The growth of towns as centres of wealth
England was to a very large degree an agricultural society. Even in towns and cities, many of those involved in trade or industry also farmed small holdings of land on the edge of town. In this sense England was self-sufficient. However, throughout the Middle Ages England needed things from abroad, such as salt and spices. Inside England there was a good deal of trade between different regions. Wool-growing areas, for example, imported food from food-producing areas..
England had always been famous for its wool, and in Anglo -Saxon times much of it had been exported to the Low Countries. In order to improve the manufacture of woollen cloth, William the Conqueror encouraged Flemish weavers and other skilled workers from Normandy to settle in England. As the European demand for wool stayed high, and since no other country could match the high quality of English wool, English exporters could charge a price high above the production cost, and about twice as much as the price in the home market. The king taxed the export of raw wool heavily as a means of increasing his own income. It was easily England's most profitable business. When Richard I was freed from his captivity, over half the price was paid in wool. As a symbol of England's source of wealth, a wool sack has remained in the House of Lords ever since this time. Much of the wool industry was built up by the monasteries, which kept large flocks of sheep on their great estates.
Such trade activities could not possibly have taken place under the restrictions of feudalism. But towns were valuable centres to nobles who wanted to sell their produce and to kings who wished to benefit from the increase in national wealth. As a result, the townspeople quickly managed to free themselves from feudal ties and interference. At the end of the Anglo-Saxon period there were only a few towns, but by 1250 most of England's towns were already established.
Many towns stood on land belonging to feudal lords. The kings gave "charters of freedom" to many towns, freeing the inhabitants from feudal duties to the local lord. These charters, however, had to be paid for, and kings sold them for a high price. But it was worth the money. Towns could now raise their own local taxes on goods coming in. They could also have their own courts, controlled by the town merchants, on condition that they paid an annual tax to the king. Inside the town walls, people were able to develop social and economic organisations free from feudal rule. It was the beginnings of a middle class and a capitalist economy.
Within the towns and cities, society and the economy were mainly controlled by "guilds". These were brotherhoods of different kinds of merchants, or of skilled workers. The word "guild" came from the Saxon word "gildan", to pay, because members paid towards the cost of the brotherhood. The merchant guilds grew in the thirteenth century and included all the traders in any particular town. Under these guilds trade was more tightly controlled than at any later period. At least one hundred guilds existed in the thirteenth century, similar in some ways to our modern trade unions.
The right to form a guild was sometimes included in a town's charter of freedom. It was from among the members of the guild that the town's leaders were probably chosen. In the course of time entry into these guilds became increasingly difficult as guilds tried to control a particular trade. In some cases entry was only open to the sons of guild members. In other cases entry could be obtained by paying a fee to cover the cost of the training, or apprenticeship, necessary to maintain the high standard of the trade.
During the fourteenth century, as larger towns continued to grow, "craft" guilds came into being. All members of each of these guilds belonged to the same trade or craft. The earliest craft guilds were those of the weavers in London and Oxford. Each guild tried to protect its own trade interests. Members of these guilds had the right to produce, buy or sell their particular trade without having to pay special town taxes. But members also had to make sure that goods were of a certain quality, and had to keep to agreed prices so as not to undercut other guild members.