In the year 930 A.D. Barnstaple was a typical Saxon Stronghold; key to the defence of North Devon and, as such, surrounded by a strong wall designed to withstand the attacks of Danish raiders. It was not only as a strongpoint in the country's defensive system, however, that Barnstaple was important for, as it's old name, Beardestaple (i.e. the market or staple of Bearda), implies, it was also the centre of commerce for the sub-shire of North Devon. It was in recognition of these facts that King Alfred created the town a Burg or Borough. King Athelstan established a mint at Barnstaple and also, according to tradition, granted the town a Charter with rights of Market and Fair. It was also this king, too, who founded the ancient Priory at Pilton.
In 1066 the Normans came to Britain and two years later the proud town which had held out against so many Danish attacks fell, at last, to the conqueror's men. There is the following reference to the town in the Domesday book: "The king has a borough called Barnestaple which King Edward held T.R.E. (Tempore Regis Edwardi: often translated as – the day King Edward was alive and dead which was 5th January 1066). There the King has 40 Burgesses within the Borough and nine without and they pay 40 shillings by weight to the King and 20 shillings in number to the Bishop of Coutances. There also 23 houses have been laid in ruins since King William has had England."
King William held the Borough of Barnstaple for himself and it was not until Henry 1 came to the throne that the first Lord of Barnstaple, Judhael of Totnes, was created. It was this Judhael who, in 1107, founded the Priory of St Mary Magdalene outside the town wall.
The next lord of Barnstaple was the famous soldier, Henry de Tracey, uncle of William de Tracey the murderer of Thomas a Beckett. The de Traceys later founded a chantry near the Town end of the Long Bridge in expiation of their relatives crime.
Henry de Tracey greatly strengthened the Town's defences and successfully defended it during the rebellion against King Stephen. During this century two new charters were granted to Barnstaple, one in 1154 by King Henry 11 and another, in 1189 by King Richard 1.
In the first year of the 13th century yet another Charter was granted to the town, this time by King John and another Henry de Tracey, the last of his line, became Lord of Barnstaple in 1213. He too was a great soldier and successfully led soldiers from Barnstaple during the French wars. Afterwards he defeated the piratical Lord of Lundy, William de Marisco, securing the island, of which he was made governor, for the crown. In 1272 King Edward ordered an inquiry into Barnstaple's status as a Borough and in 1273 granted a confirmatory charter.
During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries the importance of the town as a west coast port greatly strengthened Barnstaple's position and the port was represented on the Naval Council. Ship's from the town fought in many of England's great sea battles, including the siege of Calais and Drake's great victory over the Spanish Armada. The latter victory is commemorated by a tablet in Queen Anne's Walk on which are inscribed the names of the five ships that sailed from the port to join Drake's fleet. The port was of more importance, however, as a centre of commerce than as a Naval dockyard, for North Devon, in those days, was the centre of a flourishing woollen industry and trade was carried out with all parts of the known world.
In the 17th century Barnstaple played it's part in the Civil War. The town was first held by the roundheads but changed hands four times before the end of the war. After the war Barnstaple settled down to consolidate its position as a port and industrial centre. In 1685 John Gay, Barnstaple's famous Poet and Dramatist, who wrote the "Beggars Opera," was born in the town. He was educated at the Grammar School.
In the course of time
the major part of the woollen industry moved to other parts of England and
other, larger ports on the west coast took much of Barnstaple's trade.