|SOUTHAMPTON'S PIE POWDER COURTS
by Viktoria Turner (Southampton)
Pie Powder Courts were set up in small towns, villages, and ports throughout England during the Norman and Medieval period to preside over the goings on at Fairs, markets and seaports.
They had to have permission from the Crown - a Kings Charter or Letters Patent - in order to sit, but most of the early ones were custom and practice from Saxon times before the Norman Conquest of 1066, so permission was rarely refused. Later Charters were usually simply requested for confirmation purposes on a change of Monarchy.
A Pie Powder Court was responsible for settling disputes on site between buyers and sellers, to make judgements regarding the quality of goods, and to check weights and measures. It was "chaired" by a man of standing who was usually called the Steward.
Their original reason for being in existence was one of law and order, and for collecting trading tolls. A fair or market dispute could very quickly turn into a riot or a lynching if there was no official controlling power. Also, town and village elders saw no reason why they should not make some tax money from stall holders. Resident villagers and townsfolk were not averse to cheating one another either, and the "here today, gone tomorrow" travelling pedlars looked on it as a sort of sport. (What's new?)
The expression "pie-powder" is a corruption of the Old French "pied-pouldre" and French "Pied-poudreaux", which translated means "dusty footed". It alludes to the grubby state of the travelling traders who were the litigants seeking justice. It later came to be associated with vagabonds, and a piepowder was, and still is, according the dictionary, "a traveller or wayfarer". Some academics, however, insist that "dusty foot" alludes to a court held on the bare ground rather than under a roof.
In Medieval Hampshire, Southampton can make claim to have been one of the most privileged towns in England, and it had a Pie powder Court, ancient even when it was confirmed by charter in 1461. Southampton was also the third town in the country to be awarded a specific grant of incorporation. This formally recognised the town as a borough as recorded in the Domesday Book.
According to the wording of the charter of 1447 it was allowed to; own a corporation seal; to own lands as a corporation; to have perpetual succession; to make its own bye-laws; and to sue in the Kings Courts.
As important, however, for markets and trade, it was given exemption from the activities of the Kings Constable, the Earls Marshall, the Lord High Admiral, and lastly, the Clerk of the Market. All trade, therefore, whether import, export or local, was in the hands of the Burgesses who ran the town, and on some goods, like wine, they had a protected English monopoly.
Southampton's daily provisions market, in common with many other places in Hampshire, was controlled from the local Market House. The Magistrates sat every day in the Audit House, the entrance of which was reached in 1850 through the market. In earlier times the fish market, butter market, bakeries, butchers, and so on had their homes and stalls in the streets where what is today called The Old Town Area.
From 1400 the Burgesses had enjoyed the right to "have the assize of bread, wine and beer; with the mayor, two aldermen, and two others to act as clerks of the market", so these additional privileges meant that not only did everything and everyone who went in or out of the Bargate and Watergate have pontage or other tax levied, the corporation could also dictate what was or wasn't bought and sold, and at what price, and who was allowed to trade within the town walls. From 1536 it also enjoyed a further privilege allowed by only three other towns, Bristol, York, and Newcastle upon Tyne. Southampton was granted a commission which allowed it to to try pirates!
The incorporation charter of 1447 also officially detached Southampton (which, incidentally at that time included Portsmouth) and made it a separate County. It had its own Sherriff, Sherriff's Court, Quarter Sessions and Assizes. Until 1959 the official title of Hampshire was, in fact, the "county of Southampton". In 1964, when Southampton gained City status, it became "the city and county of the City of Southampton", and Hampshire stood then on its own.
The Southampton Charters and Letters Patent of 1447 and 1536 were the last to bestow additional and special privileges on the town. All subsequent submissions to the Crown were requests to update and reiterate earlier ones.
For example, a grant to the mayor, bailiff and burgesses made by Letters Patent 1599/ 1600, officially recognises three fairs. It is known from other papers in the Archives that the fairs were traditional even by that time. These fairs had their accompanying Pie Powder Courts.
The fairs were three day events. They were held from the Tuesday before Shrove Tuesday and the following 2 days; on the Feast of St Mark (April 25th); and the following two days; and from the Tuesday after St Andrew the Apostle(Nov 30th) and the following two days. St Marks Fair was held in Above Bar, but like many others throughout England, declined over the years, and as a result of powers sought in the Northam Bridge Act, 1796, was finally abolished in 1875. The other two fairs had ceased to exist earlier, at least before 1834.
Another charter dated 1496 allows a fair and market to be held on the Feast of Holy Trinity for 4 days. This one is unusual because it also includes "William Geffery, hermit of Holy Trinity and St Mary at a chapel near Southampton" as one of the grantees. The fair and its Pie powder Court was steeped in recorded ceremony and strict rules of dress. Miscreants were immune from arrest within its precints, and as late as the 18th century, John Speed records that half the proceeds were paid to the site of the owner of the Chapel.
It had belonged to St Denys Priory, and the hermitage stood at the end of the 'causey of our Lady of Grace' (Chapel Road) leading from St Mary's. The court leet of 1603 censured the fair for allowing stall holders to encroach into the chapel. The fair was later known as Chapel Fair, but ceased to be profitable for the Corporation and despite an effort in 1849 to revive it, the fair and its Pie powder Court had declined into oblivion by the late 1800's.
This is what happened to many fairs, markets, and feast day celebrations all over England. County and Agricultural Shows organisers rescued some, others were turned into fun fairs, and others changed shape, became Hiring Fairs, and when no longer needed as such in the late 20th Century, simply faded away.