Monday, 8 April 2013

Bedminster; Roman and Saxon

It has long been suggested that Bedminster had ancient origins but until the discovery of archaeological finds for a Romano-British settlement at the Mail Marketing building in West Street, evidence had been hard to find.

It is not until you look at the context of Bedminster as part of a Roman transport network set up to support the valuable lead and silver mines on the Mendips that you realise how a Roman settlement at Bedminster fitted into the Roman economy.

Likewise, it is not until you look at the context of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of the Somerset area and the assessment for tax of cultivated land by hidation that you begin to understand how important a place Bedminster was in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

To the south of Dundry it is possible to identify two “estates” each centred on Roman roads, one estate was on the northern slopes of the Mendips at Ubley-Harptree, the other in the valley of River Chew.  This Roman road network was used to transport goods, and in particular lead ingots (such as those found in 1865 in the river Frome on the other side of the river Avon from Bedminster), from the Mendips to the wider Roman world. This same road network continued to Bedminster.

The two north Somerset estates, each with links back into the pre-Roman Iron Age, one possibly controlled from a major mining settlement, the other managed from a Roman villa site, appear to have continued into the Anglo-Saxon period where their cultivated land was assessed as a rounded up block of hides (35 hides in the case of the Ubley-Harptree Estate, 30 in the case of the core Chew Estate) for the purpose of tax collection.

In the case of a putative Bedminster Estate, the boundaries of a similar type of estate to those south of Dundry are relatively easy to identify, and continued, in one form or another, to be used well into the 19th century and can still be traced in modern boundaries today.

The southern boundary abutted onto the Chew Estate and ran along the bottom of the northern slopes of Dundry Hill. To the west, the boundary was directed by the “Highridge” of land from Dundry down towards Colliter’s Brook and then along this brook and Longmoor Brook to the River Avon just before that river entered the Avon Gorge.

The northern boundary was the river Avon itself as it flowed through its then largely undrained marshes and swamps.

The eastern boundary left the river near about 200m east of the modern Totterdown Bridge before following the slope of Arno’s Vale round to the valley of the Brislington Brook and then skirted to the west of the Iron Age settlement at Filwood Park before running across Croix Top to the Pigeonhouse Stream. It then followed the Pigeonhouse stream back to Dundry Hill.

Included within this territory were the Domesday manors at Bishopsworth and Knowle.  By the time of Domesday, these had been separated from the manor of Bedminster (but not the Hundred) and had been subjected to hidation (see below).

Running south to north through the middle of this territory were two features, the naturally created Malago and the entirely man-made Roman road identified by Tratman.

Both of these features are critical to understanding Roman Bedminster.

As mentioned before, Edgar Tratman had first been alerted to the possibility of as yet undiscovered Roman roads in the Bristol and North Somerset area by a combination of the destruction of a villa site at Bedminster Down and the undoubted straightness of the road that ran through Bishopsworth towards Bristol.

The likely course of the Roman road is deviated from in several places along the present Bishopsworth Road/Queens Road alignment, although in some cases the original alignment can be identified in verges and hedgerows. 

Before the road begins its descent from Bedminster Down it passes within 200m of the site where a probable Roman villa was discovered.  As well as offering excellent access to the road system, the villa site would have also offered its occupants a wonderful view across Ashton Vale and other estate lands to the west of the Malago towards the Avon Gorge and the heights of Clifton beyond.

The course of the Roman road itself as it ran down the slope towards West Street has now been lost, at least partly due the construction of the Bristol to Exeter railway line.  However the suggestive name of Chessel Street (the field name “Chessel” is often associated with Roman archaeological deposits and appears to be derived from the tesserae used to create Roman mosaics) appears to indicate that we are on or near the right alignment as we follow West Street itself.

Passing the recently discovered Romano-British settlement on the Mail Marketing site to our right, we reach the point where West Street deviates to the left and then right again as it continues on as East Street.

On Ashmead’s 1828 town plan of Bristol, East Street appears to continue to Bright Bow Bridge after which the thoroughfare becomes Bedminster Parade. 

Bright Bow Bridge was constructed in the medieval period to carry the road over the Malago. However, given that Brigstowe already had a bridge across the Avon by the late Saxon period, it would be expected that a bridge across the Malago at this point would have been in place to provide access to Bristol Bridge by the time it was built.

Whether or not the Roman road continued as East Street across the Malago is of secondary importance as to the main purpose behind a settlement at Bedminster.

The main purpose of Bedminster may have been to act as a terminus of the Roman road network where the transportation would switch from land-based to waterborne transport. In short, Bedminster was likely to have been a trajectus.

A trajectus could simply provide a ferry crossing of the river Avon to provide access to the road network to the north. However, depending on the facilities available at Bedminster, there may also have been a link to the well attested Roman sea-port of Abona at Sea Mills.

Unfortunately we do not know for certain the capacity of the Malago for providing waterborne transport at Bedminster. In the mid-12th century, the Abbots of St Augustine (now Bristol Cathedral) were granted the right to build a mill at the point where the Malago joined the Avon – this would have been in addition to the Mill that already existed on the Malago and was recorded in Domesday.  The mill constructed for St Augustine’s Abbey obviously closed the Malago to any river traffic and we have no documentary evidence for how the river was used before this.

In 1219, the Hospital of St Katharine was established on land west of East Street close to the course of the Malago and this is the most probable site for any Roman jetty or quayside facilitating the loading of barges for transport across or along the Avon.

It would certainly have been within the capability of the Romans to modify the lower reaches of the Malago to accommodate a ferry crossing.  We know that the lower reaches of the Trym, a river of similar stature to the Malago, were used to provide harbourage facilities for Abona.

The alternative would have been for the East Street Roman Road to continue over the Malago to the higher land at Redcliffe with direct access to the Avon itself.

Whether the barges were loaded on the Malago at Bedminster itself or on the Avon at Redcliffe, it may well be that the Lead Ingots found in the river Frome in 1865 were there not as a result of a road accident during transportation along the Bath to Sea Mills Roman Road but as a result of a river accident involving a barge from Bedminster transporting lead up the Frome to some destination unknown.


“The king holds Beiminstre, 'Betministra'[Bedminster]. King Edward held it. It never paid geld, nor is it known how many hides are there. There is land for 26 ploughs. In demesne there are 3 ploughs and 3 serfs, and (there are) 25 villeins and 22 bordars with 10 ploughs. 'There are 1 riding-horse and 9 beasts and 22 swine and 115 sheep.' There is a mill paying 5 shillings, and 34 acres of meadow. Wood(land) 2 leagues in length and1 league in breadth. It pays 21 pounds and 2½ pence at 20 pence to the ounce.

The priest (presbiter) of this manor holds land for 1 plough, and it is worth 20 shillings. Of this manor 'Geoffrey' the Bishop of Coutances holds 112 acres of meadow and wood(land).”

From: 'Text of the Somerset Domesday: Part 1', A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 1 (1906).

By the time of Domesday in 1086, the Roman villa at Bedminster Down and the economic system it was part of had long disappeared.  Nevertheless, there are still hints from the Domesday book that Bedminster had once been one of the most important settlements in Somerset.

For a start Bedminster was, like Chew to its south, listed as a Hundred in its own right in the Geld Inquest associated with the Domesday Survey, although linked to the Hundred of Hartcliffe in the survey itself.  The Hundred of Bedminster in the Geld Inquest includes Bedminster, Bishopsworth, Knowle and Abbots Leigh.  Unlike the other Bedminster Hundred manors, Abbots Leigh was listed as part of Portbury Hundred rather than as part of Hartcliffe with Bedminster Hundred in the Domesday Survey itself.

Even more interesting was that Bedminster was one of a very select group of Royal manors or “ancient demesnes” in Somerset that “never paid geld, nor is it known how many hides are there”.

The process of assessing the various land units in terms of hides for each landholding or estate was a process that began soon after the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex penetrated the great wood (Selwood to the Anglo-Saxons, Coed Mawr to the Ancient Cornish) that once separated Somerset from Wiltshire in the middle of the seventh century and took control of most of Somerset east of the river Parrett.

Already, in the seventh century, charters were being issued in Somerset referring to land in terms of number of hides (or cassatti or mansi or some similar Latin terminology). Therefore any landholding that had never been hidated must have been identified from a very early date for exemption from hidation.

The only reason why an estate might not be assessed in terms of hides is if the estate already rendered a service to the new ruler that was considered so valuable that there was no need to levy a tax via hidation.

Before the creation of the hundredal system in Anglo-Saxon England, the early Kings of Wessex regularly visited their most important Royal centres or ancient demesnes where dues and services were rendered and justice done.

Instead of paying tax, the small group of ancient demesnes that included Bedminster were responsible for providing banquets to feed the King and his entourage which may also include overnight accommodation as the King travelled around the shire.  

Later, with the introduction of the hundredal system and the appointment of Royal officials to act on behalf of the King, these food rents were usually commuted to a monetary value.

In Somerset, several of these ancient demesnes had their food-rents combined to provide “one night’s fee” and in most cases the ancient demesnes so grouped are geographically adjacent.

Thus, of the ancient demesnes closest to Bedminster, Cheddar is paired with Somerton to provide one night’s fee, and Frome is combined with Bruton in the same way.  Meanwhile, further south, Williton, Carhampton and Callington are combined as are North Petherton, South Petherton and Curry Rivel.

Only Bedminster and Milborne Port, two ancient demesnes that are geographically distant from each other are left separate despite the combined monetary value of their food-rent being equivalent to one night’s fee.

There may be a relatively simple explanation for this.

Bedminster is within one day’s travel on horseback to either Frome or Bruton. In turn both are within one day’s travel to either Cheddar or Somerton.  Williton, Cannington and Carhampton are next, and are similarly within one day’s travel of Cheddar or Somerton although Carhampton is on the limits of what could be travelled in one day.  Next, both the Pethertons and Curry Rivel are within a day’s travel of Williton and Cannington although Carhampton to South Petherton is close to the limit of a day’s travel.  Finally South Petherton and Curry Rivel although possibly not North Petherton can reach the final ancient demesnes at Milborne Port within one day.

What perhaps distinguishes Bedminster and Milborne Port from the other ancient demesnes is that each can be easily accessed from other parts of Wessex.  Milborne Port lies close to Dorset, whilst Bedminster would have been reachable from Wiltshire via the River Avon.

Perhaps what we have here is a remnant  of when Bedminster was either the first or last port of call for early Anglo-Saxon Kings as they completed their circuit of ancient demesnes dispensing justice and receiving the dues and services from the peoples over which they ruled.

In Domesday, Bedminster only accounted for one quarter of a night’s fee, whereas Milborne Port provided three-quarters of a night’s fee. Perhaps what we see here is the very earliest example of Bed and Breakfast versus Full Board?

In short, Bedminster may have been the entry point for the earliest West Saxon kings to enter their newly acquired lands as they toured their exclusive “ancient demesnes” to confirm their royal authority over what would later become Somerset.



"Bedminster Church, dedicated to St John Baptist, is very ancient; on the north-west abutment of the tower is a stone with a date 1003 upon it; so that it must have been built in the reign of King Ethelred. It is a vicarage, is mother Church to Redcliff and St Thomas in Bristol and Abbots-Leigh; the parish is of large extent and gives name to a hundred. …. This Church has the appearance of great antiquity, and stands in a very pleasant and rural Church-yard.”

One other indicator of the antiquity of Bedminster is implied within its name.  Minster churches or monasteria were religious communities that catered for a wide area.  There was a great surge in the creation of minster churches by the Anglo-Saxons in the late 7th century to mid-8th century. We certainly know that an Anglo-Saxon church existed in Bedminster by 1003.

However, it was already accepted that when St Augustine met the British (i.e Welsh) Bishops in 603 AD, an event that may have taken place on College Green in Bristol, the Welsh west of the Severn were already largely Christian and had been for some time.

Presumably if the unconquered Welsh west of the Severn had already been Christian in 603 AD, then it seems probable that the unconquered Welsh (soon to be Cornish) west of Selwood and south of the Bristol Avon were also Christian as well and remained so when they were conquered by the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex half a century or so later.

If Bedminster had indeed been a traiectus during the Roman era then it would have been a suitable site for an early Christian religious shrine that could be used by the faithful – both those who lived in the settlement itself and also those who travelled through the traiectus whilst they waited, perhaps overnight, for the next ferry.

This is supported by the suggestion by local historian Anton Bantock that Bedminster’s name includes a reference to “Beydd” the ancient British or Welsh word for baptism.

There may even be a nearby religious significance to the site that predated Christianity and the Romans.

I recently wrote about the possible correlation between the many sites known as Mutton Tump (including Brandon Hill in central Bristol, Maes Knoll on Dundry Hill, and The Netham in Barton Hill) and the possibility of the name being a derivation from the term “Nemeton” signifying the sacred groves of pre-Christian religious belief.

It is with this in mind that I note that, with the churchyard of the now demolished St John’s Church possibly marking the site of the earliest Minster church, and next to it the river Malago which may have been the site of early Christian baptisms, we find on the directly opposite bank of the Malago the hill now usually referred to as Windmill Hill, but whose southern end is clearly marked on the 1880’s County Series map as Mutton Hill.

1 comment:

  1. just read the domesday account of bedminster and found your article very interesting. I am surprised that the information gatherers must have been in bedminster and near bristol but did not focus on bristol. if you look at exeter almost every house ownership seems to be catalogued.
    The minster observation fits with the piece on saxon bristol. The minster may have been at bedminster and not bristol and not saint peter. Was john more popular at that time than the roman peter?