Although Axbridge may be essentially a medieval town, there are traces of occupation and land use from more remote periods, when Roman villas were probably associated with the lead mines on top of Mendip (although no villa has been found in the town). Still earlier, prehistoric men inhabited the caves of the area and left their flint tools on the slopes of the local hills. Nearby caves have yielded the bones of animals from the Pleistocene era.
Axbridge, as we know it, owes its origin to a fortified Saxon burh, a settlement established (probably in the 890s) to protect the royal palace at Cheddar on the westerly route from the sea, on the road that ran (and runs) between the steeps of Mendip and the wet moors of the Somerset Levels. This burh developed as a market, probably supplying the palace at Cheddar during the ninth and tenth centuries, and, at one time, even having a royal mint. Sheep-farming on Mendip supplied the wool and cloth upon which the town prospered. The ‘Guild of St Mary’ which governed the town in the middle ages became, following royal charters in 1557 and later, the mayor and corporation. Rich merchants have left their mark in many ways.
The town adopted the emblem of St John the Baptist (patron saint of cloth-merchants) to whom the fine fifteenth-century church is dedicated; this symbol, the lamb and flag, appears in many places in the town. These merchants built themselves imposing houses of wood and stone, of which some still survive, though often hidden by more recent facades. Their houses, in typically medieval style – closely built on long, narrow plots – still determine the street plan of Axbridge. It has been possible to recover, from these houses and gardens, many medieval and later objects; household utensils, pottery, coins and wall-paintings. Some buildings – the parish school, inns, the almshouse, the Guild Hall, the later town hall – can still be identified.
The Square, where markets may have been held from Saxon times, and fairs were certainly held from the thirteenth century onwards, has been the focus of the town for most of its history. An eighteenth-century painting shows that it has changed little in its general plan; the roofed cross was demolished in 1756, but the stocks which it sheltered still survive in the Museum – as does the Axbridge ‘nail’ (whence the saying ‘pay on the nail’).
The old town wells are still under the church steps; they ran into a medieval conduit under the Square where medieval bric-a-brac was found, having been lost in the drains by the inhabitants of Axbridge.
The industrial revolution barely touched the town, apart from the arrival of the railway in 1869. The Corporation was abolished in 1883, leaving only a few relics of its authority and ceremonial, but Axbridge regained its mayor in 1974, as chair of the town council. The railway track has been turned into a bypass, reducing the effect of modern traffic on the medieval streets. The special character of this medieval town was recognised in 1970 when it was declared a conservation area.