Webpage created: May 14, 2020
Webpage updated: May 14, 2020
There is a problem in trying to describe what Anglo-Saxon Plymouth looked like: a total lack of actual evidence. So almost all that follows is pure conjecture; what one might call "best guess history".
When the Romans were recalled to Italy it left what they had called Britannia free from any protection and therefore open to invasion. Those who came were from Angeln, in modern Germany, and were known as the Angles; from Lower Saxony, also in Germany, the Saxons; and from Jutland, in modern Denmark, the Jutes. Given that the whole nation of Angles came across to Britain it is likely they were the predominant tribe and they certainly gave their name to what subsequently became Angle Land (England).
Although the Anglo-Saxons had started to settle around AD450, the ancient Britons were still in control of the Kingdom of Dumnonia in the far south west of Britannia.
Around AD670 the Anglo-Saxons founded a monastery at Exeter and in AD682 they 'drove the Britons as far as the sea'. There seems to be some controversy over where that sea was but it was probably the north Cornish coast as there were no large rivers to obstruct the British retreat. Certainly there must have been settlers in the eastern part of Devon as in AD705 a Bishop was installed at Sherborne, Dorset, to serve the needs of the people 'west of the wood', namely Selwood.
It would appear that the final capitulation of the Britons in the Plymouth area came in AD710, when King Ine of Wessex and King Nunna of Sussex did battle with King Geraint of Dumnonia, forcing the latter back beyond the River Tamar. How else could King Ine have granted 20 hides of land between that river and the River Lynher to the Abbott of Glastonbury a couple of years later if he did not think he already owned it?
There is no certain date when the Saxons started to settle in the Plymouth area but it is unlikely to have been before this decisive battle. Although it has always been claimed that the settlers arrived by sea there is also no contemporary confirmation of that: they may well have marched overland from their earlier settlements in eastern England.
But it was probably safer to travel by sea and if that is how the first ones arrived off Plymouth then it is the author's suggestion that they first landed on Saint Nicholas Island. Why? Because they had no knowledge of what hostility awaited them and by settling on an island they could easily defend themselves against any sudden attack. From there they could send out expeditions to survey the land, choose the best sites and erect homes before they moved in. They would have seen the entrance to the Plym and the Tamar as well as Sutton Pool, the Sourepool (Millbay) and Stonehouse Creek. A settlement adjacent to Sutton Pool would be easily accessible from the Island yet hidden from the sea and a hasty retreat could have been carried out if it was required.
It may also be significant that the chapel on the Island was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, who was the patron saint of seamen.
The Anglo-Saxons could not settle into a life of harvesting and milking, though. It is true that the County of Devonshire had been created by AD800 and the Hundred had emerged as a unit of local government but the remnants of the Dumnonians, down in Cornwall, were still rather upset. In AD825 they attacked the West Saxons at 'gafoldorda', which is thought to be Galford near Lewtrenchard. And in AD838 a large force of British combined with the Danes to launch an attack but were beaten by King Egbert and his supporters at Hingston Down, above Callington.
An Abbey was founded at Tavistock in AD961. In that same year King Edgar, King of Wessex, founded an ecclesiastical college, consisting of a dean and four canons, at Plympton. His name was on a charter used by the Prior of Plympton in 1302 to defend an accusation against him. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that peace had come to the south-western corner of the county by then and King Edgar's reign, which ended with his death in AD975, was certainly known as a peaceful one. Mind you, they were not entirely out of the woods because as late as AD997, when Aethelred was King, the Vikings plundered Lydford and Tavistock. There is no record as to whether or not they attacked any settlements in the Plymouth area.
As the settlers cleared the land nearest the sea and turned it over to agriculture, so they or their descendants moved inland. But where was their settlement in Plymouth?
The only clue we have is in a street name: Old Town Street. We know from the Domesday Book of 1086 that the settlement was known as 'Sudtone'. And although we know that this translates as 'South Farm' or 'South Town' that still doesn't indicate its location. There is some logic in thinking that it was on the shore of Sutton Pool but that must have been a smelly place when the tide was out, especially with dead fish lying around.
Maybe the next clue is in another street name: High Street. That name has been used in almost every town and village in England to signify an ancient and important highway so maybe it was the same in Plymouth. If it was then it would appear to indicate that one of the oldest highways in Plymouth ran from Sutton Pool up the hill to their religious meeting place, the Church of Saint Andrew. It may be no coincidence at all that in later years the Town's Guildhall was erected at the top of High Street, where it joined Whimple Street. This fact could indicate that the first landing place, possibly the first settlement, was in the area presently covered by the Parade, at the waterside end of the High Street. It would have been sheltered from the west winds, not visible from the entrance to the harbour, faced the sunrise in the east and probably had running fresh water from a stream flowing into Sutton Pool.
But what then should we make of another road name - Old Town Street? This ran northwards from Saint Andrew's Church and on the oldest of the maps that have survived to modern times is named simply 'Old Town'. It implies that somewhere in this area, if not on that Street itself, was the old town of Sutton. Up until the 1930s there was a large, old house called 'Norley' just to the east of Old Town Street. It was replaced by the telephone exchange in 1935. Was this the old 'tun' that Old Town Street refers to? Or perhaps it was a newer settlement, north of the original one on Sutton Pool, into which the community moved when it became safer to live on higher ground away from the water's edge. It would have been a good location. The House faced south over Sutton Pool and it stood close to the main roads to Tavistock and to Exeter. Sadly, we have no proof.
We have only one way of knowing what farms existed around that time: from the Domesday Book. Although that was compiled twenty years after the Norman Conquest, it gives us the names of some of the Anglo-Saxon settlers whose land was taken by the new Norman king and his tenants in chief.
One should not take theses names as representing local people. Clearly King Edward certainly was not and many of the other names appear as holding landing elsewhere in England.
But most of the area they held is recognisable to us today except that the boundaries are unclear. Most would have been rivers or streams or possibly highways. The main road from Plymouth to Tavistock was a major boundary between Eggbuckland and Saint Budeaux and Bickleigh and Tamerton until modern times.