Shepton Mallet is a small rural town and civil parish in the Mendip district of Somerset in South West England. Situated approximately 18 mi (29 km) south of Bristol and 5 mi (8.0 km) east of Wells, the town is estimated to have a population of 9,700. It contains the administrative headquarters of Mendip District Council. Bowlish is a hamlet on the A371 road between Shepton Mallet and Croscombe.
The Mendip Hills lie to the north, and the River Sheppey runs through the town. Shepton Mallet lies on the route of the Fosse Way, the principal Roman road into the south west of England, and there is evidence of Roman settlement. The town contains a fine parish church and a considerable number of listed buildings. Shepton Mallet Prison is England's oldest prison still in use.
In medieval times, the wool trade was important in the town's economy, although this declined in the 18th century to be replaced by other industries such as brewing; the town continues to be a major centre for the production of cider.
Shepton Mallet is in the Mendip local government district which is part of the county of Somerset. In the 80 years prior to 1974, the town had fallen within Shepton Mallet Urban District.
The name Shepton derives from the Old English scoep and tun, meaning 'the sheep enclosure'; the Domesday Book of 1086 records a settlement known as Sceaptun. The current spelling is recorded at least as far back as 1496, in a letter from Henry VII. The second part of the name derives from that of the Norman Malet family who took a lease from Glastonbury Abbey around 1100. The second 'L' appears to have been added in the 16th century.
Archaeological investigations have found evidence for prehistoric activity in the Shepton Mallet area, with substantial amounts of Neolithic flint being found, as well as some pottery fragments from the late Neolithic period. The two barrows on Barren Down, to the north of the town centre, have been found to contain cremation burials from the bronze age, and a further bronze age burial site contained a skeleton as well as some pottery. The remains of iron age roundhouses were found at Cannard's Grave, in the vicinity of what would later become the Fosse Way, along with artefacts such as quernstones and beads, and a probable iron age farm settlement enclosure has been identified at Field Farm. In the countryside surrounding the town, there is evidence of iron age cave dwellings in Ham Woods, to the north-west, and a number of burial mounds have been identified at Beacon Hill, a short distance north of the town.
Shepton Mallet is situated approximately half-way between the Roman towns of Bath and Ilchester on the Fosse Way, and, although there are no visible remains (apart from the line of the Roman road itself), there is archaeological evidence for both early military, and later civilian, settlement lasting into the 5th century. Domed pottery kilns, with pottery still in situ, were identified on the site of the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery in the mid-19th century, suggesting military activity in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Several hoards of Roman coins ranging from the 1st to 4th centuries have also been found, as well as over 300 fibula brooches, potsherds and other artefacts. In addition, a few isolated burials near the route of the Fosse Way were found during the 19th century.
A lead coffin within a rock-cut grave was discovered at a site adjacent to the Fosse Way in 1988. This discovery, and the impending commercial development of the site by the landowner, Showerings, led archaeologists to undertake more extensive excavations in the 1990s. The grave was found to be part of a larger cemetery which contained 17 burials lying on a rough east-west alignment, indicating probable Christian adherence. Two other, smaller, cemeteries contained graves aligned north-south, possibly signifying pagan religious practices. One burial was within a substantial stone coffin which had been positioned beneath a mausoleum, the foundations of which remained.
A particularly notable find in the Fosse Way burials was a Chi-Rho amulet, at the time thought to be from the 5th century, and so held to be among the earliest definite evidence of Christianity in England. A copy of the amulet was presented to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, by the churches of the Diocese of Bath and Wells. Although the amulet now resides in the Museum of Somerset, analysis by Liverpool University in 2008 using inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy demonstrated that it was a hoax, as the silver within it dated to the 19th century or later.
As well as the cemeteries, the excavations in the 1990s confirmed the presence of a linear settlement, stretching along the Fosse Way for perhaps a kilometre, comprising cobbled streets, wooden and stone workshops and houses (some with two storeys) containing hearths and ovens, industrial areas, and a stone-lined well. A great many artefacts were found, including both local and imported pottery (such as samian ware), items of jewellery such as brooches, rings and bracelets, toilet items including tweezers, ear scoops and nail cleaners, bronze and iron tools, and a lead ingot which probably originated from the Romans' lead mines on the Mendip Hills. Coins minted across the Roman empire were also found. The finds on the site indicate occupation from the late 1st, or early 2nd, century to the late 4th, or early 5th, century, although as no public buildings were found the settlement was probably not, technically, a town.
Saxon and Norman period
There is a small amount of evidence of Saxon settlement in the town, including some Saxon stonework in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul. In addition, a charter of King Ine of Wessex, dating from 706 and witnessed by nine Bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury, records the granting of the area in which Shepton Mallet is now situated to Abbot Berwald of Glastonbury Abbey. According to some legends Indract of Glastonbury was buried in Shepton. The town fell within the Whitstone Hundred, and the hundred courts were held at Cannard's Grave, a short distance to the south of the town.
The Exeter Domesday Book records that, at the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, the site was held (probably by lease from the Abbey) by one Uluert, and by Roger de Corcella at the time of the survey in 1086. When Roger de Corcella died, sometime before or around 1100, the land passed to the Malets, a very prominent Norman family, who caused their name to be added to that of the settlement (and also of another of their holdings, Curi – now Curry Mallet).
The Malet family retained the estate until the reign of King John, when on the death of William Malet (fl. 1192–1215) (and on the payment by his sons-in-law of a fine of two thousand marks, due to William having participated in a rebellion against the King) it passed through his daughter Mabel to her husband Hugh de Vivonne. Some generations later, the part of the estate containing Shepton Mallet was sold to a relative, Sir Thomas Gournay. His son, also called Thomas, participated in the murder of Edward II, and his estates were confiscated by Edward III in 1337. However the family regained favour with the King some years later, and the lands were returned. When Mathew de Gournay died childless in 1406, the estate again reverted to the Crown, before being granted out to Sir John de Tiptoft. It was once again confiscated from his son by Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses (due to the family siding with Edward IV), but was restored to Sir John's grandson, Edward Tiptoft, when Edward IV regained the throne. However, he died without issue, and there followed a succession of grants and reversions until Glastonbury Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, and the Abbey's lands, including Shepton Mallet, were granted to the Duchy of Cornwall in 1536.
Charters for the holding of markets and fairs were granted in 1235 (though this charter was swiftly revoked following objections by the Bishop of Wells to the competition it represented to the market in that city), 1260 and 1318, and indicate that the town was developing and prospering in the 13th and early 14th centuries. However the Black Death struck the town in 1348, reducing the population to about 300. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the population and economy of the town were bolstered by the arrival of craftsmen and merchants from France and the Low Countries who came to England to escape wars and religious persecution in their home countries. They introduced cloth-making which, together with the local wool trade, became a major industry in Shepton and other towns in Somerset and Wiltshire. Indeed, it appears that wool became such a source of riches for the town that when, in 1496, Henry VII needed to raise money to fight the Scots, he called upon the wool-merchants of Shepton to contribute £10 to the cause:
Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion
In 1625, a House of Correction was established in Shepton Mallet.
In the English Civil War the town supported the parliamentary side, although Shepton appears to have mostly escaped conflict apart from a bloodless confrontation between supporters of the King, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, and Parliament, led by Colonel William Strode, in the market place on 1 August 1642. In 1645 Sir Thomas Fairfax led the New Model Army through the town on the way to capturing Bristol, and in 1646 the church organ was apparently destroyed by Cromwellian soldiers.
During the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth was welcomed when he passed through Shepton Mallet, staying in Longbridge House in Cowl Street on the night of 23 June, with his men quartered throughout the town, before setting out for Bristol the following day. Many Shepton men joined the cause, but Monmouth failed to take Bath or Bristol and had to return to Shepton on 30 June. Following the Battle of Sedgemoor, the Duke fled and spent the night of 6 July at Downside, a mile north of Shepton, before continuing his flight for two more days before his capture. Following the Bloody Assizes, twelve local supporters of Monmouth were hanged and quartered in the Market Place of the town.
18th to 20th centuries
In the 17th and 18th centuries the wool and cloth industries continued to thrive, powered by the waters of the River Sheppey. There were reputed to be 50 mills in the town and surrounding area in the early 18th century, and a number of fine clothiers' houses survive, particularly in Bowlish, a hamlet on the western edge of Shepton Mallet. Although these industries employed some 4,000 people towards the end of the century, they were already beginning to decline by this time. Discontent at the introduction of mechanisation into the mills resulted in the deaths of two men in a riot in the town in 1775, an event which apparently discouraged the mill-owners from pursuing modernisation, a decision which resulted in Shepton's cloth trade losing out to the steam-powered mills in the north of England in the early 19th century. The manufacture of silk and crepe revived the town's fortunes somewhat, and Shepton's mills manufactured the silk used in Queen Victoria's wedding dress. However these industries also eventually died out.
For a period during World War II, Shepton Mallet Prison was used to store important national records from the Public Record Office, including Magna Carta, the Domesday Book, the logbooks of HMS Victory, dispatches from the Battle of Waterloo, and the "scrap of paper" signed by Hitler and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich Conference of September 1938. The Prison also became a US Army detention facility, and between 1943 and 1945 eighteen American servicemen were executed within the prison walls, having been convicted by US court-martial of murder, rape or both.
The population of Shepton Mallet was fairly stable throughout the 19th century and first part of the 20th century: in 1801, the population was 5,104 and in 1851 it was only slightly more at 5,117, though in 1901 it had swelled to 5,446, before falling back to 5,260 in 1951. By 2001, however, it had increased significantly, to 8,981.