A Brief History of Ilchester
"The Towne of Ilchester hath beene a very large thyng, and is of the auncientest Townes in all that quarter" (John Leland, writing in about 1540)
Unlike many historic towns much of the earlier history of Ilchester survives beneath the ground. There are two reasons for this. One is that the settlement is smaller than it once was. Older parts of the town now lie undisturbed beneath open fields. Secondly, over the centuries the ground level in the town has been artificially raised to reduce the risk of flooding. In places the ground surface walked on by the Romans is six feet below the modern surface. In other places it is less. Because Ilchester's important history is so well preserved, efforts are being made to protect and understand it better.
Before the Romans
At least 2600 years ago Ilchester existed as a cluster of round houses around the river crossing, and a summer camp within a bank and ditch just south of the present village. Positioned at the edge of the river valley on a spit of gravel, surrounded by a natural larder stocked with fish, eels, wildfowl and rich pasture it would have been comfortable living. The area was protected by a circular bank and ditch called an oppidum, which can still be seen in times of flood. Two prehistoric circular wooden huts were excavated at Ivel House in 1950, and more prehistoric occupation was found at Bos House. These were farming settlements. There was no actual town of Ilchester before the Romans arrived in about 50 AD.
Roman forts and Roman town (Lendiniae)
At first, Ilchester was a military post on the Fosse Way road, but it's strategic position, together with it's being a centurion's days march to Bristol, Bath, Dorchester and Exeter, soon made it become one of the most important towns in Roman Britain. At least two forts were built, one on the site of the present town, and a second in Kings Hams. These had passed out of use by 100 AD as the area was pacified.
For the next 300 years Ilchester (called 'Lendiniae' by the Romans) developed as a town. Archaeological excavation shows us a community of some 3000 people, many of them living in large luxurious houses with mosaic floors and central heating. A wide variety of trades and industries flourished. The main part of the town was defended by a massive wall and ditch, enclosing an area of 25 acres, and there were suburbs along the roads leading out of the town. Beyond the suburbs were the cemeteries. The town's streets were paved and there was an efficient drainage system. Roman engineers seem to have changed the course of the river Yeo to create a better channel for ships. By the 4th Century. Ilchester was the administrative centre of a 'Civitas'—a local council area of more than 1000 square miles.
The Dark Ages 400-900AD
The town declined rapidly after the withdrawal of the Roman armies, and may even have been abandoned. A few objects of this date have been found, and it is possible that a Christian Church and cemetery remained in use at Northover. Northover may have been the church for all of Ilchester, but later became a separate parish.
The Middle Ages 900-1500AD (Givelcestre)
When King Alfred in the 9th century was pushed into the westerly part of his kingdom by the Danes, he used the fortified Roman towns, of which Ilchester was one, in his campaigns to free Wessex from the invader. The walls were so stout that in 1087/88 they withstood a siege in a rebellion against William the Conquerer, when Bristol and Bath had both been sacked. Ilchester's golden age was from the 9th to 13th century. The street layout planned in this period remains the same today. Among the industries in the town was the production of pottery, there was also an important royal mint. The county gaol was here from 1166 until 1843 and Ilchester was in effect the county town of Somerset. The town walls and gates were rebuilt and were still standing in the 16th Century. Medieval Ilchester had a Dominican Friary, six churches and an Augustinian nunnery run as a hospital. The nuns were very poor and often had to beg for food. The poverty was not all due to cruelty of the Abbess as local legend has it, but on two documented occasions local 'gentlemen' had broken in to the store and stolen grain and other valuables.
Roger Bacon the philosopher and scientist was born in or near Ilchester at around 1210. At the age of 13 he went to Oxford University to be educated and joined the Franciscan order to enable him to continue his studies.
In the 12th century the town was granted a charter allowing markets and fairs to be run. In the 13th century the county jail was moved from Ilchester only to be returned in the 14th century.
In 1426 Robert Veel endowed almshouses and this endowment for “Relief in Need and Educational charity' still exists today.
Ilchester had in 1539 the dubious honour of having to display one quarter of Richard Whiting Abbot of Glastonbury after his execution for refusing to give up the Abbey valuables to Henry Vlll.
By the 16th century Ilchester was again in decline somewhat and became just a small market town. In 1685 following the Monmouth Rebellion twelve rebels were executed at Ilchester jail. Over the following centuries the jail became notorious for it's ill treatment of prisoners and was finally closed in 1843.
From the 13th century Ilchester had returned two Members of Parliament and scurrilous practices were employed to ensure the 'right' candidates were elected. At least they didn't get second home allowance in those days. One of those returned as MP was Richard Brinsley Sheridan the famous playwright, though there is no evidence he ever visited the town.
Ilchester residents sustained themselves throughout this time with farming and occasionally silk and flax processing. There were many corn mills operating and public houses were plentiful.
18th Century onwards
By the 18th Century only High Street, Church Street, Almshouse Lane, Back Lane, Free Street and Northover were built up and the suburbs had vanished. All but two of the churches disappeared, and the remains of the religious houses were demolished. In the 19th century fortunes improved again when Ilchester became a 'Coaching Town' being on the routes between main towns, but its fortunes changed yet again with the coming of the railways, despite attempts by the parish council to get a station built to the south of the village. The arrival of the Royal Navy airbase in 1940 provided a boost to the community and has led to a population growth to something like the numbers last seen in Roman times.
Acknowledgments: Gerry Masters; Sally Mottram; County Planning Dept, Somerset County Council; Ian Brrow and JoanMarie Wragg (graphics)