Exmouth history: Roman Devon and the arrival of Saxons

The font at in St John’s in the Wilderness church in Littleham, which bears an inscription from the year 911 AD

The font at in St John’s in the Wilderness church in Littleham, which bears an inscription from the year 911 AD - Credit: Mike Menhenitt

In our look back at early Exmouth we now arrive at the Roman invasion of Great Britain and their arrival in Devon. They lived alongside the Celts, and the Roman scribes were the first people to document any sort of life of the Celts and their priests, the Druids.

Between 50 and 55 AD the Romans first arrived in Devon and established their garrison headquarters in Exeter. There is little evidence that they occupied Exmouth in any great numbers. There have been a few Roman coins discovered here, the most significant being found in Boarden Barn was that of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138) who built the famous wall. Due to Exmouth’s strategic position on the coast there may have been some sort of look-out post or small fort here but no evidence of it has ever been found.

The Romans seemed to have left the Celts to their own way of life here and after they departed around 410 AD the incoming Saxons did much the same. In 875 AD the first Viking raids took place and  they raided Exmouth and went on to capture Exeter. In 877AD King Alfred the Great did manage to recapture Exeter. Between 1001 and 1004 AD the Vikings came again led by King Sweyn, this time anchoring their fleet at Exmouth, raiding Exeter and returning with their spoils of war to sail off, it is thought, east up the south coast. Subsequent raids were foiled by the Saxons under King Althestan. 

Close-up of the date 911 inscribed on the font at St John's in the Wilderness Church, Littleham

Close-up of the date 911 inscribed on the font at St John's in the Wilderness Church, Littleham - Credit: Mike Menhenitt

As many of you will know there is no parish of Exmouth as such. Exmouth is split into Littleham and Withycombe parishes. Historically, Exmouth lay within the Hundred of East Budleigh, believed to be one of the earliest Saxon settlements. A Hundred was a Saxon subdivision of a county with its own court. Littleham was the largest estate within this Hundred. The earliest date inscribed anywhere in Exmouth is 911 AD, which is on the font at St John’s in the Wilderness church. Like the other Hundreds, Littleham was retained by the Kings of Wessex  until the 11th century. In 1042 Edward the Confessor gave land at Littleham to his minister, Ordgar. Ordgar’s son, the giant Ordulf, then gave Littleham to the Monastery of Horton in Dorset in about 970 AD as he wished to be buried there. Horton became part of the abbey at Sherborne in about 1122 AD and of course Littleham went with it. There it stayed until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry V111 between 1536 and 1541. 

Replica of Bronze Age sword on display at Exmouth Museum

Replica of Bronze Age sword on display at Exmouth Museum - Credit: Mike Menhenitt

Before we pass on to the Norman invasion of 1066 next time, I have managed to find a photograph of the Bronze Age sword, found by a Lympstone fisherman by the name of
J Codrenton who was dredging the mussel beds by the Pole Sands around 1900. The Royal Albert Museum in Exeter acquired it in 1911 and it is on display there with a replica at the Exmouth Museum, and it is that photograph shown here.

If you would like to know more, a good starting point is the library on Exeter Road. There are many books in existence on all aspects of the history of Exmouth and these can often be found not only in good bookshops but also online. The Exmouth Museum staff are always happy to help, and at the museum there is plenty of history to see and read about and a comprehensive library of newspaper cuttings relating to events and people in Exmouth. Please visit the Exmouth Museum website at exmouth museum.co.uk or contact mike.menhenitt@btinternet.com