1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Somersetshire

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SOMERSETSHIRE, a south-western county of England, bounded N. and N.W. by the Bristol Channel, N. and N.E. by Gloucestershire, N.E. and E. by Wiltshire, S.E. by Dorsetshire, S.W. and W. by Devonshire. The area is 1630·3 sq. m. In shape the county resembles an ill-drawn crescent, curving inward where Bridgwater Bay bends south-west and broader at its eastern than at its western horn. It falls into three natural divisions, being in fact a broad alluvial plain bordered by two hill-regions. The Mendip range, breaking off from the high ground near Wiltshire, extends north-west towards the channel, where it ends with Brean Down; while the island of Steep Holm stands as an outpost between the heights of Somerset and Glamorgan. The summit of the Mendips is a long table-land, reaching an extreme height, towards the western end, of 1068 ft. in Black Down, sloping away gently towards the lower hills of the north, but rising on the south in an abrupt line, broken by many coombes or glens; the most striking of which are the cliffs of Ebbor Rocks, near Wells, and the gorge of Cheddar (q.v.), which winds for nearly a mile between huge and fantastic rocks. South of the Mendips lies a broad plain watered by the Parrett and the Brue, and known generally as Sedgemoor, but with different names in different parts. This plain, intersected by ditches known as rhines, and in some parts rich in peat, is broken by isolated hills and lower ridges, of which the most conspicuous are Brent Knoll near Burnham, the Isle of Avalon, rising with Glastonbury Tor as its highest point, and the long low ridge of Polden ending to the west in a steep bluff. West of Sedgemoor the second great region of hills extends from Devonshire to the sea. It consists of the Black Down, Brendon and Quantock hills, with Exmoor Forest (q.v.) in the extreme west. This entire district is famous for the grandeur of its bare and desolate moors, and the bold outlines and height of its mountains; the chief of which are Dunkery, in Exmoor (1707 ft.) ; Lype Hill, the westernmost point of the Brendon range (1391 ft.); and Will’s Neck, among the Quantocks (1261 ft.). The two principal rivers of Somerset are the Avon and the Parrett. The Avon, after forming for a short distance the boundary with Wiltshire, crosses the north-eastern corner of the county, encircling Bath, and forms the boundary with Gloucestershire till it reaches the sea 6 m. beyond Bristol. It is navigable for barges as far as Bath. The Parrett from South Perrott in Dorset, on the borders of Somerset, crosses the centre of the county north-westwards by Bridgwater, receiving the Yeo and Cary on the right, and the Isle and Tone on the left. Among other streams are the Axe, which rises at Wookey Hole in the Mendips and flows north-westward along their base to the Bristol Channel near Blackrock; the Brue, which rises to the east of Bruton, near the borders of Wiltshire, and enters the Bristol Channel near the mouth of the Parrett; and the Exe (with its tributary the Barle), which rises in Exmoor forest and passes southward into Devon. Some of the Somersetshire streams, especially the Exe and Barle, are in high favour with trout fishermen. Weston-super-Mare is a flourishing seaside resort, and Minehead and other coast villages are also frequented.

Geology.—The oldest formation in the county is the Devonian, which extends eastwards from Devonshire across Exmoor to the Brendon and Quantock hills, and consists of sandstones, slates and limestones of marine origin. The Old Red Sandstone, the supposed estuarine or lacustrine equivalent of the Devonian, is a series of red sandstones, marls and conglomerates, which rise as an anticline in the Mendips (where they contain volcanic rocks), and also appear in the Avon gorge and at Portishead. The Carboniferous Limestone, of marine origin, is well displayed in the Mendip country (Cheddar Cliffs, &c.) and in the Avon gorge; at Weston-super-Mare it contains volcanic rocks. The Coal Measures of the Radstock district (largely concealed by Trias and newer rocks) consist of two series of coal-bearing sandstones and shales separated by the Pennant Sandstone; locally the beds have been intensely folded and faulted, as at Vobster. Indeed, all the formations hitherto mentioned were folded into anticlines and synclines before the deposition of the Triassic rocks. These consist of red marls, sandstones, breccias and conglomerates, which spread irregularly over the edges of the older rocks; the so-called Dolomitic Conglomerate is an old shingle-beach of Triassic (Keuper Marl) age. The Rhaetic beds are full of fossils and mark the first invasion of the district by the waters of the Jurassic sea. The Lias consists of clays and limestones; the latter are quarried and are famous for their ammonites and reptilian remains. Above the Lias comes the Lower or Bath Oolite Series (Inferior Oolite group, Fuller's Earth and Great Oolite group), chiefly clays and oolitic limestone; the famous Bath Stone is got from the Great Oolite. The Oxford Clay is the chief member of the Middle or Oxford Oolite Series. Above these follow the Upper Cretaceous rocks, including the Gault, Upper Greensand and Chalk, which extend into the county from Wiltshire near Frome and from Dorset near Chard. There are apparently no true glacial deposits. Low-lying alluvial flats and peat-bogs occupy much of the surface west of Glastonbury. Caves in the Carboniferous Limestone (e.g. Wookey Hole, near Wells) have yielded Pleistocene mammalia and palaeolithic implements. The thermal waters of Bath (120° F.) are rich in calcium and sodium sulphates, &c. The chief minerals are coal, freestone and limestone, and ores of lead, zinc and iron.

Agriculture.—The climate partakes of the mildness of the south-western counties generally. A high proportion, exceeding four-fifths of the total area of the county, is under cultivation. In a county where cattle-feeding and dairy-farming are the principal branches of husbandry, a very large area is naturally devoted to pasture; and there are large tracts of rich meadow land along the rivers, where many of the Devonshire farmers place their herds to graze. Floods, however, are common, and the Somerset Drainage Act was passed by parliament on the nth of June 1877, providing for the appointment of commissioners to take measures for the drainage of lands in the valleys of the Parrett, Isle, Yeo, Brue, Axe, Cary and Tone. Cheese is made in various parts, notably the famous Cheddar Cheese, which is made in the farms lying south of the Mendips. Sheep-farming is practised both in the lowlands and on hill pastures, Leicesters and Southdowns being the favourite breeds. In the Vale of Taunton heavy crops of wheat are raised; this grain, barley and oats being raised on about equal areas. Turnips, swedes and mangolds occupy most of the area under green crops. Somerset ranks after Devon and Hereford in the extent of its apple orchards, and the cider made from these apples forms the common drink of the peasantry, besides being largely exported. Wild deer are still found on Exmoor, where there is a peculiar breed of ponies, hardy and small. The Bristol Channel and Bridgwater Bay abound in white- and shell-fish; salmon and herring are also caught, the principal fishing stations being Porlock, Minehead and Watchet.

Other Industries.—Coal, from the Mendips, and freestone, largely quarried near Bath, are the chief mineral products of Somerset, although brown ironstone, zinc, limestone and small quantities of slate, gravel, sand, sulphate of strontia, gypsum, ochre, Fuller's earth, marl, cement, copper and manganese are also found. Lead mining is carried on near Wellington, and lead washing in the Mendips; but these industries, like the working of spathose iron ore among the Brendon hills, are on the wane. The chief manufactures are those of woollen and worsted goods, made in a large number of towns; silk made at Frome, Taunton and Shepton Mallet; gloves at Yeovil, Stoke, Martock and Taunton; lace at Chard; linen and sailcloth at Crewkerne ; horsehair goods at Bruton, Castle Cary and Crewkerne; crape at Dulverton and Shepton Mallet. Tobacco, snuff and spirits are also manufactured; and there are large potteries at Bridgwater, where the celebrated bath-brick is made, and at Weston-super- Mare; carriage works at Bath and Bridgwater; engineering and machine-works also at Bridgwater. On the Avon, copper and iron are smelted, while several other rivers provide power for cotton, worsted and paper mills. The bulk of the export trade passes through Bristol, which is situated mainly in Gloucestershire, though it has large docks on the Somerset side of the Avon, and others at Portishead.

Communication.—Somerset is well furnished with railways. The Great Western runs between Frome, Radstock, Bath and Bristol, and from Bristol it curves south-west through Weston and Bridgwater to Taunton, dividing there and passing on into Devon. Branches leave the main line for Portishead, Clevedon and Minehead on the north, and for Witham Friary via Wells, Yeovil via Langport, and Chard via Ilminster on the south. The South-Western main line from London passes through the south-west of Somerset, running from Templecombe to Axminster in Devon, and the Somerset and Dorset runs from Bath to Shepton Mallet via Radstock. The Kennet and Avon Canal flows from Bradford in Wiltshire to Bath, and there joins the Avon, meeting on its way the two branches of the Somersetshire Coal Canal which flow from Paulton and Radstock. The Taunton and Bridgwater Canal flows into the River Parrett.

Population and Administration.—The area of the ancient county is 1,043,409 acres, with a population in 1891 of 484,337, and in 1901 of 508,256. The area of the administrative county is 1,037,484 acres. The county contains 40 hundreds and two liberties. The municipal boroughs are—Bath, a city and county borough (pop. 49,839), Bridgwater (15,209), Chard (4437), Glastonbury (4016), Taunton (21,087), Wells, a city (4840), Yeovil (9861). The urban districts are—Burnham (2897), Clevedon (5900), Crewkerne (4226), Frome (11,057), Highbridge (2233), Ilminster (2287), Midsomer Norton (5809), Minehead (3511), Portishead (2544), Radstock (3355), Shepton Mallet (5238), Street (4018), Watchet (1880), Wellington (7283), Weston-super-Mare (19,845), Wiveliscombe (1417). Among other towns may be mentioned Bruton (1788), Castle Cary (1902), Cheddar (1975), Keynsham (3512) and Wincanton (1892). The county is in the western circuit, and assizes are held at Taunton and Wells. It has one court of quarter sessions, and is divided into 22 petty sessional divisions. The boroughs of Bath and Bridgwater have separate courts of quarter sessions and commissions of the peace, and those of Taunton, Wells and Yeovil have separate commissions of the peace. The total number of civil parishes is 485. Somerset is in the diocese of Bath and Wells, excepting small parts in the dioceses of Bristol and Salisbury; it contains 508 ecclesiastical parishes or districts, wholly or in part. There are seven parliamentary divisions—Northern, Wells, Frome, Eastern, Southern, Bridgwater and Western or Wellington, each returning one member; while the parliamentary borough of Bath returns two members, and that of Taunton one member; and the county includes the greater part of the southern division of the parliamentary borough of Bristol.

History.—In the 6th century Somerset was the debatable borderland between the Welsh and Saxons, the latter of whom pushed their way slowly westward, fighting battles yearly and raising fortifications at important points to secure their conquered lands. Their frontier was gradually advanced from the Axe to the Parrett, and from the Parrett to the Tamar, Taunton being a border fort at one stage and Exeter at another. By 658 Somerset had been conquered by the West Saxons as far as the Parrett, and there followed a struggle between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, decided by a great victory of Ine in 710, which led to the organization of the lands east of the Parrett as part of the kingdom of Wessex. There were still occasional inroads by the Welsh, Taunton Castle being captured in 721, but from the 8th century the West Saxon kings were rulers of what is now known as Somersetshire. About this time the bishopric of Wells was founded, and the monastery of Glastonbury restored by Ine. The next hundred and fifty years were the period of Danish invasions. Egbert, king of Wessex, became Bretwalda or overlord of all England in 827, and under him Wessex with the other frontier kingdoms was organized for defence against the Danes, and later the assessment of danegeld led to the subdivision of Wessex for financial and military purposes, which crystallized into the divisions of hundreds and tithings, probably with the system of assessment by hidation. King Alfred's victory in 878, followed by the Peace of Wedmore, ended the incursions of the Danes for a time, but a hundred years later they were again a great danger, and made frequent raids on the west coast of Somerset. At some time before the Conquest, at a date usually given as 1016, though evidence points to a much earlier and more gradual establishment, England was divided into shires, one of which was Somerset, and tradition gives the name of the first earl as Hun, who was followed by Earnulf and Sweyn, son of Godwin. There has been curiously little variation in the territory included in the county, from the date of the Gheld Inquest in 1084 to the second half of the 19th century, when certain minor alterations were made in the county boundary. These have been practically the only changes in the county boundary for 900 years, if we except the exclusion of Bristol from the county jurisdiction in 1373.

At the Conquest Somerset was divided into about 700 fiefs held almost entirely by the Normans. The king's lands in Somerset were of great extent and importance, and consisted in addition to the ancient demesne of the Crown of the lands of Godwin and Earl Harold and the estates of Queen Edith who died in 1074. The bishop of Winchester owned a vast property of which Taunton was the centre, and about one-tenth of the county was included in the estates of the bishop of Coutances, which were akin to a lay barony and did not descend as a whole at the bishop's death. The churches of Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney still owned vast lands, but Norman spoliation had deprived them of much that they had held before the Conquest. Among the great lay tenants who divided the conquered lands were the count of Mortain (the Conqueror's half-brother), Roger de Corcelles, Walter de Douai, Roger Arundel and William de Mohun. About this time or a little later many Norman castles were built, some of which have survived. The castles at Richmont (near West Harptree), Nunney, Farleigh, Bridgwater, Stoke Courcy, Taunton and Dunster were probably the most important. Somerset was very rich in boroughs at the time of Domesday, which points to a considerable development of trade before the Conquest; Bath, Taunton, Ilchester, Frome, Milborne Port, Bruton, Langport and Axbridge were all boroughs in 1087, and there was the nucleus of a borough at Yeovil. Somerton, Ilchester and Taunton were successively the meeting-places of the shire court. There were joint sheriffs for Somerset and Dorset until 1566 when a separate sheriff for each county was appointed. In the 7th century Somerset, as part of the kingdom of Wessex, was included in the diocese of Winchester. The new bishopric of Sherborne, founded in 704, contained Somerset until 910 when the see was divided into the dioceses of Salisbury, Exeter and Wells, the latter including the whole county of Somerset. The diocese was divided into three archdeaconries, Bath with two deaneries, Wells with seven and Taunton with four. Disputes between the chapters of Bath and Wells as to the election of the bishop led to a compromise in 1245, the election being by the chapters jointly, and the see being known as the bishopric of Bath and Wells. There has always been a strongly marked division of the county into East and West Somerset, a relic of the struggles between the Welsh and Saxons, which was recognized for parliamentary purposes by the act of 1832. Somerset contained 37 hundreds in 1087, and now contains 41. There have been considerable modifications of these hundredal divisions by aggregation or subdivision, but since the 15th century there has been little change. The meeting-place of the hundred courts was at the village or town which gave its name to the hundred in the cases of Bruton, Cannington, Carhampton, Chew, Chewton, Crewkerne, Frome, Glaston Twelve Hides, Huntspill, Kilmersdon, Kingsbury East, Milverton, North Curry, North Petherton, Norton Ferris, Pitney, Portbury, Somerton, South Petherton, Taunton, Tintinhull, Wellow, Wells Forum and Winterstoke. The hundred of Abdick and Bulstone met at Ilford Bridges in Stocklinch Magdalen, Andersfield hundred court was held at the hamlet of Andersfield in the parish of Goathurst, Bath Forum hundred met at Wedcombe, Bempstone at a huge stone in the parish of Allerton, Brent and Wrington at South Brent, Catsash at an ash tree on the road between Castle Cary and Yeovil, Hartcliffe and Bedminster at a lofty cliff between the parishes of Barrow Gurnes and Winford, Horethorne or Horethorne Down near Milborne Port, Whitstone at a hill of the same name near Shepton Mallet, Williton and Freemanors in the village of Williton in the parish of St Decumans, and Whitley at Whitley Wood in Walton parish. In the case of Kingsbury the meeting-place of the hundred is not known. The great liberties of the county were Cranmore, Wells and Leigh, which belonged to the abbey of Glastonbury; Easton and Amrill and Hampton and Claverton, which were the liberties of the abbey of Bath; Hinton and Norton, which belonged to the Carthusian priory of Hinton; Witham Priory, a liberty of the house of that name; and Williton Freemanor, which belonged for a time to the Knights Templars.

The chief families of the county in the middle ages were those of De Mohun, Malet, Revel, De Courcy, Montacute, Beauchamp and Beaufort, which bore the titles of earls or dukes of Somerset from 1396 to 1472. Edward Seymour was made duke of Somerset in 1547, and in 1660 the title was restored to the Seymour family, by whom it is still held. The marquess of Bath is the representative of the Thynne family, which has long been settled in the county, and the predecessors of the earl of Lovelace have owned land in Somerset for three centuries. Hinton St George has been the seat of the Poulet family since the 16th century. The De Mohun family were succeeded in the 14th century by the Luttrells, who own great estates round Dunster Castle. The families of Hood, Wyndham, Acland, Strachey, Brokeley, Portman, Hobhouse and Trevelyan have been settled in Somerset since the 16th century.

Somerset was too distant and isolated to take much share in the early baronial rebellions or the Wars of the Roses, and was really without political history until the end of the middle ages. The attempt of Perkin Warbeck in 1497 received some support in the county, and in 1547 and 1549 there were rebellions against enclosures. Somerset took a considerable part in the Civil War, and with the exception of Taunton, was royalist, all the strongholds being garrisoned and held for the king. Waller was defeated at Landsdown near Bath in 1643, and Goring at the battle of Allermoor in 1645. This defeat was followed by the capture of the castles held by the royalists. Bridgwater and Bath fell in July 1645, Sherborne Castle was taken in August, and after the capture of Nunney, Farleigh and Bristol in September 1645 the whole county was subdued, and very heavy fines were inflicted upon the royalists, who included nearly all the great landowners of the county. Somerset was the theatre of Monmouth's rebellion, and he was proclaimed king at Taunton in 1685. The battle of Sedgmoor on the 4th of July was followed in the autumn by the Bloody Assize held by Judge Jeffreys.

Somerset has always been an agricultural county. Grain was grown and exported from the 11th to the end of the 18th century. Cider-making has been carried on for centuries. Among other early industries, salmon and herring fisheries on the west coast were very profitable, and mining on the Mendips dated from the pre-Roman period. Stone quarrying at Hambdon Hill and Bath began very early in the history of the county; and the lead mines at Wellington and the slate quarries at Wiveliscombe and Treborough have been worked for more than a century. Coal has been mined at Radstock from a very remote date, but it did not become of great importance commercially until the county was opened up by canals and railways in the 19th century. Sheep-farming was largely carried on after the period of enclosures, and the woollen trade flourished in Frome, Bath, Bridgwater, Taunton and many other towns from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Glove-making was centred at Stoke and Yeovil at the end of the 18th century and became an important subsidiary occupation in many country districts. The county was represented in the parliament of 1290 and probably in the earlier parliamentary councils of Henry III. In 1295 it was represented by two knights, and twelve boroughs returned two burgesses each. There have been many fluctuations in the borough representation, but the county continued to return two members until 1832, when it was divided into Somerset East and Somerset West, each of which divisions returned two members. Two additional members were returned after 1867 for a third—the Mid-Somerset—division of the county, until by the act of 1885 the whole county was divided into seven divisions.

Antiquities.—The great possessions of the bishopric and of the abbey of Glastonbury led to a remarkable lack of castles in the mid part of the county, and also tended to overshadow all other ecclesiastical foundations. Even in the other parts of the county castles are not a prominent feature, and no monastic churches remain perfect except those of Bath and its cell, Dunster. At the dissolution of monasteries Bath was suppressed, the monastery of Glastonbury was destroyed, as were most of the smaller monasteries also. Of those which have left any remains, Woodspring, Montacute (Cluniac) and Old Cleeve (Cistercian) are the most remarkable. Athelney, founded by Alfred on the spot where he found shelter, has utterly perished. Montacute and Dunster fill a place in both ecclesiastical and military history. The castle of Robert of Mortain, the Conqueror’s brother, was built on the peaked hill (mons acutus) of Leodgaresburh, where the holy cross of Waltham was found. The priory arose at the foot. Dunster, one of the few inhabited castles in England, stands on a hill crowned by an English mound. Besides these there are also remains at Nunney and Castle Cary. In ecclesiastical architecture the two great churches of Wells and Glastonbury supply a great study of the development of the Early English style out of the Norman. But the individual architectural interest of the county lies in its great parish churches, chiefly in the Perpendicular style, which are especially noted for their magnificent towers. They are so numerous that it is not easy to select examples, but besides those at Bath, Taunton and Glastonbury, the churches at Bridgwater, Cheddar, Crewkerne, Dunster, Ilminster, Kingsbury, Leigh-on-Mendip, Martock and Yeovil may be specially indicated. Of earlier work there is little Norman, and hardly any pre-Conquest, but there is a characteristic local style in some of the smaller buildings of the 14th century. The earlier churches were often cruciform, and sometimes with side towers. In domestic remains no district is richer, owing to the abundance of good stone. Clevedon Court is a very fine inhabited manor-house of the 14th century, and the houses, great and small, of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries are very numerous. Indeed, the style has never quite gone out, as the gable and the mullioned window have lingered on to this day. Barrington Court in the 16th century and Montacute House in the 17th are specially fine examples. There are also some very fine barns, as at Glastonbury, Wells and Pilton.

See J. Collinson, History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset (Bath, 1791) ; W. Phelps, History and Antiquities of Somerset (London, 1839); R. W. Eyton, Domesday Studies: Analysis of the Somerset Survey (London, 1880); F. T. Elworthy, West Somerset Word-Book (Dialect Society, London, 1886); Roger, Myths and Worthies of Somerset (London, 1887); C. R. B. Barrett, Somerset Highways, Byways and Waterways (London, 1894); C. Walters, Bygone Somerset (London, 1897); Victoria County History: Somerset; also various publications by the Somerset Record Society, the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, and Somerset Notes and Queries.