Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Montacute by Miranda Richardson

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 Montacute report

A brief history of Montacute

The town of Montacute lies to the east of Ham Hill iron age hill fort in the uneven landscape of the Yeovil sands. The hill fort dominates the prehistory of the region having produced evidence of neolithic and bronze age use of the site as well as the iron age defences and Roman fort and occupation. The settlement at Montacute was in evidence from the 7th century when a charter records that Baldred gave 16 hides at Logworesbeorh to Glastonbury abbey. In the 9th century the name of the settlement changed to Bishopston possibly in reference to Tunbeorht who was both abbot of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester. During the reign of Cnut (1016-1035) the manor was apparently in the hands of Tofig and by tradition it was at this time that a Holy Cross was found on St. Michael's Hill. The cross was cause for the founding of an abbey at Waltham and "Holy Cross" became the English battle cry at Hastings in 1066.

At Domesday the estate was owned by Athelney priory who exchanged it with Robert of Mortain for land at Purse Caundle, Dorset. He constructed a motte and bailey castle on the hill as a final slight to the defeated English. The castle became the focus of the new settlement which took the name Mons Acutus from the shape of the steep conical hill on which the castle was built. The castle held out when besieged in 1068 during a revolt against Norman rule, but lacked military importance in the mediaeval period and was let to ruin by the time of Leland's visit in c. 1540. Little is known of the history of the castle in the intervening period except that a chapel dedicated to St. Michael was apparently built as part of the castle complex. Robert of Mortain also established a borough and in c.1102 he, or his son established a Cluniac priory. The foundation charter lists the church, castle, borough, market, mill, manor, vineyard and hundred of Montacute amongst a long list of property granted to the priory. The prosperity of the town created by the Mortains was thenceforth linked to the priory; in the early 13th century a second area of burgages was laid out by Prior Mark in order to create more revenue to fund the convent kitchen. The fourteenth century was probably the period of greatest prosperity in the town, in 1340 Montacute paid the ninth highest tax in the county.

Decline in the market and fair in the sixteenth century are general reflections of the failing town economy following the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. From the fragmentation of the priory estate the Phelips family was to emerge over the following decades as the most important landholder in the town. Edward Phelips built Montacute house after 1595 when he purchased the land known as 'Whettles' on which it stands. The town's position on the London-Exeter coach road maintained an income in the town and a number of hostelries sprung up to service the route. Other post-mediaeval and industrial period trades in the town included Wiseman's bell foundry and several forms of cloth and leather industry. However, by the nineteenth century the settlement was predominantly agricultural.

Montacute house and estate are now owned and managed by the National Trust and since the construction of the new Yeovil road bypassing the village, Montacute has become a quiet village reliant on tourism and the proximity of Yeovil.