There is substantial evidence for prehistoric settlement along the shores of the Blackwater estuary from the Mesolithic period onwards. Rural settlements dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age have been excavated at Slough House Farm, Chigborough Farm and Lofts Farm, all to the north-east of Heybridge. Evidence of Bronze Age settlement and an associated cremation cemetery, including a ring-barrow and circular post-built structures have been also excavated at the Elms Farm site, Heybridge. The earliest occupation of the Maldon hill-top appears to date to the Early Iron Age when there seems to have been an extensive settlement on the crest of the hill, which was later enclosed by a wooden palisade.
In the Late Iron Age the hill-top appears to have been abandoned and a new settlement established on the low-lying ground between Heybridge and Maldon, focused on Elms Farm (Atkinson and Preston, 1995). The settlement here appears to have been relatively sparsely occupied, widely spread over the low-lying area and of high status. Recent excavations at Elms Farm recovered enclosures, round-houses, a possible temple and a quantity of imported pottery including a large assembly of wine amphora.
Settlement on the low-land continued unbroken from the Late Iron Age into the Roman period, and the settlement itself developed into a small town. The transition from the Late Iron Age to the Roman period is characterised by the laying of metalled roads and large expanses of gravelled surfaces between them. The gravel surfaces seem to have been used as occupation surfaces, into which the foundations of wooden buildings, pits and ditches have been cut. The main Roman road ran north-south presumably eventually linking the settlement to Kelvedon and ultimately Colchester. This road turned to the south west, presumably heading for a crossing point across the river. A possible second road ran roughly parallel to the main road on the western side, and a further three ‘side-streets’ joined it at right-angles on the eastern side. The roads provided the framework for the layout of the settlement and divided it into distinct zones of activity which can be defined as a zone of pitting, occupation and small-scale industrial activity within narrow strip plots along the south of the site, a temple precinct to the north of this zone, a possible market place and an area of domestic activity along the northern side of the site. The cemetery appears to have been located to the east of the town, as part of it was discovered on the Bouchernes Farm and The Towers sites.
The Roman settlement seems to have had a market function for an agricultural hinterland, a religious function centred on the temple and also to have undertaken a broad range of small-scale manufacturing activities. The settlement pattern consisted of fairly large individual plots, each containing a main structure fronting on to the road. The environmental evidence suggests that there were also paddocks for livestock within the built-up area, so a picture of diverse activity within the settlement has emerged. The imported ceramic evidence indicates a decrease in the amount of imported pottery present from the second century onwards. However, the evidence from the site morphology suggests that the decline of the town itself took place in the third and fourth centuries. There was still a settlement there in the late fourth or even early fifth century, with the temple remaining more or less intact throughout.
The earliest evidence for the Saxons in Maldon is again from the low-lying area at the head of the estuary. Here the early Saxon features excavated generally seem to occur in close proximity to those of latest Roman date; in some cases the upper fills of the Roman features contain occasional sherds of early Saxon pottery. A number of Saxon buildings, mainly of sunken-floor type have been excavated, both in the 1993-4 excavations at Elms Farm (Atkinson and Preston, 1995) and on the 1972 excavation at Crescent Road (Drury and Wickenden, 1982). The Saxon occupation on this area dates to the fifth to sixth centuries and it is not urban in nature. It is also known that there was settlement from the 6th to the early 10th century on the rural sites around the estuary, as at Slough House Farm and Chigborough Farm and that large fish traps were being built.
In 913 King Edward the Elder and his entourage camped at Maldon whilst a defensive burh was built at Witham. In 916 he ordered a burh to be built at Maldon itself, as part of his campaign to recover eastern England from Danish control. The remnants of the Maldon burh were identified in the 18th century by the antiquarians Joseph Strutt and Nathaniel Salmon as an earthwork on the west side of the town on the top of the ridge with the main Chelmsford and London Road cutting through it. Archaeological work by Essex County Council and the Maldon Archaeology Group has located evidence of a substantial earthwork enclosure in this position (Brown, 1986), although the dating for the enclosure is uncertain. Nothing is known about what was in the interior of the burh.
The Saxon town developed around the east gate of the burh, along the main road that led from the burh down to the Hythe. There was a small market-place, probably a church (on the site of medieval All Saint’s Church) and at least two main phases of late Saxon timber buildings on the south side of the High Street. There may well have been a quay at the Hythe and the church of St Mary is of Saxon origin. There was a royal mint in Maldon, one of only three in the county, from as early as 925 AD. In 991 a Viking fleet sailed up the Blackwater estuary and landed on an island to the east of the town. The resulting battle between Vikings and Saxons is the most significant historical event to take place in the Maldon area, and is recorded in a famous Anglo-Saxon poem. Maldon town itself appears to have escaped the destruction of the battle.
The Domesday survey records Maldon at the beginning of the Conquest as being second in importance only to Colchester in the county. Maldon and Colchester were then the only boroughs in Essex, a status later confirmed for Maldon by a charter dating to 1171. The town also retained its mint until at least 1100 and was an important port (chiefly concerned with the transhipment of goods from London). The wealth of Maldon is indicated by the presence of three parish churches within the urban area, All Saints, St Peters and St Mary’s. Maldon and Colchester are the only towns in Essex to have more than one church in the early medieval period. In addition to the churches there was also a friary in the town, a leper hospital and the Chapel of St Mary. Beeleigh Abbey was located to the west of the town beyond the urban limits.
The basic framework of the medieval built-up area had been established in the Saxon period. It can be sub-divided into four areas: the urban core which roughly approximated to All Saints parish (this included the market-place), the High Street, the Hythe and Fullbridge at the crossing of the River Chelmer.
Maldon stayed within its medieval limits until the 18th century, although within the existing built-up area there was considerable building work, both with the erection of new buildings and the sub-division/conversion of older ones. The Reformation and the growth of non-conformism led to striking changes in the town, including the closure of the Friary and St Giles Hospital (and probably the chapels of St Mary and St Helen). St Peter’s and St Mary’s churches suffered structural neglect. During this period new religious establishments included the Independent/Congregational Chapel and the Friends Meeting House.
There was an economic revival in the 18th century largely due to the maritime trade with London. This influx of wealth is illustrated by a large amount of new building within the town, including the Plume Library and the substantial merchants’ houses on Market Hill. In addition, brick facades and extensions were added to many of the older buildings to update them.
Maldon’s was also the major market for a large rural hinterland. In addition there was some industrial development, chiefly concentrated on the Fullbridge area. The Hythe area was devoted to loading and unloading of goods destined for London. The increase in maritime trade in the 18th century led to the building of mills and warehouses along the waterfronts at both the Hythe and Fullbridge. However, the completion of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation in 1797 re-routed some of the maritime trade from Maldon to Chelmsford. The town has now reverted to the role of local market town for an essentially rural district.