Early Medieval (AD 410 – AD 1066)
Dartmoor’s earlier medieval archaeological evidence is in the form of stones inscribed in Latin or with Christian symbols. These are concentrated around the edges of the moor and indicate both early Christian activity and a degree of literacy, at least among the upper levels of society. Other evidence is currently largely absent, though it seems likely that the population continued to live in the same settlements with similar lifestyles to their Romano-British and Iron Age ancestors.
The expansion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex into the south-west, between the 5th and 8th centuries, prompted population movements and probably settlement change. The settlement of Lydford on the western side of Dartmoor is a sign of the Royal authority of the rulers of Wessex as it was established in the late 9th century as a burgh; a special form of fortified town intended to counteract the destructive Viking raids of the period. Although it declined in importance in later centuries, in its heyday Lydford contained a mint, silver pennies from which have been found as far away as Scandanavia.
Late Medieval Period (AD1066 – 1500)
The aftermath of the Norman Conquest saw many castles constructed across England and Dartmoor was no exception with fortifications being established at Lydford, and Okehampton with a third, at Hembury, being built during the civil war of King Stephen’s reign in the mid-12th century. The first two remained in use throughout the medieval period although their forms and functions were continuously adapted to the changing demands of government and administration.
Documentary evidence from the this period tells us that the moors of Dartmoor were used for intensive summer grazing with tens of thousands of livestock being brought from all over Devon to take advantage of the upland pastures. It is likely that this had been an annual custom well before the later medieval period, but this is the first time we have clear and detailed evidence for the practice.
A beneficial climate in the first part of the period led to population growth in the lowlands prompting expansion of settlement onto the marginal land of the moorland fringes. However a climatic downturn, combined with the Black Death in the 14th century, led to abandonment of many such settlements leaving behind the remains of farmsteads and extensive areas of relict medieval fieldscapes such as those at Hound Tor.
Dartmoor was also an industrial landscape at this time and surviving documents provide evidence for a thriving tin extraction industry which has left its mark on the moorland landscape to this day. The moors were thus a busy place in the late medieval period, but also a threatening and dangerous one and as a result people continued to erect stones, now in the shape of crosses, marking safe routes and perhaps providing places for prayer.
Find out more about human history on Dartmoor