The history of the Sudbury Common Lands is a long and interesting one. Its early history is associated with members of the nobility who were among the most powerful in the land and often descended from or closely related to the monarchs of England.
During the late medieval period the original areas of the Sudbury Common Lands belonged to the de Clare family and in about 1260 Richard, 6th Earl of Gloucester fixed his seal to a very important document in which the rights of the burgesses and commonalty of Sudbury were set out; namely to hold the land upon payment of a fee of forty shillings, equating to two pounds, annually on the feast of St Michael (29th September) with an initial down-payment of one hundred shillings.
Elizabeth, the Lady of Clare ratified the 1260 charter with her own in 1330 (now lost) with the proviso that the family retained the right to dig earth in the pastures to repair the mill-pool as their ancestors were accustomed to do.
The rent charge upon this land continued for a very long time with reference to a ‘fee-farm’, called ‘Portman’s Croft’ (Freemen’s Common), worth forty shillings per annum. This was listed among the assets of Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, upon his death from the plague in 1425.
Rent charges not only included grazing but also fishing. During the fourteenth century people did not have access to a lot of meat. In addition, the church forbade the eating of meat on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the year as well as during Lent and Advent. This meant there were one hundred and ninety-four meat-free days a year. Fish, therefore, was a valued part of the diet.
The same Earl of March who received the income from the fee-farm also received the rental of the fishery in Sudbury, being six shillings and eight pence per annum. This may seem an odd sum by today’s currency standards. However, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the ‘noble’, introduced by Edward 111 during the 1340s, was an important and useful coin which equated to a third of a pound or half a mark with both units of currency being used in England at that time. So, the seemingly odd annual rental sum for the Sudbury fishery was, in fact, a convenient gold noble.