Stafford is the county town of Staffordshire, in the West Midlands region of England. It lies approximately north of Wolverhampton and south of Stoke-on-Trent, adjacent to the M6 motorway Junction 13 to Junction 14. The population of Stafford town was given in the 2001 census as 63,681, with that of the wider borough of Stafford as 122,000, making Stafford the fourth largest settlement in the Ceremonial county, after Stoke-on-Trent, Tamworth and Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Stafford means 'ford' by a 'staithe' (landing place). The original settlement was on dry sand and gravel peninsula that provided a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, a tributary of the River Trent. There is still a large area of marshland northwest of the town, which has always been subject to flooding, such as in 1947, 2000 and 2007.
It's thought Stafford was founded in about 700 AD by a Mercian prince called Bertelin who, according to legend, established a hermitage on the peninsular named Betheney or Bethnei. Until recently it was thought that the remains of a wooden preaching cross from this time had been found under the remains of St Bertelin's chapel, next to the later collegiate Church of St Mary in the centre of the town. Recent re-examination of the evidence shows this was a misinterpretation – it was a tree trunk coffin placed centrally in the first, timber, chapel at around the time Æthelflæd founded the burh, in 913 AD. The tree trunk coffin may have been placed there as an object of commemoration or veneration of St Bertelin.
Already a centre for the delivery of grain tribute during the Dark Ages, Stafford was commandeered in July 913 AD by Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia and daughter of King Alfred the Great, after the death of her father and of her husband, Æthelred, then ealdorman of Mercia in 911, in order to construct a burh there. This new burh was fortified and provided with an industrial area for the centralised production of Roman-style pottery ("Stafford Ware") which was supplied to the chain of west midlands burhs.
She and her younger brother King Edward the Elder of Wessex, both children of King Alfred the Great and Ealhswith, wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of the Angles of Mercia, were attempting to complete their father King Alfred the Great's programme of unifying England into a single kingdom. Æthelflæd was a formidable military leader and tactician, and she sought to protect and extend the northern and western frontiers of her overlordship of Mercia against the Danish Vikings, by fortifying burhs, including Tamworth and Stafford in 913, and Runcorn on the River Mersey in 915 among others, while King Edward the Elder concentrated on the east, wresting East Anglia and Essex from the Danes. Anglo-Saxon women could play powerful roles in society. Her death effectively ended the relative independence of Mercia. Edward the Elder of Wessex took over her fortress at Tamworth and accepted the submission of all who were living in Mercia, both Danish and English. In late 918, Aelfwynn, Æthelflæd's daughter, was deprived of her authority over Mercia and taken to Wessex. The project for the unification of England took another step forward.
Stafford was one of Æthelflæd's military campaign bases and extensive archaeological investigations, and recent re-examination and interpretation of that evidence now shows her new burh was producing, in addition to the Stafford Ware pottery, food for her army (butchery, grain processing, baking), coinage and weaponry, but apparently no other crafts and there were few imports.
The Lady of Mercia, Æthelflæd, ruled Mercia for five years after the death of her father and husband, dying in Tamworth in 918.
In 1069, a rebellion by Eadric the Wild against the Norman conquest culminated in the Battle of Stafford. Two years later, another rebellion, this time led by Edwin, Earl of Mercia, culminated in Edwin's assassination. This meant his lands were distributed amongst the followers of William the Conqueror. Robert de Tonei was granted the manor of Bradley and one third of the king's rents in Stafford. The Norman Conquest in Stafford was therefore particularly brutal, and resulted not only in the imposition of a castle, but in the destruction and suppression of every other activity except the intermittent minting of coins for about a hundred years.
Redevelopment began in the late 12th century, and while the church, the main north to south street (Greengate) and routes through the late Saxon industrial quarter to the east remained, in other ways the town plan changed. A motte was constructed on the western side of the peninsula, overlooking a ford, and facing the site of the main castle of Stafford, on the hill at Castle Church, west of the town. Tenements were laid out over the whole peninsula and trade and crafts flourished until the early 14th century, when there was another upset probably associated with the plague of Black Death, which was followed in the mid 16th century by another revival.
Stafford Castle was built by the Normans on the nearby hilltop to the west in about 1090. It was first made of wood, and later rebuilt of stone. It has been rebuilt twice since, and the ruins of the 19th century gothic revival castle on the earthworks incorporate much of the original stonework.
In 1206, King John granted a Royal Charter which created the Borough of Stafford. In the Middle Ages, Stafford was a market town mainly dealing in cloth and wool. In spite of being the shire town, from Æthelflæd to Queen Elizabeth I, Stafford required successive surges of external investment. King Richard II was paraded through the town's streets as a prisoner in 1399, by troops loyal to Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV). When James I visited Stafford, he was said to be so impressed by the town's Shire Hall and other buildings that he called it 'Little London'. Charles I visited Stafford shortly after the out-break of the English Civil War. He stayed for three days at the Ancient High House. The town was later captured by the Parliamentarians, while a small-scale battle was fought at nearby Hopton Heath. Stafford later fell to the Parliamentarians, as did Stafford Castle, following a six-week siege. The town's most famous son is Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler. He was a staunch Royalist.
In 1658, Stafford elected John Bradshaw, the man who judged the trial of King Charles I, to represent the town in Parliament. During the reign of Charles II, William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford became implicated in the Popish Plot, in which Titus Oates whipped up anti-Catholic feelings with his claims that there was a plot to have the king killed. Viscount William Howard was among those accused and he was unfortunate to be the first to be tried and was beheaded in 1680. The charge was false and over five years later, on 4 June 1685, the bill of attainder against Viscount Stafford was reversed.
The town was represented in Parliament by the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the eighteenth century. During the same era, the town's mechanised shoe industry was founded, the most well-known factory owner being William Horton. The industry gradually died out, with the last factory being redeveloped in 2008.
In 1837 the Grand Junction Railway built the first railway line (Birmingham to Warrington) and station in the town, and at Warrington this linked, via another line, with the Liverpool to Manchester railway. Birmingham provided the first connection to London. Other lines followed, Stafford became a significant junction and this helped attract a number of industries to the town.
On 31 March 2006 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the town to join in the 800th anniversary civic celebrations.
In 2013 Stafford will celebrate its 1,100 th anniversary year with a number of history-based exhibitions, while local historian Nick Thomas and writer Roger Butters are set to produce a two volume 'A Compleat History of Stafford'(sic).