Mike Royden's Local History Pages

The Decline of the Manor of West Derby and the rise of Liverpool during the medieval period.

Norman Blake

At the time of the Norman Conquest, the manor of West Derby was held as a royal manor by the last Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor. The future royal borough of Liverpool at the same time, was a mere farming settlement based around a small, tidal creek of the river Mersey, known locally as the "liver" or "lever" pool, considered so insignificant it wasn't even mentioned by name in the Doomsday survey of 1086. The story of how Liverpool came to rise to prominence over it's parent manor, is one of economics and royal politics, and one key figure, King John of England, who succeeded his brother, Richard the Lionheart on the throne of England, in 1199. However, to begin our story we must first go back to look at the early history of West Derby.

At the close of the Saxon period, Edward the Confessor, appears to have held all the land between the river Ribble and the Mersey including the hundred of West Derby. The chief manor of the hundred, West Derby itself, was held as a royal manor, and contained a probable fortified manor house, a royal hunting lodge, as West Derby was a hunting ground of the Saxon kings, three aeries of hawks and extensive woodlands. The West Derby hundred was one of the more populous areas in the area covered by the old county of Lancashire, and the chief manor of the hundred, West Derby manor served as the capital of the Saxon hundred. Attached to the manor of West Derby and completely dependant on it, were six bailiwicks, which embraced the vills or settlements of Thingwall, Great Crosby, Aintree with part of Walton, Everton, Garston with Aigburth, Hale with Halewood and a settlement called Liverpool.

The bailiwick at Liverpool could hardly be called a town, and consisted of a small hamlet on the north and west banks of the tidal inlet known as the pool, which ran inland for about half a mile. On the banks of the pool lay cultivated fields divided into long and narrow strips, which were worked by a few tenants of the parent manor of West Derby. The whole population of the manor of West Derby and it's bailiwicks was perhaps only some six to some hundred people. No evidence exists to suggest that any town of any consequence existed at Liverpool at this time, its population consisting only of a few farm labourers and perhaps fishermen, working on the river.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the manor of West Derby was granted to Roger of Poitou, the third son of Earl Roger de Montgomery, Norman Earl of Arundel, Chichester and Shrewsbury, for services rendered to William the Conqueror during the invasion of England. Roger either built or made repairs to an existing castle at West Derby of the typical Norman "Motte and Bailey" plan, i.e. a wooden building constructed on top of a mound, surrounded by a ditch and wooden fencing, and under Norman rule, West Derby grew to be a place of some importance as an administrative centre. By 1177 the name West Derbei was in use to describe the township, which had grown to measure over four miles from north to south, and three and a half miles from east to west.

The creation of a forest by either Roger of Poitou or king Henry I, from pre-conquest lands once held by Saxon thanes, at Toxteth, Smithdown and a part of Knowsley called Croxteth, added to the importance of the manor of West Derby by the middle of the eleventh century. The estate of the manor, the forest and the castle gave to West Derby, an importance as a centre of administration in the southern part of Lancashire, and of status, equal to that of Lancaster, the nominal capital of the county, in the northern half of the county.

This status grew from the fact that the manor of West Derby was the seat of legal power for the whole hundred, where the hundred or Wapentake Court was held, every three weeks before the steward of the hundred. At the court, proceedings were held for minor offences, and breaches of by-laws, as well as for Frankpledge, an oath taken as security for good behaviour and fielty to the lord of the manor. The Halmote courts, the courts of the lord of the manor were also held at West Derby, for the manor of West Derby itself, and for Wavertree and Crosby.

The only known fact about Liverpool at this time, was that during the reign of Henry II, Liverpool was granted to Warine de Lancaster, the governor of Lancaster castle probably at the great council held at Northampton in 1176. The rise of West Derby though, was soon to be challenged, as events across the sea in Ireland, were about to play a major part to the future development of West Derby's small, neighbouring manor at Liverpool. English involvement in Irish affairs was not originally led by the King, but was that of a small number of Anglo-Norman knights, led by Richard de Clare, known as "Strongbow", who had agreed to help the deposed Irish king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, regain his kingdom.

However, when on Dermot's death, Strongbow, inherited the kingdom of Leinster and Dublin, and attempted to set up his own independent lordship there, Henry II immediately reacted by mounting an expedition to Ireland in 1171-2 to bring Strongbow and his followers back under his control. The expedition led to the creation of the Lordship of Ireland, which Henry granted to his youngest son John, by which all the Anglo Norman lords and native kings in Ireland had to recognise the authority of the English crown. From his first visit to Ireland in 1185, John maintained a close personal interest in Irish affairs, and it was the unfinished business in Ireland, that would arouse John's interest, when he became king in 1199, in the sheltered, natural harbour of the pool at the hamlet of Liverpool.

Liverpool may already have been used as an anchorage by Henry II's expedition to Ireland in 1171, and possibly by John on his visit to Ireland in 1185. John's personal interest in Liverpool, was immediately made known however, when he became king, when on confirming the lands of the principal tenants of the crown in Lancashire, Liverpool was omitted from the deed to Henry Fitz Warine, the son of Warine de Lancaster. This suggests strongly that John had already decided to take possession of Liverpool, and establish a port there. John's plans were to prove fatal to the old, administrative and military stronghold of West Derby, and were to prove to be the first step in Liverpool's rise to ascendancy over its parent manor.

John wanted Liverpool, so he could create his own royal port there, from which he could continue to mount his military operations to complete the conquest of Ireland. Liverpool was an ideal spot for his port, as unlike the land locked manor of West Derby, four miles away, it offered a natural sheltered harbour, and was ideally situated close to royal estates, from which supplies could be withdrawn for military purposes. Liverpool was also conveniently situated close to the lands of the de Lacey and Butler families, both of who were active in the Irish wars and supplied men to fight with the king. There was also another good reason to establish a new port and town at Liverpool for John and that were financial. The port of Chester, which belonged to the Earls of Chester, yielded nothing in terms of fees or tallage to the crown, so John like the founders of many other new towns in this period, expected to make a profit out of the rents and tolls his new port and town would raise for the crown.

John probably passed through Liverpool in 1206, while visiting the royal estates in the area, when he visited Lancaster and Chester in February. He finally acquired Liverpool a year later in August 1207, when he confirmed his father's grant of lands to Henry Fitz Warine, but reserved Liverpool for himself, giving Fitz Warine, the manor of English Lea, near Preston. Just five days after acquiring the manor of Liverpool, John immediately proceeded to raise Liverpool into a borough as well as a seaport, with extensive privileges. The founding charter for Liverpool, conferred on the new royal borough, all the privileges possessed by London, Bristol, Hull, Kings Lynn, Southampton and Newcastle, and all the other free boroughs and seaports in the kingdom.

New planned towns like Liverpool were favoured places, and John's charter for Liverpool was designed to ensure that the new royal borough of Liverpool would be enticing to potential burgesses. Liverpool was unique in relation to many other new towns founded at this time, as it was a site with no pre-existing town, church or even a proper hamlet, but John's royal patronage along with the rights and privileges on offer to burgesses as free men, seems to have ensured Liverpool's success. The town was laid out in the form of a cross with seven streets and probably one hundred and sixty eight burgages were originally offered. These burgages, offered at a rent of a shilling a year, were small plots of land within the town boundaries, with another space to accommodate a house and trading premises, and they also included two strips of lands in the town fields.

For a modest rent, the holders of these burgages, the burgesses, became free men, and were released from any feudal services to an overlord. Burgesses were also released from all payments to the crown, that strangers had to pay for trading in Liverpool, which placed them in a very favourable position for carrying on trade. All this must have been very attractive to labourers and townsfolk in West Derby and other surrounding areas, who were all bound by the feudal system to the lord of the manor. It is pretty certain that at least some of the new inhabitants of Liverpool were transplanted tenants from West Derby, while the small number of original inhabitants of Liverpool many have become burgesses or tenants of burgesses themselves.

Liverpool's rise to ascendancy over it's former parent manor, was completed by the fact that in order to make the new borough a centre of trade, John also established in Liverpool, a weekly Saturday market, a mill and an annual fair that was held every November on St Martin's Day. The market and fair rapidly became the main buying and selling area for the whole district beyond the town boundaries, even attracting the Benedictine monks from Birkenhead across the river. Liverpool was also legally separated from West Derby by the establishment of its own court, the Portmoot, which took the place of the old manorial court, the Halmote held at West Derby.

By the time the new stone castle at Liverpool was completed in 1235, by William de Ferrers, the Earl of Derby, Liverpool's political, military and economic ascendancy over West Derby was complete. With the completion of the new castle, the garrison at West Derby was moved to Liverpool, and by 1297 the old castle site at West Derby was in ruins. The rapid economic growth of Liverpool helped by John's campaign in Ireland in 1210, saw John initially make a profit from the rents of the Liverpool burgages and other fees of nine pounds. By 1227 Liverpool's wealth and volume of trade had already passed that of West Derby, the tallage for Liverpool being over seven pound compared to four pounds for West Derby, and was gaining rapidly on the older established Lancashire towns of Preston and Lancaster itself.

Henry III's charter of 1229, sealed Liverpool's ascendancy over West Derby. Liverpool was confirmed as a free borough forever, and was relieved from attending the hundred courts at West Derby. The borough was also released from the payment of royal tolls in Liverpool and also throughout the kingdom. In just a little under thirty years, a small, unknown settlement at Liverpool had grown to completely overshadow it's former parent manor, and by the end of the thirteenth century, the new borough's continued importance was recognised when burgesses from Liverpool were summoned to London for the Parliaments of 1295 and 1307. The rise of Liverpool and decline of West Derby had been an astonishing turn round in the fortunes of the parent manor and it's once dependent, little bailiwick.


P Aughton, Liverpool-A People's History (Carnegie Press, 1990)

T Baines, History of the Commerce and Town of Liverpool (Liverpool and London, 1852)

R Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (Oxford, 2000)

G Chandler, Liverpool (London, 1957)

J G Cooper & A D Power, A History of West Derby (Ormskirk, 1982)

W Farrer & J Brownbill, (editors), The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster Vol III (London 1907)

W Farrer & J Brownbill, (editors), The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster Vol IV (London, 1911)

J Gillingham & R A Griffiths, Medieval Britain (Oxford, 2000)

Merseyside Archaeological Society, The Changing Face of Liverpool 1207-1727 (Liverpool 1981)

R Muir, History of Liverpool (Liverpool, 1907)

Norman Blake (April 2003)

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