11. The Market Cross
Higham Ferrers Town Council
The beginnings of the market
There had been a market in Higham since at least 1086 when it was recorded that the market was worth 20 shillings a year, which was the money that the traders paid collectively to come and sell their goods. The market then might have been held in the area where the walnut tree now stands, as this has been a gathering place in Higham for centuries. Over time it became obvious to the Kings of England that they could raise money by enforcing their right to grant licences for communities to hold markets. In 1250 Henry III granted William de Ferrers the right to hold markets in Higham. De Ferrers bought the right from the king and then de Ferrers taxed the market sellers for the privilege of selling their goods.
The authority of the cross
The cross in the present market square is dated to the thirteenth century. It is possible that de Ferrers had the cross erected to demonstrate that the markets were only held under his jurisdiction. The stone shaft is set in a socket and, prior to the restoration in the early 1800s, the cross was surrounded by a flight of steps. The steps are now hidden under a conical stone support, but a similar step structure at the bottom of a cross can still be seen in the churchyard at the base of the Warden Cross.
The proliferation of crosses
Standing crosses used to be distributed throughout England and one estimate suggests that they may have numbered in excess of 12,000. The market cross served as a focal point in Higham. It not only confirmed where the markets were to be held, but was the focal point for proclamations such as giving news about the death of a monarch. The proclamation informing the people of Higham of the succession of Charles lll was held at the market cross on Sunday 11 September, 2022. The cross also had a legal function when many contracts were verbal, and was used to bind oaths and contracts made before it. At one time the Mayor was given authority to publish banns of marriage and conduct marriage ceremonies by the cross. On a less happy note the cross also marked the spot where public whippings were carried out, and where people were put in the stocks as a form of public humiliation.
The cross as it used to be
This photograph was taken by Henry Cooper1 towards the end of the nineteenth century and shows the top of the decorated shaft with a tapering spire surmounted by a ball. In addition, the two lantern supports can be seen mid-way up the iron support structure. The base of the cross was modified in the 1860s. Previously the cross had steps at the base but now only the bottom step is visible, the rest being covered by a conical structure.
The cross in 1913
At some point in the early part of the twentieth century the top of the cross was restored and a weather vane placed at the summit.
However, the lantern holders have gone. The weather vane did not last long, and by 1930 it was gone and only the spire and the ball, as seen at the end of the nineteenth century, were visible.
The cross today
Today the weather vane and the extended spire that once supported it have disappeared.
1 Henry Cooper was an artistic photographer based at 17 The Drapery, Northampton. He mostly photographed people and some of his images are in The V&A Museum, London. He died in 1907.