A History of Stamford
The recorded history of Stamford goes back well over 1,000 years. It first came to prominence in the 9th and 10th centuries when it became one of the 5 controlling boroughs of Danelaw. It was one of the first towns to produce glazed wheel-thrown pottery after the departure of the Romans.
Stamford prospered under the Normans with an economy based mainly on wool; it was particularly famous for its woven cloth called haberget. The town's excellent communication routes via the Great North Road and via the River Welland to the North Sea ensured the success of its trade. By the 13th century Stamford was one of the 10 largest towns in England. It had a castle, 14 churches, 2 monastic institutions, and 4 friaries; parliaments met here and there was a tradition of academic learning which finally led to the establishment of a short-lived breakaway university in the mid 14th century.
Many buildings survive from this period including the early 12th-century St Leonard's Priory; the magnificent early 13th-century tower of St Mary's Church; the rich 13th-century arcades in All Saints' Church; fine 13th-century stone-built hall houses and under crofts, and the 14th-century gateway to the Grey Friary.
The removal of the main wool trade to East Anglia in the 15th century forced the town into decline, and the trade that remained was concentrated in the hands of rich merchants like the Browne family. These merchants helped rebuilt many of the churches in the mid-late 15th century including St John's; St Martin's and All Saints' which are fine examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. William Browne also founded an alms house which remains one of the best surviving medieval alms houses in England, complete with exemplary stained glass.
While the overall decline continued into the 16th century, Stamford was linked to national affairs by the fact that a local man, William Cecil, became secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I. He built a palatial mansion just outside Stamford for his mother and Burghley House survives as one of the crowning glories of the Tudor age. The great tombs of Cecil and his descendants lie in St Martin's Church.
The town escaped the civil war relatively unscathed despite Oliver Cromwell's siege of Burghley House and the visit of the fugitive King Charles in May 1646. After the Restoration of 1660, the town recovered as improvements to the Great North Road encouraged road trade and the river was made navigable again by a canal.
Everyone who travelled north passed through Stamford and the coaching trade elevated old medieval inns like the George into major nationally renowned hostelries. Prosperous professional men and merchants were attracted to the town and they built their fine vernacular and later Classical or Georgian houses which today provide the backbone of the town's fabric. It is the consistency and quality of these houses and the exceptional streetscapes they create, which encouraged the BBC to film 'Middlemarch' in the town.
The arrival of the railway in the 1830s signalled a death blow to the coaching trade and so to Stamford's fortunes. The main line to the north bypassed the town and so stunted industrial development. However, like many eastern shire towns, Stamford produced skilled agricultural engineers such as Blackstone's. The lack of industrialisation together with the traditional, almost feudal, relationship between town and house (the Cecils of Burghley were Stamford's landlords) preserved and pickled the town so that today the historic urban fabric survives almost unscathed.
Stamford is a unique treasure trove of provincial English architecture built in the finest stone that this country has to offer. Today Stamford prospers as a small market town of around 18,000 inhabitants with a mixed economy based on industry, services, agriculture, and tourism.
Stamford is a town which has always encouraged superlatives. Celia Fiennes, the late 17th-century traveller, said Stamford is 'as fine a built town all of stone as may be seen'. Sir Walter Scott apparently doffed his hat to the view up to St Mary's Church, claiming it was the finest sight on the road between London and Edinburgh. John Betjeman called Stamford 'England's most attractive town'. Lady Wedgewood, writing in 1936, said 'Among stone-built towns there may be some that equal, none I think that surpass Stamford and, since here the Welland leaves the freestone country to enter on the vagaries of a Fen river, it certainly chooses the supreme, architectural moment.' Pevsner says 'The climax [of Lincolnshire] in terms of historical as well as architectural significance, is... the town of Stamford, the English country market town par excellence'.
W. G. Hoskins, the famous 1950s historian, said:
If there is a more beautiful town in the whole of England I have yet to see it. The view of Stamford from the water-meadows on a fine June evening, about a quarter to half a mile upstream, is one of the finest sights that England has to show. The western sunlight catches the grey limestone walls and turns them to gold. It falls on towers and spires and flowing water, on the warm brown roofs of Collyweston slates, and on the dark mass of the Burghley woods behind. The hipped and mansard roofs of the town rise from the edge of the river above the flashing willows, tier upon tier, to the spire of All Saints, and the towers of St Martin's, St John's, and St Michael's, and, above them all, to the noble tower and spire of St Mary's, the central jewel in the crown of Stamford...
[ East Midlands and the Peak, ed. G. Grigson (London, 1951) ]
In 1993, BBC television used Stamford as the setting for George Eliot's Middlemarch drama.
The producer, Louis Marks, said:
When we were planning the programme we presumed we would have to film all over the country - a street here, a square there, a house somewhere else. But then our researchers came back and told us they had found this marvellous town that had everything. So I went up to Lincolnshire, took one look and I knew they were right. Stamford is beautiful, extraordinary; it is absolutely stunning.
Stamford is set in gently rolling countryside just west of the fen edge. This is a landscape of woods and agricultural land punctuated by delightful stone villages and aristocratic estates.
To again quote W. G. Hoskins:
In the country, the villages of the Stone Belt - built in the golden ironstone or the sheep-grey oolitic limestone - are some of them superb, not to be outdone anywhere in England. Such are Collyweston and Duddington, in northern Northamptonshire, and Clipsham, Caldecott, and Preston, to name only three in Rutland, where nearly every village is worth exploring...