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How old is Great Torrington?

The first mention of Torrington is found in the Domesday Book but evidence has been discovered of settlement in the locality long before that date.  Flint tools from the Neolithic age have been excavated at Weare Giffard and Bronze Age artefacts and human remains have been found in ancient burial mounds (tumuli) near Torrington.  Stones of the Saxon period were found on the site of the old castle when the foundations of the new bowling club pavilion were being prepared in 1987.

William the Conqueror reached Devon early in 1068 and occupied the whole county within a year.  He distributed the large estates forfeited by existing landowners among his Norman followers, reserving some for his own use.  Odo was the Domesday holder of Great Torrington and may be regarded as the first baron of Torrington.  His descendants and heirs took the surname ‘De Toriton’.

The 12th and 13th centuries were the great age of colonisation which took the form of the spread of settlement and the cultivation of the countryside.  The other aspect of the colonisation movement was the creation of ‘boroughs’ by lords of rural manors.  All of them had a weekly market, many of them an annual fair.  Torrington became a borough in the 12th century and by the 13th century was known as ‘Chepyng (market) Toriton’.

Torrington was in and out of the hands of a succession of barons who were related to, or in favour with, the current king and then fell out of favour.  When Richard III was killed at Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII took possession of the baronies of Barnstaple and Torrington but two years later handed them over to his mother, Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby.  Her grandson, Henry VIII, inherited much of her property including Torrington but in about 1525 he granted it, with other North Devon properties, to his illegitimate son, Henry Fitz Roy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.  Fitz Roy died suddenly in 1536 and Henry VIII then granted Torrington to his childhood friend, William Fitz William.  

In about 1554 the manor of Torrington was bestowed by Queen Mary on James Basset, a member of her Privy Council.  He was a son of Sir John Basset of Umberleigh and his wife, Honora, was daughter of Thomas Grenville of Bideford.  It may have been through James Basset’s influence that a charter of incorporation was conferred on Torrington in 1554.  James Basset’s son, Philip, sold the manor of Torrington to Sir John Fortescue (c1531-1607) who left it to his younger son, William, from whom it was purchased by the Rolle family.

George Rolle (c1485-1552), who had acquired the property of Stevenstone in the adjoining parish of St Giles-in-the-Wood during Henry VIII’s time, was the founder of the Rolle dynasty which lasted for more than 350 years until the death of Mark Rolle in 1907.