Shepton Mallet: A History
Shepton Mallet is a market town and civil parish in the Mendip District of Somerset, England, about 16 miles (26 km) south-west of Bath, 18 miles (29 km) south of Bristol and 5 miles (8.0 km) east of Wells, with an estimated population of 10,810 in 2019. Mendip District Council is based there. The Mendip Hills lie to the north and the River Sheppey runs through the town, as does the route of the Fosse Way, the main Roman road into southwest England. There is evidence of Roman settlement. Its medieval parish church is among the many listed buildings. Shepton Mallet Prison was England’s oldest until it closed in March 2013. The medieval wool trade gave way to industries such as brewing in the 18th century. The town remains noted for cider production. Shepton Mallet is the closest town to the Glastonbury Festival. Also nearby is the Royal Bath and West of England Society showground.
The name Shepton derives from the Old English scoep and tun, meaning “sheep farm”; the Domesday Book of 1086 records a settlement known as Sceaptun. The current spelling is recorded at least as far back as 1496, in a letter from Henry VII. The second part of the name derives from that of the Norman family of Malet. Gilbert Malet, son of William Malet, Honour of Eye, held a lease from Glastonbury Abbey around 1100. The second letter “l” appears to have been added to the spelling in the 16th century.
Archaeological investigations have found evidence of prehistoric activity in the Shepton Mallet area, with large amounts of Neolithic flint and some pottery fragments of the late Neolithic period. Two barrows on Barren Down, to the north of the town centre, contained cremation burials from the Bronze Age; another Bronze Age burial site contained a skeleton and some pottery. The remains of Iron Age roundhouses and artefacts such as quernstones and beads were found at Cannard’s Grave, as was a probable Iron Age farming settlement at Field Farm. Nearby countryside provides evidence of Iron Age cave dwellings in Ham Woods to the north-west, and several burial mounds at Beacon Hill, a short distance to the north.
Shepton Mallet is about halfway between the Roman towns of Bath and Ilchester on the Fosse Way. Although there are no visible remains apart from the line of the Roman road, there is archaeological evidence for early military and later civilian settlement lasting into the 5th century. Domed pottery kilns, with pottery still present, were identified on the site of the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery in the mid-19th century, suggesting military activity in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Several hoards of Roman coins ranging from the 1st to 4th centuries have been found and more than 300 fibula brooches, potsherds and other artefacts. A few isolated burials near the Fosse Way were found in the 19th century.
A lead coffin in a rock-cut grave was discovered at a site by the Fosse Way in 1988. This discovery and impending commercial development of the site by the landowner, Showerings, led archaeologists to excavate more extensively in the 1990s. The grave belonged to a cemetery containing 17 burials aligned roughly east and west, indicating probable Christian beliefs. Two smaller cemeteries had graves aligned north-south, possibly signifying pagan religious practices. One burial was in a substantial stone coffin positioned beneath a mausoleum, whose foundations remained.
One find in the Fosse Way burials was a Chi-Rho amulet, thought then to be from the 5th century and considered among the earliest clear evidence of Christianity in England. A copy was presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, by the churches of the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The amulet is in the Museum of Somerset, but analysis by Liverpool University in 2008 using inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy showed it was a fake: its silver content dates from the 19th century or later.
Excavations in the 1990s confirmed the presence of a linear settlement along the Fosse Way for perhaps a kilometre, with cobbled streets, wooden and stone workshops and houses (some with two storeys) containing hearths and ovens, workshop areas and a stone-lined well. The many artefacts found included local and imported pottery such as Samian ware, items of jewellery such as brooches, rings and bracelets, toilet items including tweezers, ear scoops and nail cleaners, bronze and iron tools, and a lead ingot which probably originated from the Roman lead mines in the Mendip Hills. Coins minted across the Roman empire were also found. The finds indicate occupation from the late 1st or early 2nd centuries to the late 4th or early 5th centuries. As no public buildings were found, the settlement was probably not a town.
Saxon and Norman periods
Evidence of Saxon settlement includes some Saxon stonework in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul. A charter of King Ine of Wessex, from 706, witnessed by nine bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury, records that the area where Shepton Mallet now stands was passed to Abbot Berwald of Glastonbury Abbey. According to some legends, Indract of Glastonbury was buried in Shepton. The town was in the Whitstone Hundred; the hundred courts were held at Cannard’s Grave, just south of the town.
The Exeter Domesday Book records that on the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, the site was held (probably by lease from the Abbey) by one Uluert, and then by Roger de Corcella at the time of the survey in 1086. When Corcella died, sometime before or around 1100, the land passed to the Malets, a Norman family whose name was added to that of the settlement (and another of their holdings, Curi – now Curry Mallet).
The Malets retained the estate until the reign of King John, when on the death of William Malet (fl. 1192–1215) and the payment by his sons-in-law of a fine of 2000 marks for participating in a rebellion against the king) it passed through his daughter Mabel to her husband Hugh de Vivonne. Some generations later, the part of the estate containing Shepton Mallet was sold to a relative, Sir Thomas Gournay. His son, also Thomas, took part in the murder of Edward II. His estates were confiscated by Edward III in 1337, but returned some years later. When Mathew de Gournay died childless in 1406, the estate reverted to the Crown and was then granted to Sir John de Tiptoft. It was again confiscated from his son by Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses, when the family sided with Edward IV, but restored to Sir John’s grandson, Edward Tiptoft, when Edward IV regained the throne. He died without issue, and there followed a succession of grants and reversions until Glastonbury Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, and its lands, including Shepton Mallet, were granted to the Duchy of Cornwall in 1536.
Charters for markets and fairs were granted in 1235, but revoked in 1260 and 1318 after objections by the Bishop of Wells to the competition it represented to the market in his city. This shows that the town was developing and prospering in the 13th and early 14th centuries. The Black Death struck in 1348, reducing the population to about 300. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the population and economy were boosted by craftsmen and merchants arriving from France and the Low Countries, who were escaping wars and religious persecution. They introduced cloth-making, which together with the local wool trade, became a major industry in Shepton and other Somerset and Wiltshire towns. Wool became such a source of riches that when Henry VII needed money to fight the Scots in 1496, he called on the wool merchants of Shepton to contribute £10.
To our trusty and wellbeloved John Calycote of Shepton Malet…
…because as we here ye be a man of good substaunce—we desire and pray you to makelone vnto us of the som of ten poundes whereof ye shal be vndoubtedly and assuredly repayd in our Receipt at the fest of Seynt Andrewe next coming…
— Henry VII, Letter under King’s sign manual and Privy Seal, 1 December 1496
Civil War; Monmouth Rebellion
In 1625, a House of Correction was set up in Shepton Mallet.
In the English Civil War, the town supported the Parliament side, although Shepton appears largely to have escaped conflict apart from a bloodless confrontation in the marketplace on 1 August 1642 between Royalists under Sir Ralph Hopton and Parliament led by Colonel William Strode. In 1645 Sir Thomas Fairfax led the New Model Army through the town on the way to capturing Bristol, and in 1646 the church organ was apparently destroyed by Cromwellian soldiers.
During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, the Duke of Monmouth was welcomed when he passed through Shepton Mallet to stay at Longbridge House in Cowl Street on the night of 23 June, with his men quartered around the town, before setting out for Bristol next day. Many Shepton men joined the cause, but Monmouth failed to take Bath or Bristol and had to return to Shepton on 30 June. After the Battle of Sedgemoor, the Duke fled, spent the night of 6 July at Downside, a mile north of Shepton, and was captured two days later. After the Bloody Assizes, twelve local supporters of Monmouth were hanged and quartered in the marketplace.
In 1699 Edward Strode built almshouses, close to the rectory that his family had built, to house the town’s grammar school, which lasted until 1900.
In the 17th and 18th centuries thriving wool and cloth industries were powered by the waters of the River Sheppey. There were said to be 50 mills in and around the town in the early 18th century, and a number of fine clothiers’ houses survive, particularly in Bowlish, a hamlet on the western edge of Shepton Mallet. Although these industries still employed some 4,000 towards the end of the century, they were beginning to decline. Discontent at the mechanisation of the mills resulted in the deaths of two men in a riot in the town in 1775. This apparently discouraged mill-owners from modernising further. The decision resulted in Shepton’s cloth trade losing out to the steam-powered mills in the north of England in the early 19th century. The manufacture of silk and crepe revived the town’s fortunes somewhat, and Shepton’s mills made the silk used in Queen Victoria’s wedding dress. However, these industries also died out eventually.
While wool, cloth and silk declined, other industries grew. In the 19th and 20th centuries brewing became one of the major industries. The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, built in 1864 and still a local landmark, was the first in England to brew lager. At its height, it was exporting 1.8 million bottles a year to Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, South America and the West Indies. It closed in 1921. However the town, home of Babycham, is still a centre for cider production.
For some of the Second World War, Shepton Mallet Prison was used to store national records from the Public Record Office, including the Magna Carta, the Domesday Book, the logbooks of HMS Victory, dispatches from the Battle of Waterloo and the “scrap of paper” signed by Hitler and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich Conference of September 1938. The prison also became a US Army detention facility. Between 1943 and 1945, 18 US servicemen were executed within the prison walls, after convictions for murder, rape or both.
In the 1960s and 1970s many historic buildings were demolished to build Hillmead council estate in the north of the town and a retail development and theatre in the marketplace.
The population of Shepton Mallet was fairly stable through the 19th century and the first part of the 20th: 5,104 in 1801 and 5,117 in 1851, then 5,446 by 1901, falling back to 5,260 in 1951. By 2001, it had grown again to 8,981.