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).
The town of Dunster sits between the Brendon Hills and the coastal plain, at the mouth of the Avill Valley. The settlement is at a minor nodal point, with access to upland, lowland and coastal resources. However, much of the surrounding land is of poor quality, flooding has in the past been frequent and the valley mouth has gradually been isolated from the sea through a process of silting. Nevertheless, the strategic and defensive potential of the tor has outweighed these local difficulties to some extent, enabling the settlement to command the early inland and raised coastal routes at a river crossing (though the focus of communications has subsequently shifted).
There is ample evidence of prehistoric activity in the shape of earthworks (including Bat's Castle, Black Ball Camp and the Giants Chair) on the uplands around Dunster; evidence from the lower ground is confined to flint scatters, largely neolithic. The tor would appear to be a suitable site for a defended settlement but there is at present no evidence.
There are hints of a Roman presence in the area. Along the old Carhampton road (which has been suggested to be of Roman origin, or even older) several Roman coins were found in the 19th century. More recently, aerial photographs of the land at the foot of the Castle have shown what may possibly be a Roman fort. Tradition also links Bat's Castle with the Romans, and in 1983 a small hoard of coins dating from 102BC to 350AD was discovered in the ramparts there.
Tradition also suggests both Post-Roman and Saxon fortified residences on Dunster tor. Again, the site seems eminently suitable but there is no evidence. What is certain is that a small agricultural settlement, called Torre, existed by the time of the Domesday Survey. The statistics in Domesday are surprising, showing a manor poor in agricultural land (having fewer ploughlands and a lower hidation than most of its near neighbours) but heavily populated and served, exceptionally, by two manor mills. Domesday also records that the value of the manor had risen by 200% between 1066 and 1086. The most likely explanation for these figures is that in the late 11th century Dunster was undergoing an early boom fuelled by the construction of the motte and bailey on the tor.
The first medieval castle was therefore established by the Mohuns soon after the Conquest, as was the Priory, which formed the other major institution in the medieval town. Before urban development really began, the Castle had been partially rebuilt in stone and had seen action in the civil wars of Stephen and Maud. The Castle saw further engagements in the medieval period - for example, in the barons' wars c1265, and in the Wars of the Roses. However, the relative continuity of overlordship, with the Mohuns selling the manor to the Luttrells in the 14th century, formed a stabilising influence.
The first mention of the borough is in 1197 and there are several further references to it in the 13th century. It had its own jury at the eyre in 1225, a charter of 1254-7 gave the burgesses certain privileges, and it was taxed as a borough in 1327. In 1266 there were 176.5 burgages in the town. The market was flourishing by 1222.
However, the medieval economy of Dunster also depended on both its port and its cloth industry. The cloth industry, supplied by the upland sheep and the fast flowing streams of the surrounding area, was well established by the 13th century. Several fulling mills are referred to at this date, and Dunsters is recorded as a type of cloth. The industry flourished throughout the medieval period. In the mid 15th century the parishioners were able to fund the grandiose addition of the central tower to their church, though the construction of this tower became entwined in the culmination of disputes between church and Priory which resulted in the division and wholesale alteration of the church.
Despite this grand gesture, Dunster was already passing its apogee, partly due to problems with the harbour. There are many documentary references to the harbour from the 12th century onwards, and it was clearly important: 13th- and 14th- century State documents sent to "ports of the realm" were sent only to Bridgwater and Dunster in Somerset. Other documents show that silting became a problem from the 14th century onwards. A port was established at Minehead in the 15th century and gradually usurped Dunster's role.
The Yarn Market, built in the late 16th or early 17th century may represent a response to the troubles of the town. Indeed, despite the problems of the port, and competition from Watchet and Minehead, Dunster clung on as a centre of commerce and textiles through much of the post-medieval period. Leland in the 16th century noted that "there is a very celebrate market at Dunster once a week", though by the 17th century Gerard had little to say except that the town had a weekly market and a pretty harbour. The mid 17th century, in fact, was a troubled time for the town, with the coincidence of Civil War and plague. Initially held for Parliament, the Castle was subsequently ceded to the king's governor when the resident Luttrell changed sides and promptly died. In 1645 a long siege of the Castle began and though the fortress itself was well protected by virtue of its position, the town is said to have suffered badly from cannon shot and fire.
Nevertheless, it was not until the second half of the 18th century that a severe decline in Dunster's mainstay, the textile industry, began, under pressure of competition from the increasingly mechanised industry of the north. Rack rents collapsed in the middle of the century, mills failed and the population fell. The creation of the turnpikes from 1765 onwards, and (eventually) a new road from Minehead, came too late to reverse this process. By 1791, Collinson could note a considerable decline in the occupation of properties in Dunster and say that "the town of Dunster itself is inconsiderable, consisting chiefly of two streets ... the principal street is ... blocked up in the middle by an old market cross, and a long range of old, ruinous shambles".
Collinson's comments reflect a state of depression and dilapidation which continued into the early decades of the 19th century. However, after 1801 the population slowly began to rise again, a small recovery based not on wool and textiles but on a general market function. The gradual return of prosperity enabled a major facelift of the market area, which swept away the medieval shambles and market crosses, to take place. Braggs Directory of 1840 says that "a considerable wool trade was formerly carried on here, but it is now wholly lost, and the population are dependent on the retail business of the neighbourhood". By this time, too, the borough of Dunster had been disenfranchised (following the Reform Act).
The population continued to rise slowly until 1911, since which time the general trend has been downward. But, ironically, Dunster's lack of dramatic growth in the 19th century - with the consequent preservation of the historic fabric of the town - has fuelled its success in the later part of the 20th as a "tourist honeypot".