Designs and Designers of Medieval 'New Towns' in Wales

Article excerpt


Urbanisation is as old as civilisation itself. But the design-processes that shaped towns and cities in the past were not always recorded by contemporaries. This is the case in medieval Europe, which underwent a marked period of urban growth and expansion between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries CE. This paper examines one group of towns founded as part of a co-ordinated programme of colonisation and urbanisation. It shows how comparing inherited built forms of medieval towns reveals evidence for otherwise largely hidden urban agents who were involved in their design.

The focus of the paper is on towns established under the rule of one of England's most notorious monarchs, King Edward the First, who reigned between 1272 and 1307 (Salzman 1968; Prestwich 1988; 1991; Raban 2000). Although Edward's administration is known especially for its record-keeping, the design and planning of the towns that were established for the king are, typically, little documented (see Tout 1920). This is despite the towns being part of Edward's concerted effort to bring Wales under closer English political control. Indeed the towns under examination here were all founded in a period of less than 30 years, all in north Wales, and in tandem with a royal castle-building enterprise (Lewis 1912; Tout 1934; Beresford 1967). In contrast to the towns, Edward's castles in Wales have received careful comparative architectural and historical study, and are celebrated national monuments and World Heritage Sites (RCAHMW 1910; 1912; 1914; 1937; 1956; 1960; Edwards 1944; Taylor 1963; 1986). The task remains, then, to look in detail at those new towns founded as part of Edward's 'colonial' ambitions in north Wales, and to examine the processes that shaped them on the ground.

Analysing Edward's 'new towns' in north Wales

Those who have previously shown an interest in the layouts of Edward's new towns have tended to use historic cartography, such as John Speed's town plans of the early seventeenth century (Tout 1934; Beresford 1967), or else simple sketch maps that show few details of their morphological composition (Griffiths 1978; Soulsby 1983). To remedy this, a research project was set up in 2003 to systematically survey the built forms of each of the new towns attributed to Edward I, and to map their layouts in detail for morphological analysis and comparative study (see Lilley et al. 2005a).

Once laid down, streets and plots often prove to be the longest-lived features in the urban landscape, surviving with little change from the Middle Ages through to the modern day (Tatton Brown 1986; Baker et al. 1992; Ottaway 1992) (Figure 1). This is particularly useful, as it means that the features in a town's plan fossilise the formative processes that shaped it, helping to provide a record of its evolution. It makes it possible to reconstruct how a particular urban landscape came to be, even where written records are scanty, or archaeological investigation is patchy. To get to the initial underlying design of the towns, a 'reverse-engineering' of their physical layouts is required. In each case historic maps, field survey, remote sensing, and archaeological deskwork were all combined in a Geographical Information System (GIS). To provide spatially accurate co-ordinate data on the features shown by these maps (such as street and plot patterns), a total station and Differential Global Positioning System (to a spatial accuracy of 20mm) were used to undertake local surveys, a process that later helped geo-rectify map-layers within the GIS (Lilley et al. forthcoming). This technique, plan analysis, can be used along with historical sources and archaeological work to map out the physical form of medieval urban landscapes (Conzen 1968; Baker & Slater 1992; Lilley 2000). For the first time, this paper presents detailed plan-analyses of Edward's new towns of north Wales, providing morphological evidence that is comparable to the architectural treatment of Edward's castles. …