1068 The Irish raid South Devon

(Last Updated On: September 13, 2019)

We all know that the Normans came first in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. However, England didn’t give in immediately. In 1068 I William had to march a combined army of Normans and Englishmen loyal to the king west to force the submission of Exeter- a stronghold of Anglo-Saxon resistance.

The Saxons of Devon, Somerset, and Dorset had rallied at Exeter in support of the remnants of the Godwin family.

Exeter’s citizens, together with Harold Godwinson’s’s mother, Gytha, refused to swear fealty to William or pay the tax he demanded, and shut the gates against him. William marched on the city, where he was met with fierce armed resistance. After a siege of 18 days, Exeter capitulated – though Gytha escaped- and Rougemont Castle was established and garrisoned by the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records “William marched to Devonshire, and beset the city of Exeter eighteen days.” Once this siege was broken the Norman army swept through Devon and Cornwall, and secured the far west by building fortifications such as that in the wealthy town of Totnes. There were no significant population centres in the Bay at the time.

But this wasn’t the only resistance. Harold’s royal refugee sons sought the support of King Dairmat, the High King of Ireland. Dairmat was one of the most important kings in Ireland and his influence extended into the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Wales and even into England – in 1052 King Dairmat had lent Harold men and ships for a successful bid to reclaim the family’s power and lands after they had been banished from England.

The surviving sons of King Harold had escaped to Leinster after Hastings where they were hosted by Diarmait. And in 1068 Dairmait lent Harold’s sons 52 ships from the fleet of Dublin and an army to regain England. They landed near Avonmouth and devastated the area around Bristol, but failed to capture the town.

This is where we come in, as the fleet then plundered the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. It looks like they wanted to make a point and didn’t want to go home empty-handed.

The Domesday Book records that nine manors between the Erme and Kingsbridge estuaries in the South Hams were, “laid waste by Irishmen”. John of Worcester tells us that that the fleet returned to Ireland with the plunder of the two counties.

Here’s another intriguing possibility. On 3rd October 1978 a gold arm ring was found on the shore between Goodrington and Brixham. It was dated to the 10th and 11th centuries and is of a characteristic Scandinavian type. It was made in the Viking style and related arm- and finger-rings have occasionally been found elsewhere in southern England.

The arm ring consists of three plain rods twisted together and analysis shows that the ring is 99 per cent gold, with 1 per cent copper and silver. It was declared not to be Treasure Trove and returned to the finder, who sold it through Sotheby’s. It’s now in the British Museum and has been exhibited in Germany, Minneapolis and New York.

It has traditionally been accepted as being Viking, proving that they were here in Torbay. There’s another suggestion – bearing in mind the close relationship between the native Irish and the Vikings, was it lost during that South Devon raid?

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Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD at Exeter University , and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.