The History of Stamford
Though the Romans had a settlement just to the west of Stamford’s site, at Great Casterton, Stamford itself was founded after their departure. There was a Roman influence in the siting of Stamford, however, as Ermine Street linking London and York ran through the district bringing travellers and trade.
Stamford seems to have been founded by both the Saxons and the Danes in the 8th century, though by the 9th century the place had evolved into one of the five Danelaw boroughs, thus a town of some importance nationally. The site was strategically significant, with the ancient North-South trade route running by, and a ford over the River Welland, the river also providing access to the sea at this period.
By 918 the Saxons had regained control of the settlement by then straddling the river, and it was a worthwhile acquisition: Stamford had a market; was renowned for the production of good quality pottery known as Stamford Ware, thrown on the potters’ wheel and glazed to seal it; and according to archaeological evidence was a major metal-working centre at this point.
As the Normans were about to conquer England Stamford remained royal territory, Queen Edith holding it as part of her Rutland possessions, and when William I had seized the country he ordered the building of a castle near the town very early in his reign: documentation is lacking, but it is thought a basic Norman fortress existed at Stamford by perhaps 1069, in all likelihood constructed on the site of the old royal manor to show continuity of power.
During the Norman era and into Plantagenet times wool became an important trade commodity in Stamford. By about 1300 the old pottery industry had declined as other places out-competed it, but wool and to a small extent cloth from Stamford maintained a degree of prosperity in the town for some time, its good communications facilitating trade links well beyond its local area. That its trade reached to distant markets is perhaps underlined by the existence of a Jewish community in the town, which as was so often elsewhere was regularly attacked, in Stamford’s case in 1189, 1223, and 1242. The market and certain civic rights were recognized by Henry III in a charter granted to the place in 1256.
Stamford’s significance in medieval times was reflected in the extent of religious foundations there: at one point there were 14 churches, four different orders of friars, and six monastic hospitals. Stamford is said to have been one of England’s 10 most prosperous towns by the 13th century, and in the following century it even had a short-lived university when some fugitive Oxford students set up there in 1333. This university was closed by royal order after Oxford and Cambridge pressed Edward III to remove their unwelcome competitor from the scene.
As had happened with the pottery trade, the wool business in Stamford declined in the later medieval period, with East Anglia both producing wool and processing it more effectively in centres like Norwich and Lavenham . This impoverishment can only have been worsened by the sacking of the town by Lancastrian forces in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses , and also by the silting of the Welland cutting Stamford’s easy access to the sea.
The latter part of the Tudor era saw the town benefit from local man William Cecil being Elizabeth I ’s great counsellor for much of her reign, Cecil building the magnificent Burghley House just outside Stamford’s boundaries. And during the reign of Henry VIII Stamford School was founded (1532), its original buildings incorporating structures used by Brazenose [sic] College Stamford, the short-lived 14th century university.
In the following Stuart era Stamford was little touched by the hostilities of the Civil War , though nearby Burghley House endured a siege. Indeed many of the fine buildings in Stamford’s beautifully preserved centre date from the Stuart era, a time when the sea was once more made accessible by the digging of a new cut in the 1660s. The town’s newspaper The Stamford Mercury was supposedly founded in 1695, giving it a claim (disputed by at least two other publications) to be the oldest in England.
In the 18th century Stamford thrived as a coaching centre on the Great North Road. The George at Stamford remains as a living monument to that era, when it competed with several rivals for the lucrative coaching trade that for a while made Stamford quite a cosmopolitan place with the theatre, assembly rooms and even a racecourse diverting visitors and locals alike. Stamford retains many delightful Georgian houses recalling this period in its history.
Unlike many other English towns, the coming of the railways in the late 1830s was a negative for Stamford: the coach trade plummeted; and the route chosen for the original line went around Stamford, stifling investment in the town. At the same time Stamford lost one of its traditions, said to date from King John ’s reign: the running of a bull through the streets chased by dogs, riders and runners, the beast eventually butchered and its meat sold cheaply to local revellers; the cruel sport was stopped in 1837.
Agricultural and general engineering gradually gained significance in Victorian Stamford and through into the 20th century, but though some engineering remains the town these days relies more on employment at nearby RAF Wittering, in its substantial state and private secondary school provision, and naturally for such an architecturally superb settlement in tourism.