History of Plymouth

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A major seaport in a major seafaring nation, Plymouth's history revolves around the sea, and she came into her own in the Elizabethan era when her privateer-sea captains set England on course to become the ruler of the known world.


During the Bronze age, about 2000BC, Plymouth became connected to the rest of the country by a ridge road that is followed by the present day road out of Plymouth to Tavistock. The major settlement was probably on
Mount Batten (which today plays host to the yearly National Fireworks Competition), a late Bronze Age/Iron Age settlement which traded with the Roman Empire and was continuously occupied for some 1500 years.

As the Bronze age became the Iron Age round 450BC, the people of this area became the Dumnonni, the Celts. They watched the Romans come and go without making too big an impression on the area, although the name 'Stonehouse' given by the Saxons surely must refer to a Roman villa of some size in that area.

After the Romans left in 410AD, we know very little of the next 300 years of Dumnonni rule except legends. Later the Saxons invaded, and ultimately drove the Dumnonni into Cornwall and Brittany, but they left their name to Devon (Demn).

Early History

At the time of the Norman conquest, Plymouth was farmland. It became a port in the 12th century. Named Sudtone in the Domesday Book (1086), Plymouth's original harbour is still called Sutton Harbour.

It was tin mining that accounts for the original growth of the city, because mining silted up the Plym and made the original port of Plympton less usable, while Sutton Pool remained a deep sheltered anchorage; the first record of the name Plymouth appeared in a cargo roll of 1211 here.

A developing trade and the shipment of armies to France during the 100 Years War led to its early growth, but Plymouth really began to expand with the development of larger ships in the 15th century, when Sutton Harbour provided a perfect anchorage for warships.

The Great Sea-faring Age

It was from the shelter of Plymouth Sound that Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, then the Pilgrim Fathers (1620) and later Captain Cook (1772) and Darwin sailed off to adventure and fame.

It was the home port of other famous Elizabethan seafarers like Martin Frobisher, Richard Grenville and Humphrey Gilbert, as well as Sir John Hawkins, son of the mayor of Plymouth and cousin of Drake, who was the architect of the Elizabethan navy. In the campaign against the Spanish Armada in 1588 he was knighted during the actual battle.

The seafarer most commonly associated with Plymouth is of course Sir Francis Drake, who achieved his knighthood through an epic voyage around the world. Setting out from Plymouth in 1577 in the Golden Hind, he returned three years later as the most famous man in the Kingdom.

This fame escalated when he was vice admiral and John Hawkins was rear admiral of the fleet that defeated the Armada in 1588. Losses were England nil, Spain 51. He later became mayor of Plymouth and represented the city in Parliament, ultimately dying at sea in 1596 during another campaign against the Spanish.

Drake's fame was legendary even in his day. Founder of the British naval tradition because of the heroic quality of his exploits, he was the greatest privateer of all time, and his legend continues, particularly with Drake's Drum (to be seen at Buckland Abbey), which is said to beat to call the nation to arms in times of peril.

Twenty-four years after Drake died, on 16 September 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America. Many Americans make the pilgrimage to the Mayflower Steps in the Barbican where a plaque listing the passengers marks the spot.

Another famous Plymouth mariner was Captain James Cook, who set out from the Barbican in 1768 in search of a southern continent. Today the Barbican, with its Tudor and Jacobean buildings, such as the Elizabethan House, gives an idea of what Plymouth must have been like before the Luftwaffe violently redesigned it.

During the Civil War, 1642-46, Plymouth declared for Parliament and was held by the roundheads while the rest of Devon and Cornwall were Royalist. Every attempt by the Royalists failed to break the protective ring around the town, but its population and commerce were devastated by battle and disease, and its growth was severely stunted for many years after the fighting ended.

In 1690 the Royal Dockyard was begun on the eastern bank of the Tamar, and the town of Plymouth Dock (renamed Devonport in 1824) was founded. A third town, Stonehouse, developed between Devonport and Plymouth, and all were amalgamated in 1914.

Because of its military and industrial importance, Plymouth was one of the most severely damaged by the Luftwaffe during WWII. The program of reconstruction has resulted some fine commercial, shopping, and civic centres. New approach roads link the city with new bridges over the Plym and Tamar.

The Westcountry's largest city, Plymouth is a centre of industry from ship building to information technology. Plymouth also has the problems of a large city, with nearly a third of its inhabitants living below the poverty line.

The cultural capital of the area, with an important heritage, Plymouth is today still a hive of artistic activity: the Theatre Royal plays host each year to the RSC and is a major out of town venue for plays and musicals on their way to or from the West End. Important living artists such as Robert Lenkiewicz uphold the heritage of old masters such as Joshua Reynolds.

And the sea is never far from consciousness - the fine marine aquarium, the marine-biological laboratories, the upper part of Smeaton's lighthouse brought from Eddystone, an Armada memorial, Drake's statue on the Hoe, the Royal Marine Barracks, and the Naval Dockyard all remind us that Plymouth is now, as she has always been, first and foremost a seaport. The city is still, as it has been for centuries, an important port and naval base, brawling, boisterous, tough and energetic.