A potted history of Eccleshall

Eccleshall and its surrounding area was mainly forested in Anglo-Saxon times, though the name of 'Eclēs-halh' (meadow by the church) indicates that there was already a church from Romanic, pre-Anglo-Saxon times. This was the principal, perhaps only, significant settlement in an extensive tract of about 100 square miles where the headwaters of the Sow collected. This area was granted to the canons of Lichfield, and round about the reign of the great King Offa a substantial part of the Eccleshall forest was being cleared and settled, as the place names in the area attest.

The Danes had in 1010 laid waste to Eccleshall, which remained in decline at the time of the Domesday book in 1086. Nevertheless it remained one of the cathedral's principal estates. The Norman bishops soon took an interest in it, especially the energetic Roger de Clinton whose episcopy started in 1129. He reorganised the cathedral's finances, and whilst he rebuilt the cathedral itself and laid out Lichfield in the street pattern we see today, he seems to have regarded Eccleshall as the seat of his secular power. He formed the largest deer park ever in Staffordshire (nowadays the Bishop's Woods), created many manors for his followers and probably added the High Street to Eccleshall as its market street. The first time that both Lichfield and Eccleshall are known to have had market charters was 1153, but this may well have been to confirm existing charters with the new ruler, Henry of Anjou, who formally succeeded to the monarchy at the death of King Stephen in 1154. Clinton himself died on crusade in 1149.

During this century and into the next most of the rest of Eccleshall forest was felled by a land-hungry population and new settlements including Pershall and Horseley came into being. The nave of Eccleshall church was built in stone about the 1190s to accommodate the townsfolk and the swelling numbers from the hamlets surrounding. Clinton's adoption of Eccleshall as the bishop's 'summer palace' was to lead in the next century to the large chancel of the church, only 8 feet shorter than the nave, to accommodate the bishop's entourage. The new bishop in 1295 was Walter de Langton, who was also a trusted Lord Treasurer of England under Edward I. He rebuilt the castle in magnificent style, the fortifications of which survive till now, though it was partially destroyed in the Civil War, requiring new residential quarters.

In the 16th century Bishop Overton brought the French Huguenot glassmakers to Bishop's Wood from their home in Lorraine Their glass made Eccleshall and the bishop wealthy. It was a green forest glass. Several local surnames date back to these French families, for instance the name Henzey is now the Henney family. The glass makers had to leave at the end of the 1500's as a law stopping oak trees being used for charcoal was passed, to protect the ship making industry.

During the Civil War, Bishop Robert Wright, made an impassioned speech at the bar of the House of Lords in 1642, and then fled to Eccleshall Castle to hide. He died in Eccleshall in early 1643, but could not be buried as the Castle was under siege by the Parliamentary forces, based on the now cricket pitch. After the Battle of Hopton Heath in March 1643, the Royalist soldiers entered Eccleshall, liberated the castle and attempted to bury the Bishop. This was stopped by the Parliamentarian soldiers coming from Stafford, and a battle was fought along the High Street. The Parliamentarians won and the castle was taken. William Brereton was put in command and the castle was then turned into prison for Royalist officers, but during the latter part of the Commonwealth was sleighted (knocked down) and sold. Some of the timbers and sandstone were used in extending the Bell Inn.

After the Restoration of 1660, the Castle was bought back by the Diocese, and in the early 1700's the Queen Anne house that now stands was built by Bishop William Lloyd. Although he preferred to stay in Biana Manor, as he did not like the new building. Saying it was like a cow byre.

From the 17th century shoemaking, along with farming, was one of the main occupations of Eccleshall. In his will of 1702, Samuel Barnfield left over 1,000 hides in his tannery, which stretched down the Stone Road. Many of the premises on the High Street were occupied by shoemakers, and there were also a great number of public houses, with names such as the Garland, now the Royal Oak, the White Lion, The Cock, The Three Tuns and the Rainbow.

With the development of turnpike trusts in the 18th century as a method of financing road building and improvements, coach travel throughout England had become faster and more reliable. With its position on the main London to Chester road, Eccleshall became an important stopping point for coaches on several different routes and the town prospered, the inns in particular. Several schools, called Dame Schools started, as the coaches could bring the children to the town. One such school was located in Small Lane.

In the 19th century Eccleshall's wealth again took an upturn, as farming and the Corn Laws, brought riches to the land owners. Eccleshall was prosperous enough to move the rear wall of Holy Trinity Church back four feet to accommodate the congregation after the gallery was taken down. The church in the 1860's had a complete make-over, with the bishop's tombs being relegated to the rear of the church, all funded by locals. At this time the several lakes that surrounded the castle were drained, and the Chester Road widened and made straight from the church to Pershall.

Imagine the sight on a Sunday morning as Bishop Cornwallis travelled from the castle to the church in his carriage, to be met by his parishioners lining the path way to the church. Woe betide anyone missing this ritual!

The newly built room at the side of the Royal Oak, rung to the sound of music from the annual Corn Balls, with local children sent with rags covering their shoes to polish the floor of the dance hall.

Eccleshall liked it's isolation, so when in the 19th century it was suggested that the rail network should come to Eccleshall, the townspeople decided not to have a railway station, which is why Eccleshall ended up with a Railway Inn (now the Badger) but no railway.

Ma Jones had a sweet shop on the corner of the High Street and Castle Street. She was Eccleshall's first recorded lady entrepreneur, as she organised the first charabanc outings to the seaside, and had a large property portfolio! There was a Town Hall where the shopping precinct now stands.

The 20th century brought two world wars. The Second World War saw Eccleshall in the very middle of life, with a munitions factory at Cold Meece, and every American soldier being brought in to England through Yarnfield. There was a story of how the midden wagon was parked outside the Eagle, to deter the Yanks from drinking all the beer before the locals could get there!

The town began to grow. Luckily the High Street remained mostly intact, with building going on behind.

Now Eccleshall is a thriving Market Town, which caters for all visitors, with a delightful variety of shops and places to find refreshment.

David Jacques and Mary Dodkins 2012