Most people in Medieval England lived off the land. There were cities of course, but these were far less populous than today.
For example Winchester had a population of about 6,000, Norwich, York and Lincoln about 5,000.
The capital, London was larger with about 10,000. (It is impossible to say for sure as there are no accurate records apart from Domesday which did not cover London or Winchester).
Burgesses of towns and cities had different rights to the rural population. They were not tied to the city as their rural cousins were tied to the land.
Their property was alienable and they had more freedoms. There was a saying that ‘town air makes you free’ which meant that in most towns, runaway villeins were free if they managed to stay there for a year and a day.
The burgesses (town dwellers) were also often free from taxation and tolls. However this freedom had to be bought – charters were generally granted by the lord in return for a payment. For example in 1194 Roger de Lacy granted a generous charter to his burgesses of Pontefract in exchange for a payment of £200.
It was often very much in a Lords interest though to do this. Bartlett cites the instance of Stratford upon Avon. It was initially a small hamlet belonging in the Bishop of Worcester. Then in 1196 a fiat created a borough with a weekly market and standard burgage holdings with a shilling per year rent, plus they were freed from toll.
Within 50 years Stratford was a market town with a population of 1,000, with artisans and craftsmen serving the surrounding area. The burgage rents alone brought the Bishop £12 pa which was considerably more than he could have obtained from the same area as farmland (about 16 s). So a good investment for the Bishop.
Only about 25% of boroughs were owned by ecclesiastics. Of the rest, 40% were owned by the crown, and 35% by the barons. However Henry II was careful not to let the towns gain too much independence and they were never as powerful as some of the continental towns and cities.
Even so, many of them had their own courts and thus judicial autonomy (apart from serious crime which was reserved for the royal justices) . They also often had financial autonomy. The various fines payments and tolls they were subject to were often negotiated down to a single payment, the ‘farm of the borough’. The town officials were then collectively responsible for ensuring that this be paid, and the lord was no longer entitled to control the urban finances.
Lincoln, for example, reached agreement with Henry I for an annual farm of £180. This was then confirmed by Henry II and Richard I made it hereditary.
Although towns and cities had a considerably smaller percentage of the population than they do now, they were an important part of the financial and political life of the country.