The archaeology of the larger medieval towns

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West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Seminar 5: Baker

The archaeology of the larger medieval towns

Nigel Baker

Archaeological Consultant


This paper covers the region’s larger towns: the shire towns (Hereford, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Warwick and Stafford) with the addition of Coventry; it should be read in conjunction with Hal Dalwood’s paper covering the smaller towns (p.00). Although in some respects and in some places the large-town – small-town distinction is blurred, the distinction is nevertheless generally a useful one. Contemporary contrasts were very real: not just in terms of legal and political status, but particularly for contrasts in social, demographic, economic, environmental and morphological complexity. These contemporary distinctions directly affect the character of the surviving archaeological resource and have an indirect bearing on the diversity and mass of the surviving archival resource. It is also the case that the larger towns of the medieval period are amongst the larger commercial centres today, with consequences for the availability of archaeological data derived from the redevelopment process in the recent past, the scale on which redevelopment takes place now, and for continuing development pressure – and the issues that raises for archaeological management.

Past work and the accessible archaeological resource

While continuing development pressure results in a continuing stream of new information from excavations undertaken within the framework of PPG 16, current academic comprehension of the archaeology of the larger towns in the region is still, to an extent, dominated by a small number of spectacular projects in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These were distinguished by the combination of large-scale excavation with subsequent synthetic publication. Rescue excavations in Worcester and in Hereford in the mid/late 1960s were nationally influential, academically and politically. In Worcester, Philip Barker’s synthesis The Origins of Worcester (1969) still dominates aspects of the local research agenda, while in Hereford, Ron Shoesmith’s model for the development of the early medieval city, based on excavations on and close to the defences in the late 60s/early 70s is still, with modifications, current (Shoesmith 1982). In the late 1970s, Worcester, Shrewsbury and Stafford were all the subject of major excavations, pioneering deposit assessments and data cataloguing campaigns under the direction of Martin Carver (Carver 1978, 1980). The 1980s saw large-scale excavations conducted with Manpower Services Commission workforces in virtually every large town. Although their general results are widely known from interim publications, formal publication of many of these projects has only recently taken place (e.g. Baker [ed.] 2002; Dalwood and Edwards 2004) and will take some time to be absorbed by the profession, while others have yet to be published.

The English Heritage Urban Archaeological Strategy programme, first formulated in 1992, has been or promises to be a major breakthrough for the archaeology of thirty or so of the larger English towns and cities. In each place, a three-stage process was envisaged. First: compilation of a new Urban Archaeological Database, usually linked to a Geographical Information System; second, a published academic synthesis and assessment of the data; finally, a strategic review of local government policy in those areas of the heritage of most pressing concern in the place in question. In this region, all three stages have been completed for Shrewsbury (SABC 2000; Baker forthcoming), while a UAD has been completed for Worcester and work on the strategy phase is currently in progress (but see also p.00, below). The process has not yet commenced in Hereford, the other city in the region earmarked for this programme.
There are other disciplines with an interest in the physical evidence of the urban past. Just as Worcester and Hereford were significant in the development of rescue archaeology in the 1960s and 70s, the region’s market towns took centre-stage in the development of historical-geographical methods in the same decades. Professor Conzen’s town-plan analysis of Ludlow (1968) has been followed by work on many of the market towns in the region by T R Slater and others of the School of Geography at Birmingham University. Latterly, these techniques have begun to be applied to the complex problems of larger towns such as Coventry (Lilley 1998) and Worcester (Baker and Holt 2004).
One of the major problems facing the larger towns of the West Midlands is a lack of up-to-date synthesis: within towns, between towns, and between archaeologists and their colleagues in other historical and scientific disciplines. This issue will be discussed further (below, p.00); however, despite this, a number of specific lacunae are readily identifiable in our current understanding of these places.

An agenda for future research

Urban growth and population

The definition of cycles of urban growth and decline, and trends in urban population, are subjects that urban archaeology should, at least eventually, be able to address with considerable success through the gradual accumulation of data from PPG16-related fieldwork. The basics of the presence or absence of occupation in certain areas at certain periods are fairly easily achievable, even in the small and usually off-frontage samples offered by field evaluation, though very broad ceramics-led dating remains a problem. Evidence for the progressive building-up of plot backlands, with all that implies for local population pressure, is also routinely accessible from evaluation results. It is rare for single projects to be able to define a developmental trajectory for a whole neighbourhood via the changing density of building and building/plot sub-division – but it has happened. In this regard the Deansway excavations in Worcester will become a classic case study (Dalwood and Edwards 2004). Neighbourhood histories have been and can be written from the synthesised results of a number of separate investigations, as at Much Park Street, Coventry (Wright 1982), but depend upon resourcing above and beyond what is usually available for an individual site.

For the later medieval centuries, the analysis of surviving buildings offers a further valuable source of evidence. Documentary studies have long ago shown that the economic and demographic fortunes of individual towns could be very different (e.g. Dobson 1977; Dyer 1981). In Shrewsbury, a recent mass programme of dendro-dating town buildings has shown that the chronology of construction activity corresponds very closely with the documentary evidence for the changing fortunes of the town’s economy through the 15th to 17th centuries (Champion 1983; Moran 2003). Extension of this process to the historic buildings stock of other major towns, with comparative work in some of the better-preserved towns lower down in the urban hierarchy, would contribute significantly to the debate about late medieval urban decline. Broad patterns are already apparent: in the later 15th century, the time that Coventry and Shrewsbury began a long period of stagnation or decline, Worcester boomed, its population rose sharply and many new buildings were built, including a generation of ‘precociously modern’ house designs, some of them hall-less. Dendrochronology has a clear role here, imparting chronological precision to the archaeological record of economic, demographic, and morphological change. But even the coarsest data may, cumulatively, be revealing. Imprecise construction activity trends are already broadly apparent from archaeological evidence, regionally as well as nationally, and such information may be derived from very small-scale excavations wherever structural remains, or ground preparation activities, are contacted.
An obvious source for the study of cycles of urban growth and decline is the suburb. Most of the major towns of the region have seen a large number of suburban evaluations and some excavations, and in the not too far distant future it may be possible to comment in detail on the physical extent of all the major towns, period by period. In this regard, excavation also has a specific role to play as a control on historical-geographical models formulated principally from much later cartographic evidence. In Worcester, to take one example, historical-geographical research identified the northern Tything-Foregate suburb as a major planned development by the bishops of Worcester. From its visible (mapped) extent, and estimates of likely contemporary plot sizes, it was estimated to have potentially added 10% to the 12th-century city population (Baker and Holt 2004). This must now, however, be re-assessed, following a recent excavation of late medieval tile kilns from plots at the outer end of the suburb, with no preceding occupation (Dalwood 2003). Elsewhere, of course, the reverse may apply and excavation prove medieval occupation beyond the limits predicted from other sources, as in Coventry Road, Warwick (see p.00).
Suburban archaeology can be problematic. Suburbs seem generally to have depositional signatures more like small towns than large ones. But in the larger-town suburbs such deposits are also subject to the larger and deeper footprints of bigger 19th-century and later buildings. In short, suburban archaeology is an issue, because it is important as a litmus test of urban growth and decline, but also extremely vulnerable as a resource to manage. It is also the case that – still – not all the region’s major towns take their historic suburbs as seriously, from a planning archaeology perspective, as the more obviously historic urban core.
The investigation of town planning has traditionally been the preserve of historical geographers, but the complexity of the larger medieval towns and cities demands an inter-disciplinary approach. Documentary sources may be the best means of determining the agency responsible for a particular planned urban extension, but archaeology has a role too. This is the elucidation of groundworks – the recovery of the civil engineering episodes that could be such a major component of urban site improvement and capital investment in new townscape. Excavation can determine what processes have taken place and on what scale. Reclamation by landfill was a key process in urban growth, whether undertaken by urban communities (Shrewsbury) or individual householders (almost everywhere). Landfill was used to reclaim Severn floodplain sites (Worcester, Shrewsbury), redundant defensive ditches (Worcester), natural marshy areas overtaken by expanding town centres (Hereford, Shrewsbury) and minor watercourses (Coventry). The reverse process, terracing of gradients, could also be significant on sites with gradients (Shrewsbury, Worcester cathedral close). Waterlogged landfill deposits are additionally significant because of their potentially very high yield in terms of environmental remains and material culture, and probable reclamation zones must be amongst the most important targets for archaeological investigation.

Industry and production

As in the smaller towns of the region, certain industrial activities are well represented in the archaeological record, others are not. The visibility of industrial production is heavily dependent upon back-plot location, infrastructure that leaves ground traces (tanks, vats, furnaces, water-channels, extraction pits) or discarded residues. As a consequence, activities such as tanning, metal smelting, smithing and casting, potting and tile-making are all well known from archaeological sources. But there are problems. Excavation is only rarely conducted on a scale sufficient to allow the scale and intensity of production on a site to be assessed, and its premises examined in their entirety: the excavation of a complete 15th-century bronze foundry on the Worcester Deansway site was a notable achievement (Jackson in Dalwood and Edwards 2004). However, the contemporary documentary record for Worcester makes an alarming comparison with the (still very limited) archaeological record from the city, which is skewed towards ‘metal bashing’ industries. The late 14th century poll tax returns recorded 46 different crafts, dominated by victualling (22% of occupations), followed by the leather trades. The cloth trade (weavers, dyers, fullers) then accounted for 15% of occupations but the sector was expanding rapidly and accounted for 40% by the end of the following century. Metal-working trades accounted for 7.3% of late-14th-century city occupations, the building industry 7.6% (Barron 1989, 10-11). The cloth trade is, archaeologically, almost invisible. Weavers are likely to remain invisible and the fullers worked at out-of-town mills. Dyers, together with tanners, are very well represented in the archaeological record in other towns, but in Worcester were mainly concentrated into a single riverside parish that just happens to have had almost no excavation within it. This illustrates a wider, recurrent problem. Not only are many of the more important medieval urban occupations (the biggest employers) not directly visible archaeologically, but occupations were usually zoned, whether by economics, regulation, custom, or access to resources, and may be absent from the archaeological record if that particular zone has not been sampled.

Housing and buildings

Knowledge of medieval urban housing varies from town to town across the region, but in general could be characterised as extremely poor, particularly for the earlier post-Conquest centuries. Some towns, notably Shrewsbury and Hereford, have a substantial stock of surviving medieval buildings, dominated by the 15th century. Of around forty surviving buildings in Shrewsbury more than thirty are 15th-century, two from the 14th century and the remainder from the 13th. But survival is not necessarily the same as understanding. Synthetic work on the buildings has taken place – a remarkable MA thesis (J T Smith 1953) and a valuable recent vernacular study and dendro-dating programme (Moran 2003) are available – but detailed records made during repairs and restoration are, despite the advent of PPG 15, still rare. The substantial surviving population of medieval buildings in Hereford has been the subject of an ambitious programme of recording that awaits publication.

Coventry combines a small but very well known corpus of surviving medieval buildings with, from Much Park Street, some of the best-excavated sequences of structural remains from the region. The site was distinguished by relatively complete and well-preserved building remains, together with evidence of their industrial and other functions (Wright 1982). In Worcester, it is the Deansway excavations that, again, have produced completely fresh insights into the character of the medieval built environment, though in some instances legibility of the excavated buildings was reduced by repetitive rebuilding on the same site (Dalwood and Edwards 2004).
But in general, understanding of the development of the pre-15th-century built environment in the region’s larger towns drops almost to zero for the most important commercial streets and their frontages – a consequence of the continuous redevelopment of High Streets and their equivalents. Back yards and rear wings still dominate the archaeological record, mainly because of the destruction of frontages by later cellarage or their inaccessibility below widened thoroughfares in constant use. But well-preserved medieval frontage deposits can survive, particularly where protected beneath early standing buildings (as at 58-59 Mardol, Shrewsbury). Such instances need urgent identification.
But, while it is true that secondary streets are better represented in the archaeological record than primary commercial streets, the generality is that really very little is known of urban buildings from the earlier part of this period, let alone some of the subtleties that have been achieved in more thoroughly explored places, Winchester or Norwich for example. We are not yet in a position to comment on, for instance, the gradation of building types between outer suburbs and main-street locations in any period earlier than that represented by the standing building stock.

Defence, and urban castles

Public defence is one of the more highly developed aspects of medieval urban archaeology in the region. Town and city walls and ditches have, as a component of the archaeological resource, in the last fifty years generally been subject to two different pressures. Where defensive circuits have retained substantial standing fabric into the Modern period, development pressure has often been institutional, associated with the construction of ring-roads in the 1960s and 70s (Hereford, Worcester, Coventry). Where circuits have long been built over, normal commercial development pressures apply (Shrewsbury, Stafford, Warwick). All of the large towns in the region – Coventry, Hereford, Warwick, Shrewsbury, Worcester – have seen extensive work on their defences: excavation and evaluation of ramparts and walls, sampling of ditches (often with rich environmental and artefactual assemblages), and the recording and analysis of standing masonry. The degree of synthetic work within individual towns has however been variable. In Worcester and Hereford, the results of work on the defences have been fairly thoroughly synthesised (Beardsmore, Bennett, in Carver 1980; Shoesmith 1982), though more than twenty years have now passed. In Shrewsbury investigation has been restricted to individual sites and no general synthetic work taking in the standing and excavated remains has yet appeared. Given the large volume of work undertaken on urban public defences, a regional overview is now very overdue. Such a study could examine primary issues, such as the very extended chronology of town-wall construction across the region, changing building practices and design (especially in Coventry) and the contemporary morphological impact of construction, and the recurrent terminal phenomena of re-use, disuse and demolition.

Of the shire-town castles, Warwick has seen the greatest volume of work, though it is perhaps questionable whether the term ‘urban castle’ is very relevant to the later (14th-century/Beauchamp) phases that have received most attention there. Knowledge of urban castles in their primary Conquest-period phases remains very limited. The Norman castle at Worcester (redundant by the early 13th century and levelled in the early 19th) has, not surprisingly, been one of the more obscure ones. However, details of its northern perimeter and some of its later buildings have recently begun to emerge as a result of geophysical survey (Wright 1999), small-scale excavation and building recording (Napthan 2003). Coventry Castle has similarly languished in obscurity as a consequence of its absorption by the growing 13th-century city. It too, is slowly emerging as a consequence of the location and sampling of its massive ditches (replete with anaerobic 11th-12th-century fills: see Soden, p.00, infra) and detailed topographical analysis (e.g. Lilley 1998). The basic details of Hereford Castle were established by excavation in the former bailey in the 1960s and 70s (Shoesmith 1980). Shrewsbury Castle, militarily redundant by the 13th century, retains its Norman earthworks in a fine state of preservation, but only very recently has there been any archaeological work on it. Building recording, topographical and geophysical survey have now all taken place (for a conservation plan), revealing the true former extent of the castle with its outer bailey. From this it is now apparent just how closely matched in size were the Norman castles in the old shire towns of Shrewsbury, Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester. The Norman castle in Stafford town centre remains an enigma. But in general, understanding of urban castles is at a much more primitive level than understanding of later public defences, mainly because of the early de-militarisation and post-medieval re-use of castle sites.

The Church

Archaeological investigation of the Church as a component of medieval town life in our region has been extensive, but skewed in particular directions. The great churches have received a fair amount of attention. Worcester Cathedral has had a resident archaeologist for more than a decade and excavation and building recording has taken place regularly alongside continuing repairs and alterations to the fabric, and there has been a significant research excavation in association with Birmingham University. Hereford, similarly, has seen a major excavation in the cathedral close and other smaller-scale excavations and building recording, including the Bishop’s Palace and Vicars Choral. In Coventry too, investigations have taken place over many years at the Benedictine Cathedral Priory, culminating in recent major excavations (Soden, p.00, infra). Urban and suburban monasticism has also been well represented at a lower level. In Shrewsbury, major excavations at the abbey in the 1980s, together with building recording and subsequent smaller-scale work around the precinct and its suburban surroundings have now been published (Baker [ed.] 2002). All three of Shrewsbury’s friaries have been evaluated in the last decade and (as at the abbey) those on reclaimed riverside sites have been found to be the better preserved. One of the two friaries at Worcester has been seen in excavations in the 1960s and 1980s; the other has not been seen since the 19th century. The latter, the Franciscan friary, is known to have had an extensive cemetery: this may be a potentially very rich source of data for the demography and pathology of the medieval city population of all social levels. The cathedral enforced a burial monopoly over city parishes throughout the Middle Ages and, apart from the friaries and an extramural hospital, the majority of the population were for centuries buried within the confines of the cathedral’s lay cemetery. Friaries and hospitals have also received attention in Warwick, Coventry, Hereford and Worcester, but nowhere has work been on a large scale, though excavations at St Oswald’s in Worcester were able to explore part of one of the medieval ranges (ref).

The big, crucial, gap in the archaeological record of the Church is at parish level: there have been virtually no informative excavations or surveys of urban parish churches in the region in modern times. In Shrewsbury, none of the four parish churches, all former minsters, has been touched in any significant respect since the 19th century. Only one out of the ten parish churches in Worcester has seen any investigation at all, and then only on a very small scale. There have been no significant investigations of church sites in Stafford since the excavation of St Bertelin’s by Adrian Oswald in the 1960s. The consequence of this gap in the record is that there is little that archaeology can say about the fabric, use, development or origins of the urban parish church in this region. This is in stark contrast with eastern and southern England (e.g. Norwich, Lincoln, York, Winchester), where many urban parish churches have been excavated in their entirety, and their origins (usually proprietary) and subsequent medieval enlargement have been determined (see also p.00).

Conclusions: towards a strategy for future research

To a large extent, the issues that will be addressed by future excavation in the region’s larger towns are outside the control of the archaeological profession. New data, new insights into the medieval past, will mainly result from development control procedures applied throughout urban areas known to have been built up in the Middle Ages. There are perhaps three crucial respects in which the profession can realistically exert a greater degree of control over the existing data, and the provision of new data. The first relates to the question of synthesis, and the comprehension of the meaning of the archaeological record that has already been created and continues daily to expand.

This can be illustrated from the example of one city – Worcester. Archaeological recording events have risen in number decade after decade: from about a hundred per decade in the 1970s to just under three times that in the 90s, to an estimated five to six hundred for the first decade of this century. Local government personnel with great local expertise and experience (‘officer knowledge’) have traditionally been the means by which the significance of such growing bodies of data has been understood. But to what extent will this fragile system be able to cope in the future, given the almost exponential increase in the number of investigated sites? There are few mechanisms in place to assess and record the significance of existing and new data, other than on a site-by-site basis. The English Heritage Urban Strategy programme seemed to offer a substantial and valuable remedy through its insistence on the preparation of published urban assessments, as a mid-way stage between data collection (UADs) and policy formulation (urban Strategies). However, it now appears less and less likely that further assessments will be commissioned. From an academic perspective, the enticing vision of a published series of volumes summarising the achievements and failures of urban archaeology, city by city in the early 21st century, may not now happen.
The question then arises – does synthesis matter? Do we need to understand what this newly-retrieved data means, at this stage, or in the future? This question of course poses the larger one, ‘why are we doing it?’ – which is perhaps another way of asking for whom it is being done. Certainly not, at present, for immediate academic (university) consumption. At present there is one full-time academic post-holder in the region whose research interest lies principally in medieval urbanism – but that post lies within an allied historical discipline, not in archaeology. Sustainability has become a key concept in planning and development in the last decade, and applies with some force here. How politically sustainable, in the long term, is the archaeological conditioning of planning consents going to be with no clear audience for the eventual results? There is, of course, an audience – a very substantial audience of council-tax paying populations living, shopping and appreciating the historic environments that the growing mountain of data refers directly to, usually unaware of the here-today-gone-tomorrow evaluations taking place behind development site hoardings. Arguably then, synthesis within the profession is not enough, regular communication of its results to the wider public via all and any media is the only sustainable way forward.
A third area where the archaeological profession may, on occasion, have a greater degree of influence than it does via commercial redevelopment, is in situations where key sites are in institutional ownership, and there is some possibility of negotiating funding packages for research excavation. The origins of urban parish churches and the form and development of urban castles are just two areas listed above where research excavation may be the only way of progressing. The point is made elsewhere in this volume (Atkin, p.00) that we are never going to learn more about the spread of parish churches in the 10th to 12th centuries or in earlier periods by observing contractors digging drains. Are we ready to accept that (for example) the origin of the urban parish church will forever remain a mystery in western England? If not, then consideration has to be given to occasional, strategically located, high-profile ‘flagship’ research excavations to address precisely these issues and put urban archaeology centre-stage – in front of the people that pay for its curation.


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