A History of Taunton

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Valerie Luff

Medieval Taunton

Taunton began as a Saxon village in Somerset. It was called Tone Tun. The Saxon word tun means farm or estate. The word Tone is Celtic and may mean a roaring river. By the 10th century, Taunton had grown from a village into a small town (although it would seem very small to us with a population of only a few hundred). Taunton was given a charter in 904. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

Taunton was also a fortified settlement called a burgh. In the late 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns across his kingdom. They were called burghs (from which our word borough is derived). The burgh of Taunton would have been surrounded by a ditch and rampart with a wooden palisade on top. By the 10th century, Taunton had a mint. It also had a market, which was held on The Parade.

By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), the population of Taunton was about 1,500. That might seem very small to us but settlements were tiny in those days. A typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants. So Taunton was a fair-sized town. At that time there were 3 watermills in Taunton. One of these was the town mill, which stood on the site of Goodland Gardens.

Medieval Taunton flourished and it grew larger. By the early 13th century there was a fulling mill in Taunton. After the wool was woven it was fulled which means it was pounded in water to clean and thicken it. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers, which were worked by a watermill. From the 13th century, Taunton was famous for its wool industry. By the 15th century, wool from Taunton was being exported to France through Lyme Regis. By the late 16th century it was being exported as far away as Africa

However, in 1111 Taunton suffered from a severe fire but it soon recovered. (In those days most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs so a fire was a constant hazard. On the other hand, if buildings did burn they could be easily replaced).

About 1125 a priory or small monastery was built in Taunton. The bishop of Winchester was Lord of the Manor of Taunton. In 1138 he began building a castle next to the priory. In 1158 the priory moved to a new site, east of the town, outside its defenses. The priory is long gone but it lives on in the names of the streets Priory Avenue and Priory Bridge. The monks of the priory are believed to have built some new streets. It is thought they laid out Canon Street, Middle Street, and St James Street.

As well as the priory there was a leper hospital at Taunton where Hamilton Road stands today. Southwest of the town were the vivaria or fishponds belonging to the lord of the manor, the Bishop. The vivaria were on the site of Vivary Park.

By the mid-13th century, Taunton had 2 fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but were held only once a year for several days. Taunton fairs would attract buyers and sellers from all over Southwest England. The fact that Taunton had 2 fairs indicates it was a busy place.

As well as the priory there was a leper hospital at Taunton where Hamilton Road stands today. Southwest of the town were the vivaria or fishponds belonging to the lord of the manor, the Bishop. The vivaria were on the site of Vivary Park.

In the Middle Ages, Taunton was a prosperous wool town and from the end of the 13th century, it sent 2 MPs to Parliament. Taunton continued to flourish in the 14th century and 15th century and the tower of the church of St Mary Magdalene was built in the years 1488-1514.

However, in 1497 a man named Perkin Warbeck attempted to overthrow Henry VII and make himself king. His men occupied Taunton Castle but they fled when a royal army approached.

Taunton 1500-1800

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Taunton still relied on the wool industry which continued to flourish. In 1522 a grammar school was founded in Taunton. However, in 1539 Henry VIII closed Taunton priory. Meanwhile, the power of the Lord of the manor, the Bishop of Winchester gradually declined.

Then in 1627, Taunton was given a new charter. For the first time, it was given a corporation and a mayor and it was made independent of the bishop. Grays Almshouses were built in Taunton in 1635.

Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Taunton sided with parliament but in June 1643 a royalist army approached the town. Taunton surrendered without a fight. It remained in the royalist’s hands for a year. Then in July 1644, Taunton was captured by parliamentary troops.

However, the royalists had not given up. In October 1644 they returned to Taunton. They entered the town and the parliamentary soldiers retreated into Taunton castle. The royalists laid siege to the castle but they were unable to take it. They fled when they heard a parliamentary army was coming. The royalists returned in April 1645. Again they captured most of the town but were unable to take Taunton castle. This time much of the town was burned in the fighting.

Once again in May 1645 parliament sent troops to Taunton. Once again the royalists fled when they heard the parliamentarians were coming. This time they did not return. By now the king was losing the war. It ended in 1646. Taunton had been severely damaged by the sieges but the town soon recovered.

In 1660, when Charles II became king he took away the town’s charter (no doubt remembering how Taunton had supported parliament against his father). However, it was restored in 1677. Charles II also ordered the destruction of part of Taunton Castle to prevent it from being used as a rebel base in the future.

Then in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against King James II. The people of Taunton welcomed the Duke and young women presented him with banners. He was also declared king on The Parade. About 400 men from the town joined his cause.

However, the Duke was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Afterward, George ‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffreys held a court in Taunton castle called the Bloody Assizes. He tried 514 people. Of them, 144 were sentenced to death (although not all were executed). Another 284 people were transported to the West Indies.

On a lighter note, a new Market House was built in Taunton in 1682 with assembly rooms over it. The assembly rooms were used for events like balls and card games.

In 1711 a cannonade of bells was added to the tower of St Mary Magdalene Church to chime on each hour. At the start of the 18th century, there were 3 market crosses in Taunton, Chuse Cross (possibly a corruption of cheese), Ruish Cross, and High Cross. These were removed because they restricted traffic. The last one, High Cross, was removed in 1770. A new Market House was built in 1772. In 1788 Sir Benjamin Hammet built Hammet Street. He also restored the castle. A museum opened in Taunton Castle in 1778.

Meanwhile in the late 18th century wool manufacture in Taunton declined but silk-making was introduced into the town in 1778. Taunton also remained an important market town.

Taunton in the 19th Century

In 1801 Taunton had a population of 5,794. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town and it grew rapidly during the 19th century.

Meanwhile, amenities in the town improved. A hospital was built in Taunton in 1812 and yet another new market house was built in 1822.

Furthermore from 1821, Taunton had gas street lighting. After 1858 it had piped water and in the 1870s sewers were built under the town. In the late 19th century public parks were laid out in Taunton. Vivary Park is named after the vivaria or fishponds that existed there in the Middle Ages.

Taunton expanded rapidly in the 19th century. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Trinity area was built up. Several new churches were built in Taunton in the 19th century.

Trinity Church was built in 1842 and the Church of St John The Evangelist was built in 1863. St Andrews was built in 1881.

The railway reached Taunton in 1842 and Queens College was built in 1843. It was named after Queen Victoria.

Taunton School opened in 1847 and Kings College opened in 1880. Meanwhile, Somerset County Cricket Club was founded in 1875.

Jellalabad barracks were built in Taunton in 1881 as a base for the Somerset Light Infantry. (It was named after a place in Afghanistan where the soldiers had campaigned).

Taunton continued to grow and Corporation Street was laid out in 1894.

In the later 19th century a new industry, making shirt collars flourished in Taunton. Other industries in Taunton at that time included brewing and iron founding.

Meanwhile, in 1843, the county court was moved from Ilchester to Taunton as the town grew more important. However, since the Middle Ages Taunton had sent 2 MPs to parliament. However, in 1884 the number was reduced to one.

Taunton in the 20th Century

Taunton continued to flourish in the early 20th century. By 1901 the population of Taunton was over 19,000. Between 1901 and 1921 electric trams ran in the town. The first public library in Taunton opened in 1905. The first cinema opened in 1910 and Priory Bridge was built in 1922.

For centuries Taunton market was held on The Parade. However, in 1929 it was moved to Priory Bridge Road. Then in 1935, Taunton was made the county town instead of Weston Super Mare, an indication that Taunton was growing in size and importance.

From the late 1930s, there was an industry making optical equipment in Taunton.

Then in 1939, about 4,000 schoolchildren were evacuated to Taunton from nearby cities as it was believed the town would be safe from German bombing. However, most of them soon returned home.

In 1958 Taunton Museum became The Museum of Somerset. County Walk shopping centre opened in 1985.

Meanwhile, in 1974-75, a motorway was built past Taunton. Better communications meant the town grew more rapidly.

In the late 20th century industries in Taunton included clothing and textiles and cider making. Today tourism is an important industry in the town.

Taunton in the 21st Century

A church in Taunton

Today Taunton is a flourishing town. Orchard Shopping Centre opened in 2009. Taunton Academy was founded in 2010. In 2023 the population of Taunton was 60,000.

A Timeline of Taunton

904 The little market town of Taunton is given a charter (a document granting the people certain rights)

1086 Taunton has a population of about 1,500. It has 3 watermills.

1111 Taunton suffers a severe fire but it is rebuilt

C. 1125 A priory is built in Taunton

1138 The Bishop of Winchester (Lord of the Manor of Taunton) begins building a castle in the town

C. 1250 Taunton is famous for its wool industry. Taunton has two annual fairs.

C. 1450 Wool from Taunton is exported to France

1488-1514 The tower of the Church of St Mary Magdalene is built

1497 Rebels capture Taunton Castle but they flee when royal soldiers approach

1552 A grammar school is founded in Taunton. The wool industry continues to flourish.

1539 Henry VIII closes Taunton Priory

1627 Taunton is given a new charter. It is given a mayor and corporation.

1635 Grays Almshouses are built

1643 During the Civil War Royalists capture Taunton

1644 Parliamentary troops recapture Taunton but in October the Royalists come again. The parliamentarians retreat to the castle and the Royalists leave when they hear enemy reinforcements are coming.

April 1645 The Royalists return and capture Taunton town but they are unable to capture the castle. The Royalists flee in May.

1660 Charles II takes away the town charter (but it is restored in 1677). Charles II also destroys part of Taunton Castle.

1682 A new Market House is built

1685 The Duke of Monmouth leads a rebellion and the people of Taunton welcome him. However, after the rebellion fails Judge Jeffreys holds a court in Taunton Castle.

1711 A cannonade of bells is added to the tower of St Mary Magdalene

1772 A new Market House is built

1778 A museum opens in Taunton. Silk-making begins in the town as wool manufacture declines.

1788 Sir Benjamin Hammet builds Hammet Street and restores the castle.

1801 Taunton has a population of 5,794

1812 A hospital is built in Taunton

1821 Taunton gains gas street light

1842 Trinity Church is built. The railway reaches Taunton.

1843 Queens College is built. The County Court moves to Taunton.

1847 Taunton School opens

1863 The Church of St John the Evangelist is built

1880 Kings College opens

1881 St Andrews is built. Jellalabad Barracks are built.

1894 Corporation Street is laid out

1901 The population of Taunton is over 19,000. Electric trams begin running in Taunton.

1905 The first public library opens

1910 The first cinema opens

1922 Priory Bridge is built

1935 Taunton is made the county town of Somerset

1958 The museum is made the Somerset County Museum

1974-75 A motorway is built past Taunton

1982 Old Market Shopping Centre opens

1985 County Walk Centre opens

2001 The population of Taunton reaches 61,000