The Middle Ages may not be one of my favourite periods of history but aspects of life in those far-off times hold a certain fascination. There were battles among warring barons on English soil and if a battle axe or arrow didn’t get you then plague or disease might. Then, as now, there was always fishing.
Liverpool had a fleet of only around 20 ships in the Middle Ages after King John signed the letters patent (charter) establishing the borough in 1207. Voyages were made to Spain and France but most trade was with local ports on the Lancashire coast, Wales and Ireland.
A replica of King John’s charter is on display in the Magical History Tour exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum marking Liverpool’s 800th anniversary last year. It is only a small document but it has huge significance. John wanted Liverpool as an embarkation port for English troops and supplies needed to invade Ireland.
A new town of seven streets was laid out near the Pool, a creek which gave Liverpool its name. Many settlers came from nearby areas such as West Derby to live in the new borough. For some people it was a chance to start a new life free from the control of local lords. Only about 1,000 people lived in Liverpool in 1300 and the population remained that size until the1600s.
On display, and shown here, is a 19th century artist’s impression of Liverpool about 1350 showing the Tower and coastline in its original state before the town developed.
As a port, Liverpool was very much at risk from the spread of disease. An outbreak of the Black Death plague in 1361 wiped out whole families. Their bodies were buried in a mass grave at St Nicholas’s Parish Church which still stands in Chapel Street. The plague struck again in 1558 which wiped out a third of Liverpool’s population.
Fishing was one of early Liverpool’s main industries. Herring, the mainstay of the industry, were caught from small boats between September and November. Exhibits on display include medieval copper alloy barbed fishing hooks, whose design had changed little since the Roman period. Many of these have been found at Meols, on the Wirral, suggesting the importance of fishing to the local economy.There is a lead net sinker used to weight down fishing nets. Lead was readily available from north Wales.
Merseyside Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, admission free. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).