The ranking of provincial towns in England 1066-1861

Boston by Thomas Allom 1837London has been England's capital and largest city since before the Norman conquest. Other English towns and cities have been wafted up or buffeted down the status ladder by the economic winds of change. Some of the trading hubs of the Middle Ages became backwaters in the industrial age. (See the History of British Towns.)

The Domesday Book recorded 112 places with indications of borough status. Three provincial cities had over a thousand houses or burgesses: York (1,597), Norwich (1,320) and Lincoln (1,150). They probably had total populations of between 4,000 and 5,000 each. Next in size came Thetford (725) and Oxford (721). However this famous survey gives no data on the major cities of London, Winchester and Bristol. Winchester, so favoured by the kings of Wessex, probably held around 6,000 people, second only to London, with an estimated 10,000. Bristol held a consistently high rank in population terms in the Middle Ages and probably already rivalled York at Domesday. Map of Domesday England.

W.G. Hoskins, Local History in England, 3rd edn (1984) gives this helpful league table for later centuries derived from tax quotas (1334), poll tax (1377), subsidy (1523-7), hearth tax (1662), and population census (1801 and 1861). For commentary see A. Dyer, Decline and Growth in English Towns, 1400-1640 (1991). For current population figures see Wikipedia: English cities by population. And see biblography of British and Irish population.

Ranking of English towns 1334-1861
Rank 1334 1377 1523-7 1662 1801 1861
1 Bristol York Norwich Norwich Manchester Liverpool
2 York Bristol Bristol York Liverpool Manchester
3 Newcastle Coventry Newcastle Bristol Birmingham Birmingham
4 Great Yarmouth Norwich Coventry Newcastle Bristol Leeds
5 Lincoln Lincoln Exeter Exeter Leeds Sheffield
6 Norwich Salisbury Salisbury Ipswich Plymouth Bristol
7 Shrewsbury King's Lynn Ipswich Great Yarmouth Norwich Plymouth
8 Oxford Colchester King's Lynn Oxford Bath Newcastle
9 Salisbury Boston Canterbury Cambridge Portsmouth Bradford
10 Boston Beverley Reading Canterbury Sheffield Stoke-upon-Trent
11 King's Lynn Newcastle Colchester Worcester Hull Hull
12 Ipswich Canterbury Bury St Edmunds Deptford Nottingham Portsmouth
13 Hereford Bury St Edmunds Lavenham Shrewsbury Newcastle Preston
14 Canterbury Oxford York Salisbury Exeter Sunderland
15 Beverley Gloucester Totnes Colchester Leicester Brighton
16 Gloucester Leicester Worcester East Greenwich Stoke-upon-Trent Norwich
17 Winchester Shrewsbury Gloucester Hull York Nottingham
18 Southampton Great Yarmouth Lincoln Coventry Coventry Oldham
19 Coventry Hereford Hereford Chester Ashton-under-Lyne Bolton
20 Cambridge Cambridge Great Yarmouth Plymouth Chester Leicester
21 Stamford Ely Hull Portsmouth Dover Blackburn
22 Spalding Plymouth Boston King's Lynn Great Yarmouth Wolverhampton
23 Exeter Exeter Southampton Rochester Stockport Stockport
24 Nottingham Hull Hadleigh Lincoln Shrewsbury Bath
25 Plymouth Worcester Wisbech Dover Wolverhampton Birkenhead
26 Hull Ipswich Shrewsbury Nottingham Bolton Southampton
27 Scarborough Northampton Oxford Gloucester Sunderland Derby
28 Derby Nottingham Leicester Bury St Edmunds Oldham Coventry
29 Reading Winchester Cambridge Winchester Blackburn York
30 Bampton (Oxon) Scarborough Stamford Sandwich Preston Rochdale
31 Rochester Stamford Northampton Maidstone Oxford Ipswich
32 Newbury Newark Windsor Leeds Colchester Walsall
33 Northampton Ludlow Plymouth Leicester Worcester Wigan
34 Leicester Southampton Maldon Northampton Ipswich Halifax
35 Colchester Pontefract St. Albans Chatham Wigan Macclesfield
36 Bridgwater Reading Chichester Ely Derby South Shields
37 Newark Derby Winchester Chichester Warrington Ashton-under-Lyne
38 Peterborough Litchfield Long Melford Gateshead Chatham Great Yarmouth
39 Cirencester Newbury Sudbury Southampton Carlisle Tynemouth
40 Bridgnorth Wells Rochester Derby Dudley Exeter
41 Bury St Edmunds Bridgnorth Nottingham Ludlow King's Lynn Gateshead
42 Ely Cirencester Nayland Warwick Cambridge Northampton