Archaeology has revealed very little about the ancient history of Mansfield, though much is now known about earliest settlers in the valley of the River Meden, the northern boundary of Mansfield District. In the open fields here have been found many pieces of stone tools used by wandering hunter-gatherer people over 10,000 years ago.
However, the earliest known remains of permanent settlement are much more recent, dating from about 70 A.D. At this time, the Romans had conquered most of Southern Britain, and brought peace between previously warring Celtic tribes, allowing the development of undefended farms.
There are several of these farms in the Meden valley, some of which developed right through the period of Roman rule, from crude huts to sophisticated country homes with central heating, brightly painted interior walls, and in one known case a patterned mosaic floor in the main reception room.
There is only one small clue to the origins of Mansfield itself: the name, which is found in the famous Doomsday Book as “Mamesfeld”. Though “felde” is an English word, which then meant a wide stretch of open land, “Mam” is ancient Celtic, meaning a rounded hill. It seems that the first English settlers in this part of Nottinghamshire, perhaps around 600 A.D., learned the local geography from the Celts who had been living there for many centuries, and kept many of the old names for natural features.
Names of smaller places around tell us more about both the ancient landscape and the arrival of new settlers. Around 900 A.D., after uneasy peace had been established between the English and new invaders from Scandinavia, Danish farmers arrived in the area. As well as taking over some English farms, they settled a great deal of previously unused land; place names such as “Radmanthwaite” indicate the location of such new settlements. Also, most street names in central Mansfield contain the Dan Danish word “gate”, which means “street” (the Danish word for a gate, found in Nottingham and other old walled towns is “bar”).
Doomsday Book, compiled in 1086, shows that Mansfield was owned by the King, and had previously been the administrative centre for a remarkable collection of estates stretching right across northern Nottinghamshire, possibly intended to maintain a rapid-response defensive force in earlier days when the modern Yorkshire was a separate and hostile nation. The Doomsday entry indicates that the population was quite small, with only a few dozen houses, though an early version of St Peter’s church already served the town. Over the centuries following the Norman conquest, Mansfield found a new role as the effective capital of the Royal Forest of Sherwood. This encouraged the town to develop as a commercial centre, and the use of the sandy forest land for sheep farming created a textile industry.
The 17th century sundial on Westgate. The rocks of the Maun valley are much harder than the forest sandstone, and though most buildings were made from timber, Mansfield stone was chosen for many local churches, including Southwell Minster, and for parts of Nottingham Castle. With the King as Lord of the Manor, Mansfield people had a great deal of freedom from day-to-day interference, so the town developed rapidly. Even the great plague called the Black Death, which killed millions of people across Europe in the mid l4th century, seems to have little effect.on Mansfield, which may have had attracted settlers from nearby villages to replace those who died. The town has never been a place for great events. There are no recorded sieges or battles in Mansfield; barely a handful of famous people have been born here; even the Kings ceased to stay in the town a few generations after the Norman conquest, preferring the hunting lodges at nearby Clipstone. Try now to picture Mansfield 500 years ago. What we think of as the main shopping streets today were the whole town,and shopping was confined to the area round the Market Place. There would be several inns, including the Swan, most with access from the Nottingham Road.
Nearly every building would be made of timber, except the Church and perhaps the Moot Hall (at the West Gate end of the Market Place) where the Manor Court was held every three weeks. St. Peter’s Church, at least from a distance, looked much as it does today, though perhaps with a broader spire (and probably a richly painted but poorly furnished interior). The adjoining Town Mill was one of two or three where the local people had their grain ground into flour.
The great open fields were divided into strips which were allocated to give each farmer a fair selection of different types of land, though the Tenter Field also contained the frames on which, with “tenterhooks”, the newly-processed cloth from the town’s textile industry was stretched and dried. Beyond the fields (except in the Maun valley towards Sutton, where stood “The Hermitage” and Sutton Mill) stretched a great crescent of open forest land from Skegby round to Clipstone Park, used as pasture. Only the eastern half was thickly wooded (the locals could use Royal timber for some domestic purposes) while the western portion was more open moorland, with some small areas fenced off for short-term cultivation. These enclosures in the forest land were a symptom of a growing private enterprise culture.
In the early 1500’s, the town’s entrepreneurs were scoring more and more victories against the authorities, exchanging and combining their ploughing strips in the open fields for greater efficiency, and opening private-enterprise quarries and mills (the latter a step too far; breaking a legal monopoly). The creation of more quarries combined with two major fires in the 16th century to encourage the use of stone for house-building. At the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the new wealth also created a new civic institution, using funds which had been set aside for a Catholic “chantry” to run a Grammar School for the town. Just after 1600, the town passed out of Crown control, and during the rest of the 17th century, national upheavals brought more local power to local people. Perhaps the most important of these developments was the town’s acceptance of those who challenged the running of Church affairs; by 1300, Mansfield was (slightly reluctantly) home to numerous Presbyterian and Quaker families. Barred from most official jobs, many of these people turned their energies to business, and began the move towards the lndustrial Revolution.