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.

Next section: 2. Domesday Book