History of Devon

History of Devon

Devon is a county in south west England, bordering Cornwall to the west with Dorset and Somerset to the east. There is evidence of occupation in the county from Stone Age times onward. Its history starts in the Roman period when it was a civitas. It was then a separate kingdom for nearly 300 years until Wessex took control, when it became a shire. It has remained a largely agriculture based region ever since though tourism is now very important.


Devon was one of the first areas of Great Britain settled following the end of the last ice age. Kents Cavern in Torbay is one of the earliest places in England known to have been occupied by modern man. Dartmoor is thought to have been settled by Mesolithic hunter-gatherer peoples from about 6000 BC, and they later cleared much of the oak forest, which regenerated as moor. In the Neolithic era, from about 3500 BC, there is evidence of farming on the moor, and also building and the erection of monuments, using the large granite boulders that are ready to hand there; Dartmoor contains the remains of the oldest known buildings in England. There are over 500 known Neolithic sites on the moor, in the form of burial mounds, stone rows, stone circles and ancient settlements such as the one at Grimspound. Stone rows are a particularly striking feature, ranging in length from a few metres to over 3Km. Their ends are often marked by a cairn, a stone circle, or a standing stone (see menhir). Because most of Dartmoor was not ploughed during the historic period, the archaeological record is relatively easy to trace.

The name "Devon" derives from the tribe of Celtic people who inhabited the south-western peninsula of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD, the Dumnonii - possibly meaning 'Deep Valley Dwellers' or 'Worshipers of the god Dumnonos'. This tribal name carried on into the Roman and post-Roman periods. The Dumnonii did not mint coins, unlike their neighbours to the east the Durotriges, but coins of the Dobunni have been found in the area. Early trading ports are thought to have existed at Mount Batten (Plymouth) and at Bantham where Phoenicians are said to have come.

Roman period

Devon was not as Romanised as Somerset and Dorset, with evidence of occupation mainly being around Exeter, where the Roman walls can still be seen. From about AD 55, the Romans held the area under military occupation, maintaining a naval port at Topsham and a garrison of the 2nd Augustan Legion at Exeter, which they called by the Celtic name of 'Isca'. This banked and palisaded fortress contained mostly barracks and workshops, but also a magnificent bath-house and was occupied for approximately twenty years. Then the legion moved to Caerleon and the civilians of the surrounding settlement took control. The place acquired the tribal suffix of 'Dumnoniorum' when it was made the capital of the local Roman civitas. All the associated trappings of local government followed, such as a forum and basilica and, eventually a stone city wall. The Roman administration stayed here for over three centuries. There were several smaller forts across the county and a number of pagan shrines, as remembered in the name of the "Nymet" villages (nemeton), but the lands west of the Exe remained largely un-Romanized. The richer locals there often lived in banked 'Rounds', while East Devon had a number of luxurious villas, such as that discovered at Holcombe, as well as Roman roads of the sophisticated cobbled type.

Post-Roman Brythonic period

After the departure of the Roman administration from Britain, around 410, a Brythonic kingdom emerged in the West Country based on the old Roman civitas surrounding Exeter. It was called, in Latin, "Dumnonia" and, in the native Brythonic language, "Dyfneint": pronounced ‘Dove-naynt’ and eventually corrupted to 'Devon'. In the Cornish language the name is 'Dewnans'.

Dumnonia traded with the Byzantine Empire, pottery from which has been found at high status sites. The inhabitants were known to the Saxons as the 'Western Welsh'. Gildas castigated Constantius of Dumnonia in about 540 AD for his behaviour. Bishop Aldhelm corresponded with Geraint of Dumnonia in the late 7th century about religious differences.

Modern Devon covered a large area of this kingdom, though it appears to have spread from Somerset and Dorset to possibly Cornwall. Exeter may have played an important role in its early government, but the Kings of Dumnonia, like most of the region, seem to have quickly turned to a rural existence, in refortified hillforts like High Peak at Sidmouth. The Roman city may have become an ecclesiastical centre, as evidenced by a sub-Roman cemetery discovered near the cathedral.

Conflict and change

The date that the Anglo-Saxons began to settle in Devon is not uncontroversial. The Brythonic cemetery in Exeter may have been attached to the monastery attended by the young Wilfred St. Boniface (said to be a native of Crediton) in the late 7th century. However its Abbot had a purely Saxon name, suggesting it was an Anglo-Saxon foundation. Raids from Wessex certainly seem to have started around this time. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to a battle at "Peonnan" in 658. This could just about have been at Pinhoe (north-east of Exeter), although Penselwood (on the Wiltshire-Somerset border) or Penn (near Yeovil) further east are generally favoured because the Chronicle suggests that the British were then pursued to the River Parret (in mid-Somerset). Three years later, however, a battle at "Posentesburg" may have occurred at Posbury, near Crediton. By 682, the Anglo-Saxons claimed that the British were driven “as far as the sea” at a location which is not defined. Some believe this to mean across Devon to North Cornwall, but others suppose it to be across Exmoor to the Bristol Channel. The conquest of Devon and Cornwall by Wessex was, however, a gradual process, whose chronology is unclear but which had been completed by the early ninth century. The Kings of Dumnonia appear to have retreated to what became the Kingdom of Cornwall but were defeated in 825 AD.

axon control

By 825, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the "Defnas" ("men of Devon") as fighting against the "Wealas" (literally "foreigners" or "strangers") at the Battle of Galford (originally "Gafulford"). Although "Wealas" is generally used to describe the native British Celts, it should be noted that the term "Defnas" is itself also essentially Brythonic, and so these may simply have been Britons under a Saxon commander, fighting the neighbouring Cornish.

The British certainly survived in Devon beyond this date. William of Malmesbury claimed that "the Britons and Saxons inhabited Exeter "aequo jure" - "as equals" - in 927. Although King Athelstan expelled the British from the walled City of Exeter at this time, the British remained in the area, and apparently re-entered the City walls later, as an area was known as "Brittayne" until the 18th Century.

The Celtic language is reputed to have survived in parts of Devon until the Middle Ages, according to Risdon.

By the 9th century, the major threat to peace in Devon came from Viking raiders. To confound them, Alfred the Great refortified Exeter as a defensive burh, followed by new erections at Lydford, Halwell and Pilton, although these fortifications were relatively small compared to burhs further east, suggesting these were protection for only the elite. The English defeated a combined Cornish and Danish force at Callington in 832. Edward the Elder built similarly at Barnstaple and Totnes. Sporadic Viking incursions continued, however, until the Norman Conquest, including the disastrous defeat of the Devonians at the Battle of Pinhoe (1001). A few Norse placenames remain as a result, for example Lundy Island. The men of Devon are said by Asser to have fought the Danes at he battle of the battle of Cynuit in 878, which may have been at Kenwith Castle or Countisbury though Cannington in Somerset is also claimed as the site. In 894 the Danes attempted to besiege Exeter but were driven off by King Alfred but it was sacked in 1001.

Devon formed part of the bishopric of Sherborne (Dorset) after this was set up in 705 AD. In the early 10th century, King Athelstan refounded the monastery at Exeter. Roman Catholicism gradually took over from Celtic Christianity as minster churches were established across the county. Devon was given its own bishopric in 905, initially at Bishop's Tawton, though it quickly moved to Crediton. As part of the general move towards urban cathedrals in the late Saxon period, Bishop Leofric eventually transferred his see to the old abbey at Exeter in 1050.

Norman and medieval period

Immediately after the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror recognised the importance of securing the loyalty of the West Country and thus the need to secure Exeter. The city managed to withstand an eighteen-day siegePalliser, David Michael; Clark, Peter; and Daunton, Martin J. (2000). "The Cambridge Urban History of Britain", p. 595. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521417074.] and the new king was only eventually allowed to enter upon honourable terms.

The many great estates subsequently held by William’s barons in Devon were known as "honours". Chief amongst them were Plympton, Okehampton, Barnstaple, Totnes and Harberton. In the 12th century, the honour of Plympton, along with the Earldom of Devon, was given to the Redvers family. In the following century, it passed to the Courtenays, who had already acquired Okehampton, and, in 1335, they received the earldom too. It was also in the 14th century that the Dukedom of Exeter was bestowed on the Holland family, but they became extinct in the reign of Edward IV. The ancestors of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was born at East Budleigh, held considerable estates in the county from a similar period. Devon was given an independent sheriff. Originally an hereditary appointment, this was later held for a year only. In 1320, the locals complained that all the hundreds of Devon were under the control of the great lords who did not appoint sufficient bailiffs for their proper government.

During the civil war of King Stephen’s reign, the castles of Plympton and Exeter were held against the king by Baldwin de Redvers in 1140. Conflict resurfaced in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the French made frequent raids on the Devon coast and, during the Wars of the Roses, when frequent skirmishes took place between the Lancastrian Earl of Devon and Yorkist Lord Bonville. In 1470, Edward IV pursued Warwick and Clarence as far as Exeter after the Battle of Lose-coat Field. Warwick eventually escaped to France via Dartmouth. Later, Richard III travelled to Exeter to personally punish those who had inflamed the West against him. Several hundred were outlawed, including the Bishop and the Dean.

Dartmoor and Exmoor (mainly in Somerset) were Royal Forests, ie hunting preserves. The men of Devon paid 5000 marks to have these diafforested in 1242. The 11th to 14th centuries were a period of economic and population growth, but the Black Death in 1348 and subsequent years caused decline in both with resulting social change. many villages and hamlets were said to have been deserted. However, some farmers subsequently prospered with large flocks of sheep and cattle.

Tudor and Stuart period

Early in Henry VII’s reign, the Royal pretender, Perkin Warbeck, besieged Exeter in 1497. The King himself came down to judge the prisoners and to thank the citizens for their loyal resistance.

Great disturbances throughout the county followed the introduction of Edward VI's Book of Common Prayer. The day after Whit Sunday 1549, a priest at Sampford Courtenay was persuaded to read the old mass. [Heal, Felicity (2003). "Reformation in Britain and Ireland", p. 225. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198269242.] This insubordination spread swiftly into serious revolt. The Cornish quickly joined the men of Devon in the Prayer Book Rebellion and Exeter suffered a distressing siege until relieved by Lord Russell. [Secor, Philip Bruce (1999). "Richard Hooker: Prophet of Anglicanism", p. 13. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0860122891.]

Devon is particularly known for its Elizabethan mariners, such as Sir Francis Drake, Gilbert, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Walter Raleigh. Plymouth Hoe is famous as the location where Drake continued to play bowls after hearing that the Spanish Armada had been sighted. Plymouth was the departure point for the Mayflower in 1620.

During the Civil War, Devon largely favoured the Parliamentarian cause, but there was a great desire for peace in the region and, in 1643 a treaty for the cessation of hostilities in Devon and Cornwall was agreed. Only small-scale skirmishes continued until the capture of Dartmouth and Exeter in 1646 by Sir Thomas Fairfax. He then captured Tiverton and defeated Lord Hopeton's army at Torrington. The last place held for the king was Charles Fort at Salcombe.

After the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, Judge Jefferies held one of his ‘bloody assizes’ at Exeter. In 1688, the Prince of Orange first landed in England at Brixham (where his statue stands in the town harbour) to launch the Glorious Revolution and his journey to London to claim the English throne as William III. He was entertained for several days at both Forde and at Exeter.

Modern period

In the modern period, after 1650, the City of Plymouth has had a large growth becoming the largest city in Devon, mainly due to the naval base at Devonport on its west. Plymouth played an important role as a naval port in both World War I and World War II. South Devon was a training and assembly area during World War II for the D-Day landings and there is a memorial to the many soldiers who were killed during a rehearsal off Slapton Sands. Both Plymouth and Exeter suffered badly from bombing during the war and the centre of Exeter and vast swathes of Plymouth had to be largely rebuilt during the 1960s.

Cold winters were a feature of the 17th century, that of 1676 being particulaly hard. Smallpox epidemics occurred in the 1640s, 1710s and 1760s, resulting in many deaths. In October 1690 there was an earthquake in Barnstaple. Daniel Defoe published an account of a tour through Devon in 1724 and 1727. South Devon impressed him but be thought that north Devon was wild, barren and poor.

During the Napoleonic War a prison was built at Princetown on Dartmoor to hold French and American prisoners of war. This prison is still in use.

In 1842 the population was said to be mainly employed in agriculture. The population declined in the 19th century but has subsequently increased due to the favourable climate and the arrival of the railways.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Devon has experienced great changes, including the rise of the tourist industry on the so-called "English Riviera", decline of farming and fishing, urbanisation, and also proliferation of holiday homes in for example Salcombe. Devon has become famous for its clotted cream and cider. Dartmoor has become a National Park, as has Exmoor.

Devon has suffered many severe storms, including one that largely swept away Hallsands in 1917.

Politically Devon has had a tendency to lean towards the Conservative and Liberal/Liberal-Democrat parties.

Mining history

Devon has produced tin, copper and other metals from ancient times. Until about 1300 it produced more than Cornwall but production decined with the opening of the deep Cornish mines. Tin was found largely on Dartmoor's granite heights, and copper in the areas around it. It was exported from Mount Batten in prehistoric times. The Dartmoor tin-mining industry thrived for hundreds of years, continuing from pre-Roman times right through to the first half of the 20th century. In the eighteenth century Devon Great Consols mine (near Tavistock) was believed to be the largest copper mine in the world.

Devon's tin miners enjoyed a substantial degree of independence through Devon's stannary parliament, which dates back to the twelfth century. Stannary authority exceeded English law, and because this authority applied to part time miners (e.g. tin streamers) as well as full time miners the stannary parliament had significant power. Until the early 18th century the stannary parliament met in an open air parliament at Crockern Tor on Dartmoor with stannators appointed to it from each of the four stannary towns. The parliament maintained its own gaol at Lydford and had a brutal and 'bloody' reputation (indeed Lydford law became a byword for "in"justice), and once even gaoled an English MP in the reign of Henry VIII.

ee also

*History of Plymouth
*List of places in Devon
*List of SSSIs in Devon
*History of England


External links

* [http://www.genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/DevonHist1850.html General History and Description of the County of Devon, 1850]

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