Medieval period

John Hunt


As Professor Hilton observed (Hilton 1983, 8), the medieval West Midlands is a region with extremely vague frontiers, particularly if attempting to define it in terms of economic and social structure. In his study, Hilton defined the region by the boundaries of the diocese of Worcester, which in turn referred back to those of the former Hwiccian kingdom. However, for the purposes of this review, the west midland region is more widely defined, encompassing Staffordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire, but, contrary to Hilton, excludes Gloucestershire. This includes shires that looked towards the Welsh March, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, all areas interlocking with their neighbours in some way. While a county like Staffordshire might look towards Derbyshire and the Trent valley, it also had aspects in its socio-economic and socio-political ‘make-up’ that served to link it with Shropshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. It clearly is possible to look upon the medieval west midland region on a broader basis than that selected by Hilton in his seminal study, and inevitably, with a larger area, there also comes greater diversity.

The centuries between the Norman Conquest and c 1500 saw, among other things, the introduction and development of a new political and social order, and new frameworks within which it operated. Society expanded. Considerable demographic growth (and decline), the emergence of the gentry, the expansion of settlement, the growing commercialisation of society, changing relationships between landlords and their tenants, and expansion and developments within the church were all aspects of these years, and many had a significant impact on the medieval landscape. These have left an archaeological imprint, as well as a documentary one.

This review of our current state of knowledge and priorities for future research has fallen at an opportune moment. New approaches to the protection and management of the historic environment are under development, together with moves to enhance the role of Historic Environment Records (HERs). Furthermore, this has been the first broadly based review that has taken account of the important and positive impact that the introduction of PPG16 in 1990 has had on the archaeology of the region. The message is a consistent one. Development-led archaeology has brought about a significant increase in the number of archaeological interventions that are undertaken. The majority of these are on a small scale, and are often relatively uninformative when viewed alone. However, they all represent accumulating data and, if this is viewed together, there are contexts where a number of small-scale interventions can make significant contributions to our wider understanding. Such is the case, for instance, in the archaeology of medieval towns and, although not arising from PPG16 work, similar observations might be made on the small-scale intervention approach of the Whittlewood Project in investigating rural settlement (Dyer et al 2002, 42; Jones and Page 2003a, 37-45; Jones and Page 2003b, 53-83). However, we have not yet been able to gain the full benefit of this accumulating data. This arises partly from the speed with which it is produced, posing HERs with problems of properly assimilating this information, but more so from the fact that there is at present a lack of, and an urgent need for, works of synthesis and analysis that can bring this material together and set a ‘baseline’ for the next generation of work. This aspiration lies well beyond the scope of this present chapter, but it does serve to highlight the need for it.

Town and country

Rural settlement

The study of rural settlement can claim a long pedigree in the West Midlands, particularly in Warwickshire. In the late 15th century John Rous was recording the desertion of villages, and in 1656 William Dugdale produced the first county distribution map of deserted medieval villages. The region has made some significant contributions to the study of this topic, and with it the emergence of medieval archaeology and landscape history as distinct and recognisable disciplines. Key studies include Roberts’ (1965; 1968) discussions of the Arden, Thorpe’s (1965) important study of Wormleighton in the Warwickshire Feldon and Dyer’s (1990; 1991) examination of dispersed settlement patterns in the Worcestershire woodland parishes of Pendock and Hanbury. Despite some singular contributions and case studies, across the region as a whole some fundamental questions remain unanswered, and areas like Shropshire and Staffordshire have not attracted the same intensity of study.

It is widely recognised that the landscape and environmental context provides the most obvious framework within which to approach the study of rural settlement, a point eloquently reiterated recently by Williamson (2003). However, the local and regional environmental circumstances will also mediate a range of other factors that might have a part to play. Technological and demographic developments were clearly important, and social, economic and tenurial factors might also prove influential. For instance, the growth of lordship and its implications have been vigorously debated. The proliferation of local lordships, whether pre-Conquest fragmentation of multiple estates, or post-Conquest subinfeudation and estate subdivision, brought new settlement foci and increasing tenurial complexity. This was accompanied by seigneurial concerns to provide for the needs of their demesnes which, in turn, had to be responsive to changing social and economic circumstances. For example, the 12th and 13th centuries saw aristocratic responses to their incomes under pressure and changing relationships between lords, peasants and land. While the trends were general, the precise nature of the local implications varied. Hence the often contentious question of the extent to which lordship played a direct role in the ordering of medieval settlements and their fields. In the honor of Dudley, for instance, it was noted that the interests and actions of lordship had the capacity to influence the local settlement pattern, but that this was generally incidental to other factors, such as the formation of parkland, rather than any deliberate or planned scheme. Here, the environment remained the overriding factor (Hunt 1997, 130-140). Other studies, like that of Thorpe (1965) on Wormleighton, have emphasised a more assertive and direct impact by lordship. It is the case that the exercise of lordship in woodland areas is frequently perceived as having a ‘lighter touch’ than in the ‘planned’ or ‘champion’ countryside, but whatever landscape lordship was exercised in, it should not be overlooked that its effectiveness and expectations could vary greatly from manor to manor.

Tradition and custom were also of vital importance. For Williamson (2003, 192), ‘custom was the single most important articulating force in the organisation of early medieval peasant communities’, impacting on the management and structure of the landscape. In this vein, in Herefordshire, arguments have been put forward for the influence of the cultural inheritance from the late Anglo-Saxon period upon the settlement pattern, together with the social and political upheavals of the 11th and 12th centuries (K Ray, pers comm).

Whatever the critical factors might be, it is the case that across the West Midlands it is possible to recognise patterns of nucleated and dispersed settlement, in which the former tends to be associated with intensively settled, open landscapes, often established at an early date (Rackham’s ‘planned’, or champion countryside) (Roberts and Wrathmell 2000, 27; Roberts and Wrathmell 2002, 80, 169). The latter, on the other hand, tends to be associated with woodland landscapes and economies (Rackham’s ‘ancient’ countryside). The classic illustration of this contrast is the distinction within Warwickshire between the Arden and Feldon regions of the county. While there is a tendency for dispersed patterns of settlement to be prevalent in the more westerly parts of the region, there is in fact a good deal of sub-regional diversity such that nucleated and dispersed settlement forms may be found throughout the region. Indeed, the reality is that sharp boundaries are generally difficult to draw and each countryside or ‘pays’ embraced a range of different landscapes. As our consciousness of this issue has been increasingly raised over recent years, Roberts and Wrathmell (2002, 173) felt able to propose that the opposition of dispersed and nucleated settlement was now a construct that should be discarded as having served its purpose. All would accept that this is an oversimplification. Both ‘pays’ could support a range of variation, but within which it is possible to detect local or regional emphases.

In terms of these broad trends, the Arden/Feldon contrast in Warwickshire has already been noted. In Worcestershire, the emphasis on nucleated settlement occurs in the Cotswold scarp, with an increasing tendency towards dispersion to the west, most emphatically in the Wye–Teme area. In Staffordshire, nucleated settlement is most evident in the river valleys of the Trent–Tame, and to a lesser extent in the Penk and Smestow valleys and parts of central Staffordshire, a number of which subsequently emerged as rural boroughs. Dispersed forms of settlement, however, are found throughout the county.

Recent work in Herefordshire has identified evidence for former villages centred on parish churches and tightly clustered hamlets, together with open-field systems, but is suggesting that the actual form and density of settlement is not always obvious, as the ‘visibility’ of former settlements is not as clear as might have been assumed, especially in those areas long under arable. Quite simply, sites have been missed and the resulting deficit in recording such sites has led to a false picture of the character and intensity of settlement. This is consistent with the broader picture, and may receive some indirect support from calculations offered by Roberts and Wrathmell (2002). Based on ploughteams recorded in Domesday Book, they suggest that in Herefordshire in 1086 tilled land accounted for some 44.7% of the whole (Roberts and Wrathmell 2002, 187). They note that this is unusual, since they suggest that the average is around 35% – 36%. Such levels of agricultural activity would surely be consistent with the greater intensity of settlement that is being suggested. However, while it might indicate intensity of settlement, it does not necessarily indicate the form and nature of that settlement. The remainder of the land, that is, the uncultivated land, comprised mixtures of woodland, scrub and heath lands, and grass pastures, which they collectively term as ‘temperate savanna’.

Interesting also in the methodology suggested by Roberts and Wrathmell (2002) is the profile that it offers of the West Midlands region. Warwickshire, with 32.5% tilled land, broadly conforms to their proposed national average of 35.5%. Herefordshire, however, was not alone in its high proportion of tilled land in 1086. Application of their methodology produces a figure of 44.5% for Worcestershire. In Shropshire, where settlement sites remain poorly defined and, as at Abdon, medieval settlement sites may occur in areas largely without modern dwellings, they give a figure of 20.3%. Perhaps most startling of all is the calculation that can be made for Staffordshire, suggesting that only 13.9% of the land was tilled in 1086, which clearly has bearing on the intensity of settlement and its economic base. However, this statistic has to be set alongside the record in Domesday Book of some 63 mills in Staffordshire in 1086. If confidence can be placed in the methodology, the outcomes emphasise both the diversity of the West Midlands and some of the aspects requiring further research.

There is no area that would not benefit from further work on rural settlement, as in even relatively well studied counties like Warwickshire there are issues to resolve. Here, knowledge of the Feldon is much more comprehensive than for the Arden, such that the latter is regarded as a local priority. In Worcestershire, despite some significant, essentially documentary, case studies, rural settlement has not been sufficiently prioritised. However, it is Staffordshire and Shropshire that are perhaps the most neglected in studies of rural settlement. This is certainly not a reflection of any lack of potential. For instance, even in the conurbation that now dominates what was once the southern part of Staffordshire, fieldwork might reveal previously unrecorded settlement sites, like that known as Cooper’s Bank, near Dudley, recorded in 1990 by Peter Boland (Hunt 1997, 134-6). Such instances highlight the need for more coherent studies of settlement in Staffordshire, and the same is certainly true of Shropshire. What is required of this work, as the researches in Herefordshire remind us, is the need to confirm and map settlement density in the medieval period, and to examine more closely the form that it took. This latter point is given greater weight in light of recent developments. Firstly, there is the increasing sophistication that is being urged in the interpretation of medieval landscapes and their settlement patterns – simple ‘nucleated’ or ‘dispersed’ tags are no longer sufficient. This requires a review and possible re-evaluation, even of those areas considered as having been fully examined, while for other areas the process is considerably enriched by the work done around the country over the last 20 years or so. Secondly, the work of Roberts and Wrathmell that culminated in the publication of their Atlas of Rural Settlement in England (2000) and then of an interpretative essay (2002) has offered ready access to a model that might be applied and its veracity interrogated. Indeed, as the authors recognise, if their work is to be widely applied, and if it were to be adopted as one context in which the vulnerability of the archaeological resource might be assessed, then there is a need to rigorously test it at the level of region and locality (ibid, 192). As Dyer (2001, 117-118) commented, there is value in their ‘top-down’ approach, but there is now a need for ‘bottom-up’ case studies to test it.

The archaeological information that we have for medieval rural settlement naturally falls into two basic categories. Firstly, there is that which informs on layout and distribution arising from survey work, ranging from parish surveys, like Pendock and Hanbury, to individual sites like Baginton in Warwickshire, or Chartley (George 1997) and Wychnor in Staffordshire. These reflect ongoing programmes of work of a kind found across the region that are certainly needed, but it is problematic that more often than not the results of the work may not be fully assimilated, beyond being recorded in the SMR. In some cases this is because, as at Wychnor, the work was done partly under the guise of PPG15 (or elsewhere, PPG16), and partly as a project undertaken by Continuing Studies students (Meeson 2003, 4). Non-excavation fieldwork of this kind lends itself to the attentions of local societies and community groups, and important contributions may be made (eg Barston, Warwickshire).

In the region as a whole, there is clearly a lack of excavated sites, again a concern that is particularly acute in some areas like Shropshire and Staffordshire. On the whole, the trial trenching often undertaken as PPG16 related work, but which does not progress further, fails to adequately address this lacuna, all the more so when it is noted that what has been recorded remains largely unassimilated. Generally speaking, at best this process will confirm the presence of medieval activity, but may well fail to demonstrate its nature.

Photograph of an archaeological excavation taken from above, a wall is visible.
Fig 6.1 Excavations at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, in 1987 (copyright John Hunt)

While the current trend has been to move away from large-scale excavations, there can be no doubting the contribution that such work has made to our knowledge of medieval settlement in the region. Warwickshire has an enviable record in this regard, even though this is work that has largely come about in the last 25 years or so. At Burton Dassett Southend (1986-1991; Fig. 6.1) excavation revealed the plans of 20 houses, largely stone built, and with evidence of occupation from the mid 13th to the late 15th century. Outbuildings and a smithy were also excavated (cf Dyer 1996, 126-8; Palmer and Dyer 1988, 216-19). At Coton on the Wolds excavation has revealed a site with over 20 post- built structures, and demonstrated occupation that began in the 10th/11th century and lasted to the late 13th/14thcentury. Among smaller excavations in Warwickshire, most of which produce only partial plans, mention should be made of Botelers Castle, Oversley (1993) (Jones et al 1997). Here, medieval occupation within an enclosure has been interpreted as a settlement site of 12th-/early 13th-century date associated with, and dependent upon, the motte and bailey castle. This pattern of excavation on settlement sites is difficult to match elsewhere in the region, but even in Warwickshire there remain lacunae in our knowledge, most obviously in the Arden.

The lack of excavation has other implications. Firstly, we are relatively poorly informed about building types in rural settlements. A consequence of this is that frameworks of reference are set by returning to sites now excavated some time ago, generally outside our own region, such as the Upton longhouse (Hilton and Rahtz 1966), Barton Blount (Beresford 1975) and Wharram Percy (Hurst et al 1979). The documentary studies of historians such as Field (1965) and Dyer (1986) have ‘offset’ this gap in our information, but they cannot obviate the need for archaeological work as well, particularly when considering questions of possible regional characteristics.

Undoubtedly of growing importance is the contribution made by standing buildings. For example, 14th-century buildings have been identified in Staffordshire. In Yoxall, Reeve End Cottage has been identified as an early 14th- century timber-framed building that was once an open aisled hall (Hislop 1985-6), and another 14th-century building has recently been discovered here. At Longdon, in 1995 following fire damage, a medieval aisled hall and cross-wing of possible 14th- century construction was surveyed, and identified as a probable house-byre (Meeson 2001). Staffordshire is hardly unique in this respect. In Shropshire, a programme of dendro-dating has greatly enlarged the number of known medieval buildings in the county, the results of which have recently been summarised by the late Eric Mercer (Mercer 2003). Over 250 cruck houses have been identified, ranging in date from the late 13th to the mid 16th century, although most are of mid to late 15th-century date (ibid, 125). Mercer (2003, 123) concluded that many had been the dwellings of peasants, albeit relatively affluent members of their class. There are also instances of box-framed halls from around 1300, perhaps to be associated with the minor gentry.

Photograph of a black and white striped building with graveyards in the foreground.
Fig 6.2 ‘The Saracen’s Head’, Birmingham; the north and northwest ranges (copyright Mike Hodder)

Dendro-dating across the region has demonstrated the presence of structures surviving from the 13th century – the West Bromwich manor house is another good illustration – and furthermore, the relative frequency of 15th–century examples. In Birmingham, buildings such as the ‘Saracen’s Head’, and the ‘Old Grammar School’ (Kings Norton) may be added to their number (Fig. 6.2). At the same time, some studies have suggested a 14th–century ‘gap’ in the record (Esling et al 1989, 22-9), the significance of which requires fuller exploration. The importance and number of surviving medieval buildings will surely grow in future years, posing further challenges to those engaged in heritage management and development control, and will inevitably have implications for the approaches adopted by archaeologists.

However, there are some questions on rural buildings that only excavation is likely to answer. For example, were there sub-regional differences in rural buildings, and did differences occur between the buildings that one might expect within a nucleated settlement, as opposed to one of a more dispersed character? Similarly, it is excavation

that has the potential to provide our most satisfying evidence for the material culture on medieval rural settlement sites, but at present our knowledge in the West Midlands is ‘broad brush’ in nature, often informed from outside the region, and we still know least about the dwellings and material culture of the poorest in society.

When the current position is reviewed, what is striking is the relative ease with which research priorities can be identified, and the extent to which these are actually quite fundamental questions that one might have expected to have already been tackled. The discipline of ‘medieval archaeology’ only emerged as a taught academic discipline in the 1960s and 1970s, and there is now a need for the data collected in the second half of the 20th century to be assimilated and analysed, in addition to which, of course, there is the constant torrent of data arising from PPG16 and PPG15.

What questions and issues emerge from this review?

  • The question of village origins remains as critical as ever it was, particularly in light of the regional imbalances in the distribution of work relevant to this issue. Clearly there is a need to work on settlements with pre-Conquest phases, and which might be related to the major socio-economic shifts occurring in English society, such as the development of open fields, the growth of dependent tenure and the onset of manorialism. The precise distribution of nucleated settlement, the point at which it appears in the landscape, and the factors that gave rise to it are critical. On this, the recent contribution of Williamson (2003, 23-7, 180) identifies one approach that should be tested, that is, the influence of soils, topography and the environmental context. Over the last decade, Warwickshire has started to produce sites of 10th- and 11th-century date, such as Pillerton Priors, Goldicite, Loxley, Flecknoe and Ettington. Coton on the Wolds also seems to have originated at this time, having produced evidence of enclosures and buildings of this period. While it seems reasonable to suppose that such settlements were emerging in the 9th and 10th centuries across the region it has not elsewhere been evidenced so directly by archaeology. Dyer’s (1996, 118) observation, made in the context of Warwickshire, that sites with 10th- and 11th-century activity are relatively few, remains broadly true.
  • The fluidity of settlement has long been recognised, but the nature and context for it remain valid questions to address. Re-planning is clearly a phenomenon that affected many settlements, as at Coton on the Wolds where there was a phase of such activity in the 12th century. How widespread was this phenomenon, at this and other dates, and what was the socio-economic context to which it related? Was this a feature of all settlement types, or does it only manifest itself on nucleated sites?
  • The desertion and/or shrinkage of rural settlements is another long recognised and studied phenomenon, but again there remains much scope to explore this in detail. This has to be done within the wider context of settlement ‘life cycles’, of how and why settlements of various types grow, and against trends that might be observed within urban settlement. Indeed, settlement development must be studied in the context of the wider landscape within which it was set. In Warwickshire, Coton was abandoned in the late 13th/early 14th century, Oversley in the early 13th century, and Spennall and Loxley both experienced shrinkage in the mid/late 14th century. All these contrast with the late 15th-century desertion of Burton Dassett and elsewhere which, in the past, has been regarded as the norm. In Worcestershire, desertion is no longer associated only with nucleated settlement in the south-east of the county, and nor is it seen as simply a late medieval phenomenon; it is now known to have affected all parts of the county, including the hamlets in the north. However, the study of such issues in Worcestershire is again hampered by a lack of archaeological data and excavated sites, and has hardly been addressed in other parts of the region, such as Staffordshire.

The scope for further work is immense, but is unlikely to be addressed through the opportunities afforded by developer-led work. The future prospects are not necessarily all negative. While opportunities for large-scale excavation must be seized wherever they arise, it is difficult to envisage the likelihood of such extensive and structured research opportunities. However, the Whittlewood project is demonstrating the potential value of small-scale interventions, within the context of an integrated research methodology, and there remain the constant contributions of field survey work (Dyer et al 2002). There are areas where the mapping of data is still a basic requirement, and there is no shortage of models to be tested. This is one way of capitalising on specialised academic studies, which in turn might be related to developing and enhancing the role of HERs as research tools. However, there is an urgent fundamental need for publication, which touches on all aspects of medieval archaeology in the West Midlands region.

Urban settlement

Towns have been a theme of particular interest in the West Midlands and, like rural settlement, they have attracted the interest of historians and geographers as well as archaeologists. It is this multidisciplinary dimension, with its various methodological approaches, that has provided the foundations upon which we need to build. Rescue archaeology, the foundation of which was one of the defining points in the development of British archaeology, had urban origins and a West Midlands profile.

Although often blurred, it has become customary and useful to make a distinction between large towns and small towns, even though the key issues facing both are essentially the same. Not surprisingly, it is the study of the larger towns that is the longer established, reflected in the large-scale excavations and synthetic publications of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and which still largely form the basis of our current understanding of larger towns in the region. During this period there were major excavations, some of national importance, in Worcester, Hereford, Shrewsbury and Stafford. Some of the later work in this sequence is still in the process of publication and assimilation. In the case of small towns, it has only been over the last ten years or so that there has been any appreciable advance in our knowledge of their archaeology. A perception that such towns offered low archaeological potential seems to be the principal reason for this ‘late start’, but this has now been reversed. The demonstrable increase in our archaeological understanding of small towns since the 1990s is related to both the provoking contributions of other disciplines, and the stimulus that PPG16 has provided for archaeology. Often dealing with relatively shallow stratigraphies in small towns, even small-scale interventions in such places can be informative, as at Pershore, Evesham and Leominster. For both large and small towns, the 1990s also saw the development of urban surveys supported by English Heritage, another factor in the rapid development of archaeological evidence for towns. An urban database has been completed for Shrewsbury and is in progress for Worcester, while in 1992 an ‘extensive urban survey’ was launched across the smaller towns of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, producing a detailed study of over 50 urban settlements.

Aerial photograph of an city, a central building has a large archaeological excavation on either side.
Plan drawing of a medieval cottage, rectangular in shape with various internal features visible (cesspits, boundaries, and other structures).
Fig 6.3 Deansway, Worcester; aerial photograph of site, combined with plan of medieval urban cottages (copyright Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service and Council for British Archaeology)

While it is the case that the extent of survey and archaeological fieldwork varies across the West Midlands, and that there are outstanding issues to address, it is also clear that work on towns is broadly based. Worcestershire has been fairly fortunate in this regard, including important early work on the small town of Droitwich. This town has been the focus of sustained and concentrated archaeological attention from the mid 1970s, leading to a detailed understanding of medieval salt production (Hurst 1997). Such work on a small town was unusual in its day, but Droitwich was always something of a special case because of its regional role in the salt trade. Excavations in Pershore and Evesham have revealed tenement plots that had become gardens by the late 14th century (Dalwood 2000). Similarly, excavations in Worcester have provided some fresh insights into the character of the medieval built environment (Dalwood and Edwards 2004). The important Deansway excavation has demonstrated the intensive occupation of this part of Worcester from the late 11th century to the mid 14th century (Fig. 6.3). In the mid 14th century an area of small plots with one- and two-roomed buildings was abandoned and became a garden plot until a bronze foundry was established on it in the late 14th century. This distinct hiatus in the intensity of occupation, albeit short- lived, perhaps reflects the impact of the Black Death. Such work has demonstrated the opportunities for examining fluctuations in town development and for comparative work, also highlighting the need to pay attention to the suburbs of towns, which might be expected to be particularly sensitive to fluctuations in population and serve as one indicator of prosperity or decline.

Among the larger towns of the region a significant contribution has been made by the archaeology of Coventry (Fig. 6.4). Excavations here have embraced major church sites (Whitefriars, Charterhouse and the Cathedral Priory), town defences, the problems of an urban castle site, and various sites within the medieval city. These have included a small but well-known corpus of buildings from Much Park Street, producing some of the best excavated sequences of structural remains from the region (Wright 1982). The below-ground archaeological resource of Coventry remains considerable.

Photograph of two archaeologists excavating a multi level site.
Fig 6.4 Excavation of a late medieval cellar in Bayley Lane, Coventry, in 1988 (copyright Coventry Museum)

Large-scale projects within the major towns of the region now seem largely to be a thing of the past. Warwick, for instance, has not hosted an area excavation within its defences since the early 1970s, and still lacks building plans or work on frontages in the town, but work has continued. Among the more significant recent works have been excavations on the Market Place, where 11th-century occupation was revealed at the rear of the ‘Woolpack’. Medieval stratigraphy has been seen in Castle Park and High Street, and much small-scale work has also been carried out on Warwick’s suburbs, although with limited results. In Shrewsbury there has been a major study of urban monasticism (Baker 2002), and Baker has also undertaken an intensive survey of the town’s archaeological resource, providing a better understanding of the town’s origins and growth. Stafford has also seen continued activity, although not on the scale of Carver’s work in the late 1970s (Carver 1981). More recent excavations have produced another possible Stafford ware kiln (Darlington 1997, 5-6), a substantial garderobe, a water mill with a sequence commencing in the late 12th century, and a series of ditches. It is suggested that the latter represents the first archaeological evidence for the site of the 11th–century royal castle within the town of Stafford and a possible pre-conquest enclosure (Cuttler, Hunt and Rátkai, 2009).

However, the main area of growth in urban archaeology since the 1990s has been in its focus on smaller towns. Perhaps the most significant in the region has been the recent series of excavations attendant upon the extensive redevelopment at the centre of Birmingham, which in the medieval period was a small town within the honor of Dudley. Substantial archaeological deposits from the city centre, from excavations initiated as a result of the PPG16 process, have informed on Birmingham’s medieval development and transformed our knowledge of it, with evidence recovered for medieval tenements, boundaries, and industrial activity, together with environmental data (Buteux 2003; Hodder 2004). The ‘Birmingham experience’ also serves to highlight a warning. The excavations have established the city’s ‘medieval credentials’ beyond doubt, but lacking an extant medieval profile in its surviving urban fabric, it is unlikely that Birmingham would ever have attracted the resources of an English Heritage urban survey.

The survival of archaeological deposits has also been demonstrated at the historic core of Dudley, and in Staffordshire there has been the opportunity for a significant series of excavations on several sites in Lichfield (eg Nichol and Ratkái 2004), while medieval occupation layers have also been examined in Newcastle-under-Lyme (Hunt 2007, 38-58). In Warwickshire several small towns have attracted work, although the results have been mixed. Evaluations on frontages in High Street in Henley-in-Arden generally produced only isolated pits, but did reveal a 14th-century standing structure. In Atherstone, excavations in the market place produced 14th- and 15th-century surfaces and timber settings and further pits and a possible tanning site have been found at Stratford-on-Avon (Fig. 6.5). Back plot survival has also been demonstrated in Sutton Coldfield (Hodder 2004, 96). In Shropshire, back garden trenching in Much Wenlock again revealed that medieval and earlier archaeology can be well preserved, enabling an investigation by ‘Time Team’ of the rear boundary of a burgage plot in Sheinton Street, confirming its origin in the early post-Conquest period. Shropshire, however, also illustrates some outstanding issues. Places like Ludlow and Bridgnorth represent complex multi-phase planned centres alongside castles, and are of outstanding potential, deserving of, but still awaiting, the same kind of study that Baker (2002) conducted in Shrewsbury.

Plan drawing showing cobbled surfaces.
Fig 6.5 Excavations in Atherstone Market Place (copyright Warwickshire Museum)

While there is some common ground in the emerging issues for urban archaeology, it serves clarity to observe the distinction between large and small towns, and address them separately. What does hold for both, however, is the general scarcity of frontage excavations, particularly on major commercial streets. The continuous redevelopment of these main thoroughfares inevitably leads to the situation where the archaeological record is dominated by evidence from backyards and rear wings. There is a need to identify potential for frontage excavations in both large and small towns, as in Shrewsbury where Baker (2002) has identified such a site at 58-59 Mardol. Recent city centre development in Worcester has resulted in the loss of medieval burgage frontages. In many cases there is no substitute for excavation, and opportunities for research excavations are clearly needed. A further common feature, widely shared, is the lack of works of synthesis, which are needed to facilitate the comprehension of the work to date, and enable the contextualisation of future work.

With regard to the large towns, the key issues might be identified as follows –

  • Cycles of urban growth and decline, and the accompanying trends in urban populations. The immense contribution made by the Deansway excavation is an encouraging marker, but rarely will the results of a single project be sufficient to define the development of a whole neighbourhood. Another significant recent contribution with wider potential has been a mass programme of dendro-chronological dating of town buildings in Shrewsbury. This has shown that the chronology of construction parallels the documented evidence for the changing fortunes of the town between the 15th and 17th centuries. Finally, as already noted above, the study of suburbs is central and essential to questions on urban growth and decline. However, this presents challenges for those charged with protecting and managing the archaeological resource, as it requires that planners recognise that there are issues within the historic environment beyond historic urban cores.
  • Industry and production. Not all industrial activities are well represented archaeologically, and it is generally difficult to assess the scale and intensity of production. The study of production sites is clearly a priority.
  • Housing and buildings. Although our knowledge of medieval housing varies from town to town, it is generally poor, all the more so before the 14th century.
  • Defences and urban castles. The demand for ring roads since the 1960s has ensured that public urban defences are among the more closely studied aspects of the archaeology of towns. While individual studies have emerged, there is an urgent need for a regional review addressing fundamental questions such as chronology, building practice and impact. Our knowledge of ‘urban castles’ is more limited, particularly in the phases following immediately after the Conquest. Shrewsbury has potential in this regard, but those at Worcester, Coventry and Stafford pose particular challenges, even in terms of establishing locations or extent.
  • The church. Important work has been done on major churches, including Hereford Cathedral and Worcester Cathedral, and a number of monastic sites, but there remains a crucial gap in our knowledge at the level of the parish.

In the case of small towns, the key priorities that emerge are –

  • Towns and their role within their wider landscapes. Small towns were not as varied or complex as large towns, but they none the less functioned as focal points in the local area. It is of fundamental importance that a closer understanding is developed, from an archaeological perspective, on

how small towns worked within their hinterlands and the wider region. Multidisciplinary studies that engage with these aspects are urgently required.

  • Town planning and urban landscapes. Building further on the work to a large extent developed in the West Midlands by Terry Slater (Baker 2003). While this is work that has been progressing since the 1970s, it would be advantageous for all small towns to be included, not least because of its value in identifying areas of archaeological sensitivity.
  • Buildings. Some small towns in the region contain buildings of national significance, as in Weobley (Herefordshire), but there is no coherent regional approach to researching medieval urban buildings. This must be developed, combining the study of standing buildings with archaeological investigations, providing an approach to the study of building types in small towns. Account must also be taken of fragmentary survivals, of the kind exemplified in a largely 19th-century town house in Sutton Coldfield which has a medieval smoke hood.
  • Crafts and trades. It is the presence of non-agricultural occupations that plays a crucial role in defining a place as a town, but the range of such occupations was not as great as in the case of large towns, and tended to be more closely related to the needs of the local rural population. The range and nature of these occupations needs to be established, and their role in contributing to the material culture of a place.
  • Development patterns. There are several issues to explore here. Small towns are generally considered to have developed in broadly similar ways, and to have similar economic structures. However, there is a need to investigate the diversity of small towns, particularly within the context of a region. The origins of small towns, their rates of growth, patterns of expansion and decline, and the factors that impacted on each of these are in need of closer study. The study of ‘failed’ towns, like that at Oversley (Warwickshire) also has a critical role to play in this theme.

The overall impression for urban archaeology in the region is a positive one, but there remain key and fundamental issues to address. While large and small towns have specific aspects on which to focus it is clear that they share a number of similar issues, and would benefit from the same initiatives. For many of the fundamental questions, it is likely that only significant opportunities for area or frontage excavations will bring satisfactory answers. This is largely beyond the control of archaeologists, who are dependent upon the opportunities that the developers’ plans might create. However, there are aspects that the archaeological community can engage with. PPG16 work will continue apace, and represents a valuable asset, but if best use is to be made of it, there is an urgent need for works of synthesis that properly analyse the material that has already been recovered, to inform both curators and contractors. Similarly, there is an urgent need for a successor to the urban survey projects that now appear to have stalled. The value of these projects in identifying the archaeological resource in towns, and in providing a clear intellectual context for subsequent archaeological work, is manifest. It is a clear regional priority that this kind of stimulus is again established.


The study of hinterlands is central to understanding more fully the relationship between town and country, not only in terms of patterns of trade and exchange, but also with regard to social and economic structures and change within medieval society (cf Perring 2002, 2-4). Hinterland studies also provide an appropriate framework for the discussion of settlement hierarchies, for examining the impact of urban settlement on the landscape, and for the key issues already identified by Perring (2002, 3).

While recognising the immense potential inherent in the study of hinterlands, there is an issue of how they should be recognised and defined. The historian might use the evidence of debts, landholding, migration, trade links and membership fraternities to identify a hinterland, as has Dyer (2000, 34-9) for Bromsgrove between 1275 and 1520. However, Ratkái (2003) points out that hinterlands so defined are much smaller than the areas suggested by the pattern of pottery distribution. There are also the inevitable differences of scale between the likes of Bromsgrove and a major urban and trading centre such as Coventry.

What are the most appropriate ways of defining hinterlands? This question is a key issue that must be explored within the West Midlands region to develop a consistent approach and framework for comparative studies. However, as noted by Perring (2002, 11), this is a complex theme to address. Archaeology might turn to use the spatial distribution of certain items, such as pottery, but in the medieval period the movement of such items was not constrained by modern notions such as transport costs. Invisible controls such as networks of patronage, obligation, tradition, or estate and seigneurial links, are also influential. However, these are also factors that might leave archaeological traces, and enable more sophisticated models to be developed. As has been recognised, we are dealing with complex, overlapping zones of influence acting diversely across the landscape (Perring 2002, 11). They were not homogeneous or uncontested regions. The application of ‘urban fields’ theory offers the most coherent and broadly-based approach. Having developed a consistent approach relevant to the region, it will be possible to undertake comparative studies, not only between towns of similar standing, but also between urban places of different size and status. Such studies of smaller towns have particular potential to investigate the socio-economic fabric of medieval life.

Life and death in the medieval West Midlands

Life in town and countryside

An important area to prioritise and maximise is the contribution made by environmental archaeology to our knowledge of medieval life in town and country. A number of sites across the region have produced information, although these samples derive predominantly from urban sites, and many are small-scale. Human activity obviously does much to preserve environmental data from the period, as a result of pit and ditch digging, wells, cesspits and refuse dumping.

The value of this work may be illustrated in a simple case study. Stafford has been the subject of environmental sampling on several occasions, including an area known as King’s Pool, a post-glacial hollow infilled by a sequence of deposits, offering 21m of organic sediments (Bartley and Morgan 1990; Pearson et al 1999). Work here has demonstrated the value of so-called ‘off-site’ studies, sampling deposits in landscape features as well as those in more conventionally defined archaeological sites. Analyses of pollen, sediments and plant microfossils, undertaken in the context of watching briefs, have illustrated an environmental history running from the Mesolithic to the medieval period. Investigations here have been supplemented by several other sites in the town, which has demonstrated the need for a corpus of material rather than single samples.

Work in 1990 suggested continuous occupation and no evidence for woodland regeneration in the post-Roman period, whereas later work in Stafford has challenged this, indicating an abrupt break in the cereal pollen record and some signs of woodland regeneration in this period (Bartley and Morgan 1990; Pearson et al 1999). This phase was followed by a renewal of agricultural activity in the Anglo-Saxon period, with sharp increases of rye in particular, apparently processed in the town. The evidence for farming became increasingly significant from the 10th century, with suggestions of a three-fold increase in cereal production, reflecting the growth of Stafford itself. Samples of charred plant microfossils taken in Gaolgate Street (Dodd et al 2004) from 13th- and 14th-century contexts were dominated by cereal grains, particularly oats suited to less favourable soils, and weeds of cultivated and disturbed ground. Arable fields are indicated (bread-type and rivet-type wheats are present), together with material brought in from upland heathland environments, presumably for use as bedding, flooring, fodder, thatch, and perhaps fuel.

Insect assemblages (Robinson 2003) have been produced from sites in Hereford, Birmingham, Stone, Worcester and elsewhere. Cesspits, particularly common in urban medieval sites, suit some insects and it is on such sites that the insect evidence has proven most informative. However, small organic deposits may also be preserved by very local conditions (eg Fishgate Street, Worcester). Medieval town life brought together large quantities of organic material, of which the insect fauna took advantage. Urban conditions included decaying organic material, foul stable cleanings, cesspits with maggots and timber buildings with woodworm and deathwatch beetle, but the presence of clean areas demonstrates that caricatures of medieval life should be avoided.

Mollusc assemblages (Murphy 2001b) have the potential to inform on landscape change and the nature of the immediate environment, although they are often poorly preserved in the soils of the region. The potential of mollusc assemblages is well illustrated by their aid in the interpretation of two moated sites in Stansted (Molehill Green and Round Wood; Murphy 2001b, 20) where they were used to identify a hay meadow and an assart, but such approaches have not yet emerged in the West Midlands. However, mollusc assemblages have been used to effect in Friars Road, Coventry, where ten species showed the wet marshy medieval town ditch fills lingering as late as c.1800 (Soden 1990). While there is a need to expand our environmental database in the region, this is particularly acute in rural contexts.

Population studies

In the West Midlands, in so far as medieval demography has been studied, it has primarily been the preserve of historians (eg Razi 1980). This was inevitable. Apart from the fact that until recently the study of human bones was not a high priority in British archaeology (Mays 1998, 195), it is also the case that there have been relatively few opportunities presented archaeologically to undertake such studies. While small-scale finds of human remains are not unusual, such as those found in Bird Street, Lichfield (Stone 1999), the problem is one of finding sufficiently large numbers in a satisfactory condition to permit meaningful study. This Lichfield sample of at least 14 individuals was studied, but the bone was found to be in a poor condition, friable and abraded. Similarly, at Haughmond Abbey, 55 cloister burials were excavated, clearly of benefactors, but the bones were not in a good enough condition to do much with (Pearson 2003). There have been more successful opportunities, such as the assemblage of 91 human skeletons from the Greyfriars cemetery in Stafford (Booth 1998), the burials excavated at Sandwell Priory (Hodder 1991), and about 130 burials from various sites in Coventry (Soden 1995; Rylatt and Mason 2003). Excavations at Hereford Cathedral in 1993 produced a total of 1129 recognisable inhumations, with the likelihood that overall there were perhaps some 5000 individuals represented. The condition of the bone was variable, and although the majority were described as ‘fair’, the nature of the deposit did mean that only 13% of the skeletons were complete and undisturbed (Stone and Appleton-Fox 1996, 58-61).

It therefore remains a regional research priority to find reasonable sized skeletal groups for study, and which need to be closely dated and in good condition. It would be particularly beneficial if it were possible to study such an assemblage within the context of the community that it represented, as has been possible at Wharram Percy (Yorkshire). Such assemblages offer the opportunity for the study of burial practices, demographic trends and a range of palaeopathological studies. Such studies would be further enhanced if the opportunity arose to examine both rural and urban assemblages, particularly within the context of a hinterland. Such opportunities would not only inform on the West Midlands region, but provide important comparative data to set alongside other parts of the country, such as York. The value of comparative studies within the region is also obvious. The region is unlikely to produce several major assemblages for comparison, but the examination of one major assemblage will at least provide a potential reference point for the occasional burials discovered within the context of PPG16 work.

The current trends being advocated in the study of human bones (Mays 1998), that is, employing the material to address archaeological problems relevant to the interpretation of the site and the region in which it is situated, more synthetic work directed at specific archaeological problems, and a closer integration of osteological data with other sources of evidence, would all serve the West Midlands region well. It is, of course, an issue as to where such assemblages might be identified. The inclusion of such requirements within the brief for a study of a rural settlement, evoking comparisons with the approach taken at Wharram Percy, clearly has much to recommend it. However, it has also been pointed out that Coventry has a concentration of medieval chapel sites with attached graveyards, having no post-medieval successors, which potentially also makes the city a valuable research tool in this regard.

Material culture

Traditionally, material culture is at the heart of the study of archaeology, and while archaeology has broadened its brief, this remains the case. Artefactual studies remain a defining aspect of the discipline. While the medieval period benefits, like others, from initiatives such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the West Midlands region has not seen much work in recent years on the study of medieval artefacts other than ceramics.

Material culture in the region is represented primarily by two sets of material, although the distinction is an artificial one. There is that material already held in museum collections and other archives, and then the material produced by ongoing excavation work or other discoveries. In the case of the first category of material, apart from the occasional opening of a new gallery or exhibition, as in Shrewsbury and Birmingham, medieval artefacts have not attracted any sustained study or review. Since much of the material in collections was accessioned many years ago, and has been supplemented by more recent excavated material, much of it in storage and as yet insufficiently studied, the time is ripe to address it. A coherent review of the collections needs to be undertaken on a regional basis, and there would seem to be merit in encouraging their publication as a regional assemblage, rather than institution by institution. This effectively builds on work previously commissioned by the West Midlands Area Museums Service (now, Museums and Libraries Association), and on studies conducted by the West Midlands Archaeological Collections Research Unit. The volumes recently published by the Museum of London dealing with medieval finds from excavations in London (eg Clark 1995) offers inspiration, although online publication offers opportunity for regular updating. However it is approached, accessible works of synthesis and comparative studies are urgently required.

In the case of material produced in current or recent excavations, the situation is inevitably variable and if an evaluation does not lead to a larger-scale excavation, there is unlikely to be further analysis of finds. Major excavations like those at Burton Dassett and Deansway have added to the material available, but such excavations are relatively few in number and interventions which are developer-led, while they have the potential to add to the record, in reality rarely add much of note beyond ceramic material. The chance finds of metal detectorists and fieldwalkers are of no less importance here.

In reality, the prospect of adding significantly to the region’s material culture assemblage is only likely to be forthcoming in the wake of major excavation projects. Even so, it must be remembered that many sites are relatively disappointing in the material that they produce, and their ‘productivity’ in this regard can be affected by many different factors, related to type and function of site, conditions for survival, and excavation strategies.

In the case of the West Midlands region, there is no aspect of the medieval material culture where more is not needed. The existing artefacts are in need of more detailed study, not only by typology, but also through an examination of the materials and methods of manufacture. Most recent additions have derived from urban contexts, so there is a particular need for artefacts from rural sites, and also from high status sites, such as castles and manorial complexes. The prospect of significant artefactual discoveries on church sites will always be relatively low, although such sites can present other perspectives on material culture, through church furnishings and decoration. For example, many churches preserve wall painting schemes, as at Claverley (Shropshire), while excavations, as at Coventry Priory, can add further significant examples, here in the form of the Chapter House Apocalypse Panels (Rylatt and Mason 2003, 83-9; Fig. 6.6). The region can also boast a significant corpus of sculptural decoration, including the celebrated Romanesque Herefordshire School of Sculpture, a regional school that has attracted much attention (eg Hunt and Stokes 1997; Thurlby 1999; Hunt 2004). The study of such material within the context of the society that produced and used it is an ongoing objective.

Making a living

The agricultural resource

With the possible exception of field patterns, the agricultural economy has often been overlooked by archaeologists in the West Midlands, this area being left primarily to documentary research. To some degree, this is inevitable, given the nature of the evidence, and the absence of a large-scale, settlement-focused project, within which such themes might be pursued.

However, the agricultural economy was the core activity of the vast majority of the population and deserves close attention. Work is ongoing around the region recording the ‘physical infrastructure’ of the rural economy, such as agricultural buildings and farmsteads (eg Hodder 2004, 101) and the fields that surrounded them. The recording of these field patterns, and of ridge and furrow, is an essential activity of landscape surveys, and can reveal distinctive local profiles. For example, at Walker’s Heath in Birmingham, ridge and furrow has been found to post- date 13th- and 14th-century features in the field (Hodder 2004, 125). Archaeobotanists and archaeozoologists have not been lax in their study of the agricultural economy and integral issues such as diet, drawing on sites such as Burton Dassett and Boteler’s Castle, but there is an urgent need for their researches to be brought together in a work of synthesis. The generally poor survival of bone in the region has handicapped studies of livestock, although some important assemblages have been studied, as at Dudley Castle (Thomas 2002). However, there is clearly a need for large assemblages of animal bone that might facilitate studies of local population types, of pathology, and possible indicators of animal husbandry methods.

Photograph of fragments of paintings of men's heads on a piece of wall plaster.
Fig 6.6 Coventry Priory Chapter House, Apocalypse painting (copyright Coventry Museum)

There are clearly some important gaps in our knowledge of the agricultural economy. Developer-associated work will continue to reveal isolated examples of hearths associated with domestic industrial activity, but we currently lack an archaeological perspective on the intensity, organisation and development of such activities within a rural settlement.

More specifically, mill sites, so common in the documentary record, are essentially unknown in the archaeological record of the region. This reflects the need for broadly based fieldwork across the region, attempting to translate mill locations into sites that might be suitable for excavation. While opportunities might arise in urban areas, as was recently the case for the water mill in Stafford (Hislop et al 2006), and at Edgbaston mill, Birmingham (Hodder 2004, 150; first mentioned in the 13th century), they are less likely to occur in the countryside as a result of development work.

Within this broader issue of medieval mills, there is a more specific need to address the topic of fulling mills. Wool production, especially in the west and south of the region, together with the cloth industry, was of great importance in the medieval economy. However, at what point does this become archaeologically accessible? The fulling mill, so frequently mentioned in estate surveys and the extents associated with inquisitions post mortem, is a likely point. They are widely instanced across the region, and demonstrate that wool was being processed into textiles locally. In Coventry for instance, the predominant trade was in dyed blue woollen cloth, woven in Coventry, which was at its zenith in the 14th century (Soden 2005). The presence of good waterlogged deposits here is perhaps promising for an approach based on the recovery of biological remains. Fulling mills, and more widely, archaeological perspectives on wool and cloth production, are themes not well researched archaeologically, either regionally or nationally. A necessary first step must be to ensure that HERs are confident in the data that they hold on the distribution of such sites within their area as indicated in the documentary record.

Industry in town and country

The industrial profile of the region in the medieval period was varied and, being rich in the necessary raw materials, it was very likely more important within the local economy than has sometimes been allowed. Regionally, it ranges from highly specialised activities, as at Droitwich, to the more general industrial activity located in urban and rural contexts. Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged that our knowledge of medieval industry in the West Midlands region is wholly inadequate, and that in order to take this agenda forward, there is an urgent need for works of synthesis bringing together both documentary and archaeological approaches.

While industrial activity was a feature of both towns and the countryside, it is the former that is better represented archaeologically, provided primarily through the excavation of the backyard areas of tenements, and particularly where the industries concerned required structures set into the ground. Unlike other aspects of urban archaeology, it is the excavation of backyards rather than frontages that has more to reveal on industrial activities. Among the examples of industrial activity thus demonstrated, it is possible to cite tanning at Warwick, Birmingham, Hereford and perhaps Lichfield (Hurst 2003; Tavener in prep; cf Nichol and Ratkái 2004); the distinctive evidence of bell founding and other copper alloy casting has been found at Worcester and Ludlow (Carver 1980; Hurst 2003; Dalwood and Edwards 2004), and metal working has been widely demonstrated, as at Birmingham and Dudley (Hurst 2003; Hodder 2004, 93-4). Also in Worcester, two tile kilns in the suburbs, in Silver Street and in the Tything, produced both roof tiles and floor tiles (Brown 1991; Miller et al 2004), while other identified activities have included flax retting in Leominster, possible dyeing in Hereford, and pottery manufacture in Warwick and Birmingham (Hurst 2003; Hodder 2004, 94-5). Despite the presumed ubiquity of this latter industry, the region actually has very few identified, and even fewer excavated, kiln sites. The salt industry in Droitwich has also attracted particular attention in recent years, excavations revealing much about the structures and equipment associated with production, including the site of the main brine well at Upwich (Hurst 1997).

Industrial activity in the countryside is much more elusive. The pottery industry illustrates the difficulties. Even where petrological analysis has provided indicators of production areas, locating these more precisely on the ground can be difficult, even when dealing with major potters’ sites. Such was the case with the potters operating in Hanley (Worcestershire), producing Malvernian wares over some 400 years. Fieldwork enabled Hurst (1990; 1994) to locate a pottery kiln of 15th- to 16th-century date, but their medieval antecedents remain problematic. The division between agriculture and industry was not a sharp one in the medieval period, with most crafts located at scattered sites, most probably in or near woodland settings. It may be that the medieval Hanley potters can be characterised as small-scale rural potters over a large area working in a common tradition, but there remains scope to debate the extent to which major industries, like the Malvernian, can be described in any sense as secondary or seasonal activities. Production was considerable, but its organisation remains largely unknown.

Photograph taken from slightly above an archaeological excavation - tree line on the horizon, two excavated areas in the foreground.
Fig 6.7 Wolseley glassworks on Cannock Chase under excavation in 1992 (copyright John Hunt)

There were many other industries operating within rural contexts about which we know as little, or even less. Given the size and importance of the building industry in medieval England, those industries that supplied it must have been large. Notwithstanding the evidence for tile production in urban centres like Worcester, brick and roof tile industries were perhaps mainly rural, but there is little archaeological evidence of it to hand. A tile kiln has recently been found close to the city of Worcester, and floor tile kilns are known from Malvern Priory and St Mary’s church, Droitwich. Stone quarries were also integral to the needs of the building industry, but with the exception of Shropshire, where quarries have been identified, very little is known.

Mineral extraction, by its nature, was also to be found within the countryside and was widely practised across the region, and the iron industry was another notable regional activity, particularly in south-east Herefordshire, north Staffordshire and the Dudley area. Apart from metal working hearths in towns, most of the evidence tends to be documentary in nature, although Staffordshire can illustrate some recent archaeological contributions that complement the documentary record. Excavation and survey work at Oldfurnace Cottage and Eastwall Farm in Oakamoor have demonstrated medieval bloomery sites in the Churnet valley (Harding 2004), while similar fieldwork has revealed the activities of medieval glass-makers on Cannock Chase and in Bagot’s Park at Abbots Bromley (Welch 1997; Linford 2001; Fig. 6.7). In Warwickshire, medieval smithies have been excavated at Burton Dassett and at Cawston (Palmer 2003).

The archaeological process has inevitably meant that ceramics is the most intensively studied of all the industries active in the region but, as has been noted above, there remain some significant issues to address. As might be expected, there are a number of assemblages still awaiting publication, among which is material from Worcester, Stafford and Coventry. However, this backlog in publication compounds the issue of gaps in our knowledge, dealing as we are with a region of disparate ceramic traditions, and a region in which there are relatively few good stratigraphic sequences. Indeed, some of the divisions, such as that which separates Warwickshire from Worcestershire and Herefordshire, may be traced back into the Roman period and do not seem to arise from economic factors alone. These diverse ceramic traditions are reflected by the number of type series in the West Midlands, access to which could be greatly eased if they were published on the internet.

It would be opportune to re-examine what we already have, to reassess the products of kiln sites, review site archives, and study the distribution of wares, particularly with a view to ‘commodity-trade’ based pottery distribution patterns. More use might also be made of site specific distribution plots of vessel forms, a technique that is potentially informative on spatial relationships on a site. The socio-economic dimension is a particularly important one to explore in more sophisticated ways, not only from the point of view of how pottery production worked as an industry, but also for other aspects that it might inform upon. This might encompass such as the study of hinterlands, or manorial economies and seigneurial links through travelling households. Does the frequency of Coventry type wares and Nuneaton wares at Brackley (Northants) reflect links arising from the wool trade, and of what nature? (Ratkái 2003).

There is clearly much ground to cover on the archaeology of medieval industry, with questions to address at all levels. There is a general lack of identified industrial sites, particularly in the countryside, and all aspects of production, distribution and consumption require study. The wider context of industrial activity, including its setting within the landscape and impact on its hinterland, on which environmental evidence can inform, needs to be addressed; the interrelationship between different industries certainly needs to be more forcefully explored. At the most basic, it is a matter of the relationship between the extraction and use of raw materials. There are also issues such as identifying the point at which industrial activity transcends localised need, and the question of transition between the medieval and post-medieval periods. What were the factors that ‘drove’ production? There is clearly no shortage of questions to address, but the evidence base from which to do so is relatively limited. Furthermore, our information on medieval industries is often derived from consumer sites, but the distinction between production and consumer sites is an important one, and the latter category presents only a partial picture of medieval industry. Clearly, we need to maximise what the ‘consumed’ products can tell us about production.

What key steps might be advocated?

  • Undertake a multidisciplinary overview and synthesis of what is currently known.
  • There is considerable merit in undertaking some key case studies, particularly in places such as the Ironbridge Gorge or the Black Country, where the precursors to post-medieval activity might be explored.
  • Programmes of proactive fieldwork are needed particularly with regard to rural industry, including work along waterways to seek out possible mill sites.
  • The organisation of industry within its wider setting is another key target, taking account of landscape contexts, communication networks, areas of economic connectivity, and the socio-economic perspectives of medieval industry.
  • As in most other categories, the opportunity to study any waterlogged deposits is of the utmost importance.

Organisation, marketing and communications

The organisation of medieval industry, including the factors that drive production, the acquisition of raw materials and the distribution of products, has not received a great deal of archaeological attention. This is not surprising, as these have seemingly been difficult themes to address archaeologically, the lead being taken by those working with documentary sources. However, there are aspects that have potential, particularly for multidisciplinary approaches.

A fundamental element, central to patterns of acquisition, production and consumption, is the communications network. Thus, in the case of Birmingham, it has been suggested that coal, and lime for tanning, came from the Black Country in the 13th century, and subsequent products were marketed within the region. Here, at the very least, a network into the Black Country must have been central to Birmingham’s developing economic vitality.

Reconstruction of communications networks – involving roads and tracks, waterways, and the vessels that plied them – is a major task, and a challenging one. Work to date is patchy. The most consistent contributions have been made from the study of early medieval charters (eg Hooke 1990), with which the region is relatively well provided, identifying routeways that in many cases likely continued in use throughout the medieval period, although this has not generally been specifically demonstrated. The work of geographers like Hindle has pointed to patterns of routes, but is generally not sufficiently detailed to inform on this theme. There have also been more localised studies, such as the routeways mapped in association with reporting on excavations at Stafford Castle (Darlington 2001, 6, 19-20, 91) but, in this case, the network traced is not sufficiently extensive to assist. What is required is a reconstruction of communication networks within the context of hinterlands.

This will inevitably take some time to achieve. However, something of the skeletal framework can be addressed at county and regional level relatively quickly, most obviously by the mapping of medieval bridges, fording places and ports, representing as they do key parts of the communications infrastructure. In Warwickshire, for instance, a preliminary survey has been made of the 40 bridges recorded as existing before 1550 (Palmer 2003). Such studies need to be amplified by embracing other crossing points, and by establishing a chronology for the development and expansion of the network.

Another aspect in need of study is the infrastructure of distribution supported by the communications network. In particular, it is important to look at seasonal and non- seasonal activities, and at rural markets and fairs. The likely sites of the latter are being discovered, particularly with the aid of metal detector finds of coins in fields adjacent to villages. It must be a regional priority to identify possible market and fair sites, and remain aware that developer-led interventions have the potential to reveal such sites.

Honors and manors


The agenda for castle studies has developed considerably in recent years and the West Midlands region can illustrate both why that agenda has moved on, and offer the potential for more diverse and sophisticated studies which will benefit not only the region but also enhance our understanding of castles nationally. As elsewhere, although the castles of the West Midlands have attracted interest since antiquarian times, there remains much work to do. Some parts of the region have attracted more attention than others, and there are relatively few sites that have attracted the levels of intensive study enjoyed at such as Kenilworth and Hen Domen. The situation is further complicated by the fact that some key sites which have been the subject of excavations, with the potential to address the problem of poor stratigraphy associated with many of the published sites, still await full publication. Sites in this category include Dudley, Wigmore and Castle Bromwich. The publication of this excavation backlog is urgently needed.

An audit of recent work in the region is relatively patchy. There has been survey and recording work at Warwick, and some excavation at Kenilworth and Beaudesert (Warwickshire). In Herefordshire, in addition to the study of Wigmore, there have been detailed surveys of Longtown and Richard’s Castle, and Weobley Castle has been the subject of a multidisciplinary project exploring the relationship between the castle and its attendant borough (Nash and Children 2003). However, in Worcestershire there has been very little work, the only modern excavations being small-scale evaluations on demolished sites at Evesham and Worcester, although there has been some documentary work elsewhere (eg, Toomey 2001; Field 1996).

Photograph of a hillside with the remains of the stone built walls of a castle with two partly demolished towers.
Fig 6.8 Chartley Castle, Staffordshire (copyright John Hunt)

By contrast, Staffordshire has fared reasonably well. Historians working in the 1960s and 70s established a working gazetteer of castle sites within the county as a preliminary towards more detailed studies (eg Cantor 1966; Palliser 1972), but may have missed some sites that were not obviously documented. For example, survey in advance of the Audley to Alrewas gas pipeline has identified a possible motte not previously recorded (Network Archaeology 1997). There have been excavations of varying levels of scale on castle sites at Tamworth, Dudley, Stafford, Tutbury, Alton, Newcastle, and Eccleshall, while at Chartley there has been a survey of the fabric and earthworks (Fig. 6.8). This apparently enviable record (subject to final publications in some cases), which certainly includes some important excavations informing on individual sites, none the less conveys no great sense of major contributions to the wider debates on the place of castles in their broader socio-political, economic and landscape contexts.

In many respects, some of the most stimulating and innovative of recent work has taken place in Shropshire and the March, particularly in relationship to designed landscapes, already familiar at sites like Kenilworth and Bodiam. The most spectacular of the Shropshire examples is the FitzAlan castle at Clun. Aerial photographs have shown the presence of a reflecting lake and pleasance (water garden) below the great lodgings block of c 1300, with an adjacent ‘little park’ (Stamper 1996, plate 6). Clun is not alone. At Whittington, some earthworks relate to the documented garden, all within a controlled, watery, mere-like setting (Brown 2003). Stafford Castle too has two areas more controversially interpreted as garden earthworks, the western gardens intended to be viewed from the keep of 1348. Unlike the Shropshire examples, these are not watery settings (Darlington 2001, 99), but a watery setting has recently been suggested by work in 2003 by Warwickshire Museum on the north side of the great hall at Caludon Castle, Coventry (I Soden, pers comm).

Such work reflects a more sophisticated appreciation now being brought to castle sites and points to the potential that a systematic survey of other castle sites might have for the revelation of more designed landscapes. In Shropshire for example, at Wattlesborough, a tower house of late 13th-/early 14th-century date sits on a great ditched platform, perhaps the moat that was noted in 1379. These earthworks were bulldozed some years ago, but the tower house may have shared this platform of 40 sq m with a garden, orchards and ornamental features. A site that is particularly deserving of further survey work is Stokesay Castle, purchased in 1281 by Lawrence of Ludlow. The fenestration and position of the hall proclaims it as a building ‘with a view’, looking out across the surrounding countryside. To the west of the castle there is a sheet of water, and to the south a complex arrangement of ponds and water channels. These elements are suggestive of a sophisticated building within, and enhanced by, a watery designed setting.

There is no part of the West Midlands region that does not stand to benefit from more work on castle sites, including fairly fundamental work such as mapping, density and distribution on a local and a regional basis, alongside determining the extent of individual sites within their landscapes.

Furthermore, castle studies are a particularly strong contender for multidisciplinary approaches, even though this is a position that might be reasonably argued for medieval archaeology as a whole. Revisionism and increasingly sophisticated perceptions of castles in medieval society has been a trend as evident in the work of historians as it has been in that of archaeologists, while the landscape, broadly defined, offers one context that might readily bring these disciplines together. The work that has been done in Shropshire on designed landscapes needs to be extended not only within that county, but also across the region as a whole. Apart from establishing that this is a norm, there is also a need to determine the various forms that it might take, the social range of the sites with which they are associated, and the chronological framework within which they appear. Are they features of castles from the earliest times, or do they appear over time? At what point, and to what extent, do they appear on sites of ‘lower’ social standing, and may they be associated with the development of ‘gentry culture’? These are key questions to address. Similarly, with regard to symbolic or status arrangements in the landscape, the means by which castle sites were approached is in need of closer attention, and the vistas with which they were associated, as part of a fuller appreciation of how they were to be perceived within the landscape.

The castles of the region also need to be studied within their wider contexts, those of the manor and of the honor. This provides the opportunity to examine castles within constructs and infrastructures that were meaningful to contemporaries, and facilitates our understanding of castles within socio-economic and socio-political landscapes and frameworks. This approach also enables consideration of any ‘hierarchy’ that might occur, ranging across those sites which served as a ‘caput’, to sub-honorial centres, and others that might come about for entirely different reasons, such as Symons Castle (Powys). Some preliminary work on this has taken place (eg Hunt 1997), but there is considerable scope to undertake much more, with many sites around the region that recommend themselves. While excavation should form a part of this work, it is clear that such ambitions will only be realised with the deployment of the fullest range of survey and interpretative techniques that are available. Projects currently taking shape in Staffordshire and Herefordshire have the potential to make a contribution to this agenda.

Finally, despite the proximity of the celebrated excavations at Hen Domen (Montgomeryshire) (Barker and Higham 1982; Higham and Barker 2000), the examination of a relatively modest earthwork site, such as the Warwickshire motte and bailey at Seckington, would be highly beneficial on several counts. All the points made above are relevant here. However, in addition, such research would enhance our opportunity to look at the hierarchy of sites, to examine the chronology and development of earthwork castle sites, and address the relative ‘imbalance’ within the region that has seen most work conducted on relatively large, stone-built castle sites.

Plan illustration showing a building surrounded by earthworks.
Fig 6.9 Lawn Farm moated site (copyright Noel Boothroyd)

Moated sites and manorial complexes

Moated sites are widely regarded as one of the classic field monuments of the medieval period and are characteristic of much of the West Midlands region, being particularly associated with woodland landscapes. Although moated sites have attracted the attention of historians, geographers and archaeologists, and are often perceived as having been intensively researched, the impression is to some extent a misguided one, with considerable variations in our knowledge across the region. The distribution of such sites across the region is generally well known, stimulated by the scheduling process that took place in the 1990s, although many were scheduled well before this. However, fundamental though such mapping is, it is generally the case that this dot on the map is the full extent of our knowledge of the site. Thus, the excavator on one recent project, at Lawn Farm near Stoke- on-Trent in Staffordshire, found it difficult to find sites with sufficient levels of information to enable comparative studies (N Boothroyd, pers comm; Fig. 6.9).

Several sites have been surveyed, but rather fewer excavated. When moated sites have been the subject of closer study, this has generally concentrated on the platform or the moat in the form of a survey and perhaps an excavation. Thus at Burton’s Farm, Kingshurst (Warwickshire), recent excavations stripped the entire platform, revealing a possible medieval stone building, but a paucity of finds (Palmer 2003). At Old Hall Street in Wolverhampton, recent excavation in advance of redevelopment actually had little option other than to examine the moat of the former 16th-century manor house. Relatively few attempts have been made within the region to set a moated site within its wider landscape context, although one recent exception is the work that was undertaken at Lawn Farm (Klemperer and Parkes 2000; Boothroyd 2002).

As these examples reflect, the most recent activity has taken place in Warwickshire and Staffordshire. In Warwickshire there have been more recent excavations at Old Knowle Hall, and small-scale work at Coughton Court, Baddesley Clinton, Lower Woodcote (Leek Wootton) and Chilvers Coton Manor, together with research projects at Hurley Hall and Old Berry Hall. These are all sites located within the Arden region, the woodland nature of which may be associated with the greater density of such sites. However, they are also to be found in the Feldon, at sites such as Wormleighton, although the only recent Feldon excavation has been limited work at Cawston, and work at Hunningham which remains unpublished. In Staffordshire, apart from the excavations at Lawn Farm, the most recent work was that on Drayton Bassett in the 1980s, an important and impressive site that remains unpublished. The importance of this site is given further weight by the fact that its origins may well go back to the early post-Conquest period (Hunt and Hodder 1992). This has a bearing on the problem of the chronology of moated sites. As has been pointed out before, the study of moated sites is disadvantaged by the lack of secure dating, the chronological frameworks that are frequently offered being characterised by a misplaced sense of confidence (Hunt 1997, 98).

These recent projects join an older corpus of work within the region which includes excavated sites such as Eyeswell Manor, Sinai Park, and Shareshill, all in Staffordshire; West Bromwich and Walsall in the Black Country (medieval Staffordshire); Durrance Moat at Upton Warren (Worcestershire); Birmingham Moat, Hawkesley Farm and Kent’s Moat (Birmingham), Gannow Green (Worcestershire), Weoley Castle (medieval Worcestershire, now Birmingham) and Sydenhams Moat near Solihull. Inevitably this older generation of work, as well as some of the more recent work, does not engage with more current research issues.

Despite the spate of activity in the 1990s that led to the recording and scheduling of moated sites, an activity that was, of course, facilitated by the high visibility of most sites in the field, there was rarely any incentive or opportunity to look beyond the scheduled area. In short, these sites were being divorced from the wider context in which they operated. Furthermore, the relative ease with which moated sites might be recognised also led to a tendency to overlook cognate but non-moated sites. Moated and non-moated sites are simply sub-groups of what might be described as manorial complexes, leaving aside for the moment the issue of non-seigneurial homestead moats. The moated site is often only distinctive because it has a moat. While the moat is clearly a feature of note, the purpose of which has been much debated (this writer would place the greatest emphasis upon the status connotations of a moated enclosure), its presence has tended to detract from a wider and more important observation. Namely, that we are dealing with manorial complexes of varying sizes and sophistication. Some sense of this aspect of moated sites may be gained from the work undertaken on sites outside the West Midlands region, such as that at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire. Manorial complexes represent a neglected theme in the medieval archaeology of the West Midlands region, and should become more of a focus in our research efforts. Integral to such studies should be the proper contextualisation of associated features, such as fishponds, which can sometimes be prone to examination as isolated field monuments.

Therefore, there is a need to look at moated sites within wider frameworks than has customarily been the case, engaging with wider landscapes and the tenurial patterns within them. This is, effectively, developing further those studies that have already examined such sites within the context of assarting and landscape colonisation, and addressing matters such as the impact of subinfeudation and estate division, manorial re-organisation and manorial economies and the socio-economic context in which these estates operated.

While these observations represent the main thrust of where future work is needed, there also remain some fundamental and long-standing issues to address. There are some areas where work on moated sites is needed to address previous ‘neglect’, such as Worcestershire, Shropshire and the Feldon of Warwickshire. There is also the problem of ‘identity’. It is well known that moated sites might arise in various contexts. Some are seigneurial, whereas others are ‘homestead’ sites. There are also hunting lodges and monastic granges represented within this class of field monument. The ability to distinguish between them is as important as it ever was, and is still as unlikely. The paucity of finds on many sites leaves one sceptical as to how helpful excavation might be, and the documentary record varies in its usefulness. However, a clearer understanding of the context in which these often anonymous sites occur may offer indicators.

Despite their apparent ubiquity, moated sites still have much to reveal. In terms of the PPG16 process, close attention to the ‘hinterlands’ of such sites is called for, as it is essential not to view these as single, isolated features within the medieval landscape. This is as true for non-seigneurial sites as it is for seigneurial sites. However, there is one further point of concern. The visibility of these sites in the present landscape generally arises from the survival of all or part of the moat. There were also many instances throughout the region of non-moated manorial complexes, which are often not so readily recognised. Excavations at sites such as the celebrated preceptory at South Witham (Lincolnshire) (Mayes 2002), or the survey of the earthworks of the north manor house at Wharram Percy (Yorkshire) (eg Beresford and Hurst 1990, 23; Rahtz and Watts 2004, 3-6), demonstrate the potential of such complexes. These need to be identified as a matter of urgency so that they may be incorporated into the same academic and planning policy frameworks that are developed to address the issues presented by moated sites.

The Church

The monastic church in town and country

The study of monastic sites has a pedigree reaching back into the work of antiquarians, but much of the work that has been done has tended to be very site specific, that is, work tightly focused on the church and cloister. While such studies are still prevalent, work in the region has clearly recognised the need to examine monastic sites within the context of their wider setting and landscapes. The ‘flagship’ project is undoubtedly the long-running study of Bordesley Abbey (Worcestershire). In addition to an examination of the church itself, there has been an investigation of the impact that this Cistercian house had upon its landscape in the Arrow valley, and an important excavation of a metal-working site, which has contributed to an appreciation of the Abbey within its hinterland and economic environment (Astill 1993).

More modest projects have included studies of Dieulacres and Hulton Abbeys (Cistercian) and Sandwell Priory (Benedictine) in Staffordshire, the latter comprising extensive excavations of the church and claustral buildings, set within a study of the surrounding landscape (Hodder 1991). More recently, some significant survey work has been undertaken by English Heritage in Shropshire. At Haughmond Abbey (Augustinian) this has greatly illuminated our understanding of the layout of the site (Pearson 2003; Fig. 6.10). Earthworks within the scheduled area have been demonstrated to be part of a more extensive complex, which has led to the identification of the monastic precinct boundary confining these earthworks. This work has not only demonstrated the need to revise the scheduled area, but also takes us closer to appreciating the ‘mentalité’ of the site. What was the vision of the founders? What were the zones that made up the site, their interconnections with the wider landscape of fields, woods, roads and the like, and the importance of features such as springs in determining the layout of a site? A similar survey has been undertaken at Buildwas Abbey (Savignac, then Cistercian) which revealed monastic remains, post-medieval water meadows and a Second World War searchlight complex. A study of the natural setting has led to the suggestion that the monastery was deliberately sited as close as possible to the edge of the floodplain of the Severn, perhaps representing a ‘special’ zone of cultural or religious significance (Brown 2002).

Plan illustration showing an abbey surrounded by extensive earthworks and archaeological features.
Fig 6.10 Haughmond Abbey, Shropshire; plan of earthworks survey (copyright English Heritage)

These surveys in Shropshire have also served to illustrate a point that is generally true of monastic archaeology across the West Midlands region. In certain key respects, our knowledge of monastic sites, even of major ones, remains poor. Sites like Buildwas and Haughmond are well known, but only recently have these surveys demonstrated how poorly they were actually understood. The same point may be made of most sites across the region, even more so in areas like Herefordshire, where monastic archaeology is not a current research activity. There is uncertainty regarding monastic boundaries, the location of farm courts and outer courts, of industrial areas, and of water and drainage systems. Nor has there been much targeted work on granges and monastic farms. These are very basic questions in need of urgent attention, one approach to which must be more survey work of this kind.

In Warwickshire, the most significant recent work has taken place on the Cistercian abbeys of Stoneleigh and Combe, although monastic sites are still relatively poorly researched within the county. Earlier work included excavations of varying scale at Kenilworth Priory (Augustinian), the nunnery at Polesworth (Benedictine) and at Nuneaton Priory (Benedictine) (Andrews et al 1981). There has been survey work at the Augustinian priories of Studley and Maxstoke, and at Alcester Abbey (Benedictine) (Palmer 2003). However, although the unpublished earlier work on Warwick Priory (Augustinian) is now being re-examined, it is the case that there is a particular lack of significant work on urban monasteries.

This lacuna is partially addressed through work that has taken place in Coventry. This has included excavations at the Carthusian priory (Soden 1995), the Carmelite Friary and, most recently, the Cathedral and Priory of St Mary, Coventry (Rylatt and Mason 2003), and can be set alongside key urban projects such as the excavations of Shrewsbury Abbey (Baker 2002).

In Staffordshire, although there has been some work touching on the Franciscan friary in Lichfield (eg Welch 1991; Stone 1999), urban sites are also generally poorly understood. The most significant recent project has been the work at Hulton Abbey focused on the church and chapter house, an important aspect of which has included the excavation of some eighty graves (Klemperer and Boothroyd 2004). More limited survey work has been undertaken at Croxden Abbey (Cistercian) and St Thomas’ Priory (Augustinian), together with some work on Burton Abbey, and an architectural and sculptural study of Tutbury Priory (Alexander and King 1999).

Perhaps surprisingly, given the generally high profile of monastic sites in the region’s landscape, there is a large research agenda still to be met. This has arisen partly as the nature of our questions change, and as recent survey work has underscored the extent to which our understanding of monastic sites is ‘falling short’. Our knowledge of small rural monastic houses, and of urban monastic sites, notwithstanding the excavation of friary sites such as Ludlow, Bridgnorth and Coventry, is generally poor, while there is an acute lack of knowledge of sites associated with the military orders. Of particular importance has been the survey work in Shropshire that has challenged our perceptions of monastic sites and highlighted the importance of spatial relationships in their layouts. The implications of these results must now be fully integrated into our research agendas. This sits alongside the longer established recognition of a need to investigate monastic sites within the context of their estate infrastructures, economic regimes and wider landscapes. There is a need to know much more about the interaction between monastic houses and their hinterlands, rural and urban.

Thus, two broad and consistent points emerge from this review, both of which reflect the partial nature of the work undertaken to date.

First, many would advocate the value of a large-scale excavation of a monastic site as a regional project, to establish a kind of type-site against which the more piecemeal information obtained via the development control process might be assessed. While such a project clearly has immense potential, it is not unproblematic. The likelihood of such an excavation seems remote, and currently can only be regarded as an aspiration. However, given the range of questions and contexts that need to be addressed, one single project seems unlikely to be sufficient.

Second, as has been discussed above, it is necessary to approach the study of monastic sites from a much wider perspective than that of church and cloister. It is necessary to move through a spectrum of understanding individual buildings within the context of the core site itself, the dynamic of spatial relationships, and the wider landscape setting in its various manifestations – tenurial, economic, environmental and so on. An important preliminary in this context is to ensure that all grange sites have, at the very least, been located, mapped and recorded.

While a large-scale regional project may well prove elusive, there is clearly potential to undertake key case studies that develop our capacity to understand and appreciate the range of monastic sites within the region. Haughmond and Buildwas to some extent point the way. While this requires the opportunity to obtain good field evidence, it would also be beneficial to examine, where possible, sites which also have a good documentary record, particularly cartularies, estate surveys and account books. Within these studies, the other questions may also be addressed, such as the relation of churches to earlier sites, the development of the early church, and the role of monastic sites in the development of towns. Development-led work clearly has only limited capacity to deliver on this complex raft of research questions, particularly in the absence of a reliable ‘model’ or ‘baseline’ for contextualisation.

The secular church in town and country

Although there are similarities at some points, the secular church presents a rather different set of issues from the monastic church, particularly because of close associations with settlement history. As in other areas, work to date has had a tendency to overlook wider contexts and focus instead on what is visible in the standing structure.

There is widespread recognition that our current approaches to the archaeology of church sites, led primarily by the small-scale interventions of contract archaeologists, often in graveyards, is largely uninformative. However, there are occasional exceptions. At Dodderhill (Worcestershire), it has been possible to identify a research question that small-scale trench excavations might address, namely, the presence or absence of an earlier minster, suggested by the discovery of earlier foundations on a different alignment to that of the medieval church.

The level of work on parish churches is relatively low key, related at least in part to the restrictions imposed upon archaeological investigations on such sites. This tends to arise in the wake of small developments, such as drainage work, new toilets, small extensions and the like. Churches in use fall outside the normal planning controls, the management of church archaeology being conducted through the Faculty process, and tensions can occur from the contrast between the church as a historic monument, and as a working community building. We are often seemingly better informed, through fabric surveys, on churches above ground, but this is illusory, as standing fabric reflects only one aspect of church development.

In Warwickshire, early foundations have been seen at Merevale and Temple Balsall, and there have been several seasons of work recording the fabric of the north porticus at Wootton Wawen. Evidence for the development of the church has also been forthcoming from Chadshunt (Palmer 2003). However, other west midland counties are less well informed. Shropshire is particularly poorly addressed in this respect, and one wonders if hints of a Romano-British church, and a residual British church into the mid Saxon period, as claimed in Herefordshire, might not also be sought here as suggested by excavations at Much Wenlock priory in the 1980s (Woods 1987). In Worcestershire and Staffordshire there are good levels of information on the locations of churches, a reasonable documentary base, and a number of fabric and architectural studies (eg Clifton Campville, Staffordshire, Fig. 6.11), but, with the exception of Dodderhill, little archaeological investigation beyond that associated with development control.

Photograph of a stone built church with spire with a graveyard in the foreground.
Fig 6.11 Clifton Campville church, Staffordshire (copyright John Hunt)

A still more crucial gap in the archaeological record relates to the urban parish church; work in towns has tended to focus on the greater churches. There have been very few informative excavations or surveys. In Shrewsbury none of the four former minster churches have been investigated since the 19th century, while in Worcester only one of the ten parish churches has attracted any attention. In Stafford, there has been nothing of significance since the work on St Bertelins in the 1960s. In contrast to the situation in the east and south of England, archaeology currently has little to offer on the fabric, use, development or origins of the urban parish church in the region.

Therefore, the research agenda to be addressed is substantial and fundamental in its nature. The problem is that development-led work seems unlikely in most instances to address the principal questions, certainly on a regional basis, and therefore only a carefully designed research programme seems likely to take us forward.

The origins of the parish church remain a key priority, in which this region needs to be tested against the models developed in others. Where and when did they arise, and in what context? Are we dealing primarily with seigneurial foundations between the 10th and 12th centuries? What relationship do church sites have to earlier ritual sites or central places? In reality, the means of addressing such questions, and key related issues such as the phases in church development, can only be met through excavation.

At the same time, it is essential to avoid seeing the parish church in isolation. It sat at the heart of the medieval community, and was in many respects a manifestation of the parish community, and an integral part of the settlement within which it was situated. Approaches to the research of the secular church must recognise and accommodate this fundamental perspective.

How, then, might these research needs be progressed?

  • There is a need to establish a consistent baseline survey and archaeological characterisation for each church. Part of the ‘Statement of Significance’, this should include a summary of the research aims for each individual church. In order to achieve this, it is likely that it will be necessary to address outstanding issues on the data currently held, or awaited, in HERs. Only once this process has been tackled will the numerous contractor briefs and subsequent small-scale interventions have any real chance of being meaningful. Furthermore, this is work that needs to be interdisciplinary in nature.
  • There must be a strong recommendation for the establishment of a regional research project, the fundamental objective of which is the excavation of a suitable parish church that might provide a type-site to test models from elsewhere, and against which more piecemeal information might be assessed. This is, in essence, recognising a need in the West Midlands for a project similar to Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, where a church might be fully examined within the context of the community and settlement that it served. Sites of redundant churches, like that of Pendock in Worcestershire, seem potentially highly appropriate to this kind of project.
  • For all of the work that has been done, there remains value in fabric surveys that are undertaken to a common standard and format. These have the potential to inform on regional and sub-regional patterns of

patronage and building, and again to illustrate how churches related to their communities in various ways, reflecting, for example, patterns of prosperity and decline. Patterns of regional styles and workshops in church decoration will also be properly assimilated into the HER through this process. In surveys of this kind, the value of antiquarian writings, informing particularly on church furnishings and glass, should not be overlooked. The recording of churchyard monuments should also form a part of this process.

While these points outline the main thrust of what needs to be done, it is also necessary to maintain a wider perspective still – to be aware of the possibilities of ‘lost’ churches, and to look also for opportunities to study the burials and focal points of other faiths, particularly synagogues.

Research priorities and approaches

In many respects, the medieval period is a part of our past that feels among the most familiar to us. Considerable progress has been made in our understanding of medieval life and society, but archaeologically there remain some outstanding issues and developing focal points. Research issues have been identified for each of the themes discussed in the body of the text. Therefore, in conclusion, it is not the intention to reiterate these, but rather to highlight the key broad-based trends that emerge. In many respects, they are unsurprising, and may be summarised as follows.

  • In many of the areas discussed, it is recognised that there is an urgent need to clear backlogs in publication, and to undertake works of synthesis to consolidate data and establish clear baselines. Given that archaeology will continue to be dominated by development-based investigations, such works of synthesis and comparison will provide essential tools for the interpretation of sites. This is a tool that once established will require periodic updating.
  • It is essential to overcome tendencies to see themes in isolation; they all interlock. Approaches that facilitate such aspirations must include more multidisciplinary working, particularly between historians and archaeologists and across all disciplinary specialisms. Similarly, in the majority of the themes discussed, the value of whole, landscape-based, approaches is recognised. There has been a number of landscape studies around the region, essentially exploring change in the landscape over time (eg Hodder 1991-2), or mapping elements that make up particular blocks of landscape – fields, woodland, parks, settlement, and the like. These approaches should be further developed as the mechanism best suited to examining many of the themes discussed. Consideration should also be given to how the historic landscape characterisation process might be applied to support these objectives.
  • While landscape-focused approaches are strongly recommended, it is clear that there are some questions and issues that can only be satisfactorily approached through excavation and related studies. Work undertaken in the train of PPG16 is not sufficient to address this although, given its prominence, it is important to maximise the returns through this process. However, there are very strong grounds for identifying regional research projects, including large-scale excavations, as a means of moving the research agenda forwards, and providing a framework for the better understanding of the results produced through development-led interventions. This will also help to determine if the results from PPG16 trial trenching warrant extension to more substantial investigations. Similarly, it is vital that the contributions of artefactual specialists are fully recognised and integrated into this research process, given their potential to inform on a wide range of themes and issues.

Identifying the most appropriate organisational practice for delivering on these key points lies beyond the scope of this review. However, it seems clear that redefined and enhanced Historic Environment Records departments offer a particularly apposite locus and means to drive and inform the Research Agenda, and to disseminate the results.