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).
Norton St Philip is situated on the edge of a scarp south of Bath, at a minor junction of upland and valley routes. The Roman road from Bath to Poole Harbour passed less than a kilometre to the east of the site of the medieval church, though there is as yet no evidence of Roman, or earlier, settlement on the site of later Norton St Philip itself. However, a settlement was established, probably in the shelter of the valley head around the possible church site, during the Saxon period. It appears as Nortune, a small agricultural settlement with its own mill, in the Domesday Survey of 1086.
Until the 13th century, Norton was a small secular manor of no particular importance. But in 1232 ownership was transferred to the recently founded Hinton Priory, in the possession of which it remained until the Dissolution. Norton was granted its own fair in 1255, and a market was first granted in 1291. In 1345 the Priory was granted permission to transfer the Hinton Charterhouse fair (first chartered in 1245) - which was so successful it was disrupting the Priory's religious life - to Norton. Norton therefore became one of the county's more important wool trading centres, with its fair, centred on the George, comparable with some of the great national fairs. The success of this fair is reflected in the periodic disputes with the city of Bath.
In 1327 there were only nine taxpayers in Norton. However, with the fair's growth the priory established a new settlement area on the high ground above the original settlement. This included the George Inn which acted both as a hospitium, or lodging house, and as the regional wool collection point. The Priory also established a substantial grange in the lower settlement to the north of the church,cutting across the fields and roads of the original settlement. These enterprises appear to have been an attempt to maximise control of and profits from the fair; accordingly, there is no evidence that borough status was ever achieved or even envisaged by Norton's inhabitants.
The fairs and markets continued to be the mainstay of Norton St Philip in the post-medieval period, when ownership of the manor passed back into secular (initially Royal) hands. Some of the masonry from the Priory buildings, which were quickly demolished, probably made its way into Norton's buildings. However, Leland described in the early 16th century "a mean market kepte in a small towne", which suggests that it was already sinking back into uneventful obscurity - though in the late 17th century one of the skirmishes of Monmouth's rebellion was fought on its turf, Monmouth himself staying at the George. By the late 18th century, Collinson reported that the market had failed (it was reported failed as early as 1652), and the cloth industry which had made Norton's fair great was also failing by then. However, a sizeable cattle fair continued to take place until the early 20th century, and, as Norton was at a turnpike crossroads in the late 18th and 19th centuries, it remained of some importance as a coaching stop. Since 1801 the population has hovered between 450 and about 800, and Norton is no longer regarded as anything other than an attractive village.