A Shadow of our Feudal Past

The Ancient Port Town of Holsworthy

The fact that Holsworthy is “an Ancient Port Town” and that we are proud to still appoint a Portreeve, often causes confusion to visitors, especially when you consider our distance from the coast!
We should not think of 'port' in its modern usage of a coastal settlement with harbour facilities but travel back in time to the Early Middle Ages when the term was used to describe a market or walled town – somewhere for the habourage and sale of goods, typically somewhere with regular trading activities – otherwise, a regular market.
In order to ensure taxes were correctly extracted Edward the Elder (872-924) forbade the conducting of trade outside of a port town and all transactions had to take place under the watchful eye of a ‘trustworthy person’ or the appointed ‘Portreeve’, who acted as deputy to the Manor Steward.  
The duty of the Portreeve was originally to act more like a modern-day customs and excise officer, though by the Middle Ages they acted more as a representative of the people, to ensure that their duties to the Lord of the Manor were being fulfilled.
“Not the King, not the State, nor the Lord of the Manor elect him,
He obtains his authority from his equals.
He is the reeve of his town's rights and liberties for his term of office,
on behalf of his fellow citizens.
Holsworthy is justly proud to be amongst a handful of towns that continues to appoint a Portreeve, and, although no longer having any official jurisdiction, they continue to uphold the ancient rites of the position, acting as an ambassador and figurehead for Holsworthy, maintaining a 900 year old tradition.
The Portreeve continues to be elected by another relic of Holsworthy feudal past – The Court Leet.  A survivor of mediaeval law, the court was granted to a manor by a King’s Charter, having jurisdiction of petty offences and civil affairs and was empowered to inflict fines and other punishments.  Declining in their importance as early as the 1400’s – although it continued in many towns until the early 20th century, the Court Leet was eventually superseded by the modern county Justices of the Peace and ultimately the Magistrates Courts.
Let’s hope that in another 900 years Holsworthy’s traditions and customs are still being upheld and that the shadows of our feudal past continue to be remembered through our Portreeve and his Court Leet.
S. P. Dymond
Historian
Holsworthy Museum

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