The history of yeovil

saxon yeovil 

Held by the Royal Family of Wessex


In 1791 Collinson wrote “The Romans quitted this country between AD 440 and 444; and the Saxons insidiously supplying their stations, and subverting the general economy of the country, imposed upon this province the new name of Somersetshire, either from Somerton, the chief town at that particular period therein, or in regard that they found this the seat of summer, compared with the frigid situations which they had so lately abandoned. In their division of this kingdom into petty states, in effecting which much blood was shed to obtain little territory, it constituted part of the kingdom of Wessex, or the West-Saxons.”

After the Roman withdrawal from Britain there is no evidence at all, physical or documentary, of any settlement in the Yeovil area for the next several centuries. Not for nothing is this period known as the 'Dark Ages'.

Somerset was actually conquered by the Saxons in the seventh century and the area was spasmodically 'colonised' by the English. That a settlement was established at Yeovil by the eleventh century appears to be quite certain as it came under the protection of the Royal House of Wessex.

The first known lord to hold the fledgling Yeovil was Aethelwulf or Ethelwulf, meaning "Noble Wolf". He was King of Wessex from 839 until his death in 858. His depiction, above, is from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, a late thirteenth century manuscript in the British Library.

Aethelwulf was succeeded by his son Aelfred, or Alfred, meaning 'Elf Counsel'. Known to history as Alfred the Great, he was King of Wessex and lord of Yeovil from 871 to 899. Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against the Vikings and by the time of his death had become the dominant ruler in England. Alfred was the first King of the West Saxons to style himself 'King of the Anglo-Saxons'. At this time the pre-conquest settlement of Yeovil is certain from documentary evidence since the town is mentioned, as Gifle, in Alfred's will of about 880 AD which is the earliest form of the town's name on record. It is also in Alfred's will that it is recorded that his father Aethulwolf had held Yeovil before him.

Yeovil is similarly mentioned in the will of Wynflaed of East Chinnock dated 950 AD. She left "a gift for her soul to the value of half a pound to be supplied to Gifle" in order that prayers for her soul would be offered after her death. This infers that a church, and therefore a small community, existed here at this time.

Following Alfred as lord of Yeovil was his youngest son Aethelweard, or Ethelweard. Through Alfred's patronage, Aethelweard became a wealthy landowner. In his father's will, in which he was unnamed but called Alfred's "younger son", he was the beneficiary of a vast number of estates across the south of Britain, including Gifle or Yeovil.

We know almost nothing of the people of Yeovil before the Norman Conquest in 1066 although It was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 that Godwin and Seric held Lyde and described as 'TRE' meaning 'tempora regis Eduardis' or in the time of King Edward the Confessor.

Apart from this scant documentary evidence of a Saxon Yeovil, physical evidence of Saxon occupation is just as scarce and may be summarised as follows.

  • A late Saxon spur was found by Radford during the excavation of the Westland Roman complex in 1927-28, but not published at the time.

  • Isolated pottery fragments and building rubble were discovered at Yew Tree Close in 1975 around the edge of a pond before housing development took place in the area. These were dated to the Saxon, Roman and Medieval periods. Also some earthworks which may have been building platforms, were noted although not dated and a shaped Ham stone was also recovered which could possibly have been the head of a well.

  • A carved stone was recovered during the construction of a new road in the location of Central Acre which may be a baluster from the bell tower of an Anglo-Saxon church.

  • It has been postulated that he original location of the Chantry chapel combined with the offset location of St John's church at the extreme west of the square graveyard, on a significant slope, suggest that there may have been an earlier church to the west which may have originated as a Saxon minster.

The final legacy of the Saxons may today be found in some of the place names, including the name Yeovil itself. The name of the River Yeo, after which the town takes its name, itself derives from the Saxon, or Old English word 'ea' meaning river. As mentioned above, Yeovil was written as Gifle in Alfred's will of about 880 AD and since the Saxon 'G' had a soft pronunciation like 'zh' or the sound 'J' in the word 'gentle', the pronunciation of the Saxon equivalent of Yeovil probably sounded something like zhuffel or yuffel.

Other place-names deriving from Anglo-Saxon include Huish from 'hiwisc' meaning a household and Reckleford from 'racu' meaning a stream. This comes from the stream known as the Rackel that crossed Market Street by means of a ford outside the Pall Tavern resulting in the early name of Market Street - Rackelford.

Goar Knap comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'gara', a gore, or triangular-shaped piece of land, and 'hnaep', for rising ground or the crest of a hill. Lyde derives from derives from the Old English 'hlyd' or 'hlyde' meaning a steep-sided watercourse which, of course, neatly describes the River Yeo on its eastern boundary.

Even earlier than Saxon, the word 'pen' is an ancient British or Celtic word meaning hill and is found locally at Pen Mill, Penstyle, Penfield and Penn Hill.