One long street—The debatable ground—Derivation of the name—Configuration of the East Devon border—Axminster—The Battle of Brunnaburgh—S. Margaret's Hospital—Old camps—S. Michael's Church—Colyton—Little Chokebone—Sir George Yonge—Honiton lace—Pillow-lace—Modern design—Ring in the Mere—Dunkeswell.

"This town," said Sir William Pole in 1630, "is near three-quarters of a mile in length, lying East and West, and in the midst there is one other street towards the South." The description applies to-day, except only that the town has stretched itself during two hundred and eighty years to one mile in place of three-quarters. A quarter of a mile in about three centuries, which shows that Honiton is not a place that stands still.

It is, in fact, a collection of country cottages that have run to the roadside to see the coaches from London go by, and to offer the passengers entertainment.

The coach-road occupies mainly the line of the British highway, the Ikenild Street, a road that furnished the chief means of access to the West, as the vast marshes of the Parret made an approach to the peninsula from the North difficult and dangerous.

And the manner in which every prominent height has been fortified shows that the whole eastern boundary of the county has been a debated and fiercely contested land, into which invaders thrust themselves, but from which they were hurled back.

Honiton is on the Otter (y dwr, W. the Water) a name that we find farther west in the Attery, that flows into the Tamar. Honiton does not derive from "honey," flowing with milk and honey though the land may be, but from the Celtic hen  (old), softened in a way general in the West into hena  before a hard consonant.

We have the same appellative in Hennacott, Honeychurch, and Honeydykes, also in Hembury, properly Henbury, and in Hemyock. Perhaps the old West Welsh name for the place was Dunhen, or Hennadun, which the Saxons altered into Hennatun or Honeyton.

The singular configuration of the eastern confines of Devon and Dorset has been ingeniously explained. Till 1832 the two parishes of Stockland and Dalwood belonged to the county of Dorset, although surrounded entirely by Devon. In 710 a great battle was fought by Ina, King of the West Saxons, against Geraint, King of the Dumnonii, the West Welsh, on the Black Down Hills, when Geraint was defeated and fled. Then Ina built Taunton, and made it a border fortress to keep the Britons in check. Simultaneously, there can be little doubt, the men of Dorset took advantage of the situation, made an inroad and secured a large slice of territory, possibly up to the Otter.

Ina was succeeded by inert princes, or such as had their hands engaged elsewhere, and the Devonians thrust themselves forward, retook Taunton, and advanced their borders to where they had been before 710.

It has been supposed that on this occasion they were unable to dispossess the Dorset men from their well-fortified positions at Stockland and Dalwood, but swept round them and captured the two camps of Membury and Musbury. The possession of these fortresses would thrust back the Dorset frontier for some miles to the east of the Axe. So matters would remain for a considerable period, such as allowed the boundaries to become settled; and when the final subjugation of Devon took place, this tract to the east of the Axe remained as part of the lands of the Defnas, while the Dorsaetas retained the islet which they had so long and so successfully defended. It was not till eleven hundred and twenty years had elapsed that the Devon folk could recover these points.[1]

Axminster was the scene of a great battle in the reign of Athelstan, in which five kings and seven earls fell. The minster, as a monastic colony, had been in existence before that, but Athelstan now endowed a college there for six priests to pray for the souls of those who fell in the battle.

Now, what battle can that have been? In the register of Newnham Abbey is a statement made in the reign of Edward III., that the battle took place "at Munt S. Calyxt en Devansyr," and that it ended at Colecroft under Axminster. S. Calyxt is now Coaxdon.

The only great battle that answers to the description was that of Brunanburgh, fought in 937.

It was fought between Athelstan and the Ethelings, Edmund, Elwin and Ethelwin, on one side, and Anlaf the Dane, from Ireland, united with Constantine, the Scottish king, on the other. It is this latter point which has made modern historians suppose that the conflict took place somewhere in the North.

But, on the other hand, there are grave reasons for placing it at Axminster.

First, we know of no other battle that answers the description. Then, during the night before it, the Bishop of Sherborne arrived at the head of a contingent. The two younger Ethelings who fell were transported to Malmesbury to be buried; clearly because it was the nearest great monastery. And it seems most improbable that Athelstan should have endowed Axminster that prayers might there be offered for those who fell in the battle, if Brunanburgh were in Northumberland. The difficulty about Constantine may thus be solved. Constantine had been expelled his kingdom by Athelstan, and had taken refuge in Ireland. He had, indeed, been restored, but when he resolved on revolt, he may have gone to Dublin to Anlaf, and have concerted with him an attack on the South, where the assistance of the Britons in Devon and Cornwall might be reckoned on, whilst the North British would rise, and the Welsh descend from their mountains.

The story of the battle is this, as given by William of Malmesbury.

The Danes from Dublin, together with Constantine and a party of Scots (Irish), came by sea, and fell upon England. Athelstan and his brother marched against them. Just before the battle Anlaf, desirous of knowing the disposition of the English forces, entered the camp in the garb of a gleeman, harp in hand. He sang and played before Athelstan and the rest, and they did not recognise him. As they were pleased with his song, they gave him a largess of gold. He took the money, but as he left the camp, he put it under the earth, as it did not behove a king to receive hire. This was observed by a soldier, who at once went to Athelstan and informed him of it. The king said angrily, "Why did you not at once arrest him and deliver him into my hands?" "My lord king," answered the man, "I was formerly with Anlaf, and I took oath of fidelity to him. Had I broken that, would you have trusted me? Take my advice, O king, and shift your quarters."

This was good advice, and Athelstan acted on it, but scarcely had he shifted his quarters than Werstan, Bishop of Sherborne, arrived, and he took up the ground vacated by the king.

During the night Anlaf made an attack and broke through the stockade, and directed his course towards the king's tent. There he fell on and killed the bishop, and massacred the Sherborne contingent. The tumult roused the king, and the fight became general, and raged till day. Great numbers fell on both sides, but in the end Anlaf was defeated, and fled to his ships. The only trace of the name Brunanburgh is in Brinnacombe, under the height whereon traditionally the fight raged; and Membury may be the place where the king was fortified. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the place Brumby: B  and M  are permutable letters.

Honiton has not many relics of antiquity about it. Repeated fires have destroyed the old houses; the High Street still retains its runnel, confined within a conduit, with square dipping-places at frequent intervals. The street runs straight down hill to the bridge and across the Giseage, and up again on the road towards Exeter. The town is completely surrounded by toll-gates; the tolls collected do not go to pay for the maintenance of the roads, but to defray a debt incurred by removing buildings, including the ancient shambles, from the middle of the street early in the century. This accounts for the street being particularly wide.

The Dolphin, the principal inn, is supposed to still possess some portion of the ancient building once belonging to the Courtenays, whose cognisance is the inn sign.

S. Margaret's Hospital is one of the points of interest, and is picturesquely pretty. It was intended as a leper hospital, but is now used as almshouses. It was built and endowed by Dr. Thomas Chard, the last abbot of Ford.

One thing no visitor should fail to see, and that is the superb view from Honiton Hill. It commands the valley of the Otter, with the town beneath, and the old earthworks of Hembury Fort, Buckerell Knap, and Dumpdon towering above. The flat-topped hills and the peculiar scarps are due to the formation being greensand. These scarps may be observed in process of shaping at the head of every combe. The church of S. Paul in the town is modern and uninteresting. It occupies the site of an old chapel of All Hallows. The parish church is S. Michael's on the hill, and this contains points of interest. The fifteenth-century screen is of carved oak, and stretches across nave and both aisles. The church was formerly cruciform, but north and south aisles were added to nave and chancel. Probably it formerly had a central tower. Four carved beams now support the roof where the tower should be, and bear sculptured bosses, representing an angel, a bishop, a priest, and a man in armour. Two finely carved capitals in the chancel carry the sentence, "Pray for ye souls of John Takel and Jone his wyffe." They were liberal benefactors to the church and the town.

The view from the churchyard is magnificent. On a suitable day Cosdon Beacon on Dartmoor is visible. A row of cypresses in the churchyard was transplanted from the garden of Sir James Shepperd (d. 1730).

In old times the parsons of Honiton were supposed to have been addicted to field sports, perhaps unfairly, just as one hunting abbot gave a bad name to all the abbots of Tavistock. Barclay, in his Ship of Fools , says:—

"For if any can flatter and beare a hawke on his fist,
He shall be made parson of Honington or of Clist."

There is much deserving of visit within reach of Honiton, Colyton with its fine church, and the tomb of "Little Chokebone," a good monument, long supposed to be that of Margaret, daughter of William, Earl of Devon, and Katherine his wife, seventh daughter of Edward IV., who was supposed to have been choked by a fish-bone in 1512. But there is evidence that the lady lived long after the date of her presumed death. What also tells fatally against the identification is that the arms of Courtenay are impaled with the royal arms, surrounded by the bordering componée, the well-known token of bastardy . Now this belonged to the Beauforts, and the tomb is either that of Margaret Beaufort, wife of Thomas, first Earl of Devon, of that name, or else of one of their daughters.

Of Colcombe House, the great Courtenay, and then the Pole seat, but a fragment remains. At Colyton is the Great House, a fine old building, once the residence of the Yonges. The last of the family, Sir George Yonge, was wont to say that he came in for £80,000 family property, received as much as his wife's jointure, obtained a similar sum in the Government offices he enjoyed, but that Honiton had "swallowed it all" in election expenses. And when he stood for the last time there, in embarrassed circumstances; because he could not bribe as heavily as formerly, one of the burgesses spat in his face. He died in 1812, aged eighty, a pensioner in Hampton Court, and his body was brought down very privately to Colyton from fear of arrest for debt. Another old house is Sand, the seat of the Huyshe family.



Honiton has become famous for its lace, although actually the manufacture does not take place to any considerable extent in the town, but in villages, as Beer, Branscombe, Ottery, etc.

In the beginning of the sixteenth century Honiton was a centre of a flourishing trade in bone-lace, but how it was introduced is very uncertain. It has been supposed, but not proved, that Flemish refugees came to Honiton and introduced the art, but one does not quite see why they should have come so far. There is an inscription on a tombstone in Honiton churchyard to James Rodge, bone-lace seller, who died July 27th, 1617, and bequeathed to the poor of the parish the benefit of a hundred pounds. A similar bequest was made in the same year by Mrs. Minifie, a lace maker, so that both lace dealer and maker may have carried on their business for thirty years before they died.

In the latter part of James I.'s reign Honiton lace is frequently mentioned by contemporary writers. Westcote, in his View of Devon , 1620, says, "At Axminster you may be furnished with fine flax-thread there spunne. At Hemington and Bradnich with bone-laces now greatly in request." Acts were passed under Charles I. for the protection of the bone-lace makers, "prohibiting foreign purles, cut works, and bone-laces, or any commodities laced or edged therewith;" and these benefited especially the Devonshire workers, their goods being close imitations of the much-coveted Flemish pillow-laces.

Pillow-lace was preceded in England, as elsewhere, by darned netting and cut-work. A fine example of the ancient English net embroidery may be seen on the monument, in Exeter Cathedral, of Bishop Stafford, who died in 1398.

The pillow was introduced in the early part of Elizabeth's reign, and at first coarse thread-laces of geometrical design were worked on to it. Plaited and embroidered edgings, or purles, for the ruff, worked in silk, gold and silver wire, or thread came next, and formed the staple article during the first half of the seventeenth century. The patterns were imitated from Italian cut-work and reticella, with some marked peculiarities of workmanship and detail, such as the introduction of stars, wheels, and triangles, which are only found on English laces. The sculptor of Lady Pole's monument in Colyton Church (1623), evidently copied the bone-lace on her cape from a specimen of Devonshire make, and equally characteristic of the ancient patterns of the county is the probably plaited lace on a tucker and cuffs that adorn the effigy of Lady Doddridge in Exeter Cathedral (1614). Illustrations of these interesting examples of early Devonshire workmanship are given in Mrs. Palliser's "History of Lace."[2]

There is another very fine specimen in Combe Martin Church, the effigy of Judith Hancock (1637). The figure is life-size, and the dress is covered with point-lace and looped with points of ribbon.

The reason of the coarseness of early lace was that pins were rare and fetched a high price, and the humble workers in cottages employed fish-bones about which to twist their threads, stuck into the parchment in the shape of the pattern. The bobbins were made of "sheeps' trotters." It is now very difficult to procure specimens of this fishbone-lace.

The lace produced by James Rodge and his contemporaries had large flowing guipure patterns, united by bride  picotees, the latter worked in with the Brussels ground. Brides  are the small stripes or connection of threads overcast with stitches which bind the sprigs together. The English lace-makers could not make this exquisite stitch with the thread that England produced, and the thread was brought from Antwerp. At the end of last century it cost from £70 to £100 per pound. Old Brussels lace was made on pillows, while the modern Brussels is worked with needles.

The visitor to Honiton, Beer, or any village around may see lace-making on pillows. The women have round or oval boards, stuffed so as to form a cushion, and placed on the knees of the worker: a piece of parchment is fixed over the pillow, with the pattern drawn on it; into this the pins are stuck through holes marked for the purpose. Often as many as four hundred bobbins are employed at a time on a pillow. Many of the "bobbins" and "turns" to be seen in Devonshire cottages are very old: the most ancient are inlaid with silver. On some, dates are carved, such as 1678 or 1729. On some, Christian names are cut, such as John and Nicholas; probably those of the sweethearts of the girls who used them. Jingles, or strings of glass beads, may be seen hanging to them, with a button at the end, which came from the waistcoat of the John or the Nicholas who had given the bobbin as a keepsake. What life-stories some of these old bobbins could tell![3]

Children began to make lace as early as four years old; indeed, unless early trained to the work their hands never acquire deftness. Board schools and compulsory education are destroying the ability to work as of old, as well as too often killing the desire for work in the hearts of the children.

Boys and girls were formerly taught alike, and in some of the seaside villages fishermen took up their pillows for lace-making when ashore.

Guipure à bride  and scalloped-border laces in the Louis XIV. style were followed by laces grounded with Brussels vraie réseau. In the working of the latter, Devonshire hands were decidedly superior to their Continental rivals. This beautiful ground, which sold at the rate of a shilling the square inch, was either worked in on the pillow after the pattern had been finished, or used as a substratum for lace strips to be sewn on. The detached bouquets of the Rococo period, and the Mechlin style of design towards the end of last century, eminently suited the Devon lace-workers, as dividing the labour. Each individual hand could be entrusted with the execution of a floral design, which was repeated mechanically. The superior finish of the Honiton sprigs between 1790 and 1815 was mainly due to this, but it was fatal to all development of the artistic faculty and to general deftness. During this period Honiton produced the finest laces in Europe. What greatly conduced to the improvement of Honiton lace was the arrival of Normandy refugees at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1793. The Normans were quicker and sharper than the Devon workers, and they stirred them up to great advance in their work. They taught them to make trolly lace, which is worked round the pillow instead of on it; and through their example the Devonshire women gave up the slovenly habit of working the ground into which they had slipped, and returned to the old double-threaded réseau, or ground like the old Flemish, the flowers worked into the ground with the pillow, instead of being appliqué.

Honiton lace made in proper fashion with sprigs was formerly paid for by covering the work with shillings.

There is a curious notice of Honiton lace in a note by Dr. James Yonge; who "was again at Honiton, April 23rd, 1702," and witnessed the rejoicings in celebration of the coronation of Queen Anne.

"Saw a very pretty procession of three hundred girls in good order, two and two march with three women drummers beating, and a guard of twenty young men on horseback. Each of the females had a white rod in her hand, on the top of which was a tossil made of white and bleu ribband (which they said was the Queen's coleurs) and bone-lace, the great manufacture. Then they had wandered about the town from ten in the morning [it was eight in the evening when he saw them] huzzaing every now and then, and then wearing their rodds. Then they returned at nine, and then break up very weary and hungary."[4]

Taste declined during the latter part of last century, and some of the designs of Honiton lace were truly barbarous—frying-pans, snails, drumsticks, and stiff flowers. But there were always some who did better. At the beginning of this century all taste was bad. Bald imitations of nature prevailed, without any regard to the exigencies of art. Roses and other flowers were worked in perspective; it was thought sufficient to servilely copy nature and leave grouping to chance.

Queen Adelaide had a dress made of Honiton lace. By her desire all the flowers were copied from nature, and the first letter of each spelt her name.


The present Queen also had her wedding-dress of Honiton lace, and it cost a thousand pounds.

Unhappily, design sank very low. Perhaps the lowest stage of degradation in design was reached in 1867, when a Honiton lace shawl sent to the Paris Exhibition from Exeter received a prize and commendation. Nothing can be conceived worse. That it should have been rewarded with a medal shows that either the judges pardoned the ineptitude in design for the sake of the excellence of the work, or else that they themselves stood on the same level of artistic incompetence which then prevailed. Since then, happily, design has been more studied. There is still a good deal of very sorry stuff produced—as far as artistic design is concerned—but at the same time there is much faithful copying of good antique work. All old work is not good; there were bad artists in the past, but the general taste was better than it is now. I was once in the shop of one of our foremost furniture dealers and decorators in town, when a young married couple came in to choose curtains and carpets for their new home. I had been talking with the head of the establishment about artistic furniture, and he had shown me carpets, curtains, and wall-papers, such as no designer in the fifteenth, sixteenth, or seventeenth centuries would have blushed to produce. The young couple passed all these samples by—blind to their merits, and pounced on and chose some atrocious stuff, bad in colour and bad in art. When they were gone, the proprietor turned to me: "You see," he said, "the public is still uncultivated; we are forced to keep rubbish in our trade to satisfy those whose taste does not rise above rubbish." Now it is the same with regard to lace. There is badly designed lace as well as that which is as good as anything drawn by a great master in the past. Let the public eye be discerning to choose the good and reject the evil, and then the poor lace-workers will not be set to produce stuff that never ought to have time, labour, eyesight devoted to it.

There are some trades that are hurtful to those employed in them. The lace-making by machinery at Nottingham is said to induce decline.

The following letter I have received on the subject of the Honiton lace-workers:—

"They are most certainly not a short-lived lot—until within the last eight or nine years Mrs. Colley was the youngest worker I knew, and she is fifty-one; Mrs. Raymond is sixty-four. There are a good many over sixty, and several still at work over seventy. I have never had cases of decline come under my notice, and if there was any I must have known it. Until the fresh impetus was given to the trade by exhibitions, the younger workers stopped learning, and there was no school, so that the trade depended on the old ones, and all have to commence the work from five to seven years of age. I think it may fairly be assumed to be at any rate not injurious to health, and judging from the age to which they continue to work, not to the sight either."

Thus the buyers of lace can do it with a safe conscience.

There is a woman's name associated with Devon, who was a great landed proprietress and an heiress, and this was Isabella de Fortibus. She was sister of Baldwin, Earl of Devon, a De Redvers, and on his death, without issue, she inherited the splendid estates of the earls of Devon, and became Countess of Devon in her own right. She, however, also died without issue in 1292.

On Farway Common, near Honiton, three parishes meet, and there were incessant disputes as to the boundary. Isabella decided it thus. She flung her ring into the air, and where it fell that was to be the point of junction for Gittisham, Farway, and Honiton. The spot is still called "Ring-in-the-Mere." Such at least is the local legend accounting for the name.

In the neighbourhood of Honiton are the ruins of Dunkeswell Abbey, but they are reduced to a gateway only. It belongs to Mrs. Simcoe, of Walford Lodge, Dunkeswell, a handsome house built about the end of last century by General Simcoe, famous in the American Revolution as the commander of Simcoe's Rangers. He was Governor of San Domingo at the time of the insurrection, and afterwards Governor-General of Canada. Mrs. Simcoe possesses interesting relics connected with him, as well as Napoleonic relics that belonged to her father, Lieut.-General Jackson, aide-de-camp  to Sir Hudson Lowe at St. Helena.

Mohuns-Ottery, once a great seat of the Carews, was burnt down in the beginning of this century, and all that remains of the mansion are three arches. The Grange, Broadhembury, has been more fortunate; it has a magnificent oak-panelled room, with ghost stories attached, and there are those alive who declare that they have seen the ghost. The church possesses, among other points of interest, a curious window with projecting corbels that represent the spirits of the good in happiness within, and the spirits of the bad without in discomfort—not to put too fine a point on it, as Mr. Snagsby would say.

There are several fine fortifications, as already said: Dumpden, accessible only on foot, and Hembury are the most important.

Books to be consulted:—

Rogers  (W. H. H.), Memorials of the West . Exeter, 1888.

Farquharson  (A.), The History of Honiton . Exeter, n.d., but 1868 (scarce ).

For the Axe Valley: Pulman  (G. P. R.), The Book of the Axe . London, 1875.

[1]Davidson , "The Saxon Conquest of Devonshire," in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association , 1877.

[2]"Antique and Modern Lace," in the Queen , 1874. The last chapter is devoted to Honiton Lace.

[3]The Devon and Exeter Gazette , December 31st, 1885.

[4]Quoted in "Some Seventeenth Century Topography," Western Morning News , May 9th, 1876.