Market Harborough was a ‘new’ town created in the 12th century and lies about halfway between Leicester and Northampton. According to Nicholls, Market Harborough was first mentioned in 1170; it was mentioned again in a Pipe Roll of 1199 relating to a payment from the manors of “Buggeden and haug”. The town had a main road running through it (the High Street) with ‘tofts and crofts’. Toft was a piece of land which fronted the town street where the dwelling was erected and the croft was land to the rear where an outhouse was or crops were grown. Many of these can be seen in some form today by the long yards which run off the High Street.
The parish church for Market Harborough is St Dionysius which dates mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries. It is unusual for a medieval church as it has no churchyard and there is no evidence that it ever had one although there would have been plenty of room to create one when the church was built. It is thought that this is because it was built as a chapel of ease to St Mary in Arden, and most of the burials in Market Harborough took place in St Mary in Arden until the cemetery in Northampton Road opened in 1877. The dedication to St Dionysius is unusual and it is thought to have come from Robert Grosseteste, the Bishop of Lincoln. He died in 1254 so the chapel must have been started before then. Pevsner describes the steeple of St Dionysius as one of the finest in England and he thought it was built around 1300. In James Dugdale’s The New British Traveller: Or, Modern Panorama of England and Wales, Volume 3:
“It (St Dionysius) is said to have been built by John of Gaunt, in penance enjoined him by the Pope, for his illicit connection with Catherine Swynford, before she became his third wife. It was dedicated by its founder to St Dionysius, the Aeropagite. The building is decorated with the arms of John of Gaunt and those of Blanche, his first wife…” William Harrod in his History of Market Harborough, describes John of Gaunt’s affair with Katherine as “an illicit conversation”
Next to the church is the Old Grammar School built in 1614 but founded in 1604 by a bequest of Robert Smyth. The building has recently been restored and is still used today to hold events. Market Harborough’s early trade seems to be concentrated mainly on its market and fair. Cattle, horse and sheep were sold and ‘The Square’ was known as the sheep market. There were other trades in the town such as shoe-making, carpet making and later, Symmington’s Corsets. The former factory building now houses the council, library and museum.
In the 18th century Market Harborough became a staging post and had many prosperous coaching inns to accommodate travellers. The Three Swans and the Angel are amongst the oldest of Harborough’s inns and can still be found on the High Street today with the northern end of the town still having many Georgian fronted buildings. The amount of inns and their prosperity were dramatically reduced when the railway arrived.