Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Ilchester 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 Ilchester report

A brief history of Ilchester

The town is situated in the fertile Yeo valley, at a principal crossing point of the river.

The later prehistory of the region is dominated by the archaeology of the defended hilltop sites of Ham Hill, South Cadbury and perhaps Dundon, however more recent evidence around Ilchester has shown valley floor sites masked by layers of silt alluviation. Evidence of iron age occupation has been found close to the river crossing and south of Ilchester, a large defended site, buried beneath silt has been shown to date to the late pre-Roman iron age.

The Roman town appears to have been a military foundation. To the north-east of the present town a crop mark which has been interpreted as a Roman marching camp may represent the primary Roman occupation of the area, being replaced with a vexillation fort on the site of the modern town in the late first century. The Tacitean account of Vespasian's campaigns into South West England suggest Durotrigian hostility to the Roman occupation. The presence of a large fort at Ilchester during and following the initial conquest might be expected in this context. Leach suggests that the military withdrawal from the south-west may have been related to Flavian expansion of the province northwards in early 70s AD. Despite suburban building around the fort, the urbanisation of the site, including laying out of a formal street system did not take place until the early 2nd century and the construction of the town defences in the late 2nd century. By the late 3rd and 4th century the town was flourishing, buildings with stone foundations and a number of high quality mosaic pavements having been located through excavation, however the status of the settlement remains unsure. It has been suggested that Ilchester was the civitas capital for the northern half of the area previously controlled by the Durotriges. It was possibly the Lindinis (Little Marsh) referred to in two inscriptions found on Hadrians wall controlling an estimated area taking in the levels and bounded by the Mendips to the north and the Quantock and Blackdown hills to the west. However, the presence of the municipal buildings, which might be expected within a capital town, are yet to be shown conclusively.

The lack of archaeological remains within the town from the fifth century attest the rapid decline of the urban centre in the post-Roman period. However the material evidence for the late Saxon period is also slight despite there being documentary evidence for a large and prosperous market town. At Domesday Ilchester is recorded as housing a mint and over a hundred burgesses. It was part of the royal Saxon estate of Somerton held by Queen Edith in 1066. The mint was established by 973, which was perhaps moved temporarily to Cadbury in the early 11th century in the reign of Aethelred then continued to produce coins at Ilchester until c.1250. The town withstood attack from Robert Mowbray in 1087-8. In John's reign (1199-1216), the town was attacked by Peter de Mauley and Walerand de Tyeis who were able to carry off the the iron-bound gates of Ilchester to Sherborne Castle. Despite these problems the town prospered and the burgesses apparently bought themselves a charter in 1183-4 having formed a guild by 1180. From 1166 the county gaol and meetings of the shire and circuit courts were held at Ilchester bringing additional prosperity to the town. However in the 1280s the gaol and courts were moved to Somerton, which marked the demise of the town and from 1313 the town was no longer taxed as a borough. Despite the return of the courts between 1366 and 1371 Ilchester failed to regain its former prosperity and status. Ilchester maintained some aspects of its position as county town until 1832 when it was disenfranchised and electoral courts were established in Taunton and Wells. The county gaol was closed in 1843 and the county court abolished in 1846.

The town has seen some new prosperity due to the siting of the Yeovilton Naval Air Station to the east of the town.