Shirwell - a North Devon Village

Shirwell And All That

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Iron Age Shirwellians?

    St Peter's churchPeople have been living in and around Shirwell for thousands of years. The church is flanked by ancient yews
    There are several nearby hillforts, such as Castle Roborough. Very little is known about these people, who left no written records, though they may have planted the great yew trees in the churchyard, which are much older than the church.

    The Romans would have called them 'Dumnonii', but they would probably have thought of themselves as very different from the Dumnones, who lived around Isca Dumnoniorum, or Exeter. Their houses and tools have rotted and rusted, and newer buildings have hidden their remains.

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Romans? What Romans?

The Romans were the first people in Britain to keep written records, but they do not seem to have settled in force in North Devon. There are a few Roman forts along the coast, perhaps to protect against Irish
raiders, but more likely to prevent rebellious alliances with the Silures of South Wales. In Exeter and Bath, Roman architecture, coinage, drains, roads and Christianity changed life enormously, but North Devon seems to have ignored these newfangled foreign imports.

There is very little evidence of pottery being used at all in North Devon until after the Norman Conquest. This may just reflect the fact that most of North Devon is pasture land, so potsherds are less likely to turn up during ploughing, but even in Exeter, ceramics were barely used between the departure of the Romans and the tenth century.

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The Elusive Romano-British

Were there Christian Britons in Shirwell?

    The monastery of St Brannoc's in Braunton claimed to have a charter showing it held land in the Hundred of Braunton and Shirwell in 650 AD. If this was true, there were British farmers in Shirwell itself before ever the Saxons got there.

    However, the first mention of St Brannoc's we now have is in a document of the 9th century - 200 years later. Medieval monasteries were not above backdating their charters to give them a spurious air of authenticity. And the name 'Shirwell' is a Saxon one, meaning 'clear water', not British.

    The problem is that very few original documents survive from this period. Those not destroyed by pagan Saxons or Viking raiders risked being thrown out or recycled as outdated by springcleaning monks. Most of what was left was lost during the Reformation, when the great monastery libraries were dispersed, or burnt by the Puritans.

    But the Saxon name may disguise a mishearing of an earlier British name, now lost. Imagine trying to write down a Welsh place name handed down by word of mouth from your great-grandparents, with no idea how to spell it!

    St Brannoc, or Brynach, of Braunton was supposedly an Irish saint, who travelled to North Devon via Wales, and there are Irish memorial stones on the island of Lundy, just off the North Devon coast, to back up the story. In a period when it was quicker and easier to travel by sea than overland, North Devon would naturally have closer links with South Wales than South Devon. So St Brannoc's was probably originally a British-Irish monastery, and could well have had farms in Shirwell in the 7th century.

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The Peaceful Invasion?

    By the time Saxons settled in Shirwell, they and the inhabitants would both have been Christian, so they may just have settled among the residents as 'incomers' still do today.

    Anglo-Saxons started arriving in Britain in the 5th century, or even earlier, but it was a long time before they began settling in the West of England. Devon only became part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex at the beginning of the 9th century. The process of settlement was probably quite gradual, so we need not imagine Shirwell being taken by force. Many North Devonian pace names have British elements like 'charles', 'wal' or 'weal' and 'coomb'. Loxhore, just down the road from Shirwell, is certainly a British name, meaning 'winding river'.

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Domesday Book

    The great inventory of England commissioned by William the Conqueror as a catalogue of his loot, stands at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

    It describes the land around Shirwell as it was in 1087. The cultivated land was mostly meadow and pasture, as it is today. There was also woodland and scrub - vital when buildings were wood-built, and wood was almost the only available fuel.

    Deer hunting was made illegal under the Norman kings (except for people of rank), but earlier the deer in the woods may have been an important food source. This may sound a simple transaction - deer + arrow = venison. But the red deer you can still see around Shirwell are the size of a small pony (with horns), and can jump six-foot fences with ease. Hunting them through the steep and thickly wooded hills would have required skill and bravery.

    William parcelled out the lands of Shirwell Hundred to William de Poilly,Baldwin de Meulles, and Odo Fitz Gamelin, three Norman soldiers who were also given various other lands, and probably did not live in the village.

    The previous land-holders were Wulfwaerd, holding Shirwell manor itself, Beortmaer, a wealthy man who also held land in Loxhore, and Vitalis, with one small farm. Vitalis, interestingly, is a Roman name. Could he have been a descendant of the Romano- British farmers who worked the land for St Brannoc's monastery, four hundred years before?

    I wonder what happened to them? Did they follow Harold to Stamford Bridge against the Danish invasion, or to Hastings against the Normans, and die there? Or did they stay and work the land for the new Norman overlords?

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For information on later developments in Shirwell, take a look at the page of Rumours and Memories
More details about land holding in North Devon in the medieval period are at this site