The Hundred of Somerton has been of considerable importance for over 1000 years and incorporated several parishes – varying over the years, but including Langport, the Charltons and Aller, as well as many others to the East.The definition of a Hundred is supposed to be that part of a county which holds and supports 100 families. Somerton is by far the largest and most important parish within the Hundred.Somerton is reputed to have given its name to the County and to have been one of the principal residences of the Saxon Kings who built a castle here. The town was laid waste by marauding Vikings in 877, having seen much bloodshed in the previous 200 years with internecine warfare between opposing Nobles. The town was soon rebuilt however and became the largest and most secure in the County. It was then the stronghold of King Alfred the Great. One of his descendants was Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror.Somerton and the Lordship of its manor was one of the most interesting of the many manors in the country, being strongly connected to royalty for many centuries. At the Conquest it was still in the hands of Saxon Kings and is then listed in the Domesday Book as being the property of William the Conqueror. It was, in fact, the first Manor listed in the Somerset survey. ‘The king holds Somerton. King Edward (Saxon King) held it and it has never paid tax.’ etc. etc. See the Domesday Book extracts for Somerton for the full story.
The town remained in the possession of the Kings of England until the reign of Henry II when the Manor was granted to his illegitimate son William Longspee (or Longsword). Richard 1 was Henry’s successor who was ward to Ela who he gave to William Longspee in marriage. This William was later made Earl of Salisbury, Sherriff of Wiltshire, Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports – so we can se that the Manor of Somerton has been held by some pretty important and influential people.
The Manor passed down through two further Williams (the second of whom died in a tournament) . After many other misfortunes within the family, including a beheading in 1322, the Manor passed back to the Crown and was held by Edward II. He gave the Manor to Edmund Woodstock, his half brother and son of Edward I. Edmund himself was soon beheaded for his befuddled attempt to restore Edward II in 1330.
Edmund’s son inherited the estates and manor and for the next 80 years, amidst much strife and a few more executions, the estates and Manor passed to Eleanor, wife of Thomas Montague, Earl of Salisbury. The Lordship passed then to his nephew who became Marshall of England and was a Knight of the Garter. His daughter Alice then inherited the Manor which passed to her husband – who was killed while fighting on the Yorkist side at the battle of Wakefield. This was the chap known as Warwick the Kingmaker. He died without issue and the title once again passed to the Crown.
Somerton Manor then passed to Isabel, who married George, Duke of Clarence, younger brother of Edward IV. He got into trouble with the Crown in 1477 and his lands were once again forfeited to the Crown. Shakespeare had him drowned in a butt of Malmsely! His daughter Margaret, however, regained the manor and she was made Countess of Salisbury. After several adventures she fell foul of Henry VIII and was beheaded at the Tower of London on 28th May 1541. It seems that to be the Lord of the Manor of Somerton carried certain dangers and misfortunes!
Again the Estates and Manor passed to the Crown and remained with successive monarchs until Queen Mary who granted them to Francis, Earl of Huntingdon, and Margaret his wife. She was regarded by many as the rightful heir to the throne of England as it was suspected that the children of Edward IV were illegitimate. So once again the Somerton estates and Manor remain with very strong royal connections. Francis Earl of Huntingdon had no heirs and the title passed to his younger brother George, who then passed it on to his son, also Francis. This Francis then sold the manor to Sir Edward Hext (he of the almshouses), who left a sole daughter Elizabeth as heir. She married Sir John Stawell of Cothelstone and the manor then passed to their son Ralph, Deputy Sherriff of Somerset and Wiltshire and M.P. for Bridgwater. In 1683 he was created Baron of Stawell and died in 1688.
His son and then half brother succeeded to the Barony. It is they who are thought to have built the property still known as the Manor House in the Market Place (Now Lloyds TSB Bank). The royal connections continued and William, Baron of Stawell was Gentleman of the Bedchamber to George, Prince of Denmark and Duke of Gloucester (Consort to Queen Anne). He was one the peers who signed the protest against the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.
He died without successors in 1742 and was succeeded by his brother Edward. He then died after his only son and the estates were sold to Colonel Strangeways and the Manor passed by marriage to Stephen Fox-Strangeways, who, in 1756 was created Earl of Ilchester.
The Manor then stayed with the family until only three years ago when it was again sold, this time to the present Lord, Cyril Woods of Scarborough, Ontario.
Cyril and his lovely wife Lorna have visited Somerton several times and made a significant financial contribution to the Somerton Science Festival. They are due to visit again in June 2001 and will stay, all being well with my wife and I for a couple of days, during which we hope to introduce them to many people in Somerton and give them a greater insight into what happens in our Town.
We were able to stay in February this year with Cyril and Lorna in their beautiful winter home in Florida where we were right royally entertained in. We have become good friends and remain in constant communication. Cyril now has his own coat of arms – as is fitting, reproduced here, together with a picture of he and Lorna with Jackie and I outside his penthouse flat in Pompano Beach (Nr Fort Lauderdale, Florida) – with his Rolls runabout.
Pat Mountain, March 2001