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.
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|
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|
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|
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
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.
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