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).
South Petherton lies in a naturally sheltered and well-watered situation, on relatively low lying undulating land at the foot of a limestone ridge. The town is almost surrounded by the particularly good agricultural land associated with the Yeovil Sands; to its north-east lies the ridge, which has been quarried for Petherton stone, and for sands and clays suitable for brick and tile making.
There is some evidence of early settlement at South Petherton, which appears to have lain north of the later town and on the other side of the stream, on the more exposed (but more defensible) ridgetop. The site at Stoodham has produced both iron age and Romano-British occupation material, though definite evidence of structures and earthwork defences has not yet been forthcoming. In the Roman period, this settlement lay less than two kilometres north of the Fosse Way, a main communications artery. It also appears to have lain in much the same relationship to an earlier prehistoric way linking Ham Hill and the Blackdowns, a route which retained its importance until the 18th century.
The Roman settlement pattern in the area of South Petherton has not yet been established, though there have been several finds of Roman material (mostly coins). Two "villa" sites supposed to have been found in the 17th and 18th centuries (reported by Collinson in 1791) have not yet been confirmed archaeologically. But the existence of undiscovered Roman farmsteads (not necessarily villas), is perhaps to be expected in a fertile area close to the Fosse Way.
In the Post-Roman period, the Stoodham settlement may have lain abandoned (no material later than the 4th century has yet been found) and until the 8th century, the River Parrett, flowing less than a kilometre to the east, remained the border between Britons and Saxons. The creation of the large royal estate of South Petherton controlling the river crossing therefore took place in the context of the westward expansion of Wessex. We do not know exactly how large the estate was, since much of the land was never hidated. The main settlement of the estate was established (perhaps on a previously unoccupied site) on a low spur on the opposite side of the stream from the old settlement. The Saxon settlement, Sudperetone (the southern tun on the Parrett), was of high status, embracing a minster church, a royal palace (according to tradition) and a relatively short-lived 11th century mint feeding a proto-urban market economy. South Petherton, the profitable estate town, remained in royal hands throughout the Saxon period. However, though occasional -ton names in the parish recall the settlements' origins as Saxon estate villages, ownership of the surrounding estate had fragmented by 1066, when already there were seven separate estates in the parish.
This early fragmentation affected the medieval development of South Petherton, since different components of the settlement came to form part of several manorial holdings. The two most important holdings derived from those of the Crown and the minster. The core of the royal estate of South Petherton passed directly to the Conqueror and was still a possession of the Crown in 1086. One hide, thought because of its size to be a minster holding, was held by a priest at this date: this probably became the nucleus of the medieval Rectory Estate, which was held by Bruton Abbey from the 12th century until the Dissolution (after which it became the manor of Hele). The main manor of South Petherton was first granted away from the Crown under Henry II and by 1243 South Petherton manor was owned outright by the Daubeney family.
The Daubeneys continued to hold the manor until the family's involvement in Buckingham's rebellion in the late 15th century. The family presided over no determined attempt to encourage the urban functions of the settlement, being content to collect the rents of their properties, and no borough was established. South Petherton did however receive in 1213 a market and fair grant, which was given by King John as an endowment of the Free Chapel of St John, and the market and fair were moderately successful, the value of the fair peaking in the late medieval period. It is not until the 15th century that there are documentary references to anything suggesting anything other than village status, but Leland in the 16th century refers to South Petherton as a market town.
Though the Daubeneys returned to South Petherton, they ran into financial trouble in the 16th century. Much of the manor was sold off, further complicating the landholding situation, and the prestigious manor house passed to South Harp. More dramatic disturbances occurred in the 17th century, when South Petherton was affected by Civil War actions of 1644-5. Troops of both sides were in the town in 1644, when the church suffered some damage at the hands of the Royalists, and in 1645 Parliamentary forces occupied the town after the Battle of Langport. Monmouth also visited the town in 1680 and two townsmen were among those who later suffered for their part in the rebellion.
Nevertheless, the late medieval and post-medieval periods saw some expansion of the settlement, with the creation of the "suburbs" of Palmer Street and South Street. A 17th century description of South Petherton calls it a market town of 300 families, and there was also occupation in the quarrying area of Pitway, and at Little Petherton, at least by the end of the post-medieval period. A modest prosperity, based partly on the settlement's commercial role, but also on quarrying, brick making, and cloth manufacture, continued into the late 18th and 19th century (though cloth manufacture was largely replaced by sailcloth and then leather working). The population rose in the first half of the 19th century, remaining relatively stable until the 1960s when it began to rise again. South Petherton remains a market centre, though it is no longer considered to be a town.