History of Somerset

See also article on Somerset

The name "Somerset" is thought by some to derive from Sumer following a migration from there. Others say it means the Summer land, because in ancient times the Somerset Levels and Moors became flooded every winter.

Key dates in Somerset history

Prehistory

This refers to the period up to the arrival of the Romans, c47 AD. There is evidence from artifacts in a quarry at Westbury that man was present in the future Somerset from c500000 BCE. Somerset was one of the first areas of future England settled following the end of the last Ice Age c8000 BCE. It is thought to have been occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gathers from about 6000 BCE. In the Neolithic era, from about 3500 BCE, there is evidence of farming. Cheddar man is dated at about 9000 years old.

The county has many pre-historic burial mounds, stone rows and settlement sites. Evidence of Mesolithic occupation has come both from the upland areas, such as in Mendip caves, and from the low land areas such as the Somerset Levels. Dry points in the latter such as Glastonbury Tor and Brent Knoll, have a long history of settlement with many wooden trackways between them. There were also "lake villages" in the marsh such as those at Glastonbury and Meare. The oldest dated human road work in Britain is the Sweet Track, constructed across the Somerset Levels with wooden planks in the 39th century BCE.

There are numerous "hill forts", such as Small Down Knoll, which seem to have had many purposes, not just a defensive role. They generally seem to have been occupied intermittently from the Bronze Age onward, some, such as Cadbury Camp at South Cadbury, being refurbished many times. The Iron Age tribes of later Somerset were the Dobunni, Durotriges and Dumnonii. The first and second produced coins which allows were tribal areas to be suggested, but the latter did not. All three had a Celtic culture and language. The Celtic gods were worshiped at the temple of Sulis at Bath and possibly the temple on Brean Down, for example.

Roman

Somerset was part of the Roman Empire from c47 AD to about 409 AD. However the end was not abrupt and elements of "Romanitas" lingered on for perhaps a century. Roman initial occupation of Somerset seems to have been mainly peaceful though there is some evidence of a massacre at South Cadbury, but this may have been later. Forts were set up at Bath, Charterhouse and Ilchester. The Romans constructed many main roads in Somerset, radiating from Bath and Ilchester, the chief one being the Fosse Way which ran from NE of Bath to SW of Ilchester as part of its overall route from Lincoln to the south coast near Sidmouth, Devon. A number of small towns and trading ports were set up, like Camerton and Combwich. The larger towns decayed in the latter part of the period though the smaller ones appear to have decayed less. In the latter part of the period, Ilchester seems to have been a "civitas" capital and Bath may also have been one. Particularly to the east of the river Parrett, many villas were constructed. However only a few Roman sites have been found to the west of the river. The villas have produced important mosaics and artifacts. Cemetries have been found outside the Roman towns of Somerset and by Roman temples such as that at Lamyatt. Many Romano-British farming settlements, such as that at Catsgore, have been found in Somerset as well as evidence of salt production near Highbridge. Quarrying took place near Bath while silver-lead production occurred at Charterhouse.

Dark Age

This is the period from about 409 AD to the start of Saxon political control which was mainly in the late seventh century, though they are though to have captured the Bath area in the late sixth century. Initially the Britons of Somerset seem to have continued much as under the Romans but without the Imperial taxation and markets. There was then a period of civil war in England though it is not known how this affected Somerset. The Western Wandsdyke may have been constructed in this period but many other dates have also been suggested. Neither is it known how the setting up of Saxon kingdoms in the SE of England affected Somerset. The Saxon advance from the east seems to have been halted by battles between the British and Saxons, eg at the siege of Badon Mons Badonicus (which may mave been in the Bath region eg at Solsbury Hill). In the 5th century. 6th century and 7th century, Somerset was probably partly in the Kingdom of Dumnonia, partly in the land of the Durotriges and partly in that of the Dobunni. The boundaries between these is largely unknown but may have been similar to those in the Iron Age. Various "tyrants" seem to have controlled territories from refurbished hill forts. There is evidence of an elite at hill forts such as South Cadbury and Cadbury-Congresbury, for example there is imported pottery. Cemeteries are an important source of evidence for the period and a number of large ones have been found in Somerset such as that at Cannington, which was used from the Roman to the Saxon period. The towns of Somerset seem to have been little used in this period but there continued to be farming on the villa sites and at the Romano-British villages.

There may have been effects from plague and volcanic erruption during this period as well as marine transgression into the Levels.

The language spoken during this period is thought to be Southwestern Brythonic, but only one or two inscribed stone survive in Somerset from this period. However, a couple of curse tablets found in the baths at Bath may be in this language. A number of place names in Somerset seem to be Celtic in origin and may be from this period or earlier, eg Tarnock. Some river names, such as Parrett, may be Celtic or pre-Celtic. The religion of the people of Somerset in this period is thought to be Christian but was isolated from Rome until the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD. Some church sites in Somerset are thought to date from this period, eg Llantokay.

Most of what is known of the history of this period came from Gildas's "On the Ruin of Britain" which is thought to have been written in Durotrigen territory, possibly at Glastonbury.

Saxon

This is the period from the late 7th century to 1066, though for part of the tenth and eleventh centuries there was Danish control of England. There is uncertainty about the sequence by which the Saxons gained control of Somerset but important battles are said to be those at Dyrham, "Peonna" and "Beandun". By 705 the diocese of Sherborne was formed, taking in Wessex west of Selwood. Saxon kings granted land in Somerset by charter from the seventh century onward. The way and extent to which the Britons survived under the Saxons is a debatable matter. However, King Ine's laws make provision for Britons. Somerset originally formed part of Wessex and latter became a separate "shire". Mints were set up at times in various places in Somerset, eg Watchet.

Somerset played an important part in defeating the spread of the Danes in the ninth century. King Alfred was driven to seek refuge from the Danes at Athelney before defeating them at the battle of Eddingtion, usuually consided to be near Cheltenham but possibly the place in Somerset. A peace treaty with the Danes was signed at Wedmore and the Danish king was baptised at Aller. A number of "burhs" (fortified places) were set up by 919, such as Lyng. Viking raids took place for instance at Watchet and the Battle of Cannington.

Monasteries and minster churches were set up all over Somerset, with daughter churches from the ministers in manors. There was a royal palace at Cheddar and there is likely to have been a "central place" at Somerton, Bath, Glastonbury and Frome since the kings visited them. The towns of Somerset seem to have in occupation in this period though evidence for this is limited because of subsequent buildings on top of remains from this period. Agriculture flourished in this period, with a re-organisation into centralised villages in the latter part in the east of the county.

In the period before the Norman Conquest, Somerset came under the control of the Danish Godwin family. There seems to have been some Danish settlement at Thurloxton and Spaxton, judging from the place-names.

The sources for the history of this period are many, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser's Life of Alfred.

Middle ages

This is the period from 1066 to around 1500. Following the defeat of the Saxons by the Normans in 1066, various castles were set up in Somerset by the new lords such as that at Dunster. Somerset does not seem to have played much part in the civil war in king Stephen's time but Somerset lords were main players in the murder of Thomas à Becket.

A good picture of the county in 1086 is given by Domesday Book, though there is some difficulty in identifying the various places since the "hundreds" are not specified. Farming seems to have prospered for the next three centuries but was severely hit by the Black Death in the fourteenth century. Reclamation of land from marsh in the Somerset Levels increased, largely under monastic influence. Crafts and indusries also flourished, the Somerset woollen industry being one of the largest in England at this time. A number of "new towns" were founded in this period in Somerset, eg Newport, but were not successful.

In 1348 the Black Death arrived in Dorset and quickly spread through Somerset, causing widepread mortality, perhaps as much as 50% in places. It re-occurred several times, resulting in a change in feudal practices since the manpower was no longer so available.

The towns grew, again often by monastic instigation, during this period and many fairs were started. Coal mining on the Mendips was an important source of wealth while quarrying also took place, eg near Bath.

The church was very powerful at this period, particularly Glastonbury Abbey. After their church burnt down, the monks there "discovered" the tomb of "King Arthur" and were able rebuild their church. There were over 20 monasteries, etc in Somerset at this period. Many parish churches were re-built in this period.

Early Modern

This is the period fom around 1500 to 1800. In the 1530s the monasteries were dissolved and their lands bought by various important families in Somerset from the king. From the Tudor to the Georgian times farming specialised and techniques improved, leading to increases in population though no new towns seem to have been founded. Large country houses such as at Hinton St George and Montacute were built at this time.

In the 17th century English Civil War Somerset was the site of a number of important battles between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, notably the Battle of Landsdown in 1643 and the Battle of Langport in 1645. This war resulted in many of the castles being destroyed to prevent their re-use.

In 1688, the Duke of Monmouth led the Monmouth Rebellion in which many Somerset people fought against the king at the Battle of Sedgemoor. The Bloody Assizes which followed saw the losers being sentenced to death or transportation.

The eighteenth century was largely one of peace and declining industrial properity in Somerset. The Industrial Revolution in the Midlands and Northern England spelt the end for most of the cottage industries of Somerset. However, farming continued to flourish, with the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society being founded in 1777 to improve methods. Billingsley conducted a survey of the county's agriculture In 1795 but found that methods could still be improved.

Late Modern

This is the period after 1800. A description of the county in 1911 is given in the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

During World War I many Somerset soldiers were killed and war memorials were put up in most of the towns and villages. Only a few villages escaped casualties. In World War II there were also casualties, which were added to the memorials though much fewer. During WW II the county was a base for troops prior to the D-Day landings and some hospitals still date partly from this time. In case the Germans invaded, the Taunton Stop Line was set up and the remains of the pill boxes can still be seen, as well as ones along the coast.

Somerset today has only two small cities, Bath and Wells, and only small towns in comparison with many other areas of England. Tourism is a major source of employment along the coast, in Bath and Cheddar for example. Other attractions include the seaside, Exmoor, West Somerset Railway Haynes Motor Museum and the Fleet Air Arm Museum as well as the churches and the various National Trust and English Heritage properties in Somerset.

Agriculture comtinues to be a major business, if no longer a major employer because of mechanisation. Light industries take place in many of the towns such as Bridgwater and Yeovil. The towns of Taunton and Shepton Mallett manufacture cider, though there are no longer as many apple orchards as there used to be. For descriptions of the main places in Somerset see Somerset.

The nineteenth century saw improvements to the roads of Somerset with the introduction of turnpikes, the building of canals and of railways. The usefulness of the canals was shortlived though they have now been resurrected for recreation. The railways became nationalised after WW2 and continued until 1965 when many were scrapped, though two were transferred back to private ownership as "heritage" lines.

The population of Somerset has continued to grow since 1800. particularly in the seaside towns, notably Weston Super Mare. Some population decline occurred earlier in the period in the villages but this has now been reversed.

In the late nineteenth century the boundaries of Somerset were slightly altered, but the main change came in 1974 when the county of Avon was set up. The northern part of Somerset was removed from the administrative control of Somerset County Council. On abolition of the county of Avon in 1996, these areas became separate administrative authorities, "North Somerset" and "Bath and North East Somerset".

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