Previously, I wrote about the ancient Plymouth Gin Distillery located in Plymouth 1 in that story, I mentioned that Plymouth had been attacked, raided and ruled by many others many times.
Here is an account of only a fraction of some of the various raids, uprisings, invaders and wars that is the tumultuous history of Plymouth.
Plymouth is located in the South West Peninsula of England and consists of the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. It is the furthest South and West of all of mainland England.
In 1866 a cave was discovered containing the bones of animals that no longer live on these islands. The bones included the lion, hyena cave bear, rhinoceros, and human remains. So man lived in this district as far back as the early stone age.
Most local finds in and around various areas of Plymouth have been of the Bronze Age, such as mirrors, daggers spearheads and coins up to 150 BC. In an area of Plymouth called Stonehouse, a burial chamber known as a kistvaen or kist was found. The name means a ‘stone chest’ 2
There are many kistvaens in the large area of the Dartmoor National Park just outside of Plymouth. However, the majority of the known Dartmoor kistvaens were opened at some time in the past, and whatever they used to hold is missing. The idea that ancient tombs might contain valuable items is a very old one; one of the first mentions of searching kistvaens in Devon dates back to 1324.
We can tell that Saxons settled in the Plymouth area because of the names of places ending in ‘Ham, Ton, Leigh, Worthey and Stock. In fact by 926 AD Saxons ruled the whole of Devon. There is an unusual place name are in Plymouth that was once a Saxon lane. In the Doomsday Book of 1086, it was called Heche Bockland and the Saxons had a church there. By 1385 it was known as Ekebokland which over the centuries has evolved into ‘Eggbuckland’ which, as a child, often produced a smirk…
After the Normans conquered England William the 1st gave the Saxon Manors to his Norman Knights and in 1085 had a list made of all the estates in the country and this was called ‘The Domesday Survey’ – the Middle English spelling of “Doomsday Book”.
By 1376 we first hear of a Mayor whose name was Maurice Bard. in 1377 the population of Plymouth was 7,000 and by this time, Plymouth was playing an important part in Naval affairs supplying ships for the fleet and was a busy port.
When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539 the priories had to surrender the tithes of Eggbuckland to the king. The present church is a stone building that dates from around 1420/30 called St. Edward. Its Parish registers date from 1653.
The Anglican church of St Edwards Church Road, Eggbuckland Plymouth Devon 3 Photography by Chris Downer
During the 14th Century, the South coast was attacked on several occasions by French pirates with many attacks on Plymouth, which caused a decline in trade and prosperity. Again, raids and attacks took place in 1377, 1400, and 1403. The most famous of all was the 1403 attack from the Bretons. They sent 30 ships and 1200 men at arms who came and anchored as the townsmen of Plymouth fired cannons at them but they landed and burnt 600 houses and plundered.
Later in the same year, an English fleet crossed to Brittany landed 4,000 men and laid waste to a large area. We seem to have had an uneasy relationship with the French ever since!
The famous seaman, Sir Francis Drake was born in 1541 near Tavistock, just outside Plymouth and was the eldest of 12 children. In 1581 Elizabeth I knighted him and the same year he was appointed Mayor of Plymouth. He was second-in-command as a Vice Admiral of the English fleet, in the victorious battle against the Spanish Armada, in 1588.
Early in July 1620 two vessels ‘The Mayflower’ and ‘The Speedwell’ set sail from Delfshaven in Holland. They were refugees who thought it would be safer in America. Both vessels reached Southhampton, but after leaving the Speedwell sprang a leak and they had to put into Dartmouth for repairs. Again, they set to sea but once more the Speedwell started to leak and so they put into Plymouth. On the 6th of September, 1620 the Mayflower left Plymouth with 102 pilgrims aboard and reached Cape Cod on the 9th of November 1620. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1642 the civil war started in Plymouth. Most of the counties were Royalists whilst the towns were Parliamentarians. Plymouth, which was surrounded by Royalist country was the key to the West.
It had a harbour it was strongly walled and there was a fort on the Hoe. The word “Hoe” is derived from old English and appropriately means High Ground.
(This year, Facebook banned the word ‘Hoe” assuming it meant something else!) 4
The Royalists asked the whole town to surrender but they refused, and so, on Sunday, December the 3rd, there took place ‘The Sabbath Day Fight’ The townsfolk rallied from all the neighbouring strongpoints and drove the enemy down a steep hill and into a creek. The rear guard of the Royalist Cavalry was thrown into confusion and the creek was full of drowning men and horses. This was the primary battle but not the end of the siege.
At one time, the King himself came down to Plymouth with 15,000 men but still the town held out. in 1646, the siege was eventually raised. During it, 8,000 people died in Plymouth from various cases a number greater than the normal population.
Today, the following notable units are based at the Royal Citadel.
The Royal Artillery, Number 3 Commando Brigade and the 29th Commando Regiment 5
Centuries later, World War Two came to Plymouth. My grandfather saved the newspaper cuttings below. They are not too clear but give an idea of before and after a bombing raid on the city.
In the beginning, there were many small daylight raids. As the nights lengthened, these took place at night and in 1940, there were fairly heavy raids on December 29th and January 13th, 1941.
The worst raids took place in March and April 1941 and on the second of these raids in April, 106 high explosive bombs were dropped, 26 people were killed, 60 houses were completely destroyed, 400 were badly damaged and 2,000 were slightly damaged.
During those raids, the city centre was methodically destroyed in seven continuous nights of bombing. Plymouth lost all of its chief public buildings including the Guildhall, and the council chamber was wiped out.
In the last three years of the war, numerous raids were made. Plymouth lost its large stores and shops, 39 churches including its ‘Mother Church’ St. Andrews in the city centre, 20 schools, a theatre, eight cinemas, six hotels and nearly 30,000 homes completely uninhabitable and although many more raids took place, none were as bad as in 1941.
Although it took decades to rebuild today Plymouth is a vibrant holiday destination and describes itself as “Britain’s Ocean City” It has many holidaymakers visit and there is plenty to see and do. Plymouth boasts some spectacular scenery, a bustling town centre and some delicious dining options.
There is The National Marine Aquarium, The University of Plymouth, the Marine Biological Association, and the Blue Marine Foundation plus the City Centre and the Drake Mall. In addition, for any adrenaline junkie or marine life enthusiast, there are plenty of adventures to be had!
Smeaton’s Tower in this photo was built by an engineer named John Smeaton, constructed of Cornish granite and cleverly dove-tailed together. It has been a Grade 1-listed building since 1954.
It is open to visitors who can climb the 93 steps, including steep ladders, to the lantern room and observe Plymouth Sound – pictured – and the city. 6
Plymouth is now a modern city shaped by its past and steeped in history.