History of Watchet

Roman

The west of Somerset, along with Devon and Cornwall, was named Dumnonia under the Roman rule. It can be described as upland and therefore contained no rich arable land as can be seen to the east, thus explaining why no high status farm/villas have been found. However, archaeology has identified the presence of the Roman army in Wiveliscombe, Bishops Lydeard, Norton Fitzwarren, Upton and Vellow, along with remains of a look-out on Steep Holm to control shipping in the Bristol Channel.

During this period local residents would aim to emulate their Roman overlords by copying the Roman lifestyle which could include building rectangular homes in place of Iron Age roundhouses. We have evidence of such a Romano British farmstead/villa at Doniford where A.L. Wedlake discovered remains of habitation in the form of tiles and pottery from a dwelling and two rubbish pits which have enabled archaeologists to understand the day-to-day life of someone living in that period. The collections included black burnished ware pottery, a portion of a rotary quern for grinding grain, shards of a mortaria (rough lined bowl) and animal bone which provides evidence of their diet.

Anglo-Saxon

During the Anglo-Saxon era Watchet became a town important enough to have its own mint. As the Danes forced inroads into Wessex, many towns provided greater security by constructing fortifications known as burghs under the rules of Alfred and his sons.

Watchet became one of the ten important burghs of Wessex as it is listed in the Burghal Hideage, a document dated c. AD919:

“. . . and to Watchet belong 5 hundred hides and 13 hides. For the maintenance and defence an acre’s breadth of 16 hides are required. If every hide is represented by 1 man, then every pole of wall can be manned by 4 men . . .”

We can calculate from this the length of wall around Watchet fortification c. AD919 as being 2,116ft (645m). Each locality was responsible for the maintenance of its burgh as it was used by all as a refuge in times of trouble. Although we have documentary evidence for Viking raids on Watchet in the years AD918, 977, 988 and 997, it may in actual fact have been more frequent as the Vikings used Steep Holm (hence the Scandinavian place name) to over-winter.

Excavations at Dawes Castle above Watchet suggest the burgh and its mint may have been sited there, but another site, at the south end of Swain Street, has also been put forward. Wherever it was located, the mint would have been sited within this fortification.

Silver pennies were minted and the Museum is fortunate to have an original on display, along with various replica coins, with an interpretation of the minting process. Silver pennies from Watchet have been unearthed as far afield as Scandinavia.

The establishment of the Saxon mint at Watchet drew the unwelcome attention of Vikings, who staged several raids between AD918 and AD997. A re-enactment of a 988 raid was held at Watchet in 1988 to celebrate the town’s 1,000 years of history – this was witnessed by huge crowds.

Hand-made replica coins are on sale within the Museum at £1 each.

Christianity came to Watchet and led to the establishment of St. Decuman’s Church, so dedicated probably in 1189, and is one of the largest and finest in West Somerset. Situated in a commanding position overlooking Watchet, it is this prominence which helped inspire Samuel Taylor Coleridge whilst staying with Wordsworth at the Bell Inn in 1797 with the first verses of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, considered among the greatest works in English literature. As a tribute to this, the Market House Museum Society commissioned a statue of the Ancient Mariner and this was erected on the Esplanade in 2003.

The date in which St. Decuman lived is uncertain – some say AD400, others about AD700. It is said he was a Welsh missionary who crossed the Bristol Channel with a cow on a wattle or hurdle and lived a hermit’s life near Watchet. Local legend has it that whilst praying one day a native came behind him and cut off his head, after which he raised himself up, took his head in his hands, and carried it to the spring just below the present church. There he washed all traces of blood from his body and head before replacing it and then continued his prayers. The spot is now the Holy Well.

Post Norman Conquest Watchet

The Manor House of Watchet was Kentsford, which is undoubtedly the oldest secular building in the parish. It can be viewed after a pleasant meander along the old Mineral Line; a mysterious stone cross in the foot of the wall of the packhorse bridge which spans the Washford River there can also be seen. A well-known local legend associated with Kentsford involved Florence Wyndham, wife of John Wyndham, who resided at Kentsford Manor in 1559. A version of this legend can be seen in the Museum.

The old manor house at Kentsford.