The origins of the town are lost in the mists of time. Some speculate that it was founded by Dunwallo, a British king who ruled before the Romans invaded Britain.
A settlement certainly existed in Roman times. Roman finds were recorded in the Southbroom area in the late 1600s, 20 bronze statuettes and Roman coins were found on The Green in 1714 and workmen digging the foundations for Southbroom Junior School in 1960 uncovered a Romano-British cemetery.
The Saxons who succeeded the Romans, were, in their turn, ousted by the Normans in the 11th century. It was at this time, around 1080, that the first Devizes castle was built by Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury. For hundreds of years after, the castle was to be one of the main landmarks of the area.
The castle is said to have been built on the boundary line between the ancient manors of Bishop Cannings, Rowde and Potterne. The Latin for ‘at the boundaries’ is ‘ad devisas’, hence the town’s name Devizes.
The original wooden castle burnt down soon after it was completed, but it was rebuilt in stone in 1120 by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. Evidently an accomplished castle builder, Bishop Roger erected others at Malmesbury, Sherborne and Old Sarum as well as enlarging Salisbury cathedral in his spare time.
When Henry I, third son of William the Conqueror, died in 1135, Devizes witnessed the power struggle for the crown of England. On one side was Matilda, daughter of Henry and rightful heir to the throne; on the other stood Stephen the usurper, son of a French count but raised by Henry. As Roger sided with Stephen, it was inevitable that Devizes castle would figure prominently in the war that followed.
In 1141 the citizens of Devizes lay siege to the castle and successfully claimed it for Matilda. She showed her gratitude by granting the town its first royal charter. The status of ‘borough’ conferred by Matilda was to last for 833 years, until the local government reorganisation in 1974. The town grew to be of considerable importance and Devizes sent two members to Edward I’s Parliament in 1295. In 1302 John Cray was appointed its first Mayor.
The castle remained the property of the Crown until the next major upheaval – the English Civil War, when, for a brief period, Devizes was once again at the centre of historic events.
In July 1643, following a battle just outside Bath, the Parliamentarians, under Sir William Waller, chased a defeated Royalist army to Devizes where it occupied the castle and barricaded the streets. Waller laid siege and a few days later was warned that a Royalist relief force was on its way from Oxford with 2,000 men. He prepared for battle and marched out to face the enemy. The two armies met on Roundway Down.
Unable to withstand the Royalist Cavalry charges, the Roundhead cavalry fled west towards Oliver’s Castle. Here they were forced over the steep scarp slope. Many men and horses broke their necks as they plunged over the precipice; others were killed by the newly arrived Royalist infantry who marched from the no-longer besieged Devizes. The victory was complete when the Royalist cavalry turned on the Roundhead infantry which broke and fled; many being cut down as it did so. The Battle of Roundway was a vital victory for the Royalists because it left no Parliamentary forces in the South-West of England. Appropriately, the scarp which caused so many deaths is now known as ‘Bloody Ditch’.
The castle and town remained in Royalist hands until finally, in September 1645, Cromwell arrived with a large Parliamentarian force and heavy artillery. He invaded the town and laid siege to the castle, which surrendered, following a savage bombardment from the Market Place. If you look closely at the tower of St. James’ church, you will see the scars of that bombardment clearly visible.
The town had benefited from backing the winner in the 12th century, but this time it had to pay the price of supporting the loser. In May 1646, Parliament ordered it to be dismantled. So today all that remains of the once splendid fortress is the original mound, the outline of the moat, part of the keep and traces of the foundations of the great hall. Standing on the site instead is a Victorian building built by the Leach family and now divided into privately-owned apartments. It is not open to the public.
Although Bishop Roger’s original castle has long since vanished, its influence remains in the layout of the town’s streets which follow the lines of fortifications, making a “D” shape. The Brittox, now a shopping precinct, is believed to have been the main approach to the castle, taking its name from the Bretesque, a wooden stockade that flanked the way to the stronghold. Plundered stone from the old castle can also be found in many buildings in the surrounding area.
Religious controversy has dogged Devizes throughout its history. John Bent, a tailor of Urchfont, was burned to death in the Market Place in 1523 for denying transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine used in the sacrament are converted into the body and blood of Christ). John Maundrell of Rowde was burnt at Salisbury for Protestantism in 1557 and William Prior of Devizes was burnt at the stake in Salisbury for following the Lollard sect, which attacked the Church for its worldliness and corruption.
Devizes was quick to embrace non-conformism, despite the persecution it often brought. The Quakers were particularly strong and in 1661many townspeople were committed to prison for attending their meetings. By 1715 twenty-two percent of those registered to vote in the town were “dissenters”. Later in 1748, when Charles Wesley visited the town he was besieged for two days by an angry mob and badly mauled by dogs as he made his escape. All this time, the mob was being encouraged by none other than the Curate of St John’s! Fortunately today our churches work together and we welcome everyone.
In the 18th Century Devizes became famous for cloth manufacture. John Anstie was one of the first to discontinue the established practice of weavers working in their cottages when he built his factory on the corner of New Park and Snuff Streets to house over 300 looms. His fine cloth was in great demand and at one time many of the crown heads of Europe wore Devizes cassimere.