The history of Somerset goes as far back as the Stone Age. Some of the oldest remains of human habitation in Britain have been found in the caves of the Mendips. The oldest path to have been found so far, in Europe, was uncovered on the Somerset Levels. Known as the Sweet Track, the pathway was of woven hazel and willow sticks and allowed the Levels’ dwellers of 6,000 years ago to cross marshland in search of good fishing and wildfowl. Numerous Bronze Age burial chambers, “round barrows”, have been found on Exmoor and the Mendips. Bronze Age man is also famous for megalithic sites, megalith meaning large stone. At Stanton Drew the collection of stone circles and standing stones is among the most interesting and atmospheric in Britain.
There are several fine Iron Age (Celtic) Hill Forts in Somerset, including that of Dolebury Warren, on the Mendips, which is one of the largest in Britain. Lake Villages have been excavated on the Levels dating from the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age.
When the Romans came they built the town Aquae Sulis around the hot springs of the city we now know as Bath. The Roman Baths here are one of the most complete to have been found anywhere. The Romans also exploited the lead deposits of the Mendips, exporting the metal along Fosse Way which runs along with the heart of the county.
When the Romans abandoned Britain the Celts they had defeated were left vulnerable to attacks from mainland Europe. By 500AD the Saxons had advanced westwards when they were met by the Celtic Warlord, Arthur. Here in Somerset, the real and mythical Arthur coincide, the real warlord may have had his headquarters at South Cadbury, while the Arthur of legend, fatally wounded in his final battle, was taken to Avalon which, the New Age believers claim, was centered at Glastonbury.
After Saxon’s victory at Dyrham, just north of Bristol, the Saxons split the Celtic kingdom in two. On the Somerset Levels, they built villages where they took the canes of pollarched willows and wove them into baskets and hurdles for enclosing domestic animals. The Levels is still renowned for willow cane weaving.
Somerset was part of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex and it was to the impenetrable land of the Levels that the King of Wessex, Alfred, fled when the Vikings threatened from the North. He formed an army that advanced from the Levels stronghold to defeat the Vikings. The king built an abbey at Athelney in thanksgiving for the victory. It was the first of many more built by the Saxons, and later the conquering Normans. The greatest of these was at Glastonbury, still a spiritual home of Christian worship. The Normans built churches too, and many Somerset village churches have splendid Norman towers.
The next great episode in the history of Somerset came at the end of the Civil War. In 1685 the last battle fought on English soil took place on Sedgemoor, near Westonzoyland, when the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth ended. The battle cost hundreds of lives and the infamous “Bloody Assizes” almost as many more, in retribution.
More settled times followed, many Somerset towns enjoying prosperity generated by the wool trade. In the 17th century, Bath became the social center of Georgian England. In Victorian times Weston-Super-Mare flourished owing to the popularity of seaside holidays. Somerset continues to be a popular destination for holidaymakers to the present day.
The history of Somerset infuses every town and village, and each has its own story to tell.