Farnham first mentioned in c.688AD

The earliest mention of Farnham is in a charter of c AD688 when Caedwalla, King of Wessex, gave land at Farnham to two or possibly three monks to enable them to found a ‘monasterium’. This would have been a ‘mother’ church for the area rather than a monastery as such and recent work within St Andrew’s has revealed the presence of a very small single or double celled church underlying the centre of the existing medieval building. The dating is uncertain but, from the size and construction, it is likely to belong to the mid/late Saxon period and may be a successor to the seventh century church – always assuming that one was actually built by the original monks.

Place name

The place-name of Farnham is descriptive and probably means ‘the enclosure within the ferns’. However, while Saxon huts have been found to the south of the modern town, there is no direct evidence for occupation within the core of the town itself. Nevertheless the fact that Farnham was the principal site named in the charter of AD688 for an area of land that stretched down to Hindhead, must indicate that there was some form of settlement in existence at that date.

Saxon Farnham

In a further charter of AD801-805 (by which time Farnham was held by the bishops of Winchester), Bishop Ealhmund exchanged land in return for a honey-render of 10 jars, but more significantly, also for two nights board and lodging. The implication is that there was a building somewhere in the area where a person of importance and his entourage could stay. Given the presence of an early church underlying St Andrew’s it seems very likely that the core of any Saxon settlement lay in the area around it rather than under the existing town centre. The church and probable associated settlement would therefore occupy the nearest high ground to the best crossing point of the Wey – that at Longbridge, always bearing in mind that in the past the river was a much more formidable obstacle than it is today. This would explain why, on crossing Longbridge from the south, the bottom part of Downing Street turns sharply west and, via Lower Church Lane, leads directly to the high ground on which the church stands. It is probable that, at this period, the area of the modern town centre was open fields and there was therefore no reason for the road to head directly northwards.

Domesday Farnham

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 the bishops of Winchester were described as having ‘always held’ Farnham and the town was the centre of what had become one of the wealthiest of the numerous Winchester estates, being worth 47 a year. It certainly had a church which was listed in Domesday as being held by Osberne of Eu and being worth the substantial sum of 6 a year.

Building the castle

Perhaps the first major work to affect Farnham shortly after the Conquest was the construction of the initial phase of Farnham castle. Farnham was becoming increasingly important as the capital of England was moved from Winchester to London. This meant that the bishop, who was frequently a member of the Royal family and a great official of state, had to travel frequently between the two cities and Farnham was a convenient overnight stopping place along this route. The castle, as it slowly developed into more or less its current form, served the functions of palace, fortress and administrative centre for the manor. It was, in fact, one of the most important of the bishop’s palaces and was one of the few to remain within the bishopric holdings after the Civil War.

Seal of Bishop Henri de Blois  Illustration: Jim Farrant / Nicholas Riall

Seal of Bishop Henri de Blois, Illustration: Jim Farrant / Nicholas Riall


Medieval town planning

Farnham owes much of its early development to the bishops – but perhaps most significantly to the decision, probably by Bishop Henri de Blois in the mid/late twelfth century, to lay out a formally planned new town consisting essentially of Castle Street and The Borough. This effectively shifted the core of the settlement of Farnham from around the church to a new position – that of the existing historic town centre. This explains why, unusually, the Parish Church in Farnham lies outside the core of the town and even outside the medieval town defences, which consisted of a substantial bank and ditch earthwork which has been traced south of the Borough and along the west side of Bear Lane.

Development of borough and market

The pattern of a wide market street – Castle Street – meeting at right angles a through road – The Borough – is one repeated elsewhere in slightly later foundations such as New Arlesford and Haslemere. The bishop’s investment must have been successful because, by the early thirteenth century when the medieval account rolls commence, Farnham is in full existence and is listed as a mesne borough. A market is granted in 1216 together with a fair, the tolls of which were a valuable asset. The borough grew rapidly with further development spreading along West and East Streets and in 1249 the bishop granted the burgesses their first charter of liberties. From that date the burgesses took control of the whole borough, ran a borough court and were responsible for the collection of tolls from the market and fair. In effect this is the origin of the modern Farnham Town Council.

Medieval Farnham industries

During the Middle Ages the prosperity of Farnham was based on wheat and wool and in tax returns of 1336 the town was the fourth richest of those listed for the county. Other activities which have left their trace are the production of pottery, tiles and bricks, as kilns for both these processes have been found within the town centre. Estimates of population are always difficult, but assuming four to five dependants for each head of household listed in the records, then in the thirteenth century very roughly the town held about 1,400 people and the surrounding countryside a further 2-3,000.

Farnham after the Black Death

The town went into serious decline after the Black Death in the years following 1348, when it is calculated that up to one-third of the local population died. In the short term, however, many things went on as normal – the usual number of cheeses (26) were made at the castle, the crops were harvested and at the same time the bishop, William de Edyndone, continued works to keep the castle in good repair. Nevertheless profound changes in the nature of society were being accelerated by the drop in population. The feudal lords, including the bishops, found it more difficult to exercise direct control on the lives of their tenants and within a few years wages had risen and individual landholdings had become larger, leading ultimately to the breakdown of the feudal system and to the emergence of the well-to-do yeoman farmers of the Tudor period – the people who created some of the timber-framed buildings that we can still see in and around Farnham.

What archaeology tells us about the history of Farnham

Today there is little or nothing to be seen of the medieval town itself, other than the surviving street plan and property boundaries. A number of the latter are of considerable age, particularly in Castle Street, where many still follow the lines of the burgage and half-burgage plots laid out over eight hundred years ago.

Town ditch under excavation near Bear Lane  Photo: David Graham

Town ditch under excavation near Bear Lane, Photo: David Graham

However a number of excavations have revealed direct evidence for the town’s development at that period. The location of the town ditch has now been fixed at three points. Working from these a full circuit can be suggested, with some elements of uncertainty. The fixed points are by excavation at Bear Lane and Borelli Yard and by observation of a pipeline trench at the east end of The Borough. It seems likely that the area enclosed by the defences is co-terminus with the area covered by the borough rentals. The main entrances to the town were at the east end of The Borough, where the name Bear Lane commemorates the site of the ‘bar’ or gate and to the west of The Borough just east of Downing Street where once stood ‘The Bear’ an inn whose name again recalls the existence of a ‘bar’ or gate into the town. The existence of these defences also explains why the upper section of Downing Street follows the rather odd dog-leg course that it does. It is basically avoiding the southern line of the town defences and leading up to the nearest entrance – that at the west end of The Borough.

Plan of Farnham showing areas of settlement Illustration: David Graham

Plan of Farnham showing areas of settlement, Illustration: David Graham

On present evidence these defences seem distinctly unusual for a small town and it is very difficult to find any parallels for them. While the dating is uncertain, because the ditch was cleaned out frequently, it probably belongs to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and may relate to a period of disturbance such as the French invasion of 1216. In any event at some point the banks were levelled and the ditches infilled, though the eastern ditch remained open until Tudor times.

Other sites include thirteenth century pottery kilns which have been found on Park Row and to the rear of 74 Castle Street, both producing a distinctive type of pottery known as Surrey Whiteware. A substantial brick-built medieval tile kiln was excavated in Borelli Yard. This appeared to date from just before 1216 and was producing pegged roof tile, dragon-backed ridge tiles and a variety of ‘great bricks’. It seems that in the later Middle Ages pottery production moved out of the town to East Street as the development of the Woolmead destroyed, without proper record, a number of later kilns producing ‘Tudor Green’ wares. Yet further kilns, again producing green-glaze ware, have been recorded under the bowling green in Bear Lane and these probably still remain relatively intact.

Reconstruction of the 13th century tile kiln found in Borelli Yard, Illustration: Jim Farrant / Nicholas Riall

Reconstruction of the 13th century tile kiln found in Borelli Yard, Illustration: Jim Farrant / Nicholas Riall

A number of other small excavations have taken place within the town centre and these are listed in volume 85 of the Surrey Archaeological Collections. However it is just worth mentioning one other site – that underlying the Museum of Farnham itself in West Street. The museum lies well away from the centre of the town and it was therefore a surprise when rescue excavations revealed a long sequence of intensive occupation starting in the late twelfth century and continuing on more or less continuously until the construction of the existing Georgian house.

The Georgian building that houses the Museum of Farnham, Image: Richard Purkiss

The Georgian building that houses the Museum of Farnham, Image: Richard Purkiss

This implies that, from an early date, ribbon development occurred both to the east and west of the town centre. This has the considerable implication in that medieval sites can be expected to extend well outside the historic core of the town.

Evidence from documents for the history of Farnham

The other main source of information about medieval Farnham comes from the very comprehensive documentary records that survive, particularly from 1208 onwards in the form of the Winchester Pipe Rolls – amongst the most extensive series medieval accounts in Britain. These and other documents allow us to name many of the occupants of the town and surrounding countryside through the centuries and to identify their individual holdings and occupations. Outside the town such holdings have been identified in East Street, West Street and south of the river along what is now Red Lion Lane as well as along West Street.

Farnham Church; the largest parish church in the county, 1870  Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey no. 1303

Farnham Church; the largest parish church in the county, 1870, Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey no. 1303

Farnham is therefore unusual in that it is the second oldest named settlement in Surrey and has the longest single record of ‘ownership’ in the form of the bishops of Winchester who held the town, manor and hundred from at least 801 to 1927. Farnham is one of the earliest medieval planned towns in the region has one of the most continuously occupied castles in the country and has the largest parish church in Surrey. All this reflects the importance of the town throughout the medieval period.

2 Responses to Farnham: The Earlier Historic period

  1. Cindy Farnham Melton says:

    Since my maiden name is Farnham and my ancesters are English I was wondering if the name has any connection with the town of Farnham
    I live in the US. If you have any information I would appreciate it

  2. Beverly Ann Farnham says:

    My name is Farnham in the US and I trace my ancestors to Ralph Farnham born 1603 in England. He sailed from South Hampton 1635 on the James with his family. Is there any information that can link us to Farnham castle or Village? Thank you for the wonderful information

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