Monday 30 September 2013

The Location of the Stafford Burh

Searching for the Stafford Burh – Part IV

There appears to have been no prolonged human activity or settlement in the crook of the Sow, the historic core of the Stafford town centre. However, despite several excavations in the 1970s-80s and more recent archaeological interventions and desktop assessments our understanding as to whether Stafford was settled prior to the documented establishment of Æthelflæd’s burh in 913 is still unclear.

The Prehistory of Stafford
So far in this exploration of the origins of the county town of Stafford we have uncovered only traces of activity throughout the Prehistoric Ages. The earliest activity appears to be centred on the area around the site of King's Pool. Environmental evidence from core samples taken from peat deposits lying within the former King’s Pool suggests episodes of the burning of oak, pine and elm woodland over a sustained period during the Mesolithic (around 10,000 to 6,500 years ago). It is assumed that such burning was the result of human activity, creating discrete areas of open land. There is little further evidence for human activity in the Mesolithic period in the area other than one flint core from Clarke Street.

Woodland clearance for agricultural use intensified into the Neolithic period through to the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age and Roman period. A scatter of flint tools and debitage found 800m north of the King’s Pool site was initially identified as Mesolithic but re-appraisal suggests a Neolithic or  Bronze Age date. Scattered finds of Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts attest to some wider activity although there is currently little evidence for settlement during the Bronze Age in the area.

There is some evidence for the processing of grain in the area during the Iron Age immediately to the north of St Mary’s church in the town centre. At St Mary's Grove, evidence of two or three Iron Age granaries were uncovered during excavations indicating that wheat was being grown and stored in the Stafford area. In addition, the possibility of an Iron Age causeway to the east of the town at Lammascote Road, across the eastern marshland, must be considered. However, we cannot dismiss the possibility that these three timber piles could have been part of a flood defence system as they were found directly along the north bank of the Sow. Two red deer antlers picks, of probable Iron Age date, discovered to the north of Lammascote Road may have been related to the construction of this timber structure. Apart from Berry Ring hillfort, two miles south west of Stafford, there is little evidence for settlement within the Stafford area in the Iron Age. It is conceived that Iron Age Stafford, surrounded by water, may have been similar in appearance to this excellent reconstruction of The Berth hillfort, based on an aerial photograph by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, in neighbouring Shropshire.

A Roman Presence in the Town
As with the scant evidence for prehistoric occupation within the centre of Stafford, the evidence for Roman activity is also meagre but suggestive that human activity was continual, if somewhat limited, and steadily increasing in the area over time. Evidence of agricultural activity during the Roman period is seen in land reclamation from the notorious Stafford marshlands on the eastern side of the town at Clarke Street. Further evidence for Roman activity at Stafford consists of some 50-60, 2nd to 4th century pottery sherds from Clarke Street, in addition to several Roman pottery sherds found at Bath Street and Tipping Street. A small number of Roman coins have been found within the modern town, but the context was unclear leading to some being dismissed as recent losses. However, two mid 4th century coins were found to the north of St. Mary’s Church in a secure context. Two Roman coins, dated to 330-335 AD, were found during excavations at Clarke Street in 1961 and an almost complete 2nd century Roman jar was discovered at a depth of over 3m during construction work in the Market Square.

Outside of the historic core of the town centre over 1,000 sherds of Roman pottery, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, have been found by Stafford castle, possibly representing the former existence of a small farmstead or villa. In 1985 the site of a Romano-British villa was discovered at Acton Trussell, most of of the villa buildings being inside the confines of the grounds of the village church of St James. Further finds of pottery sherds and 39 Roman coins, have provided dating evidence to the 2nd to mid-4th centuries. Occupation of the villa site dates back to at least the Neolithic period indicating a long period of small-scale continuity.

Although the complete extent of Roman activity within the historic core of the town is not fully understood yet, there is enough evidence from across the wider area to suggest that it was a significant place by this period. The Roman model of a fortified town appears to been significant in selection of burh sites by the Anglo Saxons.

Doxey Marshes, north west Stafford
It has been suggested that the significance of the Stafford site may lay in the fact that it provided a safe crossing through the surrounding marshland to an important crossing point of the River Sow. This safe north-south route, Gaolgate and Greengate Streets, was possibly the line of a Roman road, presumably leading to a ford across the River Sow at the southern end of the high street at Green Bridge. This seems a more plausible explanation for the place-name rather the conjectured Iron Age causeway. It is of course possible that during the Roman period there was a crossing of this north-south route by an east-west route, departing the town at Broad Eye in the west and along the line of the Lammascote Road, at the Eastgate, presenting the possibility that Stafford may have been the meeting point of two long distance routes by the Roman period. However, this is not reflected in the street plan  of the historic town centre.

After the Romans
Stafford appears to have entered a Dark Age with the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain. There appears to have been a decline in human activity to c.300 AD – 600 AD, coinciding with the Late Roman period and the beginnings of the early Anglo Saxon period. The evidence suggests we enter a relatively quiet period until the construction of the burh.

However, there is evidence that arable farming returned to the area in the Early Medieval Period. Excavations within the town centre have revealed cereal production in at least four ovens or grain drying kilns, and the associated remains of wheat, barley, rye and oats, discovered in an archaeological excavation c.50m north of St. Mary’s Church. Initially these ovens were dated to the early to mid 9th century but a reappraisal suggests that they more correctly represent activity during the period of the burh; the early 10th century. It is not known how far the grain was travelling to get to this site but it is indicative of Stafford being used as a central collection point and possibly linked to a burh supply policy.

On the eastern side of the town, at Tipping Street, pottery kilns, and associated waster pits, were excavated in the 1970s and 1980s. These were again initially dated to the early-mid 9th century, but a review of the dating evidence has suggested that this activity relates to the period of the burh. Excavations at Clarke Street suggest that the pottery site was located towards the periphery of the habitable portion of the settlement and there was evidence for domestic activity on the site to the north of Tipping Street. The pottery kilns at Tipping Street appear to have gone out of use and the industry moved northwards to Salter Street where evidence of a later kiln, dated to between 1,000 – 1,080 AD, was discovered during an extension to Marks and Spencer. The pottery recovered from these sites within the town has been appropriately labelled as 'Stafford Ware'; typical examples include jars, cooking pots and bowls. Stafford Ware type pottery has been recovered from excavations at other burh sites such as Chester, Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, suggestive of a distribution network.

St Bertelin's Chapel
Excavations in the 1950s at the west end of St. Mary’s Church uncovered a wooden cross which lay beneath a coin minted between 991- 997 AD suggesting that the cross had been buried c.1,000 AD. Subsequently, the cross has been re-dated to 12th century. The excavations concluded that the first wooden church on the site probably dated to the earliest period of the burh. This wooden church was replaced by a stone structure in the early 11th century. There is no convincing case for a minster at Stafford before the 10th century, but not impossible; burials were being carried out in this area prior to its foundation.

The idea of St. Bertelin, a Mercian prince, founding a hermitage in an uninhabited area called the Isle of Bethney (i.e. Stafford) c.700 AD is regarded as purely legendary. St. Bertelin is not documented as being associated with Stafford until the 12th century; Æthelflæd herself appears to have had a hand in creating the legend as she is known for establishing Mercian cults in newly founded burhs.

The Location of the Stafford Burh
The available evidence forces the conclusion that the centre of Stafford was originally known as a safe crossing point through the marshes of the Sow valley, an important route, if minor, on the Roman road network linking Watling Street in the south, through Pennocrucium and passing the villa at Acton Trussell, to join the Rykeneld Street in north Staffordshire. There is little evidence of activity after the Roman period; there is even less evidence for any significant settlement until Æthelflæd constructed the burh in 913 AD.

The account in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle suggests the speed of construction was completed in a matter of weeks. Therefore the burh defences at Stafford must have initially been a relatively simple construction consisting of outer ditch with an inner bank topped by wooden palisade. Yet evidence for the site of the burh remains elusive. The burh defences must not be confused with the later medieval town walls, constructed from stone and timber, that enclosed the town to the extent of the gravel deposits in the floodplain of the Sow, although this appears to provide a clue.

The last remaining section of the Stafford medieval town walls
The lack of evidence for a ditch within the town for the original burh defences may give some credence to the suggestion that owing to the natural defences of the surrounding area, open only to the north, no further defences were needed. Indeed, medieval town maps do not depict any defence works along Chell Road and at Tenterbanks it appears to be of timber construction; the Medieval walls appear to have been constructed exactly as named; North Walls and South Walls. However, this may have no reflection on the original burh and evidence for a 10th century defensive system across the northern entrance to the town has not been found.

There has been little archaeological work carried out to establish the extent to which the surviving street pattern may relate to that which would have existed within the burh, as has proven to be the case in Winchester, as many Wessex burhs were laid out to a set street plan. It has been speculated that the Stafford burh was smaller than the later town and may have been preserved within its layout, possibly only encompassing the area to the west of the north-south axial roadway of Gaolgate/Greengate Street, around the site of St Mary’s Church, enclosed within Earl Street and Crabbery Street. This gives an approximate side length of c.1500m in accord with other Midland burhs.

An archaeological excavation carried out on the northern side, i.e inside, of South Walls in 1999 discovered a large ditch on the same alignment as this street. The c.1600 map of Stafford also clearly shows a ditch but only on the far side of the walls, i.e. outside, and only on the eastern and southern sides. Between the North Gate and the East Gate it is identified as “Town Ditch” and as “Thieves Ditch” between East Gate and South Gate. The ditch found on the inner side of South Walls in 1999 was initially interpreted as the town ditch which pre-dated the medieval town walls, infilled before the medieval maps were drawn, which concurs with the dating evidence of 12th and 15th centuries, although its full depth was not investigated.

This ditch appears to be too far north to represent the limits of the medieval town, and being inside the wall is the wrong side to be part of the medieval defensive system, and therefore may relate to the original ditch enclosing the burh. Similarly, a road aligned east-west was interpreted as the line of the military inner road which would have followed the burh defences. This military road is situated c.20m to the south, i.e. inside, of the later medieval defences. These two finds appear to confirm that the burh covered an area larger than encompassed by the proposed side length of c.1500m but smaller than the later medieval town defences which appear to have closely followed an expanded alignment of the burh defences. This interpretation also places St Mary's Church, more securely, nearer the centre of the burh.

Thus, an alternative interpretation provides for a larger burh, as it seems unlikely the first church, built on the site of St Mary's, would have been at the edge of the burh; more likely that the Saxon minster would be located in the centre of the burh, such as at Tamworth. St Mary's Church in Stafford aligns directly with Martin Street; if this was the centre of the burh it would have extended across the line of Salter Street, Eastgate Street and Tipping Street.

A larger burh site provides the most satisfactory explanation of the archaeological evidence which sees a fortified site created in the early 10th century for grain processing and pottery manufacture. As Stafford Ware has been found at other burhs it is a reasonable presumption that these activities were in support of the Mercian military. The actual alignment of the burh defences has not yet been positively identified, but the expanded interpretation, mirrored by the larger medieval town walls, enclosed within the boundary of Crabbery Street, Earl Street, Tipping Street, Eastgate Street and Salter Street would appear to be the most likely alignment taken with the context of the ditch found inside South Walls in 1999.

The archaeological record has meagre evidence for early activity in the historic core of the town centre, when compared to the more abundant evidence for later grain processing in the town, manufacture and distribution of Stafford Ware, and St Bertelin cult, concurs with the historical record that the first town of Stafford was created by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, in the early 10th century.

© Edward Watson 2013


Notes & References:
David Hill, The Shiring of Mercia - again, pp.144-159, in N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill, editors, Edward the Elder: 899-924, Routledge, 2001.
Philip Rhatz, The Archaeology of West Mercian Towns, pp.107-130, in Mercian Studies, ed. Ann Dornier, Leicester University Press, 1977.
Sarah Zaluckyj, Mercia: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Central England, Logaston Press, 2011, pp.207-215.
The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
L C Bowkett, The Stafford Hinterland, 1986
Martin Carver, Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
Martin Carver, Birth of a Borough. Archaeological Investigations in Stafford 1954-2004, Boydell and
Brewer, 2010.
David Horovitz, A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003.
John Darlington, Stafford Past, Stafford Borough Council, 1994
Susan Laflin, Roman Roads And Ford Place-Names In Shropshire, 2002.
A R Mountford, The Lightwood Hoard, The North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume 3, 1963.
Chris Wardle, Roman Staffordshire: the Five Towns and Beyond, 2002.
Staffordshire County Council & English Heritage - Staffordshire Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Stafford Historic Character Assessment, June 2009, Revised August 2011.
Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints, And Monasteries In Pre‐Viking Mercia, Midland History, Volume 10, 1985 , pp. 1-25.

* * *

Friday 27 September 2013

A Roman Road in Stafford?

Searching for the Stafford Burh – Part III

If the conjectured Iron Age causeway following the line of the eastern exit from the Stafford town centre, modern Lammascote Road, is to be identified as the 'ford' element in the place-name, it might also hold another explanation for 'stæþ' in the original name of Stæþford. As discussed in Searching for the Stafford Burh - Part I  identifying 'stæþ' with 'landing place' is problematic. However, the 'ford' element is one of the most common topographical terms found in English place-names, in most cases denoting a settlement next to a crossing-place of a stream or river, but in some cases referring to a causeway.

The first  record of the name of the town appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle C and D manuscripts which give 'Stæfforda', in the entry for 913. OE 'Stæf' means, staff, stake or post which would give the meaning 'place of the ford (or causeway) through wet ground, marked by stakes or posts' which certainly supports the notion of an Iron Age causeway. (Horovitz, 2003)

Yet the etymologists insist that there is no doubt about the identity of the first element of the word: it is 'stæþ' (Horovitz, 2003). The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary gives 'a bank, shore, the land bordering on water'; consequently we are forced to abandon the suggestion that the place-name reflects a prehistoric wooden trackway at the site of Lammascote Road.

Compound OE words using stæþ as the first element are often found associated with stability and firmness, such as a paved ford (or causeway) or a settlement on firm ground by a river crossing. The meaning 'the firm road, or causeway, through land bordered by water' is perhaps best suited for Stafford; the causeway being identified with a suspected Roman road, crossing the Sow at the south end of Stafford town centre, running out southwards in the direction of Pennocrucium and the Watling Street.

A study of Roman roads and ford place-names in the neighbouring county of Shropshire (Laflin, 2002) noted that almost a third of 'ford' place-names were associated with Roman roads built primarily for the Roman military but later to serve towns and settlements. The 'ford' place-names were given at the time English became the main language in the area, probably during the 7th and 8th centuries in Staffordshire. The modern English term 'to wade', i.e. walk with the feet immersed, is derived from Old English 'wadan' which is clearly similar to the Latin 'vadum' for 'ford'.

Furthermore, the environmental evidence from the site of King’s Pool (Kings Mead Marshes) suggests that a prehistoric human presence in this area of the town, in the form of agricultural activity, continued into the Roman period. (EUS, 2011) Further, the north-south axial road (Goalgate to Greengate Streets) running through the centre of this peninsula, the crossing through the marsh, is suggestive of a Roman origin.

The Crossing Point
Four Roman roads are known to cross this corner of Staffordshire. The first, the main route of Watling Street, now the line of the A5, was constructed in the early days of the Roman conquest, linking Londinium with Viroconium (Wroxeter) near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The second ran to the west of Stafford, from  Pennocrucium (Water Eaton, near Penkridge) to the fort at Mediolanum (Whitchurch) and on to Deva (Chester). A third road, Rykeneld (sometimes 'Ryknield') Street ran along the course of the modern A50 at Blythe Bridge, crossed the northern Midlands of England from Deva (Chester) to Derventio (Littlechester, near Derby) through north Staffordshire, linking the fort at Rocester with the auxiliary fort at Mount Pleasant (Chesterton). (Wardle, 2002)

In 1960 about half way between Hollywood, near Stone, and Blythe Bridge, a red-brown earthenware pot was found by a man digging in his garden in Lightwood Road, Longton, Stoke on Trent. Inside the pot was a hoard of over 1,700 various 3rd century coins and pair of silver snake bracelets with the terminal of a third silver snake bracelet. This find became known as The Lightwood Hoard. The site is approximately one mile south-west of Rykeneld Street. (Mountford, 1963) Significantly, the largest find of Anglo Saxon gold, The Staffordshire Hoard, was found buried in fields not far from Watling Street.

The original settlement at Blythe Bridge developed along the Rykeneld Street, the historic core of the village being aligned on the Roman road. Excavations at Blythe Bridge have revealed a fourth Roman Road, which to the north, heads off in the direction of Aquae Arnermetiae (Buxton), in the Peak District. To the south the road appears to have travelled from Blythe Bridge as evidenced by raised banks and field boundaries, passing through the villages of Fulford and a rectangular earthwork near Hilderstone, which produced a Roman coin, before arriving at the Roman camp at Hollywood, just south-east of Stone. (Bowkett, 1986)

The course of the road is lost south of Hollywood but probably ran to the site of a temporary camp, identified by cropmarks, at Aston (near Stone) on the west bank of the Trent. Thus, we are left with a gap between Aston and Pennocrucium; it is a reasonable conjecture that the southerly path of this road ran straight through Stafford, passing near the site of a Roman villa at Acton Trussel, likely following a line similar to the modern A449 Wolverhampton Road, south to Pennocrucium before joining Watling Street further south. (Darlington, 1994)

Indeed, from Stone the line of the A34 travels southwards until it reaches a bend at the junction of Whitgreave Lane at Yarlet. From this point it then runs dead straight for 4 miles directly into Stafford town centre, along the line of Goalgate and Greengate streets, to Bridge Street at the southern end of the town centre where it crosses the Sow, the spot often said to account for the 'ford' element in the place-name.

Archaeology has revealed little more than a passing Roman presence in Stafford. In 1974 a quantity of pottery was found during excavations at Clarke Street, near the site of the East Gate, in advance of the anticipated construction of the Queensway ring road. This was initially identified as "Roman" by the the local archaeological society. However, the following year Martin Carver, excavator of Sutton Hoo, identified the pottery as late Saxon. (Carver, 2010) Positive grounds for Roman activity at Stafford is limited to three structures unearthed during excavations at St Mary's Grove in the 1980's. The structures were made up of four posts, each interpreted as representing the corner of a rectangular building. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal, grain and other unidentified organic remains from the fill of a posthole which lay beneath a sealed layer containing Romano-British pottery at St Mary's Grove confirmed a Roman date for the site. These three structures have been interpreted as single celled granaries; given that they were found in isolation it may suggest that Stafford was a Roman supply or storage centre, perhaps not so far removed from its current role with the huge warehouses we find at the north and south ends of the town situated at junctions 13 and 14 of the M6 motorway respectively. Two Roman coins, dated to 330-335 AD, were found during excavations in Stafford at Clarke Street in 1961 and an almost complete Roman jar was discovered at a depth of over 3m during construction work in the Market Square. Over 1,000 sherds of Roman pottery, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, have been found by Stafford castle, possibly representing the former existence of a small farmstead or villa. (Carver, 2010). Firm evidence for a Roman road through Stafford has never been uncovered, yet it is inconceivable that Æthelflæd would select a site for a burh not on a major byway.

Archaeological excavations in the town have revealed little evidence of activity after the Roman period. Shadowy claims that Stafford was founded by a Mercian prince called Bertelin c.700 AD, who, according to legend, established a hermitage on the peninsula surrounded by water named the Isle of Betheney (or Bethnei), have little historical support. According to the archaeological record, after a seemingly long pause from the Roman period, activity at the site erupted in the 10th century.

>> The Location of the Stafford burh

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
L C Bowkett, The Stafford Hinterland, 1986
Martin Carver - Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
David Horovitz - A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003.
John Darlington, Stafford Past, Stafford Borough Council, 1994
Susan Laflin – Roman Roads And Ford Place-Names In Shropshire, 2002.
A R Mountford, The Lightwood Hoard, The North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume 3, 1963.
Chris Wardle - Roman Staffordshire: the Five Towns and Beyond, 2002.
Staffordshire County Council & English Heritage - Staffordshire Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Stafford Historic Character Assessment, June 2009, Revised August 2011.

* * *

Monday 23 September 2013

Iron Age Stafford

Searching for the Stafford Burh – Part II

There are over a 1,000 known archaeological sites within this area of Staffordshire, ranging from Bronze Age burial mounds, Iron Age hillforts, Roman camps and documentary references to Anglo Saxon churches but surprisingly little evidence of activity in Stafford before the Late Saxon period.

Ancient Trackways
In Searching for the Stafford Burh - Part I we established that Æthelflæd,The Lady of the Mercians, included Stafford in the network of West Mercian burhs because it was roughly equidistant between the burh sites of Tamworth and Bridgnorth and situated in a naturally defended site surrounded by the river Sow or marshland on three sites, with a neck of land, formed from deposits of Mercian mudstone overlain by fluvio-glacial gravels left by melting ice sheets, extending from the north into the town centre. The etymology of the place-name is usually explained as the 'ford' by the 'landing place' (staithe). But this is a contradiction in terms; you ford a river at the shallowest point and a landing place, as in a quay or dock, is the deepest point.

The town and the landscape are shaped by water, the floodplain almost entirely surrounds the town
centre; the areas to the west and east are still largely wetland areas in the modern townscape. The natural defences of the land here combined with a postulated Roman road following a firm neck of land running through the centre of the town on the north-south axis, crossing the Sow at the southern end of the high street, providing a more satisfactory explanation for the meaning of the name of the town; “the causeway (firm ground) through the marsh.”  

However, it has been suggested (Horovitz, 2003) that the “causeway” element of the place-name may have referred to a prehistoric trackway departing the town along the line of the medieval Eastgate in the direction of the modern Lammascote Road.

Stafford 1610
Maps from the medieval period show three main routes into the town; the route passing through the town from north to south, speculated as having been Roman in origin; the eastern route out of the town, following the Lammascote Road, believed to have been a causeway over the floodplain marshes. There appears to have been no major route to the west of the town in the medieval period.  However, the presence of a castle during the 11th century within the early town at Castle Hill, by Broad Eye, suggests a westward route may have once existed.

North of the medieval East Gate a large fish pond was created through the construction of a dam which has probably survived as the line of the modern eastward route out of the town centre. This eastern causeway at the southern end of the King's Pool (King's poole Medes), first referenced in 1157 AD, was almost certainly created from one of the marsh areas. An excavation in the 1970s identified the line of the causeway or a road comprising sandstone rubble and cobbles. By the mid 13th century a ‘bridge of the king’s pool’ is recorded suggesting there was a road over the dam which created the pool. The pool may have been initially constructed to power a mill located to the east of the town. Recent investigations at North Walls and the King’s Pool have uncovered evidence for hemp and flax, suggesting a medieval industry was sited here to take advantage of the necessary still waters (EUS, 2011).

Indeed, today Kingsmead Marsh is a designated Local Nature Reserve (LNR) made up of two main sections of marshland, situated between North Walls and the busy A34 dual carriageway (Queensway). The Lammascote Drain runs diagonally from NW to SE across the site with the Pearl Brook forming the north-eastern perimeter of the site. There are also a series of small drainage ditches that cut across the marsh. The Sandyford (Marston) Brook, a tributary of the Pearl Brook, runs through the Astonfields Balancing Lakes, originally wet meadowland but now a series of pools situated on the north-eastern edge of Stafford constructed in the 1970's for flood defence, controlling the amount of water flowing down the into the town centre.

The 1610 map of Stafford clearly depicts the town gates and walls which appear to have been constructed of both stone and timber. These defensive features have survived as place-names in the town into modern times, South Walls, North Walls, Eastgate Street, Greengate Street and Foregate Street. In 1644, during the Civil War, the King's Pool meadows and other land around Stafford was deliberately flooded to improve the defences of the town. The town walls suffered much damage by Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces and by the early 1670s the walls were said to be in ruins.

Evidence for the Iron Age in Stafford
In addition to the neck of land extending from the north into the town centre, it has been suggested (Horovitz, 2003) that a causeway across the wet and marshy area on the eastside of the town beyond the site of the later medieval East Gate, long pre-dates the Anglo-Saxon period, and may have been constructed in the Iron Age.

In 2002, during construction of a new petrol filling station at the ASDA superstore site next to the Queensway, situated immediately on the north bank of the Sow, three worked timbers with pointed ends were discovered. These three timbers have been interpreted as piles, either supporting a prehistoric raised trackway or a containment wall along the riverbank, and radiometrically dated to the Iron Age. If the “the causeway through the marsh” is the correct etymology for Stafford it has been suggested (Horovitz, 2003) that it may well refer to this Iron Age causeway leading east away from the town along the line of the modern Lammascote Road. This route may have persisted and developed into the medieval dam across the King's Pool as discussed above.

Evidence of Iron Age activity has been found in the town, centred around the site of St Mary’s Church; grain processing at St Mary's Grove (Carver, 2010), and traces of a possible Iron-Age hut found in the lowest levels during the excavation of St. Bertelin's chapel on the west end of St Mary's (Horovitz, 2003), combined with environmental evidence from pollen analysis of sediment at King's Pool indicates that the first forest clearance was in the late Neolithic period, with further human impact in the Bronze Age, accompanied by agriculture in the early Iron Age (EUS, 2011), supporting the case for prehistoric activity in the area. In addition, two red deer antler picks were found close together along the northern edge of Lammascote Road (the King's Pool side) in peat at depths of some 10' and 15'. (Horovitz, 2003)

The Sweet Track is the one of the earliest known causeways in the world, constructed  c.3800 BC and part of a network of ancient trackways that once crossed the Somerset Levels. The causeway was constructed of crossed wooden poles, driven into waterlogged soil supporting a walkway consisting of planks of oak, laid end-to-end. The basic design survived well into the Iron Age. The conjectured causeway at the eastern exit of the town was probably of similar construction.

However, it is difficult to accept that the route of this causeway may represent the topographical feature from which the 'ford' element in the place-name is derived, surviving from prehistoric times. Further, a causeway of prehistoric origins is far from being archaeologically proven. Given this information are there any further clues in the etymology of the place-name?

>> A Roman Road in Stafford?

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
Martin Carver - Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
David Horovitz - A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003.
Staffordshire County Council & English Heritage - Staffordshire Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Stafford Historic Character Assessment, June 2009, Revised August 2011.

* * *

Saturday 7 September 2013

Searching for the Stafford Burh

The Burh: Instrument of War
Following the decisive English victory over the Great Heathen Army of Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun, probably the village of Edington in Wiltshire, in May 878 AD King Alfred had pushed on with the Anglo Saxon recovery and secured Wessex in the south. Guthrum was baptised three weeks after the battle and under the terms of the Treaty of Wedmore was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. The Danes were contained within what became known as the Danelaw and Wessex was to remain free of Danish control.

After his death in 899 AD Alfred's descendants continued with the plan to create one kingdom of all England and complete the recovery from the Danes. Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, The Lady of the Mercians, took command of the left flank in the northward advance throughout English Mercia, while her brother Edward the Elder led the pincer movement on the right flank. The primary instrument of the war against the Danes was the burh, a fortification with provision for residence and trade, which was garrisoned by conscription from its local territory. The burhs were located at strategic points and along the Danelaw boundary at former Roman forts or fortified towns, or on new foundations that resembled Roman forts. Smaller sites were established at promontories or river junctions taking advantage of the local topography. Together the burhs created a formidable network of fortifications.

Many of the larger Wessex burhs were laid out to a uniform street grid indicating they were intended as towns, not just forts, from their inception, although in most cases it took perhaps another century or so for urban life to fully develop. It is expected that the Saxon towns in the Midlands, although less studied than their southern counterparts (Stafford being one of the most neglected), will be similar in design to those of Wessex. However, there was a distinct difference in the military campaigns; in Wessex it was largely defensive and consolidation, while north of the Thames it was an aggressive policy of recovery.

The history of the county town of Stafford begins with the Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 913 AD recording that Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercians, “before Lammas, built the stronghold at Stafford.” No doubt the natural defences in the crook of the River Sow was part of the attraction of Stafford to Æthelflæd; the town inhabits a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, a tributary of that great Mercian river, the Trent. Earlier in the summer of that year Æthelflæd had gone with “all the Mercians to Tamworth and then built the stronghold there.” The Chronicle entry suggests that both burhs were constructed one after the other with the same Mercian engineers responsible for overseeing the layout and construction of the defences. The speed of construction suggests the burh defences at Stafford and Tamworth, consisting of outer ditch with an inner bank topped by wooden palisade, must have been thrown up in a matter of weeks.

It is a reasonable assumption that a settlement of sorts, with known defensive properties, existed at Stafford before the construction of the burh; it seems unlikely that The Lady of Mercians would select a vacant site for her fortification. But there is little evidence for activity at Stafford before the Late Saxon period and direct evidence of the burh itself has not been located to date. So what could have attracted King Alfred's daughter to include this unassuming location in Western Mercia in her system of burh defences?

At first glance Æthelflæd's choice of Stafford for a burh might not appear to be an obvious position for a military post but combined with the burhs at Bridgnorth and Tamworth, Stafford was clearly intended to defend not only the Midland Gap, the route of the Upper Trent between the southern end of the Pennines and the plateau of Cannock Chase, but also the principal and strategically important east-west route through the region, Watling Street Roman road, running to the south of Stafford.

Defending the important Severn crossing associated with pillaging Danish armies on at least two occasions, Bridgnorth, lies some 45 miles from Stafford. About 40 miles from Stafford is the Mercian royal site at Tamworth, situated on a broad spur at the junction of the rivers Anker and Tame, and formerly protected by a semicircle of marshland. Stafford was in a similar situation with natural defences of river and marsh on three sides and  roughly equidistant between Bridgnorth and Tamworth making it an ideal location for another burh.

As the site at Stafford is enclosed on three sides by watercourses or marshland it may have been selected by Æthelflæd as a burh site because a short barrier across the northern neck of land would be all that was required to create a strong defensible site: Æthelflæd's fortification may have been limited to a palisaded bank and ditch along that line, or may have reinforced an earlier Anglo-Saxon fortification. Yet the early burh is thought to have been located in the town centre and the line of this northern defence has not been found.

Apart from a tongue of land running into the centre from the north, the town lies on low ground surrounded by water-courses or water-logged ground on three sides, which even today still flood regularly. The wet and marshy ground surrounding Stafford provided a naturally defended site; indeed marshy ground provides far better defence than water or hill, possessing the potential to totally incapacitate an attacker attempting to cross it.

Boreholes and excavations in the area reveal the earliest deposits as Mercian mudstone overlain by fluvio-glacial gravels deposited at the end of the last ice-age by the melting ice sheet. These in turn were overlain by recent river alluvium, consisting of mud, loose brown gravelly, silty sand deposited by flowing water over the flood plain.

The historic core of Stafford lies within the valley of the river Sow, the floodplain almost entirely surrounding the town centre, except for the route to the north, with the line of the medieval town walls tracing the limit of the gravel. The town is effectively surrounded by the Sow to the west and south, and the Pearl Brook and a large wetland area, close to the centre of the current town, to the east.

Topography of Stafford
Many areas around the town are still subject to periodic flooding, and even areas within the town are still undrained marsh; the eastern boundary restricted by Kingsmead Marsh, remnant of a larger marsh area to the north and east of the town in Saxon times, much reduced in size today but still largely a wetland area and designated Local Nature Reserve in the modern townscape defined by the line of the modern town centre A34 by-pass, Queensway. To the northwest of the town there is still a large area of marshland stretching from beyond the Sow at Broad Eye to junction 14 of the M6 motorway, near Cresswell,  which is still subject to regular flooding. Doxey Marshes is now a nature reserve, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), and managed by the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust.

The Causeway Through the Marsh
No doubt the natural defences in the crook of the River Sow was part of the attraction to Æthelflæd. The watery enclosure is reflected in the placename. The earliest documentary spellings for Stafford appears as Staef-forda, Staefford, Staffordaburh and Stadford, and in its respective abbreviated forms on Anglo Saxon coins (a mint was established at Stafford under Æthelstan who reigned 924-939); and as 'Statford' in the Domesday Book, 1086, where it is listed as one of seven walled towns.

Inhabiting a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, 'Stafford', we are told, means the 'ford' at 'the landing place.' The accepted etymology of the placename is that the first element 'Staff' is derived from Old English 'staeth,' meaning 'the landing place, or wharf' and the 'ford' element is well known as a shallow river crossing, that can typically be waded on foot. The placename is therefore generally accepted as meaning 'the landing place, or wharf, at the ford'.

It has been suggested that Stafford is the highest point of the River Sow that was navigable, with some traffic along the river at an early date, so it seems a reasonable argument that there would have been a wharf, or landing place there. However, the Sow is a narrow, shallow river and it is difficult to imagine it carrying anything much larger than simple log boats. Furthermore, there appears to be little documentary or other evidence for water-borne commerce in the town in the past. The River Sow Navigation was a short waterway link constructed to connect the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal to a coal wharf in the centre of Stafford. It opened in 1816 with a single lock connecting the Sow to the canal, and closed in the 1920s, much too late to have any bearing on the placename.

However, you ford a river at its lowest, shallow point, and a wharf would be the deepest point; fully laden river craft sit low in the water. Clearly, the meaning of the placename 'Stafford' is not as straightforward as it appears: 'the wharf by the ford' is evidently a contradiction of terms.

The 'landing place' etymology appears to be derived from the Old English word 'stæp', an uncommon place-name element. Further, the OE term used in place-names for inland ports is usually 'hyth'. As long ago as the early 17th century the antiquarian Simon Degge argued that: `... the true etymology is Stadeford, that is the strand, shore or bank of a ford, and we find it in Doomesday Booke writ Stadford.' This concurs with the usual meaning of the word 'stæp' as 'a shore, river-bank; land bordering on water'.

The use of 'stæp' in the sense of 'landing-place' is not otherwise evidenced until the 14th century, whereas the Stafford placename is much earlier as evidenced by Anglo Saxons coins as noted above. Clearly identifying 'stæp' with 'landing place' is questionable and an alternative should be sort; places containing this element are often found in topographically inappropriate situations and may in fact refer to settlements in marshland where communications were limited to log boat for much of the year. As we have seen above, the early topography of Stafford is not incompatible with that meaning.

Stafford town centre
The town centre is aligned on a north-south axis, Gaolgate Street to Greengate Street, between the North (Fore) and South (Green) Gates, and is thought to have been so aligned since at least the layout of the original Saxon burh, but probably much earlier. This ancient trackway through the centre of the town crosses the Sow on the south side of the town at Green Bridge, into modern Bridge Street. If the word 'ford' in the name of Stafford was derived from a ford as in a shallow river crossing, then the crossing point of the Sow must have existed from a very early date, at least Roman or possibly earlier, where the north-south road exited the town at the place where the Green Bridge was later constructed.

However, there is another possibility. In OE the word 'ford' is often found where it is best translated as 'causeway'. The ford element is one of the most common topographical terms found in English place-names, and one of the earliest placename elements, recorded for at least nine places by 730 AD; Stafford may have been one of the earliest settlements in the region to acquire its English name, identifying 'the causeway through the marsh'. The causeway may refer to the broad peninsula of gravelly land running down into the centre of the town from the north, where it typically forms a route through the wetlands similar to the modern usage of the term for a raised up embankment across a body of water. It is very probable that in origin the name Stafford was derived from the descriptive term for a safe route of passage through the surrounding wetlands.

This is further supported by compound OE words which begin with the 'stæp' element and are often associated with stability and firmness, which reinforces the notion of a paved causeway on firm ground crossing a wetland environment. Therefore, it follows that the original name 'Stæpford' may have identified 'the firm ground or causeway through the marsh' and is perhaps associated with a suspected Roman road coming down from Blythe Bridge in north Staffordshire towards Pennocrucium in the south, running directly through Stafford on the same town centre north-south axis, crossing the river Sow at the southern end of the town.

Yet there is suggestive evidence for an even older trackway in the town.

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References:
David Horovitz, A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003, pp.42-45.
David Hill, The Shiring of Mercia - again, pp.144-159, in N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill, editors, Edward the Elder: 899-924, Routledge, 2001.
Philip Rhatz, The Archaeology of West Mercian Towns, pp.107-130, in Mercian Studies, ed. Ann Dornier, Leicester University Press, 1977.
Sarah Zaluckyj, Mercia: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Central England, Logaston Press, 2011, pp.207-215.

* * *