Our knowledge of prehistoric Rugby is very sketchy. Only one bronze age dagger has been found in the town itself. Due to the spread of the town much of the archaeology has been lost. However a general picture can be constructed.
The present town is on the top of a sandy ridge between Dunsmore Heath to the west and Hillmorton in the east. Both north and south of the ridge are river valleys. Early ploughs could not cope with heavy clay, so settlement concentrated on lighter soils making Dunsmore Heath and the Avon Valley ideal areas. Settlement consisted of isolated farms and small hamlets within a system of fields. Villages did not exist.
Several crop marks are known between Rugby and Coventry showing the area was settled. They are concentrated on Church Lawford and Long Lawford and consist of circular and rectangular enclosures and rows of pits in straight lines. The marks cannot be dated without excavation and the function of the rows of pits is not certain.
When the Romans arrived the Fosse Way and Watling Street roads were built and the settlement at Tripontium created. For the first few decades the Fosse Way was the frontier of the Roman Empire and the area would have been under military rule. Once the army moved north government was from the local civitas capital. Tripontium started as a mansio, a stopping point for official messengers where they could rest, eat and change horses. Later it developed into a small town. About 300, a small fort was built beside the town, one of a series along Watling Street.
The 19th Century antiquarians of Rugby thought that a number of Iron Age defended sites faced each other across the river valley. However most of the earth works are now thought to have been medieval. Archaeologists are uncertain of the names of Iron Age tribes, let alone where the boundaries were. An inscription on a tile from Tripontium says it was made in the 'civitas Corieltauvorum' - the area of the Corieltauvi (or Coritani ). The capital of that area was Leicester. However Rugby was in the border area with the Dobunni to the south west and the Catuvellauni to the south east.
No other Roman style buildings are known in the area. The Rugby area was on the north west edge of the area where villas were built. The local people would have continued living in isolated round hut farmsteads as before.
Although the Roman Army units were withdrawn around 405, that was not the end of the Roman system in Britain. While the area around Bath remained Roman into the late part of the century the fate of the rest of Britain is very unclear. Famine caused the population to drop before anyone was displaced by the Saxon settlers moving west.
By 425 the Saxons had moved west from Cambridge into the southern part of the Avon valley. By the 620's what is now known as North Warwickshire was probably part of the original area of the kingdom of Mercia. The capital of the kingdom was at Tamworth and it latterly expanded to control most of central England.
There are some pagan period Saxon burials in the Rugby area but not enough to suggest a large population. Place name evidence also suggests that a significant British population survived in the area. Both the Avon and Leam river names are Celtic words and the place name of Exhall north of Coventry suggests a British Christian church may have continued in use. The now lost hamlet of Walcote in Grandborough suggests that Welsh was spoken there until well after 700.
The Viking raids from Denmark had occurred for many years when in 865 a significant army landed and remained in England over the winter. The English response was not organised and the Danes gained control of most of northern and eastern England. When Alfred became king of Wessex in 871 he mounted a counter attack and in 886 agreed a treaty with the Danes. This treaty fixed the boundary between England and the Danelaw as the Rivers Thames, Lea and Ouse to Watling Street and then north up Watling Street.
The treaty placed Rugby in England but Danish settlement had already spilled down the Trent valley into this area. A number of true Danish place-names ending in -by (village), -thorpe (hamlet) and -toft (homestead) were formed. However a number of places have had their names corrupted to Danish spelling in later years. Rugby is the prime case of this, the berie of the Domesday Book spelling being a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon -bury, a defended place. Several of the -thorp names are possibly corruptions of the Anglo-Saxon -throp which also meant hamlet.
Studies in Lincolnshire have suggested that settlements with Danish names occupy less desirable land in gaps between the Anglo-Saxon named settlements which are on the more desirable sites. This points to an influx of Danish speaking population needing space to live. As the timescales are short - only a couple of generations - a migration of civilians from Denmark behind the army is the most likely explanation.
The English continued to fight the Danes and by about 920 had regained control of the whole area south of the Humber. It was shortly after this that the Wessex system of shires was extended to the Midlands. The new areas did not respect the old Mercian system of administration. Many of the new shire towns, including Warwick, were probably very small and possibly only a defended fortlet - a burgh. Warwickshire was formed from old Mercian land, Northamptonshire was probably land recovered from the Danes quite soon after 887 while Leicestershire was a Danish area where their customs and methods had become entrenched.
There is almost no surviving Anglo-Saxon documentation for the Rugby area. So we have no direct evidence for the arrangements of the manors or the settlements. However studies of other areas suggest that the manors would have covered the same areas as the later parishes and that the settlements would still have been individual farmsteads and hamlets spread throughout the area. Clifton-on-Dunsmore had religious control of the area until the 13th century and this may have reflected an earlier role controlling a group of manors held by the same person.