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HER Number:MDV55844


Lifton was one of the earliest villages to be founded in West Devon and was originally of considerable strategic importance, being close to the Tamar and the Cornish border. It was a West Saxon royal estate, first referred to in King Alfred's will of circa AD880, the head or centre and meeting place of Lifton Hundred, and possibly the site of an early minster. It appears to have declined in importance from the late medieval period becoming overshadowed by Tavistock and Launceston.


Grid Reference:SX 388 851
Map Sheet:SX38NE
Admin AreaDevon
Civil ParishLifton
DistrictWest Devon
Ecclesiastical ParishLIFTON

Protected Status: none recorded

Other References/Statuses

  • Old DCC SMR Ref: SX38NE/569

Monument Type(s) and Dates

  • SETTLEMENT (First mentioned, IX - 880 AD to 880 AD)

Full description

NMR, CITING HOSKINS, Untitled Source (Migrated Record). SDV262104.

Lifton. Lifton was undoubtedly one of the earliest villages to be founded in west devon by the saxons, and was of considerable military importance, being within a mile of the tamar and the cornish frontier. It is the liwtune referred to in king alfred's will 880-5 and it also appears to be the leowtun where athelstan held his court in november 931 (nmr, citing hoskins).

Untitled Source (Migrated Record). SDV262105.


Untitled Source (Migrated Record). SDV262106.

Hoskins, w. G. /devon/(1954)423-4.

Gent, T. + Manning, P., 2016, Lifton Wood and the Development of the Surrounding Area. (Report - Assessment). SDV359657.

Desk-based assessment carried out between August 2015 and February 2016 to assist in the interpretation of a recently rediscovered hilltop enclosure and other features in Lifton Wood, Lifton, Devon.
The first reference to Lifton is in King Alfred's Will (c. 880) when it is called 'Liwtun', and, together with land in Cornwall belonging to Lifton (with the exception of Trigg), was part of a bequest to his younger son, Aethelweard.
A further Saxon document, dated the 12th November 931, deals with a meeting of the Witan, or royal council, which was held by Aethelstan 'in the town very well known to all which is called Leowtun' (Lifton). The document refers only to a single item of business, namely the grant by Aethelstan to the thegn Wulfgar, of land at 'Hamme' in Wiltshire. Remarkably, the grant was witnessed by 100 magnates, whose names appear in the charter and seem to have been drawn from all parts of the land. The 100 men comprised the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the vassal kings of South Wales and North Wales, seventeen bishops, fifteen ealdormen (every ealdormanry of England was represented, including the Danelaw), five abbots and fifty-nine thegns.
The meeting was one of the largest assemblies known to have been held in the Anglo- Saxon period, and included many of the most important and influential people in the land. This must surely reflect the significance and wide reaching implications of the matters being discussed. The size of witan meetings became larger in the 10th century, especially under Aethelstan; such a gathering at Exeter in 928 had included the Welsh vassal kings, the archbishops, 12 bishops, three ealdormen and seventeen thegns. There are references to about 20 venues of witan meetings held by Aethelstan, most of which seem to have been in the south of England.
Apart from the grant of land to Wulfgar, we have no certain knowledge of the matters discussed at the Lifton gathering, but it is very likely that the ratification of the Tamar as the Cornish boundary was an important element.12 Speculations as to other possible business include completing the division of Devon into hundreds, organising units of jurisdiction in Cornwall, setting up new markets in the more English areas of Cornwall,13 and ratifying the new diocese at St German's; Conan, the newly appointed bishop of St German's, is amongst the list of names in the charter.
It is interesting to consider where the witan at Lifton would have been held. Speculative suggestions for such meetings in general include tented encampments, with discussions taking place outdoors, as with the earlier folk-moots, or perhaps a large hall kept [or even built] for such an occasion. Royal assemblies appear to have sometimes been held in hunting lodges, including one in 904 at 'Bicanleag', possibly Bickleigh in Devon, which is intriguing when considering the possible origins of the West Park/Park Town settlement at Lifton (see section 2.3 below). As the administrative centre of the Hundred, and a royal estate, it might be supposed that there would anyway be one or more buildings available for regular visits by the king's men on various business. It is not known if a manor house would have been involved in the hosting of such events. A former manor house, close to the church
in Lifton village, includes a grand hall of 15th- or 16th-century date, with walls of extraordinary thickness.
The location of the meeting place of the Hundred is also not known. Such places were often situated close to major routeways, away from centres of population, and, for neutrality, on or near estate boundaries or possibly on common land. It is interesting to note that the Hundred of Stanbrough is known to have been administered from the Iron Age enclosure of the same name,itself suggested to have been reused as a Saxon burh. The duties of the Hundred included holding a court (which dealt with taxes and law) every four weeks; prior to the establishment of Hundreds there were outdoor folk-moot gatherings where judicial and other business would have taken place. Lifton has been proposed by Jeremy Haslam as a possible candidate for an early urban development, having 'proto-urban characteristics', including being an early royal centre, the head of its Hundred and possibly the site of a minster church. It has also been considered as the site of an early burh (see section 4).
Domesday Book (1086) states that Lifton, formerly held by Queen Edith, was then held by the King (and from him, at a revenue, by Colwin). It records land for 25 ploughs, 40 acres of meadow, 42 acres of pasture and 40 acres of woodland. Twenty six villagers, 24 smallholders and 12 slaves are mentioned. The estate paid £15.23 In 1199 Lifton manor was given by King John to Agatha, his mother's nurse. After passing through other hands it was surrendered again to the crown in the reign of Edward I (1272- 1307). King Edward gave the manor, together with the advowson and Hundred, to his son Thomas de Woodstock, after which the estate passed to the family of Holland, then Nevill, from whom it was bought by John Harris, sergeant-at-law, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603). Following the death of his descendant Christopher Harris in 1775, the estate passed to the Arundells of Kynegie, Cornwall. It is not certain from what period Lifton declined in importance, but it appears not to have developed in the later medieval period. There is no record of a medieval market or fair. The manor house, in the village centre, appears to have been a fairly grand building in the 15th or 16th century at least, and it is claimed that King Charles slept there on his route to Cornwall with his army on 31st July 1644. In the mid 18th century Lifton was described as being 'a small poor place, tho it has the credit of being a market town'. In the early 19th century there were cattle fairs on 2nd February, Holy Thursday and 28th October. In 1850 there were 784 inhabitants in the parish and Lifton itself was described as 'a considerable village', with petty sessions held at the Arundel Arms once a month. An 1850 directory lists four shopkeepers, five inns (two at Tinney) and a Post-office; trades included masons, carpenters, lime merchants and blacksmiths. In 1931 Alexander wrote that Lifton's position at the head of a petty sessional division was virtually the only relic left of its former status as head of a Hundred, and that in administrative and commercial matters it had become subordinate to Tavistock and Launceston, both of which it once overshadowed.

Sources / Further Reading

SDV262104Migrated Record: NMR, CITING HOSKINS.
SDV262105Migrated Record:
SDV262106Migrated Record:
SDV359657Report - Assessment: Gent, T. + Manning, P.. 2016. Lifton Wood and the Development of the Surrounding Area.. Archaedia. 1155. Digital.

Associated Monuments

MDV108533Related to: Hillfort in Lifton Wood (Monument)

Associated Finds: none recorded

Associated Events

  • EDV6997 - Desk-Based Assessment of a Hilltop Enclosure in Lifton Wood and the Development of the Surrounding Area. (Ref: 1155)

Date Last Edited:Mar 27 2019 9:47AM