to Isle of Wight History Centre
And the benefits of failure

Newtown was established in the 13th century as a potential centre of trade and shipping for the Isle of Wight. In fact it eventually dissolved into a near deserted hamlet. Ironically its failure to develop beyond its medieval aspirations is the reason that today it is of national archaeological importance

Medieval Island Towns
While villages developed naturally around the hub of church and manor, medieval towns were generally planned and laid out on open land. The lords who established these towns gained financially through income from land leases and trading sites, and the leaseholders gained freedom from their legal obligations to the manor. On the Island all three medieval new towns were based on a simple grid layout around harbour facilities. Newport, and Yarmouth were established in the 12th century: Francheville (Freetown), later renamed Newtown, was established in the 13th century. At the time it doubtless seemed there was plenty of scope for all these towns to grow into major trade and shipping centres. In the long term only Newport was to achieve its potential.

The Establishment of Newtown (Francheville)
Newtown was established by Aymer de Valence, Bishop-elect of Winchester. He sealed its charter in 1256 at Swainston. It was one of a number of new towns launched by the Bishops of Winchester on their lands. With names like Gold Street and Silver Street there can be little doubt as to the high hopes for Newtown's future. In 1284 the town was somewhat reluctantly relinquished to Edward I. By the middle of the 14th century Newtown appears to be fulfilling its promise and operating on a par with other major Island harbours.

Newtown's Decline
It has been said that the devastating French raids of 1377, perhaps aggravated by the plague, were a watershed from which Newtown never properly recovered. Later in its history the gradual silting of the harbour coupled with the demands of larger vessels is also cited as contributing to its decline. But these were setbacks that could have probably been overcome had there been the wealth to do so. Newport too suffered devastation at the hands of the French but recovered and expanded. Generally Newtown, like Brading and Yarmouth, fell to the choice of free trade for Newport, with its central inland position. There is conflicting evidence as to the viability of Newtown by the 18th century but a map of 1768 shows it as sparsely populated. By the beginning of the 19th century Newtown had become little more than a rural outpost, its two MPs merely indicative of a political gentry independent of trade.

Newtown's archaeological significance lies in the fact that it is a rare example of a medieval new town which failed economically, so that it has not been built over and redeveloped, and therefore much of the original ground plan survives. Most of the other new town foundations survive as small towns, so archaeological deposits have been buried or destroyed and the medieval layout modified by later development. However, at Newtown much of the street pattern is visible, partly within the fields or as green lanes. In addition, the boundaries of many of the house plots belonging to individual medieval tenants, knows as 'burgage plots', have survived as small paddocks. Furthermore, since many of these plots have been deserted from the late medieval or post-medieval periods, it is probable that there will be a greater survival of medieval archaeological deposits than in a town of medieval origin that has remained an urban settlement. Newtown represents a rare opportunity to study one of the Bishop of Winchester's new towns in its entirety. It is important to protect this fragile and non-renewable resource for its own sake and for the irreplaceable information about our past which it contains.

Medieval Newtown
Move cursor over image to overlay speculative plan of the medieval town
This aerial view shows the feint pattern of early street systems and an indication of some medieval plots.

Move cursor over the image to overlay a speculative plan of medieval Newtown showing town quays, street layout, homestead plots and town gates.

Some text is adapted from a paper prepared by Frank Basford of the IW County Archaeology Unit, based on the work of Bob Edwards of the National Trust. The IW History Centre commissioned the medieval Newtown outline plan based on this and other sources.

August 2001