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following the
in 1207

Lyn James


This work will examine the reasons for the decline of the manor of West Derby after King’s John’s Charter of 1207 and the rise of the fortunes of Liverpool from that date.  It will provide, and comment upon, written evidence from both early and contemporary historians.

West Derby – the Early Years

The crop mark of the 11/12th century motte and bailey castle in West Derby can be seen (faintly) in the centre field to the left of the church

West Derby at the time of the Conquest was an important administrative centre.  The hundred of West Derby was one of the six hundreds which formed the county of Lancashire.  Within the Derby hundred was the manor of West Derby with its six berewicks, one of which was the settlement at Liverpool.  Picton gives us some idea of the importance.  Situated in the middle of a forest we cannot conceive that West Derby in its early days could develop to any extent yet we catch glimpses in our ancient records that it was held in considerable estimation[1].  We can be fairly certain that West Derby was first settled by the Vikings.  Cooper[2] suggests that West Derby was invaded and settled during the 9th Century by the Norse Vikings who had founded Dublin although many historians believe its settlement to have been gradual and peaceful rather violent. Most likely these Vikings made their way through the thick forest that covered much of the lands of southern Lancashire via the river Alt.  The strongest evidence for these Nordic beginnings can be found in the place name, Deor and By (or Bei) meaning village with deer.  In its early history West Derby was known simply as Derbie (appearing so in Domesday) and took on the ‘West’ to distinguish it from Derby in Derbyshire.  Names from the surrounding areas such as Croxteth also have Viking origins.

The area was attractive to its early settlers as it had the three things necessary for survival; water (from the rich sandstone deposits), food (from the deer that proliferated) and a defensive position (behind the present Queens Drive).

Some time before the Conquest, Edward the Confessor chose West Derby as a site for a castle and hunting lodge.  An early form of feudalism was established, one that was adapted by William 1 after the Conquest.  West Derby was still held by Edward in 1066, but was given by the Conqueror to Roger of Pictou.   It was probably Roger who built the castle of West Derby, a wooden construction of a motte and bailey, figure of eight design.  The demesne land and forest gave the castle and manor of West Derby importance as a centre of administration in Lancashire equal to that of Lancaster.

Cooper tells us that after the decline of the castle, the township and the village settled down to a ‘low-profile’ existence…until West Derby’s own renaissance in Victorian times[3]. 

Liverpool – the Early Years

It is hard to imagine what the area we now know as Liverpool was like before the charter of King John.  Certainly, we have very little written evidence.  Unlike many towns and villages in England, we cannot be sure of the origin of its place name.  We can guess with some confidence that the ‘pool’ ending comes from the inlet curving inland from the Mersey know by the locals as the Pool.  The pool was the most dominating feature of the geography until it was filled in during the 18th century.  But there are dozens of theories relating to the suffix ‘Liver’.  These will not be examined in this work, but it is relevant to say that its uncertainty does not give us any clues that would establish whether the first settlers were Celts, Vikings or Anglo Saxons.  This is a sad gap in our present knowledge of the history of the city.

Early settlers would have seen the sandy shores running from the far north and the sand hills that terminated at Kirkdale becoming a flat sandy beach as it reached the settlement.  The most prominent and important feature in the landscape was the Pool.  The Pool was a tidal creek running inland in a north-easterly direction for about half a mile up the present Paradise Street and Whitechapel until it reached the beginning of Byrom Street.  Muir[4] suggests that the Pool, with its abundance of fish and its safe harbour, was probably the cause of the creation of the township.  However, the area had far more to offer.  Fresh water was plentiful from the sandstone rock and the area was sheltered by the long ridge of hill rising to present day Everton.  It is possible that a ferry service was operated by the serfs who paid the dues to the manor of West Derby.  We cannot discount the possibility of the appearance of the odd boat arriving from Ireland or Wales to trade.  Muir also suggests that To the north and west of the Pool lay a handful of mud hovels which formed the Berwick of Liverpool.  They probably lay somewhere about the site of the Town Hall[5].  Although no written or archaeological evidence is offered by Muir (and future excavation is unlikely given the present density of the area), a fine picture is painted and one that helps us imagine life at that time.

The first mention we have of the place name comes in a document of 1191.  Henry 11 had previously granted Liverpool and other lands to Warin, Constable of Lancaster although this deed in not extant.  The transaction was confirmed in a subsequent document between the sons of the original agreement.  Our early story concludes on 25 August 1207 when King John took back these lands from Henry (Warin’s son), compensating him with other lands.

The Letters Patent of King John

Five days later on 28 August 1207, Liverpool was put well and truly on the map with the grant of the first royal Letters Patent by King John (usually now referred to as the first Charter). So what was it that inspired this royal faith in this rather small and unassuming settlement?  For this we must go back a year or so.  Records show that John was in both Lancaster and Chester in February of 1206.  At that time he was seeking a convenient boarding place for his troops and provisions to complete the subjugation of Ireland.  Whether it was a personal choice, or whether he acted on the advice of the sheriffs who were sent to reconnoitre the area, is unclear.

The date of the construction of Liverpool castle is unknown but we can surmise that it was prior to 1235 as the first undisputed documentary reference to it describes its fortification[6].

Reasons for the Decline of West Derby and the rise of Liverpool

LAND.  At any point in history, when a new town is created there will be a considerable interest from people wishing to make a new life.  In the case of Liverpool the ‘package’ on offer was particularly attractive.  Those who came to take up the offer were given a large building plot fronting on to one of the original seven streets (the first around the Dale St, Tithebarn St area) that had been laid out.  They also received a Cheshire acre (a little over two acres) in the Town Fields.  All this for a very attractive 12d per year.  There was no fealty to pay to the lord of the manor and no services to perform.  The Moore Deeds and the Crosse Deeds show that they could be sold or let in smaller portions by the tenant. 

PRIVILEGES.  As part of the charter of King John, Liverpool was made a free borough, one of only twelve in the country.  Farrer tells us that privileges in the charter included ‘all the liberties and free customs which any free borough on the sea or has in our land’.  If taken literally this would place Liverpool from the outset on the same level as Bristol and Southampton[7].  These restrictive trade practices would have been seen as very attractive to the local tradesman.  Trading privileges were further increased in the Charter of King Henry 111.  Burgesses gained exemption from the tolls not only in the Borough, but also throughout the kingdom.

FREEDOM.  Under the terms and conditions of the first charter, serfs who could demonstrate that they had lived in the borough for twelve men would be set free.  Serfs who had been bound to a lord and master could come to Liverpool with definite prospects of a reasonable living.   

MARKETS & FAIRS. During the period of the first charter, royal assent was given for a weekly market, an annual fair and a mill.  A court was quickly established and by now we know that there was a ferry service.

HOSPITALITY.  Liverpool provided a port from which King John’s military assaults on Ireland could be launched.  Troops required bed and board and were a source of economic activity for the burgesses of Liverpool.  Similarly, provisions for the ships would have been provided by the local burgesses, another source of trading income.

MIGRATION FROM WEST DERBY.  It is not unreasonable to assume that some of the rise in the fortunes of Liverpool could have been facilitated by the migration of people from the township of West Derby.  It is very likely that the families of those troops, and other people fleeing from a declining township of West Derby, came to Liverpool to boost not only its population but its economic activity.   Indeed, Farrer alludes to Lancs Pipe Roll 220 and tells us that a considerable number of people were removed to Liverpool in 1208 to form the new borough and the sheriff had an allowance of the farm of the hundred probably to make up for this loss on his account[8].    

GUILDS.  A very important step forward came in 1229 with the granting of King Henry 111 charter.  The inhabitants of Liverpool raised ten marks to purchase further privileges.  The privileges of the Letters Patent of King John in 1207 had been confirmed in subsequent charters but this one gave the right to have a gild merchant with a hansa and all the liberties and free customes pertaining to that gild.  Trade previously confined to the burgages was now confined to members of the gild and no-one could trade without licence.

Evidence of growth

Some of the reasons for the growth of Liverpool given above may be seen as conjectural.  However, there is some extant evidence that supports the theory of the growth in the fortunes of Liverpool during the medieval period.  The yield to the royal exchequer shows us how Liverpool was administratively dependant on West Derby during its formative years.  From 1211 to 1219 the profits of the new town of Liverpool were incorporated in those of West Derby.  We might assume from this that the borough was administered by the steward of the parent manor.  Although in 1222 and the following years, a separate assized rent of £9 was charged on the town, it is not easy to determine what was covered by this rent.  It may have included some or all of the fees for the mills and the ferry, the court fines as well as the burgage rents.

Probably a better indication of the growth of the borough may be seen from the tallages.  In 1219 Liverpool paid half a mark, West Derby paid a mark and Preston 10 marks.  In 1222, Liverpool paid 5 marks, West Derby paid 1 mark and Preston 15 marks.  In 1227 Liverpool paid 11 marks and 6d, WD paid 7 marks 4s and 4d, Preston paid 15 marks and 6d.  This represents a twenty-fold increase within a period of eighteen years.


West Derby was an important administrative district during the period between the conquest and the beginning of the thirteenth century.  However, its inland position became its downfall.  At a time when a port on the North Western shores was needed, Liverpool received royal favour, and with it the privileges attractions and stimulation that would see Liverpool eventually rising to become a prosperous township.

The favours conferred upon Liverpool by the numerous royal charters following that of King John only served to increase the attractiveness of Liverpool as a place of settlement.  Its growth continued steadily during the medieval period until it had eventually overtaken West Derby in importance.  However, its national importance should be seen in context.  To look at Liverpool to today, one might imagine it as a large and significant city throughout the ages.  This is not so and it may surprise visitors, and some locals alike, that the beginnings of Liverpool as a significant town began only with the opening of first dock in 1715.  Indeed it was not until 1880 that city status was granted by royal charter.   


[1] Picton (1875, p 418)

[2] Cooper (1993, p29)

[3] Cooper (1993, p56)

[4] (1906, p9)

[5] (1906, p?)

[6] 1235 Patent Rolls, 19 Henry 111, m.5 (cited by Chandler, 1957, p20)

[7] Farrer (1907) vol 4, p 3

[8] Farrer (1907) vol 3, p 13



AUGHTON, Peter.  (1993).  Liverpool, A People’s History.  Carnegie Publishing.  2nd edition.

BAINES, Edward.  (1836).  History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster

CHANDLER, G.  (1957).  Liverpool.  BT Batsford Ltd 

COOPER, John and D Power.  (1987).  A History of West Derby.  Causeway Press Ltd. 2nd edition.

FARRER, W and J Brownbill. (1907).  The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster.  Constable & Co Vol 3

MUIR, R and E Platt.  (1906).  A History of Municipal Government in Liverpool.  Williams & Norgate.

MUIR, Ramsay.  (1907).  History of Liverpool.  Williams & Norgate.

NICHOLSON, S (editor).  (1981). The Changing Face of Liverpool 1207 – 1727.  Merseyside Archaeological Society.

PICTON, JA. (1875).  Memorials of Liverpool.  Longman Green & Co

SCOUSE PRESS.  (1996).  An Illustrated Everyday History of Liverpool and Merseyside.  Scouse Press

Lyn James (February 2003)

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