Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Wiveliscombe 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 Wiveliscombe report

A brief history of Wiveliscombe

The broad, sheltered south-facing vale of the Brendon Hills in which Wiveliscombe now lies was an attractive location even in the prehistoric period. Though there is as yet no direct evidence of prehistoric settlement on the site of the Wiveliscombe itself, a number of artefact finds have been made in the neighbourhood (particularly to the east) and cropmarks of possible settlement enclosures and field systems have been detected to the south-east of the town. These lie below the Castle, an iron age hillfort with signs of earlier occupation, which lies just beyond the area covered by this report but would have been a dominant presence in the early landscape. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, signs of Roman activity are chiefly military in character: the Castle itself may have been occupied at some point, but a fort - perhaps not very long lived - was also established at a point overlooking the valleys converging in the combe.

We do not know when the spur on which Wiveliscombe sits was first occupied, but the settlement name is of probable Old English origin, referring to an early settler in the combe. Saxon farmsteads on the royal estate of Wyfelescumbe were well-established by the reign of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), for a charter of that period lists fifteen of them, and there may already have been a minster church at Wiveliscombe itself. Edward granted all his lands around Wiveliscombe to the Bishops of Wells, however, and it is as ecclesiastical property that Wiveliscombe is described in the Domesday Survey of 1086. At this time the estate was the Bishops' third largest landholding (though several sub-manors were already held from the Bishops), and was therefore of some importance. On at least one early episcopal registers it appears as its own hundred, though this status was not in the end officially recognised.

There is no sign in the Domesday description of any urban settlement at Wiveliscombe, but it is likely that a small agricultural settlement existed. This may originally have focussed on a minster, but by the end of the Saxon period it is possible that there was already a country residence of the Bishops dominating the settlement. However, we have no definite reference to the Bishops' manor until the mid 13th century, when the grant of rights to hunt an attached park implies the existence of a residence. Successive Bishops rebuilt and extended the manor house - which became known as the Palace - between the 13th and 16th centuries, and this was in a sense their main focus of interest at Wiveliscombe. Though the Bishops retained overall control of the three manors into which the estate had been split until the early 19th century, much of the estate - even the demesne farm - was let out to subtenants.

The first reference to a 'town' at Wiveliscombe is in a Papal bull of 1179, though Hancock in 1911 claims that there was a mint there slightly earlier, in the time of King Stephen (1135-1154). But it was not until 1284/5 that the Bishops acquired a grant for a weekly market and annual fair. There is subsequent reference to a borough in 1301, and to burgesses in 1309-29, though it is not clear whether Members of Parliament[[see debate in Waldron, 1883]] were ever returned. The town, centred on a market slightly north of the likely Saxon settlement area, and well away from the Bishop's residence, does not appear to have been planned with any great degree of attention. But it was probably moderately profitable, with an economy based on the local market, on supplying the Bishops' manor and on the burgeoning cloth industry.

Wiveliscombe's greatest profits from the cloth industry came in the post-medieval period, however, when it developed a trade in coarse woollens which rivalled Wellington's. Yet in the early post-medieval period the Bishops' influence waned, due to a misunderstanding with Queen Elizabeth I: the estate was alienated on a long lease between the late 16th and the late 17th centuries, and the Bishop's manor was never afterwards the place it had been. So, though the town may have expanded in this period - we are not at present sure - it may have become rather shabby. Gerard, in 1633, was certainly not impressed, saying "I have not found anything in it or of it worth noting".

The town was not directly troubled by the disturbances of the mid 17th century, though it lost a number of men in Monmouth's rebellion and its aftermath. Its economy continued more or less stable and in the late 18th century Collinson was able to describe a large market town which was still exporting coarse woollens, and which had three annual fairs. Though in 1791 it had recently lost one of its two weekly markets, the 19th century directories imply that this was a temporary blip and that market activities again expanded. The woollens trade, on the other hand, did decline in the first half of the 19th century, but the growth of Hancock's Brewery - the biggest in the west of England by the 1860s (according to Kelly's Directory) - cushioned the effects of this, as did the growth of quarrying in the surrounding area. The town acquired a local board in 1859, which was replaced by an Urban District Council in 1894. The population has remained fairly stable since 1801, and though much of its 19th century industry, and the market, has now gone, Wiveliscombe still thrives as a service town for the Brendon Hills.