Although there is little immediate evidence of Bruton's history before the Norman Conquest, it is clear that people lived in the area before Anglo-Saxon times. Above the town on Creech Hill are the remains of an Iron Age Camp, while in 1950, Roman coins were discovered on nearby Lamyatt Beacon; later investigations revealed this to be the site of a former Romano-British temple. By about 690, Bruton appears to have become one of the royal boroughs of the Saxon kings and it was about this time that the first church was founded in Bruton by St. Aldhelm. The present church, dedicated to St. Mary, with it's fine twin towers and impressive hammer-beam roof, was not started for another five hundred years. well established in the town (it did not become an Abbey until 1511), where the monks would have welcomed many travellers and offered them hospitality. During the reign of Henry VIII, the Abbey was dissolved and the buildings and lands passed through various hands until being purchased by the Berkeley family from Gloucestershire. Sir Maurice Berkeley was the first of the family to live in Bruton and he is buried in the very elaborate tomb in the chancel of the church.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, another of the Bruton Berkeleys went to Virginia, where he became Royal Governor. Together with his cousin, Thomas Ludwell, they made a considerable impact on the colony, and when a new church was built for the colonial capital, Williamsburg, it was named Bruton Parish Church in their honour - and the links between the two communities remain strong to this day.
During the Civil War, Bruton remained staunchly Royalist and King Charles I visited the town on two occasions, staying in the former Abbey. By the 1780s, however, the abbey lands and title Lord of the Manor passed to the Hoare family from nearby Stourhead. They decided not to live in Bruton and the buildings fell into disuse. Now all that remains of the Abbey is part of the old boundary wall which daily casts it's shadow over Plox.
From Mediaeval times, the prosperity of the town was based on the making of coarse cloth, called "Bruton russet." By the eighteenth century, however, the town was making stockings and silks and at it's height, there were four silk mills operating in Bruton, offering work for over 200 families. The population increased to over 2,000 by 1821 and even the silk mills had closed when the industry moved to Cheshire, the town retained it's own bank, Wesleyan and Congregational chapels, a post office, gas works - and a choice of more than a dozen inns. Employment was offered at the town's brewery, at the sawmills, in Mr. Henderson's iron foundry in Quaperlake Street, and in the bacon-curing factory.
Today, the main industry in the town is education, with five schools offering different types of education. The oldest school is King's, which was founded in 1519 and still occupies some of the original buildings. Other buildings of note are Sexey's Hospital (an almshouse built in the seventeenth century, which retains it's original chapel), the Mediaeval packhorse bridge and the dovecote, which presides over the town in all weathers.
Bruton today is well catered for with three pubs, two restaurants, three takeaways and a coffee-house. Specialist shops offer antiques, prints and maps, and picture framing, whilst on the trading estate large warehouses are filled with antique and reproduction furniture. Besides being on a national cycle route, the town is situated on the Leland Trail and the Macmillan Way. The latter trail is named after Douglas Macmillan, the founder of the Macmillan Cancer Relief Fund, who went to Sexey's School in Bruton.
In the High Street is the Community Office, which opens daily and where tourist information is available. To the rear of the office is the town's Museum, which features a silk worker's living room from the 1830s, a printer's shop from the 1930s and a row of four shops decorated for the 1953 Coronation. Bruton's links with the Titanic are revealed and together with a whole host of smaller displays, the visitor will gain an insight into the varied and fascinating history of a very special town.
©1999 Martin Passmore | Images © 2010 Graeme Stringer