Rocester before the Romans

The Rocester of today has, as its name suggests, Roman origins (‘cester’ refers to a fortress of town during the Roman period).  But this is not the beginning of Rocester’s story.  This small settlement, situated on a low promontary between the rivers Churnet and Dove lies within a fertile, broad river valley with access to rich soil and water for crops and transport and power for machinery.  These factors have made the site of Rocester an inviting proposition for settlement for many thousands of years.

A mix of field walking and archaeological excavations have recovered evidence for Mesolithic flint work in the area (c.10,000-4,000bc).  These flints have been left behind by hunter-gatherer groups who roamed the area before farming had reached these shores and who may have used Rocester’s low promontary as a seasonal camp from where they could exploit local resources such as water, vegetables, fish and fowl.  Slightly later finds of pottery dating to the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age suggest that early farming communities were also attracted to the area.  Such communities are likely to have laid down more permanent roots in the area and sought to mark out and defend this valuable territory.  While no prehistoric ‘sites’ have been found in Rocester, aerial photography has identified ring ditches (possibly evidence for Bronze Age barrows) and enclosures to the south of Rocester.  Some prehistoric archaeology will have been lost to the plough, but much will survive hidden beneath successive deposits of silt laid down when the nearby rivers flooded.

The Romans are Coming!

When the Roman army was seeking to consolidate its position in the midlands, Rocester probably represented a strategically important position in the centre of the country, sitting as it does within a broad river valley and straddling the crossing point of two rivers.  Its importance is indicated by the presence of two episodes of fort construction with the first (dating to the late 1st century AD) replaced by a second fort (in the early 2nd century AD) – these forts are likely to have held a Roman auxiliary cavalry unit, able to respond quickly to threats.  Archaeologists have also found evidence of a civilian settlement (a vicus) close to the forts dating to the late 1st/early 2nd century AD suggesting that it developed in association with the second fort.  Such settlements often developed at long-lived military sites and provided goods and services to the military as well as housing the families of soldiers stationed at the fort.

The Roman attitude to religion was one of relative tolerance coupled with a sense of quid pro quo between the supplicant and the deity.  Deals were often struck between humans and their deities and ‘foreign’ religions were often embraced and incorporated into the Roman pantheon.  Soldiers are known to have been particularly superstitious and while a temple or shrine has yet to be found within one of the forts, two enclosures devoid of features except for a small stone building is thought to represent a shrine.

The second fort replaced the earlier fort in the mid-2nd century AD and was in use until c.200AD – the longevity of the military presence at Rocester only emphasises its significance at the crossing of the Rivers Dove and Churnet.  Civilian settlement continued and there was evidence for industrial activity in the area outside the vicus – dangerous or noxious industries have often been located outside living areas.  Following the army withdrawal of the army from Rocester at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the local population decided to stay and appear to have taken over the fort, which possibly afforded some degree of protection during difficult times.  Excavations also recovered evidence for field systems surrounding the settlement hinting at the rich agricultural landscape which surrounded this early community.

The Early Medieval Period

Rocester is first mentioned in the Domesday Survey (1086); at the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) this large manor was held by the Earl of Mercia.  In the centuries following the withdrawal of Roman administration (410AD) from the province not too much is known about Rocester.    The recent Extensive Urban Survey of the settlement has shone some light on this period and there is evidence from across the area pointing to low level activity including Stafford ware pottery (at Dove School) and metalwork (including four knife blades), hearths and a loom weight at the New Cemetery.  These finds may point to a small community at Rocester in the 9th century AD making use of natural resources and the decaying facilities and materiel of the former Roman settlement during the Anglo-Saxon period (410AD-1066AD).  The Domesday Survey (1086) provides evidence of the economy and records land for nine ploughs and a mill.  This evidence, coupled with the archaeology suggests the presence of a significant settlement and estate centre at Rocester sat within a landscape of rich arable land, meadow and woodland.  Despite this relative wealth there is currently little evidence for a church at Rocester during the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Medieval Period

Domesday points to a relatively prosperous settlement and, a church was probably built at Rocester during 11th or early 12th century.  In the 1140s the Augustinian Abbey was founded across part of the Roman fort.  Today little of the Abbey survives and its layout is not known; only the late 13th century parish church (the Church of St. Michael) survives.  Work at Abbey Farm found evidence for a 17th century farm building and it was suggested that this building may have once been part of the monastic complex or what built by reusing stone from monastic buildings.

Throughout the medieval period (1066-1540AD) the abbey remained the lord of the manor.  Historic maps of Rocester show the abbey laying out long, narrow property plots (known as burgage plots) along High Street and the south side of Mill Lane.  the market place was positioned at the gate to the abbey and a market charter was granted to the lord of the manor in 1283 (and reaffirmed in 1440).  It is likely that markets occurred at Rocester well before 1283 and that the charter simply confirmed this activity.  Agriculture remained important to the economy of Rocester and archaeological evidence points to the importance of cattle in this industry – a hide tanning site was discovered to the east of Rocester.  The manorial corn mill throughout the medieval period is likely to have been located on the River Dove.

The Post Medieval Period

Rocester Abbey was dissolved (closed) by the Kings officers in 1538 and the manor was divided among a number of landholders. Most of the abbeys buildings are likely to have been dismantled and used for building stone around Rocester.  Some medieval timber framed buildings do survive today although the majority of historic buildings within the settlement date to the 18th and 19th centuries.  However, some of these structures might encase earlier buildings as at the Queens Arms public House on Church Lane.

Cloth making appears to have developed as a major industry in Rocester from the 17th century.  Initially this activity would have occurred in households (known as the cottage industry).  However, during the mid to late 18th century improvements in technology and approaches to industrialisation saw the development of large factories. Initially these factories relied on water power and during the early 1780s Richard Arkwright (a pioneer of the cotton industry) established a cotton mill at the former corn mill on the River Dove.  Known as Tutbury Mill from the 19th century this factory provided much work to a local community which, particularly during the periodic agricultural depressions which are recorded during the 19th century.  The mill also had a significant effect on the buildings of Rocester with new houses built to house workers – many such properties survive along High Street and on West View.

Rocester has continued to expand throughout the 20th and early 21st century, however it has retained its historic character at its core.  JCB which established a major factory to the west of Rocester now effects the community in much the same way as Arkwright’s mill in the 18th and 19th century.  Indeed, in the early 21st century JCB sensitively restored the historic mill guaranteeing it a future as a place of learning.  The site of the abbey (Abbey Field) which incorporates part of the Roman settlement is protected as a Scheduled Monument while much of Rocester’s historic core is designated as a Conservation Area and contains numerous listed buildings.  From time to time people find more evidence of Rocester’s fascinating history either during formal development or indeed while digging their garden.  If you’re interested in finding more out about Rocester you can read more about its history and character in the Rocester Extensive Urban Survey (www.staffordshire.gov.uk/ search under EUS).