History of Devon

(See also article on Devon)


Devon was one of the first areas of England settled following the end of the last ice age. 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. 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, the Dumnonii - possibly meaning 'Deep Valley Dwellers' (see below).

Roman Period

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 Brythonic 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 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, 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.

Sub-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 ‘Devon’.

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 St. Boniface (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 by Wessex was, however, a gradual process. King Ine of Wessex failed to take the region in the early 8th century, but it seems to have fallen to King Egbert around 800. The Kings of Dumnonia appear to have retreated to what became the Kingdom of Cornwall.

Saxon Control

By 825, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the "Defnas" (men of Devon) as fighting against the "Wealas" - the ‘West Welsh’ alias Cornish, literally foreigners or strangers - at the Battle of Galford (originally Gafulford). However it should be noted that the term "Defnas" is itself essentially Brythonic, and so these may simply have been Britons under a Saxon commander. William of Malmesbury claimed that "the Britons and Saxons inhabited Exeter aequo jure" - "as equals" - in 927.

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. Edward the Elder built similarly at Barnstaple and Totnes. Sporadic Viking incursions continued, however, until the Norman Conquest, including the distastrous defeat of the Devonians at the Battle of Pinhoe (1001). A few Norse placenames remain as a result, for example Lundy Island.

In the early 10th century, King Athelstan had refounded the monastery at Exeter and gave the whole of old Dumnonia to the diocese of Sherborne. 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 & 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 siege 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 eventaully 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.

Tudor & 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. 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. 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.

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. After the Monmouth Rebellion, 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.


Devon has produced tin, copper and other metals from ancient times. Tin was found largely on Dartmoor's granite heights, and copper in the areas around it. 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. The stannary parliament met in an open air parliament at Crockern Tor (Dartmoor) with stannators appointed to it from each stannary town. The parliament maintained its own gaol (at Lydford) and had a brutal and 'bloody' reputation (indeed Lydford law became a byword for injustice), and once even gaoled an English MP in the reign of Henry VIII. The last recorded sitting was in 1748, and it is believed they then adjourned to a pub in Tavistock.

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