Legend would have it that Stafford was founded in about 700 AD by a Mercian prince called Bertelin who established a hermitage on a secluded marshy island. The remains of a wooden preaching cross were discovered under the foundations of St Bertelin's Church in the centre of the town. The cross had been laid flat and buried at about the time of the first millennium.
Some two hundred years after St Bertelin, in 913 AD, Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great, established the Burh of Stafford. The town became a frontier post in the Anglo-Saxon's struggle against the Viking hordes, forming a part of a chain of such timber fortresses including Tamworth and Chester.
Within twenty-five years the town had its own mint (930 - 1156), while the presence of clay led to the establishment of a local pottery industry. Staffordware has been recorded from all over the Midlands.
In the late Saxon period the country was divided into shires. Stafford was chosen as the county town ahead of Tamworth, which had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mercia.
Stafford was served by two churches, St Mary's and St Chad's. St Mary's is a collegiate Church and up until Victorian times was not a part of the Lichfield Diocese. Much Norman stonework remains in each of the buildings. St Mary's font bears an interesting inscription suggesting it was a relic of the Crusades.
Following the Duke of Normandy invasion of England there were a number of rebellions, one of which was led by Edric the Wild and culminated in the battle of Stafford (1069). Two years after the battle Edwin Earl of Mercia was assassinated and his lands distributed amongst William's followers. Robert de Tonei (de Tosny) was granted the manor of Bradley and one third of the king's rents in Stafford.
The king's castle at Stafford was derelict or destroyed by the time the Domesday Book was compiled (1086/7). However, a new castle was constructed by Robert de Tonei some distance away from the troublesome Saxons at Castle Bank. This castle was to become the Family Seat of the Stafford Dynasty.
In 1206 Stafford was granted its Charter of Liberties. The Stafford charter was signed by King John on May 1, 1206.This document made Stafford a borough and gave the townspeople the same rights enjoyed in existing boroughs, including the right of inheritance. The Charter remains the cornerstone of the borough's legal existence upon which all other Grants and Charters depend.
During the Middle Ages Stafford became an important market town, dealing particularly in cloth and wool. Meanwhile the lords of Stafford, impoverished as a result of the Crusades in the late twelfth century, flourished once more. Ralph de Stafford was a warrior and served under Edward III during the early phases of the Hundred Years Wars. Ralph was created Earl of Stafford in 1351, having already been made one of the founder members of the Order of the Garter. The king gave Ralph permission to rebuild his castle at Stafford in 1348, although it would appear that he had already made an agreement with a master mason the year before.
King Richard II visited the town in 1399. He was paraded through the streets as a prisoner by troops loyal to Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV).
Edmund Earl of Stafford was killed fighting for the Henry IV at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. His successor was a minor but later rose to become one of the most important men in England, being created Duke of Buckingham in 1444. He was killed at the battle of Northampton in 1460. The second duke helped Richard III to usurp the throne but later became disgruntled and plotted with Henry Tudor in his downfall. Henry Stafford paid for his treachery with his life, although Henry Tudor did successfully capture the throne two years later, arranging the outcome of the battle of Bosworth Field with another of Richard III's one time allies Lord Stanley.
Henry Stafford's son became the third duke. He too died young, being executed by Henry VIII on trumped-up charges. The great Stafford Estates were seized by the Crown, only a fraction of which were later restored to Edward Stafford's son.
Stafford was controlled by a council headed by two bailiffs. A campaign was waged to have the bailiffs replaced by a mayor. The pro mayor faction won and Matthew Craddock was created the first Mayor of Stafford in 1614. Not long afterwards James I visited Stafford. He was so impressed by the town's Shire hall and other buildings that he called it 'little London'. A further incident relating to James is visit concerns the new Mace. The custom was to present the mace to the monarch in an act of acknowledging the Crowns ultimate power. James I remarked on how fine Stafford's Mace was and ordered that it should never be laid flat. This tradition is continued to this day.
Charles I visited Stafford not long after the out-break of the English Civil War, staying for three days at the Ancient High house. The town was later besieged and captured by the Parliamentarians, while a small-scale battle was fought at nearby Hopton Heath, the Parliamentarians suffering 500 casualties. Stafford later fell to the Roundheads, as did Stafford Castle following a six-week siege.
Stafford's most famous son, Izaak Walton was a staunch Royalist. Walton is best known for his biographies and for his much published 'Compleat Angler'. He also played a significant role in saving one of the Crown Jewels following Charles II defeat at the battle of Worcester. Walton was entrusted with taking the Lesser George to London from where it was smuggled out of the country to Charles II who was then in exile.
During the time of the Commonwealth Stafford was controlled by the Parliamentarian Committee of Stafford. The town elected one John Bradshaw to represent them in parliament in 1658. Bradshaw was notorious as having been the head of the court that tried Charles I. John Bradshaw died before the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. His body, along with that of Oliver Cromwell, was exhumed and hung on the thieves' gallows at Tyburn.
Following Henry VIII's break with Rome the Roman Catholics were frequently persecuted, or at best found themselves unprotected in law. William Howard, Viscount Stafford was one such Roman Catholic. Granted the title of Viscount Stafford by Charles I, William Howard was later accused of plotting against Charles II. The plot was a fabrication but never-the-less Howard was put on trial and executed.
In the eighteenth century Stafford was represented by the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. When he was in Stafford he would stay with his friend William Horton. Horton was the founder of the Stafford Shoe Industry. A century after Horton began the early Factory System; Stafford was exporting some 5,000,000 pairs of shoes to South Africa alone. The were a number of spin-off industries which prospered in Stafford, these including Venables Wood Yard, Spic and Span Polish and Evode. The shoe industry gradually died out in the town, with Lotus Shoes being the last manufacturers.
The railway came to Stafford at around the time of Queen Victoria's accession. Previously the town had been supplied by road or, later, by canal. Towards the end of the nineteenth century a number of factories developed around the railway industry, these included Dorman Diesels, Bagnalls, and Siemens (English Electric).