The history of Somerset, England, is a vivid tapestry woven with threads of ancient civilizations, battles, and cultural evolution. From prehistoric settlements to medieval fortresses, the county’s landscape holds the secrets of countless generations. In this guide, we embark on a journey through time, unearthing the layers of Somerset’s captivating local history.
Prehistoric Somerset: The Dawn of Civilisation
The story of Somerset’s history begins in the mists of prehistory. Evidence of early human habitation can be traced back over 40,000 years, with discoveries of flint tools and cave paintings in places like Wookey Hole Caves. Neolithic settlers left their mark in the form of stone circles and burial mounds, such as the iconic Avebury and the lesser-known Priddy Circles, hinting at spiritual and ritualistic practices that once defined the landscape.
The Roman Occupation: Roads and Settlements
With the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD, Somerset became part of the Roman province of Britannia. The county’s strategic location led to the construction of an extensive network of roads, including the famous Fosse Way, which connected Exeter to Lincoln. Villas, such as those at Chedworth and Wroxeter, showcase the Roman influence on Somerset’s rural landscape.
Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edington
The late 9th century saw the reign of Alfred the Great, who played a pivotal role in repelling Viking invasions and unifying Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In 878, Alfred’s decisive victory at the Battle of Edington, near present-day Westbury-sub-Mendip, marked a turning point in the struggle against Viking incursions. This event solidified Somerset’s place in the annals of English history.
Medieval Somerset: Castles, Abbeys, and Market Towns
The medieval period saw the emergence of Somerset as a center of power and commerce. Magnificent structures like Wells Cathedral and Montacute House stand as testament to the architectural prowess of the era. Glastonbury Abbey, believed to be the resting place of King Arthur, held immense religious and cultural significance.
The English Civil War: Siege and Struggle
During the English Civil War in the 17th century, Somerset became a battleground between Royalist and Parliamentarian forces. Taunton, in particular, played a crucial role, enduring a protracted siege that ultimately led to the town being dubbed the “Heart of the West.” The Siege of Taunton remains a defining chapter in Somerset’s history, symbolising the county’s resilience and commitment to the Parliamentary cause.
The Industrial Revolution: Mills and Manufacturing
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Somerset experienced significant transformations. From the thriving textile mills of towns like Shepton Mallet to the ironworks of Radstock, industry reshaped the landscape. The county’s waterways, including the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, played a crucial role in facilitating trade and transportation.
The Romantic Poets and Coleridge’s Cottage
Somerset’s picturesque landscapes provided inspiration for the Romantic poets, most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His cottage in Nether Stowey, where he composed some of his most celebrated works, stands as a literary pilgrimage site. The Quantock Hills, often referred to as the “Quantock Alpines,” served as a source of creative inspiration for Coleridge and his fellow poets.
World War II: Somerset’s Contribution
During World War II, Somerset played a vital role in the war effort. Coastal areas were fortified, and airfields like RAF Merryfield became crucial to the defense of Britain. The town of Yeovil, known for its aircraft manufacturing, produced vital warplanes such as the Spitfire. Somerset’s contributions to the war were significant and continue to be commemorated.
The Preservation of Heritage: National Trust Properties
In the 20th century, Somerset’s historical significance was recognised and preserved through the efforts of organisations like the National Trust. Iconic properties such as Barrington Court, Tyntesfield, and Dunster Castle were safeguarded, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience the splendor of bygone eras.
Somerset Today: A Living Chronicle
Today, Somerset’s rich history is celebrated and intertwined with modern life. Historic market towns like Frome and Castle Cary continue to thrive, their streets echoing with the whispers of centuries past. The legacy of Somerset’s heritage lives on in its architecture, traditions, and the deep sense of community that defines the county.
In Somerset, history is not confined to textbooks; it is woven into the very fabric of the landscape. From ancient stone circles to medieval castles and industrial relics, each chapter of Somerset’s history is etched into the land. As you explore the county, you’ll find yourself immersed in the living chronicle of Somerset’s past, where the echoes of bygone eras resonate in the present.