The town of Devizes developed around the Norman castle which was probably built c.1080 by Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury. There is little evidence of prehistoric settlement on the site, but some Roman remains have been found in the Southbroom area of the town.Concise History: Wiltshire: A History of its Landscape and PeopleThis community has been included in John Chandler's on-going series and the full text is available here.
The castle was built on a promontory on the western edge of the Marlborough Downs with the valley of the Avon to the west and the Pewsey Vale to the east, 9 miles from Calne, 14 miles from Marlborough and 12 miles from Trowbridge. Because Osmund built his castle on the boundaries of the King’s manor of Rowde and his own manors of Cannings and Potterne it became known as ‘ castrum ad divisas’, the castle at the boundaries.
The original castle was probably a motte, or tower, of wood with an outer bailey protected by a ditch, stockade and drawbridge. This structure burnt down in 1113 and was rebuilt in stone by Richard of Caen, Osmund’s successor as Bishop of Salisbury. The castle was described by a contemporary, Henry of Huntingdon, as ‘the finest and most splendid in Europe’, but little now remains of it apart from fragments of the foundations.
On several occasions important prisoners were held in Devizes castle, an indication of how impregnable it was considered to be. In 1106 Robert of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, was imprisoned here when his younger brother Henry seized the throne during Robert’s absence at the First Crusade. He was to remain a prisoner at Devizes for the next twenty years before being moved to Cardiff where he died in 1134.
The years 1139 to 1141 were full of incident for the inhabitants of the castle and the town that was developing outside its walls. The heir to the throne, following the death of the King Henry I’s only son, was his daughter Matilda, who was also known as the Empress Maud as she was the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry I died in 1135 having extracted an oath from the barons and bishops, including Roger, that they would accept her as queen, but his nephew, Stephen of Blois, invaded England to claim the throne and was supported by many of the barons and bishops.
At this time Roger was one of the most powerful and influential men in England. During Henry’s reign he had been appointed Justiciar of England, as well as being Bishop of Salisbury, and had deputised for the King when Henry was abroad. In addition Roger had appointed his natural son, also called Roger, to the post of Chancellor and two of his nephews to bishoprics.
Roger declared his support for Stephen but he must have been considered a dangerous ally as, in 1139, during an assembly at Oxford, Stephen used a disagreement between his French followers and Roger’s retainers as an excuse to arrest Roger, his son and nephews. Matilda (also called Maud) of Ramsbury, who was Roger’s mistress and the mother of his son, was at this time holding Devizes castle but when Stephen arrived and threatened to hang her son she surrendered the castle to him. Bishop Roger was freed but forced to surrender all his possessions to Stephen and he died later in the year, a broken man.
Meanwhile Matilda and her followers were advancing through the West Country and so Stephen now moved on to try to stop her, besieging the castle at Trowbridge on the way, and leaving a party of soldiers to hold the castle at Devizes.
Robert Fitzhugh, a Flemish adventurer stated that if he held Devizes Castle he could control all the lands between London and the west, and in Stephen’s absence he captured the castle, using leather ladders to avoid waking the garrison. He proceeded to lay waste the surrounding country and when Matilda’s brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, sent a force to take over the castle for Matilda he refused to hand it over. Eventually he was captured and when his men refused to surrender the castle in return for their leader’s life Fitzhugh and two of his nephews were hanged in front of them. Stephen subsequently regained control by paying the remaining mercenaries to leave. Count Hervey of Brittany, Stephen’s son-in-law, took over the castle, but the local townspeople had become so disenchanted by the activities of Fitzhugh that in 1141 they besieged the castle and eventually forced Hervey to surrender to Matilda’s forces. By this stage Stephen had been captured at Lincoln and Matilda had been proclaimed Queen although she was never crowned. In gratitude to the people of Devizes she granted them freedom from certain tolls, which in effect gave them the right to hold a regular market.
For the remaining seven years of the civil war Devizes stayed in Matilda’s hands, although Stephen’s troops sometimes ravaged the surrounding areas, and she was often in the town.
Matilda retired to Normandy in 1148 and died in 1167. Her son Henry took up the cause and used Devizes as a base for campaigns in the West Country. He successfully repelled an attack on the castle by Stephen’s son Eustace. Eventually he forced Stephen to recognise him as his heir.
The Crown retained possession of the castle until the seventeenth century, and together with the land around Devizes and Rowde, the Old and New Parks and the right of appointment to the forests of Chippenham and Melksham it made a very important royal gift.
The castle was again used as a prison when King John’s second wife, Isabella, was sent there in 1206. She gave birth to a son there in 1209, and in 1216 John sent the Royal regalia and crown jewels to the castle for safe keeping. John died later that year and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry III, who was living in the castle at the time in the care of the governor.
During the 12th and 13th centuries the town of Devizes developed outside the castle with craftsmen and traders setting up businesses to provide the residents of the castle with goods and services. Following the granting by Matilda of the charter allowing a market, the town grew rapidly. The layout of the streets followed the line of the castle’s defence ditches, of which there were four, and the regularity of the burgage plots in New Park Street and the Market Place suggests that it was deliberately planned, rather than developing piece meal. The medieval market place was in the large space outside St Mary’s Church, rather than in the modern Market Place, which at that time would have been within the castle’s outer bailey. A market cross stood near to the White Bear Inn in Monday Market Street.
The town had achieved such importance by 1295 that it was summoned to send two representatives to Edward I’s Model Parliament, and continued to be represented in most other parliaments of the period, although there seems to have been an economic decline from 1332 to1336 when the town’s importance was reduced and it was not represented.
The first mention of a market in Devizes is for 1228 although there were probably earlier ones established without royal permission. In 1567 a second market was granted, to be held in St. Mary’s parish on Mondays, but it seems to have ceased by 1814. A Thursday market, which had been established by 1609, is still held weekly in the Market Place.
The chief products in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were corn, wool and yarn, with cheese, bacon and butter increasing in importance later. Fish was brought up from Poole, and John Aubrey considered Devizes to be the best fish market in the county. By the early nineteenth century there was a twice weekly market for butchers meat and in 1842 the market for corn and malt was described as one of the most important in England.
Over the centuries various commodity markets lapsed and were revived again. The cheese market had finally ceased by 1903 when the market was said to be for corn, poultry, butter and vegetable. In 1939 corn, cattle, pigs and poultry were sold, though by then cattle and corn were of minor importance.
The actual sites of the different markets have changed over the years. The first markets were held in front of St Mary’s Church, but with the physical deterioration of the castle defences the townspeople gradually took over the open area of the castle bailey where the present Market Place is situated. Other areas which have been used include Short Street, Wine Street, St. John’s Street and High Street.
A number of market halls were built at different periods to house the corn market, cheese market, wool market and butchers shambles. The Corn Exchange was built in 1857 and has a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest, surmounting it. The Shambles, in the corner of the Market Place, was built in 1838, and now houses market stalls on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
The present market cross was the gift of Lord Sidmouth and one side of it tells the story of Ruth Pierce, a market woman from Potterne, who dropped dead in the Market Place in 1753 after lying about payment for a purchase of wheat.
The earliest fair in Devizes was granted in 1208 for the benefit of the local lepers. It was to be held yearly on the eve and feast of St. Denis (8th and 9th October), but by 1223 the Bishop of Salisbury seems to have displaced the lepers and was disputing the rights of the fair with the constable of the castle. Other fairs are recorded between this time and the sixteenth century when, in 1567 the corporation was granted two fairs of its own. In 1685 the Crown granted another new fair, known locally as the ‘wholesale fair’, to be held in St. John’s parish on 10th April.
By 1759 there were seven fairs, held on Candlemas (13th February), Maundy Thursday, Trinity Thursday, 15th July, 9th September, 2nd and 20th October. Some fairs specialised in particular merchandise: the Trinity fair, for example was predominantly for horses, while the one in July was for wool.
As with the markets the fairs prospered and declined over the years with the occasional revival but the remaining two, held in July and February, ceased in 1939 and 1942 respectively.
The direct involvement of Devizes in the war between King Charles I and Parliament was due partly to its position between the King’s headquarters in Oxford and the south west of England where he had strong support. This made the town of strategic importance to both sides. At the outbreak of the war the town’s two MPs, Edward Bayntun and Robert Nicholas, were supporters of Parliament but there was strong Royalist sympathy within the town led by the mayor, Richard Pierce.
When the war broke out in 1642 some of the castle’s fortifications were repaired and locks, chains and barricades were set up across the road entering the town from London.
In 1643 the Royalist Sir Ralph Hopton and his army fought a series of engagements with the Parliamentary forces under Sir William Waller, culminating in an indecisive battle at Lansdowne near Bath. Hopton was injured in an explosion and the Royalists made for Devizes where they could hold off Waller’s forces while Hopton recovered. Waller camped near the village of Roundway and besieged the town. Hopton’s men were very short of ammunition and, following the failure of a relief party to reach Devizes, it was decided to send a small party of cavalry to Oxford to fetch guns, powder and bullets. In the meanwhile Hopton ordered his men to collect all the bed cords in the town and to boil them in resin to make match. Lead was stripped from the church roofs to melt down to make bullets.
Waller began to bombard the town with cannon balls and canister shot and at one stage his cavalry reached the outer streets of the town but failed to get through the heavy barricades. As he was expecting reinforcements to arrive Hopton refused to surrender and employed delaying tactics to play for time. Waller, confident that Royalist reinforcements would be intercepted before they reached him, agreed to a six hour parley. This turned out to be a fatal mistake as the Royalists were not stopped and Waller had to hastily redeploy his men to face the relief force.
At 4.00 p.m. the Royalists under Lord Wilmot reached Roundway Down. They had fired a gun at Roughridge Hill to alert Hopton to their arrival but his officers, fearing a trick, persuaded him not to leave the town. This left the relief force outnumbered three to one.
The battle was fought on the Downs between Roughridge Hill, King’s Play Hill, Roundway Hill and Morgan’s Hill. Initial attacks by the Parliamentarians were repulsed and the Royalist Cavalry, despite attacking uphill, put the opposing cavalry to flight and pursued them for three miles across the Downs to a steep hillside. Many of the Parliamentary men and their horses were killed in what became known as the ‘Bloody Ditch’. Hopton, realising that a battle was taking place, emerged from the town and his infantry helped turn the Parliamentarian retreat into a rout. Waller escaped to Bristol but his army was almost totally destroyed.
For the next two years Devizes remained under Royalist control, during which time the King arranged for more work to be done on improving the castle’s fortifications. The moat was cleared and the drawbridge repaired.
The castle was manned by four hundred Welshmen under Sir Charles Lloyd when Oliver Cromwell reached Devizes in September 1645 and demanded their surrender. Following their refusal Cromwell set up 10 guns in the Market Place and bombarded the castle. One shell landed in the roofless keep where the powder was stored and although it failed to explode Lloyd surrendered. He and his officers were allowed to join the king at Oxford. Parliament ordered that the castle should be destroyed and this was carried out in 1648.
Trade and industry
There is little evidence of any established industry before the fourteenth century but from this period the leather, metal and textile trades seem to have predominated. In the sixteenth century Devizes became known for its white woollen broadcloth but in the following century the trade in white cloth apparently declined and was replaced by serge manufacture and later the production of drugget, which was being exported to Russia up to about 1753. Felt was also made.
In about 1785 John Anstie built a factory for the production of cassimere, a closely woven fancy fabric, and in 1788 he was said to have three hundred looms in use. Much of this cloth was sold abroad but the French wars severely limited trade, with the result that he went bankrupt in 1793.
From this period there was a decline in the textile trades in Devizes but other trades continued to establish themselves. These included clock making, a bell foundry, booksellers, milliners, grocers and silversmiths.
Two trades of particular importance came to prominence in the eighteenth century: these were brewing and tobacco. Brewing and malting had been carried out on a small scale for centuries, but in the mid eighteenth century the firm of Rose and Tylee was established and the site of their brewery, in Northgate Street, is now part of the brewers Wadworth and Co. who were founded in 1875.
From the early part of the eighteenth century tobacco was cured and snuff ground in Devizes. The earliest records are of Richard Anstie who had a shop on the corner of Snuff Street and the Market Place. For some years William Leach used two windmills, originally built to grind oilseed rape, which stood on the old castle motte, to grind snuff. The Anstie family continued its interest in tobacco with a factory in John Anstie’s former cloth factory. In 1944 the Imperial Tobacco Company bought the business. The production of snuff ceased in 1957 and the curing of tobacco in 1961.
The construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal at the end of the 18th century revealed a large area of Gault and lower greensand clays which were ideal for brickmaking. The Devizes Brick and Tile Company was founded at Caen Hill and continued production until its closure in 1961.
New industries developed in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth. These included agricultural engineering (Brown and May, and T.H.White Ltd.), building contractors (W.E.Chivers and Sons Ltd., and Rendells), dairy produce (North Wilts Dairy Co. Ltd.), bacon production (Central Wiltshire Bacon Co.) and electrical manufacturing (Cross Manufacturing Co. and the Hinchley Engineering Co.). During World War II a flax industry was established to make parachute harnesses and tents.
The Kennet and Avon Canal was constructed between 1794 and 1810. It linked Devizes to Bristol and London, and to the Wilts and Berks Canal at Semington and the Somerset Coal Canal. Because of opposition from a local landowner the route for the canal caused major technical problems: within a distance of 2½ miles it had to rise 237 feet from the valley of the Avon to the Pewsey Vale. This was accomplished by means of 29 locks, 17 of them in one flight at Caen Hill.
The main cargo on the canal was coal from Somerset, and the Wharf became a depot for its distribution. Other cargoes included Devizes beer for London, West Indian tobacco from Bristol for Anstie’s factory, and building materials.
The success of the canal was short lived. The railway arrived in Devizes in 1857 but GWR had purchased the canal in 1852 and its use gradually declined and it fell into disuse.
In 1951 the fight to save the canal began in earnest with the formation of the Kennet and Avon Canal Association, and in 1990 the Queen celebrated the reopening of the full length of the canal by travelling through one of the locks at Caen Hill.
Proposals for a railway service for Devizes were made as early as 1836 but they come to nothing. Five years later the steep incline at Caen Hill caused Brunel to adopt the Swindon to Chippenham main line route from London to Bristol rather than taking the line through Devizes and Bradford-on-Avon. Opposition from local landowners also delayed things but in 1856 the Somerset and Weymouth Railway agreed to extend a single line track from Holt Junction to Devizes and the service opened in 1857. In 1862 the Great Western Railway opened an extension of the Berkshire and Hampshire line from Hungerford which linked Devizes to London, but the building of the Westbury line through Lavington again bypassed Devizes. The railway closed in 1966.