There has been human occupation in Britain from at least 500,000 years ago, but for discrete periods within this period, up until about 13,000 years ago, people were absent due to the ice advances. Very little is known, as yet, of human activity during this long period in the area we now know as Northamptonshire, although the discovery of 70 ‘hand axes’ and some other stone tools from various places in the county shows that at various times people were living in this area.
As temperatures increased, from about 13,000 years ago, over a few thousand years the Northamptonshire landscape was transformed from Arctic tundra to one of almost unbroken woodland. During this period, following the end of the last Ice Age, there is an increasing amount of evidence for human activity, but these people were very few in number and lived in small nomadic bands. Like their earliest ancestors, they still gained their living as hunters and as gatherers of wild foods. They may to have cleared or thinned the trees in limited areas, to improve pasture for the wild animals they hunted, but overall their lifestyle and their small numbers meant they had little impact on their environment. Hunting and gathering simply could not support large numbers of people.
It was not until approximately 7,500 years ago that agriculture was introduced from the continent and the process of clearance of the woodland began on a large scale to create pasture for stock and arable fields. Farming could support far greater numbers of people than hunting ever had. Over the following three or four thousand years, as population levels rose dramatically, as these farmers transformed Northamptonshire. By the time of the Roman conquest or soon after, there was probably not a trace of wildwood left. Northamptonshire had become a wholly man made landscape.
For practically the first time, with the introduction of agriculture, it was possible for people to live in permanent settlements, which will have been small farms or hamlets. However because of the importance of stock in the economy, it was several thousand years before the countryside was dominated by permanently occupied farms and hamlets with extensive areas of arable fields. In this early period of farming it was the ritual monuments and ceremonial meeting places that were the most important fixed points within the landscape. During the Bronze Age there were many hundreds if not thousands of burial mounds, most containing the remains of the tribal nobility, scattered across the county, especially along and close to the river valleys where the best agricultural land was to be found.
The two dark curving linear marks in the growing crops show the course of ditches interrupted by causeways which define a ceremonial meeting place of the Neolithic period.
It was from about 800 BC onwards that the landscape started to be far more intensively used. Increasingly the countryside was divided by boundaries and soon ditched fields and large numbers of permanent settlements were seen, especially on the best agricultural lands. But even on the heavy, cold clay lands on the higher ground the trees were being cleared, though here perhaps much of it was for pasture. Most people still lived in isolated farms or small hamlets, but it was during this period, the Iron Age, that the first larger settlements appeared, large defended enclosures known today as hillforts. These fortified sites, such as Hunsbury near Northampton and Borough Hill near Daventry, dominated the large tribal areas and were in many senses the precursors of towns.
The wide, dark curving mark enclosing a rectangular area encompassing much of both fields shows the buried remains of a wide defensive ditch of an Iron Age hillfort overlooking the Nene near Irthlingborough.
Hence by the time of the Roman conquest, in 43 AD, Northamptonshire was a wealthy, densely settled agricultural landscape. Integration within the first ‘European community’ did transform the county of the next 350 years. There was the first national system of engineered roads, the planting of the first real towns, the establishment of commercial farming estates run from often very elaborate villa farms sometimes within the first village-like settlements and constructed along continental lines. The transformation of the architecture filtered down to even the most modest farmsteads. However, the vast majority of the population were the descendants of the Iron Age peoples of the county and the wealth of Roman Northamptonshire built upon the secure foundations laid down during the Iron Age.
Roman mosaic from Stanwick Villa
Cropmarks of Irchester Roman Town
The decline and fall of the Roman empire saw the most dramatic economic collapse in European history. In Britain, lying at the periphery of the Roman world its impact was particularly far reaching. In Northamptonshire almost all of the trappings of the Roman world were lost within 50 to 100 years. Towns and villas were deserted, roads and bridges were no longer maintained and large areas of the poorest land were abandoned. The settlement pattern and probably also the agricultural economy reverted to something more akin to that seen centuries before the Roman conquest. The collapse was compounded by a major migration of peoples to England from northern Germany and Holland. Their culture and their language came to dominate much of England, including Northamptonshire, by the end of the 5th century and 6th century. However a large proportion, perhaps the majority, of the population were still descendants of the people who had lived in Northamptonshire in the Iron Age and Roman periods.
Saxon Male - Wakerley
We now know, particularly as a result of archaeological research in Northamptonshire, that England was not at this time a landscape of villages, but rather of isolated farms and hamlets, as it had been in the Iron Age.
A Summary History of Northamptonshire will be continued looking at historical developments in the following geographical areas and periods.