The History of Taunton
Taunton derives its name from its position on the River Tone, literally Tone town. The Saxon word for town is ‘tun’ and Taunton was an important Saxon settlement. Any evidence of habitation on the site of the present town before the Saxons is sketchy. A Roman village has been found near the Taunton suburb of Holway. This find, and the very
size of the Saxon settlement, suggest the strategic and economic advantages of the site had probably been exploited long before Saxon times.
In Saxon times Taunton was a burh, or fortified town, and this fact alone is evidence of a town of great importance. The existence of a Saxon mint in Taunton is further indication of the status of the town. Around 700AD an earthen mound castle was established to defend the town by the ruler of the Kingdom of Wessex, King Ine. It was destroyed in 722 by his queen, Ethelburga, to ensure it didn’t fall into the
hands of rebels.
Taunton’s importance continued to flourish in these early years and by 904 it was the site of a monastery under the control of the bishops of Winchester . This was the year that Taunton gained its first royal charter freeing them from any royal or national tribute. The Domesday Book has Taunton as a rich district with a population of around 1500. William Giffard converted the bishop’s hall into a castle and subsequent work in the 13th and 16th century saw the castle grow considerably.
By 1366 Taunton had taken over the status of Somerset County Town from Somerton . In 1497 Taunton was the location for an event that could be said to have ended the War of the Roses . A pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck, calling himself Richard of York was brought to the castle and forced to confess his true identity as a mere weavers son. After the Middle Ages the castle became more of an administrative rather than defensive building. The castle was restored, extended and
brought back into commission as a military building for the Civil War of 1642. The town and castle suffered greatly during this war and unfortunately the 500 year old keep was also later destroyed under orders of Charles II .
Taunton received its charter of incorporation in 1627, this cut the town free from its previous ties to the estate of the bishops of Winchester. The town’s charter was revoked by Charles II in retaliation for Taunton’s parliamentary stand in the Civil War. It was restored in 1677 but was allowed to lapse again from 1792 until 1877.
The infamous Judge Jeffreys ’ Bloody Assizes were held at Taunton in the castle in September 1685. This three day kangaroo court was called to bring justice to the 514 cases arising after the quashing of the Monmouth Rebellion. 144 rebels were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in various locations across the county.
Much of Taunton’s early wealth had been built upon trade in wool and woollen cloth but this was in steep decline by the end of the 18th century. The opening of the Grand Western Canal in 1839 helped restore Taunton’s fortunes by enhancing the town’s trade links, especially with the south. The coming of the railways in 1842 further improved the town’s trading opportunities with the rest of the country. The
Castle Hotel , built on the site of one of the castle’s outer gate houses, is over 300 years old. The hospital was built in 1812 and gas powered street lighting arrived in 1821. Sewers, however, did not come to Taunton until 1870. By the turn of the 20th century Taunton had grown into an important Somerset town. The population in 1901 was over 19,000 and in 1935 Taunton once again became Somerset’s county town.
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