A brief history of Devon, from the early settlers from Norman, Viking and Saxon invasions to the momentous remanence of a World War 2 training ground, the county of Devon has changed a lot over the years and a deep history and a prosperous future means Devon is a very fortunate county indeed. Find out what makes Devon so great and how the War, industrial change and coastal popularity impacts day to day life.
If you’ve ever visited Devon, you’ll know that it’s a place of outstanding natural beauty with the best weather in the UK, stunning coastlines, jaw-dropping views and national parks, buckets of action and adventure and more clotted cream and cider than you could ever want!
But did you know that Devon plays a key role in the history of our country?
It’s where the Stone Age people first settled in the UK, the birthplace of Sir Frances Drake and one of the holiday destinations of choice for Victorian writers like Sylvia Plath, Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie and most definitely not to be missed!
We’ve put together a quick blog to walk you through the key moments in Devonian history, from the Stone Ages to the present day. If you’d like to discover more, book your cottage stay in Devon today.
The first settlers arrived in the Oak forest that covered Dartmoor over 8000 years ago in the Stone Ages and left their mark on the local landscape with ancient stone circles and stone rows. Even today you can visit Torquay in South Devon to discover the caves at Kents Cavern where Stone Age people lived.
Later on, Neolithic people farmed and settled in the area, leaving their ancient relics, burial mounds and settlements behind until the tin, copper and lead mining during the Bronze and Iron Ages thrived.
Although the Romans didn’t impact Devon when they first arrived in AD43, they did eventually leave their mark on the city of Exeter and leave behind some impressive Roman walls.
After they left, Christianity stayed and spread across the country with numerous cathedrals, churches and monasteries built over the coming years, some of which can be visited even today.
However, it was the Celts who gave Devon its name. Research suggests that it comes from ‘dumnonii’ meaning deep valley dwellers which later evolved into the name we know today.
The Anglo-Saxons invaded from Germany and Holland in the 9th century and prevented Devon from ever being independent from England again. The biggest threat during this time was when the Vikings attempted to raid, Exeter put up an impressive fight and managed to keep them away until 1001AD when they could no longer resist and Devon fell into Viking hands.
After the Norman conquest, many of the great estates such as Plympton, Okehampton, Barnstaple, Totnes and Harberton were held, as well as Exeter Castle. Dartmoor and Exmoor became hunting preserves and eventually became deforested in 1242.
When King Henry VIII came to the throne, life in Devon underwent another change with large estates given to nobles who supported his reign.
But that’s not the only historical figure to emerge from this part of England during this time. Sir Frances Drake, the second man ever to circumnavigate the earth was born in Tavistock, Devon in 1540. He started his seafaring life early and went on to be secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I to fight against the Spanish colonies and helped defeat the Great Armada.
During this time, the Port of Plymouth rapidly became a trade hub and centre for military operations as trade and exploration grew during this time.
Life appears to have been challenging in Devon during the 17th and 18th centuries with long cold winters, smallpox epidemics, a huge number of deaths and even an earthquake in Barnstable.
By the 19th century, many had moved away and Devon’s economy relied mainly on agriculture. However, the arrival of the railways and the beautiful climate started to attract people back with rich people from the cities wanting a relaxing coastal area to escape to.
The nickname ‘English Rivera’ grew and stuck, more holiday homes appeared on the landscape and both Dartmoor and Exmoor became national parks during this time.
(Make sure you visit the incredible Tunnels Beaches when you visit Devon. They were carved in 1823 by local entrepreneurs to provide access to the sandy beaches and transformed Ilfracombe into a popular resort)
When World War II hit, Plymouth was a thriving port and one of the most valued in the whole country. That’s why it ended up being one of the most heavily bombed cities during this war with thousands of injuries, deaths and destruction. As all great cities do, it recovered quickly and rebuilt to become better than it had ever been before.
Copper mining supported the economy during this time for many years and the Devon Great Consols near Tavistock in Devon were considered the most productive in the world until it was abandoned in 1903.
These days, tourism is the mainstay of the economy and visitors from the UK and abroad continue to flock to this unspoilt gem in the English crown. When will you come and pay a visit?