Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Taunton by Clare Gathercole

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).

Download Taunton report

A brief history of Taunton

Taunton and the settlements of its immediate hinterland lie within the broad, sheltered vale of the River Tone, which contains rich agricultural land on which the economic importance of the area has been based. Converging in the vale are important communications lines from the uplands and the Levels, including the River Tone itself (though the river's navigable limit has varied over the centuries). Taunton lies at a crossing point of the river, but other historically important settlements in the hinterland (including Norton and Bishop's Hull) instead overlook the vale.

The hillfort of Norton Fitzwarren represents the first known 'central place' in the vale, and was in many respects the predecessor of modern Taunton. The site was use in various forms from the Neolithic period onwards, and is believed to have been during the later prehistoric period an important interchange point on the boundary between two tribes. The surrounding settlement and landscape pattern is still not fully understood, but it seems clear that Norton dominated a densely settled and farmed area. A number of settlement sites have already been revealed by excavation (including one in the town centre) and aerial photographic survey, and it is probable that many more existed.

The partial abandonment of Norton in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD is the clearest indication in the Taunton area of the impact of the Romans. However, it appears that eventually (in the 3rd and 4th centuries) the site was reoccupied, perhaps representing a resurgence of native British traditions. Elsewhere, continuity of settlement seems likely and, indeed, has been shown on some excavated sites. Ample evidence of Roman activity in the vale has been recovered in the form of coin and pottery finds, though this can not always be linked to specific sites. Whether there was settlement on the site of Taunton itself is not yet known: no structural evidence has yet been recovered, except for the remains of a small number of agricultural drainage ditches.

The first historical reference to Taunton is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 722. The entry records the destruction (or demolition) of Taunton, built by Ine, by his wife, Queen Aethelburh. This probably refers to a fortified centre associated with the expansion of Wessex under Ine, which was in 722 slighted by Aethelburh to prevent its use by rebels against her husband. The omission of Taunton from the later Burghal Hidage (c900 AD) appears to indicate that the first site was not refortified. Indeed, it is possible that it was not reoccupied, and that it was not the same site as later Saxon or medieval Taunton occupied. The Tone Vale estates were extensive and it has been suggested that Ine may have had his fort at Norton Fitzwarren, in the hillfort, or at Bishop's Hull. Local traditions also associate the Dragon of Wessex with Norton, though archaeological evidence is lacking.

The foundation of a minster at Taunton, probably by the wife of Ine's successor in the mid 8th century, may mark the beginning of the town of Taunton. The minster, with a limited estate, was granted to the See of Winchester at a very early stage in its history, and lands were subsequently added to the minster estates in the 8th and 9th centuries. However, most of the manor was retained by the kings of Wessex, and it was they who first developed it as an important administrative, judicial and commercial centre for the extensive Tone Vale estate which stretched from the Quantocks to the Blackdowns. It was not until the early 10th century that the Bishops of Winchester acquired rights to the profits of the developing commercial centre. The earliest of the 10th century charters (of 904 AD) refers not only to market tolls and tax exemptions, but also to burgage rents, showing that Taunton was by this date already a town, and from the mid 10th century onwards, it had its own mint.

Though the minster site has almost certainly now been located under part of the medieval castle, the location of the town founded by the kings of Wessex and taken over by the Bishops of Winchester remains an enigma. The "obvious" site - that later occupied by the medieval borough - has produced worryingly little archaeological evidence despite relatively frequent interventions. The peculiar relationship of the ancient parish of Bishop's Hull (which included the Saxon minster/ medieval castle site) to the medieval borough has been much discussed , though its significance remains unclear. Indeed, an alternative site for the Saxon settlement west of the minster in the St Paul's area is a possibility (one supported by archaeological evidence of at least some Saxon activity there).

By Domesday there were 64 burgesses in Taunton, making it the third largest in the county after Bath and Ilchester. It was the centre of a vast estate held by the Bishops of Winchester, either directly (the Infaring) or indirectly (the Liberty or Outfaring). Of the parishes covered (or partly covered) by this report, some were Infaring (Taunton St James, Ruishton, Stoke St Mary, Wilton, Trull, Bishop's Hull, Pitminster, and Staplegrove), others Outfaring (Cheddon Fitzpaine, Norton Fitzwarren). Much of the Outfaring was granted away during the course of the medieval period and became lay property. Cheddon Fitzpaine was one of the separate medieval manors; another was West Monkton, which was part of the Glastonbury Abbey estates. The histories of the individual settlements eventually absorbed by Taunton could not be studied in detail for this report. The essential settlement pattern of networks of farmsteads, hamlets and small villages served by dependent chapels or parish churches can still be descried on the late 18th century and early 19th century maps. But the results of a number of excavations show a complex picture of shifting occupation sites within a general framework of continuity.

As the estate's town, the jewel in the crown, Taunton was tightly controlled the Bishops of Winchester. Their influence on the development of Taunton was important throughout the medieval period, but this was perhaps especially the case in the first half of the 12th century. It was almost certainly at this time, under Bishops William Gyffard and then Henry of Blois, that the medieval town plan was established. Gyffard (who was also King William II's Chancellor) was responsible for the upgrading of the existing Bishops' Hall, and for the conversion of the Saxon minster into an Augustinian Priory. His successor, Henry of Blois (who was also Abbot of Glastonbury), built the Great Keep and the town defences, thus ensuring the town's military importance. He also moved the Priory beyond the town defences, primarily in order to relieve pressure of space on the castle, which was gradually enlarged under his successors.

Henry of Blois was also the brother of King Stephen, who granted Taunton's first borough charter in 1136. This represents not the creation of a new town - since Taunton was already a borough before the Conquest - but a formalisation of the existing situation. The changes to the Castle and Priory represent aspects of this process of formalisation. However, the implications for the town itself are unclear. Only a little archaeological evidence of occupation on the site before the 12th century has been recovered, and it is possible that the focus of the town was deliberately shifted at this time, perhaps because of a fire recorded in the Annals of Winchester for 1111. However, Taunton does not have the regular appearance of the archetypal early medieval planned town, and no entirely satisfactory interpretation of the transition from pre-Conquest borough to medieval town can yet be given.

The influence of the Bishops, and subsequently of the Priory, remained strong throughout the medieval period. The Priory controlled all the churches and chapels, but the Bishops continued to shape and foster the economy of the town. The Castle, occupied mainly by the Constable and occasionally by the Bishops or the King, was expanded in the 13th century, and the scheme also involved the construction of a fulling mill. This, the earliest documented fulling mill in the west country, was the first of several as the cloth trade was deliberately fostered by the town's masters. The town defences were also improved in the 13th century, though the town was already expanding beyond them. The value of the borough rose steeply between the 11th and 13th centuries, and maintained a high average despite occasional slumps. By the 14th century Taunton was one of the largest and wealthiest towns in the county after Bath and Bristol [ A merchant guild, the Common Guild of St Martin, had been established - NOT ACCORDING TO ROBIN BUSH], and two fairs, one in the Borough and one in North Town, head been established.

Taunton returned Members of Parliament from the late 13th century onwards, and in 1360 a regional Parliament was held there. Both Castle and town were of strategic regional importance and, though the town defences were never seriously tested, the medieval period was not without incident. The first Keep of Henry of Blois is believed to have been destroyed during the wars of succession waged between Stephen and Matilda, for example. The later medieval period saw further unrest: in 1451 the Castle was besieged during the Wars of the Roses, and in 1497 Perkin Warbeck's rebellion against Henry VII came to an end in Taunton.

Severe disruption of the medieval status quo occurred in the 16th century, under Henry VIII. However, it can be argued that the Dissolution (and rapid demolition) of Taunton Priory had, in the end, a positive impact on Taunton. It freed for residential and commercial development a large amount of land adjacent to the town (subsequently included in the Parish of St James). However, the Priory had already begun this development, both north and south of the river, and subsequent expansion was not over-rapid. Much of the land was not built over until the 19th century, but in the meantime Taunton continued to thrive. The accounts of 16th and early 17th century travellers, such as Leland (1542) and Gerard (1633) describe a fair, extremely prosperous market and cloth town: indeed, Gerard describes it as the chief town in the county (barring Bath and Bristol).

The town remained under the influence of the Bishops of Winchester. But by the early 17th century, the Borough was trying for incorporation, and its first grant of incorporation was received in 1627 - whilst the Bishopric was vacant. This can be seen as an early manifestation of the anti-establishment currents which repeatedly swept the town into trouble in the mid to late 17th century, when it was described as "that insolent town, the sink of all rebellion in the west". During the Civil War it was a Parliamentary centre in a predominantly Royalist area, and was several times besieged between 1643 and 1645. Much of the east side of the medieval town was destroyed by siege and fire and the trauma of these events, together with the subsequent demolition of the Castle keep after the Restoration, led to festering resentment. This can only have been exacerbated by the quashing of the Grant of Incorporation when the Bishop's estates (temporarily seized by Parliament) were restored. Though a new, more extensive Charter of Incorporation was granted in 1677, the new Corporation was under the control of a loyalist, establishment minority. There followed a period of extreme persecution of the many dissenting congregations which had been established in Taunton, culminating in serious assaults on meetings in 1682-3. In response, the town welcomed the rebellious Monmouth in 1685, and was deeply scarred by the brutal reprisals which followed his defeat at Sedgemoor. More than 500 rebels were tried in Taunton Castle by Judge Jeffreys, and a total of 38 were executed in the market place, many more being sent for execution in surrounding towns and villages.

Despite the inevitable disruption caused by war, Taunton's economy remained fairly buoyant throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries. Textiles were still its main product and trading commodity, however, and by the second half of the 18th century the town was suffering the effects of the widespread failure of the Somerset cloth industry in the face of competition from the mechanised northern mills. The effects were mitigated in Taunton by the growth of the silk mills, but also by great improvements in communications. Between the turn of the 18th century and the end of the 19th the turnpikes, the Tone Navigation scheme, the two canals, and finally the railways, improved access to the town and allowed considerable industrial and trade development to take place. Meanwhile the administration of the town was revamped, with the establishment of Market Trustees in 1768 and the dissolution of the Corporation in 1792; and the Bishop's manor was sold off in 1822 and fragmented.

Though the Corporation was revived in the later 19th century, the borough was absorbed in 1974 into the borough of Taunton Deane. This change reflects the huge expansion of Taunton in the 20th century, which has led to the absorption or virtual absorption of a number of surrounding settlements. The development of the town has been heavily influenced since the early 1970s by the M5 motorway, and subsequent road developments and estate infill have obscured much of the historic settlement pattern.