Ottery St Mary is a town where you can feel the presence of your ancestors.
It has played its own unique role in shaping British history; its architecture
and monuments reflect some of these key events, but it is the landscape that
truly reveals its past.
Although pre-historic man's use of the surrounding countryside, with its natural vantage points, to develop small dwellings, it was the Saxons who first created the farmsteads on which Ottery was founded. The town name originated from the first manor house occupied by the Canons of Rouen (1061-1337), named 'Otrei'. It wasn't until 1207 that "St Mary" was added to the place-name in honour of the town church. Ottery was soon to became a thriving market town, by charter of Henry III.
Ottery's church, an imposing structure that today still dominates the town's skyline, was modified from its original structure in 1337 by John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter. Originally of Norman design, it was extended and modified so that it looked like a mini replica of Exeter Cathedral. Its weathercock is now over 500 years old and is believed to be the oldest in situ in Europe.
During the infamous period of European history that
has been characterised by the population's long struggle against the black
death (bubonic plague), over half the population of Ottery St Mary was wiped
out. It had a turbulent history over the following years with sporadic outbreaks
of the bubonic plague until the town settled down with a new identity during
the English Civil War. In 1645, with the country split in half and fighting
each other, Ottery St Mary became a busy garrison town under the command of
Sir Thomas Fairfax. The history books indicate that Oliver Cromwell visited
and stayed in Ottery St Mary when he came to survey the progress of his army
in the south west of England. He allowed his troops to remain in the town
after their campaigns, in order that they should have some rest and recuperation.
During his stay, Fairfax and Cromwell set up their campaign headquarters in
Ottery's Chanters House where they plotted the next stage of their campaign
and their next movements. However, another outbreak of the plague was instrumental
in finally moving troops out of the area.
In 1772 Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in the old Schoolhouse. His father, the Reverend John Coleridge, was the headmaster at the local Kings School and his early days in the town, playing with his ten brothers and sisters, were highly influential in his early poetry. Indeed many references to Ottery are to be found in his works. The old wooden stocks that today reside in the shadow of the church, were first constructed in the town after the period of the black death. They were used as an alternative to a night in jail for drunkenness or for failure to pay fines.
Another famous face around Ottery St Mary at this time was William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair and Pendennis to name but two. Although he actually lived in the village of Larkbeare, he has become an honorary Otteregian. He refers to Ottery and the surrounding villages and towns in his work Pendennis. Indeed, he was known to be a friend of Coleridge's and spent many long hours in Ottery.
Anybody interested in finding out more would be well recommended to pay a visit to the town and further information is available from Ottery Tourist Information Centre