A History of Dunster

By Tim Lambert

Early Dunster

Dunster began as a Saxon village. Its name means Dun’s or Dunn’s Torre or Craggy Hill. We don’t know who Dun or Dunn was but he must have been a powerful Saxon.

A Norman named William de Mohun built a castle at Dunster. At first, it was made of wood but later it was rebuilt in stone. In 1379 Dunster Castle passed to the Luttrell family.

After the castle was built Dunster grew into a small town. (In the Middle Ages towns often grew up in the shadow of castles because the garrison provided a market for the townspeople’s goods).

By the 13th century, Dunster was a flourishing little town with markets and fairs. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area). However, Medieval Dunster would seem tiny to us. It only had a population of a few hundred. Yet towns were very small in those days.

Like most Somerset towns Dunster lived by making wool. Many of the townspeople earned their bread by spinning and weaving. Furthermore, there were fulling mills in the town. Before wool could be woven it had to be cleaned and thickened. Pounding the wool in a mixture of clay and water did that. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. Wool was also dyed in Dunster. The people of Dunster became famous for making a type of thick wool called Dunsters.

Then at the beginning of the 17th century, the Yarn Market was built. At its top is a belfry and a bell was rung to signal the beginning of training. Merchants displayed their cloth at the market for sale.

However, in the 18th century, the wool trade declined as production moved to other parts of England. Nevertheless, Dunster remained a busy little town. An 18th-century watermill still exists in Dunster. In the town at that time, there were many craftsmen such as butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, tailors, saddlers, candle makers, and carpenters.

In the 12th century, a priory (a small abbey attached to a larger abbey elsewhere) was founded in Dunster. However little now remains except a dovecote. (In the Middle Ages pigeons and doves were bred for food). Henry VIII closed Dunster Priory in 1539.

In 1346 land in Dunster was granted to Cleeve Abbey and a nunnery was built there. However, the nunnery was never actually inhabited by nuns. It was a guest house for Cleeve Abbey.

The Lutterell Arms was built at the end of the 15th century. It became an inn in the 17th century. n By the village is Gallox Bridge a packhorse bridge dating from the Middle Ages. (At that time and for long afterward goods were tied to pack horses and transported long distances).

In 1642 civil war began between the king and parliament. In 1645, when the king was losing the war the royalists held the castle but the parliamentarians laid siege to it. The siege dragged on into 1646 and Dunster Castle was one of the last places in Southwest England to surrender to parliamentary forces.

In the 18th century, the castle grounds were landscaped by the artist Richard Phelps (1710-1785).

Modern Dunster

Dunster Castle was largely altered in the 17th century. It was also rebuilt in the 19th century by the architect Anthony Salvin (1799-1881). Today little remains of the medieval castle except for the 13th-century gatehouse. In 1976 the National Trust obtained Dunster Castle.

In 1874 a railway station opened in Dunster. However, it closed in 1971. It reopened as part of a private railway in 1976.

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Dunster had a population of 772. Today the population of Dunster is about 860. In other words, it has hardly grown at all in over 200 years! However, the fact that Dunster had not grown has helped to preserve its charm. Today there are over 200 listed buildings in Dunster. Dunster Doll Museum opened in 1971.