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With the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410 AD, Britain was left to arrange its own defence against future attacks from Europe. In the south west, which had only been lightly occupied by the Romans, the Dumnonii, who prior to the Roman invasion had a kingdom which included Cornwall, Devon, West Somerset, and Most of Werst Dorset, quickly set about rebuilding their Celtic kingdom. This was eventually to stretch from Glastonbury in the East to the Isles of Scilly in the West, and was to remain largely intact until the coming of the West Saxons (Wessex) some 150 years later. The Dumnonii were by no means isolated from outside contact, on the contrary there is considerable evidence to show that they had important, and active trade contacts with the Mediterranean area.

In the East of Britain however, the Celtic tribes were left feeling far more vulnerable following the Roman withdrawal, and, with no real strength at home to protect them, they looked across the North Sea for support. They sought the services of Angles, Saxon and Jute mercenaries to help defend them, and in time these mercenaries settled in Britain, and invited their family and kinfolk to come and join them in forming their own kingdoms.

When the Romans had invaded, they met little local organisation from the small kingdoms, who where unable to agree a common defence stragedy. The Anglo-Saxons on the other hand met with a far more unified response from the Romano-Britons, who made determined efforts to protect their territory. The Anglo-Saxon's were a constant threat as they gradually fought to extended their territory, taking over many of the old Celtic kingdoms, and by around AD480, great swathes of the country were in the hands of the Angles and the Saxons. In AD485 the Celtic Tribes, under the command of Ambrosius, managed to defeat the Anglo-Saxons at the battle of Mount Badon, and halted their westward advance for a time. However by AD658 their advance westward had resumed, and, after first occupying Dorset, the Saxons commenced their advance into Celtic Dumnonia with a victory at the modern Bindon, just east of Axmouth, between Lyme Regis and Seaton. After further battles in AD658 at Pinhoe near Exeter, and in AD661 at Posbury, south-west of Crediton, their line was pushed westwards across Mid-Devon until in a decisive battle in 682 of which Centwine said "drove the Britons in flight as far as the sea".

This has been taken by some to indicate that the Wessex Saxons drove the Dumnonii back to the Atlantic on the North Devon coast, but this is by no means certain. There can be little doubt that the whole Witheridge plateau would have been included in this advance of the Wessex-Saxons towards the Atlantic coast, and yet very few of the surviving place names of Devon are pre-English (i.e. pre-Saxon). This is unlikely to be indicative of any large scale slaughter of the Celtic inhabitants but rather that the region was very sparsely inhabited. There is one clear indication of Celtic occupation locally in the parish names Morchard Bishop and Cruwys Morchard, which are both derived from the old British mor-cet or 'great wood'. The name by itself aptly describes the wooded, mostly uninhabited; nature of great stretches of the country some one and a half millennia ago.

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However what is certain is that by AD700 most of Dyfneint (Devon) was in the hands of the Wessex Saxon. In AD710 they captured Isca (Exeter), leaving only the southern fringe from the Teign to the Tamar in the hands of the British, and by AD712 this too had been captured. Prior to the eight century, the Celtic kingdom of the Dumnonii in the south-west covered an area roughly equivalent to the modern counties of Cornwall and Devon, along with parts of Dorset and Somerset. After AD712, the amount of territory under the control of the Dumnonii control was reduced to simply Cornwall.

In AD805 Devon was formally annexed by Wessex, and finally, in AD814 the Wessex-Saxons (now under Ecgberht) conquered the Dumnonian 'rump' of Cornwall, after the Cornish had formed an alliance with the Danes. Insurrections still continued, but in 838 AD, at the Battle of Hingston Down near Callington the Saxons defeat a combined Cornish/Danish Force, and this was to be the last battle fought by the Celts against the West Saxons.

Early in the second half of the 8th century Dyfneint (Devon) became one of the seven shires of Wessex, and whilst some researchers have a argued that that Isca (Exeter) may have been 'ethnically cleansed' of Celts sometime around 927AD, this is only conjecture. However of true, it would have been on the orders of  the English King Athelstan (925-940), eldest grandson of Alfred, who also decreed that the border between Cornwall (Celtic) and (Saxon) Dyfneint (Devon) should be fixed as the eastern bank of the River Tamar. There is plenty evidence of Celtic Christianity as opposed to that promoted by Rome. Holy wells were a feature of Celtic Christianity, and, although there is none associated with Witheridge, Rackenford, Cruwys Morchard, and Washford Pyne all have holy wells. The 'longstone' near Stone Farm, Worlington could also date from this period, appearing as it does, an example of a prehistoric standing stone which, with the advance of Christianity, had crude crosses inscribed on each of its four faces and on its top.

Yes, there were still skirmishes and battles, and large numbers of the native population of the South West had crossed the seas to join their Irish, Welsh, and Breton brothers, but the great majority simply continued farming under Saxon domination. One important change however was that of language. Saxon slowly began to replace the native Celtic tongue, which was similar to modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Another important point was that whilst the aforementioned areas retained many of their Celtic place names, Devon has few, except in the names of many of its Rivers.

The 'pagus' of Dumnonia was called Dyfneint by the Saxons, an early form of the name which survives as Devon today. The area is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in AD 823 and it was soon given an Ealdorman to act on behalf of the king in the region. His men are recorded as having beaten off Viking Invasions in both AD 851 and AD878, though Exeter was successfully sacked in 1003.

Devon was originally part of the Wessex Sees of Winchester and then Sherborne but, in AD 905, it was given its own Bishop based at Bishop's Tawton, though quickly transferred to Crediton. Bishop Leofric moved the diocenal centre to Exeter shortly before the Conquest. In the early 800's the first major British Monarchs, the house of Wessex began its steady rise commencing with Egbert, It is noteworthy that his son, Aethelwulf, was the first king of Wessex to inherit the throne from his father since the seventh century. His other four sons succeeded him in turn Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred I and finally the youngest and most famous, Alfred the Great, who defeated the Mercians in 825. The house of Wessex continued to expand their frontiers, until finally defeated by King Svein of Denmark from 1003 to 1006. It was not until the death of Hardicanute in 1042 that the house of Wessex was restored to power in the hands of Edward the Confessor.

Saxon society at this time became deeply divided into six distinct classes, each providing services to the class above in return for protection. At the top were the Royal family and the Earls. These were then followed by the nobles and thanes who were those expected to provide armed service, as well as repair bridges and fortresses. The next group acted mainly as bailiffs or reeves on the estates of the thanes. These were followed by cottars, who, although they held a minimum of five acres of land, were required to do at least one day's work every week for the lord of the manor, and up to three during harvest. The duties of next rank, the 'geburs', were even more onerous. They were expected to work for perhaps two days a week on the manor, and to pay an annual rent of about 10d as well as a tribute of barley and two hens in the autumn, plus a lamb or 2d at Easter. In return, on first entering his property, each 'gebur' received two oxen, one cow, six sheep and seven acres of land sown with corn. However, when the 'gebur' died the lord of the manor could take back what was left. The lowest of all the social orders were the slaves, but even they were accorded rights. Their food allowances were prescribed by the customs of the manor.

Ownership of land was based on the manor, which could consist of a single farm or an estate of many farms. By the middle of the eleventh century the lands around Witheridge appeared to have been divided into around a dozen manors belonging to lords of varying importance. As with most heads of hundreds, the manor of Witheridge itself was in royal hands having passed to Gytha, the mother of Earl Harold (later to become King Harold). This lady also held other valuable manors in Devon, including North Molton, South Tawton, Hartland and Tiverton, as well as properties in other parts of England. A Saxon called Aelmer, as well as Bradford Tracey, had 51 other manors in Devon, while another important noble named Brictric held lands in all the counties of the South West, amongst which he counted Queen Dart.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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