Chepyng Walden/Saffron Walden, 1438-90: A Small Town
There is scope for clarifying characteristics that distinguish small towns in the Middle Ages both from larger and lesser settlements and from each other. This will involve investigating their economy, their role in their area and their social structure and government. The topic of urban decline in the period has been the subject of much debate and small towns, of course, are relevant to this, while potentially having features which make their experience distinctive. Chepyng Walden increased dramatically in wealth and population during the later Middle Ages and has an unusually large and rich corpus of contemporary documents in which to seek explanations. It has been called a 'cloth town', yet in this period its relationship to the nearby cloth area which was very prosperous in the early sixteenth century was not overtly a primary generator of its expansion but the role of the saffron industry was publicly acknowledged at the time by clear references. Both the economic structure of at least parts of Walden's region and its opportunities in distant markets had distinctive characteristics in which an increasingly dominant and relatively close London played a significant part. Though lacking the multiple layers of larger towns, the structures of society and government were clearly defined. A distinct elite, already evident by 1440, and in which mercers were particularly prominent, became more oligarchical, over the period concentrating its power in the Holy Trinity Gild, which by the early sixteenth century was the effective government. Nevertheless, the courts of the manor and borough struggled with considerable disorder and disregard for custom, which were doubtless influenced by the increasing population and notable disparities in wealth. There are signs, too, that though the burgesses' rights were limited, the elite themselves felt increasingly able to show disrespect for manorial institutions.
Allan, Elizabeth , “Chepyng Walden/Saffron Walden, 1438-90: A Small Town,” Centre for English Local History Theses and Papers, accessed January 16, 2021, https://elhleics.omeka.net/items/show/107.