The Feisty Folk of Medieval Towcester

Over the past year while living under the protracted restrictions, I’ve been filling the castle-shaped hole in my life by focusing closer to home and researching more local history. I had already explored the medieval history of Buckingham a couple of years ago, so this year I enjoyed getting to know the rum lot that were the Dukes of Buckingham. But thanks to my daughter Maddie’s work experience placement this week, I’ve discovered the treasure trove of history to be found in the nearby Northamptonshire town of Towcester. Maddie is spending a very enjoyable week helping out at the Towcester Museum, a charming little place at the heart of this ancient market town, and when I took her for her induction on Monday I was in for a bit of a revelation. With a series excellent displays and a myriad of artefacts from the past 5000 years, I’ve discovered exactly why Towcester is said to be a microcosm of English history, and in particular why it has every reason to be proud of its early medieval past.

Maddie outside the museum after an enjoyable day’s work experience.

As the oldest continuously inhabited site in the county with evidence of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic period, the Towcester of today occupies the site of an Iron Age settlement within the bend of the River Tove. In AD 43 the Romans decided this would be a great place to plant a town, being close to a junction of two of their new military roads, so they took over the site, developed it and called it Lactodorum. One of those new roads was Watling Street, the major route stretching from the south east to the north west, and it’s believed that it was along this road, at a place called Cuttle Mill just two miles from Towcester, that the rebel queen Boudicca and her forces were finally overcome by the Romans in AD 61.

Towcester’s centre with it’s Victorian town hall. Note the name of the hostelry on the right – the high street is part of Roman Watling Street.

The museum is set in the peaceful White Horse Yard, accessible by foot through the archway from Watling Street.

But it was after the Romans left in the early fifth century that, under the incoming Anglo-Saxons, Towcester really began to shine. Set within the Kingdom of Mercia, the established farming settlement prospered in the later eighth century under the rule of King Offa (r.757-796). But by the time Offa died the invading Vikings had raided their way inland from the eastern coasts, and it wasn’t long before the Mercian good times were over. Throughout the ninth century the indomitable Norsemen, set on acquiring more lands, began to make their presence very much felt in the region. By the later part of the century Towcester’s position was looking increasingly dicey as much of Mercia came under Viking control, leaving the kingdom of Wessex as the only remaining Saxon territory.

The Towcester Head, a Roman funerary sculpture from the town, is the imposing logo of the museum. On display here is a replica: the original is kept at the British Museum.

In AD 878 the Saxons hit back, and King Alfred secured his great victory over the marauding Danes at the Battle of Edington. The subsequent peace Treaty of Wedmore established the old Roman Watling Street as the official border between Wessex and the Viking lands of the Danelaw, and Towcester now became part of the kingdom of Wessex. At first the agreement must have given hope to its people of a return to a peaceful existence, but unfortunately for them, they were now living on wild frontier land. The Vikings reneged on the deal, making regular incursions along the border and clashing with Saxon forces. Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder (d.924) fortified the town creating a defensive Saxon burh, but the raids continued until the fighting came to a head in the remarkable Battle of Towcester.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for one long day in AD 917 ‘between midsummer and Lammas’ the Viking army besieged the little town, intent on takeover, but they hadn’t bargained on the tenacity and courage of the locals. Far from capitulating, the community rallied together, and in the face of the ferocious pagan warriors whose ancestors had sacked Lindisfarne Priory in AD 793 and ravaged much of the country ever since, they bravely stood their ground. By forming the traditional Saxon shield wall and giving as good as they got, the people of Towcester successfully defended their town until reinforcements arrived in the shape of the king’s army. The rapacious Vikings were beaten back, and pursued by the royal forces they subsequently lost their hold on Northampton, Huntingdon and even Essex, territories which they would never regain. In fact, Edward the Elder went on to gain the respect of the Vikings, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that ‘The Norse Barons capitulated and submitted to him and sought him as their Lord and Protector’.

Part of a beautiful Saxon brooch, c.550 AD is among the many medieval finds at the museum.

Towcester can boast it’s distinction in many more medieval ways, including featuring in the Domesday Book and being ruled by a Norman earl, playing host to a leper hospital and nurturing a pope. There was even a notorious case of twelfth century religious gossip, where a nearby priory of Cistercian nuns gained a rather scandalous reputation. Sewardsley Priory, just two miles from the town, was the site of a Time Team dig in 2007, and some of the show’s finds are on exhibition at the museum. It’s all there, just waiting to be discovered.

Pieces of tile from Sewardsley Priory found during the Time Team dig in 2007.

Bury Mount in Moat Lane, the ‘motte’ of the Norman castle in Towcester. But is it? Apparently it’s identity is now under dispute – could it be a Roman construction or part of the Saxon burh? The plot thickens…

But it doesn’t even stop there. From the Tudors and the Civil Wars to the Great War and beyond, like it’s plucky Saxon inhabitants, this impressive little town continues to stake its tenacious claim on the great story of England. Quite how the museum has managed to cram such a vast history into a small space is a mystery, but without doubt it has done so with deft expertise and an appealing lightness of touch.

Looking back through 5000 years of Towcester’s colourful history.

Having wandered around the engaging exhibits and marveled at the extensive collection of artefacts and their rich stories, it’s little wonder that so many visitors – including me and Maddie – leave the galleries having seen the spirited little town of Towcester in a whole new light…