Northampton was founded in Anglo-Saxon times. Sailing up the River Nene from the Wash, the invaders could travel no further as the valley became much narrower, providing a good crossing point. A small hillock, now the site of St Peter's church and well above flood level, was chosen as a place of settlement, and a village called Hamtune (home village) arose. The Domesday Book tells us that after the Norman Conquest the town grew rapidly and by 1086 there were 300 houses. A powerful baron, Simon de Senlis, fortified it with massive stone walls and a great castle. He founded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and St Andrew’s priory, and rebuilt All Saints' church. His son added Delapre Abbey and St Giles' church.
Northampton’s central position in the country gave it a special significance in medieval times. It was halfway between Winchester, the old capital of Wessex, and York, the chief town of Northumbria. It was not too far from London and was better placed than the latter for the King to deal with rebellion. Parliament was held in the castle on a number of occasions and in 1170 it was the location of the trial of Thomas Becket. In 1189, Richard I granted Northampton its first charter. Another royal connection survives in the Queen Eleanor Cross, erected by Edward I, in memory of his wife, who died at Harby in Nottinghamshire in 1290. Her body rested at Delapre Abbey on its way south for burial at Westminster Abbey.
Surviving street names, including the Drapery, Sheep Street, Horsemarket, Marefair, Mercer’s Row, Tanner Street, and Gold and Silver Streets, show the flourishing trades and markets that grew up in the town, a trading centre for the surrounding villages. All Saints’ church was used for market fairs before the Market Square was established. By the fourteenth century, England was much more settled politically and, as a result, Northampton’s central position was no longer as important and it was superseded by London. From this point, it remained a small market town until the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, a crucial battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought in the fields of Delapre Abbey in 1460.
The boot and shoe industry became the staple trade of the town in the sixteenth century, and during the Civil War, 40,000 pairs of boots were supplied to Cromwell’s armies. This support of the Puritans prompted Charles II to order the destruction of the town walls and the partial demolition of the castle, during the Restoration. Little remains of the medieval town today, as the Great Fire of 20 September 1675 destroyed most of the area within the old town walls. King Charles atoned for his previous actions by providing 1,000 tons of timber to rebuild All Saints’ church and his statue, dressed in a Roman toga, can still be seen over the front portico.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, mechanisation came to the shoe industry and instigated the building of a number of factories, particularly between the Mounts and the racecourse, where rows of terraced houses sprang up alongside them to accommodate the huge influx of workers. Between 1871 and 1900, the population of Northampton more than doubled from 41,000 to 87,000. The town boasted three railway stations, but was not connected to the main line from London to Birmingham until 1881 when the enlargement of Castle station heralded the final removal of the ruins of the once proud castle.
The twentieth century brought further expansion as new industries arrived and outlying villages were gradually absorbed into the borough boundaries. In 1968, Northampton was designated a 'New Town’ to accommodate London overspill, so population doubled again and the Northampton Development Corporation managed the massive development of the town to the east. Avon Cosmetics, Carlsberg and Barclaycard set up headquarters in the town and ring roads were built to deal with increased traffic. The old shoe industry had now declined, as cheaper hides were imported from abroad and synthetic materials were used for footwear.
The population of the town had increased to 212,000 by the 2012 census, and jobs in industry have been replaced by public administration, financial services and distribution. Development will continue apace in the near future as the Greyfriars bus station is replaced, the railway station modernised and upgraded, and the town centre regenerated. The Northampton Waterside Enterprise Zone will create commerce and industry along 120 hectares of disused land close to Northampton’s riverside. A new era beckons.