Much Wenlock in Shropshire is a small market town close to the Welsh Borders. It became an important religious centre in the seventh century when St Mildburga founded a convent there, and the site of her building remained a monastic precinct for more than 400 years - the remains of an eleventh-century Cluniac priory are still visible. But when did Much Wenlock become a bustling medieval town? Gerry Bowden asked Time Team to investigate foundations in his garden that might be linked with this development.
On Day One, while Carenza tackled old maps of the town to try and decipher how it had developed, Oliver Butler used the radar scanner to survey Mr Bowden's garden and try to locate what might have been a large masonry wall foundation not far under the surface. The line of the boundary between the properties may follow an old boundary ditch. Phil opened Trench One over it in Mr Laws' garden next door. Meanwhile Mick went to the house belonging to Mrs Gibson, Mr Bowden's other neighbour, to see if he could find clues to any earlier buildings. He decided to call in Dan Miles to dendro-date a wooden Samson post, and identified two stone arches in the living room as medieval: they would have functioned as a double doorway into the service part of the house.
Mick and Tony climbed to the top of the church tower where it was possible to see how the town had developed outside the precincts of the priory. The ends of the gardens in the area the Team was investigating formed a definite straight boundary, suggesting that the houses and gardens may have been laid out in a block. Could they be part of a planned Norman town outside the priory?
At the start of Day Two the radar results appeared to show walls under Mr Bowden's back garden and Trench Two was opened. Dr Mark Horton, a local archaeologist, explained that the Anglo-Saxon monastic precinct had been bigger than the Norman priory precinct and that a piece of its land had been divided off, probably in 1080 when the Cluniac priory was founded, This may well have coincided with the laying out of a new town. The building that the masonry wall formed part of would have fronted on to the market-place opposite the gates of the priory. Documents relating to the town suggest that by 1247 it was large enough to have achieved borough status: eight freemen and thirty-nine burgesses lived there. A cobbled courtyard and small pieces of medieval pottery were uncovered in Trench Two. Some of the cobbles were removed and revealed an area of rubble infill, but there was no sign of the wall indicated by the radar scan.
By Day Three Mick concluded that the Team was looking for the wall in the wrong place. Measuring back from the arches in Mrs Gibson's living room suggested the walls should be closer to the house. Also, two lines on the wall of Mrs Gibson's house showing where the roof had been indicated that the main body of the medieval structure was in her garden. The position of the building and its size led Mick to suggest that it may have been an aisled hall owned by the priory and used for important visitors.
Phil uncovered the boundary ditch in Trench one and found pottery that dated it to the twelfth century - which means the town was probably laid out then. Meanwhile, in Mr Bowden's back garden, Trench Two had revealed that the cobbled courtyard was outside the medieval aisled hall and had been laid over an area of rubble that filled in an old well. The final piece of exciting evidence was the date of the Samson post - somewhere between 1254 and 1299. It is known that Henry III visited the priory and it was conjectured that some of his entourage may have stayed in the hall.
In three days, Time Team discovered that soon after the Cluniac priory was established in 1080 a planned development grew up outside its gates, by the market-place, and that this enabled what had been a small Saxon settlement to grow into a thriving medieval market town.