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).
Ilminster sits along a ridge which drops down to the fertile Isle Valley. The town's growth pattern has been dominated by the topography, and its economy by the availability of both fast flowing streams and level meadowland. The area is geologically complex, with marl, limestones, sandstones and chalk strata available for quarrying.
There is some evidence of both prehistoric and Roman activity in the area, in the shape of isolated artefact finds. Unfortunately, these are not well provenanced and it is difficult to be certain whether the site of Ilminster itself was occupied in these periods. As it lies astride a ridgeway and, in the Roman period, was only a few miles from the Fosse Way, occupation cannot be ruled out.
There is documentary evidence of a Saxon minster and settlement at Ilminster (Ile Mynister = the minster on the River Isle). The earliest certain reference to the site is King Ethelred's Confirmation of 995, which returned the estates to the Benedictine Muchelney Abbey after a time of disturbance. The wording of this document implies an earlier origin for Ilminster, and a charter of 693 may record the original estate grant. However, the 725 "Charter of King Ine" is now thought to be a later forgery, perhaps medieval, or perhaps 10th century and part of the dispute which led to the issue of Ethelred's Confirmation (Bond, c1990). The early estate centred on Ilminster was extensive: the parish of Ilminster was the most important in the Hundred of Abdick and Bulstone in the late Saxon period. The place names of the surrounding area - Ilton, Dillington, Whitelackington, Dinnington, for example - suggest that a network of estates and estate settlements existed: of these, Dillington was certainly part of the abbeys' estates and allied to Ilminster.
After the Conquest, attempted rebellion brought serious consequences for some of Ilminster's neighbours, including Donyatt, Dowlish and Whitelackington. But the town itself, being a church possession, was largely spared. Domesday records an affluent estate, with a good deal of woodland (some of which may have been attached to Neroche Forest to the west), and the beginnings of a town in the shape of a market rated at twenty shillings a year. Muchelney remained in possession of the manorial rights, rents, the tithes and the church itself until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and presided over the growth of the medieval town. In 1201, a deal struck between Muchelney and Wells inaugurated the 'golden age' of Ilminster (Street, 1904): the abbots of Muchelney gained status as prebends, Wells gained the rectory and much of the revenues, and both institutions protected and encouraged the town - though they never allowed a free borough to be established.
Ilminster was extremely prosperous by the later medieval period, and the 15th century parish church and Grammar School bear witness to this. The town's prosperity was largely based on the textile industry, but it was also an important local market centre.
Between the late 15th and the late 17th centuries Ilminster suffered a series of setbacks. The first of these was a major fire in 1491, which seems to have damaged the town's economy. According to Collinson (1791), Ilminster was never completely rebuilt after this catastrophe. Only a few decades later, the Dissolution of the Monasteries disrupted the running of the town. The abbots' rights were split up into the Lordship of the Manor, the rectorial tithes and the advowson of the vicarage, and the 16th and 17th centuries saw a series of absentee Lords of the Manor. As well as the disruption of the Civil War, in 1661 there was another major fire, this one being followed by appeals read up and down the country.
Despite all this, Ilminster was still the fourth largest town in Somerset in 1670 (as shown by the hearth tax returns). Prosperity continued into the 18th century and Collinson described two irregular streets with about 300 houses, many of which were "decent stone and brick". The town was both a market centre (noted for leather in the post-medieval period) and a centre of the cloth industry, ropemaking and gloving (though many of the actual sites of activity were in the outlying areas along the rivers). It was also surrounded by orchards. Ilminster benefited from the increasing traffic on the turnpiked London to Exeter route which passed through the town.
Ilminster's population was declining at the beginning of the 19th century, but it took off in the 1820s and 1830s. The town then thrived throughout the 19th century, aided by the arrival of the Chard Canal (briefly) and then the Railway. Braggs Directory described a town "much improved by many new houses" by the 1840s, and Hunts 1848 Directory mentions improvements to the market. There were then two weekly markets and quarterly and annual livestock fairs, but the Directory says that the woollen trade was almost gone, and that the silk factory and maltings were the town's staple industry at the time. Population growth continued up to the 1870s. Though the failure of the canal adversely affected some of the ventures that had been set up around the town, notably at Dowlish Ford and Moolham, population remained steady, and a brewery and the artificial stone works took the place of failed industries.
Ilminster remains a small market town. It now lies within commuting distance of larger towns such as Taunton and Yeovil and since the 1950s, its population has again been steadily increasing.