Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Yeovil 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 Yeovil report

A brief history of Yeovil

Yeovil lies on the Yeovil Sands ridge, separated from the clay vales to the north by a band of silt and marl, and from the chalk hills to the south (in Dorset) by more claylands. The situation affords access to the lowland zones whilst offering a somewhat drier (and in the early prehistoric periods, less heavily wooded) environment with good soils, and abundant springs. The ridge has therefore attracted habitation from a very early period.

There are signs of activity around Yeovil from the palaeolithic period onwards, though most of the archaeological evidence is in the form of scattered finds. From the bronze age and iron age, however, we have a number of both burial and occupation sites, mainly concentrated in the south of the modern town. The known distribution of later prehistoric material in Yeovil serves to emphasise the importance of the east-west ridgeways which lay south of the town. In the iron age (and perhaps the neolithic period) these linked the hillforts at Ham Hill and South Cadbury, which may have marked a tribal frontier zone. The site of later Yeovil lay both at an important river crossing on the route and at the approximate half way point between them.

In the Roman period this situation retained its significance, whilst the Ilchester axis grew in importance. The Yeovil area lay a few miles south-east of the Fosse Way, probably just beyond the limit of Ilchester's territorium and Barker has suggested that a band of land allotments straddled the Ilchester-Dorchester road just beyond the territorium, with large villa estates lying beyond this to the south. This suggests a pattern of small Roman settlements in the modern urban area of Yeovil, rather than one single urbanised focus. Archaeological evidence is as yet insufficient to confirm or refute in detail Barker's suggestions, but the general pattern is plausible. Villas are certainly known at East and West Coker to the south, as well as Lufton to the north-west. Roman occupation debris has been found in suburbs both to east and west of the modern urban focus, but not yet within it.

Not surprisingly, the most elaborate and "urban" settlement yet known at Yeovil lies to the west of the later centre, adjacent to the main Roman road at Westland. There has been some debate over the years as to the nature of this settlement, which was initially interpreted as a villa but is now more often described as a "small town", though it is as yet unclear how great a role it could have played, given the proximity of Ilchester.

In the sub-Roman period, the situation remained crucial, with settlement around Yeovil now commanding not only the high routes to the revivified hillforts but also the southern border of the old urban territory. Hence, the suggestion that the Battle aet Peonnum in which the British were routed by Cenwalh of Wessex took place at the river crossing of Pen Mill, below the three hills of Yeovil, makes sense (though there are other candidates for this battlefield).

It seems possible then that the Saxons took control of a landscape the structure of which had already been long-established; reminders of the Roman past, in the shape of the ruins of the old Roman settlement - which lay on a neighbouring promontory to that occupied by the Saxon and later the medieval town - may have long remained visible to and respected by the later inhabitants.

In a position of such strategic importance, it is not difficult to see why the remnants of the pre-English estates or land allotments would have been commandeered by the incoming royalty. The estate was probably in royal hands by the late 9th century, as there is a written bequest of Givelea by Alfred to his son (c899), and it seems reasonable to suppose that it was ancient royal demesne. There remains an element of uncertainty, because the names of Yeovil and Ilchester come from the same root and their early English forms can be confused. For the same reason, it is uncertain whether there was a mint at Yeovil: coins marked Gifle have been found, but this may be a form of the mint stamp of the known mint at Ilchester. There is also the fact that Ilchester was still crown land at Domesday, whilst much of Yeovil was in the hands of private landowners. Nevertheless, a provisional account of Saxon developments can be given which makes sense of this.

The focus of the royal estate seems to have been at Kingston, with a royal manor established there by the 9th century. Around this were the hiwisces (Huish, recalled in field names around Yeovil), the family landholdings which often predate managed estates, and which may have grown from the farmsteads of the pre-English landscape. The subordinate estate settlements, the tuns - recalled in the names of Preston, Lufton, Houndstone, Brympton and Alvington - developed to the west of the town (possibly on earlier Roman settlement sites). To the south of the manor of Kingston, it seems probable that a minster was established, possibly in the 8th century, with attendant small settlement: another will, of one Wynflaed of Chinnock (c950), provides for her soul by buying prayers at Yeovil, the mother church where she was to be buried (the local chapelry of Chinnock having no burial rights). Whether this was on the site of an earlier sacred site is not known. Medieval sources refer to the Great Church of Yeovil and several dependent chapelries existed, including Kingston-iuxta-Yeovil - presumably in origin the royal chapel - Chinnock, Preston, Barwick and Sock Dennis. The dead of both Kingston and Yeovil Marsh were still being buried in the Yeovil yard as late as the 18th century (Collinson, 1791).

To the south of the royal manor and the minster establishment, the manor which became Hendford developed, again probably from the pre-English landholdings. It was in this area that the old urban focus had been, and it was in this area again that the borough of Yeovil seems to have begun. Domesday refers to the rationalisation of 22 mansurae (usually meaning houses attached to borough plots), of pre-Conquest origin, held in paragio. This latter term has been variously interpreted, shrouding the borough's origins in a certain amount of mystery. It implies some kind of partnership, and may mean a commercial venture off demesne land but jointly funded by the Saxon monarch and the local landowner, in this case the lord of Hendford.

Clearly, the main aim of such ventures was to make money for the landlords. However, at some point - probably after the forfeiture of control of the Hendford estate by its overlord (who was involved in rebellion) in 1095 - the revenues of the Free Yeovil Tenement (as it was known by the medieval period) were attached to the church by "the daughter of a certain king". The latter phrase occurs in a document of Henry III's reign and may refer to the Empress Maud. It was this sequence of events that led to the peculiar situation in Yeovil whereby the rector of the church was entitled to collect the town rents and tolls, whilst the lord of Hendford retained the right of appointment (at least until the 14th century, after which it changed hands several times).

The period of the rectors' control of the borough was marked by repeated disputes and negotiations relating to the granting of urban priveleges. The town gained a market charter in 1205 and a charter in 1305-6 which granted the burgesses a portmote and the right to elect reeves, but it never became a free borough: this meant that many of the benefits of its commerce continued to be creamed off by the current lord. Moreover, the rectors rashly attempted to alter the traditional Tenement market day from Sunday to Friday as part of a general curtailment of the Tenement's liberties. This dispute (and others) culminated in the 14th century in a bloody assault on the visiting bishop), swiftly followed by the excommunication of the town: it is possible that the symbolic act of rebuilding the church (which may still have been the old minster building) in the late 14th century was an attempt to close this sorry chapter. The rectors' control of the borough ceased in 1420, when the revenues were transferred to the Convent of Syon in Middlesex: shortly afterwards, the new lords had the town's two fairs confirmed by the king, presumably still with the revenues in mind.

Despite the tensions in the town and a major fire in 1449, Yeovil flourished commercially through most of the medieval and post-medieval periods. Its prosperity was based on the markets and flourishing woollen and linen industries. By the 16th century, it had overshadowed other nearby towns, including Stoford and Murifield (failed boroughs), Montacute and Ilchester (which complained that its own market had been damaged by the consolidation of Yeovil's). In the early post-medieval period there are references to extensive new building and Gerard in 1633 described it as "an ancient borough and market", "one of the greatest I have seene" in a "little town" and one "... much increased ... by the decay of Stoford". By 1614 in fact there were 4 markets a week (three of them of meat and livestock) and there had been complaints that the livestock market in Hendford was overflowing the Borough limit.

In the 17th century, however, the town encountered some problems (and suffered further fires and plague brought by soldiers during the Civil War). Wool and linen both faltered through competition, though the introduction of silk working partially compensated. The cheese market, however, remained famous.

Yeovil had recovered by the late 18th century, due in part to the improvement in communications with the coming of the turnpikes. By this time it was also a centre of glove-making. Collinson in 1791 describes a "large and populous town ... [with] upwards of twenty streets and lanes". He continues: "... some of the streets are wide and contain many good stone and brick sashed houses ... The market ... is very large for corn, cattle and pigs; for bacon, cheese, butter, flax and hemp". The contemporary (1794) Universal British Directory also says "an extensive glove manufactory flourishes here, which has considerably increased of late years ... Here and in the neighbouring parishes ... is manufactured beyond all doubt the best sail cloth in England".

Yeovil continued to be a glove and market town, but also became an important industrial town in the 19th century, with light engineering developing by the end of the century. The town expanded dramatically during the century and communications improved commensurately, with three railways serving the town by the 1860s. The Borough was at last granted municipal status in 1854, with boundary extensions in 1830, 1854, 1904 and 1928.

Yeovil's population has soared in the 20th century, leading to an enormous expansion of the urban area and considerable redevelopment of both the infrastructure and the town centre.