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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: February 2018

8 - Watermills and Waterwheels


Seo heofen belicð on hire bosme ealne middaneard, 7 heo æfre tyrnð onbuton us swyftre ðonne ænig mylenhweowul, eal swa deop under þyssere eorðan swa heo is bufon. Eall heo is sinewealt 7 ansund 7 mid steorrum amett.

The heaven encompasses in its bosom the whole earth, and it turns constantly around us more swiftly than any mill-wheel, going as far below the earth as it does above. It is completely circular and entire, and adorned with stars.


The Anglo-Saxon achievement in the development of water-power to drive millstones for grinding grain is underlined by references to over 6,000 mills in England at the time of the Domesday survey of 1086, the majority of which must have been established by or during the late Anglo-Saxon period. Following an overview of previous research on Anglo-Saxon mills and the lack of evidence for a Roman legacy, I will review the documentary and archaeological evidence for watermills in the Anglo-Saxon period. I will also discuss the provision and control of a manageable water supply, using fresh or salt water, waterwheels and the mill buildings themselves and finally consider the relationship between watermills and those who built and ran them.

The research background

In their comprehensive history of grain milling written at the end of the nineteenth century, Richard Bennett and John Elton found no evidence to support the theory that the Romans introduced the watermill into England, suggesting that it reached Britain ‘in due course’ and ‘was extensively adopted throughout the kingdom by the Saxons: displacing its early forerunner, the Norse mill, except in the more distant and secluded parts of the country’. Within a decade of this statement, the archaeologist F. Gerald Simpson excavated a Roman building at Haltwhistle Burn Head, just south of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, which he interpreted as a watermill dating from the third century AD. A small number of Roman watermill sites have subsequently been identified in Britain, all of which had vertical waterwheels. Further evidence of the widespread distribution of Roman watermills is suggested by finds of milling stones that are considered too large to have been querns, small diameter millstones turned by hand.