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).
Nether Stowey per se begins in the medieval period, with the building of the castle. However, the history of settlement in the vicinity of the town begins long before that. From very ancient times, the main Quantocks pass has been at this point and the common factor in the early history of the area is this communication line, and its control. The castle may well overlie an earlier earthwork, and there are hints from aerial photographs of prehistoric enclosures in the fields east of Stowey Court: moving west from the town up on to the Quantocks the density of prehistoric sites grows.
The iron age fort of Dowsborough lies about one and a half miles west of Nether Stowey. In the 19th century it was suggested that the fort might have been reused in the Roman period, but this has not been substantiated. In the Saxon period, however, the herepath, the military road, ran from Combwich over the Quantocks between the estate centres at Cannington and Williton. It probably followed a Roman road at this point - the name Stowey, recorded as Stawei in 1086, comes from the Old English stan weg, or paved road. According to Greswell, there was still a lane known as Stow Here Pat leading onto the Quantocks west of Nether Stowey in the post-medieval period.
There may have been more than one small pre-Conquest settlement here and, perhaps, a minster associated with the largest of these. The suggestion of a possible minster church is in part based on a disputed identification of an estate at Bodesleghe, which was in the possession of a priest at Domesday, with the more securely documented early settlement at Budley. This village was situated between Nether Stowey church and modern Whitnell, where "Budley" fields lay in the post-medieval period, and is the explanation for the somewhat detached position of the church, which continued in use when the settlement shifted.
The town of Nether Stowey has, in fact, three foci of settlement - the church and manor, the market place, and the castle - or four, if Over Stowey is counted too. These foci may represent the relics of the four separate estates of Saxon origin recorded at Domesday, though these were held of one landowner by then. The early castle at Over Stowey was apparently abandoned in favour of a new site at Nether Stowey. The new castle was probably in existence by 1154, possibly earlier. The settlement below the castle shows no signs of deliberate planning, but it was certainly encouraged by the obliteration of Budley under the manor park and the formation of a borough. The borough may have been in existence by 1157-8 and certainly was by 1225, when it was represented at the eyre. A charter of 1274 refers to the "ancient" borough, and in 1306 26 burgage plots in the centre of the town are recorded.
The economy of the medieval town was based on textiles and pottery, and it had both a weekly market and a yearly fair after 1304. In 1334, the borough taxation for Nether Stowey gave the lowest total of all the Somerset boroughs. Nevertheless, a distinctively urban economy seems to have continued throughout the medieval period: there is little surviving evidence for farming. The castle fell into disuse in late medieval times and much of the stone was probably taken to the manor for the building of Lord Audley's new manor house. But after his failed rebellion in 1497, which also involved the townsmen, the partly-constructed mansion was allowed to fall into ruin.
New lords of the manor rebuilt the site and Nether Stowey continued to be a hive of small-scale industry, particularly pottery, and a commercially important market throughout the post-medieval period. The town still had its market and fair in 1791 when Collinson visited, but was only a "reputed borough", and had the alternative name of Market Stowey in 1795. At the end of the 18th century the town figured briefly in the country's literary life, with Coleridge residing in Lime Street from 1797 to 1800. In 1840 Bragg's directory called it a "small market town" though, in fact, there was a population boom in the first part of the 19th century. By 1861, this had tailed off and Nether Stowey was being described as a "former market town" - though it retained a large population of retailers, professionals and craftsmen.
The second half of the 20th century has seen an expansion of the town's population, with the construction of several housing estates.