History of South Petherton By the South Petherton History Society
South Petherton has a population of about 4,000. For comparison’s sake, Somerton has something over 6,000. It is classed as a village these days, despite having been granted a Market Charter by King John in 1213. It was a Saxon burgh, and markets, Court Leets and an annual fair were held in South Petherton up until 1870.
The name ‘ South Petherton ’ probably derives from the nearby river Parrett. The ancient British and the Saxons knew the river as ‘Pared’ (the ancient British word for boundary). The Saxons added their word ‘ton’ when they settled here, hence ‘Paredton’. Although every river forms a boundary, this one was significant during the internecine wars of the 7th and 8th centuries AD when the ancient British held the lands to the west, and the Saxons held the land to the east of it.
There has been little systematic archaeological excavation in South Petherton . Nevertheless, many surface finds have been identified and plotted, so we know quite a lot about man’s presence here over thousands of years.
The earliest signs are palaeolithic flints found at Stoodham, the ridge to the north east of the present village centre. This is also the site of South Petherton’s earliest proper settlement, in the Iron Age. What attracted people here must have been the easily-defensible, steep-sided slopes and the far-reaching views over low land; also the fertile arable land, nearby springs and of course being safe from seasonal flooding.
Stoodham is less than two kilometres north of the spot where a prehistoric way crossed the River Parrett on its way between Ham Hill and the Blackdown Hills. The ancient route and crossing – today it’s where the A303 crosses the river - remained important for thousands of years until the 18th century. The Romans’ main road to the south west of England for their troops and commerce followed this route and was known as the Fosse Way . Where it crossed the River Parrett they built a bridge which has been rebuilt several times since then.
In a fertile area like South Petherton so close to the Roman Fosse Way, it would be surprising if there were no evidence of Romano-British occupation. There is plenty, with Roman finds regularly emerging in the topsoil all over the parish, indicating the presence of several Romano-British farmsteads. A large earthen vessel full of Roman coins was dug up in 1720 near the line of the Fosse Way. At Stoodham, 1st to 4th century occupation is indicated by numerous finds of pottery, worked flints, whetstones, coins and other metal artefacts. In recent years fine Romano British villas have been excavated at Lopen and Dinnington, just a couple of miles away.
After the collapse of the Roman regime in Britain, the Stoodham settlement seems to have lain unoccupied for some centuries. The next evidence of activity is the Saxons. Until the 8th century, the River Parrett remained the border between the Britons (to the west) and the Saxons (to the east). The Saxon Chronicle of 680 said ‘Pedridia’ - probably South Petherton - was the site of a major battle in which King Kenwalk finally defeated the British. Ina, King of the West Saxons (688-726), drove the Britons from their boundary on the River Parrett westwards to the Devon border, then occupied a temporary ‘palace’ (or hunting lodge) in South Petherton until he completed his new border fortress at Taunton. So it seems that the roots of modern South Petherton lie in a Saxon royal estate which controlled the crossing of the River Parrett.
There is documentary evidence for the existence of this royal estate. It was called Sudperetone (the southern tun on the Parrett). Its size is unknown, but it was of high status, had a minster church, a royal house or ‘palace’, and a mint making Saxon coins 1017-1066 which boosted the Saxons’ proto-urban market economy.
We lack evidence of any buildings of Saxon age, due to the absence of proper excavation. But the location of the Saxon settlement is strongly indicated by ditches which seem to have been the western and northern boundaries of the Saxon settlement and include the parish church. Note – the Saxon settlement is on the opposite side of the stream to the previous (Romano-British) settlement. South Petherton remained in royal hands throughout the Saxon period. There are several “-ton” place-names in the parish, recalling their Saxon origins as estate villages.
By the Norman Conquest in 1066, ownership of the royal estate had fragmented and the parish had been split into seven separate estates. This early fragmentation affected the medieval development of South Petherton , since different components of the settlement came to form part of several different manorial holdings. The two most important were those of the Crown and the Minster.
The core of the royal estate of South Petherton passed directly to the Conqueror and was still a Crown possession in the Domesday Book of 1086. One large estate was the Minster holding, held by Alviet the priest. This probably became the medieval Rectory Estate, which was held by Bruton Abbey from the 12th century until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The earliest parts of the fabric of the present parish church of St Peter and St Paul date to the 12th century, probably building over the earlier Minster church.
In medieval times the parish church & market-place became the focus of the town, which they have remained to this day. There are medieval strip lynchets (called Mere Lynches) on the hillside between the Stoodham ridge and the village.
In 1213 the town was granted a Charter for a market and fair by King John, who also endowed a free chapel of St John. Today the location of this chapel is unknown.
In the 13th century the Crown granted the main manor to the Daubeney or De Albini family. In the parish church there’s a stone effigy of Sir Philip De Albini (d 1294). The family were based at Barrington, but Sir Giles Daubney (whose tomb is also here) built a hall-house in the late 14th century close to the stream & church in South Petherton. This became the manor house. Today it’s known as ‘King Ina’s Palace’. The Daubeney family collected the rents but didn’t do much to develop the urban functions of South Petherton .