Somerset (county)

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Somerset was before 1972 one of the largest counties, 70 miles from Frome in the east to Exmoor in the west. It 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. The largest town, Bath, which was not lost to Avon until the reorganization of 1972, had then only 85,000 people and was twice the size of the next largest town, Taunton.

The northern parts of the shire drain into the rivers Avon and Frome, which form the border with Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and the central parts into the Parrett and its tributaries the Cary, Yeo, and Tone. The border with Devon runs through Exmoor and the Blackdown hills, and in the east the shire merges with the chalk hills of Wiltshire west of Salisbury Plain. The northern parishes look towards Bristol and Bath, the south-western towards Taunton, and the south-eastern towards Yeovil.

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 Fosse Way, from Lincoln to Exeter, bisected the county north-east to south-west. The hot springs at Bath were almost certainly known before Roman times and the city, Aquae Sulis, grew up quickly. Ilchester, on the Fosse, was another important development. 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, or on the Wiltshire downs to the east: 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, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 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 and to have fortified Taunton. His nephew Aldhelm built a church at Wells (c.704), which became a see in 909 when jurisdiction was transferred from Sherborne. 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’.

Somerset suffered severely from the ravages of the Danes, who destroyed Glastonbury in 873 and Somerton in 877. Alfred's resistance was organized from the marshes around Athelney. The submission of Guthrum, the Danish leader, was at Aller, near Somerton, and the treaty dividing up southern England was agreed in 878 at Wedmore, near Axbridge. 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, with its traditions of Joseph of Arimathea and of Arthur, 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 most famous purchaser was ‘ Little Jack Horner’, whose plum was the estate of Mells. The church lands seem to have been widely distributed and no overriding aristocratic interest arose, partly also because the shire was large with many market towns. Consequently it 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. Later in the century, large parts of central Somerset were reclaimed from persistent flooding by rhynes and sea-walls: one of the most ambitious, the King's Sedgemoor drain, straightening the course of the river Cary, was finished in 1791. The 19th cent. saw a diversification of the economy. In 1801 Bath was still the ninth largest town in England and retained its unique character. Street, which had been no more than a village, became a sizeable town after Clarks shoe factory was built there 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 burst of prosperity. By 1868 there were 64 small pits at work around Radstock and production peaked just before the First World War. 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.

By a strange piece of legislation in 1972 the northern parishes of the shire were hived off to form the southern part of the new county of Avon. Though Avon was itself abolished in 1996, the parishes were not returned to Somerset. Proposals to abolish the shire for all but ceremonial purposes were successfully resisted, but the northern region was divided between two unitary authorities, Bath and north-east Somerset, and north Somerset (based upon Weston-super-Mare).

J. A. Cannon

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SOMERSET. The name of a south-western county of England and of its local speech, sometimes called Somersetian and occasionally referred to informally as Zummerzet. Many of its features are common to the entire WEST COUNTRY, but the diphthongs in such words as cow, house and tail, came are closer to RP than elsewhere in the region. The use of the voiced initial fricative in words such as ‘zum’ for some and ‘varm’ for farm is becoming rare in the towns. Compare MUMMERSET.

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Somerset County on the Bristol Channel, sw England. Somerset is divided into five districts, with the administrative centre at Taunton (2000 pop. 60,700). Other major towns include Yeovil and Bridgewater. The region is generally low-lying in the centre, and is drained by the rivers Avon, Exe, and Parrett. Much land is given over to agriculture. Dairy farming and fruit growing are the most important economic activities and the region is noted for Cheddar cheese and cider. Limestone is mined. Area: 3452sq km (1332sq mi). Pop. (2000) 496,300.

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