By John Hartley
History of Market Harborough from the 12th to the end of the 20th century written by author John Hartley for marketharborough.com in year 2000
Market Harborough was founded in the second half of the twelfth century: over 800 years ago. Unlike many older towns whose origins are shrouded in mystery Market Harborough was founded with a purpose: trade.
Although our distant ancestors may have spoken and dressed differently from us their thought process were much the same as many people today. For that tiny minority with the advantage of education and privilege their main object in life was to make money: and, then as now, the best way of making money, in the long-term, was in land.
Back in the twelfth century the land in these parts was owned by one William Mauduit who was a Chamberlain at the Court of King Henry II; so it seems likely that he was the founder of Market Harborough, especially as he had recently carried out similar improvements to his other estates. His intention was, simply, to develop his land by the creation of a Market Town. He was by no means the only one engaged in this kind of activity in twelfth-century England.
His new town was to be an elementary affair comprising an immensely wide main street with houses around the edge. What he was doing was providing an open space in which his market could flourish. The farmer and others would bring in their cattle, sheep and horses to sell, the lesser traders would set up their stalls at the side, there would be lots of entertainment, most of it probably quite bawdy, and there would be accommodation for travellers. Out of all this William Gaudy and his possible partners took their cut.
They probably did very well. Between Leicester and Northampton the road, such as it was, passed through no place of importance. In this rich agricultural area the half way point, where the road crossed the Welland was the ideal site.
The town was entirely secular in character. It was well over a hundred years before they got around to building a church. Until then, for births, deaths and marriages the townsfolk had to walk up St Mary’s Road to St Mary in Arden, in what eventually became Great Bowden Road.
However the church, when it came, was worth waiting for. It was built east and west as a church should be; but, instead of being tucked away at the side, it projected, boldly, most of the way across the High Street. In a way, it reminds one of those town halls up in Lancashire built by self-confident nineteenth century cotton magnate. In the present idiom we would say they were making a statement; and perhaps, back in the fourteenth century, St Dionysius was making was making a statement, too: that Market Harborough was prosperous and progressive and this was the church it deserved. However, even those long-gone architects and builders can hardly have imagined that, over six hundred years later, Sir Nicholas Pevsner, the ultimate authority on church architecture would describe Market Harborough tower and spire as “among the finest in England.”
So, for the next two hundred years, until Tudor times, apart from some rebuilding of the nave and chancel, that is the way it remained. From any part of the High Street, from what is now the church entirely dominated the scene. Animals of all kinds were brought in to be sold and, north and south of the church, market traders continued to set up their stalls. Over the years the stalls became permanent constructions, then lock-up shops and, eventually, two-storied buildings with dwellings above. This had two results; firstly the town gained many more shops, which were apparently needed; but, secondly, it destroyed the view of the church. Though we can still see the upper parts of the tower and spire the church a a dominating spectacle was gone forever.
However, by the greatest good fortune, the encroachments left sufficient space by the side of the church for Robert Smyth to build his grammar School. Like his contemporary, William Shakespeare, Robert had left his midland birthplace to find fame and fortune in the capital. Whether, like Shakespeare, he ever returned we shall never know; but he left his presence here by the priceless gift of a school for the continuing benefit of his fellow townsmen.
Church and Grammar School now stand against the backcloth of the Council Offices, erected much later by an enlightened industrialist. These three buildings, together, epitomise a great deal of the history of Market Harborough and provide as handsome and distinctive a townscape as their various architects could ever have hoped to achieve.