Forms the southern hinterland of the Bristol channel and has an unusual variety of topographical features—the bare Mendips north of Wells, the marshes around Glastonbury, the wooded Quantocks west of Bridgwater, and the high Cotswolds north of Bath. Since, despite a vigorous cloth industry and substantial deposits of coal, iron, and lead, it escaped the worst ravages of industrialization, it remains one of the most beautiful of shires.
In Caesar's time, the area was in the territory of the Belgae. It fell speedily to the Romans, who were exploiting the lead‐mines of Mendip as early as ad 49. The hot springs at Bath were almost certainly known before Roman times and the city, Aquae Sulis, grew up quickly. After the Roman withdrawal, the area was shielded from Saxon advance for some time by Selwood forest to the east, and the legends of Arthur arose from British resistance. The battle of Mount Badon, around ad 500, may have been at Little Solsbury Hill, near Bath; a British defensive victory, it held up the Saxon advance. But in 577 a Saxon victory at Dyrham, east of Bristol, gave them control of the northern parts, the rest falling after their victory at Peonnan in 658 when Cenwulf drove the Britons in flight to the Parrett. The region then became part of the kingdom of Wessex. Ine is said to have refounded the monastery at Glastonbury. His nephew Aldhelm built a church at Wells (c.704), which became a see in 909. By this time the region was acquiring its own identity as a shire, taking its name from Somerton, then the county town, and adding the suffix sæte—‘the people of’. At the Domesday survey, Bath was a city of national importance; Ilchester, Milborne Port, Taunton, Langport, Axbridge, and Bruton of local significance.
After the Norman Conquest, Glastonbury abbey became one of the wealthiest monasteries in the kingdom. Work on the new Wells cathedral started c.1184. Somerton and Ilchester were in sharp decline by Tudor times, but Taunton, Frome, and Yeovil prospered as cloth towns. Glastonbury lost its estates at the dissolution of the monasteries and its last abbot was hanged on the Tor. The shire gained a reputation for independence, to which was added, in the cloth towns, a strong tradition of religious dissent. In the Civil War, the towns were largely parliamentary in sympathy. Taunton, led by Robert Blake, withstood a protracted siege from Goring's men in 1645 and the royalist army was later routed by Fairfax at Langport. At the Restoration, Taunton was punished by the forfeiture of its charter and the demolition of the town walls. It gave a warm welcome to Monmouth in 1685 and paid for it after Sedgemoor in corpses swinging from innumerable gallows.
The 18th and 19th cents. saw great changes in the county. Bath's greatest period of fashion came under Beau Nash in the 1750s. In 1801 Bath was still the ninth largest town in England. Street, which had been no more than a village, became a sizeable town after Clarks shoe factory was built in 1825; Bridgwater, long a local port, added brick‐ and tile‐making, and Shepton Mallett grew on the production of cider. The Brendon hills produced iron for south Wales until the last mine closed in 1911. The Somerset coalfield had a brief prosperity. By 1868 there were 64 pits at work around Radstock. It declined sharply after 1945 and the last pit was abandoned in 1973. The most remarkable growth in the county was at Yeovil and at Weston‐super‐Mare. Yeovil had fewer than 3,000 people in 1801 but developed into a manufacturing town, specializing in aircraft. Weston's growth was even more spectacular. In 1801 it had only 138 inhabitants, but the cult of seaside holidays and the arrival of Brunel's railway in 1841 sent it into orbit. By 1914 the population had passed that of Taunton. Clevedon and Portishead, without the beaches to rival Weston, retained more of their Victorian charm.
Subjects: British History.