This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).
Axbridge is situated on the southern fringe of Mendip, to the north of the town is the steeply sloping Axbridge hill, rising to over 230m, to the south the flat moorland of the Axe Valley. A low spur of dry land projects into the moor which may have been the area of initial settlement. Despite the town's name the river Axe lies over 1.5km to the south, although an earlier course may have come closer to the town. The medieval town lies strung out along the main road running along the foot of the hills, linking Cheddar to the coast.
The Mendip Hills are noted for their limestone caves, some of which have produced evidence of use in both the prehistoric and historic periods.
Until recent years only a few Roman sherds and coins had been found in residual contexts within the town. However excavations in 1989 and 1992 have produced in situ Romano-British features and raised the expectation that the site was settled during this period. The surrounding area was certainly occupied in the Roman period; to the south of the town a series of earth-bound features seen on aerial photographs have been interpreted as representing a complex Romano-British landscape and Roman occupation is attested to the north at Rose Wood.
It is the Saxon and earlier medieval archaeology for which Axbridge is better known, however this is largely due the documentary sources rather than archaeological discoveries. The town was recorded as a burh in the early 10th century Burghal Hideage, presumably defending the western route to the royal residence at Cheddar. It has been suggested that the foundation of the borough of Axbridge was connected to restructuring of royal assets involving a shift in focus of royal residence from Wedmore to Cheddar at the beginning of the 10th century. As has been noted elsewhere in the county at Somerton and Langport, the founding of Axbridge may reflect a preference to distance commercial activities from the royal residence. The Axbridge Chronicle makes the relationship between these two explicit as it describes how goods collected but not used in the King's round would be sold in the borough market. A mint was known to have operated at Axbridge between 997-1003 and 1017-1038, with 22 coins recorded. At Domesday it is described as a borough under the royal manor of Cheddar with 32 burgesses paying 20 shillings, 2 mills and 3 fisheries.
A series of charters records the history of the borough through the medieval period. In c.1204 King John passed the manor of Cheddar to the Bishop of Bath and Wells and a charter of this date confirms the Axbridge Burgesses' rights to a market and other privileges such as exemption from county jury service and freedom from interference from the county sheriff, thus confirming the towns legal and economic independence whilst it remained part of the estate. In 1229 a charter of Henry II freed Axbridge traders from tolls and a fair was granted in 1239 both showing Axbridge continued to be an important market. By the 14th century Axbridge was a well-established cloth-trading town using overland routes to Bristol and the river ports on the Axe (Rackley, Lower Weare and possible wharves on the Axe to the south of the town). The prosperity of the town in the later medieval period is reflected in the high quality of surviving buildings of this period.
In 1557 a charter of Mary I transformed the Craft Guild into a Borough Corporation with a Mayor, and in 1599 Elizabeth I granted a second market day. On the back of this charter is a descriptive perambulation of the 'Liberties of Axbridge', which describes a long thin area lying north-south from the top of Axbridge Hill down to Portmeade Ditch. The perambulation appears to cross the town on the west side at the junction of High Street and West Street, excluding the latter. Although the town had clearly expanded along West Street in the medieval period it was not until the early 17th century that a charter was granted which brought West Street into the area of the borough of Axbridge. Despite there being evidence of much rebuilding and particularly re-facing of buildings in Axbridge in the 17th century the decline of the cloth industry was to bring the demise of the town as an important trading centre.
Neither of the 19th century turnpiked roads in the vicinity were diverted through the town centre and the Cheddar Valley and Yatton Branch of the GWR railway which passed on the northern edge of the town was short lived built in 1869 and closed in 1963.
Very little rebuilding has taken place in the centre of Axbridge, as shown by the large number of early listed buildings lining the main streets.