Some two and a half centuries elapsed between the end of Roman rule and the arrival of the Saxons in Devon. In this period the native Celtic population had been thinned by plague (a particularly bad one being reported about 540) and by a migration to Brittany sufficiently large to have given it the name it has held ever since. Those remaining had mostly been christianised in the sixth century by Welsh, Irish and Breton missionaries, whose names survive in some fifty Devon parishes (and many more in Cornwall). Fragmented under a petty aristocracy, and only loosely under the control of kings based in Cornwall, they were by the seventh century ill-placed to resist the Saxon advance when it at length came; Place names in Devon, compared with Somerset and Dorset, probably reflects depopulation.
There was plenty of land which new settlers could take without the need to fight for it. When Wessex lost its lands north of the Thames to Mercia, and looked for compensation elsewhere, the frontier barrier of Seiwood Forest was at last broken by the Penseiwood victory of 658 and the westward movement began in earnest. Somerset and Dorset fell rapidly into Saxon hands, and the penetration of Devon by settlers moving into, the Cuim Valley and along the Roman road from the eastern border soon followed. The red earth lands of the Exe valley were an obvious attraction, and Exeter seems to have been occupied without a struggle. It had an English abbot by 680.
In 682, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states, King Centwine ‘drove the Britons as far as the sea’, which implies the overrunning of the county as far as the Atlantic coast. Two ridgeway routes are possible for this campaign.— either across Exmoor to Braunton or via Okehampton to Hartland, and the latter seems more probable. Early English place-names across the Tamar indicate settlement overflowing into North Cornwall. In the south, however, it is possible that the Britons for a time managed to hold the line of the Teign, and the name Denbury -‘fort of the Dumnonii’ suggests that they reoccupied this stronghold to guard the Roman road towards Totnes.
The last stage was marked by King Ine’s victory in 710, probably near Lifton on the ridgeway route into Cornwall, which for a time opened up land as far as the Lynher to Saxon settlers. The coming of the English to Devon should be seen rather as a matter of pioneer settlement than a military conquest, with fighting necessary only when Celtic kings and nobles made an occasional stand. Most of the Britons no doubt stayed quiet on their farms and tried to avoid trouble.
The new settlers were great axe-men, and began in earnest clearing the valleys and gradually carving farms out of forest and waste, helped by a change to a comparatively warm and dry climate. They founded large villages, with cultivated strips in open fields such as that which, in part, still survives at Braunton (see Chapter 5). Many hamlets and isolated farms were established where land was plentifül but poor and cultivation was in separate plots from the outset.
Shortly before their arrival the Saxons had been converted to Christianity, but it took centuries for the parish system as we know it to be completed. The first step to put preaching and the Sacraments within reach of a scattered rural population was the establishment of Minsters -mother churches staffed by a body of priests and each serving a wide area. Crosses of wood or stone were set up in the localities, where a priest from the Minster officiated from time to time. Such churches have been definitely identified at Axminster, Colyton, Cullompton, Exminster, Hartland, Plympton and Yealmpton; and there were certainly more – perhaps one to each ‘Hundred’ (see Chapter 6). Local parishes were gradually carved out of Minster territory, as thegns built (mostly wooden) churches, but not till after the Norman Conquest did Minsters finally lose their function with the completion of the parish system. A bishop’s see at Sherborne was founded in 705 for the new lands west of Seiwood, and in 909 this was divided to provide a separate bishop, based on Crediton, for Devon and Cornwall. For a time later the Cornish had a bishop of their own at St Germans, but Crediton again included Cornwall before the see was transferred to Exeter in 1050.
Though Devon lay off the main lines of Viking invasion, it was repeatedly raided and sometimes invaded in force during the two long Danish Wars. The first Viking appearance was in 838, when they joined forces with the Cornish who were still smarting from their defeat at Galford Down, Lew Trenchard, thirteen years before. This odd alliance was wrecked by King Egbert at Hingston Down near Callington, across the Tamar. In 851 Danish raiders were defeated by the local fyrd (militia) at Weekaborough near Paignton, and for some time the county had peace while Viking efforts were concentrated elsewhere.
The first big invasion came in 876, when Guthrum’s host, who had given their word to leave Wessex after Alfred blockaded them at Wareham, instead moved into Devon and occupied Exeter throughout the winter. Fortunately the ships supporting them had mostly been destroyed by storm near Swanage, and, the next summer they were obliged to leave again for Gloucester. The final campaign which saved Wessex was fought further eastwards; but meanwhile a force in twenty-three longships attacked North Devon from across the Bristol Channel, and was completely routed at Countisbury (or possibly Kenwith).
In the breathing space which followed Alfred’s great victory of 878 at Edington, burhs (permanent forts) were organised throughout Wessex as refuges and centres of resistance. Devon had four—originally Exeter, Lydford, Haiwell and Pilton. The last two occupied existing Iron Age defences; and Lydford required only a rampart to protect the single approach to its promontory site. At Exeter the Roman city walls were repaired. Each perch (51 yards or 5 metres) of rampart was reckoned to need four men for its defence, and areas of the county were attached to each burh to supply a man from each ‘hide’ of land for defence and repair.
When properly maintained, the system worked well; and attacks on Exeter and Pilton in 893 were beaten off. Haiwell and Pilton were not, well placed to develop as centres of trade and town life, and they were soon replaced respectively by Totnes and Barnstaple as defended sites where traders could keep their goods in safety and organise their commerce. So could they in Exeter, but Lydford was too remote to become much of a trading. centre and real town. In Exeter, Barnstaple and Totnes (and briefly in Lydford) there were moneyers striking the excellent silver penny coinage, under close control from London where they had to appear and collect their dies. Each coin bore the name of the maker and the town as well as, on the other side, that of the king, so any sharp practice by a moneyer could be detected and heavily punished. By the late Saxon period real town life was again emerging in three Devon centres – all accessible by water and well placed for trade.
The Second Danish War of Etheired’s reign hit Devon harder than the First. Though the thegns of the county fought off attacks in 988 with famous gallantry, the breakdown of national resistance, through lack of leadership, left the way clear for others. In 997 the Danes destroyed Tavistock Abbey and plundered inland until checked at Lydford; and’ in 1001 they ravaged the lower Teign, were beaten off at Exeter, but defeated the local fyrd outside the walls at Pinhoe. Two years later Exeter was betrayed to them by Queen Emma’s French steward, and sacked. Drastic as it was, the damage was local, and wooden buildings cou1deasily be replaced,. though the monastery there never fully recovered. There was no permanent check to the development of either the city or the county.
In the four centuries between the arrival of the Saxons and the Norman Conquest, nearly all the present villages and most of the hamlets had been founded. Settlement was still far from complete; but the foundations of Devon, as distinct from Celtic Dumnonia, had been solidly laid by generations of patient pioneering effort.