The market square itself, known as the
Chequer from the 14th century, has long been held one of
the chief distinctions of Northampton. John Morton in
1712 says 'The Market Hill is lookt upon as the finest in
Europe; a fair, spacious, open place'. In his writings,
'The Journey from Chester to London' Thomas Pennant calls
it 'an ornament to the town; few can boast the like'. And
in 1724, the new appearance of Northampton inspired
Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, to describe
Northampton as the "handsomest and best built town in all
this part of England…..finely rebuilt with brick
and stone, and the streets made spacious and wide". He
also said this about the market; "This is counted the
center of all the horse-markets and horse-fairs in
England, there being here no less than four fairs in a
year: Here they buy horses of all sorts, as well for the
saddle as for the coach and cart, but chiefly for the two
In 1873, a purpose-built Cattle Market on Victoria Promenade opened, removing from the Town Centre the livestock portion of the market. This cattle market has since been shut down. The Market Square, under the terms of one charter, can become a forum for political discussion and free speech after 6.30 pm. It was used for this purpose in 1874 when there was a riot on the Market Square, provoked by a parliamentary election campaign involving Charles Bradlaugh, a radical atheist. Eventually the mayor read the Riot Act, but the rioters took little notice, and did not disperse until troops arrived and fired into the air.
All Saints church became the focus of commercial activity from the 12th century onwards. Northampton market was held at All Saints until 1235. King Henry III decided that markets could not be held in churches or cemetaries and ordered Northampton to move the market to a piece of wasteland just north of All Saints. The present day market is still held on this same piece of land except for a short spate of time during the plague of 1637, when it was moved to the Heath (Racecourse). No Northamptonian could visit the market during the plague without a certificate from the Mayor. Northampton was rebuilt around the market after the Great Fire. The open space of the Market Square is flanked by impressive Georgian buildings.
A market cross is mentioned in 14th and 15th century deeds. A new one, erected in 1535, was destroyed in the fire of 1675. The cross of 1535 was of octagonal form, consisting of eight pillars of wood ornamented with carved work and resting on a stone pedestal two feet off the ground. From each pillar was an arch of wood as a support to the roof. In the middle were three circular steps of stone where a small stair led up into the lantern or chamber in which was kept the bushel and other utensils belonging to the market. The whole building was covered in lead and embattled. On several squares were plates wrought with figures and gilt and on each was an ape holding an iron rod with a vane. It never survived the great fire.
There is a wonderful tale of a man seen carrying a barrel of gunpowder out of an apothecary's cellar in Gold Street while the great fire raged on both sides. He safely escaped with it under his arm, between the blazing buildings and through the market, covered only with his coat skirts.
From an early date the market square has been the centre of civic and mercantile life. The street names of Northampton are a fairly clear indication of the marketing importance of the town. Sheep Street, The Horse Market, and the Hog Market lie in the north-western quarter; Corn Hill, Malt Hill and Wood Hill north and east of the Market Square; Mercers Row to the south and the Drapery to the west of it, whilst Woolmonger Street runs to the south west, and Gold Street (once Goldsmiths' Street) runs west from the centre of the town.
The Market Square had always boasted a monument in the centre, the last being a superb Victorian Fountain, erected in 1863 and known as Samuel Isaac's fountain after the benefactor. In September, 1826, there was also a powerful gas lamp in the centre of the market, on a hexagonal column 25 feet high and formed of ornamental trellis work, that lit up the area, in the centre of which was portrayed the town arms. To the south end of the market square was the conduit that supplied the town with water. Fed from a spring in a field to the east of the town called Conduit Head, it was piped into a reservoir near the market place before passing into the conduit. A pump, paid for by the town, was installed on May 14th 1598.
In 1588 the meeting hall over the conduit was metamorphosed into a make-shift castle that the townsmen named, "The Groyne". On top of the hall was erected a tower and in front towards the marketplace, a court was formed with a fence to the town wall and fitted with gates. Edward Hensman played captain of The Groyne and with a small band kept the "castle" from an assailing party. Three days of marches, counter marches, manoeuvres and skirmishes resulted in the attacking party beating their opponents in the strong-hold and setting fire to the tower. Thousands of people from towns far and wide came to witness this well performed spectacular.
The Victorian fountain was raised to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, but was often used as a focus for various rallies and speakers. In 1930 the Market Square fountain was renovated, and four hanging lamps became part of its attraction. When the metal work was taken away in the 1960s, largely thanks to repeated vandalism, the nearest market traders used to use the remaining steps for staking up crates of cabbages and vegetables. The remaining stones were later removed in 1962 as an impediment on the square a sad end to a well-regarded feature of old Northampton.
The latest feature to the square is a seven jet fountain. Work began on this on 6th January 2010 at the Abington Street gateway to the market. The water feature is surrounded by a circular granite paved area and ground lighting. Up lighters highlight seven jets of water that erupt from the ground and a new seating area makes it the perfect area to take in the atmosphere of the historic Market Square.
The market square was witness to a run-away balloon in 1828. A Mrs Graham attempted a flight from the market square but the balloon, after being filled from the gas works, was not sufficiently inflated to clear the buildings. It snagged on a chimney and Mrs Graham had to be rescued through a top floor window of that building. Having been relieved of the weight, the balloon took to the skies and made its run-away flight as far as Tansor, between Oundle and Peterborough.