Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Crowcombe by Clare Gathercole

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Crowcombe report

A brief history of Crowcombe

The parish of Crowcombe straddles the south-west scarp of the Quantocks; the town lies at its centre, below the combe after which the parish is named. The area contains deposits of sandstone, marl and copper suitable for quarrying and mining, though these deposits have had limited impact on the history of the town.

Whilst there are clear signs of prehistoric activity on the Quantocks above Crowcombe, there is no sign of any significant settlement at the foot of the scarp. In fact, it is not until the Saxon period that there is any indication of settlement at Crowcombe. The estate of Cerawicombe, which belonged to Glastonbury Abbey, is mentioned in a charter of 854, and is probably to be identified with Crowcombe. Crawancombe is mentioned in 904, when land held by the Bishop of Winchester was exchanged. The estate was thenceforth part of the West Saxon royal demesne. It probably passed to Earl Godwin and subsequently to his widow, Gytha. She granted the estate to Winchester, supposedly as expiation for her husband's sins. The estate recorded at Domesday was of 10 hides, of which 6 had been exempted from Danegeld and may represent the old royal demesne.

Soon after the Conquest, the manor passed to Robert of Mortain, from whose 12th century successors the Crowcombe family came to hold the land. It was in the 13th century, however, that the pattern of Crowcombe's development was set. In an attempt to increase cash profits from this rural manor, the Crowcombes acquired market rights (1227) and rights to a three day fair (1234), and set up the borough of Crowcombe (first mentioned in the early 13th century, though there is no surviving charter). Soon afterwards, the property and commercial rights were split, when one part of the jointly-held estate was willed to the Prioress of Studley (a relative). This part of the manor became known as Crowcombe-Studley, and was held by the Priory until the Dissolution. The remaining part became Crowcombe Biccombe and stayed in the family (in fact it has a remarkable history of continuity of family ownership, passing to the related Carews).

There are references to "villa burgi de Crowcombe" in 1297, and both borough and burgesses are mentioned in the lay subsidy of 1327. The borough was not taxed separately from the rest of the parish, however, and was never self-governing. The extent of the town's commercial success is unclear. No borough is mentioned in 1497, though contemporary references to the election of portreeves occur in the manor court records. Similar references, and others to the liabilities of burgage holders continue into the 18th century. After the difficulties of the later Middle Ages, there may indeed have been a modest recovery in the post-medieval period. But when Collinson described Crowcombe in 1791, he noted that there used to be many more houses in the town. By this time, the market had failed, despite an attempt by the Carews in the 1760s to revive it, and the fair was a shadow its former self. The parish had remained predominantly rural and from the 17th century onwards the 'urban' experiment was supplemented by gradual processes of combination of tenures, inclosures and improvements to the surrounding farms to try to increase revenues.

Crowcombe was described as a former borough and market town in Braggs' Directory of 1840 and the two manors were united in 1894 to form Crowcombe Court Estate. From the 19th century onwards there has been a change from arable to dairying, but no urban development.