The parish included the neighbouring settlements of Hamp in the south, Haygrove and West Bower in the west, Horsey island in the north-east, East and North Bower, and Dunwear was a scattered riverside settlement occupying much of the east bank of the Parrett.
After William the Conqueror divided England up between his Norman barons, Brygg was allocated to Walter from Douai in France. It was known as the Brigg of Walter, or Briggwalter, which in time became Bridgewater. That is why Bridgwater has no “e” and the “l” is now missing.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records that Bridgwater probably had a population of about 160, which made it a fairly large village with five extended families.
By 1200 it came under the stewardship of William Brewer, a close friend and hunting partner of King John, who visited the town on 5 occasions between 1204 and 1210. This William Brewer is believed to have carried the ransom money to pay for Richard I’s release when he was held prisoner on the continent.
On June 26th 1200 King John granted Bridgwater two charters, which gave the inhabitants town borough status with the right to raise taxes, to hold a market, and the right to build a bridge over the river (which enabled them to intercept much of the trade that previously went upstream.) Once the market was up and running craftsmen and merchants came to live in Bridgwater and it grew into a town.
The castle was built between 1200 and 1210, with walls 12-15 feet thick, and a 30 foot moat. You can find remnants of the castle in different parts of the town, although it was thoroughly demolished in 1644 after the Civil War.
William Brewer allowed an Augustine Priory, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, to be built around 1216. This was the first hospital, caring for infirm persons plus travelling pilgrims and religious persons, with the exception of lunatics, lepers, pregnant women and those with contagious diseases!
By 1246 one of William Brewer’s sons had founded a Franciscan priory in the town. They were called Grey Friars because of the colour of their habits. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. Their priory was in Friarn Street. In Silver Street is a medieval door believed to belong to the old priory which housed the order for 300 years.
These establishments continued for 300 years until they shared the fate of other religious buildings when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and seized their wealth.
In 1249 the first Bridgwater Fair was held, ranked as the second largest in England after the Nottingham Goose Fair. It began as a horse and cattle fair, lasting 8 days, around St Matthew’s Day (September 21st), and attracted buyers and sellers from all over Somerset. It now takes place at St Matthew’s Field on the last Wednesday in September and lasts 4 days.
In 1362 a local lady from Clare Street, Isolda Parewastel, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was captured by the Saracens, held captive and tortured, but managed to escape. In gratitude for her deliverance she requested permission from the Pope to build a chapel in St. Mary’s Church.
During the Second Baron’s War of 1264-1267, led by Simon de Montfort against Henry III, Bridgwater was held by the barons against the king. In fact, Bridgwater has a reputation for standing up against the unfair dealings of monarch and government, often to the local people’s cost.
In 1381, during the reign of Richard II, Bridgwater was affected by the peasant’s revolt. A mob forced entry to the hospital, seized the master, and destroyed various documents detailing the debts owed to the hospital. They then attacked Sydenham Manor, before going on to Ilchester Gaol, where they killed the head jailor and released the prisoners. His head was placed on a spear on Bridgwater’s Town Bridge, a stone bridge with 3 arches just downstream from where the present TownBridge stands today, together with that of another official from Chilton Trinity.
In the middle of the town was the corn market whose name later changed to Cornhill. There was another market for livestock at Penel Orlieu, originally 2 streets, Pynel Street and Orlove Street (both of which were named after people).
In the Middle Ages Bridgwater was protected by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden stockade. (It was too small for stone walls). There were 4 stone gates where tolls were charged on goods entering the town. Northgate stood where the street of that name meets Angel Crescent. East Gate stood across the river where Broadway meets Eastover. South Gate stood South of St Mary Street, and West Gate at the crossroads of Penel Orlieu with Broadway.
Bridgwater was an important inland port in the Middle Ages but until 1402 it was officially part of the port of Bristol. Wine from France was imported into Bridgwater. Other imports included cloth, grain, beans, peas and hides. In Bridgwater the main industry was cloth manufacture, and there were many drapers and tailors in the town. Wool was woven, then fulled and dyed.
In the 14th century Bridgwater probably had a population of about 1,600. In 1468 Bridgwater was given a mayor and corporation to govern it. By the 15th century it had grown to about 300 houses.
In the 16th century Bridgwater was still a busy port. Fish were brought there. Millstones were brought by water from the Forest of Dean. The cloth trade declined in the 16th century but a shipbuilding industry grew up.
In 1497 Bridgwater joined the Cornishmen in the Western Rebellion. An army of 15,000 marched peaceably towards London, apart from one isolated incident in Taunton where a tax commissioner was killed. The protest ended with the Battle of Deptford Bridge, when the Cornish army was slaughtered and its leaders subsequently hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
In 1539, along with the nationwide dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, both the hospital and the friary were closed.
In 1577 the Bridgwater ship Emanuel was one of three that took part in Martin Frobisher’s search for the Northwest Passage, and in 1588 another Bridgwater ship, the “William” sailed to join the English fleet against the Spanish Armada.
Stuart and Parliamentary Times
In 1605 Bridgwater along with many other towns and villages celebrated the failure of the gunpowder plot with bonfires and firework displays. It is believe that Robert Parsons from Nether Stowey masterminded the plot. But for some reason in Bridgwater this tradition developed into what has become the world’s largest night time carnival.
In 1642 civil war broke out between king and parliament. Bridgwater mostly supported parliament. Nevertheless the town was captured by royalist troops in June 1643. It remained in royalist hands until July 1643 when it was besieged by parliamentary soldiers under Cromwell and Fairfax. The governor of the castle was Colonel Sir Francis Wyndham, and his wife, Lady Crystabella, very nearly shot Oliver Cromwell with a musket from the battlements. After heavy fighting in which Parliamentary artillery destroyed all but two houses in Eastover, the Royalists surrendered, and the following year the castle was destroyed as a reprisal for the town’s resistance.
Robert Blake (1598-1657) was one of the most important military commanders under Cromwell. The eldest son of 13 siblings born to a Bridgwater merchant, in 640 he was elected as MP for Bridgwater in the Short Parliament until it was dissolved by King Charles I after just 3 weeks. When the civil war broke out, he began his military career on the side of the parliamentarians with very little experience of military or naval matters. His victories included the siege of Taunton (1645) which proved a turning point in the Civil War. In 1649 he was appointed General at Sea and is often referred to as the “Father of the Royal Navy.” He was responsible for building the largest English navy hitherto with well over a hundred ships, was the first to keep a fleet at sea over winter, developed new techniques to conduct blockades and landings, and to attack successfully despite fire from shore forts. He led the navy to victory over the Dutch in 1652-53 and the Spanish in 1656-57 before dying from his wounds just before reaching England. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, until after the restoration of the Monarchy when his body was exhumed and dumped in a common grave.