The Saxon Village of Hadleigh

Hadleigh was first named in late Saxon times in 995 to 998 in the St Paul’s Shiplist, appearing as “Haeþlege” meaning the “heath clearing”. In 1002, it appeared as “Hædleage” in the will of Ælfflæd.

Whether it was by then a village or still a smaller dispersed settlement remains unconfirmed.
St James-the-Less is recorded as being built in 1140 in Norman times and was previously presumed to probably stand next to the site of an earlier wooden Saxon church within the same churchyard. However, recently, some people have reached the opinion that the nave stonework may be Saxon with a protective Saxon “elf” carved into the north doorway.

So, where would any Saxon village have stood with respect to the church and how far did it extend into the surrounding countryside?
The current state of archaeological knowledge of Hadleigh does not appear to help us very much, the only Saxon finds recorded in the County Council record being in the immediate vicinity of the church.

In 2015-2017, test pitting around Hadleigh by Access Cambridge Archaeology and AGES AHA may assist in determining the likely bounds of any village. AGES AHA involvement in this project, as local co-ordinators for 2015 and locally reporting the outcomes, is supported as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant towards “AGES AHA Bringing Archaeology to the Community”.

Until the final results are known from this project, we have to be guided by the views of landscape archaeologists. It seems likely that any village fringed the Common and adjoined the church. The site of the Common in the 1800s is well known from maps and is likely to be a remnant with largely unchanged boundaries from when the village was first laid out. (See the probable outline of the Common laid out on the 1847 tithe map below).

It seems that it is most likely that the earliest grouped Saxon houses would have been close to the church, even though there may always have been outlying isolated farmsteads even from Iron Age times.

Unfortunately, most of the early old High Street front and rear gardens are under the concrete yards of commercial businesses and we will have to wait for the possibility of excavation during future development to uncover any Saxon finds in those areas. However, it is possible that some small patches of grass remain, for example, in the rear gardens of flats over the High Street shops which may allow a test pit to reveal their secrets.

For the moment, we are lucky that we have a Professor of Landscape Archaeology with local connections who has recorded his views in a publication to which we can refer. Professor Stephen Rippon of the University of Exeter used Hadleigh as an example in his 2004 book, “Historic Landscape Analysis:Deciphering the Landscape”.

So until any finds from archaeological digs can throw further light on the matter, the working hypothesis is that there may have been medieval occupation spread along the southern side of the old common and maybe the eastern side. The greatest potential for such finds may be around Endway, the northern part of Castle Lane and the old site of Hadleigh Hall (probably originally the manor house) that lay behind.

For 2015, the sites for the test pits have been set for two days digging on the 13th and 14th May, but if anyone owns land in the the area of the possible Saxon village (or otherwise bordering the common) and would be happy to allow a 1 metre square test pit to be dug in 2016 or 2017, please contact AGES AHA by e-mail on

For more about information about AGES Archaeological & Historical Association, visit the website at

The probable site of the Common and Saxon Village of Hadleigh
Terry Barclay - based upon the Hadleigh Tithe Map 1847 Copyright Essex Records Office
Carenza Lewis Explains the Earlier Daws Heath Finds to Local Residents as Part of AGES AHA BRINGING ARCHAEOLOGY TO THE COMMUNITY
Terry Barclay

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  • And the strange ‘þ’ in Haeþlege is pronounced as our ‘th’. The northern part of Endway car park would be a lovely target were it not covered in tarmac. Cunning Murrell’s back garden once had his trunk buried in it by the house owner, though that was dug up again and the contents studied at the Castle Inn.

    By Robert Hallmann (13/04/2015)
  • The St.Pauls ‘Ship-list’ shows the contributions made by various Anglo-Saxon towns, villages and hamlets to the manning of a ship, (usually used for defensive purposes). Hadleigh only supplied one seaman (or the upkeep for); Whereas somewhere like Southminster had to supply five. So Hadleigh was probably not that large; although it may have had a flourishing wool trade and hence the ship (scip) levy. In case anyone is confused, an Old English ‘g’ followed by a vowel was often pronounced as a ‘y’ hence Hadleigh or Hadley. 

    By Peter Smith (27/03/2015)

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