Plymouth began as a fishing village. It belonged to the Prior of Plympton (a prior was the head of a priory or small abbey). In the early 13th century the prior turned the village into a town by starting a market there. In those days there were very few shops so if you wanted to buy or sell goods you had to go to a market. Once a market was up and running in Plymouth merchants and craftsmen would come to live and work there and it would grow into a town. In 1254 Plymouth was given a charter (a charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

Wine from France and Spain was imported into Medieval Plymouth. The town also benefited from a law of 1390, which said that pilgrims who travelled abroad must leave from either Plymouth or Dover. Medieval Plymouth also played a role in the many wars between England and France. Because of this Plymouth was attacked by French soldiers several times. The worst attack came one day in August 1403. The French sailed across the Channel and landed north of the town. The French marched into Plymouth and occupied the area around Exeter Street. The English fought back but were unable to dislodge the French, who stayed overnight.

The next day the French sailed away but only after burning much of the town (this was easily done as most of the buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs). Afterwards part of the town was called Bretonside. After this disaster Plymouth was soon rebuilt and began to flourish once more.