Gotowre-Super-Mare: Lost in the Heath

Somewhere amongst the heath land on the south shore of Poole harbour, Dorset, there potentially lays a site which would potentially tell us much about medieval town foundation and planning.

In 1286, Edward I appointed two men, Richard de Bosco and Walter de Marisco to:

“lay out with sufficient streets and lanes, and adequate sites for a market and church and plots for merchants and others, a new town with a harbour in a place called Gotowre Super Mare, in the parish of Stodlaunde [Studland]”

(Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1286)             

Studland is a parish occupied today by the small village of Studland and a number of hamlets. It has long been assumed that the site of Edward’s new town lie between the Ower and Goathorn peninsulas, largely due to the place-names in the area which include Newton Bay, Newton Farm, Newton Copse and Newton Heath alongside the similarities between Gotowre and Goathorn.

Later, in May 1286, Edward I granted “to the burgesses of Nova Villa…of all the liberties granted to the citizens of London as set forth in the Charter to Melcombe.” Gotowre-Super-Mare was also granted permission to hold “weekly markets at their borough on Tuesday and Friday in each week, and of a yearly fair there on St. Lawrence tide [August].”


Despite these generous offers it seems that the project failed at an early stage for an as yet unknown reason. Some have suggested that the town was ‘stillborn’ (Beresford, 1967: 297) whereby the town was laid out but simply failed to be inhabited, whilst there is evidence to suggest that there was at least a small number of inhabitants at Gotowre (Hinton, 2002. Discussed further below). The lack of information regarding the reason for this failure coupled with the potential for any archaeology to provide information on the earliest stages of the development of a medieval planted town means that any data collected could be of great worth.

There has been a number of archaeologists and historians interested in the mystery of Gotowre-Super-Mare, most notably Welch (1992 and 1998), Beresford (1967), Lilley (2002 and 2005), yet little in the way of archaeological investigation has taken place. A major British Petroleum pipeline project during the late 1980’s allowed for a small scale excavation (Farwell, 1991) and limited magnetometry survey (Thompson, 1987) to be carried out to the south of Newton Bay, east of Ower Farm. Farwell’s excavation (1991) consisted of two large trenches placed over crop marks identified through aerial photography (See figure 2 below). Although no datable material or substantial structures were found during the excavation, Farwell was able to assign the crop marks to a series of shallow ditches that are likely to be enclosures rather than medieval field systems due to their small size (ibid: 92). Farwell suggests that “on the basis of morphology alone, the evidence for large enclosure circuit with internal minor property divisions in a suitable location for settlement supports the argument that this is the site for the failed settlement” (ibid: 93). Unfortunately, due to the lack of conclusive evidence from the excavation, much further work is needed in the immediate area.


S.J. Thompson’s magnetometer survey (1987) along the route of the pipeline did not provide any archaeological evidence but is difficult to interpret as it is unclear as to exactly where the survey was carried out. If it was indeed carried out along the route of the pipeline it should have encountered and shown the ditches excavated by Farwell. As the location of the survey is difficult to understand the value of the survey to this research is limited.

Bowen & Taylor (1964) excavated a site to the east of Farwell’s at the eastern foot of the Goathorn Peninsula, a site suggested by Beresford and St. Joseph (1958: 225-226). The excavators were able to locate footings of buildings but due to dating evidence were able to assign them to 17th century fisherman cottages and therefore unrelated to the missing medieval town of Gotowre-Super-Mare.

Interestingly, David Hinton (2002: Appendix 4, 4.1) notes that in 1326, several items of income at Corfe, Dorset, “come from the new borough at Newton, whose inhabitants are later revealed as having to pay heriots (entry fines to enter property), which were lumped in with the profits derived from Corfe’s Court.”   There is also mention “of the burgesses paying 9d. for the privilege of laying out nets” (Hinton, 2002: Appendix 4, 4.2). Whilst, as Hinton acknowledges, this is not often associated with urban activity it does at least suggest that Newton (Gotowre) was occupied.

Any further study of Gotowre will at least shed some further light on this enigma. It cannot be possible to ignore the ditches excavated by Farwell (1991) and the associated plan of crop marks west of Newton Farm. The evidence discovered by Hinton (2002) clearly shows that Gotowre was occupied but was already at that stage called Newton rather than the name assigned by Edward I. Research by the likes of Welch (1992, 1998) suggesting that Gotowre was either never started or was further west, and that the quay at Ower still retained a substantial amount of income in 1362 (Horsfall, 1997), must not be ignored but the evidence around Newton Farm may be too strong to ignore.

Selected Bibliography

  • Bowen, H. C. & C. C. Taylor, 1964. “The Site of Newton (Nova Villa), Studland, Dorset” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. VII.
  • Farwell, D. E., 1991. Newton. In P. Cox and C. Hearne (eds) Redeemed from the Heath. Dorchester: Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society Monograph 9.
  • Hinton, D. A, 2002. “Purbeck Papers”. Oxford. Oxbow Books.
  • Horsfall, A., 1997. Woodland in Medieval Dorset. Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society 119.
  • Lilley, K. D., 2005. Urban Landscapes and their Design: Creating Town from Country in the Middle Ages. In K. Giles and C. Dyer (eds) Town and Country in the Middle Ages. Leeds: Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 22.
  • Lilley, K. D., 2002. Urban Life In The Middle Ages 1000-1450. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Welsh, T. C, 1992. “New Light on a Missing 13th Century New Town in Dorset” in Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 7.
  • Welsh, T. C., 1998. Gotowre Super Mare: a new town in Dorset commissioned in 1286. Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries 34.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s