WATERFORD (Medieval Ireland)

Waterford is one of the major medieval ports along the east coast of Ireland, originally founded as a Hiberno-Norse urban center in the tenth century. Its original Old Norse name was Vedrarfjordr, which probably means "windy fjord," where this inlet of the River Suir offered a safe haven for their ships. Indeed, it has been calculated that the quays of the city in the later Middle Ages could berth around 60 cargo ships. Thus it is hardly surprising that although Dublin remained the governmental and administrative capital of Ireland throughout the Middle Ages, it was ports such as Waterford in the Southeast that dominated her international trade. Throughout much of this period Waterford remained the largest exporter of wool, wool products, and hides, as well as the biggest importer of wines. It also became a significant entrepot for French wine, re-exporting much of it in the late thirteenth century to supply the armies of the English Crown fighting in Scotland. Its status as a royal borough strategically located on the important river system of the Suir-Nore-Barrow helped it to dominate both the political and the economic life of much of South Leinster and North Munster. Waterford also fought a bitter economic war with its near neighbor, New Ross, for control of this rich hinterland.

Ardmore Round Tower, Co. Waterford.

Ardmore Round Tower, Co. Waterford. 

In the Hiberno-Norse period the original town defenses were first constructed, and its principal streets were also laid out. The first phase of its defensive perimeter, which was an external fosse and an internal earthen rampart surmounted by a wooden palisade, has been dated by dendrochronology to the last quarter of the eleventh century. A stone town wall was first erected in Waterford in the mid-1130s, at a time of growing tension between the rival kingdoms of Leinster and Desmond. This coincided with the great animal murrain of 1133, which would have put much pressure on the food supply of the region. After the city was captured in 1170 by an Anglo-Norman army that successfully breached its walls, there were many references to the grant of "murage" by the crown to the burgesses of the city, from as early as 1207, to help defray the cost of building and maintaining their walls. It is a testimony to their industry that there were some fifteen gates and twenty-three mural towers in the circuit at its height, of which six towers still survive to this day.

In the latter part of twentieth century the large-scale redevelopment of the city center allowed an impressive series of archaeological excavations to go ahead between 1988 and 1992 in the center of the Viking-Age core of the city. These excavations are doubly important, in the first place because they covered 20 percent of the Hiberno-Norse walled area of the city—the largest proportion of any Irish city that has been archaeologically investigated. In addition, the city’s archaeological horizons run uninterruptedly from the tenth century to the post-medieval period, a hitherto unparalleled sequence of survival in an Irish urban environment.

These excavations concentrated upon the area around two of the principal streets of Waterford—High Street and Peter Street—that run in an east-west direction along the top of a natural promontory of land. The excavation of this complete block of the city center bounded by four streets produced a large quantity of structural evidence for its original housing from as early as the eleventh century, with the majority of these houses fronting onto the street. Up until the middle of the twelfth century the houses were single-storied rectangular structures with wattle walls, very similar to those found in Hiberno-Norse Dublin. From the period just before the Anglo-Norman invasion (1169-1170), there were the beginnings of a new tradition in building with the introduction of sill-beam houses, where rectangular-shaped oak beams were sited as opposing pairs on the long walls of these structures. It was also in this period that four sunken buildings and two stone-lined entrance passages to other structures, all of late eleventh-century date, were constructed, which represents the greatest number yet found in any Irish urban settlement. In the following century stone houses started to be constructed, with three extensive stone undercrofts dating from the middle of the thirteenth until the fifteenth century being excavated.

The most significant major building that was excavated was the complete ground plan of St. Peter’s parish church, along with its associated burial ground. Six major building phases were identified up to the seventeenth century; the earliest was represented by a possible wooden church dating from the middle of the eleventh to the early twelfth century. Later in the twelfth century it was replaced by a stone church with an apse, a unique feature in a medieval Irish parish church that might be associated with the continental influences on the reform of the church at that time. The excavation of its burial ground also produced much useful evidence about death rates, nutritional deficiencies, degenerative joint disease, and dental attrition in its medieval urban population.

The more than 200,000 artifacts recovered in these excavations illustrated the importance of trade to this urban community, mainly evidenced by the many pottery shards, although very few medieval coins were located, surprisingly. Many examples of fine tablewares from western France, especially in the form of jugs, were located. The excavations also revealed the extent and importance of locally made pottery production.

The finds revealed that Waterford had strong trading links with Western England, Northwest France, and the Low Countries. Some of the more important crafts that have left an archaeological trace were bone comb-making and the production of other antler objects in Peter Street, woodworking, and leather production. There was also extensive metalworking, producing everyday objects such as locks all the way to a very rare and beautiful early twelfth-century kite brooch, or a thirteenth-century gold ring brooch.

Although in European terms the walled area of the medieval city was quite modest in size, it was still the port chosen by English kings such as Henry II, John, and Richard II for their landfall in Ireland because of the security afforded by its walls and its location close to the major ports of western Britain. Because of its status as a royal port it prospered throughout the Middle Ages, even in the difficult years of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and its prosperity continued well into the sixteenth century.

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