to King Edward I can be seen on the badges of the Saints and Cobblers as well as one of three surviving Eleanor Crosses.

Most of its streets can be dated to before 1300 and walking through the town today, you are walking in the footsteps of Kings, Queens and the nobility of England, Scotland and Wales.

Nationally important parliaments and councils were held in the town and many ancestors of the first US Presidents can be traced back to the town and county.

In 1189, the town received a charter allowing markets and fairs to be held on the ground around All Saints. However, in 1235, Henry Grosstete, Bishop of Lincoln persuaded King Henry III to stop the fairs being held there and he soon after issued a decree that the fair should move to a “void and waste place” to the immediate north of All Saints, where it remains to this day.

The Northampton market days, according to the royal charter of 1599, were Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; and this order was confirmed by the charters of 1618, 1683, and 1796. On the periphery of the square, goods that were sold from carts were placed.

Cornhill (now called the Parade) on the north side of the square, was as the name suggests for the sale of corn. Documentary evidence suggests it was actually divided into Barleyhill, Wheathill, and Ryehill, with Ryehill being at the entrance to the modern Grosvenor Centre. Malt was sold on the east side of the square, which was called unsurprisingly Malthill, Wood for fuel was sold from carts to the east of All Saints’ churchyard, a site that still bears the name of Wood Hill.

Large-scale horse markets were held in the town four times a year something Daniel Defoe described in the 17th century as ‘the centre of all horse markets and horse fairs in England’.

As well as the local markets, every year Northampton held one of the seven great annual royal fairs, lasting the whole of November. As well as sellers from London and towns in the area, these fairs included foreign traders from Douai, Ypres and the like. It was here that the King’s buyers would come to buy their goods, particularly at Northampton – cloth.

In 1257 at one such fair, an altercation between the men of Northampton and traders from London broke out on the square. Several locals were injured, and one died the next day. Four Londoners were arrested, and their goods taken. The goods of other Londoners were also seized.

A furious row between the Mayor of London and the people of Northampton erupted over the rights of the town and the liberties of Londoners. It was brought before King Henry III at the Tower of London, who it appears ruled in favour of the Northamptoners. It was a landmark decision because from then on, all other towns rights took precedent.

There are many accounts of important events taking place in the square. In 1462 Edward IV and the Duke of Somerset were passing through Northampton when locals tried to hang Somerset in the Market Square for being a traitor. Edward had to stand over him with his sword drawn whilst 250 gallons of wine was brought for the townsfolk.

In 1693, starving rioters seized a corn-dealer’s wagons to stop him forestalling (preventing normal trading by buying or diverting goods, or by persuading persons to raise prices). The dealer was arrested as “an oppressor of the poor and a public enemy of the whole country.” Somewhat suspiciously he later hanged himself in Northampton gaol.

Not long after, a large crowd of women went to the Northampton market armed with knives, determined to get corn at fair rates. In June 1694, the riots began again after it was spotted that corn was being stored and sold in large quantities out of one of the inns, presumably for the troops overseas. In the battle that lasted several hours, the mayor and burgesses were assaulted, two were killed and some sixty wounded.

The square became a natural place for political gatherings but was also the focus of the town’s festivals and festivities. In 1588, a great spectacle watched by people from “towns, far and near” was held in the square. The conduit was temporarily converted into a castle which was called the Groyne, on the top of which was erected a tower. For three days, mock battles raged backwards and forwards around the square and cumulated with an assault on the “castle.” 

In 1913, when King George V visited the town, he was received on the Market Square. During the 1930s, the Square was the venue for an open-air cinema with films used to enlist troops for the armed forces. And during the Second World War it was used for War Weapon Weeks to raise money for Spitfires, Warships and Tanks.

The history of the Market Square is the history of Northampton and its people. The buildings, which surround it today, primarily date from the late 1600s to the early to mid-1800s with a number of modern additions.

No 17, Drury chambers and what is now the Halifax Building Society probably date from the late 1600s. No 18, now Café Track features 17th century ornamentation quite possibly by the celebrated Edward Goudge, while No 19 dates from the late 1700s or early 1800s. No 20 was built in the late 1920s for A.P. Hawtin and Sons of Northampton to the design of F.H. Allen of Northampton. The frontage survives in remarkably unchanged form.

There are 11 listed buildings around the square which is part of the All Saints Conservation Area last updated in November 2007. Within which there are 76 Listed entries, two of which are Grade I and eight are Grade II reflecting the historical importance of the whole area.

Northampton Together, the new Civic Society was formed in 2020. Its vision for Northampton Market Square is based on best practice and experiences elsewhere, along with evidence from parliamentary reports. For example, the parliamentary report ‘High streets and town centres in 2030 Eleventh Report of Session 2017–19’ which shows the need for high streets and town centres to create their own identity, based on local characteristics such as “heritage, history and culture” and to “develop in line with the DNA or personality of the area and the community.”

The report also stresses that Local Plans must be living documents, regularly updated to capture and reflect changing trends, and must be forward looking.

Northampton has huge potential as a tourist destination which should be capitalised on (one can only imagine why this has not already been done). With the Magna Carta story centred on the town and county, the first battle of the second Barons War which brought about the beginning of the parliament we know today, through to the Battle of Naseby which finally established parliament in its modern form, and much more besides, the town could easily rebrand as the “Home of Democracy.”

The town’s historical importance has frequently been ignored in the recent past. For example, when Richard III (he was born in Northamptonshire) was reinterred in February 2013, thousands passed through Northamptonshire to Leicester. The town and county stayed silent.

Then in 2015 it was the 700th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. There were events up and down the country which brought thousands of American tourists to England.

Although the Magna Carta was an all-Northamptonshire affair (except for the sealing at Runnymede), plus the first six presidents descended from Northamptonshire stock and the "Grandfather of America" is buried in St. Giles Church, nothing was done. It was the ideal opportunity to put the town and county on the US tourist trail. Hardly anyone stopped here.

Our tourist information has nothing of the town’s history or of these momentous events nor does the local hotels. Many towns with their own unique history are turning to their heritage as a way forward. Many have already begun. Northampton must not be left behind.

The town needs a unique selling Point to give it direction, especially as it continues to die as an important retail centre. This is something that has been lacking in Northampton for many years. 

The new unitary council has yet to write a heritage plan for the town. It is urgently needed to limit and set standards for unscrupulous developers, especially on the square. Bland, uninspiring concrete monstrosities have already appeared and more have been proposed all over the town, often too high or blocking vistas. A prime example of this is the A508 London Road into Northampton from Far Cotton. 

From the Queen Eleanor Cross, which itself is of huge national significance, you can see into the heart of the town. This is the route that all the Kings and Queens took when they came into Northampton. These vistas should be kept open and not blocked by modern tall and unattractive buildings.

Our town is unique and should be treated as such. A heritage quarter that works in some towns with far less history is too restrictive for Northampton. It should be regarded as a Heritage Town with the historic Market Square at its core.

Our alternative plan shows that despite parliamentary recommendations, current proposals lack a unique selling point, and that the Market Square should be kept fully open, unencumbered by modern out-of-the-box solutions such as randomly placed granite blocks for seating or wooden kiosks which will only serve to limit flexibility. We propose that the shop fronts are changed to be more in keeping with the historic environment in which they stand, and listed buildings highlighted.

With more people attracted to come to the centre of Northampton this should have a positive reflection on the place’s economic viability. It is the rich surviving medieval urban pattern of its streetscape and the many handsome (if under-sold) historic building frontages, which line those streets, which give Northampton enormous potential. If harnessed in the right way it is, as the Public Realm Implementation Framework puts it: “the quality of Northampton’s townscape that is likely to set it apart from competing towns”.

Furthermore, it should be kept as it has been since 1235, as an open space and the largest fully enclosed Market Square in England, to provide specialist markets which will attract people from all over the region and further afield, and as a first-class entertainment venue attracting the best concerts in the world. With signage showing its past, the whole square can then be developed with a café culture around the outside.

A town timeline should be embedded around the square’s pavement. The rhythm of the buildings around the square should not be changed either, nor the heights of surrounding buildings, even ones not on the periphery should not be higher or heightened to disrupt this rhythm, especially if they would cast a shadow across the square.

A fountain in the square has been a constant failure since Victorian times. As an alternative to a fountain, we propose a modern version of the late lamented Victorian fountain but with steps leading to it that can be used for seating, with a local competition for the design.

Finally, it is important that a full consultation of any final design, (unlike the earlier one which only gave respondents the choice between features and designs) gives people the opportunity to have a real say.

Mike Ingram is a Freeman of the ancient borough of Northampton, historian and author of the award-winning Northampton: 5,000 years of history. He also leads regular tours of the town looking at its history and forgotten buildings.

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