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The market town of Harleston has a long history. A charter to hold an eight-day fair was granted to Roger Bigod, 4th Earl of Norfolk by Henry III in 1259 and Wednesday has been market day in the town from ancient times. One of the plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I was to be launched on Midsummer Day 1570 at the Harleston Fair by proclamations and the sound of trumpets and drums. The Elizabethan play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay features this in one of its scenes.
Past residents of Harleston include some of the Pilgrim Fathers who travelled on the Mayflower to settle in America.