In 1540, the year after the dissolution of Bruton Abbey, the town was visited by John Leland, the official historian to King Henry VIII. He commented ‘the town is now much preoccupied with the making of cloth’ – and in this lies the origins of much of Bruton’s former prosperity.
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 Roman-British temple, where various artefacts were discovered, including some quite intricate small bronze statues, now on display in the country museum in Taunton. A further important discovery took place in 1984, when work was being done preparing the flood alleviation scheme at Cogley wood and the remains of a late Saxon sword were unearthed.
By about 690, Bruton appears to have become one of the royal boroughs of the Saxon kings. According to William of Malmesbury, writing in the early twelfth century, it was St Aldhelm who founded a church in Bruton at about this time. However, it was not for another five hundred years that the splendid church, dedicated to St Mary, that exists today had started to emerge. With it's two towers, remarkable chancel and impressive hammer-beam roof, it is one of the finest parish churches in Somerset.
At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, although the town was quite small, there were said to be eighty sheep, thirteen goats, six mills and 185 acres of meadow and pasture. Two hundred and fifty years later, the town had grown and the Lay Subsidy Returns for 1327 reveal that Bruton had it's own tailor, arrow maker, saddler, lime-burner, two cloth dryers, a brewer, blacksmith and a ‘leech’, or physician.
By then, the Augustinian Priory was 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. Yet the monks themselves were not as righteous as they might have been and in 1377, they were criticised for their unruly behaviour, which included hunting, playing at dice, walking into town without their proper robes – and worst of all, entertaining women in the Priory!
Even after the Priory was dissolved, the town continued to welcome travellers and visitors, one of whom was the famous Westcountry diarist Parson James Woodforde. He visited Bruton frequently during the second half of the eighteenth century, buying goods from the shops, indulging in a glass of sherry wine at the Blue Ball Inn, and being shaved by a barber called Hitchcock.
Entertainment too, was something that he found in the town, whether it was attending plays, listening to the Montgomeryshire Militia Band, playing cards or enjoying the regular horse races at Burrowfield, which were often attended by ‘a vast concourse of people, both gentle and simple’.
By the eighteenth century, the production of Bruton russet, type of coarse cloth of a distinctive colour, had given way to the manufacture of stockings and silk. At it's height, there were four silk mills in the town, which employed workers from over 200 families. The population in 1821 had exceeded 2,000 and by then the town would have been bustling with people, living in the small houses on either side of the Bartons that link the High Street with Lower and Higher Backway, which themselves would have had many houses where gardens now exist.
The town was supported by all manner of trades and professions, which included an Italian barometer maker by the name of Antonio Bumasconi. Throughout this period, the town was dominated by the former abbey buildings. After the monks had left, the abbey passed through various hands until the estate was purchased by the Berkeley family from Gloucestershire. Sir Maurice Berkeley, who was successively standard bearer to Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I, was the first of the family to live in Bruton and is buried in a very elaborate tomb in the chancel of the church.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Lord William Berkeley went to Virginia as Governor and took with him a number of Brutonians, one of whom was Thomas Ludwell. Thomas was to become Secretary to the State of Virginia, and in recognition of what he and Berkeley had done for the fast-emerging colony, the colonists of Williamsburg, in naming their new church, called it Bruton Parish Church.
During the Civil War, Bruton remained staunchly Royalist. King Charles I had already visited the town in 1621, staying in the Berkeley mansion and his second visit was in 1642, when he was on his way to Lostwithiel (where his troops were subsequently defeated by those of the Earl of Essex). The only conflict that the town witnessed during the war was when the people of Batcombe, who supported the Parliamentarians, decided to come over the hill and generate a fight. They were quickly despatched. As a verse in the Parish Registers records:
All praise and thanks to God still give,
Four our deliverance on Matthias’ eve,
By his great power we put to flight,
Our raging foes the Batcombites,
Who came to plunder, burn and slay,
And quite consume over our town this day.
By the 1780s, the abbey, lands and title lord of the manor had passed to the Hoare family from Sourhead in Wiltshire. They decided not to live in Bruton and the buildings fell into disuse. Now all that remains of the mansion is part of the abbey wall which daily casts is shadow over Plox.
Despite the fact that all four silk mills had closed by the middle of the nineteenth century, the industry having moved to Cheshire, the town continued to prosper. Bruton had a bank, Wesleyan and Congregational chapels, a post office, gas works, and for the thirsty, there was a choice of over a dozen inns. Employment was offered in the town’s brewery, at the sawmills, in Mr Henderson’s foundry in Quaperlake Street, or in the bacon-curing factory.
The arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1856 was heralded with much rejoicing, and the streets were decked with flags and bunting. A procession made it's way through the town (led, in a Bath chair, by the oldest resident, who was ninety-six) and 3000 cheering people greeted each train as it passed on the opening day of the line.
Bruton today is well catered for with three pubs, all of which serve meals, two restaurants and a coffee house. Specialist shops offer antiques, doll’s furniture, prints and maps, and picture framing, while 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. This latter trail is now over three hundred miles in length and was established to raise the profile of the Macmillan Cancer Relief Fund, the national charity established by Douglas Macmillan from nearby Castle Cary and who went to Sexey’s School in Bruton.
The parish church is impressive while nearby is the former town pump and the start of the Riverside Walk. This weaves it's way along Lower Backway before emerging at West End. A stroll along the route will give a glimpse of four of the Bartons (or alleyways) that link the Backway with the High Street, as well as a tantalising look at the rear façade of Sexey’s Hospital.
Trains continue to arrive daily at the station, and the second collection of ten walks around the town and local countryside are proving to be very popular. Copies are available from the Community Office, situated in the high Street and where other tourist information is available. To the rear of the office is the town’s museum. The museum will feature a silk worker’s living room from the 1830s, a printer’s shop from the 1930s, and a row of four shop fronts decorated for the 1953 Coronation. Bruton’s links with the Titanic will be revealed and a whole host of smaller displays will give a further insight into the varied and fascinating history of the town, which must surely rate as one of the hidden historical gems of the Mendip Hills.