Medieval fairground found at Latton Priory

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A survey of the area around the site of an Augustinian priory near Harlow, Essex, has uncovered the location of an annual medieval fair granted to the priory’s patron by Edward III in 1332.

A reconstruction drawing showing Latton Priory as it may have looked on 29 August 1335. [Image: © Historic England – artist: Judith Dobie]

The date of origin and identity of the founder of Latton Priory are unknown, but it is thought that there was a priory dedicated to St John the Baptist on the site from the late 12th century, which was rebuilt in the early 14th century. The 18th-century farmhouse that currently stands on the site and the remains of the priory church both have listed status, and the wider landscape of the monastic precinct is a designated scheduled monument.

A recent conservation and consolidation project led and grant-funded by Historic England offered an opportunity for their Archaeological Survey and Investigation team to carry out analytical earthwork surveys, geophysical surveys, aerial mapping, and documentary research to improve understanding of the history of the priory and of its surroundings.

The most significant discovery was the identification of a triangular enclosure to the north-east of the priory, delineated by significant earthworks, as the site of the annual medieval fair. This was held on the vigil, feast, and morrow of the decollation (beheading) of St John the Baptist, 28-30 August, and was granted by Edward III to Augustine Le Waleys, the patron of the priory, possibly marking the completion of the priory’s rebuilding, which began shortly after 1317 when Le Waleys acquired the neighbouring manor of Mark Hall and, with it, the priory’s patronage.

The triangular area corresponds with an area labelled the ‘Foreberry’ on an estate map of 1616, drawing comparisons with known monastic fair sites, such as Reading Abbey’s Forbury and the Bury at St Osyth’s priory. The earthworks recorded at Latton reveal that visitors would have had to pass through the enclosure to reach the causeway over the moat into the priory precinct. This control of access would have made it possible for the priory’s patron to collect tolls during the annual fair.

The geophysical survey also identified the buried remains of the priory church’s lost nave and evidence of the cloisters, validating the assumptions underpinning the site’s statutory protection. This project demonstrates the power both of non-invasive archaeological techniques and of the reappraisal of secular manorial records to reconstruct the past of a poorly documented monastic house.

This news article appears in issue 367 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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