Today the most common association with the name ‘Moretonhampstead’, or ‘Moreton’ as it is usually called, is the moor – Dartmoor – which rises to a height of two thousand feet within sight of the town. Such a close association has deep roots. Our medieval forebears might have looked up to the western horizon and seen only an inhospitable line of hills from which they could extract tin, and seen nothing of beauty, but the moor has always dominated the place which the town now occupies. Four thousand years ago the Bronze Age settlers who built the long field systems (‘reaves’) across the moor extended their hedge-topped stone walls to divide up parts of the parish of Moreton too. At Butterdon their works may still be seen, with the odd standing stone in their midst, as a subtle relic of their vanished culture. Their field system shows that they farmed at Cranbrook, where their Iron Age successors built a substantial hill fort, one of a series circling the moor. Later still Dartmoor proved an inhospitable and unwelcoming frontier for Roman culture, which disregarded the Moreton region as part of the moor. Only when the Saxons arrived did the place become a settlement distinct from the moor which overshadows it. And what did the Saxons call it? Moor-tun: the settlement in the moor.

The following pages are not concerned with the prehistory of the region but with the history – i.e. the recorded past – of the settlements which form the parish of Moretonhampstead. The twelve following webpages chronologically describe the development of the town. Partly this is to explain why the place we live in is as it is today. But also it is to allow us to see what it must have been like in those days, regardless of what happened later. We may never know how well or harshly the Saxons here were treated by the Norman invaders after 1066, nor how much hardship was caused by the terrible rains, famine and cattle murrain of 1315-1321, but by looking at the recorded records of our community and seeing the places where for many centuries people have worked, loved, eaten, starved, prayed, joked, laughed, fallen ill and died, we may have some sympathy for all our fellow Moretonians, the long-dead as much as the yet-to-be-born.

Saxon origins

If you stood in the middle of Moreton about the year 700, say at the point where Cross Street, Station Road, Court Street and the Square now meet, you would have seen little sign of settlement. Maybe there was a small hut or two nearby, the home of an early Saxon pioneer bold enough to establish his farm on the edge of the moor; but probably there were no buildings at all. Looking down the Wray Valley, you would have seen only the canopy of trees. Looking up, along the direction which Ford Street now takes, you might have noticed a slight impression, now overgrown, of the route which generations of the Dumnonii tribe had taken as they passed southwest from their encampment at Cranbrook, centuries before. Wolves and bears lived wild, as did wildcats and eagles. No Roman villa had ever been built here. It was a remote, and inhospitable place, uninhabited, and probably frequented only by the occasional wandering band of warriors, who made their brief fires on the defensive spur of the Sentry, or Sanctuary field, before marching on to discover more of their people’s newly-won territory.

Prior to the arrival of the West Saxons under their kings Centwine (reigned 676-685), Caedwalla (685-688) and Ine (688-726) Devon was very sparsely populated. It has been suggested that large numbers of Britons had already retreated westward to take shelter in Cornwall from the oncoming invaders. It is equally possible that the population had moved away from the high ground around Dartmoor in the early years of the Dark Ages, i.e. in the fifth century, as colder weather made farming here difficult. Thus, when the saxons came in the late seventh century, it was not land around Moreton which they were after. Principally they wanted to acquire those areas which were comparatively abundant in produce, and easy to reach by road, such as Crediton, already a rich and well-established estate. Only after the land had been made safe from reprisal attacks from the Britons, and only when too many settlers meant that those seeking to establish themselves had to set themselves up elsewhere, and only when the fighting men became old enough to want to settle and work in peace, did places on the outskirts of the settled regions, and on the edge of the moor, become permanently settled.

The only vestiges we have of Moreton from this time are the name and the geography of the parish. There is no good reason to doubt that the name Moor-tun refers to the settlement’s position on the edge of – or within – Dartmoor, and that it was probably settled as a route became established from the hills to the north down the Wray Valley, circumventing the then more impassable reaches of the moor. In the early Saxon period, when few people had lived in the region for several hundred years, Dartmoor probably extended much further east than at present up to the present stretches of common at Pepperdon and Mardon, and probably further still, beyond Blackingstone Rock. Thus the first tun or farmstead from which Moreton is named was probably built in the eighth century and was so named from being surrounded by moorland which would not be cleared until later centuries.

Over the next three hundred years Moreton grew substantially. Probably due to its location on the route skirting the moor, and as the first settlement one came to travelling south into the hundred (a Saxon unit of administration) of Teignbridge, it acquired an importance in excess of that of neighbouring manors. By the time of the Norman invasion it was important enough that a third of the tax levied on the whole hundred was paid to the lord of Moreton. At the other end of the hundred, Teignton (now Kingsteignton), also a royal manor, was a similarly considerable estate, possible complementing Moreton’s status and purpose. Indeed, in the middle ages Moreton was sometimes referred to as a hundredal manor, possibly referring back to its earlier strategic importance. By the tenth century, the layout of the future town had probably become established, with houses arranged a large, roughly square enclosure, through which the road from Ford Street down to Kingsteignton ran. The Square – roughly bounded by Fore Street, Cross Street, the churchyard and the modern square – was at the heart of this community. At one end stood the church, possibly a small stone structure on the site of the present nave, of which a few stone carvings in the church are perhaps all that remains. On the green children could play, sheep could be penned overnight, travellers’ horses could be tethered, and people could meet and hold gatherings in an area clearly demarcated as part of the village, as opposed to the overgrown wilderness which lay beyond.

Moreton in the Domesday Book

The first appearance of Moreton in the written historical record is in Domesday Book, compiled in 1086. Roughly translated, the entry for Moreton reads as follows:Moreton. A royal manor. At the time of King Edward the Confessor’s death it paid tax for three hides (units of roughly 80-120 acres). There is land for twenty ploughs. In lordship there are three ploughs and six serfs (unfree labourers) cultivating one hide; and sixteen villeins (villagers) and six bordars (smallholders) with eight ploughs cultivating two hides. There are twenty acres of meadow, sixty acres of pasture; the woodland is one league long and one furlong wide. There are twenty cattle and one hundred and thirty sheep. It pays £12 in tax weighed and assayed, the same as it did when Baldwin acquired it. To the manor of Moreton belongs the third penny of the hundred of Teignbridge.

Moreton was not the only Domesday manor which eventually formed part of the parish. A second, smaller manor was that of Wray, just to the south. The entry for Wray reads as follows:Wray, Held by Godwin. At the time of King Edward the Confessor’s death it was held by Alstan, at which time it paid tax for one hide. There are six ploughs there, which is all that there is land for; there are four serfs, eleven villeins and 3 bordars. There are eight acres of meadowand five acres of pasture. Ther are eight cattle, four pigs and thirty sheep. It was formerly worth 60s; now it is worth 30s.

From these few facts we can say quite a lot about Moreton and Wray twenty years after the Norman conquest. For a start there is the amount of land under cultivation. Today the parish extends to nearly eight thousand acres; but in 1086 much of this would have been regarded as waste ground between Moreton and its neighbouring manors. No more than 450 acres is accounted for Moreton in Domesday, and no more than about 150 acres for the manor of Wray. Thus of the several thousand acres of land in the parish, less than ten per cent was actually being farned, the remainder being moorland, wilderness, steep hillside or overgrown waste.

From the population figures given, Moreton was clearly not a populous manor. Many other royal manors of similar value had more people. Holsworthy, for example, which also rendered £12 to the king yearly in tax, had fifteen serfs, forty villeins and twenty smallholders: a total of seventy-five men compared to Moreton’s twenty-eight. Even Alphington and Topsham, which each paid only £6 to the king, had forty-three and thirty-three men respectively. Thus Moreton’s comparative value lay probably as much in its administrative role as its farming one. With regard to actual population, there figures do not include women and children, but they do allow us to see that Wray, far from being a small annex of Moreton, had more than half the working male population of Moreton. With about forty-five male heads of households, one might guess at the total combined population of the two manors at this time being in the region of 250 people.


In 1207 Moreton was granted the right to hold a market. This made it a seigneurial borough, in which the lord of the manor benefitted from the tolls and tallages of goods traded. However, twelve years later Chagford too had a market, set up by its lord in direct competition to Moreton’s. A heavy dispute ensued, in which the lord of Moreton, Earl William de Mandeville, accused Hugh of Chagford of setting up a market without licence to the detriment of his market in Moreton. Hugh replied that ‘he had not set up a market, because his market was set up a hundred years ago, and the earl’s market was set up five years ago, and both were on a Sunday until they were changed to Saturday out of regard for religion’. To this the earl’s lawyer responded that Hugh had never had a market at Chagford, only an irregular meeting on a Sunday at which meat and bread were sold, and that King John had prohibited the Sunday assembly at Chagford at the time he granted the market at Moreton. The matter was left in the hands of a jury of ten men: they probably found in Hugh’s favour, for both towns continued to have a market throughout the middle ages. Moreton’s borough rights were confirmed by a grant of Henry III in 1238; and the market firmly enshrined in a charter obtained by Hugh de Courtenay in 1335 and frequently renewed by manorial lords thereafter.

It was not just the town that was growing; the outskirts too were being assarted (cleared of trees and waste for farming), and the farm land being cultivated for both crops and animals. Judging from Doccombe manorial rolls and personal name evidence for Moreton, the higher altitude farms were being farmed by the early fourteenth century; and probably almost the whole modern extent of the farmed parish had been cleared by 1300. Addiscote, Budleigh, Clifford, Combe, Hayne, Holcombe, Howton, Lewdown, Linscott, Pafford, Pepperdon, Sainthill, Sloncombe, Stacombe, Uppacott and Yallworthy were all being farmed by 1330, and it is quite likely even more farms than this were in use. Thus on the eve of the Black Death Moreton had grown steadily since its Domesday assessment. The 1291 assessment of the annual income of the rector of Moreton for Pope Nicholas IV was £14: more than the value of the whole manor to the King in 1086.

In 1332 the names of twenty-nine lay tax payers are recorded for the parish including the manor of Doccombe and the submanor of Howton. Eleven more were assessed within the tithing of Wray. The amounts recorded in this taxation roll, known as a lay subsidy, represent one fifteenth of the value of the moveable wealth (chattels) owned. What is interesting about this list (which may viewed here) is that nearly all the names correspond to places outside the town. Furthermore, there are multiple taxpayers at a number of outlying areas, for instance Butterdon (3), Howton (2), Linscott (2), Yalworthy (2) and Uppacott (2). Only six surnames are given – Tozer of Howton, Ilbert of Clifford, Kena, Veysi, Aluard and Corvyset – and thus most of these place-name ‘epithets’ probably represent places of residence, not surnames per se. This is made more likely by the fact that all the epithets relate to places in the parish: none from elsewhere, being used as a patronymic. Thus we can rightly ask: what of the inhabitants of Moreton itself? According to this list they were outnumbered by the outlying farms: clearly an implausible suggestion. Thus we may tentatively suggest that this list only relates to those living outside the borough of Moreton. In other words: there were possibly as many as forty established households outside the town boundaries in 1332, indicating a parish population of perhaps 200-250 parishioners outside the town centre.

As the Devon Historian WG Hoskins remarked, ‘The Devon of 1348 on the eve of the Black Death was very different from that of two centuries earlier. Thousands of new farms had come into being; the woodlands were greatly diminished. In the 12th century the cleared areas had been islands, some large and some minute, in a sea of trees or of moorland. Now it would be truer to say that the cleared areas were more conspicuous than the uncleared: that, part from the upland waste of Dartmoor, still hardly scratched by the peasant’s plow, it was the ‘waste’ that now formed large islands in an encroaching sea of cultivation, which lapped all round their edges, reaching higher and higher.’ (WG Hoskins, Devon, pp60-61)

The end of the middle ages

In 1377 a poll tax was ordered throughout England. It levied 4d on the head of every man and woman above the age of fourteen, apart from clergymen and genuinely poor beggars. Unfortunately none of the rolls recording the names of the tax payers have survived for Moreton, but the names of the assessors and collectors have. These were Henry Brokman, William Matheron and Roger Broun for Moreton; Richard Bailly, John Carswill and John Coule for Wray; and Stephen Mol, John Bagge and John Bastard for Howton. Most importantly, the amounts of money charged in tax have survived, from which one can work out the adult population more accurately than at any time previously: Moreton itself was assessed at £2 12s (156 individuals), Wray at 10s (30 individuals), and Howton at 4s (12 individuals): see Carolyn Fenwick, The Poll taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381 (1998)).

These figures allow us to determine an approximate size of population for Moreton at this time. The total population of the population paying tax being 198, not including priests and the genuine needy. It has been argued that the number of needy not paying tax remained fairly constant; to judge from later centuries as many as a third of all adults might count as paupers in this way. Thus the probable rough number of adults in Moreton was about 300, and considering maybe as many as a third of the population were below the age of fourteen (due to the high infant and child mortality) the total population of the parish was probably about 450 at this time. By comparison, in 1377 Chagford had 135 taxpayers (population about 300); Dunsford 80 (population about 100) and Bovey Tracey 150 (population about 350).

Two things from the above figures are obvious: firstly that Moreton was holding its own as a significant local centre, no less important than Chagford or Bovey Tracey; and secondly that it had suffered a loss of population. If there had been two hundred or so people living outside the town in 1332, there were certainly fewer in 1377. The Black Death killed approximately half the population, and while Devon was quick to recover, it was severely affected. We know also that the moorland areas were affected: the tin trade was brought to an almost complete standstill, and since Chagford, just four miles away, was one of the four towns where tin was weighed and assayed (stannary towns), we can be certain that Moreton was affected too. If Moreton’s population fell by a third, then we can guess that in the 1330s the town had had a population of about 400-450 within its boundaries, as well as the 200-250 in outlying areas. The four hundred or so survivors in the 1370s would have lived in a parish surrounded by crumbling buildings, relics of farms once worked by men buried quickly, for fear of contagion, within living memory.

For those who survived, new opportunities presented themselves. Wide areas of land suitable for raising sheep were nearby, and while even vaster streches of sheep-rearing land were available to those parishes which bordered Dartmoor, Moreton was a suitable point at which to process the pelts. By the late fifteenth century woollen cloth was the staple industry of the town, and so it remained for the next three hundred years. There were fulling mills on Millbrook at Kinsmansdale and Wrey, and weaving remained an important industry until the eighteenth century. Now the medieval fair, granted by King John and regranted several times since, came into its own. It was very probably money from the wool trade which paid for the rebuilding of the church tower in 1420, either directly, through tolls, or indirectly, through profits raised by the Courtenay family from the manor and borough. This trade and the elevated importance of the town resulted finally in the construction of the most important building in Moreton, St Andrews Hospital, where pilgrims and ill people could attend to their ‘spiritual cleanliness’ before venturing on their way, whether to an earthly or heavenly destination. The chapel of the hospital, according to Bishop Lacy’s register, was newly constructed in 1450 (The Common Register of Bishop Edmund Lacy, iii, p70).

By 1500 Moreton had grown into a prosperous small town. It had kept pace with its neighbours, while never outgrowing them. Very difficult communications with Exeter meant that, effectively, it was still cut off, as may be shown by some of the irregularities which may be noticed in what little can be noted of daily life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In 1342 it was noted by the Archdeacon of Totnes that, at an enquiry made on May 4th, ‘the Missal is incomplete, the synodal is torn and defective, the Chrysm bowl is not waxed, thae altar is not dedicated and the lamps are defective’ (Lt Col GWG Hughes, ‘Moretonhampstead’ in TDA, lxxxvi (1954), p80). The archdeacon added that the parishioners had been warned that all these defects must be put in order before the next visitation of the Bishop of Exeter, on the penalty of forty shillings. He added that the main barn of the rectory had fallen down, although other church buildings were in order.

Finally, a reminder that the reward of prosperity is the company of thieves: in 1408 one John Sampson was accused before the king of ‘many outrageous treasons, felonies, and other extortions committed by him at sea in contempt of the crown’. In other words he was a pirate. A deputation, led by William Bentley and William Soper, was given the task of hunting him down. They sought him at the house of Peter Whiteley, who denied he knew of his whereabouts, although John Sampson was hiding in his dovecot. Eventually, after many months, he was tracked down. Guess where he had been hiding? Moretonhampstead.