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Devon


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Was the third largest of the old counties. Having two sea‐coasts, it was orientated in different directions, the northern shore along the Bristol channel, the south shore along the English channel. Dartmoor in the south, Exmoor in the north, and the Blackdowns in the east are the highest points, but much of the county is hilly, with deep valleys. The name first appears in the Anglo‐Saxon Chronicle in 851 as Defensascir, which appears to be derived from the Dumnonii, the Celtic tribe inhabiting the area. In Roman times, Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) was an important base and port.

In post‐Roman times, the British kingdom of Dumnonia embraced both Devon and Cornwall: it survived at least until the early 8th cent. The eastern part of the region had fallen to the Saxons after Cenwalh's victory at Penselwood in 658 and much of the western part by the end of the century. It then formed part of the kingdom of Wessex. Ine established a bishopric for the area at Sherborne in 705, moved to Crediton in 909, and to Exeter itself in 1050. By the 11th cent. it had taken shape as a shire. In the Domesday survey of 1086 Exeter was by far the largest town.

Though Exeter was the county town and of national importance, it did not dominate in so large a shire. Consequently, Devon developed as a county of seaports—Barnstaple, Bideford, Brixham—and of market towns of largely local significance, Okehampton, Tavistock, Tiverton, Torrington, Newton Abbot, Honiton, and Ashburton. Until the growth of the cloth industry in the later Middle Ages, it was wholly dependent upon agriculture and fishing, with a little mining. Plymouth developed as a naval base as vessels grew larger and its superb harbour was more needed, replacing Plympton. Charles II built the citadel and William III established the royal dockyard in 1692.

The reputation of the county was for unintelligible speech, turbulence, and independence. In 1549 there was a formidable rising on behalf of the old religion and Exeter was threatened. Later, protestant dissent made much progress. During the Civil War there was heavy fighting. Exeter was held for the king but Plymouth, a fiercely puritan town, proved a thorn in the royalists' side. The county gave some support in 1685 to Monmouth, who landed at Lyme, and more in 1688 to William of Orange, who came ashore at Brixham in November.

Improvements in roads and the coming of the railway made Devon less inaccessible: Brunel's lines reached Exeter in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848. Exeter grew from 17,000 in 1801 to 47,000 by the end of the century but was surpassed by Plymouth, more than 100,000 in 1901. Even more remarkable was the growth of the resorts as the habit of seaside holidays caught on. Ilfracombe, on the north coast, rose to well over 8,000 by 1901: Torquay, a hamlet of only 800 at the beginning of the century, was a town of 33,000 by 1901, and the new borough of Torbay had a population of 132,000 in 2004 as against 115,000 in Exeter.

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Subjects: British History.


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