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The History and Heritage of Combe Martin

Modified on June 17, 2024

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Welcome to a factual history of Combe Martin (Combmartin), the "Valley with Manorial affix" and civil parish, on the north coast of Devon, England. The parish system has its roots in Anglo-Saxon England between the 7th and 9th centuries.

This in-depth article covers Combe Martin's geological, social and industrial history; its place in medieval England and at the Conquest of 1066.

We also include the modern period. Whilst you are here, have a look at our picture gallery.

Read about the origins of Combe Martin; the medieval Lords of the Manor, and local stories of their Great Hall in Combe Martin during the 1300s. And of course, about the historic Combe Martin silver mines worked over seven centuries. Our part of Exmoor also belongs to the historic Blackmore Country.

A Valley with a Manorial Affix is a geographical feature (core name) that carries the name (suffix) of a French seigneur equivalent to an English lord, or the name of an aristocratic/noble family.

More information can be found in The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, by Carole Hough ed., MIT Press, 2016.

Geological History and Rock Formations of Combe Martin, Exmoor

The dominant rock types in the Combe Martin area are sedimentary rocks, primarily shales, siltstones, and sandstones, which were formed during the Devonian period, approximately 360-420 million years ago.

The iron deposits in the Combe Martin area are primarily associated with the region's volcanogenic massive sulphide (VMS) mineralisation. In other words, the iron deposits are mainly related to the area's history of volcanic activity, and mineral deposits on the seafloor. 

The Combe Martin area is rich in limestone, which likely formed concurrently with the shales, siltstones, and sandstones during that geological time period. In the field of geology, the ancient seas and marine environments were conducive to the formation of limestone.

Limestone is predominantly composed of calcium carbonate accumulated from the skeletal remains of marine organisms such as coral, foraminifera, molluscs, and algae.

Limestone deposits are often associated with the precipitation and concentration of metallic minerals, such as lead and silver-bearing minerals. Galena, the natural ore of lead, is commonly found associated with limestone deposits. Galena can also contain silver as a valuable impurity or minor constituent.

In the oceans, the Devonian saw the evolution of the largest reef ecosystems in Earth history. Red-coloured sediments, generated when North America collided with Europe, give the Devonian sandstone its name (National Geographic, 2024).

These sedimentary rocks were deposited in a shallow marine environment and later underwent deformation and metamorphism during the Variscan orogeny, a major mountain-building event in Europe.

By the late Palaeozoic era, around 250 million years ago, the continents had converged to form a supercontinent called Pangea (Geological Society, 2024). This supercontinent incorporated almost all of Earth's landmasses in early geologic time (Britannica, 2024).

The collisions which brought this about —the Variscan (or Hercynian/Armorican) orogeny — caused a major mountain-building event in Europe that took place over approximately 100 million years.

See Leveridge, B.E. and Hartley, A.J. (2006). The Variscan Orogeny: the development and deformation of Devonian/ Carboniferous basins in SW England and South Wales. In: Brenchley, P.J. and Rawson, P.F. (eds) The Geology of England and Wales. Geological Society, London, pp. 225-255.

Geologists have identified several distinct rock formations in the Combe Martin area, including:

Ilfracombe Slates: These are dark-coloured, fine-grained metamorphic rocks that were originally shales and siltstones. They are found along the coastline and in the surrounding hills.

Morte Slates: Similar to the Ilfracombe Slates, these are also metamorphosed sedimentary rocks that were once shales and siltstones. They are typically grey or greenish in colour.

Hangman Grits: These are coarser-grained sandstone and grit deposits, which were formed in a shallow marine environment, during the Devonian period also known as "the age of fishes".

Baggy Sandstone: This is a distinct sandstone formation that is often characterized by its distinctive reddish-brown colour, which is due to the presence of iron-oxide minerals.

Evans (1922) states that the foundations of our knowledge of the geology in this region were established by English geologist and palaeontologist Sir Henry T. de la Beche (1796-1855), in his official report on the "Geology of Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset".

According to geologist John W. Evans CBE, D.Sc., F.R.S. in his journal The Geological Structure Of The Country Round Combe Martin, North Devon (Jan.1922), the research by Sir Henry T. de la Beche marked the inaugural release of The Geological Survey (H.M.S.O.), which was published as early as 1839.

In the year following de la Beche's report, British geologists Adam Sedgwick and Roderick Murchison published classical works on the geology of the same areas. 

While these can be considered preliminary surveys, J.W. Evans added in 1922 that "subsequent observations served to validate the overall accuracy of their general findings".

These early studies, while not as detailed as modern geological surveys, established the general accuracy of the rock formations, sedimentary sequences, and tectonic history that characterise the Combe Martin and Exmoor region.

Subsequent observations, and research, over the past two centuries have built upon and refined this foundational geological understanding. 

The Early History of Combe Martin

Over a century ago: antiquarians John Presland and Frederick J. Snell wrote that "pre-Roman Phoenician galleys passed along these coasts, on their way to Cornwall". They ostensibly came into Combe Martin to ores; and used - or cut - the extant 'Phoenician Steps' on Combe Martin's Newberry Beach.

According to accounts from ancient classical authors, Phoenicia was an ancient region along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, corresponding and genetically close to modern Lebanon, with adjoining parts of modern Syria and Israel (Britannica, May 2024).

With their strategic location along major trade routes, the Phoenicians became prominent merchants, traders, and colonisers in the 1st millennium BCE (ibid).

It is possible that sea traders from Phoenicia and its colony of Carthage (generally accepted by modern historians as being founded in 814 BC) may have ventured as far as Britain in search of tin resources (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).

The Phoenicians and Carthaginians were known to be skilled seafarers and traders who expanded their commercial networks across the Mediterranean, and even into the Atlantic Ocean (bid).

While the "Phoenician Steps" in Combe Martin are an intriguing local landmark, there is no solid historical or archaeological evidence to confirm any direct ancient Phoenician involvement in their construction or use.

The Phoenician attribution appears to be a local legend or folk tradition. There is no firm basis in the available evidence about Phoenician activities or settlements in Britain. The steps are more likely of later local construction and use. Possibly medieval, they are probably connected to local maritime and/or mining activities.

Evidence of Romano-British occupation has been found in the area. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Saxon settlement was called “Comba" or "Cumbe”. In Domesday 1086, William of Falaise is listed as the immediate local Lord over the peasants, and Tenant-in-chief.

According to Domesday, the number of households in Combe [Martin] was 37; 18 villagers, 10 smallholders and 9 slaves. Ploughland: 20 ploughlands, 3 lord's plough teams and 14 men's plough teams. Woodland: 5 acres.

Livestock in 1086: 21 cattle, 9 pigs. 140 sheep and 19 goats. The annual value to the lord was 5 pounds in 1086 when acquired by the owner. In the Domesday Book, Combe [Martin] was listed as a settlement located in the Braunton hundred of Devon county.

In south and western England, a hundred was the division of a shire for military and judicial purposes under the common law. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the feudal system was established in England, and Tenants-in-chief held land directly from the Crown.

Combe Martin Manor after 1066

The shift from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule significantly transformed local administration, and everyday life. Combe Martin became an Anglo-Norman feudal manor with a baronial seat or Hall, and a Deer Park.

White (1879) reported that Combe Martin's market and fair were granted in the year 1264 by King Henry III. They were discontinued in the 18th century, but part of the market house was still standing in 1879. Hemp was formerly grown around Combe Martin, and shoemakers' thread was spun from it in the town.

See our history article on Combe Martin during 1878-1879˃

The Medieval Manor of Combe Martin

Authoritative historian William G.W. Watson reported "good evidence that Combe Martin was one of the maritime places in Devonshire granted by William the Conqueror to Norman Baron Martyn [Martin] de Tours [de Turribus, knight]", after the Norman Conquest in 1066 (The House of Martin &c., 1906, pp. 3-18). 

Sanders (Oxford, 1960), states that the ‘Martin’ suffix originates from the FitzMartin family—meaning sons of Martin—who were the feudal barons of Barnstaple and held a large barony, including the manor of Combe.

The FitzMartin Barony

The FitzMartins came into possession of the barony when Nicholas FitzMartin, who died in 1260, married Maud de Tracy, the heiress of the Barnstaple barony. This ownership continued until Nicholas’s grandson passed away in 1326, leaving his two sisters as the co-heiresses (Sanders, 1960).

A medieval manor typically featured a manor house and represented a feudal estate under the ownership of a Lord of the Manor, who received it from the monarch (Sanders, Ivor J. 1960, English Baronies).

If a feudal baron owned sufficient lands perhaps more than 20 Knight's fees, feuds or fiefs (measures of land enough to support a knight in feudal England, equivalent to a manor) together with a large castle or caput baroniae: this was deemed 'an honour'.

The Anglo-Norman Feudal Society

Razi, [ed.] & Smith [ed.] (1996), state that in this feudal society: knights, and tenant farmers (villeins, serfs) either defended their liege lord or cultivated the land (Medieval Society and the Manor Court, Oxford University Press).

As part of their feudal duties, these vassals were obligated to contribute a portion, usually one tenth of their annual harvest, to their lord, who held one of the oldest titles within medieval nobility (Delabastita, V. & Maes, S. [2023], The Feudal Origins of Manorial Prosperity. Cambridge).

The Medieval Manorial Affix

At various periods during the Middle Ages, the manorial affix or personal attachment was a widely used device in English place-naming (Jones, R. [2012], Thinking through the manorial affix). Too often unnoticed, there are many of these nomenclatures surviving in the south-western counties of England.

While the Domesday Book (1086) had centered on manors, a century later in 1188 the assessment and collection of the Saladin Tithe (introduced by Henry II) relied on parishes. Yet the Saladin Tithe was largely sacerdotal, and the state tended towards the 'vill' or village as its unit of reference in secular matters.

The Ecclesiastical Parish and Secularism

In A History of the English Parish, by N.G.J. Pounds (Cambridge, 2008): from its inception the ecclesiastical parish was mixed with secularism. Early parishes often included lay estates, and the manor itself was dynamic and ever-changing.

The medieval ecclesiastical parish was more than just a religious institution, and church property was multifunctional. Manors fragmented and reformed due to gifts, inheritance, and marriages. By the end of the Middle Ages, the parish system had little to do with landholding patterns.

Civil parishes in England and Wales were eventually established by national and local government Acts during the 19th century. These introduced greater local administrative duties and responsibilities, and formalised a distinction between civil parishes and their religious counterparts.

King Henry VIII (r. June 1491 – January 1547)

Henry VIII reserved the Combe Martin gold and silver mines, when he sold the manor and borough of Combe Martin in 1537 to Sir Richard Pollard, MP for Taunton and, later, for Devon. There is insufficient evidence from deposits or records to prove that gold was mined at Combe Martin.

Sir Richard Pollard was elected MP for Taunton in 1536, and then for Devon in 1540 and 1542. Pollard was a prominent figure during this period (The History of Parliament online, 2024), and assisted the king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, in administering the Henrician Dissolution of the Monasteries.

During King Henry's wide-ranging religious reforms, the Suppression of the Monasteries, and 'stripping of the altars', was a set of administrative and legal processes that took place between 1536 and 1541, during the cataclysmic English Reformation (Bernard, G.W., 2011, The Dissolution of the Monasteries).

One of Pollard's most notorious acts was his supervision of the destruction and pillaging of the shrine to Saint Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral during September 1538 (Scully, 2000, The Unmaking of a Saint). 

The Reign of Charles II

White's Gazette (1879) states that Combe Martin's lands, formerly the demesne of the manor, were called the Four Lords Lands from being left in 1662 by Richard Roberts, Lord of the demesne of the Manor of Combmartin, to his four daughters, who all married.

The “demesne of the Manor of Combmartin” meant the land that was directly controlled by the Lord of the Manor of Combmartin. At that time, the Fursdon, Pyke, and other families had estates in the parish (ibid).

Combe Martin in the Eighteenth-Century

According to White's Gazette (1879), the Manor or Barton House and lands were dismembered by Pollard's descendants, and subsequently belonged to the Bullers, whose heiress Rebecca Buller married Vice Admiral Charles Watson in 1741. The manor demesne was still owned by a descendant of Watson in 1879.

Sir Henry Irving (Actor)

The British Newspaper Archive (BNA) curates a wealth of reports about Combe Martin, locals and famous visitors. Actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) was the first of his profession to be knighted (1895) for services to the stage. During August 1899, the North Devon Journal reported that Irving was seen in Combe Martin.

Enclosures in the Nineteenth-Century

William White’s History and Gazetteer of Devon published in 1879 (pp. 234-235), states that in Combe Martin Parish were 1454 acres of open commons and hilly moorland. White states that these acres were "enclosed some years earlier". 

Drawn up during the mid to late 1860s, an enclosure map of Combe Martin (enclosed area of 1125 acres) including Knap Down [dun/hill], Girt Down, Purwell Down, and Holdstone Down, was certified for accuracy on 4th May 1871 (National Archives Reference MAF 1/88).

Combe Martin Photo Gallery | Combe Martin Silver Mining | Combe Martin Church Roodscreen

Photographs and Pictures

View our photographs and illustrations, and there are more on our page footers. If you wish to contribute Combe Martin pictures for inclusion on this website: please contact us. We won't include personal details without your permission.

Sundials

Prynne's lament to the indifference to and neglect of our national treasures (London Evening Standard, September 1968), was quoted by Christopher Daniel in his article about Sundials. There are centuries-old sundials around Combe Martin including one at the medieval church.

Parish churches used sundials for clergymen judging the times of services. Sundials were also for public use, long before clocks were installed in church towers. 

After you have finished reading this page, explore our top menu bar or choose from our broad range of history topics. You'll find plenty of interesting stuff here.

Seven Centuries of Commercial Mining

Combmartin was once a seat of petty court sessions, and mining and quarrying were carried out for many versatile ores and minerals, especially from the 1200s for silver-lead and iron (The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5).

North Devon archaeologists consider Combe Martin mining to have begun in the twelfth-century, undocumented. In the national survey England Displayed (1749): "the name of the town comes from “Kum”, an old British word" [signifying a valley or basin]. The Welsh word Cwm for valley denotes a steep geographical basin.

In Britannia (1722): the topographer and antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623) mentions "some old lead-mines" here. And that "the addition of Martin is from Martin de Tours a Norman Lord, who had great possessions here in the time of Henry I. [r. 1100-1135]" (publ. 1722, p. 47).

In 1749 "the best hemp in this county grew in the fields near Combmartin"; and "considerable quantities were cultivated to the advantage both of the farmer and landlord" (England Displayed, 1749).

"Combmartin had not sufficient water for large ships of burden" in 1749; but "small vessels sometimes found shelter here, and the cove afforded a good  landing for boats" (ibid).

"[In 1749] The town [Combmartin] has a weekly market, held on Tuesday, but no annual fair" (England Displayed; Society of Gentlemen, Adlard & Brown, Fleet Street).

Read about Combe Martin 1831-1845˃

Reported in the North Devon Journal on 15 July 1852, 29 miners at Combe Martin sued Mr. Forbes, owner of the local mines, for unpaid wages of between £2.10.0 and £18.17.6.

In The New Monthly Magazine (1877) Vol. 12, Issue 70, p. 591: On entering the village from the Ilfracombe end, the first object that catches the eye is the old smelting works, in which we learn many tons of the finest silver had in bygone times been extracted from the ore, which is said to contain the greatest quantity of silver of any mine in the United Kingdom.

There are two hotels in Combmartin, the King’s Arms, locally called the “ Pack of Cards”, in consequence of its peculiar construction, and the Valley Hotel [listed in White's Directory for 1878, prop. William Dennis], a well appointed hostelry, recently built, in anticipation of increasing requirements, consequent upon the mines being worked.

The Valley Hotel in Combe Martin

Contemporary gazettes and newspapers list the Valley Hotel, and its proprietor, at Combe Martin during 1878-1879. It had opened by 1880 and it was quite a large property. Yet our team didn't know where it was until recently.

There was an expectation of growth in the area, which could imply that the Valley Hotel or Valley Lane Hotel was built around 1876-1877, when a consortium re-opened the silver mines. It apparently went bankrupt within a short time.

This hotel might have been used by mineworkers but it also seems to have been a quality hostelry. We found the location of the Valley Hotel building, and it is now two separate properties on Combe Martin High Street.

Combe Martin Sexton James Norman | Combe Martin Museum | Silver and Strawberries

A Village Full of Orchards and Fruitsellers

In 1835, the North Devon Journal reported that the setting up of allotments in Combe Martin was very successful, with 96 families working them.

In The Examiner (1879), Issue 3738, p.1217: Combmartin, with a beautiful old village church which was much injured by the Roundheads, and is only now being freed from whitewash and restored.

The land round Combmartin is very fertile, and provides large quantities of fruit and vegetables for the Welsh people opposite.  

Old Combmartin was celebrated for growing and exporting "the world's finest strawberries", during the late Victorian era and into the 20th century. In 1899, wholesale fruiterers in Wales judged the village strawberries to be of 'exceptional quality' (Combe Martin Local History Group, 1997).

Combe Martin's fertile shale soil and temperate weather allowed strawberries, and a range of vegetable crops, to be grown for 400 yards up the south-side of the Valley. Market gardening plots ran along the entire length of Combe Martin, many of them watered by the long and winding Umber River.

John Lloyd Warden Page (historian, explorer and geographer) wrote about Old Combmartin in 1895:

All along the bottom [valley], watered by a brisk trout stream, are gardens galore, varied with orchards of apple, pear, plum, and cherry. In season, the wayfarer is beset by vendors of fruit, but let him not think that he will get it cheap, for nothing is cheap within six miles of Ilfracombe, the all-devouring.

Read more about Old Combmartin's industrial history.

World War II German Spies in Combe Martin

A set of German documents was prepared for Operation Sea Lion, the planned Nazi invasion of England and Wales. There are archived German photographs of Combe Martin taken during the early 1940s, included in our photo gallery. This means that German spies were taking pictures for German Intelligence purposes.

Credits for these wartime German Intelligence images of Combe Martin are given to David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.

In preparing to invade Britain, the German military preparations included the production of a series of military/geographical assessments, showing what might be found by those arriving. This material was also used in a military evaluation of the regions of the British Isles, and assessed from the viewpoint of invasion.

The Nazi materials comprised 11 A4 sized folders, each containing maps and a book of photographs including 144 town maps and 1500+ photographs. Also three thick A5 sized folders containing books with photographs, drawings and maps: Folder A: England and Wales; Folder B: London; Folder C: Coasts.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

On June 4, 1953, 400 schoolchildren at Combe Martin were given strawberries and cream to mark the Coronation. The details were reported in the North Devon Journal.

Sunken Lanes in Combe Martin

The sunken lanes in Combe Martin, for instance Usticke at the top of Comers, were 'tunnels' between rural mineworks, byways, and fields. They were primarily used by packhorses for transportation, over hundreds of years.

Common in rural Devon, erosion by foot traffic combined with water running down the gulleys moulded these sunken lanes into their present form.

In hilly or difficult terrain, packhorses could carry or pull heavy loads, and easily navigate narrow lines of communication. This made them ideal for transporting any number of things between Combe Martin's working mines and fields.

Next time you walk along one of Combe Martin's sunken lanes, think of contraband, and packhorses used by local smugglers in the 18th century. Also, between the 19th and 20th centuries: Combe Martin's market gardeners moved thousands of tons of produce along these lanes to several delivery points.

Combe Martin Local History Books 

Among the many Combe Martin histories in print are The Combe Martin Turnpike Roads and Street (1992), and Combe Martin Yesterday (1997). Also, Claughton's The Combe Martin Mines (1992) and The Story of Combe Martin (Beaumont, 1981). 

Out of The World and Into Combe Martin (1989) was compiled and published by the Combe Martin Local History Group. It was printed by Rotapress printers (defunct) which was tied to the Baptist Chapel on Combe Martin's Chapel Lane.

Peter Christie's North Devon History was published by Edward Gaskell in 1995. It was followed by More North Devon History, and Series 2 was published in 2008.

Where to Find Combe Martin Local History Books

Combe Martin Museum and Information Point stocks a good range of local history books for purchase. And some can be borrowed from Combe Martin's High Street Library.

Local Governance in the Tudor Era

At the turn of the 16th century, the majority of the populace still resided in rural areas or small towns. As the feudal system waned, parishes were increasingly being used to manage and regulate local affairs, rather than the local Lord of the Manor.

Following the English Reformation and in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a series of laws were enacted to address the growing problems of collecting and managing aid for the poor. A detailed timeline authored by Marjie Bloy, Ph. D., Senior Research Fellow, is available at The Victorian Web.

Parishes were religious entities, granted more authority in local matters by Tudor governments throughout the 16th century. For instance, in 1555, parishes were tasked with maintaining nearby roads.

The 1601 Poor Relief Act (Elizabethan Poor Law) in England and Wales defined the parish’s duty to care for its poor. 

The Act also appointed parishioners as overseers of the Poor Law for a year, under the supervision of Justices of the Peace (JPs). During the 16th and 17th centuries, individual towns and parishes assumed more responsibility for crime prevention and national policing.

The role of Justice of the Peace (JP) involved maintaining law and order in each county. The position of JP, which originated in medieval times, gained prominence during the Tudor era. Justices of the Peace, typically county landowners, were unpaid and primarily took on the role for its prestige.

They were appointed to the role annually but many served for several years. The role encompassed many tasks that are now handled by local councils, such as organising repairs for roads and bridges, verifying weights and measures in shops, licensing ale houses, and overseeing poor relief.

Ancient Monuments Around Combe Martin

The Exmoor National Park Heritage Environment Record lists over 180 historic monuments around Combe Martin. These include field systems, ancient monuments, boundary stones, graves, mines and buildings. Local records range from prehistoric to medieval times, and onwards to the Late Modern period.

The 'Hangman's Stone' at Knap Down is a well-preserved standing stone, apparently deliberately set upright in the ground. The stone is of local red grit and stands alone. Measuring 1.5 metres high it is probably Bronze Age (Exmoor National Park HER MDE1034).

Romano-British earthworks identified as a farmstead lie on the parish boundary between Combe Martin and Kentisbury. The enclosure’s northern section is situated at the far eastern edge of the Combe Martin parish, with the southern section within the Kentisbury parish (Exmoor National Park HER MDE11668).

The Barnstaple and Ilfracombe Geology

Over time, many rock formations have been excavated for local construction stone. Rock was primarily extracted from the more durable sandstones and beach rocks for hardcore material. A few quarries operate in North Devon today. 

Some of Combe Martin's buildings, cottages and boundary walls, with elements of slate, straw and lime cob, and local dressed stones, have stood for hundreds of years.

While several local homes and buildings have been redeveloped and over-painted in seaside pastels, they are standing reminders of Combe Martin's heritage and its long history of tourism.

The coastline to the east of Combe Martin is characterized by Ilfracombe Slates, which include a prominent sandstones element and shelly limestones (Devon County CouncilDevon’s Rocks – A Geological Guide).

Conversely, the coastal area to the west of the beach features the Combe Martin Beach Limestone embedded within the Combe Martin Slates. This geological composition contributes to the unique landscape of the area. 

In the Combe Martin locale, as many as nine quarries have been established in limestone areas, largely on the south side for the production of agricultural lime. However, these quarries are all inactive (British Geological Survey, 2023).

A Medieval History of Combe Martin

Originally two towns, the Combe Martin settlement extends linearly along the Umber valley, starting from the beach and stretching about 2 kilometres inland.

The historic heart of the village is centred around the Parish Church and former High Cross at the medieval Head Town. It is positioned 1.3 kilometres inland, where the valley shields against the brunt of the coastal weather.

The parish system is an ancient institution, each parish initially representing a township or a group of houses, served by a single priest who received tithes —mandatory taxes of one-tenth of a farmer's produce — and ecclesiastical dues from the community.

The term “tithe” comes from the Old English word “teogoþa”, meaning “tenth.” Church taxes linked to the tax system supported national churches. Combe Martin's tithe maps and apportionments are available online, and from Combe Martin Museum and Information Point.

Combe Martin's restored Tithe Barn pre-dates the 17th century. Part of an old Devon long house, it served as a storage space for the tithes collected from the local community. Tithe barns were essential for managing the agricultural surplus, ensuring that the church and clergy received their annual share.

The tithe system dates back to medieval times and was mainly rural, affecting land, stock, and industry. It underwent reforms in the 19th century, until tithe rent charges were abolished under the Tithe Act of 1936.

Among the 516 original ecclesiastical parishes in or partially within the ancient geographical county of Devon, many align closely with the manors described in the Domesday Book. However, it wasn’t until the reign of Edward III (r. 1312-1377) that the entire country was systematically divided into parishes. 

In the time of King Henry II (r.1133 – 1189) Combe [Martin] Manor belonged to the aristocratic Martin family of Normandy. A great-grandson of William the Conqueror: Henry II of England reigned between the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta. Henry II was also the father of Richard the Lionheart and King John.

Combe Martin's population expanded through natural growth and migrant labour for the local industries. Two separate settlements extended along the valley floor down to the Seaside: the 'Headtowners' and 'Seasiders' had merged into one long village by the 20th century.

This pattern is mirrored in the nearby town of Ilfracombe, which expanded from an inland settlement near the Parish Church and a distinct fishing community by the harbour.

Combe Martin was a bustling market town and centre of trade from 1264 or 1265, when Henry III (r. 1216-1272) granted it a Thursday market and a fair. By 1249 it had become a chartered Borough.

Medieval Crown charters granted communities autonomy, including rights and privileges independent from administrative shires and hundreds. Established by Royal Charter: charter fairs date back to the Middle Ages and were more common during the 13th century.

During the latter stages of the Middle Ages: the monarch bestowed upon town corporations the privilege to conduct their own courts.

Combe Martin's landscape and sheltered valley presented ideal conditions for growing hemp and garden produce. The coastal inlet harbour at Lester Point  became a diverse hub of seaborne commerce until the early 20th century.

Combe Martin in 1066

"Combe [Martin] - called "Comba" in 1066 - was taken from Aluric alt. Alric aka Aelfric, the last Anglo-Saxon nobleman, and held by Jubel (possibly of Brittany). The details are found in Domesday, Britain’s earliest public record of land and landholding commissioned in 1085 by King William I (r. c1028 – Sept. 1087).

As recorded in William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086 (incomplete): before the Conquest the Lords of Combe [Martin] are named as Edwy, and Brictric the Saxon who was a powerful aristocratic thegn with many English landholdings. They were both usurped under the new Norman regime.

Edwy was a major landholder whose name - according to Open Domesday - is associated with eighty-two places before the Conquest, and three after the Conquest. These lords may be more than one person.

William de Falaise, Combe Martin 1086

In 1086, William of Falaise was tenant-in-chief and Lord of Combe [Martin] Manor holding the land directly from the Crown. Immediate lords over peasants, after the Conquest, were obliged to pay tax to the tenant-in-chief.

William de Falaise appears to have been both lord and tenant-in-chief. The manor of Combe Martin eventually passed to the Norman baronial Martin family.

Martin or Martyn de Tours

Norman army general officer Le Sieur Martin de Turonibus -or Tours or Turon (b. Abt 1025 - d. before 1086) came to England with William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England. 'Martin was a man of much worth to King William'.

Martin de Tours - also known as Lord Combe-Martin, Martinus of Combe - was an early progeny of the Martin dynasty and the first of the family in England.

According to Watson's The History of the Martin Family (1906), Martin de Tours  inherited the honour of Dartington, and other properties that had belonged to William de Falaise shortly after Domesday was compiled. 

According to Domesday, also genealogy records and Bryan l'Anson (1935): Martin de Tours and descendants of his barony lived in Combe Martin. Accorsding to the available information, the last of the FitzMartin male heirs died here in 1326.

The Martin Family

The Martin family of Norman descent had their roots in England and Wales from 1085 to 1342. An early ancestor of this family was Robert, whose charter to the monks at Montacute around 1121 shows his parents to be Martin and Geva.

The surname ‘Fitz Martin’, meaning “son of Martin”, was adopted by subsequent members of this family from Robert’s patronymic, regardless of their fathers’ names, until the mid-13th century when they started using simply Martin.

The Martin family owned a sizable estate spread across several regions of England, including Long Melford in Suffolk, Compton-Martin in Somerset, Comb-Martin in Devon, and Seaborough and Althelhampton in Dorset. The Falaise Roll lists this name.

Sir William Martin, 1st Baron Martin ("William de Canville", "2nd Lord Canville")  also known as Martyn, was born at old Combmartin in the period of 1257-8. He was the son of Sir Nicholas Martin and Maud de Camville.

This information can be found at Geni.uk and The Peerage online. Further details can be found in The History of the Martyn or Martin Family in two volumes, by Brian l,Anson (1935). Several of this Martin family appear in the lineage of Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 768 AD, and Emperor.

Sir William, 1st Baron Martin was the progeny and successor of the Martin lineage, and landholder of a vast number of estates scattered across Devon, Somerset, and Pembrokeshire.

An "inquisition post mortem" of 1326 was held on the death of the last of the Martins here. At that time there were two water mills in Combe Martin with a value of 70 shillings per annum.

England Under the Norman Regime

In the Manor System, Lords of Manors were very important people especially in the Anglo-Norman state. The Normans introduced primogeniture inheritance customs.

This meant that the eldest son inherited all the land and particularly in manors. Under primogeniture: rights to demesnes, landholdings and inheritance were restricted.

This did not always work as intended, and yet another system in 12th century England was Borough-English, the English form of ultimogeniture. 

In the medieval system of undivided inheritance, real property passed intact to the youngest son or else to the youngest daughter.

In practice, medieval matters of inheritance rested upon who remained 'at the hearth' after the death of the landholder. Property often reverted to the Crown.

Who Was Martin de Tours?

The civil parishes of Combe Martin and Martinshoe alt. Martinhoe—lying close to each other within the Exmoor National Park—bear names which historians and some evidence have associated with General Sir Martin de Tours.

In 1077, Sir Martin or Martyn de Tours (knight) was made Baron of Kemys, in the county of Pembroke, having first made a conquest of that territory from the Welsh. The Barony of Dartington was granted to him in 1088.

This Norman general should not be confused with his namesake, the charitable soldier-Saint Martin of Tours (b.336–d.397) also known as Martin the Merciful, third bishop of Tours. Watson however, implies they were related.

Watson states that Combe Martin did not come into the possession of the Martin family -who came from the northern countries of France and held considerable real estate in Britain- until after the death of Baron Jeffery Galfrid Camvil alt. de Camville or Canville, in the reign of Edward I.

Derelict Mineworks in Combe Martin

The Environment Agency identifies twenty abandoned mines concentrated around Combe Martin. In the past, these mines chiefly worked iron ore, lead-ore, galena (a significant ore of silver), manganese, and umber.

Vast quantities of lime were quarried, mixed and used in Combe Martin. Some copper and lead-zinc was also mined here but it was mainly iron, lead.

The area surrounding this village and south of the Hangman’s Grits contain small bands of local slates. These slates are Lester Slates, Wild Pear Slates, sandstones, and the Combe Martin Slates (ibid). There is an abundance of limestone here.

What is a Shammick or Shammickite ?

Dickensian commentators called Combe Martin a 'shammick', and nowadays our locals call themselves 'shammickites'. Found in Victorian travelogues and titling our village magazine today: the origin of shammick is not easy to prove.

A dismissive insult, in old Cornish it seems to derive from the word shame. Passable synonyms might be shambles or mess, yet it does appear in the works of Cornish novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Crouch e.g. Ye  dundering  old  shammick!

In its history, Combe Martin has variously been called Comer, Combmartin, Martinscombe, Marhuscombe [Mary's Combe], and also Shamwick. Therefore,  shammickite might be an inherited colloquialism for Shamwick villagers.

Tristram Risdon's Survey of The County of Devon

English topographer and antiquarian Tristram Risdon (1580-1640) conducted a lifetime survey of Devon which was not printed until 1811. 

The earliest topographical account of Devon was the Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire (1599) by Exeter antiquarian John Hooker (alias Vowell, 1525-1601).

Hooker's manuscript was never published, despite it being prepared and sent for printing shortly after his death. HiSynopsis Chorographical of Devonshire was allegedly plagiarised by the antiquarians Tristram Risdon (1580-1640) and "the unreliable" Thomas Westcote (1567-1637). 

According to Risdon's transcripts: Mrs. Mary Westcote, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard Roberts, Esq., of Combe Martin, was at Combe Martin during 1607 and 1608. This was probably the first two years following her marriage.

For most of this time, Thomas Westcote must also have been living here. For how long after 1608 the Westcotes resided at Combe Martin, is not known.

Risdon has been accused of copying Hooker's first chapter almost word for word. In his manuscript completed around 1630-32, Risdon described Combe Martin as "near the sea with a harbour cove for boats to land; a place noted for producing abundant quantities of the best hemp in all this country."

In former times, wrote Risdon, Combe Martin was famous for its tin mines; yet also for its "more valuable silver, found here since our remembrance".

"Cicero had denied there was any silver in Great Britain" ["there isn't a grain of silver on the island" is attributed to Cicero's Letters to Atticus] (Risdon).

Risdon stated that Combe Martin silver mines were "first found in the twenty-second year of king Edward the first [1293]" (ibid).

In 1239, mining was taken up in the wapentakes of the peak [Peak District], in Derbyshire. Three hundred and thirty-seven men were brought to work in Combe Martin's mines (Risdon, T., circa 1630).

Lords of Combe Martin in Risdon's Survey of The County of Devon 

Verbatim

"Afterwards, in the age of king Edward the third, [the Combe Martin silver mines] yielded the king great profit towards the maintenance of his French wars, as appeareth upon This manor, from the lords Martins, descended to the lords Audleighs [sic]."

"For want of issue male, by the death of Nicholas lord Audleigh, came to the crown, which king Henry the eighth gave unto sir Richard Pollard, a younger son of sir Lewis Pollard, the judge."

"[Lewis Pollard's son], sir John Pollard, sold the same to the particular tenants, and the demesne thereof to William Hancocke, his servant, who left it unto Edward Hancocke, his son, Recorder of the city of Exeter".

"A gentleman of good hopes, [Edward Hancocke] died in his flourishing age, leaving issue, by the daughter of sir Amias [Amyas] Bampfield [North Molton], [1560–1626] [MP and] knight, a son called William." 

"To this place the said Edward Hancocke, esq. purchased a Tuesday's market, and a fair on Whitsun Monday. In this parish of Combmartin, is Orchard, the dwelling, in ancient time, of a family so named."

[Markets and fairs were organised by The Establishment; dominant local groups who - when granted a royal license - intended to increase revenues. Stalls and fees boosted local economies; and besides the core market product, shoppers used peripheral services.]

Risdon continues: "The last of the Orchard line left his heritage to his only daughter and heir, Jane, married unto John Prouse, of Chagford, whereby these lands were transplanted into that name, in which it remaineth." (verbatim; first printed 1811).

Banfield's Account of Combmartin's Early History

In John Banfield's A Guide to Ilfracombe, and the Neighbouring Towns &c. (1840, p. 56), the manor of Combmartin reverted to the Crown from the Martin magnates. Richard II (r. 1377-1399) gave it to his "favourite, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford".

The manor again returned to the Crown; and Henry III (r. 1216-1272) gave it to Sir Richard Pollard, who sold it to Hancock from whose family it passed, by marriage, to the late Admiral Watson (ibid).

The Hancocks of Combe Martin can be traced back to William Hancock, a gentleman born about 1530 and a servant of Speaker of the House of Commons Sir John Pollard (1528-1575). In 1564, Hancock was granted a Coat of Arms.

In 1840 the manor was the property of his descendant, Sir Charles W. Watson, First Baronet of Fulmer, of Wratting Park, Cambridgeshire (Banfield, J., 1840:  A Guide to Ilfracombe and the Neighbouring Towns &c., p. 57).

Tales of a Castle in Medieval Combmartin

Victorian and Edwardian topographers recounted local stories that "the lord of Combmartin Manor owned a 'castle' [likely a great hall] here." Two different topographers, Rev. George Tugwell (1863) and F. J. Snell (1906), reported these shammickite rumours in their guidebooks. 

In Anglo-Saxon England before the Conquest, the timber halls or “great halls” of wealthy thegns, reeves, ealdormen, lords, and kings, were integral to early English society. The period of Anglo-Saxon architecture spanned from the mid-5th century until the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Anglo-Saxon halls were generally simple, constructed mainly of timber with thatch for roofing. They served as the hub of community life, and had a multitude of social and administrative roles. They were places where important decisions were made, laws were passed, and social events were held.

The new Norman overlords introduced a variety of structures and left an indelible mark on the English landscape. The Anglo-Norman society underwent substantial changes after 1066, mirroring the fusion of Saxon, Germanic and French influences.

A medieval 'castle' in 13th/14th century Combe Martin could have been a fortified Norman manor house or great hall. As an example, the late 13th century Stokesay Castle in Shropshire, England, is a remarkable survival of a manorial seat and administrative centre. It actually resembles a manor hall.

The feudal lords of Combe Martin owned multiple estates within Devon, and feudal barons' manor seats were often dispersed throughout a kingdom, to be used occasionally by the lord and guests. Feudal seats reflected the importance of religion in medieval society, and reinforced the lord’s religious authority.

Originally constructed in the late 13th century by Laurence of Ludlow (c. 1250–1294), a medieval English wool merchant and money lender, Stokesay Castle stands on the site of an earlier castle built by the de Lacy family of Normandy. In medieval Combe Martin, the feudal lords must have owned a great hall or castle.

From the North Devon AONB website we find that the Reverend George Tugwell was the first vicar of Lee. A keen naturalist, he was an expert on marine life, and authored numerous books. Rev Tugwell lived at Southcliffe Hall at Lee, which was built in the 1740’s and purchased by him in 1860.

Author, topographer and artist Frederick J. Snell (1862-1931), in his book North Devon (1906) wrote that "unlike Lynton, Combmartin seems to have had its castle."

They were probably referring to Combe Martin's 14th century Martins' Great Hall House mentioned in medieval records. It might have been a typical construction of timber and perhaps local stone, in the traditional manner with wattle and daub.

According to Snell: the oaks on the south side of Combe Martin churchyard were called the Park Trees. At an unknown earlier date, the foundations of the outer walls of a castle were found in the adjacent meadow, surrounded by a moat. Contemporary records actually mention Lord Martin's Hall at Combe [Martin].

About Late Mediaeval Great Halls  

A common great hall was a rectangular space that was typically one and a half to three times longer than its width, and its height exceeded its width. The entrance was through a screens passage located at one end.

One of the long sides often had windows, which could include a large bay window. A minstrels’ gallery was frequently found above the screens passage. The dais, where the high table was placed and from where the lord and guests could oversee the space, was at the other end of the hall.

The more private rooms of the lord’s family were situated beyond the dais end of the hall. The kitchen, buttery, and pantry were located on the side opposite the screens passage.

Snell wrote that "Combe Martin Manor passed from the last lord to his steward, and by him was dissipated". It was "sold piecemeal, with the result that much of the land in the parish was in the hands of small proprietors" (ibid).

Snell states that the story of 'the last lord of Combmartin., well told he says by the Rev. G. Tugwell and after him by Mr Wade, "was tragic" (pp. 59-60). From records and reliable sources, we can deduce that this 'tragedy' occurred circa 1326 AD, and that it concerned Nicholas Fitzmartin's grandson, William.

Snell might be quoting Tugwell from 1836, and there appears to be no other evidence for a Combe Martin castle, south of Combe Martin Church. Yet there is a Castle Street and a Castle Inn here, and from records there certainly was a moated manorial Barton or Hall at Combe Martin, during the 14th century.

Definition of a Barton or Manor

Feudalism - a set of legal and military customs - began in England with the conquest of William the Conqueror who brought the practice over from France in 1066. It lasted in England until it was abolished by parliament in 1660.

A Barton (demesne) was historically a feudal demesne in the English West Country, typically meaning a large farmhouse or the manor house hall, usually with a large estate. The feudal demesne was all the land retained and managed by a lord of the manor for his own use and support.

Feudal Manors in England

During the European Middle Ages, late 5th to the late 15th centuries, a manor house was the lord of the manor's dwelling or that of his residential bailiff. Such dwellings were administrative centres of the feudal estate.

The medieval estate or manor that a feudal lord lived upon was generally fortified, in proportion to the degree of peaceful settlement of the country or region in which it was located.

Where was this Fabled Castle in Combe Martin?

Victorian and Edwardian rumours claimed a castle stood in the area of the Park Hills off Rectory Road, southeast of Combe Martin Parish Church, in the EX34 0LP area, GR SS 58444 46060. A 'castle' is sketched on old Combmartin maps and the Park Hills afford magnificent views

Combe Martin's Medieval Deer Park

In support of the rumours, Combe Martin archaeologists state that a medieval Hunting Lodge and Deer Park were located in the area of Park, EX34 0LLDeer parks existed in the Anglo-Saxon era and they are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon Charters. 

The topography and mounds around the parish church do suggest a manorial estate upon hills affording commanding views. The land enclosures were known as hays, Old English for heġe (hedge or fence) and ġehæġ, an enclosed piece of land (such as Adams' Hay). 

Genealogy records show that members of the Martin family lived and died in Combe Martin, therefore they must have had a residential estate. Apart from the Castle Inn on the High Street near St Peter ad Vincula Parish Church, there is no current evidence that a medieval castle existed on Combe Martin's Park Hills.

Elizabethan Anglican Controversialist Bishop John Jewel

John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury from January 1560, and 'Apologist of the Church of England' - in Jewel's case publicly pleading in defence of imputations against the Anglican Church - was born near Combe Martin on 24th May 1522.

Jewel's Apology was written in Latin to be read throughout Europe as the answer of the Reformed Church of England, at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign, to those who said that the Reformation had in effect set up a new Church.

He was a leading Protestant reformer, and in 1552 he graduated B.D. at Oxford where he was highly regarded, and a public orator. Following his ordination, Jewel was appointed to the rectory of Sunningwell in Berkshire.

He became the official champion of the newly-founded Anglican Church which arose at the Henrician split from the Roman Catholic Church (Anglicanhistory.org, 2023: John Jewel). He worked 'incessantly' in defence of the Church of England. 

Jewel's dedication to his work led to his early death in September 1571.

World War Two Operation PLUTO

After D-Day, June 6, 1944: military engineers installed two pipelines traversing the English Channel, linking Britain and France.

These pipelines provided up to ten percent of the fuel requirements of the allied armies, until the end of World War II. The prototype was laid to Watermouth.

Under the Wartime Petroleum Department: among the most audacious and ingenious war engineering projects was the rapid development and manufacture, in complete secrecy, of the H.A.I.S. (Hartley-Anglo-Iranian-Siemens) Cable for Operation PLUTO.

The government made it clear from the beginning that a cross-Channel delivery pipeline would be a back-up system, secondary to shallow-draft tankers.

Operation PLUTO: A Wartime Partnership for Petroleum, by Arnold Krammer (1992). JSTOR.

Operation PLUTO, an acronym for Pipe Lines Under The Ocean, was an initiative run by British engineers, oil corporations, and the British military during World War II.

The objective was to build an underwater oil pipeline to supply the invasion of Normandy (Op Overlord). The hollow PLUTO pipelines were crafted from submarine telegraph cables, with the central copper core and insulation removed.

Originally the brainchild of Lord Louis Mountbatten: on December 29, 1942 the civilian cable-laying vessel Londonrenamed HMS Holdfast—successfully laid the first H.A.I.S. pipeline across open water, from Queen's Dock, Swansea.

The distance spanned a full 30 miles across the turbulent Bristol Channel to Watermouth near Combe Martin.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company generously supplied the pumps located at the Swansea end, as well as the pipes that extended to the waterline and onwards to camouflaged pumping stations.

WW2 German U-boats at Sherrycombe 

A favourite Combe Martin tradition, probably true, is of German U-boats visiting the North Devon coastline, and particularly the waterfall at Sherrycombe under the Great and Little Hangman cliffs on Exmoor. The geolocation is 51° 13′ 2.28″ N, 3° 59′ 38.4″ W; Sherrycombe / SS6048; EX34 0PE-0PG.

On U-boats, fresh water was limited and strictly rationed for drinking. Diesel tanks took priority over water tanks in order to extend the submarine’s operational range. 

U-boat crews were not to permitted to wash and shower, nor could they change their clothes. On long patrols lasting up to a month or more: potable water was just as important as fuel and torpedoes. 

During the 1950s a Captain Martens [poss. Märtens] returned to this area from Germany, and reportedly said that during World War Two he had commanded a U-boat patrolling the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel. True or not: he knew how to find Sherrycombe Waterfall again.

U-boats would lay up off the beach during night-time spring tides, and crews would land by dinghy to fill containers with fresh water. Working in stifling conditions, the submariners would have appreciated the fresh air, some fresh water and Sherrycombe in the moonlight.

The story goes that Martens was so impressed by Sherrycombe and the highest sea cliffs in England and Wales, that he wanted to come back and see it all again in daylight.

Health, Geology and Landmarks

The wooded vale of Combe Martin still enjoys good quality air and has a wealth of landmarks to explore. Located on the edge of Exmoor National Park we have some of the best geology and coastal scenery in Britain.

Walkers are spoilt for choice here; the South West Coast Path runs through Combe Martin. Ilfracombe is within walking distance by safe pathways.

 

'Strawberries That Were Strawberries'

Combe Martin silver financed England's wars and made successful entrepreneurs very wealthy. Yet the people of old Combmartin's greatest achievements were arguably in horticulture, strawberries and exports.

They earned a reputation in the empire for producing and exporting 'the world's finest strawberries' along with other highly-prized produce.

According to the Alberta Redcliff Review vol. 6 of Sept 7, 1937 - quote: The old North Devon town Combe Martin grows strawberries that are strawberries.

The winning entry at a recent strawberry competition comprised four berries to the pound and seven bites were required to eat each berry. 

Local History, Sources and Acknowledgements

We write-up our own research drawn from a variety of reliable sources. Information can be found in antique diaries and topographies, in local history books, and in heritage publications. We give due credit to them all.

Some of the best materials are contained in the rare Out of the World and Into Combe Martin book of histories (Combe Martin Local History Group, 1998). Lucky owners of this book should know that it is now quite rare.

Combe Martin Turnpike Roads

The Combe Martin turnpike roads were created towards the very end of the turnpike era, expiring in 1889. Combe Martin Local History Group (1997) states that all the finance was raised by June 1839.

In 1868, a new turnpike road was opened between Combe Martin and Ilfracombe, and a celebration dinner was held to mark the occasion. These toll routes, under separate acts of parliament, linked major settlements by well-maintained highways.

Turnpike spiked barriers were fixed across the roads. While some former toll houses survive in England, very little evidence of Combe Martin's turnpikes has survived. 

Higher Leigh Turnpike stood at the Victorian manor estate which is now the Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park. The second was the Church Turnpike and the third turnpike was at the top of Seaside Hill. 

Rectory Road—now the B3230—was improved as a turnpike road from Barnstaple to Combe Martin, in 1838. There was a toll-gate near Combe Martin Seaside, at the junction of Newberry Road and Woodlands. Turnpike Cottage or Lodge stood on the A399 towards Newberry. 

Local histories state that when the Newberry Rd turnpike and lodge closed: it was called Glenavon or Glenhaven Lodge, long since demolished. Books on this and other local histories can be purchased from Combe Martin Museum.

Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman Combe Martin 

In records, an early name for this village was Marhuscombe (Mary's Combe).  Settlements in most areas of late 11th century England followed a very ancient pattern of isolated farms, hamlets and tiny villages. These were mingled with fields, and dispersed over much of the arable land.

Tithings or portions (10%) of income were given as an offering to local churches. Each unit of land had its own responsibilities to the kingdom. 

Introduced by the Saxons between 613 and 1017, a hundred had enough land to sustain about one hundred households, overseen by a high status eolder or chief officer in Anglo-Saxon England. 

The Village After the Norman Conquest of 1066

In Domesday records (1086), the tiny Anglo-Saxon settlement of Combe  [Martin] was taken from the last Saxon nobleman Aelfric/Aluric, and held by Jubel.

The old English aristocracy, mainly comprising the king's thegns, were replaced at the conquest by a new Norman aristocracy and virtually disappeared.

Combe Martin had a recorded population of 37 households in 1086, putting it in the largest 20% of settlements recorded in Domesday. Anglo-Saxon England was divided into about 34 shires, which were then divided into hundreds.

By 1086, almost all English landowners were disenfranchised. Under William de Falaise, Cumbe/Combe/Comba had 21 cattle, and 140 sheep which were commonly kept for wool, milk and meat. 

Combe Martin in the Braunton Hundred

Combe [Martin] was a settlement in Domesday Book, in the hundred of Braunton, a shire divided for administrative, military and judicial purposes under the common law. In the Domesday Book records of landowners in 1086, it is rare to find an English name.

William (Guillaume) de Falaise

Feudal baron William de Falaise, a relative of William of Normandy (King of England), came from Falaise, Calvados, William the Conqueror's home town.

William de Falaise married the daughter of Serlo de Burcy - feudal Norman baron and major landowner in south-west England - and had holdings in Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Wilts.

In Domesday 1086, William de Falaise held the manor of Combe [Martin] for the king. The majority of landholders in England at the time of the Domesday Book had accompanied William the Conqueror from France in 1066, and were granted areas of land confiscated from the native English.

The Feudal System

The system of landholding was based on a rigid social hierarchy where landholders provided land to tenants or tenants-in-chief, in exchange for their fealty and service.

Lords of Manors, knights, and other tenants, were feudal vassals under the king, who was at the top of the feudal pyramid. Conquered Anglo-Saxons could also hold land tenancies either restored to them or granted to them. 

Founding of The Borough of Combe Martin

According to local history, in 1286 Nicholas Martin founded Combe Martin borough as a self-governing incorporated urban community. This Martin seems to be the patronymic son (Anglo-Norman Fitz) of Sir Nicholas Martin and Maud de Bryan, and the brother of Sir William Martin, 1st Baron Martin

Combe Martin's Silver Mines

Mined in Combe Martin and elsewhere, silver is said to have partly financed England's wars during the 1200s to the 17th century English Civil War. The village's remarkable history and ancestors live on, in books and in memorabilia. 

Combe Martin's silver-lead mines, and those of Bere Alston, were unusually productive from 1239 to 1327. Combe Martin silver was advantageous to England during the Hundred Years War, and a rich vein of silver was worked here in the 16th century.

The late 16th century was the most productive period for silver in Combe Martin, partly due to improved pumps allowing access to deeper parts of the rocks. 

Irregular deposits, and difficulties in forecasting and prospecting for new lodes hampered by water ingress, stymied the workings up to the 19th century. 

Data on Combe Martin's wealth of other minerals and ores can be read here.

Information and objects of Combe Martin silver can be found at Combe Martin Museum. A Combe Martin silver cup weighing 137 ounces was given by Queen Elizabeth I to the Lord Mayor of London. It bears the date 1593 and it is still used on the inauguration of each Lord Mayor. 

The Combe Martin Tertiary Fault

The best known rock fault within the North Devon AONB is the important Combe Martin Valley Fault, associated with the silver-lead mineralisation.

The Combe Martin Slates consist mainly of slate, with three distinctive limestone beds, and some sandstone and siltstone.

Trade Expansion in the Industrial Revolution 1760 - c1840

Whole settlements on the south coast of Wales and on the Heritage Coast of Exmoor, were involved in some sort of maritime trade or mineral working.

The two cultures had plenty in common, including speculative smuggling which extended to vessels failing to declare reportable cargo.

Centuries old trade in fish, timber, ores, metals and minerals, expanded after the Industrial Revolution 1760-c1840, and into the early twentieth-century. The Bristol Channel was 'infested with smugglers', a constant bane of the Customs and Excise men and their patrolling cutters.

Trade between Wales and the Exmoor coast was conducted practically on a daily basis. If one were to confine the limits of the Bristol Channel to between Hartland and the Gower peninsular, it was much easier to cross to and from South Wales than it is today. 

Combe Martin's Almshouse, Workhouse and the Poor Laws

Combe Martin's Community Centre originally had a large hall, with an upper floor reached by a staircase. Early in its life the Community Centre was the heart of the village as an almshouse, a pre-1664 poorhouse or 'pogey', and a workhouse.

This historic group of buildings once functioned as a community hub, a charity and market. On this site was a c15th century Church House serving alcohol, a particularly prevalent custom in Devon. Historic England designated the oldest part - the old Church Hall - as Grade I, separate to the rest of the buildings

The Community Centre has pre-C17 origins, and it was extensively altered and extended in the 19th century. This community site has quadrupled in size during its life. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the building served as Combe Martin's school. 

Silver Sixpences for the Poor in Old Combmartin

Several local histories report that at one time - date unknown - the parish rector, acting for the governors of the National School - established in 1733 by George Ley - entrusted the master with forty silver sixpences to be allotted to the poor folk. Historian Fred J. Snell attributes this custom to the bequest of George Ley.

A 'Mile-Long Manstye'

By the late-19th-century, haughty topographers considered Old Combmartin an "eyesore". Charles Kingsley, Canon of Westminster in 1878, called the village of  Combmartin 'a decayed town'; and a 'mile-long manstye' (Prose Idylls, New and Old).

Yet the village was rich in minerals, and silver and lead were mined here over seven centuries. Self-sustaining Combmartin was all about industry, agriculture, crafts and artisanship. Not to mention its busy maritime trade and exports.

Combe Martin Described in 1895 by John Lloyd Warden Page

Quoted from Page's guidebook: "All along the valley, watered by a brisk trout stream, are gardens galore, varied with orchards of apple, pear, plum, and cherry."

"In season, the wayfarer is beset by vendors of fruit, but let him not think that he will get it cheap, for nothing is cheap within six miles of Ilfracombe, the all-devouring."

"Still, they do a good trade, especially with passengers by the coaches, for those who can afford to pay coach fares are not careful to resist the temptation of purchasing one or more of the dainty maunds - packets - that are held up so enticingly."

"These fruit sellers mostly congregate about the King's Arms, an inn situated near the centre of the village, the queerest looking hostelry in the world. It is commonly known as the 'Pack of Cards'."

"Each storey is smaller than the one below, and the house certainly does look very much like one of those unsubstantial structures which we all delighted in raising when we were children."

The coasts of Devon and Lundy Island; their towns, villages, scenery, antiquities and legends by John Lloyd Warden Page (1895). London. Horace Cox.

Combe Martin and Locals in Literature

Novelist Marie Corelli's Mighty Atom novel (1896) is set in Combe Martin, where Marie often stayed near the Seaside quarter. Marie Corelli (May 1855 – April 1924) was Queen Victoria’s favourite author. Corelli's popular works were collected by King Edward VII and King George V, and by the Churchills. 

Corelli took Combe Martin sexton James Norman for her character 'Reuben Dale'. James Norman's gravestone stands near the lych gate in the churchyard of St Peter ad Vincula, Combe Martin. James became a local and international celebrity, posing for countless pictures and selling his own postcards.

Mr Norman's thatched cottage where he was born, across from 'Corelli House'  built by J.R. Gubb on Combe Martin High Street and named after Marie Corelli, has since been redeveloped and is now titled 'Reubendale'. 

The Pack o' Cards Inn, Combe Martin

Combe Martin's landmark 17th century 'Pack o' Cards' on the High Street, is where the novel The Mighty Atom was written. Its 'Corelli Room' has a desk, on which novelist Marie Corelli is said to have written her story of conflict between science and religion.

The novel's hero is an eleven-year-old schoolboy, called Lionel Valliscourt. Lionel's father is an exponent of Victorian rationalist debate, over the relationship between reasoning and religion.

The Legend of Combe Martin's Manorial Estate or Castle

Tales of a C12 - C13 Combmartin Castle with a moat, might be fanciful. Large castles were fortified for defence and many left behind a lot of archaeology, whereas a medieval Manor House was a fortified home on a baronial estate.

Victorian travel writers and Dickensian critics variously disagreed over 'shammick' Combmartin's merits. Yet they and modern historians at least concur that the Lords Martin might have owned a moated castle here, or a Manor House "of great extent".

Why should there be a Castle Street and a Castle Inn in Combe Martin? We know that members of the Lords Martin were born in Combe Martin, and died here. Their manorial seat and home could have been on the Park Hills.

Norman administrative centres featured defences and moats, and they were often sited near churches which were an important aspect of medieval life.

The site of Combmartin's fabled fortification as rumoured in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is a wood meadow south of Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church. This is a typical great earthen motte, or mound, either built by a Lord of this manor or just a natural feature. 

There, the oaks were called 'the Park Trees', and Snell (1906) states that remains of castle walls and a moat were found on the adjacent meadow. This could have been the Martin family's Great Hall, since they were major local landowners here in the reign of King Henry I (r.1100 – 1135).

Manors were homes for medieval lords and they were usually surrounded by farmland. If such a structure existed in medieval Combmartin, it was one of several baronial estates in England.

Castles were built for lords as well as for monarchs. The Park Hills 'castle' could have been a manorial administrative centre, and the Castle Inn is just a short walk away on Castle Street. 

Stories of a castle at 'Park' had been told forty years earlier, by George Tugwell in 1863 (The North Devon Scenery Book). In the book illustrated by H.B. Scougall, Tugwell describes the site of the old 'castle; in a meadow adjoining the Park Trees (pp. 104-109). In 1863 the place was called Park Farm, which it still is today.

In 1947, the annual Combmartin church rogation service was held on Park Hills, as in former years, to ask God's blessing on the crops. Ministers from the local churches and chapels were in attendance. 

Tugwell asserted that this Park was once the “pleasaunce” of the Lords of the Manor of Combmartin. And that it "surrounded the ancient towers of Combmartin Castle". The remnants took the form of a "large grass-grown bank with a deep depression, the remains of a moat on the east side".

Tugwell recalled that it was all still visible in 1863. And that in the early 1860s, the Park's farmer had noticed peculiar features on his meadow. Expecting to find a lime quarry, "he found lumps of stone and the outer wall of a castle, with the still perfect foundations of buttresses."

Outside these, was "a deep ditch wholly filled up with mud". Tugwell wrote that "the manor which was of great extent, was sold by the last Lord to his steward". 

Tugwell (1863), along with English travel writers and illustrators C.G. Harper (1908) and F.J. Snell (1906), related another late 19th century Combmartin legend. It concerned 'the last of the Martin family who lived in a moated Manor House in a place south of the church.'

The Son Who Drowned in Combe Martin Castle Moat

All three writers mention the remains of a 'castle', and relate the local legend that 'the last of the Martin family had an only son who perished in the moat. He had gone out riding and, after he had not returned by nightfall, the castle drawbridge was raised as normal.'

At midnight, the son returned and fell with his horse into the moat. Both were drowned, after which the last of the Martin family dismantled the Manor House, sold the estate to the steward [a seneschal or major-domo of a medieval Great House], and left Combmartin forever. 

Records show an "inquisition post mortem" made on the death of the last of the Martins, dated 1326, when "there are two water mills and they are worth 70 shillings per annum".

Tugwell asserted that "the steward re-sold the estate, piecemeal, to any purchaser who occurred. And so to this day [in 1863] there are a great number of small land-owners at Combmartin. To the Manor estate is left little but its name, its ruins, and the sad story which caused its dismemberment."

Today, the land south of the church rises up above the church, like a motte. And it is easy to imagine a park with a wood meadow and a fortified Great House surrounded by a moat. The Martin's home could have been made of wood.

Old Combmartin's Medieval Fairs and Markets

Henry III granted Norman Lord Nicholas Fitz Martin a Thursday market, and a fair here, in the thirteenth-century. They seem to have derived from Old Combmartin's mineral wealth. Customs continue today with monthly Farmers' Markets at the Village Hall, and annual summer Carnivals.

Long-Forgotten Maritime Trade

Medieval maritime and coastal trade around the Bristol Channel is largely under-estimated. During the 16th century and earlier, smaller North Devon ports including Ilfracombe and Combe Martin, were active in fishing. Local exports and imports included cloth, and tanning.

Poverty and Hemp in Combe Martin

Long before Dickensian journalists libelled Combmartin, the Devon historian and topographer Thomas Westcote (1567 – c. 1637) described the village as a 'poor haven'.

Westcote also noted there was hemp grown in Combe Martin during 1630, and it had been grown here since Elizabethan times especially for shoemakers' thread.

Canvas is a derivative of the Latin cannapaceus for "made of hemp", and from  the 13th century French canevaz originating from the Greek. It included nautical gear; ropes, sails and fishing nets. Linen was also made from hemp.

So important was hemp in this country, that Queen Elizabeth I decreed in 1563 that every farm of 60 acres or over must have at least one acre devoted to hemp growing. 

Famed for Silver

In 1895, English geologist and historian Richard Nicholls Worth wrote that "Combmartin's] mines of silver lead, with those of Bere Alston, were unusually productive in the reigns of the first Edwards. The silver raised was turned to account in the prosecution of war with France" (A History of Devonshire, p. 135). 

The Legend of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone

The Hunting of the Earl of 'Rone, an annual colourful Tradfolk pageant, still takes place each Spring Bank Holiday weekend in Combmartin (see video). The “Earl of 'Rone” show is presumed to refer to real-life Irish Gaelic Hugh O'Neill (c. 1550 – July 1616), the rebellious chieftain who resisted the annexation of Ireland.

The O'Neills were the first lords of Ulster. The Red Hand of Ulster is a heraldic symbol denoting the Irish province of Ulster, in particular the Northern Uí Néill dynasties.

Old Combmartin's Earl of Rone Pageant

Victorian Combmartin remembered that in 1565 an insurrection broke out in Ireland under one Shane O'Neill, a son of the Earl of Tyrone. A number of Devon adventurers offered to conquer and hold a province in Ireland at their own expense, if Queen Elizabeth would give it to them.

Early in the reign of James I, the Red Hand of Erin suffered brief captivity in
England, and Combmartin still says he landed from a skiff on her shore. This legend is celebrated every Spring Bank holiday in Combe Martin.

The Spring Bank Holiday Show in Combmartin

The revelry, complete with drummers, a band and dancers, alludes to other customs such as Mummers' or guisers' folk plays, and a hobby horse. Traffic is halted for several hours over four days, as it was almost two centuries ago. Many of the players wear a string of sea-biscuits. The 'Earl' is a live actor and the gaudy Fool carries a besom.

The gaily painted hobby horse has snapping jaws called the Mapper. There is a real donkey decorated with flowers and sea-biscuits, and some Grenadiers with coloured paper hats and ribbons, all carrying guns.

Historical Origins of the Earl of Rone Annual Pageant

Those who have studied the Combe Martin festivities, including local Tom Brown the writer of informative books about the event, agree that the Earl of 'Rone must be Hugh O’Neill, second earl of Tyrone

The Combe Martin festivities preserve memories of not only Tyrone’s time in the woods of Glenconkeyne, but also the flight of the Earls.

The Combmartin Tradition was Banned for Bad Behaviour in 1837

In the early 20th century -after Combmartin's Ascension show had been discontinued in 1837 "because of 'drunken and licentious behaviour"- travel writers described the suspended proceedings. To wit, the Earl of 'Rone had landed in Combmartin on a small boat, and so began the annual revelry here. 

Reports of the Earl of Rone Parade in Old Texts

In 1879, The Devonshire Association (Ilfracombe) reported that the mock hunting of the Earl of Tyrone, celebrated in Combmartin, originates from Irish rebellions. The earl wandered about Combmartin's countryside, until he was pursued and captured in Combmartin's Lady Wood by a band of armed Grenadiers.

For the revelry the earl wore a mask, and a smock frock padded with straw. Around his neck was a chain of sea-biscuits for food. The earl was hunted for a whole week around the town and parish, drawing interested crowds. 

Cutting a long story short, after several days' hunting -presently four days since its revival- the earl was caught in Lady Wood, shot, and seized. Paraded backwards on the donkey through the village, the earl was humiliated and shot again. The procession was then joined by a hobby horse and a fool.

There is much more to this pageant which traditionally ends at the seaside harbour, where an effigy of the Earl is symbolically cast into the sea.

The Earl of Rone Festivities Were Restored to Combmartin in 1974

The 'Hunting of the Earl of Rone' custom was restored to Combmartin in August 1974. The entire history can be found online and in the books of Tom Brown.

Tom Brown's Books

The Hunting of The Earl of Rone by Tom Brown (1987) was first published by the Earl of Rone Council, and printed by the village Rotapress. Tom Brown's books can be found at the village Library, and they can also be purchased for a small fee from the book shop at Combe Martin Museum.

A Plethora of Local Trades and Skills in Old Combmartin

Combe Martin was once full of shops and small businesses, yet the magnitude of Old Combmartin's industries and skills is remarkable. It all had to be accounted    for, managed and financed.

Records show that besides the executives, the book-keepers and managers: there were ironmongers, master mariners and sailors. Also gardeners, millers, milliners, and shipwrights.

There were blacksmiths here, and cobblers, tanneries and threadmakers. There were coal merchants, drapers, and strawberry dealers. Rope-makers and mining entrepreneurs. House painters, stone masons, carrier businesses, market-gardeners and mineworkers. There were limekilns, burners and smelting mills.

A Great Horticultural and Trading Industry

Corn and hemp were once staple commodities grown in Combe Martin for centuries. The village grew enough hemp to supply Exmoor until demand fell. Combe Martin also exported corn, as well as bark for tanning, up until the mid 1800s. 

Free trade was not fully implemented in England until the 1840s and 1850s, after the village had been trading with South Wales and Somerset for decades. Combe Martin and the surrounding areas had natural resources, raw materials, and industries that created economic incentives to trade.

For example, the mining industries in Combe Martin and South Wales facilitated exchanges of fossil fuels, metals, and lime. In the early twentieth-century, tons of bulk cargo, especially fresh fruit and coal, were transported to Wales on Combe Martin's own Clyde Puffer 'Snowflake', and by other vessels.

Bad Weather, Bad for Business

Combmartin's bad storms, floods and rough seas often hampered the village and its business. Market gardeners banked on fine weather for their fruit and vegetables, hay, and grains.

Combmartin's prime strawberries, gooseberries and raspberries, all highly prized locally and abroad, thrived under fair weather, sunshine and showers. 

Coal and lime trade was conducted with Wales, which was still demanding Combmartin strawberries in 1947 according to the local Journal. The railways eventually took over, and by June 1955 Combe Martin's strawberry growers were sending their fruit by cheaper road transport.

Combe Martin Village Hall

The Village Hall which was built as a Drill Hall in 1909 and has hosted local events for over 100 years, was rescued by villagers from redevelopment a few years ago. Ever since it was built, that vital community asset has been holding concerts, parties and meetings. 

First used by G. Coy, 6th Battalion Devonshire Regiment (Territorials) before WWI, the Village Hall is now the beating heart of the village hosting events, shows, clubs and classes.

The Former Combe Martin Motorcycle Museum

This used to be on Cross Street, Combe Martin EX34 0D until 2004. In Walneck's Classic Cycler Trader (2001), Combe Martin's Motorcycle Museum - 'Devon's Most Exclusive Motorcycle Collection, Tel. 882346' - had "a collection of over sixty motorcycles, scooters and Invacars". Its vintage badges are available online.

Scenery and Historic Landmarks

There is magnificent coastal scenery including the imposing natural Hangman HillsThe local tradition says that a fellow had stolen a sheep and was carrying the carcase home on his back, having tied the hind legs together around his neck.

He paused for breath at the top of the hill, and, resting against a projecting slab, poised the carcase on the top, when it suddenly slipped over and garroted him. He was afterwards found dead, and thus named the hills.

Local historian Peter Christie reported a new path to Hangman's Hill was opened on June 2nd, 1924. This is confirmed by a contemporary news item in the North Devon Journal.

Other landmarks include the Silver Mine Tenement on Bowhay Lane.

The iconic 17th century Pack o' Cards Inn stands on the High Street, and the ancient Parish Church has several medieval secrets to explore.

Leaflets and booklets are available in the church, from Combe Martin Museum, and from the Library.

Combe Martin Now

Check out our featured villager. Browse our photographs of modern and old Combmartin, and have a look around the village on our map included for visitors below. It is still a hive of trades and skills, and it maintains its customs.

Combe Martin is currently in the middle of a controversial buying and selling phase, for holiday lets and second homes. Some say the hot property market has impacted the unique character of the village, and the community integrity.

Acknowledgements

This site is built from local knowledge, from history books and from local Journal reports. Credits are given to the sadly defunct Combe Martin Local History Group. Also to GENUK, to antique books and to old newspaper archives.

Read a short history of Combe Martin, in the seminal works of English topographer Samuel Lewis: A Topographical Dictionary of England (1831).

A wealth of knowledge comes from Combe Martin's miners and, to name but a few, from Messrs G.F. and Michael Beaumont, Trevor Dunkerley, Fenella Rook, Bill Norman and Gerald Walters. Archaeologist Dr Peter Claughton's local works are seminal. There are many more Combe Martin historians not listed here.

Groups and researchers on social media are constantly updating and posting their finds, for the benefit of the village and its social history.

The Combe Martin Silver Mine Society (CMSMS) has a wealth of online information, and a vast, academic history website is run by John H. Moore.

Combe Martin Local History Books

Most of Combmartin's history books were printed by Rotapress on Chapel Lane. The local history can be read at Combe Martin Library and several copies are available to buy from Combe Martin Museum and Information Point.

Page modified on December 19, 2023

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