A burgage was a town ("borough" or "burgh") rental property (to use modern terms), owned by a king or lord. The property ("burgage tenement") usually, and distinctly, consisted of a house on a long and narrow plot of land (Scots: toft), with a narrow street frontage. Rental payment ("tenure") was usually in the form of money, but each "burgage tenure" arrangement was unique, and could include services.
As populations grew, "burgage plots" could be split into smaller additional units. (Amalgamation was not so common, until the second half of the 19th century.)
Burgage tenures were usually money based, in contrast to rural tenures which were usually services based. In Saxon times the rent was called a landgable or hawgable.
Burgage was the basis of the franchise in many boroughs sending members to the unreformed House of Commons before 1832. In these boroughs the right to vote was attached to the occupation of particular burgage tenements. These could be freely bought and sold, and the owner of the tenement was entitled to convey it for the duration of the election to a nominee, who could then vote. Thus by purchasing the majority of the burgages one could acquire the right to nominate the Members of Parliament. Most of the burgage boroughs became pocket boroughs in this way. The practice was abolished by the Great Reform Act 1832 which applied a uniform franchise to all boroughs.
In medieval England and Scotland, and some parts of the Welsh Marches, burgage plots or burgage tenements were inclosed fields extending the confines of a town, established by the lord of the manor, as divisions of the 'open' manorial fields. The burgesses (equivalents of "burghers") to whom these tracts were allotted, as tenants of the enclosed lands, paid a cash rent instead of, as previously, feudal service. In 1207, for instance, Maurice Paynell, the Lord of the Manor of Leeds, granted a charter to 'his burgesses of Leeds' to build a 'new town', and so created the first borough of Leeds, Briggate, a street running north from the River Aire.
These burgesses had to be freemen: those who were entitled to practise a trade within the town and to participate in electing members of the town's ruling council.
In the very earliest chartered foundations, predating the Norman Conquest, the burgage plots were simply the ploughland strips of pre-existing agrarian settlements. In towns like Burford in Oxfordshire and Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, Bromyard in Herefordshire, and Cricklade in Wiltshire, the property on the road frontage extends in a very long garden plot behind the dwelling even today, as English property boundaries have remained very stable. In South Zeal, in Devon, burgage plots were known as "borough acres".
The basic unit of measurement was the perch which was 5.5 yards (5.03 m) and the plots can be identified today because they are in multiples of perches: at Cricklade most were 2 by 12 perches (10.1 by 60.4 m), while at Charmouth in Dorset, a charter of the year 1320 provided plots 4 perches wide and 20 perches long (about 20 by 100 m), giving a typical plot size of half an acre (0.2 hectare), held at an annual rent of 6d.
Burgage grants were also common in Ireland; for example, when the town of Wexford received its royal charter in 1418, English settlers were encouraged into the town and were given burgage plots at a rent of one shilling per year. The term was translated into Irish as buiríos, and the element "Borris" survives in many Irish place names.
- T. R. Slater, The Analysis of Burgage Patterns in Medieval Towns
- Discovering Leeds
- Wiltshire County Council
- Medieval English Towns - Glossary
- The Local Historian's Encyclopedia by John Richardson - ISBN 0-9503656-7-X
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Burgage.|
- Hemmeon, Morley de Wolf (2004-07-09). Burgage Tenure in Mediaeval England. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1-4021-4052-5.
- T.R. Slater, The Analysis of Burgage Patterns in Medieval Towns, Area, Vol. 13, no. 3, 1981