Changes in London’s economic hinterland as indicated by debt cases in the Court of Common Pleas

Changes in London’s economic hinterland as indicated by debt cases in the Court of Common Pleas

By Derek Keene

Paper given at a conference organised by the Centre for Metropolitan History and supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, 7 July 1999

Introduction: This paper explores the ways in which the records of pleas of debt in the central Court of Common Pleas can be used to delineate changes in the economic relationship between London and its hinterland. Normally held on the west side of Westminster Hall, the court heard a variety of pleas, among which those of debt became the most common. Plaintiffs from throughout the country resorted to the court for the recovery of debts worth £2 or more. Brooks argues that the overall level of business at the court reflects that in the economy at large. Our findings support that view, and in particular that the number of pleas of debt indicates the general level of credit and trade. An earlier study based at the Centre for Metropolitan History, focusing on London and the ten surrounding counties during the years around 1400, demonstrated the value of the Common Pleas debt cases for establishing a national picture, as the distribution map of debts due to Londoners shows. It clearly demonstrates a pattern of intensive interaction with the numerous small settlements in the immediate metropolitan hinterland, and of strong links with the larger and more distant provincial towns such as Salisbury, Bristol, Coventry and York. Londoners supplied goods and extended credit to their countrymen in all the counties of England, but especially to those of the South East and the Midlands.

The current project aims to exploit more of this material in a study of change between about 1300 and 1600, using samples of debt cases laid (for this term, see below) in London, the ten counties around the city, and the more distant counties of Devon, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. Central questions to be addressed concern changes in the character and extent of London’s impact and in the degree to which it, or other forces, had an integrative effect on the English economy. The research also explores the topic of integration through a study of grain prices, preliminary findings from which are presented in another paper in this collection.

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