Stafford (/ˈstæfərd/) is a market town and the county town of Staffordshire, in the West Midlands region of England. It lies about 15 miles (24 km) north of Wolverhampton, 15 miles (24 km) south of Stoke-on-Trent and 24 miles (39 km) north-west of Birmingham. The town population in 2021 was 71,424 and that of the wider borough of Stafford was 122,000, making it the third largest in the county after Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Stafford means “ford” by a staithe (landing place). The original settlement was on a dry sand and gravel peninsula that offered a strategic crossing point in the marshy valley of the River Sow, a tributary of the River Trent. There is still a large area of marshland north-west of the town, which is subject to flooding and did so in 1947, 2000, 2007 and 2019.
Stafford is thought to have been founded about AD 700 by a Mercian prince called Bertelin, who, legend has it, founded a hermitage on a peninsula named Betheney. Until recently it was thought that the remains of a wooden preaching cross from the time had been found under the remains of St Bertelin’s Chapel, next to the later collegiate Church of St Mary in the town centre. Recent reappraisal of the evidence shows this to be a misinterpretation – it was a tree-trunk coffin placed centrally in the first, timber chapel around the time that Æthelflæd founded the burh in 913. It may have been placed there as a commemoration or veneration of St Bertelin.
Already a centre for delivering grain tribute in the Early Middle Ages, Stafford was commandeered in July 913 by Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, to construct a burh there. This fortification provided an industrial area for centralised production of Roman-style pottery (Stafford Ware), which was supplied to a chain of West Midlands burhs.
Æthelflæd and her younger brother, King Edward the Elder of Wessex, were trying to complete their father King Alfred the Great’s programme of moulding England into a single kingdom. Æthelflæd, a formidable military leader and tactician, sought to protect and extend the northern and western frontiers of her overlordship of Mercia against the Danish Vikings by fortifying burhs, including Tamworth and Stafford in 913, and Runcorn on the River Mersey in 915, while King Edward the Elder concentrated on the east, wresting East Anglia and Essex from the Danes. Anglo-Saxon women could play powerful roles in society; Æthelflæd’s death in 918 effectively ended Mercia’s relative independence. Edward the Elder of Wessex took over her fortress at Tamworth and accepted submission from all who were living in Mercia, Danish or English. In late 918 Aelfwynn, Æthelflæd’s daughter, was deprived of her authority over Mercia and taken to Wessex. The project of unifying England took another step forward.
Stafford was one of Æthelflæd’s military campaign bases. Extensive archaeological investigations and recent re-examination and interpretation show her new burh producing, alongside Stafford Ware, food for her army (butchery, grain processing, baking), coinage and weaponry, but apparently no other crafts and making few imports.
The county of Staffordshire was formed at about this time. Stafford lay within the Pirehill hundred.