Complex Historic Town Cores Zone

Each character area within this zone, equating to an individual town’s historic core, has been described and mapped individually in separate Plan Form Analyses (see ‘Complex Historic Town Core Gazetteer’). As a result, this zone description will concentrate on a brief overview only. In the case of Doncaster, the area of settlement in 1851-4 included most of the ‘Replanned Town Core’ area. As a result, the relevant plan form analysis and this zone description should be read together to gain a complete overview of the character of the historic town.

Summary of Dominant Character

Character areas within this zone include those historic settlements identifiable on the 1st edition 6 inch to the mile OS mapping of Doncaster (1851-1854) that display a more complex urban form than settlements within the ‘Nucleated Rural Settlements’ zone. This complexity generally involves the presence of market places, castles and complex multi-phase planned layouts, all of which constitute evidence for deliberate acts of medieval planning (in addition to those elements characteristic of lesser historic settlements).

Inherited Character

The earliest elements of these settlements relates to the course of a Roman road identifiable in the contemporary townscapes of Bawtry and Doncaster. This road was part of the alternative course of Ermine Street (the major Roman road linking Lincoln and York). The detour through the Doncaster area avoided a ferry crossing on the Humber Estuary, which would not always have been passable in poor weather conditions (Ordnance Survey 1978). In Doncaster, this road is generally believed to be represented in the current town plan by High Street, Frenchgate and Hall Gate, whilst its route to the north has been obscured by 20th century re-routing of North Bridge Road (Buckland and Magilton 1986, 23-30). In Bawtry, the same road is almost certain to be represented by Top Street (Collis 1996, 184; Buckland 1986, 32), with traffic thought to have been diverted away from this historic route and into what is now the market place in the medieval period.

Archaeological excavations at Doncaster and Conisborough (Buckland et al 1989, 72; O’Neill 2004) have shown evidence of Saxon settlement activity. Pre-conquest building phases have also been argued for in the churches at Conisbrough (Ryder 1982, 45) and Thorne (SMR ref: 318), and the church at Mexborough incorporates a pre-conquest cross shaft (Ryder 1982, 95). Documentary and placename evidence helps to reinforce the pre-conquest origins of Mexborough and Conisbrough, both of which are mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086. The place name element ‘-burgh’ has a pre-conquest origin, generally accepted to mean ‘fortified settlement’. The string of local settlements around the banks of the Don and Dearne with ‘burgh’ placename elements may be indicative of a line of fortified sites along an important pre-conquest frontier (Magilton 1977, 28). These settlements include Conisbrough, whose name means “the king’s stronghold” (Smith 1969, 125). Further archaeological investigation within the historic cores will be needed to demonstrate conclusively a pre-conquest origin for features within these settlements.

By contrast, strong evidence exists at all these settlements for major capital works in the years following the Norman conquest. Castles of ‘motte and bailey’ form were constructed at all these towns, with the exception of Bawtry, and their central mounds and defensive circuits have influenced the location of later urban forms. At Doncaster, Mexborough and Conisbrough it seems likely that these fortifications were built to either protect or dominate existing settlements. At Tickhill, the castle was placed almost a kilometre away from the pre-conquest church and associated settlement of Dadesley.

Bawtry and Doncaster both show clear evidence for the comprehensive planning of burgage plots in the 12th centuries. Burgage plots are long narrow enclosures set at right angles to a main street. Typically the ‘head’ of the plot (on the main street frontage) is occupied by the principal buildings, whilst the ‘tail’ (at the opposite end) adjoins a lesser street or back lane. Such plots were available to rent from the overall landlord rather than given in exchange for feudal service. This allowed a degree of independence and increased the bargaining power of the tenants or ‘burghers’.

In Doncaster the longest burgage plots front onto Frenchgate and High Street; the placename ‘Frenchgate’ has been taken as evidence that this (re)planning was undertaken on behalf of Norman settlers (Magilton 1977, 35; Buckland et al 1989, 32). The street name can be traced back to 1159 (Smith 1969, 30).

In Bawtry the most regular burgage plots are associated with the town’s High Street and central market place. The plots associated with the market place are more regular and longer, as shown on historic maps, than the plots fronting on to the possibly older Church Street; the grid pattern formed by subsidiary streets set at right angles to High Street is typical of town plantations made during this period (Hey 1980, 105; Butler 1976, 32-48). Most writers have concluded that Bawtry represents a Norman plantation town, probably sponsored by Robert de Vipont, lord of the manor in the late 12th to early 13th centuries (Collis 1996, 184; Magilton 1977, 13). Indications of the growing urban status of the settlement include the confirmation of plots given to free burgesses of the town by Vipont’s widow in 1292 (Hunter 1829, 70) and a market charter dated 1293 (Collis 1996, 184).

Whilst the clearest evidence for deliberate planning can be seen in Doncaster and Bawtry, possible burgage plot series and potentially planned layouts can be traced in Thorne, and Tickhill. In both cases, the clearest regular burgage plots are in areas set slightly apart from the castle, outside the circuits of the putative outer bailey or castle green areas.

Later Characteristics

At all these settlements later development has generally fitted within what the urban historical geographer MRG Conzen termed the “morphological frame” (Whitehand 2001, 106). This refers to the concept that pre-existing property boundaries exercise a significant influence on subsequent development, either by direct reuse of established plots or by the subsequent continuation of their alignments by later development. Applied to the narrow planned plots characteristic of these character areas, this concept suggests that whilst the styles of buildings within individual plots has evolved since they were originally laid out, the pattern of plots has remained more stable. Plot amalgamation and erosion of the original pattern can only happen when adjacent plots become available to new tenants or owners simultaneously. Map evidence suggests that until the 20th century, development within these areas of burgage tenure was largely piecemeal in character. This has resulted in areas where timber framed medieval or early post-medieval buildings stand alongside brick built enclosure period townhouses and 20th century retail units, all sitting within the medieval plan form.

Where this pattern has been broken, most notably in Doncaster and Mexborough, it is likely to have been chiefly as a result of deliberate institutionally led infrastructure projects or regeneration initiatives, often involving legally enforceable compulsory purchase orders. In both Doncaster and Mexborough, the present ‘Complex Historic Core’ character area has been reduced and truncated in size from its medieval extent by large late 20th century road schemes and accompanying retail developments.

Character Areas within this Zone

Map links will open in a new window.

  • Bawtry Historic Town Core (Map)
  • Conisborough Historic Town Core (Map)
  • Doncaster Historic Town Centre (Map)
  • Mexborough Historic Town Core (Map)
  • Thorne Historic Town (Map)
  • Tickhill Historic Town Core (Map)


Buckland, P.C. and Magilton, J.R.
1986 The Archaeology of Doncaster 1: The Roman Civil Settlement. Oxford: BAR British Series 148.
Buckland, P.C., Magilton, J.R. and Hayfield, C.
1989 The Archaeology of Doncaster 2. The Medieval and Later Town. Oxford: BAR British Series 202.
Buckland, P.C.
1986 Roman South Yorkshire: A Source Book. Sheffield: Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield.
Butler, L.
1976 The Evolution of Planted Towns after 1976. In: M.W. Barley (ed.), The Plans and Topography of Medieval Towns in England and Wales. York: Council for British Archaeology. – (CBA Research Report no 14).
Collis, K.
1996 Documentary Evidence. In: J.A. Dunkley and C.G. Cumberpatch (compilers), Excavations at 16-22 Church Street, Bawtry. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum – (BAR British Series 248), 184-191.
Hey, D.
1980 Packmen, Carriers and Packhorse Roads. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
Hunter, J.
1829 South Yorkshire. Sheffield: Joseph Hunter.
Magilton, J.
1977 The Doncaster District: an Archaeological Survey Doncaster. Doncaster MBC Museum and Arts Service
O’Neill, R.
2004 Archaeological Investigations at Wellgate (Areas A, B and C), Conisbrough, Doncaster, South Yorkshire: Final Report [unpublished]. ARCUS for Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, Hallam Housing Society and South Yorkshire Housing Association.
Ordnance Survey
1978 Map of Roman Britain [fourth edition]. Scale: 10 miles to the Inch. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
Ryder, P.
1982 Saxon Churches in South Yorkshire. Barnsley: South Yorkshire County Council.
SMR 318
undated St Nicholas’ Church Thorne [unpublished building analysis] in SMR backup file 318, SYAS Sheffield. (probably by PF Ryder during early 1980s)
Smith, A.H.
1962 The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitehand, J.W.R.
2001 British Urban Morphology: The Conzenian Tradition. Urban Morphology 5(2), 103-109.