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Medieval silver mining in at Bere Ferrers, Devon

Professor Stephen Rippon, Dr Peter Claughton and Dr Chris Smart

Rippon, S., Claughton, P. and Smart C. 2009: Mining in a Medieval Landscape: the royal silver mines of the Tamar Valley. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Today, industry is mostly a feature of the urban landscape but this has not always been the case, and the Bere Ferrers Project is exploring the role of industry in shaping the English rural countryside. At the close of the medieval period the vast majority of manufacturing output in England came from small producers integrated into rural society. Mining, however, has traditionally been excluded from such a model by historians holding a view, coloured by post-medieval developments in certain sectors like copper and coal production, that its demand on capital and technology was beyond the reach of the small producer. Others, however, have argued convincingly for its inclusion seeing the archetypal mine at the close of the medieval period as largely small scale and supporting increased production through a multiplicity of similar operations. Mining on that scale created no great demand on either capital or technology and its workforce was integrated into the rural landscape, having dual occupation and moving easily between agriculture and mining in tune with demands on production.

Historical sources suggest that there was one sector of metal mining that had, however, developed on a large, capital intensive ‘industrial’ scale from the thirteenth century. The mining of silver-bearing ores was, prior to the thirteenth century, largely centred in northern England, regulated according to custom that allowed the participation of a multiplicity of small operators, and exploiting rich but shallow resources. When, in the thirteenth century, the English Crown exercised a right of prerogative over silver-bearing ores and opened up mines in Devon, mining in this and later silver mining fields was divorced from customary regulation. In doing so the Crown embarked on a course of action that was unprecedented and not emulated in continental Europe until at least the seventeenth century. The significance of this early industrialisation on the technology and organisation of production - the traditional concerns of industrial archaeology and mining history - are well known, but what has not been considered before is the impact that this had on the wider landscape.

Using Devon as a case study, due to its particularly fine documentary sources and well-preserved field archaeology, this project has assessed the extent of extractive industry in the medieval countryside, and its impact upon the historic landscape. In addition to the well known Dartmoor tin industry this initial review has included iron on Exmoor, and copper at North Molton. The principal focus of the project is the previously neglected but remarkably well-preserved Bere Ferrers complex on the confluence of the rivers Tavy and Tamar in south Devon, where silver was worked under the direct management of Crown officers from 1292 to 1349 (and thereafter by Crown lessees) as its impact on the wider economy, society, landscape and environment was probably on an altogether different scale to the other rural industries.

Traditionally, industrial archaeology and mining history have been inward looking disciplines that have struggled to integrate with the wider fields of medieval archaeology, history, and landscape study. This project is intended to bring the study of mining into mainstream medieval studies and is innovative in terms of both its topic – the impact of extractive industries of different scales on the rural historic landscape – and its interdisciplinary approach integrating both archaeological and historical sources and techniques.

Most of the extractive industries in Devon, in keeping with the rest of medieval England, relied to a large extent on part-time labour and were integrated with the agrarian economy (though their impact on both the medieval countryside, and the landscape character of today, has never been fully assessed). The same, however, was not true of the Royal silver mines at Bere Ferrers which documentary evidence suggests were on an altogether different scale of operation that was unique in medieval England, with over 300 men employed on wages and piecework, many being pressed into service and moved to Devon from other mining fields. They would have placed an increased demand on food supplies and existing settlements in the area and this is reflected in the establishment of the borough of Bere Alston. The impact of this industry on the local landscape is quite different to that of the traditional mining industries of Devon, and its implications for settlement and supply networks have been an important theme in this research.

The first stage of the project was to map all the known archaeological and historical evidence for extractive industries in Devon, in order to place the Bere Ferrers case-study in its wider context. Research was then carried out on the remarkably detailed documentary sources for Bere Ferrers, which an initial assessment had shown were rich in local topographic details that, alongside the analysis of later maps, field-names and place-names, would enable not just the mines themselves to be located, but also the settlements, transport systems, and water supply. The earthworks of a series of well-preserved mine workings had already been identified through initial field visits and these were surveyed in detail, while a wider-ranging survey located and recorded the associated infrastructure, including the remarkable fifteenth century leat running for some 16 kilometres from west of Tavistock, near Millhill, into the mines south-west of Bere Alston. The integration of these sources was achieved through reconstructing the landscape before, during and after this medieval industrial phase.

The impact of the medieval silver mines on the landscape of Bere Ferrers, the Bere peninsula and adjoining parts of the Tamar and Tavy valleys was variable. Many features relating to the mining of the silver-bearing ores in the medieval period survive amongst the near continuous linear earthworks from Lockridge Hill southwards to Cleave Wood although some are overlain by mining debris from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Elements of the infrastructure of mining survive, including the rock cut tunnels and cuttings of the fifteenth century leat high on the western side of the Tavy, and the borough settlement of Bere Alston remains as a prominent feature in the landscape. On the other hand the landscape impact of ore processing and some ancillary activities associated with mining was negligible, and can only be detected using scientific methods.

Geophysical survey in search of medieval smelting evidence at Calstock on the Cornish bank of the River Tamar has led to the discovery of a Roman fort. Although that discovery fell outside the remit of the Bere Ferrers project the Leverhulme Trust allowed a preliminary investigation. The results of our work on the mines have been published by the University of Exeter Press as Mining in a Medieval Landscape: the Royal Silver Mines in the Tamar Valley.

The Bere Ferrers Project was generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust.