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).
North Petherton lies below the eastern foothills of the Quantocks, in an area once largely marsh and prone to flooding. As with other marsh and marginal areas in Somerset, the land appears to have been exploited in prehistoric times, possibly on a seasonal basis: isolated neolithic and bronze age artefacts have been recovered, and a mesolithic flint assemblage was recovered from Greenway Farm, to the south of the present settlement.
Some 2nd and 3rd century Roman activity is suggested by finds of Roman material just east of North Petherton, but little is known of its extent or character.
North Petherton was at the centre of a large royal estate in the Saxon period, and the hundred meeting place. It was never hidated, but by Domesday was of 30 ploughlands, considerably larger than most private holdings: North Petherton is still one of the largest parishes in Somerset. The record at Domesday of a pre-Conquest church on an estate of such size and status suggests a minster foundation, with dependent chapels at Chedzoy, Pawlett and, possibly, St Michaelchurch (though this was independent by 1066). It is likely that the settlement of North Petherton itself (for which there is no evidence earlier than the 10th century) grew up around the minster. Whilst not originally urban in form, North Petherton had some central functions by the end of the Saxon period, with a short lived mint in operation around 1045.
After the conquest, the monarchy retained an interest in the lands. The royal park to the east was extended under Henry II into a royal forest centred on North Petherton. The bounds of the forest are not known in detail: it may have lain mainly on the Quantocks or on the marshes. North Petherton acted as an administrative centre for the forest, and the chief forester of Somerset owned land there, but in the 13th century the bounds were restricted, and the town's functions were redirected into the royal park. North Petherton was also surrounded by several small manors.
The medieval borough is something of an enigma, and its relationship with the settlement's royal administrative functions unclear. There is a reference to a burgage in North Petherton in 1251-2 (Dunning, 1992), although the borough was not separately represented at the eyres of 1225 or 1242-3, nor at the law hundreds of the 1430s. In the 1490s, however, a list of fines refers to Petherton Burgus. North Petherton flourished in the later middle ages - witness the rebuilding of the church - but with Bridgwater so close, its prosperity seems to have been based more on agricultural and pastoral activity combined with good communications.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the coming of the turnpike and the repeated improvement of the route through the town maintained North Petherton's communications, although it was not directly touched by canal or railway. The market, a large corn market according to Collinson in 1791, continued throughout the post-medieval period, and the park was converted into fields during this time. There was little urban growth, however, until comparatively recently when the town has become a commuter settlement beside the M5.