3. The Early Town; Saxons and Normans

The arrival of the ‘Saxons’ in Britain

In the c.440sAD post-Roman Britain was once again changed by the arrival of peoples from Europe. These were a diverse group of Germanic tribes known by their broad geographical origin, as the Angles (from south Denmark/Northern Germany) Jutes (Denmark), Frisians (Netherlands) and the Saxons (north Germany). These Germanic migrants arrived not in a single invasion force but through a long drawn out process of migration and settlement over time, which started most likely with small groups of traders and mercenaries.

Gildas a 6th century (482-570AD) monk from northern Britain, wrote extensively of this period of Saxon takeover in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (translation: The Ruin and Conquest of Britain). Gildas records that large areas of south-eastern England were handed over to ‘Saxons’ in exchange/payment for providing military protection from attacks from other raiders. This type of settlement-protection treaty was known as a foedus. This process was common in Northern European former Roman colonies, Franks and Visigoths also settling in new areas for similar reasons.

Once established, the Saxons began to pressure for more money, treasure and land to continue to provide the required protection; this inevitably led to clashes with the British population. The first historic mentions of a soldier, called Arthur, leading an army against the Saxons, was by the monk Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum (translation: History of Britain) in the 9th century (800AD). Nennius associated the legendary Arthur with this period of 6th century war between European settlers and native population. Interestingly, Arthur is not recorded as a king in these early accounts but as the equivalent of a modern General, in charge of troops and strategy.

The diverse European settlers who co-mingled with the Romano-British populations eventually took over more areas and created their own blended culture, later developing the united ‘kingdom’ of England. The Germanic migrants cultural origins lay in the common pre-Roman European cultures with a re-flourishing of ‘Celtic’ art similar to that seen in the pre-Roman Iron Age. There was also an initial return to pagan naturalised religions.

Christianity then slowly spread through the Saxon kingdoms dependent on the character of the various rulers, largely due to influence from Irish and Scottish missionaries, throughout the 7th century.

Writing and records from the Saxon period are generally rare but epic poetry like that of Beowulf described the myths and legends of this period and the monk Venerable Bede who
lived and worked in Northumbria wrote his extensive Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, recording significant events, which is one of our primary sources.

The main Saxon Kingdoms which formed were; Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia, Sussex, Essex, Kent, Northumbria and Strathclyde. Wales remained independent as a British kingdom as did Cornwall, known as ‘West Wales’, Galloway in the north and northern Scotland, as well of course as Ireland.

Conquest of Devon

Devon held out against the Saxon migrations for almost 200 years longer than other regions but in 682AD the Anglo-Saxon chronicle documents Centwine, King of the West Saxons, ‘drove the Britons to the sea’ which has always been interpreted as pushing west to the Atlantic coast, although this can in no way be confirmed. We do know Exeter and East and South Devon had been occupied by the later 600s and there was a Saxon Bishop recorded in Exeter by 680AD.

More definitively in 710AD King Ine of the Kingdom of Wessex, drove out the Dumnonii tribes from North Devon and North-east Cornwall via a huge battle near Lifton and brought the land into the new powerful Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The Tamar becoming the border.

In 802AD King Ecgberht (Egbert) of Wessex in the Charter of Glastonbury granted 5 manses of land to the abbey as a gift from his estates on the ‘Toric’. Suggesting there may already have been a royal estate or significant settlement in this area by this date.

In 937AD King Athelstan (grandson of King Alfred and the first king of England, of the united ӕnglish peoples) grants the Priory at Bodmin the ownership of, or rights to his lands/manor on the Toric in a charter. This tells us that the manor or estate was directly held by the Saxon crown in this period. Athelstan may already have been ill by this time and such a gift would have meant the monks would have prayed for his soul, he died in 939AD.

Saxon Torrington

Torrington would have developed from a village into a noble’s estate, with a settlement at its edge, with scattered farms around. It then grew into a defended town, in response to the threat from Viking invaders in the 800s and 900s. The name in Old English is Torictun, which loosely translated means ‘settlement on the rough or violent river’.

By the 1000s Torictun was again owned by a member of the Saxon royal family, a powerful Theygn (Thane) and court advisor, called Beorhtric (Brictric), who was an Earl. He was a distant cousin to King Edward the Confessor, of House Wessex, for his religious piety. Beorhtric was very wealthy landowner and owned estates in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. His largest estate was at Tewkesury. Beorhtric sister was married to Gruffydd, the King of Wales. Beorhtric would have had a grand ‘Hall’ at Torrington, in a prominent place on the hilltop. He would have visited but not lived in the town, having a Steward run the estate.

In 1050 Beorhtric was sent to be emissary/ambassador to the court of King Baldwin of Flanders by his cousin King Edward to seek an alliance. Here he met the young Duke of Normandy (the eldest illegitimate son, of the former Duke Robert) who was ironically on his way to England to stay with King Edward.

An early medieval Love Triangle!! Beorhtric was noted to be a handsome man, a great warrior and educated courtier; he had acquired quite the reputation in Christian northern Europe and Matilda, King Baldwin’s eldest daughter fell in love with him, whilst he was at the court and sought to marry him. Despite Matilda’s affections her father was not keen, as although of Royal blood, Beorhtric was only an Earl. The other issue was that Beorhtric was in love and engaged to an English Saxon girl Godgifu. The marriage could not go ahead and despite Matilda’s protestations Beorhtric would not accept her offer. Rejected, an angry Matilda went on to marry William the Bastard (of Normandy) the next year, in 1051. We don’t know how happy this marriage was at first but it seems eventually it became a strong partnership.

In 1066 William, by then Duke of Normandy, having inherited from his father, invaded England having been promised the throne by his cousin King Edward. Against all odds the Saxon army, led by the new Saxon King Harold, another Earl marched up to the north to meet an invading army of Vikings and then marches south again non-stop. The two armies met on the south-east coast near Hastings and William defeated the exhausted Saxon army. The Normans pushed on to conquer the whole country and suppress Saxon rebellions.

Beorhtric was one of the English royal family and powerful Earls almost instantly taken prisoner, captured on his estates near Tewskesbury. Beorhtric was locked up in the castle dungeons in Winchester, the former royal capital of Saxon England at Matilda’s request, where he was rumoured to have been starved to death in prison in revenge. Whilst it makes sense that the Normans would have pursued potential Saxon rebels or claimants to the crown, Matilda also went after Godgifu and Beorhtrics children, stripping them of all of their estates and land. Godgifu managed to keep a small number of estates in Devon, although not Torrington.

In 1068 William gave the ‘manor’ of Torrington and its lands to his half-nephew Odo Fitz-Gamellin. Odo was the son of William’s brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, (who supposedly commissioned the famous tapestry. The Saxon Hall was replaced by Odo in 1090 by a small motte and bailey castle built on top of the earlier estate administrative centre, which was a typical Norman style of fortification. This was intended to monitor the valley and to
dominate the local populations, to establish his new rule of the area.

In the 1086 Domesday Book land survey of England was made twenty years after the invasion, as the Normans wanted to record all land ownership as both a form of control and to allow for taxation to raise money. Surveyors were sent all across the country to every manor to record the number of households, number of slaves and serfs, ploughs, ie farm land and animals.

Toritone (Torintone) is recorded as having 95 households. This makes it one of the larger 20% of towns in England at the time. In contrast London, by then the capital had only 204 households! In total the population of England would have been about 1.2million, or the equivalent to the modern population of the city of Birmingham today!!

School resources

Devon County Council – Teaching Resources for Post-Roman Devon

BBC Teaching Resources – School Radio – Anglo Saxons – King Arthur Song
A different and fun way for kids to explore this period of history through music and drama, includes music sheets and lyrics etc

Link to PDF Teachers notes:

Link to Lyrics:

Link to PDF Music Sheets

English Heritage Anglo Saxon and Norman Teaching Resources – lots of activity sheets and downloadable info

How to make an Anglo-Saxon style pot – secondary education and adult learning physical crafting activity and example images of pots – Wessex Archaeology

Link to School History website – worksheets and resources on the Norman Conquest

Further reading

Great Torrington’s entry in the Domesday Book as ‘Toritone’.
The manor was so large there were three ‘lords’ that were in control of different areas of it.

In addition – link to image of actual page –

Online access via ‘Internet Archive’ to Devonshire Association Journal – 1877
The Saxon Conquest of Devonshire

BBC History – Athelstan biography

Link to English Monarchs website – Athelstan biography

Link to Encyclopedia Britannica entry for the Norman invasion

English Heritage – Norman Conquest information and resources and historic-related sites

William the Conqueror – biography – British Library