Nigel Baker - University of Birmingham

West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
The archaeology of pre-Conquest towns
Nigel Baker
Archaeological Consultant
There is no doubt that urban places did exist in the west midlands region in the preConquest period. Regardless of any archaeological evidence, this is quite clear from a
variety of contemporary documentary sources, and the terms used in them to refer to
certain settlements. The terms burh, port, and civitas emphasised military, economic
and political-religious functions respectively; all implied central places that were
principally non-agricultural in character. Domesday Book provides a schematic record
for the end of the period, and reveals further defining characteristics of urbanism,
most significantly, concentrations of people. From it we can deduce that, by the mid11th century, Worcester had a population of around 2000, Shrewsbury 1200, Warwick
about 1500, Stafford 1300, and Droitwich about 800. Domesday, of course, goes
much further than this, and despite its notorious weakness in capturing urban detail,
records borough status and burgesses, their customs, defences (Hereford), multiple
churches (Shrewsbury), and moneyers (Hereford). Other documents of the period
specific to single places state or imply the existence of urban communities, though no
documents are as detailed or as revealing as the charter of 889-899 recording the
construction of the Worcester borough ‘for the defence of all the people’, and the
administrative arrangements made between the Crown and the bishop regarding
market tolls, ground rents, the maintenance of the defences and fines in the local
courts (Stenton 1947, 521-522).
Archaeological understanding of these early urban communities and their inception,
growth and character, is still extremely basic, though some places are rather better
known than others. In the circumstances, to express research priorities would be
almost pointless. Pre-Conquest urbanism is itself a priority, because so little is known,
because the archaeological resource is slight, fragile and vulnerable, and because the
subject is a significant one: herein lie the roots of many of the region’s major centres
of population down to the present day. However, a list of basic research questions –
none of which can yet be answered with any degree of conviction or authority – does
have the virtue of illustrating the extent of our ignorance.
Origins and growth
What were the origins of the region’s urban places? What were the most common
factors in their early growth: the Church? Other pre-existing centres of authority?
Commerce and communications? Military necessity?
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
Over what period of time did the Domesday Boroughs acquire their populations?
How fast did these and other towns grow? Was urban growth in western England
really as retarded in comparison to the Danelaw as Vince (1989) has suggested?
How did they grow: by what agencies or means; at whose instigation? To what
extent is organised growth (town-planning) evident?
Was growth continuous or interrupted, or cyclical, or episodic? What was its
actual, precise, chronology?
What was the relationship between urban growth and organisational and landscape
changes taking place in the countryside?
Population, demography and daily life
Of what sort of people were pre-Conquest urban communities in the region
composed: what was the balance between high-status consumers and lower-status
producers (see Fleming 1993)? How did this balance shift over time?
What was their quality of life? Did it differ from that of surrounding rural
communities in terms of (for example) diet, health, and longevity?
What sort of possessions did they have around them? To what extent was urban
material culture different, richer or more diverse, than that of rural communities at
equivalent social levels?
Settlement and the urbanising environment
How diverse was the range of building types present in pre-Conquest towns?
Were rural building types and traditions simply reproduced in urban places? How
soon did functional differentiation lead to architectural differentiation?
How were the lives of town-dwellers physically structured: what sort of patterning
would have been apparent in these settlements? To what extent were urban places
zoned, either by economics, custom, kin-group or rural origin, social status,
regulation of hazards and pollutants, or by access to resources or infrastructure?
Where and when did continuously built-up street frontages first appear? Over
what sort of time-span and where did the familiar medieval urban settlement
pattern of contiguous strip-plots, or burgages, appear?
How extensive was organised community or lordly involvement in infrastructure,
particularly in terms of the provision of metalled streets, bridge-work and
reclamation and drainage projects?
Further consideration of specific urban functions – such as the town as a military
phenomenon, or the town as a religious centre (see p.00) – invite many more
questions, all equally difficult to answer. In short, it is impossible to define a few
priority issues over and above others.
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
To briefly survey what is known, rather than what is not, it is probably simplest to
survey the evidence so far accrued on a town-by-town basis. The logical place to
begin is undoubtedly Hereford, the best explored of any of the region’s towns. Also,
because the sequence unearthed there is in many respects without close parallel in the
other towns, prompting another general research question, unanswered since the
1970s: in this region, just how exceptional was Hereford?
The Anglo-Saxon development of Hereford was first sketched by Ron Shoesmith in
the 1970s, from his excavations and earlier work by Phillip Rahtz; the model
proposed then still, largely, stands. The sequence commences possibly in the early 8th
century with a grain dryer sealed by a boundary feature excavated by Rahtz, and early
burials on the St Guthlac’s site. The catalyst for the settlement represented by these
features may have been the establishment of the cathedral in the late 7th century. By
the late 8th century the famous grid of north-south streets may have been established:
the Berrington Street excavations revealed one of these streets together with
associated post-built timber buildings. The settlement may have been defined by a
boundary ditch but appears to have been undefended. Defences were probably first
added in the mid-9th century in the form of a gravel and clay rampart. The late 9th
century saw the defences rebuilt, a timber-laced rampart enclosing an enlarged area. A
revetment wall was added to the front of the rampart, and a mural street installed
behind, probably in the early 10th century; meanwhile the domestic sequence on the
Berrington Street site continued. Later on in the 10th century the defences were
disused, until some kind of refortification took place in the mid- to late 11th
(Shoesmith 1980, 1982; Thomas and Boucher 2002).
From a regional or Mercian perspective, the big question since this model was first
proposed has been whether apparently pre-9th century urbanism – planned urbanism –
should be expected elsewhere. Martin Biddle, in 1976, noted the then recent discovery
of the late Saxon defences of Tamworth and their middle Saxon predecessor, and
reminded everyone that Mercian charters from the middle of the 8th century did after
all refer to borough work. A quarter of a century later, Hereford still, however,
appears to be unique. It may be that the gap will be closed by further work elsewhere,
but it may also be possible that some aspects of the chronology of early Hereford
could change if more precise, non-ceramic, dating evidence became available (see
Vince 1989). There is a particular problem in the region with imprecise chronology in
the pre-Conquest period, due principally to the apparently very long period in which
Stafford-type ware was being produced. This, the regional type-fossil for preConquest occupation, appears to have been made over a period of more than two
centuries, from the early 9th century through to the early 11th, with little discernible
change in form or fabric (Ford 1995). Completely secure identification of pre-10thcentury urban activity will be dependent upon scientific dating.
Worcester of the 8th and early 9th centuries remains extremely obscure, and direct
archaeological evidence is limited to a few coin finds. Historical evidence shows that
the bishops of Worcester were active in trade and probably maintained ships and
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
commercial premises in London in the 8th century, and some manifestation of these
activities may one day be apparent in Worcester, but the archaeological sample does
not yet extend to the Severn waterfront or to much of the cathedral area. The historical
model suggests that Worcester before the burh was an episcopal city in which there
was no active royal interest (Holt, in Baker and Holt 2004). Late Saxon Worcester has
enjoyed a high academic profile for years as a consequence of the burh foundation
charter of 889-899 (see above) and a series of surviving 10th-century episcopal leases
of rural manors with attached urban properties. The burh defences (more accurately,
post-Roman pre-Conquest defences shown to have been in use c.900AD) were finally
found in the course of the Deansway excavations in 1989, which also sampled a large
area within (Dalwood and Edwards 2004). These results, together with those of the
City Arcades excavation (Griffin and Jackson 2003) and concurrent
historical/historical-geographical research suggest that the Worcester burh was a
defended annexe added to the north side of an earlier (late Roman) defended
enclosure around the cathedral. Internally, the northern annexe may have been
characterised by large high-status properties, and a market street, but not necessarily
by a permanent or dense population. Excavated remains cannot be dated with
accuracy, but extramural occupation appears to have been developing in the 10th
century, certainly along Sidbury (Carver 1980), and possibly also towards the river
crossing beyond an extramural market place.
The dissolution of the Worcester burh may have come about rapidly, by means of a
number of discrete town-planning episodes that saw new streets and plots laid out –
probably by a contemporary bishop – over stretches of levelled and reclaimed
defences. This may have happened as early as the mid- to late 10th century, at about
the time that Hereford’s defences also entered a period of neglect. The context for this
process in Worcester, apart from any growth in the urban population, may have been
the continuing administrative reform of the cathedral’s estates and the need to provide
urban properties to accommodate the bishop’s retainers (Baker & Holt 2004).
Stafford was the scene of large-scale excavations by Martin Carver in the mid-1970s
and early 1980s. Pottery kilns, waster dumps and post-built buildings were excavated
at Clarke Street and Tipping Street. Across town to the west, the St Mary’s Grove
excavations of the early 1980s found a well, ovens and wide-open spaces. What does
this mean for the development of Stafford as an urban place? Before the early 9thcentury date of some of the pottery kilns was appreciated the archaeological evidence
was viewed in the context of the documented foundation of the Stafford burh by
Aethelflaeda in 913. Now, it appears that this event was the fortification of an existing
centre of some kind, already characterised by industrial production and a minster
church. Further than that we cannot yet go. There are signs that late Saxon Stafford
had a coherent internal structure. Agricultural-processing activities took place to the
west, possibly associated with a high-status site in close proximity to the minster
church of St Mary’s; pottery production was located (zoned?) downwind to the east.
In the middle were the tenements of the axial High Street. These remain largely
unexplored by archaeology, but are probably where evidence of a growing urban
population should be sought. Small-scale work in recent years has produced further
pre-Conquest material: another kiln on Salter Street (also east of the High Street),
with dates around 1000, an undated, possibly pre-medieval ditch in the North Walls
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
Road, and evidence of reclamation and landfill activities on the peninsula margins
(pers. comm. D. Wilkinson).
Shrewsbury enters the historical record in 901 when a Mercian charter was witnessed
there, implying that a royal residence was already extant on the site. There was also a
significant ecclesiastical presence, two out of the four pre-Conquest minster churches
possessing rural territories whose extent is strongly suggestive of very early
(c.700AD) foundations (Bassett 1991). The first major archaeological investigation of
the town was undertaken by Martin Carver in the 1970s (Carver 1978); since then,
further understanding of its pre-Conquest form has come about through small-scale
piecemeal excavation, historical research and topographical analysis. The most
significant result is that finds of pre-Conquest pottery have now been made
throughout most of the Severn river loop and in the transpontine eastern suburb,
indicating that already by the mid-11th century occupation extended over much of the
footprint of the later medieval urban core. In 2002 a late Saxon rubbish dump was
located on the edge of the floodplain on the eastern side of town. In addition to
Stafford, Stamford and St Neot’s wares, there was some possible Thetford-type ware,
together with faunal debris and iron smelting slag. The only secular building of the
period, a stake-walled, clay floored structure associated with Stafford-type ware, was
excavated in 1980 but the site (Owen Owen) remains unpublished. Two out of the
four minster sites were investigated in the 19th century. One (Old St Chad’s) produced
charcoal burials; the other (St Mary’s) the ground plan of an apsidal pre-Norman
church almost identical in size to St Mary’s, Deerhurst. Apart from an unproductive
geophysical survey at Old St Chad’s, virtually no work on the churches has taken
place since. Topographical research has identified probable pre-Conquest elements in
the urban landscape, including waterfront plot systems, contrived out of earlier
floodplain grazing. These mostly extend from the high ground within the river-loop
down the escarpments and across the floodplain and emphasise the role of grazing and
livestock and, by implication, livestock markets, in the early urban economy (Baker et
al 1993). The burh defences, which must have been built before moneyers were active
from the 930s, have not been located but probably ran across the neck of the river
loop on a line later adopted by the medieval town wall (Baker 2003).
Other towns, and smaller towns
Warwick, the remaining shire town, has seen only very limited work since the 1960s
and 70s. The extent of the burh (listed with Worcester in an addendum to the Burghal
Hidage) still remains unclear, and a possible pre-medieval rampart excavated in the
1960s, and topographical research undertaken there in the 1970s, remain mutually
inconsistent (Rahtz 1977). Pre-Conquest 11th-century pottery associated with pits and
a timber slot have been found on the Woolpack Hotel site on the south side of the
market place, consistent with other finds of 11th-century material along Brook Street
and Market Street (pers. comm. J Parkhouse).
Pre-Conquest urban communities were not confined to the shire towns. Some of the
most spectacular excavated results – though not directly of urban life as such – have
been produced by excavation in the industrial, salt-producing, centre of Droitwich.
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
The Upwich excavations of the 1980s explored one of the principal salt production
sites, with the debris of brine-boiling – hearths, stake-alignments, lead sheet vat
fragments– over a period extending from the 5th to the early 7th century. The sequence
was interrupted by a flooding episode, followed by reclamation activities in the late
7th - 8th century. Production certainly continued in the vicinity though late preConquest deposits had been removed by later medieval activity (Hurst 1997). This
sequence has serious implications for the region in terms of demand and trading
networks. But in a way its implications for Droitwich itself as an urban place are not
as clear. It certainly demonstrates the continuing presence of what Martin Carver
would call the urban motor, but it is not in itself a uniquely urban activity.
There is, finally, a category of urbanising place in this period where the impact of one
particular urban motor is clearer than it is in some of the larger centres, although it
was present, or dominant, there too – the Church. Evesham, Pershore, Leominster and
Much Wenlock all originated in this period at the instigation either of minsters or
fully-reformed Benedictine communities, and all show some degree of organisation in
their evolving landscapes. To this group may be added Coventry, though there was a
substantial secular component there too. Archaeological evidence of occupation in the
period has now been found (though not by extensive excavation) in most of these
places. At Evesham, historical research and town-plan analysis suggests that the town
was founded and developed by the reformed Benedictine community in a series of
small-scale developments taking place in the century or so after c.1050. Each
development was planned with a series of regular plots, each of a quarter-acre extent,
yielding standard shilling rents (the latter were also a feature of the post-burh replanning of Worcester); Pershore was developed in much the same way. There may
have been more to the organisation of these places than mere economics, as it has also
been suggested that there was a strong processional component in the planning of the
relationship of the new urban spaces to the parent precincts (Slater 1998, 158-9).
Monastic initiative in the growth of early Coventry appears to have centred on the
north-south (Tamworth to Warwick) routeway passing to the west of the monastic
precinct. Development took place along this axis, beginning with the triangular
market place immediately outside the monastery gates (Lilley 1998).
The essential resources for the study of pre-Conquest urbanism are the archaeological
deposits beneath the towns of the region formed as a consequence of urban activity in
this period. It therefore follows that the identification, mapping, prediction and
quantification, and ultimately the informed management of these deposits, is a
fundamental issue. ‘Virtual’ deposit modelling from existing data, and thorough
evaluation in the field, are both essential. Particularly so if – as is a distinct possibility
– some pre-Conquest urbanising places were very, very small in comparison to their
later medieval successors. It is also that case that the primary through-street, High
Street, frontages have been the most vulnerable to destruction, but these are the very
areas that potentially contain the most significant sequences, at least in terms of the
economic functions of pre-Conquest towns. Such sequences can survive, as Caroline
Heighway’s excavations at no.1 Westgate Street in Gloucester, just over the border,
have shown. Historical and geographical models have produced and will continue to
produce many new insights into the development of pre-Conquest towns but,
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
ultimately, such models need to be tested and refined against chronologically specific
archaeological data from controlled excavation. The general message is clear: the raw
materials for the study of pre-Conquest urbanism in this region are exceptionally rare
and vulnerable. Predictive knowledge matters. And when, inevitably, redevelopment
takes place, every pile matters.
Baker, N J, 2003: Shrewsbury: archaeological discoveries from a medieval town,
Shropshire Books
Baker, N J, Dalwood, H, Holt, R A, Mundy C F and Taylor, G, 1992: ‘From Roman
to medieval Worcester: development and planning in the Anglo-Saxon city’,
Antiquity, 66, 65-74
Baker, N J, Lawson, J B, Maxwell, R and Smith, J T, ‘Further work on Pride Hill,
Shrewsbury’, Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society,
68, 3-64
Baker, N J, and Holt, R A, 2004: Urban growth and the medieval Church: Gloucester
and Worcester, Ashgate Press, Aldershot
Bassett, S R, 1991: ‘Anglo-Saxon Shrewsbury and its churches’, Midland History, 16,
Biddle, M, 1976: ‘Towns’, in Wilson, D M (ed.), The archaeology of Anglo-Saxon
England, Cambridge
Carver, M O H, 1978: ‘Early Shrewsbury: an archaeological definition in 1975’,
Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, 59, for 1973-4, 225-263
Carver, M O H (ed.), 1980: ‘Medieval Worcester, an archaeological framework’,
Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, 3rd series, 7
Dalwood, H and Edwards, R, 2004: Deansway, Worcester: Excavations by Charles
Mundy 1988-89, Council for British Archaeology Research Reports, 000
Fleming, R, 1993: ‘Rural elites and urban communities in late Saxon England’, Past
and Present, 141, 3-37
Ford, D A, 1995: ‘Medieval pottery in Staffordshire, AD 800-1600: A review’,
Staffordshire Archaeological Studies, no. 7, City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-onTrent
Griffin, S and Jackson, R, 2003: ‘Excavation at City Arcade, High Street, Worcester:
archive report’, Archaeological Service, Worcestershire County Council, report 899
Hurst, J D, (ed.), 1997; ‘A multi-period salt production site at Droitwich, Excavations
at Upwich’, Council for British Archaeology Research Report, 107
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker
Lilley, K D, 1998: ‘Trading places: monastic initiative and the development of highmedieval Coventry’, in Slater, T R and Rosser, G (eds.): The Church in the medieval
town, Ashgate Press, Aldershot, pp.177-208
Rahtz, P A, 1977: ‘The archaeology of west Mercian towns’ in Dornier, A (ed.),
Mercian Studies, Leicester, pp.107-129
Shoesmith, R, 1980: ‘Excavations at Castle Green’, Hereford City Excavations
Volume 1, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 36
Shoesmith, R, 1982: ‘Excavations on and close to the defences’, Hereford City
Excavations Volume 2, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 46
Slater, T R, 1998: ‘Benedictine town planning in medieval England’, in Slater, T R
and Rosser, G (eds.): The Church in the medieval town, Ashgate Press, Aldershot,
Stenton, F M, 1947: Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd edition, Oxford
Thomas, A and Boucher, A, 2002: Hereford City Excavations Volume 4: Further sites
and evolving interpretations, Logaston Press
Vince, A, 1989: ‘The urban economy in Mercia in the 9th and 10th centuries’, in
‘Archaeology and the urban economy; Festschrift to Asbjorn E. Herteig’,
Arkeologiske Skrifter Historisk Museum, 5, University of Bergen, pp.136-159
West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 4: Baker