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Friday, 26th July 2019
'Winchcombeshire – the forgotten county'
with Tim Porter
'The man in the white suit'
Saturday 21st Sep 2019
Theatre Royal, Bath
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Tim Norris recounts Stow's long and dramatic story, from prehistoric times, through the wealth of medieval wool, a Civil War massacre and on to the Victorians' legacy in the heart of our town.
Apart from its quaint tea rooms and antique shops, Stow is mostly noted for sheep markets during the burgeoning mediaeval wool trade and for the Civil War battle that put an end to Charles I’s hopes of retaining the English Crown and led to his eventual execution.
But its history as a settlement goes back much further than that – nearly 3,000 years to the Iron Age and probably further back to the Bronze Age from 2000 BC. There have been finds of Neolithic flint axe and arrow heads in the surrounding countryside, though Stone Age people probably found Stow’s hilltop position too exposed for habitation.
Not so the Iron Age people who favoured high locations for their defensive forts, and much of Stow is built on a large Iron Age fort, known as Maethelgeris Byrigg, which gave its name to Maugersbury, the original settlement to the South East of Stow. But it was the coincidence of the early routes across the countryside that led to the current settlement of Stow. It is situated at the junction of 3 major routes of the period including the pre-Roman Fosse Way and the Salt Way.
There is evidence of a Saxon church on the site of the present 12th C Norman church and the area of the Manor around the Church was known as “Edwardstow”, “Stow” being Saxon for a holy place. Where routes meet, so do people and trade took place here.
The Manor of Maugersbury was owned by Evesham Abbey, and the location of Stow within the Manor was not lost on the monks who saw it as a possible source of revenue. Over time as trade increased they decided to create a market square at the junction, where they could collect dues from the traders. In 1107 Henry I granted a market charter to the Abbey for a weekly market and the commercial centre of Stow prospered.
The current Norman Church was built and extended during the 13th C and 14th C, and the construction of the Tower was completed in 1476. The Church was used to imprison some 1500 Royalist troops after the battle of Stow in 1646, and contains the tomb of Capt Keyte who was killed during the battle. Later 19th C extensions include the North and South Porches. The former, flanked by two yew trees, has a very “Tolkienesque” appearance and presents a captivating scene.
In 1330 Edward III granted a 7 day fair in August, superceded in 1476 by two five day fairs around Saints’ feast days in May and October. By this time the markets were well established and centred around the wool trade which was so important to the country’s economy. The market cross was erected to symbolise the fact that proceedings were supervised by officials appointed by the Court Leet, and some of the weights and measures used by them can be seen in the display cabinet in the Library in St Edwards Hall. The stocks were used to punish offenders. The markets continued even after the dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th C until the importance of the wool trade gradually declined.
The cross briefly became the focus of attention during the first English Civil War in 1646. Sir Jacob Astley was leading a Royalist force to relieve Charles I’s garrison at Oxford. They were intercepted near Stow and driven into the Square, where many were killed or imprisoned. Sir Jacob was forced to sit on a drum near the cross and surrender to the Parliamentarians. A plaque placed by the cross commemorates the event. When it was unveiled, two descendants of the opposing battle commanders met and shook hands in a gesture of peace.
The wool trade continued after the Civil War and great numbers of sheep were known to have been traded at the markets in Stow. It is thought the narrow alleyways leading from Sheep Street were intended to ensure the sheep were forced into single file to aid in counting them! During the 18th C the wool trade declined and the markets became mainly pleasure fairs and Horse fairs.
In the 19th C the closing of the Stow Provident Bank resulted in considerable unclaimed funds. Despite efforts to locate the rightful recipients, it was decided to use the funds, with the added support of a few wealthy benefactors, to construct a hall for the benefit of the residents of the Town. The construction of the imposing gothic-style St Edward’s Hall was completed in 1878 and was used for dances and hunt balls etc, while the lower area was occupied by the Stow book club and a billiards club, later to become a library and museum. The belfry spire was added in 1894 to summon the fire brigade after the Rector forbade the church bell to be used for this purpose. Since the 1960’s the lower floor of the hall has been occupied by the County Library.
The Hall is by far the most recent building in the Square, but the date of many of the buildings is difficult to ascertain as they have been considerably altered over the years as the owners prospered, and many of their frontages have been upgraded from the original “Cotswold rubble” construction, though examples of this can still be seen. The oldest buildings in the Town are probably those in Digbeth Street.
The hotel at the lower end of the street, now known as the Porch House, contains timber beams that have been carbon dated to around 1000 A D, but later additions to the building, which was once used as a hospice, have concealed much of the original structure. A Jacobean fireplace surround still retains a “witch’s mark” to prevent evil spirits from entering via the chimney!
The wells were the main source of water in Stow for many years, and it is worth taking a stroll down Well Lane to view the large stone tanks from where water was brought in carts to the square and sold at a farthing a bucket. Whilst standing by the upper well, turn around for a view of the NE ramparts of the Iron Age fort which encompasses much of the East side of the Town.
Various attempts to create a water supply were unsuccessful until a deep borehole was constructed near the Police Station with a grant of £2000 from the Chamberlayne family of Maugersbury Manor in 1878. The gift is recorded on a plaque on the market cross. This provided water until Stow was connected to the municipal supply in 1937.
Further information is provided in a Town Trail, a 1 Km walking route around the Town, describing the history of some of its ancient buildings.
© 2016 Tim Norris for the Stow and District Civic Society
The Battle of Stow 1646
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