Stamford grew up at a strategic point on the River Welland – where this river could be easily crossed at most times of the year. On either side of the river were lowlands which could be, and often were, extensively flooded.
Early British traders, raiders, hunters and migrants crossed at this point and traces of these early inhabitants is evidenced by Neolithic finds in local quarries. In these early days, the river was forded which gave the growing settlement its name – ‘Stony Ford’. This first ford was just east of the present town bridge, but the Romans preferred a crossing point farther west on direct alignment with Ermine Street, which crossed the Welland between the two Roman settlements and military cantonments of Castor to the south and Great Casterton to the north; the word 'castra' being Latin for a camp.
Under the Saxons the community grew in size and it is to them that we owe the present name Stamford (a corruption of Stony Ford). Although the town suffered heavily during the Danish invasion of the 9th century, it prospered under Saxon rule and it was sufficiently important to be granted its own mint by King Edgar in 972, which remained in use for two centuries. The location of the mint is believed to have been across the river to the south of St Martins; but the exact site has yet to be identified. Examples of money coined at the mint are displayed at the Town Hall.
In the 11th century the invading Normans, to ensure military control of the area, built a strong castle on the site of the Saxon fort. It was erected alongside the river to protect the ford crossing, the main road to and from Scotland, and the growing town itself which was, in the Domesday Survey, described as the King’s Borough of Stamford. Trades and crafts developed and, by the 12th century, the local cloth was known for its quality throughout Europe. Pottery too was made in the town between the 9th and the 13th centuries – the first glazed ware to be made in England since Roman times was produced in Stamford.
In 1076 Stamford was appointed as a centre for the hearing of law cases by the King’s Justices and the town was frequently visited by monarchs on affairs of State. Parliaments and other councils convened in the town and it was a meeting point for the barons on their way south to Runnymede to ensure the signing of the Magna Carta by King John.
At the end of the 13th century, the funeral procession of Queen Eleanor, wife of King Edward I, stopped at Stamford on its progress to London, and in commemoration, an Eleanor Cross was subsequently erected at the King’s command. At this time the town was of great importance having been granted a charter by King Henry III in 1256. It then possessed six monasteries and priories, six religious colleges and no fewer than 14 churches. This unusually high density of religious establishments was renowned throughout Europe. Unfortunately, few of these buildings have survived into the 21st century and most are represented now only by fragments.
St Leonard’s Priory, founded in the early 12th century, was the first of these buildings, and was followed by St Michael’s Nunnery in the mid 12th century. The Greyfriars (Franciscan Order) was founded by 1230 on a site to the east of the town, with the Blackfriars (Dominican Order) founded by 1241 close by. Shortly afterwards, the Carmelite Order was given a small site between the two and the Whitefriars was founded. To the west of the town, Austin Friars was founded in 1341. In 1333 a number of Oxford students, displeased with conditions at their university, transferred to Stamford and tried to set up a rival university at the two colleges of the Black and Grey Friars. They were, however, ordered to return to Oxford and their rebellion was firmly put down by dint of various threats.
As well as religious establishments and colleges, Stamford was also well endowed with guest houses and hospices for travellers on the road. These included St Giles’ Leper Hospital, the House of the Holy Sepulchre and the Hospital of St John. These establishments employed many local people and exerted a great influence on the life of the town, which came to an abrupt end in 1539 with King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The effect and decline in the prosperity of Stamford was immediate.
During the Wars of the Roses the town suffered greatly because of its allegiance to the Dukes of York. The town was taken by the Lancastrians in 1460 and damage was extensive. All Saints’ Church was partly destroyed and the town archives were burned – and with them the Town’s charters. However in 1462 the charter was renewed by Edward IV and forms part of the collections of charters held at the Town Hall.
Stamford had a connection at this time with Henry VII: his mother, who lived at nearby Collyweston, founded the Guild of St Catherine which met at St Paul’s Chapel (the surviving part of which is now the chapel of Stamford School). Henry VIII was entertained in the town several times but, nevertheless, the town’s many religious establishments were not spared the ravages of the Dissolution. Their passing greatly upset the economic balance of Stamford and its environs. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, also visited the town and the Lordship of Stamford was granted to her Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley, one of the outstanding figures of that period. His father and grandfather lived in Stamford and he himself held offices of state under Edward VI and Queen Mary, and helped place Elizabeth on the throne. He remained a trusted and powerful minister until his death in 1598. His wonderful Renaissance tomb can be seen in St Martin’s Church.
During the Civil War the town was held for Parliament and Oliver Cromwell was in local command here when Burghley House was besieged. King Charles I came to Stamford in 1646 and, disguised as a servant, was admitted secretly into a house in the town and left the next night en route to join up with the Scottish army, only to be betrayed by them. The king thus spent his last night as a free man in Stamford.
New charters were granted to the town in 1663 by Charles II and the title of Chief Magistrate was upgraded from Alderman to Mayor. At this time, Stamford was represented in Parliament by two Members and this state of affairs continued right through until 1867 when the number was reduced to one.