At the edge of its county, Bradford is just eight miles from Bath in neighbouring Somerset and stood on a medieval route linking Salisbury with Bath and Bristol. As its name indicates, Bradford is situated on a river, the Avon, straddling both banks, at a bend in that river, at some point on which was a broad ford which remained in use even after a bridge was erected nearby (date unknown, but it incorporates some thirteenth-century fabric and was in need of repair by 1400). The greater part of the old town is on the northern bank, below the steep hillside atop which an Iron Age hill-fort overlooked the valley and a Roman villa was later established. Jeremy Haslam [Anglo-Saxon Towns in Southern England, Chichester: Phillimore, 1984, p.90] considers that Bradford provides the best Wiltshire example of a medieval town on a site which had been a focus of settlement for a very long time, although continuity of occupation at such towns is always very difficult to demonstrate. It had been the head settlement in a large Anglo-Saxon royal estate until a monastery there, with its territorial appurtenances (which included most of the hundred of Bradford), was granted to Shaftesbury Abbey.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a battle fought in 652 at 'Bradford by the Avon', probably between Saxons and Britons. Though this does not prove a settlement existed at that date, the roots of Bradford are generally considered traceable to that period, for a monastery is documented as being there in 705. The existing church of St. Laurence is commonly known as the Saxon Church, on the assumption it was the successor to the minster church, though it is now thought to have been built as a chapel in tenth or eleventh century by Shaftesbury Abbey, which obtained the original minster along with the town (? villa) in 1001 by grant of Ethelred II, and with the local abbey, to which King Eadred had granted the town in 955. The location of the Saxon settlement is a matter for speculation, archaeological evidence being lacking; it was not necessarily in the central area of the later medieval town. The parish church of Holy Trinity, another candidate as successor to the minster, has some eleventh-century features and may have been built after Shaftesbury Abbey acquired the manor, yet its position is oddly off-centre, on the west side of the town and close to St. Laurence's. This might point to early settlement between an 'ecclesiastical quarter' and the post-Conquest town centre. It is also possible that the ford in the name Bradford was not near the bridge but near the 'ecclesiastical quarter'; the road approaching the river from the south curves as if diverted towards the bridge and away from a point on the riverbank opposite that quarter. Part of the Saxon settlement may have been on the south side of the river. All this is conjectural.
In Domesday Bradford manor was still held by the nuns of Shaftesbury and would remain so to the Dissolution; this included the borough, which had 33 burgesses. Curiously, in a survey of abbey properties of ca.1170, this is precisely the same number of burgesses who had stalls (or at least the right to have stalls that is, to trade) in the abbess' market. That market, belonging to the manor by ancient right, is referred to in Domesday and given a valuation of 45s. annually. In 1280 the abbess claimed an ancient right to hold a fair at Easter. Both market and fair would have been sufficiently ancient not to require a licence. There is an indication the abbey had granted a charter of privileges to the burgesses, for late twelfth century surveys of abbey properties state that the freeholders of the town referring specifically (but perhaps not exclusively) to a group of five prominent townsmen whom Robert Harvey ["Shaftesbury Abbey's 12th-century Rentals for Bradford-on-Avon", Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol.91 (1998), p.84] suggests were a nascent borough council had their own court and the right to collect tolls in the borough, but were not themselves required to pay tolls on anything they bought or sold on market day (livestock excepted) or at the annual fair, and had a similar exemption from tolls elsewhere in the abbey estates; these privileges were said to be the same as their ancestors had in the time of Henry I. They also had limited exemptions from feudal exactions, specifically scot-ale, and labour services. Bakers had to pay what can be understood as a licence fee of one farthing loaf every fortnight, and brewers 1d. per tavern except that at Christmas they (probably thinking of small-scale domestic brewers) were allowed to sell a sixpenny-worth without any toll, so long as they did not hang out a 'new brew' sign.
The commercial centre of the post-Conquest borough was the market area, a large triangular space. Its southern corner was reached by the street that crossed the bridge, its north-eastern corner by the road from Melksham, while at the north-western corner converged Church Street, leading to the 'ecclesiastical quarter', and Market Street, ascending the hillside a short distance to connect to the Bath road, which in the opposite direction skirted the 'ecclesiastical quarter'. On the northern side of this marketplace was the shambles. Conceivably, the building of the bridge and the opening up of Market Street may be reflections of a re-orientation of the town, as commerce became more central to the lives of its residents, though whether planned or an organic development is hard to say.
We know little of medieval Bradford's economy. In the survey of 1170 Bradford residents included a goldsmith, a fuller and a sherman, while one of the supposed 'councillors' was a miller who also rented a market stall. Cloth-making is believed to have been the principal industrial activity by the fourteenth century; a fuller and his fulling mill are mentioned in 1249, and a number of those who paid the Poll Tax of 1377 had surnames related to the cloth trade. South-west of the town a packhorse bridge was built in the fourteenth century, but this was mainly to service the tenant-farmers of the abbey's manor and the abbey tithe barn erected nearby in the same period. An invitation to Bradford to send borough representatives to parliament in 1295 was never repeated, but despite this lack of official recognition and the absence of the kinds of chartered liberties to which larger towns aspired, the townspeople seem to have prospered well enough. The Black Death had the usual adverse, yet ultimately surmountable, effects: abbey accounts of 1367 and 1372 refer to a number of tenantless houses, a few of which were derelict, yet we also hear that four new shops had been built near the market cross, and a dozen new stalls erected in the marketplace. When Leland visited in 1540 he found a sturdily-built town with a flourishing market and cloth-making industry.