History of Dorset

(See also article on Dorset)

Dorset is dotted with Celtic hill forts, like Maiden Castle
Dorset is dotted with Celtic hill forts, like Maiden Castle

Dorset is a rural county in south west England whose archaeology documents much of the history of southern England.


The first known settlement of Dorset was by Mesolithic hunters, from around 8000 BC. Their populations were small and concentrated along the coast in the Isle of Purbeck, Weymouth and Chesil Beach and along the Stour valley. These populations used tools and fire to clear these areas of some of the native Oak forest.

Dorset's high chalk hills have provided a location for defensive settlements for millennia, with neolithic and bronze age burial mounds on almost every chalk hill in the county, and a number of iron age hill forts, such as Maiden Castle, Badbury Rings and Hambledon Hill. The chalk downs would have been deforested in these times, making way for farmland. Many of the hill tops are inaccessible or impractical for farming and this archaeology is well preserved. The valleys, which have been used intensively since do not have a good record of pre-Roman archaeology, though they were certainly used by the iron age peoples.

The iron age tribe in Dorset were the Durotriges, "water dwellers", whose main settlement was at Maiden Castle. The name could mean that they were seafarers, but is more likely a reference to the marshy valley of the River Frome which they would have farmed.


The Romans landed in Dorset at Poole Harbour and the the Fleet and moved inland, while other groups travelled west from Old Sarum and Wichester. At Abbotsbury on the Fleet the Romans quickly took the hill fort, Abbotsbury Castle, bloodlessly before moving on to Maiden Castle. There is some evidence of a struggle at Maiden Castle and Badbury Rings but current opinion amongst archaeologists is that these, and Hod Hill, also fell with ease. There is, however, a find of 130 skeletons at Spetisbury which show that the invasion was not entirely peaceful.

Dorset has many notable Roman artefacts, particularly around the Roman town Dorchester, where Maiden Castle was taken early in the Roman occupation. In the grounds of the County Council offices is a Roman house with well preserved mosaic floors and an aquaduct. Roman roads radiated from Dorchester, following the tops of the chalk ridges north west to Ilchester near Yeovil, and east to Badbury Rings where it forked to Winchester, Bath and a particularly well preserved route running north east to Old Sarum near Salisbury, as well as tracks to the many small Roman villages around the county. In the Roman era settlements moved from the hill tops to the valleys, with Roman finds, such as the famous Hinton St Mary mosaic, being found in the vales. By the 4th century the hilltops had been abandoned.

A large defensive ditch on Cranborne Chase in the north east of the county, Bokerley Dyke, dated to AD 367, delayed the Saxon conquest of Dorset, with the Romano-British remaining in Dorset for 200 years after the end of the Roman period. The inhospitable coastline prevented an invasion from the sea. When the Roman road across Cranborne Chase was rebuilt in the 6th century the Saxons advanced into Dorset. The Romano-British retreated, constructing another defence, Combs Ditch, which also fell within a century.

During the middle ages the Monasteries, like Sherborne Abbey, were the biggest power in Dorset
During the middle ages the Monasteries, like Sherborne Abbey, were the biggest power in Dorset

Middle ages

The Domesday Book documents many Saxon settlements corresponding to modern towns and villages, mostly in the valleys. There have been few changes to the parishes since the Domesday Book. Over the next few centuries the settlers established the pattern of farmland which prevailed into the 19th century, as well as many monasteries, which were important landowners and centres of power.

A number of military events took place in Dorset in the 12th century civil war, and this gave rise to the defensive castles at Corfe Castle, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury. In 1348 the Black Death came to England, probably landing in ports along the south coast, including Weymouth, which was one of the first towns to experience the epidemic. From this time until the end of the Medieval period the hilltop villages shrank further, and many disappeared altogether.

Throughout the Medieval period, Dorset was popular amongst the nobility, including a number of Kings, for its hunting estates, such as Gillingham and Sherborne. A number of Deer Parks still remain in the county.

Royalist stronghold Corfe Castle was destroyed in the English Civil War
Royalist stronghold Corfe Castle was destroyed in the English Civil War

Early Modern

In the 17th century English Civil War Dorset had a number of royalist strongholds, such as Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle, which were ruined in the war. From the Tudor to Georgian periods farming specialised and the monastic estates broke up, leading to an increase in population and settlement size. The Dissolution of the Monasteries closed the abbeys at Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Milton Abbas, Abbotsbury and Cerne Abbas, though both Sherborne and Milton abbeys were saved from destruction.

Portland Harbour was an important Royal Navy base in the war
Portland Harbour was an important Royal Navy base in the war


During the industrial revolution Dorset remained largely rural and still retains its agricultural economy. The farming economy, however, provided the spark for the Trade Union movement when, in the 1820s a group of farm labourers formed one of the first unions. In 1832 unions were outlawed and the three men, now known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were transported, becoming national heroes to the working classes.

In the 19th century the railways bought increased mobility and communications to the British people. Lines through Dorset include the South Western Main Line, from London to Bournemouth, Poole, Dorchester and Weymouth; the Heart of Wessex Line from Bristol to Sherborne, Dorchester and Weymouth; the West of England Main Line from London to Exeter, with stations at Sherborne and Gillinham; and the now dismantled Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway from Bath to Bournemouth. There were also a number of small branchlines, closed in the Beeching axe, such as those to Bridport and Swanage. The Swanage Railway has been reopened as a heritage railway.

During World War I and II Dorset, located on the English Channel, was both a target and important to the Royal Navy. The large Portland Harbour, built at the end of the 19th century and protected by Nothe Fort, was for many years, including during the wars, one of the largest Royal Navy bases. British, American and Canadian ships gathered in the harbour and nearby in Weymouth bay before the D-Day landings. Training for the landings also took place in Dorset, at the long sandy beach at Studland.

Since the early 19th century, when George III took hollidays in Weymouth while ill, Dorset's tourism industry has grown, with the seaside resorts of Bournemouth and Weymouth, the Jurassic Coast and the county's sparsely populated rural areas attracting millions of visitors each year. With farming declining across the country tourism now rivals agriculture as the main economy of the county.

In 1974 the political boundaries of Dorset were modified, incorporating a small area of south west Hampshire which included the towns of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Verwood. In 1996 Bournemouth and Poole became administratively independent from the county.


  • Cochrane, C., 1969. Poole Bay and the Purbeck, 300BC-1660AD. Dorchester: Longman.
  • Taylor, Christopher, 1970. The making of the Dorset landscape. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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