1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Launceston
LAUNCESTON, a market town and municipal borough in the Launceston parliamentary division of Cornwall, England, 35½ m. N.W. of Plymouth, on branches of the Great Western and the London & South-Western railways. Pop. (1901) 4053. It lies in a hilly district by and above the river Kensey, an affluent of the Tamar, the houses standing picturesquely on the southern slope of the narrow valley, with the keep of the ancient castle crowning the summit. On the northern slope lies the parish of St Stephen. The castle, the ruins of which are in part of Norman date, was the seat of the earls of Cornwall, and was frequently besieged during the civil wars of the 17th century. In 1656 George Fox the Quaker was imprisoned in the north-east tower for disturbing the peace at St Ives by distributing tracts. Fragments of the old town walls and the south gateway, of the Decorated period, are standing. The church of St Mary Magdalen, built of granite, and richly ornamented without, was erected early in the 16th century, but possesses a detached tower dated 1380. A fine Norman doorway, now appearing as the entrance to a hotel, is preserved from an Augustinian priory founded in the reign of Henry I. The parish church of St Stephen is Early English, and later, with a Perpendicular tower. The trade of Launceston is chiefly agricultural, but there are tanneries and iron foundries. The borough is under a mayor, 4 aldermen and 12 councillors. Area, 2189 acres.
A silver penny of Æthelred II. witnesses to the fact that the privilege of coining money was exercised by Launceston (Dunheved, Lanscaveton, Lanstone) more than half a century before the Norman conquest. At the time of the Domesday survey the canons of St Stephen held Launceston, and the count of Mortain held Dunheved. The number of families settled on the former is not given, but attention is called to the market which had been removed thence by the count to the neighbouring castle of Dunheved, which had two mills, one villein and thirteen bordars. A spot more favoured by nature could not have been chosen either for settlement or for defence than the rich lands near the confluence of the Kensey and Tamar, out of which there rises abruptly the gigantic mound upon which the castle is built. It is not known when the canons settled here nor whether the count's castle, then newly erected, replaced some earlier fortification. Reginald, earl of Cornwall (1140–1175), granted to the canons rights of jurisdiction in all their lands and exemption from suit of court in the shire and hundred courts. Richard (1225–1272), king of the Romans, constituted Dunheved a free borough, and granted to the burgesses freedom from pontage, stallage and suillage, liberty to elect their own reeves, exemption from all pleas outside the borough except pleas of the crown, and a site for a gild-hall. The farm of the borough was fixed at 100s. payable to the earl, 65s. to the prior and 100s. 10d. to the lepers of St Leonard's. In 1205 the market which had been held on Sunday was changed to Thursday. An inquisition held in 1383 discloses two markets, a merchant gild, pillory and tumbrel. In 1555 Dunheved, otherwise Launceston, received a charter of incorporation, the common council to consist of a mayor, 8 aldermen and a recorder. By its provisions the borough was governed until 1835. The parliamentary franchise which had been conferred in 1294 was confined to the corporation and a number of free burgesses. In 1832 Launceston was shorn of one of its members, and in 1885 merged in the county. Separated from it by a small bridge over the Kensey lies the hamlet of Newport which, from 1547 until 1832, also returned two members. These were swept away when the Reform Bill became law. Launceston was the assize town until Earl Richard, having built a palace at Restormel, removed the assize to Lostwithiel. In 1386 Launceston regained the privilege by royal charter. From 1715 until 1837, eleven years only excepted, the assize was held alternately here and at Bodmin. Since that time Bodmin has enjoyed the distinction. Launceston has never had a staple industry. The manufacture of serge was considerable early in the 19th century. Its market on Saturdays is well attended, and an ancient fair on the Feast of St Thomas is among those which survive.
See A. F. Robbins, Launceston Past and Present.