PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME Early medieval settlement: archaeological and historical background

Within East Central England many of the rivers were navigable to shallow-draught boats and the waterways provided an important means of immigration as well as transport for produce. The Trent was navigable from the Humber Estuary at least as far as Repton; the Welland from the Wash to Stamford, and the Ouse probably as far as Bedford. Lincoln could be reached from the Wash by the River Witham, but was also linked to the Trent by the Foss Dyke. The distribution of Torksey ware and other pottery forms throughout Lincolnshire demonstrates the importance of these riverine routes to Late Saxon trade (Symonds 2003). One of the main medieval routes from southern England to York was by road to Torksey and then by boat (Sawyer 1998, 18). The extant Roman road system also continued to influence settlement and economy, with travellers on Watling Street, Ermine Street, Fosse Way and the Icknield Way granted royal protection (Stafford 1985, 9).

Anglo-Saxon settlement was both early and extensive in East Central England. There are concentrations of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. By the time the region appears in the Tribal Hidage in the late 7th century it has emerged as part of the Kingdom of Mercia, extending to the boundary with Northumbria formed by the Humber Estuary to the north. During the 8th and 9th centuries Mercia was torn by struggle over the kingship, but enjoyed a rich artistic and cultural life. The Continental links established by Offa flowered into a great artistic development, with links north to Northumbria.

East Central England (unlike the region further west) was a fully pottery-using region during the Middle Saxon period, and this has aided the identification of settlement sites by the East Midlands Anglo-Saxon Pottery Project (Vince 2005). Around the Wash the Fenland Survey has been particularly important in locating a cluster of settlements on the higher ground of the fen edge. Nonetheless, in common with much of England there are few fully excavated rural sites, Flixborough (Loveluck 2007), Riby Cross Roads (Steedman 1994) and Goltho (Beresford 1987) being major exceptions.

From the late 9th century much of this region was subject to Viking invasions and settlement. Most of the region fell within what 11th-century sources describe as the Danelaw. Lincolnshire has the largest number of Anglo-Scandinavian place-names, and certainly the highest concentration of population by Domesday. New place-names are also found in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and east and north-east Leicestershire. These names may not all represent new settlement, but they certainly indicate economic growth and an active market in land (Richards 2004, 55-62). Other parts of the region have fewer Scandinavian names, including Bedfordshire, and Northamptonshire south of Watling Street. Archaeologically as well, the Viking settlers have been less visible, and it is only through finds of personal jewellery by metal-detector users that we get an impression of the extent of their cultural influence on artefact styles throughout the region, and particularly in Lincolnshire (Leahy 2004). Taken with the great variety of Scandinavian personal names in use by the 11th century, they indicate a sizeable and vigorous Anglo-Scandinavian community in East Central England.

This is the region of the so-called 'Five Boroughs': Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. All have traces of Middle Saxon occupation, probably as estate centres. St Alkmund's Church in Derby was probably a Saxon minster associated with a royal or ecclesiastical estate centre. Excavation revealed fragments of 9th-century stone sculptures and an impressive sarcophagus. At Leicester there was a bishopric by 737, possibly focused on the church of St Nicholas. This was previously dedicated to St Augustine and may have incorporated the Roman Jewry Wall into its fabric. At Nottingham and Stamford there is some evidence for Middle Saxon enclosures which pre-date the Viking takeover.

To the south, in Northampton, Middle Saxon occupation was restricted to an area around St Peter's church, where a minster and palace may have acted as the centre of a royal estate. At St Peter's Street a timber hall was superseded by a massive stone hall of Carolingian style c. 820-75. This building may have been the centre of a royal estate which was broken up during the Danish settlement, although John Blair has argued that it is a minster church, rather than a royal palace (Blair 1996). There is nothing in Northampton to imply urban status before the late 9th century. There was a dramatic intensification of activity, however, during the period of Danish occupation, between the late 9th century and the arrival of Edward the Elder in 917.

However, none of these sites could be classed as urban until the 10th century, but after the Scandinavian settlement they profited from a period of economic growth. The production of new pottery forms such as Stamford ware on an industrial scale replaced hand-made local wares and the large number of markets recorded by Domesday reinforces a picture of local trade on a large scale (Stafford 1985, 50-1). The Old English word stow, meaning 'a place where people assembled' was used to name some important churches such as Stow St Mary, where an annual market is recorded by the 11th century. Such fairs must have been well established to survive the disappearance of the religious communities. Sawyer (1998, 174) suggests that by the 10th century there were weekly markets at many places in eastern England. Churches were natural places for people to congregate each Sunday, and Sunday markets were flourishing by the 10th century.

Ecclesiastical and royal influence may often have been behind building on a large scale. The Barnack and Ancaster quarries were in use by AD 800 exporting stone far afield, encouraged by the boom in church building. A number of minster foundations, such as Brixworth, Southwell, Breedon and Stow had been established under Mercian royal patronage. By the 10th century they were losing their dominant position as the creation of rural parishes and parish churches accompanied the break-up of great estates.


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s) URL:
Last updated: Tues Apr 21 2009