A brief history of Lydford

The remains of the 13th-century Lydford 'castle'

The exact date that Lydford was first settled is not known, however it’s easy to see why the site was chosen. Fresh water close at hand, woodland for firewood and building timber, and the deep gorge carved out by the River Lyd for protection.

Ancient well thought to supply drinking water to Lydford since Saxon times
Ancient well, thought to have existed since Saxon times, Lydford, Devon
Ancient well thought to supply drinking water to Lydford since Saxon times

Anglo-Saxons

Lydford was originally called ‘Hlidan’ and was probably named after the raging river Lyd that bordered it. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlyda’ means loud. 

During the reign of Alfred the Great, AD 871-899, Lydford was made a burh (or borough) and ranked alongside Exeter in importance. Its already strong natural defences were reinforced with ramparts that enclosed the whole burh to help defend against Viking raids. Unusually, the largest of these banks are still intact and can be found just off the main road through Lydford.

One of the Saxon town banks that is still visible in Lydford, Devon
Saxon town banks, Lydford, Devon
One of the Saxon town banks that is still visible in Lydford, Devon

Lydford Penny

The earliest coin known to be minted at Lydford dates from AD 937 during the reign of Athelstan (grandson of Alfred the great). The mints at Lydford operated for around 100 years and produced over 1.5 million silver pennies.

The Lydford penny was made of solid silver had a diameter of about 20mm and a weight close to 1.6g. A silver penny at the time was approximately the payment for one day’s work, so the long cross on the reverse of the coin allowed it to be cut into quarters.

Vikings

A huge number of Lydford pennies found their way to Scandinavia as Danegeld; a tax collected to pay off the Vikings and prevent them raiding and pillaging from the sea. However in AD 997 the Vikings entered the river Tamar and burned Tavistock Abbey to the ground on route to Lydford. It was probably knowledge of the mint that drew them - Lydford’s defences held though and they were repelled.

Normans

Soon after the Norman conquests of 1066 a castle or ringwork was constructed in the far west corner of Lydford. It was occupied only briefly and abandoned sometime in the next century; however the earthworks are still visible today in the field behind the church. 

The Norman hillfort
The earthworks of the Norman hillfort at Lydford, Devon
The Norman hillfort

Lydford became the administrative centre for the royal hunting ground of Dartmoor. Later it also oversaw the administration of four tin-mining stanneries, Tavistock, Ashburton, Chagford and Plympton. 

From the end of the 12th century Lydford’s fortunes began to fade, as much of its influence, trade and status was taken by neighbouring rivals; Okehampton, Tavistock and Launceston.

Lydford Castle

In 1194 King John authorised the building of a new stonework tower east of the church, to house offenders against both the forest and stannary laws.

Sometime in the 13th century there was a significant second phase of building work - part of the original tower was demolished, two more storeys were added, and soil was piled up around the ground floor to create the appearance of a mound (or motte). The remains of this can still be seen today, just off the main road through Lydford village.

Lydford soon gained a reputation for harsh punishment. In 1640 Tavistock poet William Browne summed up the injustice of Lydford Law.

‘I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after’

This was likely a result of the lengthy time between the offender being found guilty by the Court of Swainmote, which met every four months, and being sentenced by the Court of Justice Seat, which sat every three years. As there was usually little doubt that the sentence would be hanging the offender would be hung in anticipation of the formal judgement.

St Petrocks church

The site of the church may have been a focus for early Christian activity. As it stands today, most of the current church building is 15th-century but parts of it date from the 13th century. The Bishop of Exeter twice dedicated the church, once in about 1250, but again in 1261, possibly following improvements.

Much older than its structure, however, is the church’s tub-shaped font. It’s thought to be pre-Norman and is one of only three of its type in Devon.