The History of Cockermouth
At the confluence of two rivers, with fertile valley lands around it, Cockermouth’s location would have been an attractive one long before history was written. There is plenty of evidence of settlement in the area in the Stone Age: the Elva Plain Circle, for example, just three miles from the town, dates back some 5,000 years.
When the Romans arrived Cockermouth would have been in the territory of the Celtic tribe the Brigantes, spanning much of North West England and South West Scotland: Cockermouth is indeed a place-name derived from the Celtic – cocker meaning crooked or twisted, as the river of that name is, Cockermouth being at its junction – mouth - with the Derwent.
The Romans built a fort they named Derventio to the north west of the current town, defending its own area but also part of a network linking such major sites as Ravenglass on the coast and Hadrian’s Wall some 25 miles further north.
That a fortification was needed in the area sets a theme that runs through the settlement’s history until the 17th century. For the Romans it was the Brigantes and the Picts who presented a danger from the north; and this threat continued for perhaps 1000 years after the Romans left at the beginning of the 5th century. The Scots, descendents of those who menaced the Roman frontier regions, actually held Cockermouth for a period: it is for this reason that the town is absent from the Domesday Book – it was not in 1086 part of William the Conqueror ’s kingdom. Tute Hill near Cockermouth is an earthwork that was occupied by the followers of the Earl of Dunbar in the late 11th century.
By the very early 12th century the overlordship of Cockermouth changed: the Norman Gilbert de Pipard secured the place with a wooden fort then; a hundred years or so later William de Fortibus erected a stone castle on the same site, a prime defensive position on a ridge between the Derwent and Cocker. It was during de Fortibus’s ownership that the town was granted its first market charter, in 1226, marking its growing economic importance: the layout of much of the town is still medieval, a period when it enjoyed some prosperity.
The Scots, however, continued to threaten the town: William Wallace raided this far in the 13th century; in 1315 Robert the Bruce took it for a time, devastating the place; an invasion in 1387 was repelled, perhaps reflecting the 14th century improvements to the fortifications.
During the Wars of the Roses the castle was again of significance, passing from Lancastrian to Yorkist control. When the Tudors held the throne Cockermouth had a relatively peaceful time of it, the most famous event of this period being the stay of Mary Queen of Scots after her flight to England following the defeat of her supporters at the 1568 Battle of Langside.
In the Civil War the castle again saw action, held for Parliament by one Lieutenant Bird. It was briefly besieged in August and September 1648, but only one defender perished before Cromwell sent a relief force under Colonel Ashton. Rather more residents – nearly 200 - succumbed the previous year to the plague.
After the Civil Wars Cockermouth Castle was either allowed to decay, or partly dismantled. The town’s subsequent history is more peaceful, with three famous sons of particular note in the 18th century: William Wordsworth was born in the town, his grand Georgian family home preserved to commemorate the poet; Fletcher Christian , leader of the Bounty Mutiny likewise originated in Cockermouth; and from the nearby village of Eaglesfield came John Dalton the pioneering physicist.
Water power from the town’s rivers for a time gave the place a competitive advantage in industrial terms, with textile manufacture thriving before the advent of steam power removed this, and geographical isolation made it an unattractive location for factories. Nowadays it is a pleasant dormitory town for Sellafield, and a tourist spot away from the sometimes crowded lakes, its Wordsworth associations a great draw. But the rivers that were the reason for the emergence of the settlement millennia ago, and once brought prosperity, have recently wrought havoc, with the great floods of 2005 and 2009.