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).
The Isle of Wedmore is formed by a sizeable ridge of higher ground lying between the coastal plain and the moors of the Brue and Axe Valleys; the River Axe separates it from high ground to the east. In times of high water, it has formed an extensive area of refuge from flood and marsh. Wedmore itself lies in a sheltered combe approximately half way along the north-eastern slope of the ridge, which is oriented towards the Axe Valley and the Mendips.
It has been clear for some time from a range of archaeological evidence - including flint from the uplands, and preserved wood from the moors - that the area of Wedmore was exploited from at least the Neolithic period onwards. For the later prehistoric period a possible pattern of farmsteads is just beginning to emerge from the earlier levels of sites initially identified as Roman. In the Roman period, recent research suggests that there may have been a regularly spaced network of farmsteads, and whilst a general relationship to earlier settlement patterns has not yet been established, there is evidence for an iron age origin to at least some of the sites. One such site, the Close, lies on the south-west edge of modern Wedmore, whilst several other probably Roman sites have been identified on the margins of the settlement. Indeed, it is not impossible that a Roman site lies at the core of later Wedmore, though archaeological evidence for this is at present very limited.
Archaeological evidence for the nature of the transition between Roman, Post-Roman and Saxon settlement is also limited. The Close has yielded evidence of Saxon occupation, but not necessarily before the 10th century. Yet historical evidence - in the form of medieval references (generally accepted as genuine) to 7th century charters, the originals of which do not survive to add detail - shows that by the late 600s Wedmore lay at the heart of a large and important royal estate, the origins of which are obscure (many such estates have been shown to have originated in much earlier landholdings). The Isle of Wedmore was granted to Bishop Wilfrid of York by Centwine of Wessex in 682, for the building of a monastery, but the grant was rescinded by his successor, Caedwalla, after Wilfrid had instead passed the land on to Glastonbury Abbey. The estate then remained in Crown hands until 1062, with a royal manor centre at Wedmore. The subsequent history and development of Wedmore makes it almost certain - though again archaeologically unproven - that this centre was not at the Close but on what became the medieval manor and church site. The nature and role of Wedmore under the Saxon kings remains slightly unclear, for it was part of a multi-focus estate embracing Axbridge and Cheddar. Its main use to the Saxon kings appears to have been as a hunting lodge from which they could exploit the royal forest of Mendip and in particular the Isle of Wedmore (which means the Hunting Moor). But the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser imply that it was a villa regalis, suggesting that a substantial hall and complex, perhaps serviced by some associated settlement, existed at least by the reign of Alfred. The events of 878 suggest that there must also have already been a church (probably of minster status). For it was in that year that Alfred brought to Wedmore the defeated Dane, Guthrum, and his chief followers to complete their baptismal process (with the ceremony of 'chrysom-loosing'), to negotiate the terms of the Peace of Wedmore (the treaty which recognised the Danelaw in eastern England), and to be entertained and impressed by Saxon hospitality and sport.
The 878 Peace represents Wedmore's one moment of fame, and dominates most accounts of its Saxon history. How the place developed between the late 9th and the 11th centuries is again more obscure, though archaeological and place name evidence suggests a process of settlement (or re-settlement?) of the Isle may have continued. Several settlements on the Isle, together with fisheries, mills and lands, are mentioned in the grants of 1062 and 1065 which record Edward the Confessor's gift of the manor of Wedmore to Bishop of Giso of Wells, and can be taken to mark - or recognise - the transfer of the main royal interest to Cheddar.
By the time Wells acquired the Wedmore estates, a process of fragmentation had begun. Though the ecclesiastical parish remained (and remains) extensive, the Domesday Survey makes it clear that there were several manors on the Isle, not all of which were held by Wells. Panborough, for example, belonged to Glastonbury Abbey, which resulted in a number of boundary disputes in the medieval period (though these never directly affected the settlement of Wedmore itself). Wedmore at first continued to house the seat of the Isle's main manor, but in 1136 a change began. The manor was allocated as part of the endowment of the recently established Dean and Chapter of Wells. It was divided into six prebends - estates to support canons - but as these were mostly held, either directly or indirectly, by the Dean himself, he effectively became Lord of the Manor from that point on. A Papal Bull of 1157 confirms his title to the estates, and a late 12th century charter of free warren (hunting rights) is also in the Dean's name.
The significance of this for Wedmore was twofold. On the one hand the Deans' preference for their palace at Mudgley resulted in a loss of status for the old manor centre and, by extension, the settlement at Wedmore, which was thenceforth administered by a steward. But, on the other hand, the Deans also took steps to maximise the revenue potential of the Isle. Signs of land improvements (causeways and flood defences) and planned developments are evident in and around several villages on the Isle, but these are most marked at Wedmore, where a planned "Borough" was laid out on the eastern edge of the existing settlement in the late 12th or 13th century. The name of this area, together with 14th century mentions of burgages and a port-reeve (both urban terms), suggest urban aspirations. However, though a market and fair grant of 1255 is recorded, there is no evidence that official urban status was granted or even applied for.
The economic basis of Wedmore seems always to have been its local livestock markets and fairs. Despite medieval drainage schemes (which actually made access by water more difficult), it remained isolated by swampy ground until the end of the post-medieval period, and was therefore only moderately prosperous - though it was also protected by its relative isolation from serious disturbance in the troubled 17th century. It suffered most from absentee Lords of the Manor. This had been a problem even under the stable influence of the Deans of Wells, and was even more so from 1537 onwards, when the manorial history became a complex story of confiscations, sales and fragmentation. This had some benefits, for it allowed development by local smallholders, but on the whole was detrimental to Wedmore's economy. So while the population gradually rose as cottages and farms were built on small plots and waste ground, the manor house often stood empty, the market failed and the settlement gradually fell into decay, many of the burgages turning to orchard. In the 1730s, Strachey described the Borough as a poor, ragged place which had seen better days, and in 1791 Collinson described it as housing only farms and cottages.
It was about the time Collinson was writing that the main enclosures of agricultural land were taking place. Though small scale enclosure around the Isle of Wedmore had occurred from the 14th century onwards, the last two decades of the 18th century saw a dramatic change in the landscape. Between the late 18th century and the mid 19th, Wedmore benefitted from the agricultural improvements. A weekly market was revived and the cattle fairs prospered: the town (as it was now referred to) even acquired some medium-scale industry, including a brickworks and a brewery. It became somewhat gentrified and acquired several local businesses and large houses in this period. However, its communications were still sub-standard: turnpikes were late in coming, and no railway link was ever achieved, despite a late 19th century proposal to build one. Its base remained local agriculture, and it was therefore hit very hard by the agricultural problems of the later 19th century. The census population reached a peak in 1841, but fell steadily after that, and the fairs failed in the early 20th century. It was not until the 1960s that the trend was reversed, since which point the population has been slowly rising, and Wedmore is now a thriving commuter village.