A History of Ilchester

By Tim Lambert

Roman Ilchester

Ilchester began as a Roman town. The Romans invaded England in 43 AD. When they subdued the Celtic tribe in this area, the Durotriges, they built a fort to guard a ford over the River Yeo. Soon they built a town on the site of the old Celtic settlement. It was called Lendinis. It seems to have been a prosperous town as it was on a major Roman road, Foss Way.

A Roman soldier

Roman Ilchester was fortified with an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top but in the 4th century stone walls were built around it. By then Roman civilisation was in decline. After the Roman army left Britain in the early 5th century Ilchester was abandoned.

Saxon and Medieval Ilchester

Ilchester came to life again in the late 9th century. At that time King Alfred the Great created a network of fortified settlements called burhs across his kingdom. If the Danes attacked all the local men could gather in the burh to fight. Where possible Alfred preferred to use old Roman towns or forts for his burhs. One of these was at Ilchester.

The Saxon name for a Roman town was ceaster. This one was by the River Yeo, but in those days the river was called Yle. So it was called Yle ceaster. In time the name changed to Ilchester.

Ilchester was more than just a fortress. It was also a busy little market town. From 973 it had a mint, showing that it was quite an important place. The mint in Ilchester continued operating until the mid-13th century.

At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Ilchester (or Gifelcestre as it was called) was a little town with a population of several hundred. To us, it would seem tiny but towns were very small in those days.

In 1087-88 a man named Robert Mowbray led a rebellion against William the Conqueror. He lay siege to Ilchester but was unable to capture the town.

In the late 12th century Ilchester was granted a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From then on Ilchester was governed by two bailiffs.

As well as markets Medieval Ilchester, had fairs. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area. People came from all over Somerset and Dorset to attend an Ilchester fair.

From the 13th century, there were friars in Ilchester. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. The friars in Ilchester were Dominicans. They were called blackfriars because of the colour of their costumes. There was also a leper hostel in Ilchester. In 1426 almshouses were founded in Ilchester by Robert Veel.

The ‘golden age’ of Ilchester was from the late 9th century to the late 13th century. At that time it was the county town of Somerset. The county jail was in Ilchester and courts were held there. However, in the late 13th century the jail was moved. It was moved back to Ilchester again in the 14th century but the town was in decline.

In the 13th century, Ilchester had 6 parish churches but most closed as the town declined. Parts of the present-day parish church of Ilchester, St Mary the Major, date from the 13th century.

Furthermore, the famous philosopher Roger Bacon was born in or near Ilchester around 1210.

Ilchester 1500-1800

However, by the 16th century, Ilchester was described as a ‘decayed’ town. It had lost its former importance and was now just a little market town. Despite this in 1556 Ilchester was incorporated (granted a corporation to govern it). At the beginning of the 18th century, a Town Hall was built although it was rebuilt in 1812-1816.

In those days some of the people in Ilchester lived by farming. There was little industry in the town. By the mid-18th century, Ilchester probably had a population of about 600.

Nevertheless, the county jail was still in Ilchester. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against King James II. The rebellion was crushed and 12 rebels were executed at Ilchester. The main place for executions was south of the town.

In 1765 a woman named Mary Norwood was burned to death there for poisoning her husband. In those days if a woman murdered her husband it was called petty treason. A husband was supposed to rule his wife and children in the same way the king ruled the country. So if a woman killed her husband it was a ‘small-scale’ rebellion against her Lord and Master as well as murder. Execution by burning was finally abolished in Britain in 1790.

A Tuscan column was erected in Ilchester in 1795.

Modern Ilchester

In the early 19th century Ilchester became, for a time a coaching town. Stagecoaches stopped there. However, the traffic ended in the 1840s as railways were built across England. No railway was built to Ilchester and it remained isolated until buses began to run there in the 1920s.

Meanwhile Ilchester market ended in 1833. The jail closed in 1843 and the fairs died out in the late 19th century. The corporation was dissolved in 1889.

Furthermore from the end of the 13th century, Ilchester sent two MPs to parliament. This privilege was ended in 1832.

In 1801 Ilchester had a population of 942. By 1831 the population was over 1,000. However, the population of Ilchester declined from the mid 19th century and by 1901 it was less than 600.

The population recovered in the late 20th century but today Ilchester is still a pretty village though it does have a cheese industry. In 2022 the population of Ilchester was just over 2,000.