Saxon and Norman Newark

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The evidence from observations and investigations by archaeologists


24th November 2016

Saxon and Norman Newark-on-Trent

Professor Philip Dixon spoke on the evidence for Saxon and Newark life in Newark.  He admitted that local excavations, though extensive and illuminating historically, spoke little of the Saxon period which is known as the Dark Ages.  Newark certainly existed as a populous place by the Norman Conquest of 1066; the Domesday Book supports its importance.  It speaks of a rural outpost of one hundred townspeople, with 500?600 in the environmental countryside.  Balderton and Farndon are named as two berewicks, or outlying communities regarded by the Norman compilers as taxable along with the town, but the statement that Newark had ten churches makes it clear that a number of local villages must have been included in King William’s survey.   Newark itself was a developing burgh.

The name Newark means New work, or new fortification, which was clearly a Saxon fort predating the castle built by Bishop Alexander of Lincoln, the medieval Lord of the Manor.  Located as it was on the River Trent, and guarded at this point by its castle, the river crossing enabled access for travellers bound from the North to London. The town’s defensive role is apparent owing to the slope of the land; contrary to common assumptions of flatness, Newark stands on a moderately steep incline.  It was the Roman Fosse Way which intersected the town, crossing the earlier Great North Road, the latter emerging from a putting together of several old rights of way, so the importance of the town by the Middle Ages cannot be overlooked.  There is evidence, though, that sections of the original Roman road, which was laid by the conquering Roman armies in order to march across the land, were later diverted to accommodate structural development of the town’s provisions.  In Mill Gate and Castle Gate this was the case.  Here archæological finds have yielded evidence of Saxon settlement; these have evidenced that a sixth- and seventh-century cemetery was in Mill Gate, and artefacts relating to a later Saxon cemetery have come to light under the castle walls.  It also seems likely that Bishop Alexander adjusted the Roman route to facilitate the foundation of the castle walls.  Discovered ditches also say interesting things about the route originally taken by the Great North Road as it came through the town centre. It is commonly supposed that the streets we now call Balderton Gate, Bridge Street and Kirk Gate formed the skeleton of this road as it connected the Balderton Road with the Fosse Way.  This would, however, have necessitated a sharp turn at the north-western corner of the Market Pace, passing by the great west door of St Mary’s Church.  Professor Dixon, however, suggested that the direction would have been straighter, perhaps a more angular crossing of the Market Place, proceeding to Chain Lane and Boar Lane, as we now term them.  Indeed, the odd curvature of this highway suggests a previous direction may have bypassed the town centre to make a more direct connection with Lincoln Road.  Stodman Street also curves curiously.  Converging roads would have necessitated that Newark’s market place would, in Saxon days, have been more wedge-shaped than at present.  Why, the speaker wondered, does Newark’s Trent Bridge fail to line up with the layout of roads?

Newark Castle, though founded by Bishop Alexander of Lincoln in the 1190s, was clearly a phased building, including, in its earlier days, a chapel and manor.  Buildings would have crossed the grounds of the castle, and stones found in the crypt suggest that there was a previous garden.  Malmesbury and Sherbourne own similar structures.  The Castle later suffered local damage during and after the British Civil Wars, and, by 1900, workshops and other structures cluttered the premises.   The present garden, which replaced this clutter, was laid during Victorian days as an enhancement to the town’s approach vista.  Similarly, St Mary Magdalene Church was a phased building.  Today, all of the Saxon elements have gone, leaving architecture which is post-Norman and largely in the styles termed ?Gothic'.  The structure has known increasing growth across the ages.  Interestingly, Kirk Gate now curves towards St Mary’s great west door.


Newark, as a medieval town, was defended by its town wall lining (roughly) the present Lombard Street, Carter Gate. Bridge Street and Slaughterhouse Lane, with the Trent completing the enclosure.  All roads outside this geometrical shape are later additions, as the town expanded after the eighteenth century.  Carter Gate may have been built as a bypass to the town boundaries, a fourteenth-century facility.  Parts of the medieval wall survived until the nineteenth century. 

In conclusion, Prefessor Dixon acknowledged that early Newark has been well-excavated, but many of the conclusions here can only be surmised from that which is today seen in the ground layout.  Geometry and history need to be taken together in the context of previous appearance and function.  Excavation, sometimes undertaken to allow modern development, continues to reveal the secrets of past walls and defensive ditches.  The speaker was thanked for these interesting thoughts.

© Roger Peacock for NALHS: January, 2017

Edited Professor P. Dixon: January 2017.

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 03/02/2017.

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