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The History of Devizes

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The origins of the Wiltshire town of Devizes are not clear, with the first firm evidence of settlement there being the Norman castle. However, there are those who suggest a British King Dunwallo, who ruled before the Romans invaded the Britain, was ruler of the a Celtic settlement there. Roman finds were recorded in the Southbroom area in the late 16th century. Later, in 1714, there was a major discovery of 20 bronze statuettes and Roman coins on The Green. More recent evidence surfaced in 1960 when workmen digging the foundations for Southbroom Junior School discovered a Romano-British cemetery.

In 1080, Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury had the first Devizes castle built in wood. The castle brought a community around it and the town of Devizes had now definitely established itself. The name is said to derive from the castle being on the boundary line between the ancient manors of Bishop Cannings, Rowde and Potterne. The Latin for ‘at the boundaries’ is ‘ad devisas’ and this gave the town its name. The castle burned down was rebuilt in stone in 1120 by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who was also busy enlarging Salisbury Cathedral . Bishop Roger didn’t just restrict his activities to worship and buildings for the glory of God, he also constructed castles at Malmesbury , Sherborne and Old Sarum .

Henry I , third son of William the Conqueror , died in 1135. This prompted a power struggle for the crown between Matilda , daughter of Henry and usurper Stephen. In 1141 the citizens of Devizes took the castle in Matilda’s name. She rewarded their valiance by granting the town its first royal charter giving it the very important status of borough. Civil War saw action at the castle again in July 1643. A battle raged outside nearby Bath between the Parliamentarians, under Sir William Waller, and a Royalist army. Sir William got the upper hand and the Royalists fled to Devizes where they occupied the castle and barricaded the town. Waller laid siege until a Royalist relief force met and defeated him on Roundway Down . The tower of St. James’ church still has the scars of a subsequent bombardment Cromwell inflicted on the town when he retook it and the castle in September 1645. In May 1646, Parliament ordered Devizes Castle to be destroyed leaving traces only of the original mound, the outline of the moat, part of the keep and some foundations. A privately owned Victorian building built by the Leach family now occupies the site.

The economy of Devizes was very much based on the agricultural land that surrounded it. The town’s products in the 16th and early 17th centuries were the likes of wheat, wool and yarn. The manufacture and distribution of cheese, bacon and butter also rose in prominence from this time. In the 18th Century Devizes became especially famous for cloth manufacture when John Anstie built a factory on the corner of New Park and Snuff Streets to house over 300 looms. This was an early foray into factory based weaving, previously most cloth was produced by an army of weavers working from their homes. The manufacture of textiles declined from the end of 18th century. The town shifted focus and trades such as booksellers, clock making, grocers, milliners, and silversmiths flourished. The historic wealth of the town is still reflected in the fact that it has more than 50 listed buildings. Today the town has the usual small town mix of office and light industry especially on it’s boundaries. This is all backed by a rapid growth in its housing stock and the inevitable spread of its suburbs. However, the historic core has been retained and the town still presents itself to visitors very favourably.

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