The History of Barnstaple
With excellent sheltered mooring so close by, it would seem inevitable that the Romans would have used Barnstaple for their ships. The fact that several Roman roads make their way to the site adds weight to the argument for their presence, as does the alternative name for the town, Barum, believed to be Roman in origin. The Vikings certainly saw the value of the natural harbour, landing there on one of their most devastating raids into Saxon territory.
Bearda’s Staple, i.e. the market place belonging to Bearda, was however a Saxon settlement, known to have been among the fortified royal burhs established by Alfred the Great . The town today as for many years past claims its original (long lost) charter dates from 930, during the time of Athelstan who reigned from 925 to 940, and that its famous fair was first held in 955. Athelstan is also credited with founding the priory at Pilton, and it was probably Pilton that was the original burh, its elevated position making it more attractive from the point of view of defence. We know from excavated coins that Barnstaple had its own Saxon mint by the reign of Ethelred (979 – 1016), so Pilton’s ascendancy was short-lived.
When the Normans conquered England Barnstaple was of great enough significance for William himself to hold it, as had Edward the Confessor before him, though it was the Bishop of Coutances who oversaw the construction of a motte and bailey fortification there soon after the Conquest. It was not until the reign of Henry I that Juhel de Totnes replaced the wooden castle with a stone one and had the town circled with walls, outside of which he also built St Mary Magdalene Priory.
The castle was improved by Henry de Tracey, who needed its protection during the anarchic years of Stephen’s rule, the last of which, 1154, is the first when we know for sure the fair took place, though it is thought far older.
The 13th century was a period of great change in Barnstaple: in 1228 its castle walls were partly demolished to reduce its efficacy in the event of rebellion; King John at the start of the century gave the town a confirming charter, as had his brother Richard in 1189, and as would Edward I in 1273;
St Peter’s Church , the town’s oldest, dates from 1107; and the magnificent old bridge was erected not much later, though the present much altered version dates from 1437. These developments were driven by Barnstaple’s woollen industry and exports, partly controlled by the Guild of St Nicholas. The port grew such that in Edward III ’s time (1327 – 1377) it was used by the navy as well as trading vessels.
The town’s place in British maritime history is evidenced too by its provision of several vessels to the squadron Drake gathered at Plymouth prior to the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Those other great figures of our seagoing past Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville relied on Barnstaple men and ships when they were planning to colonise North America, a link strengthened through the 17th and into the 18th centuries by subsequent generations who exploited the Newfoundland fisheries.
Barnstaple came first out for the King in the Civil War , but was taken and retaken several times during the conflict, harder to defend since the last vestiges of its castle walls blew down in 1601. Given its textile industry had declined by then Barnstaple was doubtless not considered economically vital enough for either side to defend it fully.
Barnstaple’s maritime tradition continued into the 19th century, but by then it was noted for warehousing goods shipped to and from Iberia, Northern Europe and the Americas, rather than for exporting its own wares. It was indeed originally for goods traffic that the first railway line to the town opened in 1848; passenger services not being organised until 1854. The following year saw the erection of The Pannier Market and Butcher’s Row, elegant reminders still of Barnstaple’s importance then as now to the whole of North Devon.