This is a further part in a series about the history of the former hamlet of King’s Tamerton, in St. Budeaux, Plymouth, Devon. Earlier parts in the series focused on specific points in the hamlet’s pre-history, including:
- Part 1: Definitions of King’s Tamerton
- Part 2: Roman Origins
- Part 3: The Legend of Tamaris
- Part 4: Stone Age to Iron Age
410 AD is a key date in British history, although it does not share the same widespread currency of other important milestones, such as 1066, 1815 or 1945. However, it is vital in understanding the change that happened on these islands, for 410 is the date often cited as when the Roman Empire decided to pull out its forces from Britain. This led to widespread transformation of politics, culture, and society.
Historians have noted how Roman rule did not disappear quickly but rather over the length of decades. The empire had become weak due to internal struggles and facing foes on its borders, particularly in the modern-day region of Germany. It was not able to maintain control in Britain, and so the decision was made to withdraw and to retrench.
In the late 300s AD, troops were reduced from northern England, which led the British to take the decision to arm themselves for protection against numerous threats. Emperor Honorius told them to do as such, noting how the British had to ‘look to their own defences’ because the empire was no longer able to do so. This signified a new era in which Roman control was no longer guaranteed.
The Romans left a void in which powerful Germanic tribes were able to fill. By the 440s the Anglo-Saxons arrived in southern England, thereby initiating a period of dominance that would last for hundreds of years. This gives rise to the name of the period from 410 to 1066(ish) as being Saxon England.
The Saxons deemed the British Isles suitable and ripe for settlement. They were one of many other German tribes, including the Angles, the Frisians, and the Jutes. Over time different kingdoms were created by these tribes, including the Kingdom of Essex (by the East Saxons); Middlesex (the Middle Saxons); Sussex (by the Southern Saxons), and Wessex (by the West Saxons). During the reign of Alfred the Great in the late 800s, the Wessex kingdom eclipsed their rivals, leading to a unification of a larger English state.
It is uncertain as to how this transformation impacted the area of King’s Tamerton. J.B. Davidson notes how ‘the date the Anglo-Saxons began to settle in Devon is uncertain’, whereas Sellman (1985, p.15) believes that there was quite a large span of time – ‘two and a half centuries…between the end of Roman rule and the arrival of the Saxons in Devon’. Sellman argues that the region was impacted by plague and depopulation, and that many in Devon were ‘fragmented under a petty aristocracy, and only loosely under the control of kings based in Cornwall’ (p.16). These kings were most likely those within the Dumnonia sphere of influence who inhabited Devon and Cornwall during this millennium.
Eventually, the Wessex kingdom stretched deep into the west-country, far from its central base around Winchester. Davidson notes how Wessex raids could have began as early as the 660s, and how in 710 King Ine ‘defeated the last recorded independent King in Devon’. The Saxons fought against the so-called ‘West Welsh’; ‘Welsh’ meant foreigner, and ‘West’ distinguished them from those in Wales itself. King Egbert (ruler from 802-839) waged war against these ‘West Welsh’, and it is possible that these campaigns (between 813 and 825) reduced the kingdom of the Dumnonians to vassal status.
However, Wessex kings could not easily depend on the loyalty from those in the west. In 838, Egbert needed to put down a rebellion in which the ‘West Welsh’ united with the Danes; the climatic battle happened at Hingston Down, Cornwall (20 miles north of King’s Tamerton). The Dumnonians appear to have made several other alliances with the Danish invaders, perhaps in an attempt to unseat the power of the Saxons in the region. However, once again, the Cornish were defeated, notably with the death – through drowning – of King Donyarth in 875. By the end of this century the Kingdom of Wessex held great influence in the area around the Plymouth region, and by 937 the Cornish border was clearly established on the River Tamar by King Athelstan. Payton (2004) notes how the Anglo-Saxons now dominated the region, with Cornwall being reduced to a ‘satellite status as an appendage of the emergent English state’.
Throughout this period nothing is known of the hamlet of King’s Tamerton. However, Sellman (1985) believes that four centuries between the rise of the Saxons and the Norman Conquest of 1066 was important due to ‘nearly all the present villages and most of the hamlets’ of Devon being founded (p.17). King’s Tamerton is likely to have been one of these newly founded places, due to the arrival of Saxons and the growth of their population during this period. As Sellman notes:
‘the foundations of Devon, as distinct from Celtic Dumnonia, had been solidly laid by generations of patient pioneering effort’.
Intriguingly, Sellman’s book provides a map in his section about Saxon England (p.15). It includes an indication of ‘some larger early villages’, with such notable places of Exeter and Plympton mentioned. The area around Plymouth is empty, as is to be expected, however, the place-name of ‘Tamerton’ is noted. The placement is not entirely clear, however, it is highly likely that Sellman meant this ‘Tamerton’ to be Tamerton Foliot, rather than King’s Tamerton. Although it does the raise question: what was happening to our hamlet during these centuries.
King’s Tamerton itself lies on the Tamar River, thereby on the Cornish-Devon border. If the settlement evolved during the early part of this millennium – say in the 500s or 600s – it is likely to have been a place developed by the Dumnonians, who were in control of the region during that period. However, if the settlement developed later – in the 800s or 900s – then it is more likely to have been an Anglo-Saxon settlement.
Either way, the establishment of the Cornish border in 937 seems to have clearly placed a divide between the Celtic peoples (the Cornish) and the Saxons. As such, even if the hamlet of King’s Tamerton was initially created by Dumnonians, it became a Saxon hamlet by the end of this period.
Recent studies on genetics in the west-country region is revealing. It has shown that Devon is ‘markedly distinct’ from Cornwall, and that Devon itself was distinct from the rest of England. The reasons behind this have been explained by Oxford University research Walter Bodmer, who argues that the Anglo-Saxons ‘contributing less DNA to the gene pool in Cornwall than in Devon’ (University of Oxford, 2015). This explains the thinning-out of the Saxon advance into the west-country, with it being less formidable in Devon, and then even less so in Cornwall. Furthermore, the divide between Cornwall and Devon matches the modern-day border of the Tamar River; the very same border established by King Athelstan. As such, it appears, then, that the area around King’s Tamerton is one that shares ancestral links with the Dumnonians and the Saxons, but that the ‘West Welsh’ influence receded after King Athelstan’s border ruling.
By the end of this millennium (1000 AD), the hamlet was under an English sphere of influence – both politically and socially. As such, we can speculate as to what life may have been like here during this period.
Archaeologist John Blair (2014) has commented as to how:
‘Compared with the Roman, Norman, and Angevin periods, Anglo-Saxon activity lay very lightly on the landscape: houses were short-lived and timber, boundaries were marked by fences or relatively slight ditches, and household goods were made largely of textile, wood, and leather’.
In terms of the layout of this hamlet, we have the modern landscape to help us: the hills on which King’s Tamerton rests remains a defining feature today, just as it was back in the Saxon period. However, Blair argues that the notion of a medieval English village – ‘with linear house-plots and houses grouped tightly along street-frontages’ – was actually ‘introduced no earlier than the 11th century, and probably after the Norman Conquest’. So, perhaps instead of this preconceived idea of medieval life, the reality was that the area of Plymouth may have simply consisted of a collection of ‘spaced-out farmsteads’, of which King’s Tamerton was one.
These areas of land were politically administered in the form of manors, which were an area of land under the control of a lord. Land was rented by the lord to peasants, and in return – as part of the wider feudalist structure – the peasants produced crops or provided service to the lord (such as working on the lord’s farmland or by fighting for him in battle). This system became dominant for centuries during the Middle Ages, as will be covered in further detail in a later segment of this series.
In summary, the Saxon period appears to have been an incredibly important one for the birth and development of the hamlet of King’s Tamerton. If we discount the speculation of the myth of Tamaris, then it is likely that King’s Tamerton came into being during the period in which Dumnonian rule receded. By the end of the first millennium AD, King’s Tamerton was an established manor in the local region. The subsequent centuries during the medieval age would witness the growth of this small hamlet, as will be uncovered in further posts.
Blair, John (2014) ‘Exploring Anglo-Saxon Settlement’. Available at: https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/exploring-anglo-saxon-settlement.htm (Accessed: 15 October 2021).
Davidson, J.B. (1877) ‘The Saxon Conquest of Devonshire’. Transactions of the Devon Association, 1877, Vol. IX, pp.198-221. Available at: https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/DEV/History/HistoryBooks/Davidson1877 (Accessed: 15 October 2021).
Payton, Philip (2004) Cornwall: A History. UK: Cornwall Editions.
Sellman, R.R. (1985) Aspects of Devon History. Devon: Devon Books.
University of Oxford (2015) ‘Who do you think you really are? A genetic map of the British Isles’. Available at: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-03-19-who-do-you-think-you-really-are-genetic-map-british-isles (Accessed: 15 October 2021).