Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys

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Somerton by Miranda Richardson

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 Somerton report

A brief history of Somerton

Somerton is situated on a low ridge between the Yeo and Cary rivers, overlooking a crossing of the latter. It is an area densely populated in the prehistoric and particularly the Roman periods. Nine Romano-British farmsteads or villas have been located in the area around Somerton which was a rich agricultural hinterland to the Roman town at Ilchester.

The town is first referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 733, when Aethelbald, King of Mercia occupied Somerton, a royal possession of the West Saxon kings. The kings of Wessex re-established their control of the town in the early 9th century. In 860 Ethelred is thought to have visited and in 949 it was the site of a meeting of the witan. At Domesday the Somerton estate is listed first of the land in the Kings possession, but the entry refers to an agricultural holding with land for 50 ploughs, 100 acres of meadow and a league each of pasture and woodland, but no mention of a market or burgages which might indicate a town. At this time Somerton was clearly the central place of a large royal estate but may not have been urban in character. The extent of the estate was not known, neither was tax paid for it. As an estate centre a royal residence might be expected around which a settlement may have grown up and perhaps formed a short lived burh evidenced by the placename 'Bury' in a court roll of 1349. However, this might as easily refer to the medieval borough which by 1275 was worth, along with rent from ovens and a windmill, £42. A market had been granted in 1255 and Somerton was chosen as the county town in the later 13th century, perhaps due to the erroneous tradition that the town had been the Saxon capital of Wessex. The shire courts and gaol were transferred to Somerton from Ilchester in 1278 and 1280 respectively, which has been cited as the main cause for Ilchester's waning economy in the late 13th and 14th century. By 1290 a 'new borough' had been added, increasing the number of burgages, which by 1331 was worth £6 14s in rents by itself. The position as county town was short lived with the gaol out of use by 1371 and the last visit of the circuit judges in 1530. General decline is also shown by the market ceasing in the late 16th century. However, a new grant was made in 1606 and the economy of the town seems to have picked up as the market increased in importance, reflected in the growing number of inns situated around the market square, from 6 in 1620 to 17 in 1760, and the number of fine quality buildings put up in this period. Despite the successful market and some cloth industry up to the mid 18th century the economy of the town remained essentially agricultural. Following a further slump in the 18th century some recovery was felt in the 19th with new industries in the town; Somerton brewery on West Street, a collar factory on Broad Street, a gloving and shoe bindings factory, a cardboard box factory and quarrying for building stone. However, the town suffered from the lack of a railway, particularly with the line passing through nearby Langport. When a new railway was eventually built through Somerton in 1906, the station was maintained for less than sixty years. The town is now little more than a village despite large modern housing developments, particularly around the west end of the town, in the 20th century.