A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 7, Bruton, Horethorne and Norton Ferris Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1999.
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The three hundreds of Bruton, Horethorne, and Norton Ferris cover the south-east corner of Somerset bordering Wiltshire and Dorset. The area comprises the outliers of Salisbury Plain on its eastern side and part of a clay vale to the west. Its most prominent topographical feature is the wooded Greensand ridge occupied by the former royal forest of Selwood, and the gap between it and the high ground of Cranborne Chase (Dors.) to the south provided a natural route westwards. The Iron Age and Roman fortress of South Cadbury, not included in this volume, and two motte-and-bailey castles, only one in Wincanton parish in this volume, controlled the passage which was followed by a Saxon herpath and later by the two principal roads between London and Exeter and by the railway. Milborne Port and Wincanton each owed its prosperity to one of those roads.
Bruton and Milborne Port were both royal urban centres in the later 11th century and both were centres of minster parishes. Bruton came into ecclesiastical ownership in the 12th century and despite considerable economic activity by the later Middle Ages remained restrictively manorial in its government until the 19th century. Milborne Port, whose territory stretched beyond what came to be the boundary with the diocese of Salisbury after 909 and also Somerset's boundary with Dorset, was a borough in 1086 and returned members to parliament for some years from 1298. The third town, Wincanton, is of uncertain origin but a borough had been created by the mid 14th century. Only a limited measure of corporate government was achieved from the mid 16th century on the strength of its market.
Settlement in nucleated villages in the rest of the area was dense in the clay vale but scattered ancient farmsteads occur both in the broad valley of the river Cale south of Wincanton and on the western side of Selwood forest east of Bruton. An outcrop of Cornbrash limestone between Wincanton and Stalbridge (Dors.) accounts for eight medieval settlements along a single, six-mile stretch of road. Quarries in most parishes provided building stone for local purposes, but that in the Upper Greensand at Penselwood produced millstones in the 13th and the 14th century which were widely distributed.
The area was and is principally agricultural, the large number of mills in the tenth century in and around Bruton and Milborne Port indicating the predominance of arable cultivation which continued probably until the 16th century. There were, however, significant dairies, the most important that which produced 100 cheeses at Charlton Horethorne in 1086. Most estates used a two-field system of open arable fields. In 1623, after decline in corn-growing had begun, there were 6,650 a. under arable crops, principally wheat in the good land of the south-east in Horethorne hundred, predominantly maslin in the more rugged terrain of Bruton hundred, and an almost equal balance of wheat, barley, and oats in Norton hundred. (fn. 1) Inclosure and consolidation by private agreement had begun in many parishes by the end of the 16th century and had been largely completed by the end of the 18th. Common meadow and pasture survived to some degree in nine parishes at the end of the 18th century but all was inclosed and allotted by Acts of Parliament between 1771 and 1821. Dairying had become significant in most parishes by the end of the 16th century and from the end of the 17th was the principal form of agriculture in most.
Disafforestation and inclosure of Selwood forest in 1627-9 deprived tenant farmers of Brewham, Wincanton, Stoke Trister, and Penselwood of woodland grazing rights and brought to an end piecemeal incursions still to be read in the landscape of irregular fields, scattered settlements, and ribbons of roadside waste. The heart of the forest remains heavily wooded and formed the base for a significant timber industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Several other parishes were heavily wooded in the 11th century but some areas had been deliberately felled and others either wasted or converted to deer parks before the end of the Middle Ages.
Two such deer parks came to be the nuclei of two landscaped parks of the 18th century at Redlynch and Bruton Abbey, the two largest mansions in the area. Slightly smaller houses surrounded by smaller parks at Inwood in Henstridge, Horsington, Hadspen in Pitcombe, and Yarlington either developed from medieval manor houses or were created ab initio. The ownership of Bruton, Henstridge, and Milborne Port by the Crown and of Wincanton by Walter of Douai ensured royal control of the area in the late 11th century but in the 12th the Lovels among other local families established themselves. No dominant holding was, however, created, although the FitzJameses, the Stourtons, and the Zouches established some considerable influence by the later Middle Ages. The Berkeleys, who acquired the site and local estates of Bruton abbey at the Dissolution, were a dominant political force in the 16th and 17th centuries and were gradually succeeded by the Fox-Strangwayses of Redlynch and the Hoares of Stourhead. Political control of the borough of Milborne Port was generally shared from the early 18th century between the Medlycotts of Ven and outsiders until the arrival of the Pagets in the later 18th century. The mansions of Bruton Abbey, Redlynch, and Ven are a measure of resident power and prosperity.
The area has a long history of textile production. Milborne Port may have been a centre of woollen cloth finishing by the end of the 13th century and cloth was produced at Charlton Horethorne in the 14th and at Upton Noble in the 15th. Bruton and Wincanton were evidently significant by the early 16th century and by the 17th most parishes produced broadcloth, serges, and stockings although the bulk of business was in the three towns of Bruton, Milborne Port, and Wincanton. Spanish medleys were manufactured in the early 18th century. Linen weaving was introduced in Milborne and Wincanton by the mid 17th century and continued there and in neighbouring villages, and from the 1750s in Bruton, until the mid 19th century. Dowlais and ticking were the most common products, with a small amount of linsey-wolsey when mixed with wool. Silk weaving began at Wincanton in the 1670s and at Bruton in the 1760s, and continued in both until the 1840s. By contrast Milborne Port became a centre for tanning from the 1670s and from the early 19th century became an important centre for gloving until the later 20th century. Large numbers of outworkers were employed in most of the surrounding villages.