It is doubtful if there was any considerable settlement on the northern side of the Wey at the time of the Norman conquest. Melcombe is not directly mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Saltpans existed in Athelstan’s days, and later were situated probably on the site of the Town Marsh, and it is possible that a mill occupied a position on the eastern bank of the Backwater and gave rise to the name Melcombe – the mill in the valley.
That Weymouth became a manor of some value before Melcombe reached that status is shown by the fact that whilst King Edward the Confessor’s charter granted the manors of Wike, Waimouth, Portland and Hellwell to Winchester Church, Henry I (c1110), when he granted those manors to the Prior and Monks of St. Swythun’s monastery, Winchester, added to them the manor of Melecum.
In the days of the Norman kings, the trade of both towns benefited by their proximity with the coast of Normandy, and as early as 1226, regulations were in force for merchants dealing with that part of the king’s domain.
In 1252 the Prior of St. Swythun’s granted to Weymouth a charter by which it became a free borough and port, and in 1280 Edward I, who had, eight years earlier, granted the right of one half of the port to Melcombe, raised that town to the dignity of a borough. Melcombe by this time had become a royal demesne and formed part of Queen Eleanor’s dowry.
Trade flourished during the reign of Edward III. Melcombe became a staple port for wool. Thus, in spite of the war with France and Brittany, the two towns were able to furnish 20 ships for the siege of Calais in 1345, three years after the king had landed at this port from his unfortunate attack on Brittany.
Disaster fell in the summer of 1348. The Black Death appeared in Melcombe Regis and quickly spread over England. It had probably been imported by fugitives from its virulence on the Continent. Mortality was very heavy over the whole country, estimates vary from 5 to 9% of the population, its economic effect may be summed up by an extract from Warburton’s “Edward III”:-
“Thus, within fifty years of the visitation of the Black Death, serifdom and villainage were practically abolished in England and the labourer, released from his bondage to the land, was free to carry his thews and sinews to the best market.”
1377 was another black year for both boroughs – a horde of French pirates, finding the towns deserted, looted and destroyed practically all the buildings whilst the inhabitants were attending mass at Radipole Church. Much the same thing happened again in 1386.
These raids had further serious consequences. Merchants no longer risked their goods by trading with the port but transferred their custom to the more sheltered harbour of Poole, to which town Henry VI in 1432 gave all the priveleges which until then the port of Weymouth & Melcombe Regis had enjoyed.
Our port, however, was not wholly neglected. Early in the XVth century licenses were granted for the conveyance of pilgrims to such places as Compostella, Loretto, Jerusalem, and by 1428 it had attained the position of third port in the kingdome for this traffic. About this time permission was granted for the establishment of a Friary of Dominican Monks in Melcombe Regis, for the reasons that there was then no place dedicated to God in the borough, the parochial church was at Radipole, one and a half miles distant, and because the inhabitants were “rude and illiterate”. The monastic buildings occupied about one acre of land from Maiden Street to the sea, and from Governor’s Lane to St. Albans Street. One relic of the friary is the Prior’s chair now in the Town Hall for the use of the mayor. There had been a chapel at Melcombe Regis in 1298 and which was mentioned again in 1396, but it obviously could have had but a short life.
The Chapel of St. Nicholas at Weymouth is mentioned in a patent of Henry VI (1442) which empowered the Dean of Sarum to found a Fraternity of St. George of Weymouth.
The revival of religious interest in Melcombe with its civilizing influence, aided by the contemporary peace with France, was no doubt the chief factor in the increasing prosperity of the two towns.
In any case this was the port at which Queen Margaret – wife of Henry VI – landed, after exile in France, on April 13th 1471. She brought with her Prince Edward and some French soldiers in the hope of reinstating a Lancastrian on the throne, but at the battle of Tewkesbury was herself captured, her son killed, and the War of the Roses ended.