Medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan Eras
Originally, Seaton, like Beer, belonged to the Priory of Horton. This later became part of Sherborne Abbey, which was surrendered to the Crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1539. Much of the local area – including all of Beer – was given to Henry VIII’s sixth wife Catherine Parr, as part of her dowry.
A sizeable fort was constructed on Seaton seafront around this time and finished in 1544, when Henry VIII himself came to inspect it. Not far away a lighthouse – known as the Burrow – stood perched on a large earth mound, until it was replaced by a Martello Tower during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). All trace of these historic buildings has now disappeared, as all were demolished when the Esplanade was built.
Undoubtedly one of Seaton’s oldest buildings is St Gregory’s Church on Colyford Road. It’s origins are unclear with some historians believing it dates back to the 14th century with the addition of a 15th century tower and others stating it is even older – dating back as far as the 12th Century, having replaced an even earlier wooden building. Either way, it’s a beautiful church, with a fascinating history. The graveyard is well-known as the last resting place of Beer-born smuggler Jack Rattenbury, also known as the Rob Roy of the West, who spent three decades landing contraband along this coastline, stashing his ill-gotten gains in the chalk caves that punctuate the cliff face and, legend has it, accessing Beer Quarry Caves via a secret route directly from the sea. A rascal and raconteur, Rattenbury settled down and authored Memoirs of a Smuggler before his death in April 1844. He is buried in an unmarked grave, close to the north transept of St Gregory’s.
Regardless of its origins, the St Gregory’s has survived huge changes over the centuries. When first built, it would have stood on the west the bank of the River Axe which, at that time, ran into the English Channel through the estuary mouth. The river was navigable for large ships, which could sail all the way up to Colyford and, throughout the Iron Ages and well into the Middle Ages, the mouth of the Axe boasted one of the most important harbours in the west of England. An important medieval shipbuilding industry grew up here, supplying craft and crew for campaigns, including Edward I’s wars against the Welsh and Scots in the late 13th century.
During the 14th century, however, heavy storms caused a major landslip at Haven Cliff. This partially blocked the estuary, and the river mouth became engulphed in silt. This, coupled with an east-to-west tidal drift, combined to create the wide shingle beach that can be seen today.
Since the Iron Age, salt had been harvested from the tidal estuary but, in the 1660’s work began on a reclaiming bank to protect the salt marshes from flooding. Water was evaporated in pans and the salt scraped up and taken away in buckets to be refined. A sizeable industry was established around this lucrative mineral, attracting investors such as John Frye – a landowner from nearby Membury – to invest in Seaton.
Frye subsequently sold Seaton on to a John Willoughby of Payhembury, who lived in the Manor House, which dates to the 16th century and can still be seen on Fore Street. Willoughby’s granddaughter eventually inherited the house and the manor, and when she married Sir George Trevelyan of Nettlecombe in 1656, an association between Seaton and the Trevelyan family began, which still exists today.