A synopsis of current research

Silver mining in England and Wales, 1066-1500.

During the late medieval period the mining of silver-bearing ores effected a transition from a handicraft form, based on the activity of independent miners, governed by custom and with the minimum of royal involvement, to a capital intensive industry subject to central management in which the miner was an employee of the Crown or its lessees. After 1500 new centres of silver mining were opened up in mid wales and in the south-west of England, where earlier (medieval) sites like Combe Martin were reopened and proved particularly productive.


At their conquest of England in 1066, and the subsequent occupation of parts of Wales, the Normans inherited a dispersed, small scale silver mining industry exploiting silver bearing lead ores. The mines were to be found on the Carboniferous limestone uplands like the Derbyshire Peak, Mendip, the Welsh borders and the northern Pennines where shallow enriched ore deposits had escaped the effects of glaciation. Deeper seated deposits in the pre-Carboniferous rocks, particularly in the South-West of England which escaped the full effect of glaciation, were not exploited until the latter part of the 13th century and it was the mines of Tynedale and upper Weardale in the northern Pennines which provided the peak of English silver production in the mid 12th century.

Prior to the thirteenth century the ownership of silver bearing ores resided with the lord of the soil. The English Crown sought no greater control over production than its right of lordship over the principal sources, in the liberty of Tynedale, allowed and was willing to relinquish control of resources in a grant of lordship, as was the case with the bishop of Durham's lordship over the upper Weardale mines. It was only in mid 13th century that regal authority was extended to a prerogative on silver-bearing ores although the Crown respected existing rights, culminating in the direct working of the Devon mines in 1292.

Working of the Tynedale mines - the Mine of Carlisle - of the 12th century was in the hands of the miners themselves. Governed by custom the miners were largely self regulated, paying a portion of their produce - one ninth after tithe - to the Crown as lord. The income generated being leased to local collectors who accounted for the farm to the sheriff in Carlisle who record it along with other farms for the county of Cumberland. Thus the Crown took no direct part in the production of silver, relying on its right of pre-emption to direct silver to the mint. When, in the late 13th century, the Crown took control of new centres of production in Devon it chose to operate them using a directly employed work force - some of which it impressed in the customary lead fields of Mendip, north-east Wales and the Derbyshire Peak, later supplementing them with tinners from the Stannaries - supervised by Crown officers. The Devon mines - centred on those at Bere Ferrers - were worked in that manner for a little over fifty years.

By late 14th century the problems of increasingly deeper working of the silver deposits in Devon were exacerbated by the rapid demographic decline during the plague years. Mining ceased in about 1350 and when reopened in 1360 the Crown chose to lease them on a county basis, withdrawing totally from direct working. Mines were generally worked by or on behalf of the lessee and only occasionally, as at Bere Ferrers in the 1450s, were discrete sections of the workings sublet to individuals or small partnerships. The form of the lease, applied across England, was developed during the 15th century to include all those elements found in its modern counterpart - royalties, dead rent and a fixed term.

Most of the mining, and preparation / smelting, techniques in place at the end of our period had been employed before the 11th century. Their use in the late medieval period reflected the demands of silver mining and the availability of resources, both material and human. Working the shallow deposits exploited prior to the late 13th century involved surface trenches and shallow levels, requiring only limited drainage.(1) Within five years of opening up the Devon mines adits were introduced to meet the drainage requirements of deeper working. The continuing need to supplement this with manual water haulage and the increased cost of labour, attending demographic decline, stimulated the introduction of mechanised pumping by 1480. Both smelting and refining responded too to the availability and cost of labour in the choice of motive power. The smelting techniques, introduced into Devon from the lead mining fields, were adapted through experimentation in the late 13th / early 14th century to allow the processing of all the ore mined - resulting in the bole / furnace complex which satisfied the industry until superseded by new technology in the 16th century.

Increasing use of coin for commercial transactions during the late medieval period ensured that the demand for silver was sustained. However, the part played by newly mined English silver was overshadowed by that entering the country as coin or bar in payment for growing exports - wool and, later, textiles. With an estimated mint production of £125,000 during 1158-80, silver from the northern Pennines made a significant contribution. But the fall in production during the 1180s left England without a reliable source and the subsequent, and substantial, increase in mint output over the next two decades was fuelled by imported silver. The opening of the Devon mines in 1292 provided some respite. Coin in circulation had increased fourfold, to around £1,000,000, by the early 14th century and against this we have to set the peak annual output from the Devon mines of less than £2000. Production from these mines did not, as the antiquarians would have use believe, finance the wars of Edward I and III.

Continuing work on the history and archaeology of silver mining prior to 1500.

The history of silver mining prior to 1500 was addressed in my doctoral thesis (2) and subsequent papers (3). However, there are a number of issues which remain unresolved.

Silver mining in Devon, 1500-1700.

In the South-West of England, post 1500, there was to be a short but productive revival at Combe Martin in the late 16th century and Treworthie, in Cornwall, was also the subject of renewed interest at that time. Both being amongst the mines which were investigated throughout the medieval period without showing lasting promise at the time. There was to be no other substantial production centre until the mines in mid Wales (Cardiganshire) were opened up in the second half of the sixteenth century. Subsequently it was these mines, along with deeper deposits opened up in the Northern Pennines and again in the South-West which became the major source of silver in the nineteenth century. There was, nevertheless, continued searches for new deposits in Devon throughout the early modern period. In south Devon, at Bere Ferrers, new silver deposits were identified and work by the end of the 17th century at Buttspill, on the same mineralised crosscourse north of the medieval workings. At Combe Martin, in north Devon, the productive working of the late 1580s was followed by further periods of prospecting and, with new evidence, now coming to light, periods of production through to, and beyond, 1700.

It is the continued working of silver-bearing ores at Combe Martin which is the current focus of research; building on the investigation carried out into lead smelting residues from the 16th/17th century and the presence of mineral coal amongst those residues (11).


  1. Only sparse documentary evidence is available and working methods are largely deduced from observation of sites apparently worked in the 12th century or earlier, supplemented by the accounts by 18th/19th antiquarians.
  2. Claughton, P. F. Silver Mining in England and Wales, 1066-1500, unpublished PhD thesis Exeter, 2003.
  3. Claughton, Peter 'Production and Economic Impact: Northern Pennine (English) silver in the 12th century', Proceedings of the 6th International Mining History Congress, (Akabira, Japan, 2003).
  4. Clarkson, L. A. Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of Industrialization, (London, 1985).
  5. Burt, R. ‘The transformation of the non-ferrous industries in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 48 (1995), 23-45.
  6. Burt, R., ‘Proto-industrialisation and “Stages of Growth” in the Metal Mining Industries’, J. Euro. Econ. Hist., 27 (1998), 1, 85-106.
  7. Gill, M. ‘Mining and proto-industrialisation’, British Mining, 41 (Northern Mine Research Society: Keighley, 1990), 99-110.
  8. Hatcher, J. The History of the British Coal Industry, Vol. I, Before 1700: Towards the Age of Coal, (Oxford, 1993).
  9. Hatcher, J. and Bailey, M. Modelling the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 2001).
  10. Paynter, S., Dunkerley, T. and Claughton, P. Lead Smelting Waste from the 2001-2002 Excavations at Combe Martin, Devon, English Heritage, Centre for Archaeology, Report 79/2003.
  11. Evidence for charcoal was found in association with smithing activity on the site - reversing roles from the medieval period when coal would be used for smithing and wood/charcoal for lead/silver smelting.
  12. Analysis carried out by Dr John M. Jones, late of the Fossil Fuels Institute at the University of Newcastle, using vitrinite reflectance determination. Two samples were submitted for analysis, from excavation trench 2 (2003) in the front garden of Middleton House, Combe Martin, at depths of 140-150 cm (Sample 1) and 90-100 cm (Sample 2) below surface. The result for Sample 1 was a max. oil reflectance of 2.50% (indicating Carbon content - 92.0%, Volatile matter - 8%); Sample 2 had a max. oil reflectance of 2.24% (Carbon content - 91.9%, Volatile matter - 10%); placing both samples at 102 in the old NCB ranking. Unfortunately semi-anthracites such as these show virtually no botanical structure and it was not possible to distinguish spores which might have indicated the age of the coal. However, coals ranked 102 are only found close to accessible coastal shipping points in that area of Carmarthenshire north-west of Llanelli, inland from the modern harbour at Burry Port (Great Britain: National Coal Board, The Coalfields of Great Britain: variation in the rank of coal, (London, 1960).
  13. Wrigley, E A. Continuity, chance and change, (Cambridge, 1988). The impact of mineral fuels on the industrial economy has been challenged - see Clark and Jacks, ‘The importance of coal in the industrial revolution’, Proceedings of the 6th International Mining History Congress, (Akabira, Hokkaido, Japan, 2003), pp. 311-316. However, Clark and Jacks place greater importance on the quantity rather than quality of the mineral replacement and, in focussing on production shipped from Newcastle, really measure its impact on the domestic economy of south-east England.
  14. Claughton, P. 'View from the other side of the Channel: England’s mining response to the silver crisis in the 15th century', in N. Minvielle Larousse, M-Ch. Bailly-Maître & G. Bianchi (eds) Les métaux précieux en Méditerranée médiévale, Collection BIAMA, 27 (coédition du Centre Camille Jullian et des Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2019), 127-136.


Peter Claughton / College of Humanities
Last modified 1 May 2020