There is evidence for prehistoric and Roman activity in and around the town, but nothing to suggest that it was urban in nature. There is then a gap in the evidence until the Middle to Late Saxon period when there was a small Saxon settlement in the south-west quadrant of the present town around Abbey Lane. A Saxon cemetery was excavated in 1876. The latest burials in it were thought to be Christian on the basis of their east-west orientation and lack of grave-goods, except for one woman in a Viking style pendant and necklace. The pottery found on this site dated from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. In 1976 part of the settlement was excavated, including at least one cob building.
After the Norman Conquest Saffron Walden was granted to the de Mandevilles, becoming the centre of their Essex and Suffolk estates. They built a castle on the chalk peninsula between the two streams of the Slade (King’s Ditch and Madgate Slade). The castle was built to dominate the area and its plan determined the subsequent street layout. The inner bailey was oval in plan and contained the domestic and defensive buildings of the de Mandevilles, of which only the flint rubble keep survives. The outer bailey was also ovoid in plan, fully enclosing the inner bailey and the original town. The church was built and two streets, Church Street and Castle Street, laid out within the outer bailey. In 1141 the de Mandevilles acquired the right to move the market which had been held at Newport to Saffron Walden. At that date a Benedictine priory, which became an Abbey in 1190, was built on the site of the later Audley End House.
By the 13th century the town had passed from the de Mandevilles to the de Bohuns. In the early to mid 13th century a large town enclosure was laid out to the south and west of the outer bailey and the outer bailey ditch back-filled. The date of this work may correspond to the granting of a new charter in 1236. The town enclosure ditches, known as the Battle or Repell Ditches enclosed a total area of 20 hectares. Within this were laid out new streets, principally High Street and its back lane Gold Street, and a new market-place. Only the market area and the High Street were actually built-up by the end of the 14th century, the remainder being under agricultural use.
In the late medieval period Saffron Walden became the major English centre for the production of the saffron crocus which was used to produce dye (hence the town’s name). It also played an important role in the East Anglian wool industry, with the keeping of sheep and manufacture of cloth. The magnificent parish church reflects the prosperity in the town in this period.
In the post-medieval period the economic emphasis of Saffron Walden changed, as the saffron crocus was replaced by other dye-stuffs and the woollen industry shifted elsewhere. The town became a major centre of the Essex malt industry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, an 18th century map shows that Saffron Walden had still not expanded beyond its medieval limits. During the late 19th century the railway station to the south of the medieval town emerged as the centre of an important manufacturing area with the erection of goods sheds, maltings, a cement works, iron foundry and steam-driven corn mill.