From Pre-history to the Normans

Artefacts from the Mesolithic period (7000 – 8000 BC) found in fields around Chumhill are the earliest evidence we have for human activity in or near Bratton and there is little evidence in the parish for human activity in the Bronze and Iron Age aside from some arguable landscape features.
In recent years archaeological excavation has revised the previously held view that there was minimal Roman activity in North Devon. In particular the recent work at Brayford suggests a significant Roman mining industry (see for more information). While Roman traders and military personnel may well have passed through the village, no signs of settlement have been found or indeed suspected.

Bratton’s real history begins with its name, which probably originates in old English and means ‘brush or thicket’ or ‘land cleared for cultivation’ (experts disagree). By the time of Domesday (1086) there were six manors in what is now the parish of Bratton Fleming, the oldest being probably Knightacott. In the terminology of Domesday Ordulf was the Saxon Lord of Bratton on the day when King Edward was ‘alive and dead’.
Following the Norman Conquest Bratton was given to Erchenbold le Flemynge (Archibald the Belgian) who probably first came to the parish around 1068. Erchenbold had received a number of holdings as his reward for good service but Bratton was the largest and although he would have moved around his holdings it was in Bratton that he made his home. Hence, at some point, Bratton Fleming acquires its present name.
We do not know when Bratton Castle was built (the remains can be seen near Beara Cross) though we know that many of the new Norman lords built their castles shortly after the conquest. Erchenbold may have done so too or he may have used Ordulf’s wooden Saxon hall, and the castle may have been constructed by his descendants some years later (perhaps during the civil war between Empress Matilda and King Stephen

After the Norman conquest, Henry de Bracton and the le Fleming family

In the years after the conquest Bratton was a small community of a dozen or so farmers and smallholders. The church (if there was one) was probably to the south of the present building, somewhere just outside the current churchyard boundary. In 1213 William de Raleigh became the first recorded Rector of Bratton Fleming. De Raleigh was an influential and wealthy man who had a stormy and combative relationship with the King (Henry III) – he became Treasurer of Exeter Cathedral, a Justice of the Kings Bench and Bishop of both Norwich and, eventually, Winchester.

For any lawyer or legal historian the name Henry de Bracton will probably be a familiar one; Henry de Bracton was the first person to seriously attempt to write down or codify the practice of English common law. De Bracton’s treatise ‘De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae’ was the principal text book on the laws of England for over 500 years. No other lawyer has had such influence on the laws of our land.

So was Henry de Bracton from Bratton Fleming? Two other places can lay claim to him Bratton Clovelly and Bratton Court (near Minehead). In his lifetime Henry signed himself de Bratton which could of course apply to any of the locations, however it is known that his principal patron was William de Raleigh our first Rector who had no connections with either of these other locations – it seems at least probable that Henry was a village boy whose intelligence and aptitude came to William’s attention when he was Rector and who he took into his service. Henry de Bratton died in 1268 and is buried on the north side of the nave under the altar of St Mary in Exeter Cathedral.

The le Fleming family were Lords of Bratton Fleming for nearly 400 years until Thomas le Fleming (6th Baron Slane) who died childless in 1471. On his death Bratton passed effectively to the Dillon family. The Dillons lived at Chimwell (Chumhill), just outside the main village community, and in the main seem to have been good Lords of the Manor. In 1599 the manor was sold, for £9,900 to the Chichesters of Youlston (near Shirwell).

The 17th century and the Caius College, Cambridge, connection

There is a wealth of day to day information about the normal comings and goings of rural life from the 17th century onwards, wills, deeds, church registers etc. All describe a settled and relatively prosperous community. The English Civil war must have had an impact; there was a lot of fighting in North Devon, and Barnstaple changed hands several times; but we know very little about what actually happened in Bratton. We do know that the then Rector, Matthew Gay was expelled for failing to subscribe to the Solemn League and Covenant (which amongst other religious and military provisions abolished the episcopacy).

In 1667, after passing through many hands, the advowson or living of Bratton passed to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in whose gift it remained until very recently. In 1705 the college presented their first Rector, Bartholomew Wortley. Wortley became a student of the College in 1671 and took Holy Orders (as was very common in those days) he became a Fellow of the college and, unusually, remained there until he was 55 (at which age he was considered an old man). On his retirement he was, as was the custom, given the living of one of the colleges’ patronages, in this case Bratton Fleming.

One of Wortley’s first duties, although we have very few details, must have been to supervise the rebuilding of the church following the catastrophic collapse of the tower into the nave in the last year of the 17th century.
It would have been expected that Wortley would have a few years of peace and tranquillity in his rural parish before passing to a higher life, however, the refreshing North Devon climate must have invigorated him – Wortley died in 1749 at the age of 97! At his death Wortley was a very wealthy man, his monument in the church is the finest there, and he left much of his fortune to his old college.
Gonville and Caius still hold a dinner in his honour every other year and a scholarship “for a man from Bratton Fleming” still exists. Wortley also left the Rectors of Bratton, in perpetuity: a magnificent library, fine church silver and a £15 annual payment. The library has since been given back to Gonville and Caius College.

The 19th century – a time of change

As with much of the country the 19th century was a time of great activity and change in the parish. In 1818 a former private chaplain to HRH William Fredrick Duke of Gloucester, William Gimingham, was appointed Rector. After a relatively uneventful early incumbency Gimingham started to show those signs of the eccentricity for which many English parsons have been famous. During hymn singing Gimingham would often leave the church and sit on a tombstone smoking his pipe and drinking gin and water – his dog, which usually accompanied him to church, would presumably leave its accustomed place under the altar to join him. Many villagers believed, and attested, that Parson Gimingham possessed occult power particularly to command and identify thieves and wrongdoers. Sadly these powers do not appear to have prevented him being robbed by his own servants and he died in poverty after the living was sequestrated. Gimingham died in 1838 and was the last Rector to be buried in front of the altar of the church.
In the early 19th century Bratton was much smaller than it is today with no houses above where Northgate House now stands only the 2000 acres of the open moorland of Bratton Down; the population was around 500 and there were several pubs or inns in the parish including the only remaining one, the White Hart. In many respects, particularly in the appearance of the surrounding countryside, the parish had changed very little over several centuries.

The mid 1800’s however saw a rapid succession of changes. In the space of a few years from 1838, Bratton Down was finally completely enclosed, turnpikes were constructed from South Molton to Combe Martin and Barnstaple to Bratton, and a new Rector Humphrey Senhouse Pinder arrived.
Under the Bratton Down Enclosure Act the surrounding local landowners received various portions of land – the largest, nearly 590 acres going to the Lord of the Manor, Sir Arthur Chichester of Youlston. In return for the loss of their possible rights to common land people of the parish accepted (with little choice one suspects as for many their landlord was a beneficiary under enclosure) turbery rights, quarrying rights and a village ‘playground’ (now the recreation field).

The Rector (from 1838), Humphrey Pinder, and his wife Harriett (who died very young) were an energetic and hardworking couple. The church and its various properties were dilapidated and Pinder raised a mortgage of £1,500 towards the estimated £2000 for repairs. Among the works carried out were a substantial rebuilding of the church chancel and the construction of a new Rectory (now Bracken House). Pinder was also a prime mover in the establishment of the National School (now the village hall) in 1841. In 1913 Bratton was described as having the ‘best school buildings in Devonshire’ and giving ‘the best education of any elementary school in the county’.

The 20th century to the present day

During the 20th century Bratton, like almost every community in the country, has lost sons to war. Its location 7 miles from Barnstaple means that some of the more accepted amenities were late arriving – mains electricity did not come to the village until 1954 and mains gas will probably never arrive.

In recent years there have been many new homes built, a new village ‘playground’, the Millennium Green, has taken the place of the old cricket ground (a new sports facility with large clubhouse and permanent cricket and football pitches has been built just outside the village) with a large community woodland adjoining separated only by a pleasant level walk that was once the drive to the Rectory (now Bracken House).