By John SunderlandTowcester 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.
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 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 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. 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.
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. Towcester had once again become a frontier town, this time between Royalist Oxford and Roundhead Northampton. No great battle was fought here but plenty of skirmishing took place round about. The strategic significance of the town did not go unnoticed and after the Royalists were forced to withdraw the Parliamentarian Army was billeted here on its march from Newport Pagnell to Naseby to the battle that sealed the King's fate.
The 18th and early 19th centuries saw developments of a different kind as social stability brought greater wealth and the needs for increased travel. This became the great age of the stage coach. Watling Street was the road to Holyhead and hence Dublin, the second city of Georgian Britain. Towcester once again found itself on perhaps the most important road of the kingdom with countless travellers passing up and down it, Swift and Dickens among them. They stayed at such famous coaching inns as The Saracens Head (of Pickwick papers fame), the Talbot (now Sponne House and one of Towcester's earliest inns) and the White Horse Inn (where the new Towcester Museum is under construction). The latter was one of the most famous coaching inns on the Watling Street renowned for its hospitality and the standard of its cuisine. Although now a shadow of its former self it remains substantially unchanged. In its Pickwickian heyday Towcester must have presented the picture of a bustling thriving country town with coaches passing through by day and night travelling between London and Liverpool, Manchester or Holyhead as well as between Oxford and Northampton. These were the days when nearly every other establishment on the Watling Street was an inn and those that weren't inns were ale houses.
The railway saw an end to all that. The coaching trade died almost overnight. Towcester must have looked as though it had gone into the doldrums, even though it carried on the business of a small market town. However, it was not totally by-passed by the Victorian age - witness its Town Hall, its many fine non-conformist churches, its brewery and its railway, now both come and gone. The Watling Street might have been eclipsed by the new London to Birmingham Railway but it had not entirely had its day.
With the present century came the motor car, charabanc and lorry. Initially novelties, these were to become indispensable parts of living and they breathed new life into the Watling Street and through it the town. It did not seem that long before this new life came to resemble a lingering choking death only relieved by the opening of the Ml motorway in 1958 and complemented by the A43 by-pass. Towcester now awaits an A5 relief road in the hope that a slight separation of the town from the road which has given so much meaning to its history might enable it to resume the more dignified and civilised air reminiscent of its heyday some two centuries ago.
© Dr. J. Sunderland 1998
Towcester and District Local History Society