Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Cheddar by Miranda Richardson

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).

Download Cheddar report/a>

A brief history of Cheddar

The parish of Cheddar is one of the richest archaeological areas in Somerset, each period being well endowed with surviving remains and monuments, from the palaeolithic to the industrial period. The town's position at the mouth of Cheddar Gorge from which the Cheddar Yeo river flows into the Axe valley, on the southern edge of the Mendip hills, is both a memorable and impressive situation.

The prehistory of the area is dominated by the cave sites of the gorge which have produced evidence from the palaeolithic onwards. The lower slopes of the Mendips and valley edges are likely to have been used for settlement whilst the high ground is the site of many funerary monuments in the neolithic and bronze age periods.

The Roman history of Cheddar has been little investigated but is much in evidence. Roman period artefacts have been found at several locations in and around the town and some excavation has taken place. Current theory suggests that a Roman villa, evidenced by parchmarks beside St. Andrew's church was reused or grew into the minster which is recorded in the 11th century.

It is the Saxon and medieval history for which the town of Cheddar is best known. In 1960-2 Philip Rahtz excavated a large site which has been interpreted as the site of the documented Saxon and medieval palaces. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records meetings of the witan at Cheddar in 941 (aet villa caelebris), 956 (Palatio regis) and 968 (sedes regales). An impression of the royal residence is also provided in the life of St Dunstan which describes him being recalled to Edmund's court at Cheddar after being flung out from St. Mary's Glastonbury and then being appointed Abbott of Glastonbury c.940 following Edmund's miraculous escape from death in Cheddar Gorge.

By Domesday the royal estate had been divided into four parts, the palace site however, remained a royal residence, probably as a hunting lodge, giving access to the Cheddar forest, rights to which had been retained by the King. Certainly the royal residence was visited by both Henry I and II and rebuilding orchestrated by King John is documented in 1209. However, in 1213 John granted the royal estate to Hugh bishop of Lincoln who in turn passed it to his brother Jocelin, Bishop of Wells. Episcopal tenure brought about the rebuilding of both the East Hall and chapel. Excavation has shown that the area was abandoned to pasture and cultivation by c.1400. The Axbridge Chronicle, a 14th or 15th century compilation of earlier documents, retells the story of King Edmund hunting in Cheddar gorge but substitutes Axbridge for Cheddar as the site of the hunting lodge. This suggests that the importance of the Cheddar palaces had disappeared from memory by the time the Chronicle was compiled.

Outside the area of the palaces three foci of settlement were established; industrial activity spread along the river, commercial areas around the market place and cross and a further laid-out area along the parallel Bulmire Street and The Hayes. But Cheddar seems not to have had any particular importance in the post-medieval and industrial periods. A variety of factories, using the fast flowing river as power source, were situated along its banks and the lower Mendip slopes were used for strawberry production. However, the gorge and caves have become a major tourist attraction providing an important seasonal income for the town.

The town has gradually spread to include outlying farmsteads and hamlets, many of which are likely to have had early origins.