800 Years Celebration of King John’s Droitwich Royal Charter

Droitwich Salt Slaves

serf -1By Alan Davey

In 1215 slavery had nearly disappeared in England. This was due to the attitude of the church, who ruled people’s minds in the 13th century. The bishop of Worcester banned the exporting of slaves and so did William the Conqueror at the port of Bristol. The Norman’s feudal system did not need slavery; it had serfdom.

In spite of this, Droitwich, then known as Wich, was an unusual place. It had a concentration of unskilled workers working around the clock in shifts, cutting wood, feeding furnaces, continually stirring salt out of boiling brine, and transporting the salt by packhorse. It was a densely populated industrial centre of workers performing difficult and dangerous tasks night and day in a very dirty and smokey environment – a rare thing in England at that time. Due to the poor condition of the roads, salt manufacture in Wich could only be achieved during the summer months. In those days, salt was essential for preserving food; without it folk would starve during the winter.

Salt was so valuable that it could be used for money – hence the word salary from the Latin word for salt ‘salarium’. The life of a salt worker could be short, especially for those collecting the salt from the brine. Long hours of hard labour raking out salt from the steaming brine was dangerous. It was easy to fall asleep with exhaustion and fall into the scalding brine! When King John granted Wich a Royal Charter in 1215, it is highly likely that slaves were used to make salt. Regular auctions would be held for salt factory owners to buy and sell slaves from captured runaways, or impoverished foreigners. We must also bear in mind that in those days a man could sell his wife; a frequent occurrence.

Why a Salt Charter?

Well Droitwich, called Wich in 1215, was known throughout England as the place where the purest and easiest to obtain salt could be found. Salt had been made in this location for over a thousand years by evaporating dense brine that bubbled out of the ground from artesian wells or springs. When the Romans conquered Briton, they improved the manufacture of salt using bucket lifts and large lead pans. They efficiently organised production and distribution under a single management system. At first it was the army with its headquarters on Dodderhill just north of where St Augustan’s church now stands. After the area became ‘Romanised’, one of the largest Villas in the county was built to house the salt administrator. There is evidence that both the fort and the villa came under attack during Roman occupation. Even so, ‘Wich’ became a large and valuable settlement efficiently providing salt throughout the empire. Evidence of this is the remains of the road network – salt ways –, brine pits, and flood barriers; also flash locks and moorings on the river Salwarp; showing that Droitwich salt was exported far and wide.

King John charter only

When the Romans left salt manufacture declined, but did not disappear, as local tribal chiefs and later Kings of Mercia issued edicts on the ownership etc of the salt. From Roman times onwards the wells, pits, springs and brine collected in Wich was split into many parts each owned by different elite people as handed out by the chieftain or King. Nearly all of these owners lived outside Droitwich, most of them over 100 miles away. Sharing the profits from salt manufacture was complex suggesting that organisation of salt manufacture and distribution was inefficient and possibly corrupt. By 1215, the owners had employed managers and merchants to control the salt trade with elected burgesses forming a crude ‘town council’ with a Reeve in charge, producing about 100 tons of salt per year. Even so, the King’s taxes were very difficult and expensive to collect.

King John, who was trying to raise money for an army to get back the lands he had lost in France, was granting ‘Fee Farm’ charters to developing trading towns such as King’s Lynne and Newcastle. As King John owned significant shares in the salt trade and had found difficulty collecting tax dues for the previous year, the merchants of Wich took the opportunity when John was in the region to proposition him for a Fee Farm Charter. This they achieved for an annual payment of £100, a sum close to that collected by John’s tax gatherers the previous year. In return, John handed over his salt interests and granted the town new privileges including the right to its own council: self government. This was a significant sum of money for John as Worcester city was only worth £30 pa and Hereford city £40 pa.

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The town’s people must have been overwhelmed with joy. A Royal Charter! We can now get organised and become rich! They even changed the name of the town from Wich to Droitwich (Royal Salt place). Well they probably did get organised, but they did not get rich! For the next hundred years, they found it difficult to pay the crown £100 each year. Burgesses were put in prison for not paying the annual fee. In 1248 the town asked the bishop of Chichester to come back to the place were he was born and bless the largest well – the Upwich pit – which had stopped flowing. This he did, which was one of the many miracles that made him Saint Richard de Wych. In 1290 the whole town burnt to the ground except for the walls of St Andrew’s church. All records were lost so we do not know exactly the reason why it took so long for the town to become rich. 475 years later, they were still only paying £100 per year!


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