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The greater part of West Central England lay within the Kingdom of the Hwicce in the Anglo-Saxon period, first identified in the early 7th century (Hooke 1985). This appears to have been based upon the fertile valleys of the Rivers Severn and Avon, but did not extend into northern and eastern Warwickshire, nor into Oxfordshire in the south-east (Blair 1994, 50). By the late 7th century the emerging kingdom of Wessex lay to the south, while the Kingdom of the Hwicce was subsumed within Mercia by the late 770s, although their identity survived until the Norman Conquest. Wales lay to the west, but was separated from the Hwicce by a territory occupied by another enigmatic early medieval group known as the Magonsætan (Reynolds 2006, 148-9), which also became a Mercian sub-kingdom.

There was clearly extensive early medieval activity in the region but it is difficult to say much about settlement patterns from archaeological evidence. Forty-eight Early Saxon cemeteries are known in the region of the Avon, with most either along the river gravels flanking the Avon or to its south in the Feldon on the tributaries of the Avon or Severn. The larger cemeteries are located along the river valleys, Bidford-on-Avon being the largest. Away from the river they become smaller, perhaps reflecting more localised family usage (Ford 1995, 60-70). Saxon cemeteries are also most prevalent along the Thames valley, through Oxford and Gloucestershire and the southern Severn Vale (Reynolds 2006, 144-6). Rural settlements have been excavated at Lechlade and Catholme, with higher status sites at Kingsholm (Gloucester) and Tewkesbury.

The Feldon (roughly south and east Warwickshire, south of the Avon) also seems to have been a focus of early settlement. The more open terrain with long, broad valleys (Ford 1995, 60) supported much arable cultivation. There were open fields here by the 10th century, and early settlement nucleation (Dyer 1995, 121).

Tracts of woodland provided seasonal pasturing of animals and other valuable resources. Sheep farming was important in the Cotswolds in particular, but while woodland was recognised as a valuable asset, hidage assessments indicate that the greatest revenue on most rural estates appears to have been derived from arable land. Estates on the north bank of the Avon expanded into the clay regions in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and the areas north of Fladbury and north-west of Stratford appear to have been regions of notable development, with woodland replaced by prosperous manors by Domesday (Hooke 1985, 249). Remains of small 'Celtic' fields survive on upland throughout the region, but on lower slopes these have been obliterated by open fields of the 'Midland system'.

Towards the end of the 10th century, mills such as that excavated at Tamworth were being constructed at estate centres throughout the region. There are 180 mills recorded in Gloucestershire by Domesday. Rivers were also important for fisheries; there were 18 sites of basket weirs along the Severn estuary by Domesday (Heighway 1987, 69). The side streams of the Upper Thames also provided excellent sites for fish weirs (Blair 1994, 123).

A great number of monasteries were founded by the Christian princes of the Hwicce, such as those at Gloucester, Winchcombe and Deerhurst. Many appear to have had a Roman past, perhaps close to a villa because the estate centre moved only a short distance. There are also early minsters in Abingdon, Oxford, Eynsham, Aylesbury and Bampton (Blair 1994, 61-3). Many of these sites lie in close proximity to water transport, which must have played a key role in their development as market sites and ensured their rebirth as towns (Blair 1994, 67). Some 40% of the markets recorded in the Upper Thames region during the 13th and 14th centuries were at sites of known minsters; only about a quarter of the known minsters are not known to have markets (Blair 1994, 119). Charters sometimes record port-ways leading to market centres, such as Akeman Street and Banbury road to Oxford. With the fortification of the burhs, markets came to be formally organised within proto-urban centres. Warwick, Gloucester, Worcester, Winchcombe, Oxford and Bristol all had mints (Hooke 1985, 120).

Traces of early defences at Hereford, and perhaps Tamworth, demonstrate the role of Mercia in the evolution of the Anglo-Saxon town. It is claimed that Stafford was also fortified in the 10th century, although excavations have failed to reveal the burh defences. In fact, Stafford has been described as a thinly disguised expansion of a rural manor. In the 10th century there was no regular street grid, and no evidence for planned tenements. The central enclave appears to have contained only the minster church and three centralised crafts: butchery, bread making and pottery manufacture. The burh may have functioned as a collecting station for the agricultural wealth of the neighbourhood. Stafford-ware pottery was exported to other Mercian centres, but there was no evidence of any other commerce.

Gloucester may also have been founded as a Mercian burh, although it is not listed as such. From the 6th to the 9th centuries the shell of the Roman town sheltered a much-reduced population, probably working a number of rural holdings both within and outside the walls. The rapid build-up of deposits in the old forum area in the 9th century suggests that animals were stabled here. The inhabitants imported little from elsewhere, and the settlement at this stage should probably be seen as a series of small estates, rather than an urban development.

The principal communication routes of West Central England were still provided by metalled Roman roads, such as the Fosse Way and Ermine Street, but charters also imply a network of lesser routeways that criss-crossed the region, such that few places would have been distant from one another.

The Droitwich salt industry was of great importance in this region throughout the period (Maddicott 2006). The salt was carried by pack-horse and cartload, and Hooke (1985, fig. 31) has mapped the likely saltways. Some of these, for example the area around Bidford-on-Avon, seem to have acted as a magnet for portable antiquities and coinage. In addition, it appears that the junctions between some of these saltways were locations where settlement hierarchies started to develop, such as at Bidford-on-Avon, Lower Slaughter, where Ryknild Street meets the Fosse Way (Enright and Kenyon 2000), and Lechlade, where another saltway meets the Thames. These routes extend beyond the region and indicate the importance of the long-distance trade in salt.

Fine-grained stone was also carried considerable distances. Bath stone was carried by river upstream to Worcestershire, and oolite from Taynton in Oxfordshire was carried west of the Cotswolds and along the Severn as far as Tenbury in north-west Worcestershire (Hooke 1985, 126-7). Stone quarries in the Cotswolds provided coarser grained stone for 10th- and 11th-century churches throughout the region.

Viking activity in the region is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although it met with less success than in other parts of the country, and seems to have had less direct impact on administrative arrangements compared to the regions to the north and east. Archaeological evidence for Anglo-Scandinavian interaction is, as elsewhere, extremely limited. Anglo-Scandinavian place-names indicate a small Norse colony in the Wirral in Cheshire but place-names in Shropshire and Herefordshire reveal little Norse influence. Scandinavian names in Staffordshire and Warwickshire are confined to the north-eastern borders of each county (Gelling 1992, 131-7).


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Last updated: Tues Apr 21 2009