The history of Devon

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By Jacob K. Powell


Devon is a county in South-West England, bordered to the east by the counties of Somerset and Dorset and to the west by the county of Cornwall. The name "Devon" comes from "Dumnonii" (the name of the Celtic tribe who were living in the area at the time of the Roman invasion) and subsequently "Dyfnaint" (the name of the tribe in the language of the West Welsh, who invaded the area once the Romans had departed).

There is evidence to suggest that Devon had human inhabitants from as early as the Stone Age. In 1927 a fragement of a prehistoric upper jawbone was discovered in Kents Cavern, near Torbay. Radiocarbon dating of the fragment in 1989 indicated that it was between 34,700 and 36,400 years old, although subsequent studies of fossils taken from the surrounding rock strata suggest that the specimen might date from even earlier. The fragment's dental structure was also analysed at the same time, and results indicated that the specimen was Homo sapiens rather than Neanderthal Man. To date, it remains the earliest modern human fossil to be found in North-West Europe.

The Devon area of Dartmoor contains the remains of some of the oldest known buildings in England. The moor boasts over five hundred Neolithic sites, such as burial mounds, stone rows, stone circles, and ancient settlements such as Grimspound, which consists of twenty-four hut circles surrounded by a huge granite perimeter wall. The Grimspound settlement is believed to date from around 1300 BC.

At the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, the Second Augustan Legion established a garrison at Exeter, which the Romans called "Isca". The legion later moved to Caerleon in South Wales, but the Roman administration remained at Isca for more than three hundred years.

After the Romans left Britain, Devon saw a great deal of fighting amongst the Anglo-Saxons for several hundred years. The English King Aethelstan eventually defeated the West Welsh in 936. After that time, the principal threat to Devon consisted of incursions from Viking raiders, which continued until the Norman Conquest in 1066. A legacy of this period remains in the form of a few Norse placenames, including Lundy Island (twelve miles of the North Devon coast).

In 1497 the city of Exeter was besieged by the royal pretender Perkin Warbeck. King Henry VII later visited the city in person to thank the citizens for their loyalty during the siege.

Devon has a particularly important maritime history. The Elizabethan explorers Sir Francis Drake, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Walter Raleigh were all Devon men, and Plymouth Hoe is famous for being the place where Drake was playing bowls at the time when the invading Spanish Armada was sighted in 1588. Plymouth was also the departure point for the Pilgrim Fathers' ship The Mayflower in 1620. Since then, Plymouth has become an important naval base and also played a significant role as a naval port in World War 1 and World War 2.

During the Napoleonic War a prison was built at Princetown on Dartmoor to accommodate French and American prisoners of war. This prison is still in use today.




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