Ugly modern buildings—"Westward Ho!"—Roman roads—The Torridge—The story of King Edmund—The ravages of the sons of Lodbrog—Hingvar and Hubba defeated at Appledore—Brictric the Golden-haired—Bideford Bridge—The herriot—Sir William Coffin—The Newfoundland Fisheries—Sir Richard Grenville—Colonisation of Wokohen—Captain White—The story of the life of Sir Richard Grenville—The Revenge—The north coast to Wellcombe—The Hobby Drive—Hartland—S. Nectan—The Promontory of Hercules—Wellcombe—Mutilation of the Church—Wear Gifford.
BARNSTAPLE and Bideford are towns that the jerry-builders have done their utmost to make hideous with white brick villas banded with red. It is a curious fact, but fact it is, that a builder without a grain of taste, if ambitious to make one of his domestic monstrosities attractive, will look into the pattern-book of a maker of terracotta, and select the most obtrusive ridge-tiles and, above all, hip-knobs he can find, frizzle the spine of his roof with the former, clap the latter on his gable, and think that the product is stylish. The foliations of the ridge-tiles get broken after a frost, and the roof acquires a mangy look, but not till after the villa has been let as a handsome suburban residence.When one encounters this sort of thing, repeated
again and again, the heart turns sick, and the visitor is impatient to fly from towns thus vulgarised.
To Bideford he comes full of thoughts of "Westward Ho!" and expects to find an Elizabethan flavour about the place, only to be woefully disappointed. Even the church is new; only the bridge remains, and that has been menaced with destruction.
Bideford has memories, but modern Bideford has made herself aesthetically unworthy of them.
To begin with, the old Roman, or pre-Roman, road from North Cornwall passing through Stratton, that takes its name from the street or road, ran to the ford on the Torridge and passed on to Barnstaple. At the beginning of the ninth century the estuary of the Taw and Torridge (Dur, water, and Dur-rhyd, the water ford) invited the entry into the land of the Northmen.
A memorable incident in one of these incursions is connected with a romantic story that shall be told in full.
Roger of Wendover gives the tale, founding it on old ballads.
"There was, not long ago, in the kingdom of the Danes, a certain man named Lodbrog (Hairy-breeches), who was sprung from the royal race of that nation, and had by his wife two sons, Hingvar and Hubba. One day he took his hawk and went unattended in a little boat to catch small birds and wild-fowl on the seacoast and in the islands. While thus engaged he was surprised by a sudden storm, and carried out to sea, and after having been tossed about for several days and nights, was at last carried in sore distress to the English coast, and landed at Redham, in the province of Norfolk. The people of that country by chance found him with his hawk, and presented him as a sort of 'prodigy to Edmund, king of the East Angles, who, for the sake of his comely person, gave him an honourable reception. Lodbrog abode some time in the court of the monarch, and as the Danish tongue is very like English, he began to relate to the king by what chance he had been driven to the coast of England. The accomplished manners of King Edmund pleased Lodbrog, as well as his military discipline and the courtly manners of his attendants. Emulous of the like attainments, Lodbrog asked permission of the king to remain in his court, and having obtained his request, he attached himself to the king's huntsman, whose name was Bjorn, that he might with him exercise the hunter's art. But such was the skill of Lodbrog, that he was always successful in hunting or hawking, and being deservedly a favourite with the king, Bjorn became jealous of him, and giving way to deadly hatred, one day, when they were hunting together, he attacked him and slew him, and left his body in a thicket.
This done, the wicked huntsman called off his dogs with his horn, and returned home. Now Lodbrog had reared a certain greyhound in King Edmund's court, which was very fond of him, and, as is natural, when the huntsman returned with his own dogs, remained watchful by his master's body.
"Next day, as King Edmund sat at table, he missed Lodbrog from the company, and anxiously asked his attendants what had befallen him, on which Bjorn, the huntsman, answered that he had tarried behind in a wood, and he had seen no more of him. But as he was speaking, Lodbrog's dog came into the hall and began to wag his tail and fawn on all, and especially on the king, who, on seeing him, said to his attendants, 'Here comes Lodbrog's dog; his master is not far behind.' He then began to feed the dog, hoping soon to see his master. But he was disappointed, for when the greyhound had satisfied his appetite, he returned to keep his accustomed watch over his master's body. After three days he was compelled by hunger to return to the king's table, and Edmund, greatly wondering, gave orders to follow the dog when he left the hall, and watch whither he went. The king's servants fulfilled his commands, and followed the dog till it led them to Lodbrog's lifeless body. On being informed of this the king was greatly disturbed, and directed that the body should be committed to a more honourable sepulchre. King Edmund then caused diligent inquisition to be made touching the death of Lodbrog; and Bjorn, the huntsman, was convicted of the crime, and by order of the king, the captains and wise men of his court passed sentence on him. The judges unanimously agreed that the huntsman should be put into the boat in which Lodbrog had come to England, and should be exposed on the sea without sail or oar, that it might be proved whether God would deliver him."
Roger of Wendover goes on to tell how Bjorn was wafted across to Denmark, and there was examined by torture by Hubba and Hingvar, sons of Lodbrog, who recognised their father's boat. Bjorn, under torture, declared that Lodbrog had been put to death by Edmund, king of the East Angles. The Danes accordingly assembled an army and invaded East Anglia to avenge on Edmund the murder of their father.
The Norse story does not agree with this at all. According to the Sagas, Ragnar Lodbrog was seized by Ælla, king of the Northumbrians, and was thrown into a dungeon full of serpents, in which he sang his dying song, the famous Krakumal. His sons, they say, were called Eirekr, Agnarr, Ivar, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserkr, and Sigurd Worm-in-the-eye.
Edmund encamped at the royal vill of Haelesdune (Hoxne), when Hingvar and Hubba landed at Berwick-on-Tweed, and ravaged the country on their march through Northumbria. In 870 Hingvar entered East Anglia, and was attacked by Edmund whilst his force was divided from that of Hubba. Both sides suffered severely. Hubba joined Hingvar at Thetford, and the united army fought Edmund again. His force was far outnumbered. He was routed, and he and Humbert, bishop of Elmham, were taken in a church; Humbert was despatched with the sword. Edmund was tied to a tree, and the Danes shot at him with their arrows, till they were tired of the sport, when he was decapitated, and his head flung into a thicket of the forest of Hoxne.
So far we have had nothing about Bideford. But now we come to this parish.
Hingvar and Hubba (Agnarr and Ivar of the Norse version) were provided by their sisters with an ensign before starting, on which, with their needles, they had wrought the figure of a raven, in symbol of the carnage that their brothers were to cause in revenge for the death of their father. Hingvar and Hubba in 866 ravaged East Anglia and Mercia; they wintered in Essex, and in 867 crossed the Humber and took York. In 868 they devastated as far as Nottingham. In 870 Edmund fell. Every successive year was marked by fire and slaughter. In 876 the Danes were in Exeter, and again in 877. In the winter of 878 Hubba came with twenty-three ships into the estuary of the Taw and Torridge with the raven standard, and landed at Appledore (Aweddwr, W. running water). Here the men of Devon were encamped at Kenwith, now Henny Castle, north-west of Bideford, where earthworks remain to this day in the wood. The Danes attacked the camp, and were repulsed, with the loss of twelve hundred men and their raven banner. Hubba was also slain. He was buried on the shore near his ships, and a pile of stones was thrown up over him. The place bears the name of Whiblestone, or Hubbastone, but all traces of the cairn have disappeared, swept away by the encroachment of the sea. So the men of Devon avenged the blood of S. Edmund and of the men of Mercia and East Anglia.
In the time of Edward the Confessor the manor of Bideford belonged to Brictric the Golden-haired. He was sent by the king to the court of Baldwin V., Count of Flanders, where Matilda, the Count's daughter, cast on him an eye of affection. But Brictric did not reciprocate, and Matilda felt all the rage and resentment entertained by a flouted fair. Her chance came at last. She was married to William the Bastard, who conquered England. For fourteen years she had waited, nursing her wrath. Now, at last, the opportunity had arrived for revenge. At her instigation Brictric was made to surrender all his honours and lands, and was conveyed to Winchester, where he died in prison, and was hurriedly buried.
William the Conqueror gave Bideford to the son of Hamo the Toothy, Richard de Grenville, and the place has never since lost its association with the Granville family.
Sir Theobald Granville in the fourteenth century was a large benefactor to the town in assisting in the building of the bridge, rendered advisable by the great loss of life at the ford or in the ferry. It was, however, said to have been set on foot at the prompting of Richard Gurney, the parish priest, who dreamed two nights running that there was a rock below the ooze on which a pier might rest. But one pier did not suffice, and how to sustain others on mud was a puzzle. It was—so tradition says—solved by sinking bags of wool and laying the bases of the piers on these, a story not so improbable as appears on the face.
For a long time the vicars of Bideford had a herriot, that is, a right to the second best horse or cow of any parishioner who died. In 1529 this led to a scene. Sir William Coffin was passing one day by the churchyard, when, seeing a crowd collected, he asked the occasion, and learned that a corpse had been brought there to be interred, but that the vicar refused to read the burial service unless the dead man's cow were surrendered. But as the deceased had left no other property whatever, the heirs demurred. On hearing this Sir William sent for the priest, and reasoned with him on the impropriety of his conduct; however, the vicar was obstinate and would not give way. "Very well, then," said the knight, "stick me in the grave, and cover me up instead of the corpse, and you shall have my second best cow." He was proceeding to get into the grave, when the vicar thought prudent to yield. I suppose that the matter became notorious by the complaint of the parson, for Sir William was actually summoned before Parliament on a charge of violating the rights and privileges of the Church. But partly through his favour at court, and partly by his being able to represent the mischievous consequences of the arbitrary demand for "mortuaries," Parliament passed an act which put a stop to them, or, at all events, in favour of the poor, limited the extent of these claims.
Bideford was not a place of much importance till the reign of Queen Elizabeth; it started into significance through the Newfoundland cod-fisheries, which were almost entirely in the hands of the Barnstaple, Bideford, and Bristol men as far as England was concerned.
As early as 1504 the Portuguese had begun to catch fish on those coasts. In 1578 England had fifty vessels, Portugal as many, and France and Spain together, a hundred and fifty, occupied in reaping the harvest of the sea in the North Atlantic. From 1698 to 1700 Bideford had twenty-eight vessels engaged in the fishery, whilst Barnstaple had only seven or eight; London sent out seventy-one, and Topsham thirty-four.
But the raising of Bideford into a port of importance was due mainly to the enterprise of the famous Elizabethan admiral, Sir Richard Grenville.
"Sir Richard was born most probably at Stowe, the Cornish seat of the family, in the parish of Kilkhampton, in the year 1546. His father, Roger, was a captain in the navy, and met with a watery grave at Portsmouth, in a ship called the Mary Rose, a vessel of 600 tons, and one of the finest in the navy, commanded by Sir George Carew. She sank with all on board, July 19th, 1545, from a similar accident to that which happened to the Royal George near the same place, June 28th, 1782. Being at anchor in calm weather with all ports open, a sudden breeze caused the ship to heel over, when the water entered through the lower ports and sank her. Some guns recovered many years after are preserved in Woolwich Arsenal. Richard Granville was early distinguished among his companions for his enthusiastic love of active exercises, and at the age of sixteen he, in company with several other chivalrous scions of our nobility, obtained a licence from Queen Elizabeth to enter into the service of the Emperor of Hungary against the Turks."
He was engaged in the battle of Lepanto, in which Don Juan of Austria, with the combined fleets of Christendom, destroyed the Turkish galleys. One can but wish that a combined fleet would once more try conclusions with the Turk.
Then Richard Granville in 1569 was made Sheriff of Cork, but he remained in Ireland two years only. By his interest with Queen Elizabeth he obtained for Bideford a charter of incorporation, 1574. He was High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1578, and was then knighted. But the bias of his mind was towards adventure at sea, and he united with his relative, Sir Walter Raleigh, in the exploration which led to the discovery of Virginia and Carolina in 1584.
When Sir Richard Granville had retired, the colonists wasted their time in searching for gold in place of cultivating the soil. Consequently they were in a condition of starvation when Sir Francis Drake, touching there on his way to England, rescued them from their impending fate.
"Not long after, Sir Richard Granville with three ships hove in sight. Ignorant of what had happened he landed with the confident hope of adding vigour and strength to the infant colony for whose welfare he had toiled and sacrificed; but after making the most laborious searches for the absentees, without obtaining any indications of their fate, he set sail, leaving fifteen of his crew ashore for the purpose of retaining possession. This handful of men soon became involved in hostilities with the natives, and were by them destroyed to the last man. However dis-heartening this unlooked-for succession of disasters might have proved to men of ordinary stamp, they only incited the elastic dispositions of Raleigh and Granville to more vigorous operations. Early, therefore, in the following year (1587), they fitted out three more ships, which were entrusted to the command of Captain John White, a native of Devonshire, a man well versed in all the difficulties and trials attending enterprises of this nature. He brought together a more numerous and determined body of adventurers than had composed the former expedition under Lane; but upon their arrival the same disadvantages which had daunted their predecessors in the colony appeared so forcibly before their senses that, deeming the continuous mass of forest and the endless savannahs of the country only fit for the abode of savages, they with one accord solicited their leader, White, to return to England and bring a fresh supply of articles, that their uncomfortable position might at least be made tolerable. He accordingly retraced his footsteps, arriving in this country at a time when the eyes of the entire nation were intent upon warfare, and, receiving no encouragement from their patrons, the unfortunate colony in Roanoke obtained no assistance; and the painful fact must be repeated, that our first settlers in Virginia were suffered to perish miserably by a famine or to fall ignominiously from the savage hatred of the tribes who surrounded them."
Kingsley is wrong in stating that Sir Richard was at sea, and assisted in the destruction of the Armada; at the time he was acting under orders to remain in Cornwall.
Three years after, in 1591, he was in command of the Revenge, as Vice-Admiral of England, in which he achieved the glorious action off the Azores in which he met his death. His object was to intercept the richly-laden fleet of the Spaniards, on its return from the West Indies; a service of the utmost importance, as thereby England stopped the sources of Philip's power.
Towards the end of August, the Admiral, Lord Thomas Howard, with six of Her Majesty's ships and as many small vessels, was at anchor at Flores, when news arrived of the near approach of the great Spanish fleet. Many of the Englishmen were ill on shore, and others were filling the ships with ballast. Imperfectly manned and ballasted as they were, there was nothing for it but to make an attempt to escape out of the trap in which they were caught, and the ships slipped their cables. Sir Richard, as Vice-Admiral, was the last to start, delaying to do so till the final moment, in order to collect those of his sick crew who were on shore; and this delay was fatal.
The two great Spanish squadrons hove in sight and intercepted him. However, he resolved to force his way through. The Spanish fleet consisted of fifty-three vessels. Eleven out of the twelve English ships had escaped. Sir Richard weighed, uncertain at first what to do. The Spanish fleet were on his weather bow, and he was advised to cut his mainsail, cast about, and run before the wind, trusting to the fleetness of his ship. But Sir Richard utterly refused to turn his back on the enemy, alleging that he would die rather than show that to a Spaniard.
The wind was light. The San Philip, a huge high-cargoed ship of 1500 tons, hove to windward, took the wind out of the sails of the Revenge, and attempted to board her. The Spanish vessels were filled with soldiers: in some two hundred, in some five hundred, in others eight hundred.
The San Philip had three tiers of ordnance, with eleven pieces on every tier.
148 BIDEFORD Then, as Tennyson tells the tale:—
"Sir Richard spoke and he laughed, and we roared a hurrah, and so
The little Revenge ran on sheer into the heart of the foe,
With her hundred fighters on deck, and her ninety sick below,
For half of their fleet to the right, and half to the left were seen,
And the little Revenge ran on thro' the long sea-lane between."
The fight began at three o'clock in the afternoon and continued all that evening. The San Philip having received the lower tier of the Revenge, charged with cross-bar shot, was to some extent disabled, and shifted her quarters. Repeated attempts made to board the English vessel were repulsed. All that August night the fight continued, the stars shining overhead, but eclipsed by the clouds of smoke from the cannon. Ship after ship came in upon the Revenge, so that she was continuously engaged with two mighty galleons, one on each side, and with the enemy boarding her on both. Before morning fifteen men-of-war had been engaged with her, but all in vain; some had been sunk, the rest repulsed.
" And the rest, they came aboard us, and they fought us hand to hand,
For a dozen times they came with their pikes and musqeteers,
And a dozen times we shook 'em off, as a dog that shakes his ears,
When he leaps from the water to land."
All the powder at length in the Revenge was spent, all her pikes were broken, forty out of her hundred men were killed, and a great number of the rest wounded.
Sir Richard, though badly hurt early in the battle, never forsook the deck till an hour before midnight, and was then shot through the body while his wounds were being dressed, and again in the head, and his surgeon was killed while attending on him. The masts were lying over the side, the rigging cut or broken, the upper work all shot in pieces, and the ship herself, unable to move, was settling slowly in the sea, the vast fleet of the Spaniards lying round her in a ring, like dogs round a dying lion and wary of approaching him in his last dying agony. Sir Richard, seeing it was past hope, having fought for fifteen hours, ordered the master-gunner to sink the ship; but this was a heroic sacrifice that the common seamen opposed. Two Spanish ships had gone down, above fifteen hundred men had been killed, and the Spanish admiral could not induce any of the rest of the fleet to board the Revenge again, as they feared lest Sir Richard should blow himself and them up.
Sir Richard was lying disabled below, and too weak and wounded to contest with those who opposed the sinking of the vessel. The captain now entered into parley with the Spanish admiral, and succeeded in obtaining for conditions that all their lives should be saved, the crew sent to England, and the officers ransomed. Sir Richard was now removed to the ship of Don Alfonso Barsano, the Spanish admiral, and there died, saying in Spanish:—
"Here die I, Richard Granville, with a joyful and quiet mind, for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought to do that hath fought for his country, queen, religion, and honour: whereby my soul most joyfully departeth out of this body, and shall always leave behind it an everlasting fame of a valiant and true soldier that hath done his duty as he was bound to do."
Froude well says:—
"Such was the fight at Flores in that August, 1591, without its equal in such of the annals of mankind as the thing which we call history has preserved to us. At the time England and all the world rang with it. It struck a deeper terror, though it was but the action of a single ship, into the hearts of the Spanish people, it dealt a more deadly blow upon their fame and naval strength, than the destruction of the Armada itself, and in the direct results which arose from it it was scarcely less disastrous to them. Hardly, as it seems to us, if the most glorious actions which are set like jewels in the history of mankind are weighed one against the other in the balance, hardly will those three hundred Spartans, who in the summer morning sat combing their long hair for death in the passes of Thermopylae, have earned a more lofty estimate for themselves than this one crew of modern Englishmen. After the action there ensued a tempest so terrible as was never seen or heard the like before. A fleet of merchantmen joined the armada immediately after the battle, forming in all one hundred and forty sail; and of these one hundred and forty, only thirty-two ever saw Spanish harbour; the rest all foundered or were lost on the Azores. The men-of-war had been so shattered by shot as to be unable to carry sail; and the Revenge herself, disdaining to survive her commander, or as if to complete his own last baffled purpose, like Samson, buried herself and her two hundred prize crew under the rocks of St. Michael's."
Bideford is the starting-point for the north coast of Devon, from the mouth of the Torridge to the Cornish border, and thence to Bude.
The beauty of this coast is almost unrivalled, equalled only by that from Ilfracombe to Minehead.
Clovelly, with the Hobby Drive, is something to be seen, and one's education is incomplete without it.
And one can combine archaeology with the quest of beauty, if a visit to Clovelly be combined with one to the "Dykes," sadly mutilated by roads cut through the embankments. Nevertheless, sufficient remains of Clovelly Dykes to make it a fair representative of a British king's Dun. Beyond Clovelly, somewhat spoiled by being a place of resort, but always maintaining much picturesqueness, is Hartland, the settlement of S. Nectan, reputed son, but probably grandson, of King Brychan of Brecknock. He is represented in a niche on the tower. His name is Irish; Nectans were not uncommon in the Green Isle.
Very little is known of S. Nectan. He is said to have been killed, his head cut off—not improbably by the chief at Clovelly Dykes, who cannot have relished having the country overrun and appropriated by a horde of half Irish half Welsh adventurers. And this took place precisely at the time when the Irish grip on Britain was relaxing.
A stone was marked with his blood where he was killed. He got up and carried his head to where now stands the church. But "they all did it." These Celtic saints had a remarkable faculty for not only losing their heads, but finding them again.
There is a grand screen painted and gilt in the church.
At Hartland Point, the promontory of Hercules of the ancients, is a lighthouse. When the wind is from the west the Atlantic thunders and foams on one side of the headland, whilst on the other in the bay the sea lies glassy, and reflects the purple-red slaty cliffs. The point rises 300 feet out of the sea, and was probably at one time occupied by a cliff- castle. A visit to Hartland Quay reveals the most extraordinary contortions in the slate rock. The cliffs are sombre, the strata thrust up at right angles to the sea, and over them foam streamlets that discharge themselves into the ocean.
Hartland Abbey was founded by Gytha, the wife of Earl Godwin, and mother of Harold, in honour of S. Nectan, who, she believed, had come to the assistance of her husband in a storm and saved him from shipwreck—as if a true Celtic saint would put out his little finger to help a Saxon! But there was unquestionably a monastery here long before—from the sixth century, when S. Nectan settled on this wild headland.
The large parish was at one time studded with chapels, but these have all disappeared, or been converted into barns. The church is two miles from the village of Hartland.
A walk along the cliffs may be carried to Wellcombe, another foundation of S. Nectan, where is his holy well, recently repaired. The church contains a screen earlier in character than is usually found. There were interesting bench-ends with very curious heads. At the "restoration" a few of the ends were plastered against the screen, and their unique heads sawn away so as to make them fit the place into which they were thrust, but never designed to occupy. Their places were taken by mean deal benches. I suppose as the patron, S. Nectan, lost his head, these chief ornaments of the church were doomed to the same fate.
Wellcombe Mouth is worth a visit; a narrow glen descending to the sea, which here rages against precipitous cliffs.
Another excursion from Bideford should be made to Wear Gifford, where is one of the finest oak-roofed halls in England.
The mansion stands on a slope, rising gently from the meadows near the Torridge, yet rears itself into the semblance of a stronghold by a scarped terrace, which extends along the south front.
Half concealed in luxuriant vegetation, on the right is the embattled gateway tower, still one of the entrances. In approaching the house we see two projecting gables, and between them is the entrance and the hall, the latter with its massive chimney.
From the entrance the broad oak staircase, having a handsome balustrade, is ascended. The walls are hung with tapestry. On reaching the minstrels' gallery an excellent view is obtained of the superb roof, "one of the most ornate and tasteful specimens of Perpendicular woodwork to be met with in England. Every portion is carved with the spirit and stroke of the true artist; and the multiplied enrichments seen in detail from our elevated position quite surprise the spectator."
Elaborately carved wainscot panelling surrounds the walls, covering about ten feet in height. It is adorned with heraldic shields, and opposite the fireplace are the arms of Henry VII.
This small, perfect, and beautiful specimen of an old English mansion was the cradle of one of the best of Devonshire families, the Giffards, a branch of which was at Brightley. The last of the Wear Gifford stock conveyed the estate and mansion with his daughter and heiress to the Fortescues. But the Giffard race is by no means extinct, it is now well represented by the Earl of Halsbury.
Note.—Book on Bideford:—
Granville (R.), History of Bideford. Bideford, 1883.
- The ford gave its distinctive appellation to the river above it.
- Observe the Goidelic for Cen for the Brythonic Pen, Kenwith is "The Head of the Wood."
- Granville (R.), History of Bideford. n.d.
- Grenvilles of Stowe, by "A Bidefordian."
- Forgotten Worthies.
- Ashworth: "The Ancient Manor House of Wear Gifford," in Trans, of the Exeter Diocesan Architect. Soc, vol. vi., 1852.