Last Updated on February 6, 2020 by Caren
Lydford is located on the westernmost fringes of Dartmoor roughly midway between the historic market towns of Okehampton and Tavistock. Today it’s quite hard to imagine that this sleepy little village was once a thriving town that played an important role throughout Devon’s often turbulent history.
There’s a castle, albeit in a ruinous state, that is believed to be the first purpose built prison in the country. This stronghold also housed a court that became infamous throughout the land for the way it meted out rough justice.
Early History of Lydford
Located on a triangular promontory, just upriver from the famous picturesque Lydford Gorge, it’s not difficult to see why the site became an important burh (a fortified settlement) during the reign of Alfred the Great. (847/9-899). Some of the original Saxon defensive banks can still be seen today and are similar to those found at Wareham; both were constructed to defend the respective towns from the numerous Viking attacks.
By the 10th century, Lydford was one of four Saxon burhs that were established in Devon and was considered to be as important as the market town of Totnes and the now capital city of Exeter. Despite its ideal defensive position, it appears that it may not have been able to withstand an attack carried out by the Vikings in 997 which is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was during this same raid that nearby Tavistock Abbey was razed to the ground.
The Lydford Penny and Royal Mint
In 973 CE, the burh was granted the right to produce silver pennies for the Kingdom of Wessex and the Mint Produced coins continuously up until the Norman Conquest (1066).
It’s estimated that over one and a half million silver pennies were made during this period. A not inconsiderable number when you think that they were all hand produced. A number of these coins can be found in the British Museum and also in a number of museums in Denmark.
No doubt that the coinage taken overseas either through pillaging from the many raids or as Danegeld. This was a tax that was raised to try and appease the Viking raiders – in short, Protection money! The exact location of this erstwhile Royal Mint remains unknown. There is a Silver Street which may offer a clue, but, it is to be found outside the original Saxon walls making it somewhat unlikely.
Lydford’s Two Castles
A small fort was constructed soon after William the Conqueror captured Exeter in 1068 and was made up of a number of wooden buildings. All that remains of this early Norman castle are earthworks that can be found to the west of the church.
The wooden structure was superseded just over a century later c.1195 by a stone stronghold which for reasons unknown was relocated to where the ruins can be viewed today. This later castle was originally free standing but the ground floor is now buried below the mound that was constructed during the 13th century. The stonework of the higher levels was dismantled and reused in the Medieval ruin that we see today.
The current ‘castle’ was remodelled by Richard, Earl of Cornwall and younger brother of Henry III. He had been instrumental in the rebuild of Launceston in Cornwall, a traditional Norman motte and bailey castle. Richard had been given the manor Lydford and the forest of Dartmoor in 1238 and by 1267 had been granted permission for the town to hold a market and a fair.
To this day nobody knows why the building was made to look like it had been built upon a motte. Why would someone go to the trouble of banking the earth mound up around the stone building? It was an architectural style that had fallen out of fashion by the mid 13th century.
The lower ground floors must certainly have been a terribly dark dank place to have been imprisoned.
It was in continuous use as a prison up until the 17th century and as a courthouse right through to the 18th century.
Stannary Law and Lydford
During the Middle Ages Lydford became the administrative centre for the forest of Dartmoor which at this time was booming economically from the tin and wool trades. Tin mining became such an important business that a parliament was formed and laws were introduced which became known as stannary law. (Stannary literally means tin mine and is derived from the Medieval Latin word stannaria.)
Stannary towns were established by royal charter in 1305 under King Edward I and included Chagford, Ashburton, Tavistock and later Plympton. Each town had its own court but Lydford was where all the courts convened. The ‘castle’ was also the main prison for the region.
However, before the stannary towns were officially created the Normans had long recognised the need to control the lucrative tin mining through the creation of laws.
The Royal Forest of Dartmoor
Dartmoor became a Royal Forest during the Norman period, but this term has absolutely nothing to do with trees! It was used to declare that the area was a royal hunting ground for the king. All wildlife upon the land was owned by the crown and subject to the strict Forest Laws. This meant that poaching was often treated as a capital offence.
King John went one step further and for a short period of time the entire county of Devon became a royal forest. The strict laws meant that a man could be sentenced to death for snaring a rabbit or even just setting a trap.
I ofte have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the Morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgement after…
From ‘Lydford Journey’ – a poem by William Browne (poet born in Tavistock c.1590-c.1645)
It’s often thought that Lydford Law alludes to the harsh justice inflicted on prisoners by Judge Jeffries (1645-1689 a.k.a. The Hanging Judge) after the Monmouth Rebellion in the West Country. However the poem by local poet, William Browne was written around forty years earlier and so life in Lydford prison was already appalling.
A person accused of a crime, such as poaching, was imprisoned at the stronghold in Lydford whilst awaiting trial. The court case was often a very lengthy procedure that had to pass through a number of different courts which convened at various times of the year.
If the defendant was given the death penalty this had to be approved by a justice in eyre who presided over the court of justice-seat. This highest court was only held every three years. This tyrannical system of justice (or lack of) was carried out for centuries. It’s not difficult to see how a prisoner, especially if the prison was getting rather crowded, would have been summarily executed before his case ever reached the highest court, explaining the line in the poem above.
St. Petroc’s Church
The site has been a place of Christian worship for over a thousand years and the initial church would have been a simple wood construction.
The nave and chancel that we can see today were first documented in 1237 and were originally built in the late Saxon or early Norman period, including the simple tub font. However, the church was largely rebuilt in the mid 13th century with further additions in the 15th century including the tower.
The attractive church is well worth a visit and has a number of unusual features including the Watchmaker’s tomb which is located outside, near the entrance to the porch. To protect it from the elements the amusing epitaph engraved on the slate tombstone has been hung on an interior wall.
“Here lies in horizontal position
The Outsize case of
GEORGE ROUTLEIGH, Watchmaker…”
An ancient stannary town closely linked to Lydford historically and with the vestiges of a Benedictine Abbey that was founded c.961AD
Merrivale Prehistoric Sites
One of the numerous prehistoric settlements that can be found high up on Dartmoor. There are a number of stone rows, burial cairns and even a small stone circle, all on the same site.
Home to the ruins of the largest castle built in Devon shortly after the Norman Conquest. Today, the ruins are owned and managed by English Heritage and are free to visit for members. Otherwise, you can pay a small fee to enter and explore the grounds. All visits are enhanced by an audioguide.
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