BRANSCOMBE PARISH

The Roman, Saxon and Viking Eras


The Dumnonii had a settlement on the present site of Exeter, called Caer Isc, or Isca, after the river which flowed around its southern boundary. "Isc" was a general word meaning fresh flowing water, the word whiskey is derived from the same root, as are the modern names of the River Exe, Exmouth and Exeter. "Caer" means a stronghold, or fortified camp. The Roman civilisation was not unknown in Caer Isc. In common with many communities along the south English and Cornish coast, the Dumnonii had traded with the Roman Empire as early as 160 BC. There was an established trade route to and from the Mediterranean via Brittany, which remained open throughout the Roman military expansion into Gaul (France), and eventually Britain.

In 43 AD, the emperor Claudius gave the order to invade Britannia. The conquest was devastatingly swift. Within four years, a branch of the great military road called the Fosse Way had reached Axmouth, five miles east of Branscombe, and by 50 AD the Roman headquarters for the south-west had been established at Isca Dumnoniorum, the new Roman name for Exeter. The Roman city covered nearly a hundred acres, bounded by a wall which can still be seen today, and which defined the size of Exeter for the next 1800 years. The Celts, now called Britons, were subjugated, but allowed to continue with their language and customs. In fact, there was a section of Exeter called Britayne where it is said the Celtic tongue was still spoken as late as the thirteenth century.

Very little evidence of the Roman occupation has been found so far in Branscombe. Leaving aside for the moment the problem of Berry Camp, which may be Roman but seeems more likely to belong to the Iron Age period, the main relic may be the northern line of the parish boundary, which is generally referred to as the Fosse, but has yet to be proved to be a Roman road at all. The present route of the A3052 from Sidford to Colyford is far from a straight line, but there would appear to be few options that wouldn't involve extraordinary feats of engineering, as the route follows a ridge top, with deep combes on either side. Although the Romans preferred to construct their military roads in a straight line, they did compromise when the terrain dictated.

The only Roman buildings so far found in east Devon are close to the line of this road at Honeyditches, overlooking Seaton, which may strengthen claims it's a coastal branch of the Fosse Way, providing a short-cut between the important Roman port of Axmouth and Exeter. There is quite likely to have been a prehistoric ridge-way along this route anyway, and perhaps the Romans used it as a by-road, without going to the trouble of creating an Imperial-standard all-weather road.

In Branscombe parish itself, a Roman brooch was discovered in the ground near Berry Barton. On another occasion, a Roman coin of Victorinus (261-257 BC) was found nearby. Victorinus was a pretender to the throne in Gaul and the Western Empire. Also the lower stone of a hand-quern of hard, igneous rock, was found. A fragment of a vase of supposed Roman design was found on Watercombe Farm.

After the withdrawal of the Roman army in the late fourth century AD, there was a long period during which Romano-Britons, the Romanised Celts of old and the Romans who decided not to return with the troops, maintained their hold over land, wealth and education, but gradually, they became in turn dominated by the influx of land-hungry migrants from Saxony and the low countries. The Saxon era had begun.

The first open conflict between Romano-British Celts and Saxons was in 449 at Ebbsfleet, Kent. The Saxons won. In 614, the Battle of Bindon was fought around Hawkesdown, above Axmouth, and this time the Britons were defeated with a loss of over 2000 men. The Saxons subsequently occupied the area around Branscombe as far west as Ottery East Hill, but did not push on to conquer Exeter for another 40 years.

For perhaps a century after that, it seems there was some kind of reasonably peaceful co-existence betwen the Saxons and the Britons. It was not until 760 that the invaders, under Cynewulf, King of Wessex, engaged the Britons of Devon in a final struggle for the region. Cynewulf's army came along the "stone warpath", the old Roman road. The estates of Branscombe, Axmouth, Salcombe and Sidbury were seized and held as Royal manors. Such proprietors as remained were killed, driven off, or enslaved, but their old name for Branscombe survived.

It's believed most parish and even individual field boundaries in England, were laid down at this time, although recent scholarship, still controversial, suggests an even earlier date. The Branscombe parish boundary may represent the original land-holding of a man of wealth and position. The "open-field" system was introduced by the Saxons, greatfields with raised cultivated strips separated by drainage channels. Traces of these can still be seen all over England. Each strip was half to one acre. One greatfield was left fallow each season. An individual tenant would have his strips scattered over several greatfields, thereby ensuring a fair share of the good land with the bad. Ancient Celtic fields appear to have been rectangular, less than 400' long and more than 100' wide. Saxon greatfields are about 660' in length (a furlong or "long furrow") and roughly ten times longer than they are wide.

Villages throughout the east Devon region were re-named by their new masters. Why Branscombe escaped is not known, but the long-term cultural impact of the Saxons in this area has been questioned. Again, the main evidence is in the pottery record - very little Anglo-Saxon pottery has been found west of a line from Bournemouth to Birmingham.

Recorded history for Branscombe begins with King Alfred (871-900), but it was known the manor was royal property in 857. By 900, the Saxons had embraced Christianity. Despite their subjugation, local Celts were able to co-habit with the Saxons successfully. In 900, King Alfred's will mentions Branscombe as one of the places he owns among the Wealcynn, or "Welsh that are not in Cornwall". It was given to Aethelweard, his younger son, but as he died before Alfred, it passed to Edward the Elder, who became king and thence to his son, Athelstan.

In 925, Athelstan gave Branscombe, among other estates, to the Benedictine monastery of St.Peter, Exeter. The Saxon stonework in Saint Winifred's church, Branscombe, may date from this time.

About 70 years later, Branscombe was seized by marauding Vikings, who held it until 1056, during the reigns of the Danish kings Canute, Harold I and Harthacnut.

In 1056, Leofric, Bishop of Crediton, persuaded Edward the Confessor to allow him to transfer the bishop's "stool" to Exeter, which was more easily defended. The Benedictine monks of St.Peter were deported to Westminster and their churches, dwellings and revenues transferred to the bishop and his clergy. The parishes of Branscombe and Salcombe were recovered from the Danes. Church records don't say how this was achieved, or where the Danes went, only that they drove off all their cattle, rather than surrender them.

For ten years, the parish of Branscombe enjoyed a quiet period of stability in the twilight of the Anglo-Saxon world. But it was the calm that precedes a storm.


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