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Roman settlement site, Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal palace, and St Columbanus' Chapel

A Scheduled Monument in Cheddar, Somerset

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.2735 / 51°16'24"N

Longitude: -2.7789 / 2°46'44"W

OS Eastings: 345761.150619

OS Northings: 152989.800078

OS Grid: ST457529

Mapcode National: GBR MG.05S9

Mapcode Global: VH7D1.S883

Entry Name: Roman settlement site, Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal palace, and St Columbanus' Chapel

Scheduled Date: 16 December 1999

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1017290

English Heritage Legacy ID: 29673

County: Somerset

Civil Parish: Cheddar

Built-Up Area: Cheddar

Traditional County: Somerset

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Somerset

Details

The monument includes the core of an extensive area of Roman settlement
overlain by an Anglo-Saxon royal palace and meeting place which was later used
as a royal residence by the Normans. The medieval chapel of St Columbanus,
which is Listed Grade II, stands as a ruined structure within the complex. The
monument, which stretches from Station Road to the banks of the Cheddar Yeo
river, lies on relatively low lying ground at the foot of the Mendip hills at
the southern end of Cheddar Gorge. Its extent has been established by way of
excavation, evaluation, and the recording of crop marks, over the course of
several decades from the 1950s onwards.
The earliest recorded occupation on the site belongs to the Roman period and
pottery dating from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD has been recovered from
many evaluation trenches dug within the area of the monument in advance of
building works. Roman burials uncovered north of the vicarage further attest
to the presence of a Roman settlement. The occupation traces appear to be
associated with a Roman villa estate, the main building of which is
represented by parch marks just to the south west of St Andrew's Church. The
parch marks (where the inability of the soil to retain nutrients above the
underlying walls produces discolouration of the grass or crops) have been
plotted to reveal a building plan which most likely represents part of the
living quarters of a villa, a well known Roman building type which provided
high class accommodation for its inhabitants. Its recorded extent, north-
south, is about 50m but further sections of the building may lie beneath the
modern graveyard to its east. Roman villas are known, in many cases, to have
supported a range of ancillary buildings associated with farming and other
activities. A number of hearths and furnaces have been discovered in the
vicinity of the Cheddar villa whilst a large domestic building with stone
foundations was found to its north west in 1999. The villa would have been
served by the River Yeo which appears to have been navigable by small craft
from the Bristol Channel via the River Axe in earlier times. The findings of
wall plaster and tesserae (for mosaics) indicate the presence of high status
buildings and a number of 4th century coin finds demonstrate that occupation
may have extended towards the end of the Roman period and probably beyond. It
has been suggested that the Roman site might be identified with the
settlement of Iscalis listed by the geographer of Roman times, Ptolemy, in
this region of the Mendips.
The villa estate, with boundaries probably still recognisable and perhaps
still functioning, would have attracted interest among the Saxons who arrived
in the area in the 7th century AD and this, together with its prime location,
may have been instrumental in the site being chosen for the establishment of
an important Anglo-Saxon settlement by the 9th century AD at the latest.
A major excavation by Rahtz in the 1960s, ahead of the construction of The
Kings of Wessex School, demonstrated the below ground presence of the
foundations of a long hall and other timber buildings on ground just a little
to the north of the Roman buildings. They represent the earliest recorded
phase of the Saxon settlement which could reasonably be dated to the early 9th
century. This has been interpreted as a royal household in which the area
occupied by the Roman buildings may have been developed as a farm or
settlement which supported and supplied the needs of an adjacent royal
enclosure represented by ditches and banks to the north, west and east. This
settlement underwent a radical change in layout in the mid-10th century
probably at the instigation of King Athelstan. The long hall was demolished
and overlain by a small stone built chapel, known from later documents to have
been dedicated to St Columbanus, whilst a new and larger hall on a different
alignment was constructed. The changes placed the site on a new footing with
the new hall being of the requisite size for meetings of the king's assembled
council (the witan) and by this stage of its development the site can be
interpreted as a royal palace. It appears that the complex suffered no
diminution in its status following the Norman Conquest as a monumental new
timber hall was constructed early in the 12th century and both hall and chapel
were rebuilt on several occasions afterwards. The rebuilding of the chapel in
the 13th century involved the widening of the nave and enlargement of the
chancel, the earlier Saxon chapel having been levelled and engulfed within the
grander structure.
Documentary evidence has demonstrated that the site may be identified as the
location of the Cheddar witenagemots (where the king met his council) of 941,
956, and 968. The meeting of 968, in Edgar's reign, was held at Easter and
is the most completely recorded. Further documents show that the royal palace
was visited by both Henry I and Henry II at various times in the 12th century.
The site was handed over to the church in 1204 by King John and was acquired
by the Bishops of Bath and Wells in 1230, and it was finally abandoned,
apparently in the 14th century. After the Reformation, St Columbanus' Chapel
passed into secular hands and was in use as a dwelling until 1910 when it was
partially demolished; it survives as a roofless structure with four walls
standing and is supported at its eastern and western ends by modern
buttresses.
The houses on the south side of Station Road (namely, Bodele, Copper Beeches,
Hanham Manor, Downderry, and Ribbons), all of the buildings of The Kings of
Wessex School, the Leisure Centre, the disused railway embankment and railway
arch, all modern ancillary buildings, sheds, The `Bungalow' and all modern
standing structures within the Church Farm Caravan Site, and all above ground
constructions of post-Reformation date, all paths, hard standing, and prepared
surfaces, and all fencing and gates are excluded from the scheduling, although
the ground beneath these features is included.
St Columbanus' Chapel is included in the scheduling, both above and below
ground. Also included in the scheduling are the modern concrete blocks which
mark the positions of the excavated post holes which formed part of the
foundations for the halls of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods. These blocks
provide a visual aid for the public in understanding the layout of the
complex.

MAP EXTRACT
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Anglo-Saxon palaces were high status residential sites usually occupied by
royalty or, occasionally, by bishops. Available architectural evidence is
largely restricted to royal palaces which provided accommodation for the king,
his retinue, his guests, and his councillors (the witan). The focus of the
complex was usually a large and elaborate timber hall. The remains of these
halls can usually be distinguished by their large size or method of
construction using massive timber uprights set in large pits or trenches;
these often survive well below ground. In such a hall the king would hold
court, receive emissaries, and summon periodic meetings of his councillors;
the earliest English epic poem Beowulf describes such a setting. Around the
hall, courtyards provided space for less formal gatherings, and other
buildings such as a chapel of stone or timber, lodgings, kitchens, and
storehouses. Activities such as metal working, milling, brewing, and animal
husbandry all appear to have been carried out within the boundaries of the
palace, which were often marked by large ditches. Anglo-Saxon palaces may be
found across most of south east and central England and, whilst some may date
from as early as the fifth century AD, most are likely to have been
constructed in later centuries up until the time of the Norman Conquest.
Following the Conquest, they were sometimes allowed to continue to function
under royal Norman patronage or put to ecclesiastical or other use. A handful
of palaces are known by name from documentary sources, usually charters
recording the meetings of the witan. However, fewer than a dozen examples have
been identified with certainty and even fewer have been excavated. All
positively identified Anglo-Saxon palaces are considered to be of national
importance by virtue of their rarity and representivity.

Although now partly overlain by development the Anglo-Saxon palace site at
Cheddar is a rare survival of a richly appointed Saxon building complex, later
embellished by the Normans. Modern development on the site has been undertaken
sympathetically with buildings raised upon rafts in order to leave untouched
the early medieval halls and to avoid damage to the underlying archaeology
which has been shown to comprise an extensive area of Roman occupation
including buildings whose foundations survive close to the modern ground
surface. The series of early medieval halls provide evidence of a rare type of
building of which there are few excavated examples. The documentary evidence
associated with the monument attests to its importance as a royal court and
meeting place of the witan under successive Anglo-Saxon kings and as a royal
property following the Conquest. The monument is known from excavation to
contain archaeological information relating to the Roman and the earlier and
later medieval periods. Crucially, it will provide some insight into the
relationship between Roman villa estates and their later settlement usage, as
well as providing information about the lives of the Roman, Saxon, and Norman
peoples who lived on the site, and the development of the landscape in which
they lived.
St Columbanus' Chapel survives as the shell of a Norman chapel which is known
to have developed from Saxon origins. Its outer walls survive although they
have been considerably altered during use of the building for domestic means.
The below ground remains of the earlier Saxon chapel are encompassed within
the walls and the chapel illustrates the development of an ecclesiastical
building from Saxon to Norman times.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
Broomhead, R, Evaluation at Kings of Wessex School, (1999)
Gardner, K, 'Current Archaeology' in Charterhouse-Veb-Iscalis, , Vol. 161, (1999), 199
Rahtz, P A, 'British Archaeological Reports' in The Saxon and Medieval Palaces at Cheddar, , Vol. 65, (1979)
Rahtz, P A, 'Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Nat Hist Society' in Cheddar Vicarage 1965, , Vol. 117, (1966), 52-84
Rahtz, P A, Hirst, S M, 'Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Nat Hist Society' in The Chapel of St Columbanus at Cheddar, , Vol. 131, (1987), 157-61
Other
RAB/5/99, Broomhead, R A, Kings of Wessex Community School Cheddar. Archaeological Eval., (1999)
Title: Plan of Roman building in Cheddar Vicarage garden
Source Date: 1975
Author:
Publisher:
Surveyor:

Source: Historic England

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