Possibly inhabited by earlier people, Doncaster grew up at the site of a Roman fort constructed in the 1st century at a crossing of the River Don. The 2nd century Antonine Itinerary and the early 5th century Notitia Dignitatum (Register of Dignitaries) called this fort Danum. The first section of the road to the Doncaster fort had probably been constructed since the early 50s, while a route through the north Derbyshire hills was opened in the latter half of the 1st century, possibly by Governor Gn. Julius Agricola during the late 70s. Doncaster provided an alternative direct land route between Lincoln and York. The main route between Lincoln and York was Ermine Street, which required parties to break into smaller units to cross the Humber in boats. As this was not always practical, the Romans considered Doncaster to be an important staging post. The Roman road through Doncaster appears on two routes recorded in the Antonine Itinerary. The itinerary include the same section of road between Lincoln and York, and list three stations along the route between these two coloniae. Routes 7 and 8 (Iter VII & VIII) are entitled "the route from York to London".
Several areas of known intense archaeological interest have been identified in the town, although many—in particular St Sepulchre Gate—remain hidden under buildings. The Roman fort is believed to have been located on the site that is now covered by St George's Minster, next to the River Don. The Doncaster garrison units are named in the Register produced near the end of Roman rule in Britain: it was the home of the Crispinian Horse, presumably named because it was originally recruited from among the tribes living near
Crispiana in Pannonia Superior (near present-day Zirc in western Hungary), but possibly owing to Crispus, son of Constantine the Great, being headquartered there while his father was based in nearby York. The Register names the unit as under the command of the "Duke of the Britons".
Map showing the boundary of the fortified Medieval township of Doncaster with four Gates
Doncaster is generally believed to be the Cair Daun listed as one of the 28 cities of Britain in the 9th century History of the Britons traditionally attributed to Nennius. It was certainly an Anglo-Saxon burh, during which period it received its present name: "Don-" (Old English: Donne) from the Roman settlement and river and "-caster" (-ceaster) from an Old English adaptation of the Latin castra ("military camp; fort"). The settlement was mentioned in the 1003 will of Wulfric Spott. Shortly after the Norman Conquest, Nigel Fossard refortified the town and constructed Conisbrough Castle. By the time of the Domesday Book, Hexthorpe in the wapentake of Strafforth was described as having a church and two mills. The historian David Hey says that these facilities represent the settlement at Doncaster. He also suggests that the street name Frenchgate indicates that Fossard invited fellow Normans to trade in the town. Doncaster was ceded to Scotland in the Treaty of Durham; it was never formally returned to England.
12th century Conisbrough Castle, open to the public and property of English Heritage
As the 13th century approached, Doncaster matured into a busy town; in 1194 King Richard I granted it national recognition with a town charter. Doncaster had a disastrous fire in 1204, from which it slowly recovered. At the time, buildings were built of wood, and open fireplaces were used for cooking and heating. Fire was a constant hazard.
Norman church of St Mary Magdalene, at demolition in 1846
In 1248, a charter was granted for Doncaster's market to be held around the Church of St Mary Magdalene, built in Norman times. In the 16th century, the church was adapted for use as the town hall. It was finally demolished in 1846. Some 750 years on, the market continues to operate, with its busy traders located both under cover, at the 19th-century 'Corn Exchange' building (1873) and in outside stalls. The Corn Exchange was extensively rebuilt in 1994 after a major fire.
During the 14th century, numerous friars arrived in Doncaster who were known for their religious enthusiasm and preaching. In 1307 the Franciscan friars (Greyfriars) arrived, and Carmelites (Whitefriars) arrived in the middle of the 14th century. In the Medieval period, other major features of the town included the Hospital of St Nicholas and the leper colony of the Hospital of St James, a moot hall, grammar school, and the five-arched stone town bridge, with a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Bridge. By 1334, Doncaster was the wealthiest town in southern Yorkshire and the sixth most important town in Yorkshire as a whole, even boasting its own banker. By 1379, it was recovering from the Black Death, which had reduced its population to 1,500. In October 1536, the Pilgrimage of Grace ended in Doncaster. This was a rebellion led by the lawyer Robert Aske, who commanded 40,000 people of Yorkshire against Henry VIII in protest about the monarch's Dissolution of the Monasteries. Many of Doncaster's streets are named with the suffix 'gate'. The word 'gate' is derived from the old Danish word 'gata,' which meant street. During Medieval times, craftsmen or tradesmen with similar skills, tended to live in the same street. Baxter is an ancient word for baker: Baxtergate was the bakers' street. Historians believe that 'Frenchgate' may be named after French-speaking Normans who settled on this street.
The Medieval township of Doncaster is known to have been protected by earthen ramparts and ditches, with four substantial gates as entrances to the town. These gates were located at Hall Gate, St Mary's Bridge (old), St Sepulchre Gate and Sunny Bar. Today the gates at Sunny Bar are commemorated by huge 'Boar Gates'; similarly, the entrance to St Sepulchre Gate is commemorated with white marble 'Roman Gates'. The boundary of the town principally extended from the River Don, along a route formed by what is now Market Road, Silver Street, Cleveland Street and Printing Office Street.
Because access into town was restricted, some officeholders secured charters to collect tolls. In 1605, King James I granted to William Levett of Doncaster, brother of York merchant Percival Levett, the right to levy tolls at Friar's and St Mary's bridges. Having served as mayors and aldermen of Doncaster, the Levetts probably believed they could control a monopoly. In 1618 the family began enforcing it but, by 1628, the populace revolted. Capt. Christopher Levett, Percival's son, petitioned Parliament to enforce the tolls. But Parliament disagreed, calling the tolls "a grievance to the subjects, both in creation and execution," and axed the Levett monopoly. (Doncaster's Levet Road is named for this family, as are the nearby hamlets of Hooton Levitt and the largely extinct Levitt Hagg, where much of the town's early limestone was quarried.)
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the town of Doncaster continued to expand, although it suffered several outbreaks of plague between 1562 and 1606. Each time the plague struck down significant numbers of the town's population.
During the campaign of the First English Civil War, King Charles I marched by Bridgnorth, Lichfield and Ashbourne to Doncaster, where on 18 August 1645 he was met by great numbers of Yorkshire gentlemen who had rallied to his cause. On 2 May 1664, Doncaster was rewarded with the title of 'Free Borough' by way of the King (Charles I's son, King Charles II) expressing his gratitude for Doncaster's allegiance.
Doncaster has traditionally been a prosperous area within the wapentake of Stafford and Tickhill. The borough was known for its rich landowners with vast estates and huge stately homes such as Brodsworth Hall, Cantley Hall, Cusworth Hall, Hickleton Hall, Nether Hall and Wheatley Hall (demolished 1934). This wealth is evidenced in the luxurious and historic gilded 18th-century Mansion House on High Street. This land ownership developed over what is an ancient market place and large buildings were erected in the 19th century, including the Market Hall and the Corn Exchange. Perhaps the most striking building is St George's Minster, constructed in the 19th century and promoted from a parish church in 2004.
Doncaster was already a communications centre at this time. Doncaster sat on the Great North Road or A1, due to its strategic geographical importance and essentially Roman inheritance. This was the primary route for all traffic from London to Edinburgh and Doncaster benefited from its location.