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Hereford and its Saxon Origins

"combining administrative, ecclesiastical and commercial functions within a defensive circuit by the eighth or ninth century [and] may be considered to have been the most sophisticated purely Anglo-Saxon settlement to have grown up in England by that time." (Description of Hereford, Clarke and Ambrosiani, p. 37)

The history of the city of Hereford begins in the Saxon period. The name Hereford has Saxon origins, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary of Place-Names means "army-ford" (Eilert Ekwall, 4th edition, 1960).

In 1968, during work for a dual carriageway, excavations took place on the western part of the Anglo-Saxon defences in Victoria Street, less than 500m north-west of the cathedral. These revealed at least two (and possibly three) stages of pre-Conquest (1066) defences. The first phase was composed of a rampart formed of loose pink gravel. In excavating the area it was found that this stage overlay two L-shaped grain-drying ovens, which provided a radiocarbon date centring on AD 761. The date agreed is between the mid 7th and the mid 8th centuries. The first phase of the city defences must be later than this date because they lay on top of the ovens. Fragments of a Roman altar and masonry were also found to have been used in the construction of the ovens.

A timber-framed building had been built over the destroyed remains of the ovens and a small bank and ditch on the western side may have been associated with the house (a boundary bank?) or may have been the earliest phases of the defensive system. There was no dating evidence associated with the building or the bank, but this too was sealed by the first phase gravel rampart and this has been tentatively dated as mid 9th century, although an earlier date is possible. This means that the first phase may predate the reign of Alfred and his burh building programme in the late 9th century to guard against the Danish raids. There is even a possibility that the defences of Hereford date to the reign of Offa (757-796) (see Sarah Zaluckyj, Mercia, p. 201). In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there is mention of a "fortress west of the Severn" for the year 896. It is thought that this is likely to be Hereford, suggesting that the city was defended by this time. This puts the defences of Hereford as earlier than the main growth of burh building in the Midlands, which took place between 910-916.

The first-phase rampart was built from loose pink gravel mixed in with layers of clay, and originally enclosed an area of around 32 acres (13 hectares). There was probably once a fence on top of the rampart, and the gravel used to make the bank would have come from the defensive ditch on the outside. The cathedral precinct and the possible later 8th century grid pattern of streets were within these fortifications.

At the heart of the enclosure lay a crossroads which was the junction of a north-south route from the ford on the river Wye (which took in part of Broad Street) and an east-west route that survives partly in the modern streets of St. Nicholas Street, King Street and the western end of Castle Street. This put the cathedral right at the very centre of the defended area. The rectilinear, regular nature of the street system within the defences suggests that this was a planned defended town, probably pre-dating the 9th century. The fact that it may pre-date the Alfredian burh building programme is probably connected with its situation on the border of the conquered territory.

In the late 9th/early 10th century the gravel rampart was replaced with a turf and clay timber-faced rampart. This improvement of the defences also increased the defended area of Hereford to 52 acres (21 hectares). These defences later underwent improvements when they were revetted and strengthened with stone. The rear crest of this rampart was found during the Victoria Street excavations, and on the back of it two bone combs and a bronze finger ring were discovered. Unfortunately the front section of this phase of the defences had been removed during the construction of the medieval wall.
The improvements to the defences made in the early 10th century are attributed to Queen Æthelfleda, who was responsible for the building or enlarging of several towns in the West Midlands, including Warwick, Tamworth and Stafford.

Whilst much is known about the Saxon defences and their various stages, little is known about the Saxon town of Hereford. In 1972-74 the outlines of two Saxon timber buildings were found in Berrington Street, but the site had been partly destroyed by medieval pits. A large quantity of a type of Saxon pottery known as Chester ware was found. Underneath the Chester Ware a coin of Alfred (871-899) was found which helped to date the finds.

In Cantilupe Street the whole of the rampart was found because the line of the medieval wall was on a slightly different alignment and therefore the damage sustained by the Saxon remains was less. A 50m length of wall survived and is the only part in which the Saxon defences were well preserved throughout their entire width. Beneath the defences there was no sign of earlier occupation in this area, and the later phase (attributed to Æthelfleda) could be determined as consisting of clay and some turf consolidated with branches laid horizontally.

At first the rampart was fronted by a timber wall consisting of round posts 3ft (1m) apart, holding horizontal timbers. Later, a stone wall was built in front of it, acting as a massive revetment. In total the wall was about 6ft (2m) thick and had traces of a pink lime mortar. About 12ft (4m) from the front of the wall was a smaller wall about 2.5ft thick.

In 927 King Æthelstan called a meeting between himself and the Welsh Princes at Hereford, and it was around this time that the stone wall defences were built. This may have been to demonstrate to the Welsh the strength of Hereford and the difficulties facing any foreign raiders. The walls would also have helped Hereford during the Danish raids of the mid-10th century.

In 1055, Gruffyd ap Llewellyn and the Welsh attacked Hereford and burnt down the cathedral and castle. As a result of this Harold Godwinson, Earl of Hereford, built a new gravel rampart which now enclosed the market area to the north of the city.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]