The Victorium Omnium-Gatherum
Next >

Historical Events in Devonshire to 926

THE British period supplies no remarkable occurrences for the pen of the historian upon which implicit reliance be placed. We arrive, however, at length, at the era of authentic history, and have to deal with writers of credit and distinction. But the period during which the Romans occupied this island, being remarkable in general for internal tranquillity, as the power of this victorious people was too well established to admit of insurrections, this also is barren of events. However, that Devonshire was soon in the occupation of these irresistible invaders, and that Exeter was a Roman station of considerable importance, there is abundant evidence.

It has been said the Romans were instigated to their attack upon Britain by the beauty and magnificence of its' pearls, and the prospect of obtaining the valuable metals with which it was supposed to abound. The reason which Caesar himself gives, was that some of the British tribes had afforded aid to his opponents in Gaul; but the true cause was, without doubt, that boundless ambition by which he was actuated in all his proceedings. In his first attempt, having landed on the coast of Kent on the sixth of August, in the year 55 before the Christian era, according to his own account he made no advances into the country. In his second, the following year in the month of May or June, with five legions, two thousand horse, and about eight hundred ships, he crossed the Thames and took the capital of Cassibelanus, but did not penetrate further than St. Albans; and on account of the unsettled and precarious state of affairs on the continent, he was shortly compelled to return, leaving his conquests in Britain rather nominal than real. With the west of England Caesar therefore had no intercourse whatever. And on account of the subsequent civil wars in the very heart of the Roman empire, and the pacific policy of Augustus and his successor, Britain was suffered to enjoy undisturbed tranquillity for nearly a century.

No further attempt was made upon the island till A.D. 43 by Plautius the Roman general under Claudius, who was soon after followed by the emperor himself, and made important and extensive conquests in the south. After various and most destructive conflicts between the Roman legions under different commanders, and the Britons, who contended with the utmost intrepidity and desperation for their freedom and independence, it was reserved for Vespasian with Julius Agricola finally to establish the dominion of the Romans in the island.

It has been said that the Danmonii joined the Belgae, and fought with the most determined valour in their resistance to the progress of the Roman legions; nor is there any improbability in this. Geoffrey of Monmouth also relates that Exeter was besieged by Vespasian, and relieved by Arviragus, between whom and the Roman general a battle ensued, in which neither party could claim the victory; hut Geoffrey is a writer of so little credit, that no dependence can be placed on this fact. On the whole, it seems most probable that the several tribes of the Danmonii, when the neighbouring districts were subdued, finding opposition useless, submitted quietly to the Roman power, and never afterward joined in any revolt against the usurpers. The Romans therefore were under no necessity of building forts or keeping strong garrisons in this part of the country; and this may be the reason why no monuments of their power now remain, and why so little notice is taken of it by the Roman writers. And hence, perhaps, these ancient Britons might be permitted to live unmolested for some time at least under their own princes, and governed by their own laws, a privilege which we know was granted by the Romans to some other states.

At first, for 150 years, the Roman territories in Britain formed but one province: by the emperor Severus they were divided into two; and, at length, when the whole country was conquered, they were again divided into five. Danmonium, under the Roman sway, is generally spoken of as forming a part of Britannia Prima [It is thus spoken of by Richard of Cirencester.]; but, says Henry [Hist. of Brit. vol. i. p. 230.], in the most perfect state of the Roman government, it was comprehended in that province of Britain which was called Flavia Caesariensis.

That Devonshire, notwithstanding the little notice taken of it by their historians, was not undervalued or neglected by the Romans, is abundantly evident from the remains of the roads which they formed or improved, and the multiplicity of Roman coins which have been found in the county. And that Exeter was a Roman station of considerable importance, there can be no doubt. It is the last station in the west mentioned in the Itinerary of Antoninus [Iter 15. Moridum, (supposed to be Seaton,) he also mentions as another Roman station in this county.], who travelled through Britain A.D. 140, by the name of Isca Dumnuniorum. The principal Roman roads meet in it as a centre, and numerous Roman coins and some penates have been found in it. Dr. Stukeley, in his account of his visit to this city at the beginning of the last century, mentions the following remains of Roman antiquity. "Dr. Holland," he observes, "supposes the castle to have been a Roman work originally, and it is not unlikely that it was their praetorium or garrison. In Corry-lane, over-against St. Paul's church, is a little old house called King Athelstan's, said to have been his palace, built of large square stones, and circular arches over the doors: it seems to have been originally a Roman building, though other later works have been added to the doors and windows. One arch of South Gate seems to be Roman [Mr. Polwhele mentions some old Roman arches, laid open some time ago at the bridge at King's Teignton. See page 54 of this volume, (or 4to edit. p. 38).]. No doubt the walls of the city are upon the Roman foundations for the most part, and a great number of antiquities have been found here. In digging behind the Guildhall in Pancras-lane, they found a great Roman pavement, of little white square stones, eight feet deep. A pot of Roman coins of two pecks was dug up two years ago near St. Martin's church. I saw some of them in Dr. Musgrave's possession, of Gordian, Balbinus, Philippus, Julia Maesa, Geta, Gallienus, and the like. Mr. Landham, surgeon of this city, has many of them [Itinerarium Curiosum, published in 1724, p. 150.]." The subsequent account of Roman antiquities discovered at Exeter, was also read before the Antiquarian Society by the president Dr. Milles, in 1779 [Archaeologia, vol. vi. p. 1]. "Roman penates were discovered last July in digging a cellar under the house of Mr. Upham, situated in High-street at the corner of Broad Gate. They were found within a very small space, and not more than three or four feet below the present pavement of the street. They consisted of five figures, executed in a taste far superior to the generality of statues found in Britain, and therefore the workmanship of a foreign artist, and of an early period. The first is a female, the drapery having been executed with great elegance, perhaps Ceres or Fortune, but uncertain. The next, two statues of Mercury; one of them four inches and a half long, and the other four and a quarter. The fourth was a figure of Mars, or a Roman soldier, two inches and a half high; and the last only two inches and a quarter, from its delicacy and the dress of the hair, supposed to be Apollo. These penates were found surrounded by a considerable number of oyster-shells, known from their size and form to come from Budleigh. In the same mass were also various fragments of urns of different forms, sizes, colours, and kinds of earth; some of a dark brown, and others of a bright red; the latter, in particular, very highly glazed, and much adorned with fancy borders and human figures executed in very elegant taste. These were much injured, not by the workmen who found them, but at some former period. With them was found also a large Roman tile, lying on the natural earth, which was certainly not its original position. No medal or coin was found with them; but on the opposite side of the street, when the foundations of a house were dug up, two years ago, some small remains of a tessellated pavement were discovered, with a few Roman medals, one of them a Trajan, a large brass." [In a note to Jenkins's History of Exeter (page 6) it is stated that numerous Roman coins were discovered, particularly in the late alterations in the castle. They are chiefly of the later emperors: a gold one of Nero, two brass ones of Julius Csesar, and two base silver ones of Ca-rausius, are the best preserved- Some years since, in digging for the foundation of a house at the upper end of Musgrave's Alley, a colossal head of the empress Julia Donna, and an ancient lamp with a crescent embossed upon it, were found. Roman coins also, and bones of animals, have been discovered in digging the ground on St. David's-hill. And in a note (page 7,) it is stated, that Sir Lawrence Palk, Bart, discovered urns with Roman coins, in one of the barrows on the northern part of Haldon.]

Mr. Oliver [See the History of Exeter, by the Rev. George Oliver, part. i. ch. 1.] also observes, that lately coins have been found of Agrippa, Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, Aurelius, and Constantine. From all this it is evident that Exeter was a place of much importance in the latter periods of the Roman government especially.

At length, about A.D. 448, from the formidable attacks of the northern barbarians on the empire, the Romans were compelled to withdraw the legions by which Britain had been kept in subjection, and which were now become necessary to its protection, having been the masters of the island nearly four centuries. Before their departure they assisted the natives to erect anew the wall of Severus, exhorting them to arm in defence of their independence. Being freed from foreign domination, the Britons appear to have returned to their original form of government by their own princes. The Scots at that time inhabited Ireland; but the Picts, who had possession of the northern parts of Britain, taking advantage of the departure of the Romans, passed the rampart within which they had been hitherto confined, advanced southward, and made dreadful havoc in the country. The resistance of the Britons against an enemy so ferocious and determined, was too feeble to be effective. Their martial spirit, not more necessary than just in self-defence, by long and tranquil subjection to a foreign power, was entirely subdued; and the evil being greatly augmented by internal divisions, occasioned by contentions among themselves for the supreme power, their condition soon became truly deplorable. Alter repeated application to the Romans for assistance, but in vain, the unhappy Britons sunk into a state of despondency and became helpless. In this state of things, Vortigern, prince of the Danmonians, and descended probably from the ancient line of kings, his name in British signifying a chieftain, was chosen, notwithstanding his numerous vices, to the sovereignty of Britain, or had obtained it by his valour and enterprising spirit. At his instigation the Saxons were invited to their assistance in resisting these barbarians from the north of the island. No step could have been more fatal than this. The old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes, the three most powerful nations of Germany, came over, and Vortigern assigned them a situation in the east of the island. At first their services were of the greatest importance in driving the enemy back to their own territories; but at length preferring Britain to their native country, in breach of the fairest professions, they resolved to gain possession of it for themselves. After fresh reinforcements they joined the Picts and Scots in their sanguinary depredations, and eventually became the masters of those whom they had been employed to assist. After spreading devastation and ruin from one end of the island to the other, in less than a century they wrested the whole from the original and rightful possessors, with the exception of Wales, Cornwall, and part of Devonshire.

How long Exeter remained a British city is uncertain; and although the Danmonians appear to have defended their territories with great bravery and perseverance, the earliest military transaction recorded by our historians, relating to this county, is a battle, in the year 614, at Bampton (Beamdune [Sax. Chron. an. 614.]), in which Cynegilsus, king of the West Saxons, vanquished the Britons with great slaughter, the latter having lost, says the Saxon Chronicle, 2046 men.

According to Matthew of Westminster, Exeter being held by Brien, nephew of Cadwallo, the British king, was besieged by Penda, king of Mercia, in 633; and Cadwallo, who had some time before been driven from his kingdom by the Saxons, returned; and having collected an army, at the head of a thousand men appeared before the city, defeated the enemy with great slaughter, and took Penda himself prisoner, whom he retained until he had sworn allegiance to his conqueror [Lysons's Mag. Brit. vol. vi. part i.]. After this nothing of importance occurs relative to Devonshire until the invasion of the Danes.

During the Saxon Heptarchy this county was comprehended in the kingdom of Wessex, and continued to be so until the incorporation of the whole into one monarchy by Egbert.

After the union of the Heptarchy under Egbert, the prospect of prosperity and quiet was soon overclouded by the appearance of a new horde of barbarians from the north towards the close of the eighth century; namely, the Norwegian and Danish pirates, who made u conspicuous figure in the history of Europe for more than two centuries, and who were destined eventually to become the scourge of this country in particular. Their first inroads into this island were about the year 787, but on what part of the coast precisely, seems to be uncertain. From the Saxon Chronicle and Henry of Huntington, it appears "that in the reign of Bertrie, king of Wessex, the Danes landed in England from three ships, for the sake of plundering the country. Being observed by the king's chief officer of that district, he, not knowing who they were or whence they came, rode securely amongst them, and endeavoured to drive them to the king's town [cymnjer cune, Chron. Sax. an. 787. "ad regium castrum," Henry of Hunt. lib. iv. It seems scarcely worth a dispute where these savages (if this expression is admissible) first landed; but Mr. Lysons says, "Some modern writers havre supposed erroneously that the first landing of the Danes was at Teignmouth, having been led into the mistake by the similarity of the name. On consulting the ancient historians, it will be very evident that it was at Tynemouth in Northumberland, where they first landed in 787. Their first ravages were in the North of England." —Mag. Brit. vol. vi. part i. If Mr. Lysons alludes to the Saxon Chronicle, the words "king's town" are evidently not a proper name. Ingram's translation of the passage is as follows: "A.D. 787. This year king Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first 3 ships of the North-men from the land of robbers. The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king's town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation."Ingram's Saxon Chronicle.] or camp, but was immediately slain. These were the first ships of the Danes that made an attack upon the English." And hence Hume and Henry justly infer that their first attempt on this country was on the coast of Wessex.

Having made an alliance with the Britons in Cornwall, the Danes came with a fleet to that county in the year 806, and made inroads into Devonshire. They were met, however, by Egbert in person, and after a severe contest were totally defeated. But whilst England was throughout in a state of anxiety and alarm from these lawless rovers, that valiant and able monarch died, and with him the English lost their best defence.

The great Alfred had scarcely come to the throne before he was compelled to take the field against the Danes. In the year 876 these ravagers had seized upon Ware-ham in Dorsetshire, the very centre of Alfred's dominions; but this prince soon reduced them to suchi extremities, that they were glad to enter into treaty with him, gave him their best hostages, and took the oath to depart the kingdom, which was held the most sacred among northern nations, a pledge which they had never given to any nation before. Disregarding, however, all moral obligations, they suddenly fell upon Alfred's army; and having routed it, marched westward, and took possession of Exeter. In the year 877 we find them in this city again, when their fleet, sailing westward to their assistance, was wrecked in a storm, and 120 ships destroyed. An army by land at the same time, when pursued by Alfred, took refuge in the castle, where however they were soon compelled to submit, to give fresh hostages, and take a new oath, of which in this instance they were more observant [Chron. Sax. ann. 876, 877. Asserius, p. 8.].

After the Danes had left this district, and, according to their stipulations with Alfred, retired into Mercia, they again received numerous reinforcements of their countrymen, in consequence of which they ventured once more to return into Wessex, and having seized Chippenham, which was then a royal city of some importance, they overran the whole country A.D. 878 [Chron. Sax. an. 878.], spreading, as usual, devastation and misery wherever they went. The West Saxons, animated by the brave example of their king, were the last that submitted to the dominion of these unprincipled and ferocious barbarians; but in consequence of the victory just mentioned, they were at length completely dispirited, thinking it useless to contend with an enemy whom no treaties could bind, and whom nothing could restrain but superior force. Some fled into foreign countries and into Wales, others concealed themselves in the woods and forests, whilst many were compelled to submit to the conquerors. The great Alfred stood alone. Being entirely deserted, except by a small band of faithful adherents: these he was at length compelled by necessity to disband, and retired to conceal himself in the disguise of a peasant [The story of his treatment in the cottage of a neatherd appears to be true: it is related by several historians, and particularly by Asser, who might have had it from the king himself. Asscr. p. 9. Matth. West, p. 170. Chron. Sax. an. 878.].

Somersetshire being one of the counties most favourable to his interests, afforded him an asylum. Here, having collected by degrees a small but faithful company of adherents, from the place of his retreat near the junction of the Thane and Parret, which he named Athelingay, the Isle of the Nobles, now called Athelney, he made frequent excursions upon the enemy, and subsisted on the spoils; and the success which attended these adventures did not fail to inspire new hopes. In the mean time, in the winter of 878, the Danes, with Hubba for their general, having ravaged the southern shores of Wales, crossed the channel to the northern coast of Devonshire, and from twenty-three vessels landed their troops in the vicinity of Appledore.

Alarmed at this new debarcation, Oddune earl of Devonshire, and several thanes, fled for security to the castle of Kenwith. This place had at that time no fortification but a loose wall of stones, erected after the manner of the Britons; but its position on the summit of a lofty rock rendered it impregnable. Hubba did not venture to hazard an assault, but, intercepting all communication with the country, waited quietly in expectation that want of provisions and even of water would soon compel the garrison to surrender. Oddune, thus driven to the necessity of some desperate expedient, made an unexpected sally before sun-rise, fell upon the enemy's camp, slew the Danish chief himself, with twelve hundred of his men, and drove the remainder to the fleet. Among the trophies of this victory was the Reafen, the famous standard of the Raven, woven in one noon-tide, with many incantations, by the three sisters of Hubba. In this mysterious banner the superstition of the Danes led them to place implicit confidence. If it appeared, as they advanced to battle, to flap its wings, this was considered as a sure omen of victory; if it hung without motion in the air, they anticipated nothing but defeat [Lingard's Hist, of Engl. vol. ii. chap. iv. Asser. p. 30. Chron. Sax, an. 878.]. Hubba was buried on the shore, near his ships, and, according to the custom of northern nations, covered with a heap of stones; whence the spot received the name of Hubbastone. All vestiges of the tomb have been long swept away by the waves, but traces of the name remain; the spot is now called Wibblestone.

Alfred had lain secure in his retreat about twelve months, when news arrived of this prosperous event, and he lost no time in taking advantage of the favourable turn of his affairs. Leaving his retreat [Chron. Sax. an. 878. The story of Alfred's visit to the enemy's camp in the disguise of a harper, has a romantic and legendary appearance. The silence moreover of Asser on this subject, renders it very suspicious. Had the story been true, he could scarcely have failed to be acquainted with it; and had he known it, there is the greatest improbability that he would have omitted the relation of so extraordinary an occurrence.], he summoned the chiefs of his subjects with their followers, by private messengers, to meet him at Brixton on the borders of Selwood Forest in Somersetshire; where on the appointed day, near the midsummer of the year 878, considerable numbers assembled from the counties of Somerset, Wilts and Hants, elevated with joy and inspired with fresh courage by the sight of their beloved king, whom they had supposed to be dead. He conducted them without delay to the camp of the Danes, whom he attacked unexpectedly in the most unguarded quarter. The enemy, surprised at the appearance of an English army with Alfred at their head, made but a feeble resistance, and were soon completely routed with great slaughter. Alfred pursued the remainder of their forces to a fortified camp, to which they had fled for safety, where being speedily reduced to extremities, they were glad to give him hostages, and took their usual oaths to quit his territories. Guthrum, their king, offering to become a Christian, was soon afterwards baptized, with Alfred for his sponsor. As East-Anglia and Northumberland had been desolated by the Danes, Alfred appointed these districts for the residence of Guthrum and his followers; and the greater part of them settled peaceably in their new quarters [William of Malmsbury. Chron. Sax.].

We learn however from the Saxon Chronicle, that Guthrum and his successor Guthred being dead, the Danes of Northumberland and East-Anglia rose against the authority of Alfred, and an immense host of them sailing southward in about one hundred ships, landed on the coast of Devonshire and besieged Exeter, whilst a fleet of forty sail landed another swarm on the northern coast of the county. Alfred was at that time preparing to attack the Danes at Bamfleet, where another party of them had encamped; but receiving information of this event, and leaving troops in London sufficient for its defence, he marched with great expedition into the West, and came upon the enemy so unexpectedly, that they raised the siege of Exeter with precipitation, whilst Alfred pursued them to their ships with great slaughter [Chron. Sax. ann 894 & 897.]. And on the same authority we learn that in the year 897 six of their ships arriving at the Isle of Wight, proceeded to the shores of Devonshire, where they did much mischief, as well as in many other places on the southern coast; but being afterwards pursued by the king's ships, they were at length dispersed and destroyed.

Alfred, in the vigour of his age, after a life of real glory, died on the 6th of October in the year 900, or 901.

His son and successor, Edward, surnamed the Elder, in the year 918 held a wittenagemote at Exeter.

Until the reign of Athelstan the Cornish Britons had occupied the country from the Land's-End to the river Exe, and possessed one half of Exeter itself; but soon after his accession to the throne, probably about the year 926, that prince subdued and intimidated both them and the Britons in Wales. The chiefs of the latter waited upon him at Hereford, where they stipulated to confine their countrymen within the right bank of the Wye, and to pay him a yearly tribute. It appears to have been about the same time that he vanquished Howell, king of Cornwall, near Exeter, and compelled the Britons to retire beyond the Tamar, fortifying the city with a strong wall of stone, flanked by lofty towers, and encompassed with a fosse.

As he frequently honoured Exeter with his presence, it was also probably about this time that he held a wittenagemote here, as his father Edward had done before him, when he made the celebrated laws at this place, which may be seen in Brompton's Chronicle, p. 850, and in Twisden, an. 952 [Lingard's Hist. of Eng. vol i. chap. iv. Lyson's Mag Brit. vol. vi. part i. Hist. of Exeter by the Rev. G. Oliver, chap ii.]

Extracted from Moore: History of Devonshire, Volume 1, 1829

Back to contents

Further reading...

(None identified as yet)