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You are in: Northamptonshire » A Sense Of Place

Tuesday, 2nd April, 2002 - 11:00 GMT, 12:00 BST
The History of Towcester
The Saracens Head
The Saracens Head is mentioned in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

Towcester has a rich history with many past inhabitants and many visitors.

Dr John Sunderland of the Towcester and District Local History Society takes us on a brief journey through the years.


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Towcester is the oldest town in Northamptonshire.

Its origins can be traced back to the middle stone age and thus it can be said to be as old as any community in Britain.

It appears to have been settled continuously since, as besides the Neolithic remains, there is also evidence of Iron Age burials.

Arrival of the Romans

However it was with the Romans that Towcester became established. Roman Towcester (Lactodorum) was a garrison town on the Watling Street, and the street has played a major role in its history ever since.

The Roman town was encompassed with an impressive wall strengthened at strategic points by brick towers.

Indeed the substantial remains of one of these lasted right up until the 1960s when it was unfortunately demolished to make way for the telephone exchange.

The wall was surrounded by an extensive ditch and earthworks and within its circumference were four gates; two bestriding the Watling Street, an Eastern gate, possibly now surrounded by Bury Mount, and a Western gate guarding the Roman road to Alchester.

All this suggests that what the town contained within was something worth preserving.

Nothing of it can now be found above ground but recent excavations suggest that much still remains.

St Lawrence's Church
St Lawrence's Church is thought to occupy the site of a Roman building.

St. Lawrence's Church for instance is thought to occupy the site of a substantial Roman public building and by the steps leading down to the church's boiler room can be glimpsed a small area of neat Roman tessellated pavement.

The church is well worth a visit with its fine monument to Archdeacon Sponne, the town's first benefactor.

With the departure of the Romans at the beginning of the 5th century A.D. also went their structure of government.

Struggle for supremacy

Probably there was little in the way of marked change initially but the incursion of the Saxons a century or two later brought a different attitude to the organisation of society and with it came the beginnings of the system of government we know as feudalism.

The Saxons were followed by the Danes and in the tenth century there was a struggle for supremacy.

This initially saw the Danes in the ascendant with the Saxon King Alfred driven to the far south west of his kingdom.

But Alfred the Great fought back and a settlement was reached which saw the Watling Street used to divide Wessex from Danes law.

Towcester thus became a frontier town, a position it was also to endure in the English Civil War some six centuries later.

Alfred's son Edward the Elder fortified Towcester in 917 as part of a campaign to conquer all of England. He was successful in this and Towcester became a Saxon Royal Burgh.

Normans

It remained so until the Norman Conquest when it was confiscated by William the Conqueror.

However, within a hundred years it had passed from the King's possession and throughout the middle ages it had a succession of Lords of the Manor before falling into the possession of Richard Empson, perhaps Towcester's most notorious son.

He was Henry VII's tax collector and whilst earning a knighthood from his master he earned nothing but loathing from those by whom he obtained his advancement.

The poor, taxed public had their revenge as Henry VIII felt obliged to stifle their wrath by executing him on Tower Hill on what appears to be a rather spurious charge.

Towcester shortly thereafter found itself in possession of Richard Fermor, an up and coming merchant in what was yet another age of "new men".

The Fermors were obviously more astute than their predecessors and their line continues to this day as the Fermor-Heskeths.

The Normans built a motte and bailey castle early in the 12th Century as a gentle reminder of the new order.

It was not required for that long and fell into disrepair, but the motte survives to this day behind Watling Street East and abutting Moat Lane.

It is now covered by Scots Pine, a reminder of 19th century landscape gardening, but in the English Civil War it was used as originally intended when Prince Rupert positioned ordnance on it to defend the town from the parliamentarians of Northampton.

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