The History of Somerset after 1066

The King and his People

Like their Saxon predecessors, medieval kings were always on the move, travelling between royal manors, living at the expense of others, and ensuring, when so much depended on the king’s personal qualities, that government was strong and effective. Somerset saw less of the French-Norman kings, for Wessex was no longer the heartland of the royal house, but Stephen was obliged to take action in the county in 1138 when loyally supported by his brother, Henry, abbot of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester, and by Robert of Lewes, bishop of Bath, he led troops against Ralph Lovel of Castle Cary, the ‘predatory and utterly unreliable’ William Mohun of Dunster, and the defenders of East Harptree castle. Bishop Robert’s men captured the rebel, Geoffrey Talbot, but the bishop himself was taken by trickery, and barely escaped with his life.

An image of an extract from the Domesday Book
Domesday Book

King John knew well how the presence of the king was vital in bolstering royal authority, and he came to Somerset at least a dozen times. In the summer of 1205, for instance, he was at Sock Dennis on 28 August. He spent part of the next day at nearby Ilchester, and then moved on to Curry Mallet, and was at Taunton on the 31st. On the next two days he was in Bridgwater, and he moved from there to Glastonbury, Wells, East Harptree, and then on to Bristol. He went to Wells at least nine times, on the first occasion in 1201 hearing cases in the assize court. Where he stayed on his journeys can only be guessed —the castles at Taunton, Bridgwater, and Harptree, the abbey at Glastonbury, and perhaps at Wells in the house of one of his clerks, Hugh of Wells.

John’s son, Henry III, spent the summer of 1250 in the West Country, coming from Sherborne to Montacute on 3 August, and moving to llchester and thence into Devon. He came back again on the 13th to Bridgwater, on. the 15th and 16th to Glastonbury, to Wells on the 17th, and Chew Magna—perhaps to the bishop’s manor house there—on the 18th. On another visit, in 1256 to Bath, he ordered one of his foreign knights, Fortunatus de Lucca, to be thrown into the baths, but afterwards he gave the man a mark to buy a new robe. During the same period King Henry’s rule in other parts of the country was challenged by Simon de Montfort and other barons, but only a few men from Somerset were involved. Some few from west Somerset followed the rebel, Adam Gurdun, constable of Dunster; Peter de Montfort and Humphrey de Bolesdun were killed at Evesham, fighting against the king; and Walter de Kent, bailiff of Taunton, Sir Ralph Bluet of Hinton Blewett, Thomas Beaufiz of Nynehead, and Brian de Gouvis of Kingsdon were all declared to be rebels.

Edward I and his queen spent Easter 1278 at Glastonbury, where Abbot John Taunton showed them the remains of Arthur and Guinevere, which were then solemnly placed in wooden chests by the high altar. In December 1285 Edward spent a few days at Queen Camel and Somerton, both estates belonging to the queen. Some of his most prominent ministers had Somerset connections: Robert Bumell was Chancellor of England from 1274 until 1292, and Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1275; he died at Berwick in 1292, where Edward was deciding between the rival claimants to the throne of Scotland. Burnell was followed in office by John de Langton, Treasurer of Wells, at whose house in Martock the Great Seal of England was kept in 1297 when he went abroad. Two later bishops of Bath and Wells also served Edward I, William of March as Treasurer of England (1290-95), and John Droxford as Keeper of the Wardrobe (1295-1309).

A royal visit in the long reign of Edward III brought the king and queen from Wareham to Glastonbury in December 1331, and three days later to Wells. There they spent Christmas and the New Year at the bishop’s palace, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury having to move out to Wookey to make room for the royal household.

By the mid 14th century the king’s rule and the king’s justice were being administered through a complicated system of courts and officers, both central and local, which in 1381 had to withstand serious revolt in many parts of England. Only 14 Somerset people were apparently implicated, including Thomas Engilby, a hosier, a scrivener, a weaver, a sheathmaker, and a soothsayer. Engilby and his men went on the rampage in Bridgwater and llchester, attacking the Master of St John’s hospital, Bridgwater, John Sydenham of Sydenham and James Audley, and destroying their estate records as their fellow revolutionaries attacked landlords in other parts of the country. They beheaded two men in Bridgwater and put their heads on spears on the town bridge.

There seems to have been some sympathy in the county for the Welsh rebels under Owen Glendower, and hundreds of sheep and cattle were somehow collected at Banwell, but were found by the sheriff before they were embarked at Clevedon. It was probably not very serious when Canon Richard Bruton publicly declared at Wells in 1415 that he supported the plot against the life of Henry V and was prepared to spend £6,000 to depose him. The story was put about by John Williams of Cardiff, but apparently no action was taken against him.

The breakdown of law and order under Henry VI was at least in part the consequence of the king’s own personality. Effective government was impossible in the hands of a pious weakling who, when he visited Bath in 1449, was embarrassed by the mixed nude bathing insisted upon by enterprising locals. County rivalries fed on national politics. In 1451 the earl of Devon, supporting the duke of York’s claim to power, left Taunton with a force of 5,000 men to attack the loyalist earl of Wiltshire in east Somerset and then return to lay siege to Taunton castle, defended by the Lancastrian Lord Bonville. Bonville surrendered to the duke of York after three days, but the rivalry continued, and bands of men supporting Devon and York appeared in 1452 at Yeovil, Ilminster, and Broadway.

A few years of Yorkist rule could not repair the damage to royal government, and Edward IV found himself challenged by Warwick the Kingmaker and his own brother (and possible replacement), George, duke of Clarence. As he pursued them from York he came to Wells on 11 April 1470, to find that the rebels had already left for Exeter and France. All, friend and foe, made offerings at the cathedral or at the dean’s chapel, and the receiver, recording their generosity, was careful to describe both the king and his brother as ‘illustrious’, a sensible precaution in such uncertain times. Indeed, Clarence was back at Wells within a year, staying at the bishop’s palace as he raised troops for the restored Henry VI.

Henry VII understood how important was the constant presence of an effective king. He was at Wells in 1491 with a retinue which included Archbishop Morton, and was there again in 1497 in the aftermath of the Warbeck rebellion. His stay at the newly-built deanery may have been an honour for Dean Gunthorpe, but the citizens of Wells had to produce over 313 in fines for their disloyalty in giving countenance to the rebel. One of the last royal visitors to Somerset in the medieval period must have been the young Catherine of Aragon, on her way from Plymouth to marry Prince Arthur in 1501. She stayed overnight in Crewkerne, probably in the home of Richard Surland, one of the town’s three parsons, and sub-dean of the chapels royal. Surland’s successor, Christopher Plummer, was later to be Catherine’s chaplain, and spent some months in the Tower of London for taking her part in the great question of the king’s divorce.

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Government, at home and abroad, needed money, and the demands of medieval kings took cash from purses, corn from barns, and men from their homes. Taxation records are as useful to historians as they were to the collectors, as lists of names of villagers, and the unpopular poll taxes are, where they survive, the best guide both to total population and to the rich and poorer quarters of our towns. Military service and the direction of labour obviously affected fewer people, but the exactions of the royal victuallers, searching not always scrupulously for supplies for troops, were hard to bear in a subsistence economy.

Edward I’s campaign in West Wales in 1277 called only 11 knights and four sergeants from the county, but Bridgwater mariners were involved in taking food to the troops. A few men were summoned to Rhuddlan in 1282, and to Carmarthen in 1283, and Bridgwater and Dunster men were called for help to raise a fleet against France in 1295 and 1297. A scheme to raise one foot soldier from each township against the Scots in 1311 was probably abandoned, but Somerset and Dorset together had to supply 2,000 quarters of wheat for the campaign. Stephen le Blund was commissioned for a similar task in 1316, finding supplies for the men fighting the rebel, Llewellyn Bren, in Glamorgan. In 1322 the county was required to find as many as 2,000 men.

Unknown numbers fought for Edward III in France or defended their country at home, and ships from Somerset ports transported troops and provisions, engaged in piracy, and fought in more conventional engagements at sea. Sir Ralph of Middlleney served under Somerset’s most distinguished military leader, William de Montacute, earl of Salisbury, in France in 1338, and then returned to reveal bad habits in public life. John de Ralegh of Nettlecombe was pardoned in 1347 for ‘departing from the army overseas’ without permission. Much more respectable was Sir Peter Courtenay of East Coker, who was knighted by the Black Prince in Spain in 1366, but was captured by the Spanish and held to ransom when the fleet was destroyed in 1369. John de la Mare of Nunney is said to have built his castle there in the 1370s from the profits of war, and to have modelled it on the Bastille in Paris; and Sir Matthew Gournay, buried with great magnificence in the now vanished castle chapel at Stoke sub Hamdon, made his name and fortune by his sword. He it was who in 1393 agreed to employ Simon de Ralegh of Nettlecombe and an archer as part of the contingent he took under John of Gaunt to Guienne. A bond in £40 ensured that Matthew would be compensated should Simon behave like his father had done.

In the Agincourt campaign Henry V was ably served by Sir Hugh Luttrell of Dunster, Lieutenant of Harfleur, who had already served the Crown in Ireland, and against Owen Glendower in Wales. Sir Walter Hungerford of Farleigh Hungerford fought at Agincourt and was later admiral of the fleet. Sir Edward Hull of Enmore served Henry VI in France and was given the Garter for his loyalty, but he probably fell at the battle of Chastillon in 1453. These were the leaders; their men, willing or reluctant, are less easy to trace. An expedition to France under Edward IV in 1475 proved unfortunate for Roger Wylly of Tenby, for he was taken prisoner and held to ransom. The money was evidently handed over by Watkyn Dolyng, a Taunton merchant. Wylly seems to have tried to suggest that Dolyng had put the money into his own pocket, but was forced to confess in 1480 at Taunton, before the ecclesiastical authorities, that the money, 100 crowns as the first instalment and £25 13s. 4d. of the remainder, had been duly paid.

Home defence was clearly safer, but no less onerous. Commissions of array were issued for almost every crisis, and in 1377 a system of beacons was established to warn against enemy invasion. Henry V’s campaign in Normandy in 1415 and again in 1418 put particular strains on defence, and even the clergy were summoned to resist, as the royal chancery declared, ‘the malice of the enemies of the realm and church of England’. The ‘able and fencible’ clergy were thus arrayed, and Bath and Wells diocese produced 60 fully armed men, 830 archers, and 10 hoblars in 1415, and slightly fewer in 1418.

Shipping could be impressed at any time. One ship and 15 men from Bridgwater took part in the expedition which ended victoriously at Crecy. In 1374, 54 seamen were taken from the port to serve on the 170-ton Bridgwater vessel the St Marie in the royal fleet forming at Plymouth; in the next year she went down in the disaster at Bourgneuf Bay, and the St Marie of Dunster went down with her.

At home, too, the royal purveyors could do their worst. In 1402 Richard Bretell went to Brentmarsh claiming to have the king’s commission, and relieved the locals of cash and food worth £10. Thomas Gese, a Wells baker, found himself defending Cardiff castle when it fell about the same time, but his commercial instinct came to the fore. He bought a small boat from the rebels, loaded it with lead and metal vessels amounting ‘to a great price and value’, together with six great wax tapers, and brought them home. He and the boat were arrested at Biddesham, but overnight both he and the contents vanished into the mists. Perhaps more serious were the accusations against Sir William Bonville, John Frome, Sir Thomas Brooke, and Sir Peter Courtenay, commissioned in 1406 to find supplies for the army in Wales. Two years later, when two of them were dead, they were accused of raising 233 quarters of oats, 102 quarters of wheat, 30 quarters of beans, 29 ‘tonells’ of ale, and 7 ‘tonells’ of wine, the whole costing £132. There was said still to be cash in hand, and one William Corewyll had to explain how he had been given cash for wine, ale, and corn. He claimed he brought them to the late John Frome at Bridg­water, and that they were loaded into Thomas Somer’s boat le Cog John, and delivered to the earl of Somerset, the bishop of Bath and others at Carmarthen. The Exchequer eventually accepted that story, but wanted to know what had happened to a further £16 which he had been given.

Military service, taxation and occasional oppression were the lot of many during the Middle Ages, and direction of labour was not uncommon. But in a society where many were tied for life to lord and land, such direction was freedom. Somerset masons were sent to build the castle at Aberystwyth in 1283-4; Simon the Armurer, Heremann the German, and others, the king’s Devon miners, were sent to search for silver at Dulverton and Brushford in 1312. Here were perhaps welcome opportunities of changed horizons. What new skills and styles might craftsmen not bring back, to use in manor house and parish church? What new words and phrases might they not adopt or share while serving king and country overseas?