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Lydford Gaol

Extracted from: - Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge? - Page 213-4 by Charles Knight - Encyclopedias and dictionaries – 1839

Lydford, a village in the west of Devonshire, seven miles north of Tavistock, now almost deserted, and visited for the sake of the waterfall or cataract in the Lyde, near a bridge where the stream is pent in between high rocks. When the river is full, this waterfall is a very pleasing object, though Risdon (Survey of Devon) says, “It maketh such a hideous noise, that being only heard and not seen, it causeth a kind of fear to the passengers, seeming to them who look down to it, a deep abyss, and may be numbered among the wonders of the kingdom." This now insignificant village was formerly a frontier town of considerable strength and importance, having 140 burgesses within the walls, and many without, and protected by a castle, erected probably by the Saxons, when they had driven the West Britons across the Tamar. Lydford was burnt by the Danes in 997. It is recorded in Domesday as a manor and borough in ancient demesne, having formed part of the possessions of the crown in the time of Edward the Confessor, and as not being liable to any impost, except at the same time, and for the same causes, as London. Lydford appears however to have been tallaged with Exeter, Axminster, Witeford, and ten other towns, in 20 Henry II. (1174); and in the fifth year of John (1203), that King, for the small sum of 5 marks (£3.13s.4d.) [£3.67p], entered into an engagement with H. de la Pomeraie, that he would not grant to the Burgesses of Lydford better liberties than those enjoyed by the citizens of Exeter. (Madox, Exch., 282, note (t) 485) When in the possession of his son Richard king of the Romans, it had a market, which had been renewed in 1130 ('Magn. Rot. Scace.') and a fair. (Cal. Rot. Chart., 97, 102.)

The parish of Lydford is one of the most extensive in the kingdom, including the high morass called the Chance or Forest of Dartmoor, formerly Dertemore, which occupies the centre of the county of Devon.

Lydford, with Dartmoor, was commonly annexed in royal grants to the earldom of Cornwall, and in 6 Richard II. (1382-3), after the forfeiture of Gaveston, we find Thomas Le Ercedekne committee of the earldom (1 Abbr. Rot., Origin. In Scace. 186, 195, 196.), and also constable of Lydford Castle, and keeper of the Forest of Dartmoor. (Ibid. 196 b.) Lydford and Dartmoor were inalienably incorporated with the dukedom of Cornwall upon its creation in 1339, in favour of the Black Prince.

Lydford Castle, sometimes called the castle of Dartmoor, (Cal. Rot. Pat., 249) is an extensive building, though now very dilapidated. It is the Stannary Castle, and contains the rooms where the warden of the Stannaries of Devon, an office sometimes granted to the abbot of Tavistock (2 Parl. Rolls, 10 b.), or the vice-warden, held his stannary courts; it had dungeons for the reception of delinquent tinners. By the charter of Edward I., the tinners of that county were not to be imprisoned elsewhere. In the last year of this king's reign, the warden of the Stannaries claimed the body of a tinner who had been imprisoned upon a charge of killing his brother's son; but upon an inspection of the charter it was found to contain a reservation of cases of life and member. The privilege of imprisoning at Lydford became the subject of a complaint in parliament at the close of the reign of Edward III., 1377, when it was asserted by the commons, that the warden of the Stannaries took prisoners arrested for arrearages of account out of other gaols and kept them at Lydford, where there was sometimes no gaol delivery for ten years, and where these supposed tinners were so favourably treated, that they thought of anything but paying their debts. (2 Parl. Rolls, 334.) This complaint does not seem to accord with the popular notion that 'Lydford law' men are hanged first and tried afterwards.

The parliaments, or convocations, of tinners for Devon, were held on a high rock in Dartmoor, called Crockern Torr, where stood a table and seats, the whole being hewn out of the granite surface, without any neighbouring building or protection from the weather. The Stannators of the Stannaries of Devon (called sometimes the Stannaries of Dartmoor, Cal. Rot. Pat., 23 b.), who composed these parliaments, were elected by the mayors, or other chief magistrates, of the four coinage towns, Chagford, Ashburton, Plympton, and Tavistock, though in the beginning of the reign of Edward III. (1327), there appears to have been a contention between the latter place and the three former, as to the privilege of coinage. (Cal. Inq. Post Mort., 10) The table, round which these legislators assembled, and the seats which they occupied, have ceased to exist. These interesting remains were some years since broken to pieces and removed by the workmen of the late judge Sir Francis Buller, who, unfortunately for those who respect the relics of the by-gone usages, had purchased the estate in this parish, and the fragments of these venerable monuments were employed in the construction of a modern mansion.

Like other border districts Lydford presents some peculiarities in respect of tenures. It is said (5 Co. Rep., 84) the custom of Lydford Castle is, that freeholders of inheritance cannot pass their freeholds except by surrender into the hands of the lord. This particular form of restriction upon alienation appears to have been by no means unusual. ('Year Book.' 14 Henry IV., fo. 1.) [ 1567], Risdon mentions other peculiarities annexed to the tenures of the freeholders in Lydford, called the Fenfield men, formerly the Fengfield men. The term may have been originally 'fangfield,' the Anglo-Saxon (and German) verb 'fangen,' to receive (preterite 'fing'), being still current throughout Devonshire, where however the preterite is become regular, 'fanged.

Though Dartmoor is a bleak unsheltered morass, we find that in the time of Henry III. 'David de Seyredun held a yard-land (virgata terrae, sometimes 20, sometimes 48 acres) in Seyredun and Sappesby, by the service of the serjeanty of finding two arrows when the king came to hunt in the forst of Dartmoor, and so held his ancestors since the Conquest (Testa de Nevile, 195), and that Richard de Droscombe held a yard-land of the (yearly) value of half a mark (6s.8d.) [34p], in the hundred of Exminster by the serjeanty of carrying the king's bow when he hunted in Dartmoor (Ibid., 196). It also appears that the service of Odo le Archer in Droscomb was to present a bow and three arrows when the king hunted in Dartmoor. (Ibid. 197).