This is a brief historical guide to Norton St Philip, adapted from a village tour written in 1978 by Jeremy Taylor, Sita Smyth and Pat Lawless.
The earliest remaining visible sign of habitation in this area is the Roman road from Bath to Poole which passes within a mile of the village, to the east. The line of the road can still be walked, and includes a stone causeway over a stream some two miles south-east of the village.
In the Domesday book of William the Conquerer (completed in the year 1086), the Manor of Norton with Hinton is recorded as supporting only 20 people, 3 ploughs, a mill of 5s. rent and 20 acres of meadow. We know what the mill looked like, with an enormous wheel, the axle of which was a full 10 feet in diameter, since it was still working within living memory. Bits of it still remain.
The ruins of Hinton Priory lie two miles to the north of the village. The link between Norton and Hinton Priory began in 1232, when the Priory was founded. It ended on March 31st 1540 when Prior Hood and his 23 monks were evicted by the Commissioners of Henry VIII, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monastries. During the life of the Priory, our village was in the keeping of the Prior, as Lord of the Manor of Norton. The rule of the Priory coloured the life of the village, and left marks on it that you can still see today. The chief mark, perhaps, is the George Inn.
The monks of the Priory were Carthusians, an order of silent comtemplatives, each living in his little house, with a small garden. Once a week they had to take a long walk. Along the lane from Norton to Wellow there is a stone bridge over the stream, by legend called Touchstone Bridge which the monks would touch and then turn back, as the limit of their walk.
Norton and the wool trade. The downland then around the village was ideal for raising sheep. The Priors of Hinton Priory quickly set about expanding the wool trade and making Norton an important market for wool and cloth. It's quite likely there was some sort of market here before the founding of the Priory. Among old Somerset sayings, collected by the Folk-lore Society, is the statement: "Norton were a Market Town when Taunton were a vuzzy down". The old stone Market Cross, might have given us the answer if it was still standing, which unfortunately it isn't. Certainly, by 1500 the Parish Registers contain many names described as Cloth Merchant or Weaver. Weaving and spinning was carried on in many of the cottages, paid on piece work by the cloth merchants.
The village has come through the centuries remarkably undisturbed. Architecturally, you see the mullion windows, the stone-tiled roofs and the local stone facings of the cottages. Place names in the village and around are, many of them, those in use at the time of Henry VIII and earlier. A look at the Parish Registers of 1600 showed, a few years ago, that more than 20 of the names found there were still represented in Norton. Some of the great calamities of the country did touch Norton St Philip. The Registers speak, in 1587, of "great mortality from a plague or sickness". The Civil War impinged on the village in 1648. For June the 24th that year, there is a reference to the burial of soldiers and civilians at Norton. In 1685 the village was the scene of a battle during Monmouth's Rebellion, which put the village's name in the history books (more on this event will follow later). But in general the years went by and left the village, apart from industrial and social changes, with much of its original character.
At the top of Bell Hill (the A366 / B3110 road intersection). The automatic cart-horse. Down the hill, where the Garage now is situated, stood the Prince Blucher Inn. The heavy wagons, particularly the coal wagons from Radstock, were defeated by the hill without extra help. So a rope ran from the inn all the way up the hill to end in a bell which rang in a stable in the courtyard of the George. In the stable was a cart-horse whose job it was, on hearing the bell, to go down the hill, entirely on its own, and help the wagon up to level ground at the top. It would there be unhitched, a small sum of money would be placed in a leather pouch at its head, and the horse would go back to its stable, again quite unsupervised. Noone knows how far this arrangement goes back into history. It was certainly operative within living memory. The last of a succession of automatic cart-horses, before the First World War, was called Tom and the sum then to put in his pouch was 3d. So Bell Hill is called that for a reason.
The George Inn. This building has an international reputation as one of the most ancient inns in the country. It used to be listed in the Guinness Book of Records. The date given for its building is suggested as 1223, and a continuous licence is claimed from 1397. This would have been a licence allowed by the Prior, since the earliest Governmental licences for alehouses date from 1552. The date of 1223 pre-dates the building of the Priory, nine years later. It may have been that, when the monks moved here to found the Priory, they first built on this spot to provide temporary living accomodation. Whatever the accuracy of the dates, it is certain that the monks built the present George Inn, and it served, during the life of the Priory, as its guest house.
Up until a few years ago, you could enter from within the George a well-constructed tunnel, some 5 feet high. For what its worth, this tunnel has been traced with a divining rod all the way to the Priory. A while ago, a dog fell into a subsided portion of the tunnel some way towards Hinton. Tunnels of this sort are not uncommon, though there are various theories for the use of this one - running liquor, a dry pathway under the snows of the bitter winters experienced in those days?
Originally, it is thought, the George was a one-storey stone building. With the growing importance of Norton as a centre for the wool trade, the large upper storey was added to provide extra accomodation and space for a wool store at the top of the house, with the necessary hoists to lift and lower the wool. Structurally, the court-yard, the little gallery open to the air leading to the bedrooms (in the mediaeval manner), the turreted staircase and the stone ground floor frontage, are the most interesting features.
The Fleur de Lys. Across the road from the George, stands a building which, from internal evidence of its beam structure, may be nearly as old as the George itself. It was opened as an inn in 1584. Not long afterwards, in 1615, Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James the First, stopped here to dine on her way back from taking the waters at Bath. Dinner for herself and her retinue cost £2 13s 0d. Samuel Pepys, his wife and maid, also dined here on their way to Bath in 1668. Their bill was 10s, 0d. On the north wall of the 'Fleur' can still be seen a coat of arms, much worn away, but with sufficient detail left to suggest the arms of the Fortescue family who owned land in the district in the 16th century. An interesting link between Norton St Philip and the Wars of the Roses: John Fortescue, who had married Isabella, daughter of John Jamyss of Philip's Norton, was Chief Justice to King Henry VI and so supported the Lancastrian cause. Later he was pardoned by the victorious Yorkist King, Edward IV.
The High Street. possesses examples of village architecture built over a period of four or five hundred years. In the past many houses have been erected along this street, have fallen into decay and been replaced by later buildings. In a few cases, existing houses were carefully preserved, and altered to suit the demands of succeeding generations. Today there are at least two houses with traces of early mediaeval building, a number of cottages built in 17th and 18th centuries, and a group of 19th century houses. The pavement on both sides of the road is made of irregular stone slabs, and at one point is extremely narrow. Almost all the houses are built adjacent to each other, which makes it impossible to determine the materials of the end gable walls, although from the rear it is possible to detect traces of rubble building which has often been replaced at the front by later building materials, when the houses were modernised and sometimes re-fenestrated.
Church Mead (the village green) and the Church. There is at least one reference to the practice of archery in the 15th century in this field, now called Church Mead. Perhaps what the historian Trevelyan wrote about the longbow might be interesting: "In the 14th century the longbow became more and more the prescribed weapon, and the practice at the butts beside the churchyard became the chief sport and excitement of village life. Edward III encouraged it by royal proclamations, prohibiting under pain of imprisonment 'handball, football or hockey, coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games" which drew men away from the butts. The art of the longbow was so difficult that foreigners never learnt the knack that would send an arrow through plate-mail. So Church Mead would have been a busy scene in the days when Henry V's recruiting officers were gathering men from the West Country for his expedition against France. You could say with truth that the Battle of Agincourt was won on such village fields.
Fair Close, separated from Church Mead by a stone wall, is the site of the old Norton Fairs. The monks obtained a charter to hold two fairs annually. The first, which lasted three days, began on the vigil of the Feast of Saints Philip and James, and the second during the festival of the Beheading of St John the Baptist. There were livestock fairs and cloth fairs and, later, jolly roundabout fairs which lasted to within living memory.
The Village Pound. Just below Fair Close is the site of the old Village Pound - not much more than a walled enclosure now, this used to be a livestock store.
The church. Samuel Pepys, after dining at the Inn, walked down to the church. He described what he found: "I walked to the church and there saw a very ancient tomb of some Knight Templar, I think; and here saw the tombstone whereon there were only two heads cut, which, the story goes, and credibly, were two sisters, called the Fair Maids of Foscott, that had two bodies upward and one belly, and there lie buried. Here is also a very fine ring of six bells, and they mighty tuneable".
The fair maids of Foscott would have appealed to the curious Mr Pepys. There is good reason to believe the legend, for its oddity and for the fact that the church saw fit to commemorate the sisters. Foscott is a hamlet a few miles from Norton. When Pepys saw the tomb, the effigy of the two sisters was cut in stone on the floor of the nave. This has since disappeared except for the two heads which are set on the wall inside the tower, one clearly defined and one much worn.
The ancient tomb, thought by Pepys to be that of a Knight Templar, is now thought to be that of a man of law, dated from circa 1460. Thoughts about this tomb have varied very much. In his 'History of Somerset', 1791, Collinson refers to the figure as that of a woman. This interpretation was current at least up to 1847 when Dr James Tunstall, in his 'Rambles about Bath and its Neighbourhood' - and they were quite erudite rambles - went further, as follows: "In the south aisle there is a beautiful freestone altar-tomb of a lady ... The style of the tomb is similar to the font, which is octagonal, having obliterated coats of arms, interspersed with figures, one of which represents the crucifixion. Armorial bearings on fonts, and effigies of knights and ladies, became common after the crusades. We therefore hazard the opinion that this is the tomb of the foundress of Hinton Abbey - Ela, Countess of Salisbury". That may be fanciful, but there is no certainty about the figure, which in one way makes it more interesting. According to Arthur Mee "no other stone figure of the kind is known".
Other features of the church. The church is mainly perpendicular in style, of the 14th or 15th century, and probably not the original building. Its chief peculiarity is the tower, of a decidedly odd but not unpleasing shape. The west porch is reputed to have been built from stone removed from Hinton Priory, but the Priory, as we have seen, was not demolished until well into the 16th century, so this legend is suspect. Arthur Mee describes the chancel: "not for miles around have we seen a chancel more attractive than this from the nave. It has an old barrel tinder roof elaborately panelled with tracery, oak screens on each side, the delicate colour of the east window and the black and gold gates across the chancel arch". The east window is by Christopher Webb and work here is as fine as his more famous stained window in Salisbury Cathedral. In the window tracery of the north wall is a little of the oldest glass in England, marked by the richness of the blues. The tower has a chiming clock without a face.
Manor Farm and the Dovecot. The Manor Farm is among the oldest buildings in the village, certainly contemporary with the monks of Hinton Priory. The reeve, or agent of the Prior, would have lived in the village, with the job of collecting the farm produce of those lands kept in the hands of the Prior, as Lord of the Manor. He would have collected also all those innumberable rent, labour services and small dues owed by the manorial tenants - so many eggs at Easter, and so on. It is suggested the Manor Farm, as it is now, originated as the reeve's house, or grange, and the the huge barns, recently converted into a line of houses, were what are generally called tithe barns. Another view is that the George was used as the grange or central farm of the Lord of the Manor. What we can be sure of is that the Flower family later lived in this house and farmed land around Norton from the reign of Henry VIII. In the 16th century Geoffrey Flower bought a house near the Stone Cross, and in 1584 this house was let to one Richard Parson as an inn. Here you will recognise the 'Fleur de Lys', and how the inn got its name. Geoffrey Flower was a rich man, farming 735 acres. He contributed generously to the reconstruction of the church and also was largely responsible for the rebuilding of Bath Abbey.
The Dovecot, also, is likely to have been built by the monks as part of the Manor Farm complex, which also had a private chapel. The dovecot is one of the finest examples of its sort in the UK. Our Preservation Society had a major hand in raising money for its restoration in the 1970's. There are 800 pigeon holes in total. The reason, of course, for dovecots in those days can be given briefly as 'pigeon pie when you wanted it', for the household of the Lord of the Manor. Much resented by farmers, to whom pigeons were pests.
Lyde Green. Lyde Green may have been the earliest part of the village. The triangle of grass here is, by tradition, the only remaining common land in Norton St Philip, and the surrounding area may well have been the 'Nortune' of Domesday Book which King William gave to Edward Devereux, Earl of Salisbury and Sheriff of Wiltshire. The name, again, is an old one, deriving from a spring called the Lyde. The prosperity of the village came to some extent from its being well supplied with water. Many of the cottages had their own wells, and still have, though they aren't used.
Bloody Lane. The common name in the village for the steep little lane running parellel to the main road up Bell Hill, is still 'Bloody Lane' - not because its steepness taxes the elderly walker but because on one occasion, some 300 years ago, it did literally run with blood...
On the 26th and 27th of June 1685, the village found itself in the middle of the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion against his Uncle, the Roman Catholic King James II.
Monmouth had landed at Lyme Regis on the 11th June with 80 men. He moved triumphantly through Taunton and Bridgewater, gathering men as he went, until at one time, his troops numbered between six and seven thousand. But they were untrained and ill-armed. The Royal Cavalry ran rings around them at Keynsham Bridge, intercepting Monmouth's planned attack on Bristol. It was a depleted and disheartened rebel army that trailed south past Bath, in the hope of picking up more recruits in Wiltshire, and came to rest for the night in Norton. That night may have been restful, but the next day wasn't.
Monmouth arrived with his followers into the village in the late evening of the 26th June 1685, from the direction of Bath. He made the George Inn his headquarters, with billets being sought for his men, and stables for the horses, throughout the village. Of special interest are four guns that have been lugged up the steep inclines of approaching the village. Norton has effectively become an armed camp.
The story has it that while Monmouth sat at a table in a room on the first floor of the Inn, a shot rang out, the bullet shattering the window and just missing the Duke. The would-be assassin must have been a brave man, since he courted certain death. On the other hand, the reward for Monmouth, dead or alive, was considerable. The circular mahogany dining-table at which he sat, with an inscribed brass plate, was until the 1970's on view in that same room.
The skirmish. Even as Monmouth was preparing to move on south, on the 27th, news came of the approaching advance guard of the Royal Army. Monmouth decided to stand and fight. He was a talented soldier, and judged he was in a sound defensive position. Monmouth set up a strong barricade in North Street, which in those days was the main road out of the village towards Bath. Here it was that the main fighting took place, with the King's troops trying to break the barricade, and blood flowing down the lane. The turning point came when Monmouth led a flank attack, infiltrating troops through the grounds of a large house which then stood immediately to the east of the road. A desultory artillery action, in heavy rain, lasted a further 6 hours before the King's army withdrew to Bradford-on-Avon. The skirmish had cost them 80 dead. The rebels lost only 18 men - a tribute to Monmouth's leadership. Cannon-balls have been ploughed up in the fields to the north of the village. The north end of North Street is still known as Soho, which was the battle cry of the rebels. In the manner of the time, the encounter engendered a song in the village that day: "Monmouth is at Norton Town / All a-fighting for the Crown / Ho! boys, ho!".
The aftermath. Norton Town, however, had little cause for rejoicing in the aftermath of the collapse of the rebellion. The defeat of the King's army here was not forgotten. Evidence was not in great demand at the Autumn Assizes in the West Country, presided over by Judge Jeffreys and four other judges, required to deal with the large number of prisoners. Those from Norton would have appeared before Assize Court at Wells. Apart from men transported, fined or flogged, 12 men from the village were brought back here and hanged in Bloody Close, behind the Fleur de Lys. Their bodies were then hung about the village, until taken down, burnt and buried in field behind the Fleur. In the Churchwardens' book there is an item of 12s for faggots for the pyre.
Stories of the skirmish. At the time when the rebel army was first approaching the village, a man called Hart is reputed to have been minding his cattle. When asked by Monmouth, "Who are you for?" he rashly replied with great enthusiasm "For King and Country", whereupon his head was removed with one stroke.
One of Monmouth's officers is reported to have left a valise behind when the rebels moved off towards Frome on the night following the battle. When this was opened it was found to be full of coins. This made the fortune of a certain yeoman family, whose descendents still live in the district.
Finally, two men are said to have caught a stray sumpter mule or baggage carrier. The value of its load never transpired, but the captors' visits to the Fleur de Lys became more frequent and their potations became stronger. They were known in the village thereafter as 'the sumptious muleteers'.
North Street. At the time of Monmouth, three cottages only are shown on North Street. One has been altered as to make it unrecognisable as to date. But the other two, Vanity Park Cottage and Prior's Cottage remain. The internal timbers of Vanity Park show it to have been cruck-built, a mediaeval method of construction. There are relieving arches over both ground floor windows and the upper window in the tall gable, also there are drip moulds over the windows and running above the door. Both cottages were renovated in the late 16th or early 17th century. Inside Prior's Cottage is a good example a stair turret, one of a number in the village, for instance at the George and in the Malthouse. This is an early type of stairway, before builders had the technical knowledge necessary for an internal staircase.