Welcome to Plymouth in 1620

Chris Robinson

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In his new book, Chris Robinson invents a tourist guide to Plymouth 400 years ago. We hope you enjoy this exclusive extract.

With our Devon roads barely being fit for travel on horseback let alone in a carriage, the chances are that you have arrived in our town by sea. The first thing that will have struck you will have been the wondrous size of our harbour and the striking figures carved upon the grassland of the Hoe – the Hoe being that high ridge that hides our town from view until the headland has been rounded.  

Said to be among the most ancient such depictions in England, the carvings are representations of the warriors Gogmagog and Corineus. Known throughout the land, the story of these figures has recently (in 1612) been embellished by the poet Michael Drayton in the opening section of his wondrous 15,000 line poem Polyolbion: 

‘Upon that lofty place at Plymouth called the Hoe, Those mighty wrestlers met, with many an ireful looke, Who threatened as the one the other took.’

1620 Map, part of a display for Plymouth’s Elizabethan Gardens. Chris Robinson and Martin Read 2019

Legend suggests that Brutus, the Trojan commander, was here with his mighty warrior Corineus and the latter was pitted against the leader of the band of giants who then ruled this area. Corineus won the encounter and hurled Gogmagog from the cliff. For this Brutus rewarded him with the gift of the land of the giants – which was henceforth named Cornwall in his honour. Meanwhile Brutus went on to take the whole of the country, Albion or Olbion, which in turn was rechristened Britain in his honour.

It is difficult to be certain of the truth behind this, but we have mention in the town records of the figures being maintained almost 200 years ago, not long after we gained municipal status following the incorporation of the town in 1439. This marked the official designation of our settlement as Sutton-on-Plymouth, prior to which we had gone under the name Sutton – the ‘sud ton’ or south town of the Walkhampton Hundred.

One of the Biggest Towns

Our town has been greatly extended over the last few decades. When Queen Elizabeth first came to the throne in 1558 the population here was around 3,000 to 4,000. By the end of Her Majesty’s reign, some 45 years later, that number had more than doubled and Plymouth had become about the same size as the county town of Exeter, which, by contrast, had barely seen any alteration of its numbers in that period. Now with over 8,000 residents, Plymouth is one of the biggest towns in England, a little behind Newcastle, which is only slightly bigger, Bristol and York, which each boast around 12,000 persons, and Norwich with 15,000.

Of course this means that many of our houses are quite new and reflect the current English fashion, popularised towards the end of last century, of lofty and narrow buildings with pointed roofs. The fronts of many of these houses can be seen into, owing to the magnitude of the windows of glass on each of the different storeys.

Although not blessed with a cathedral, Plymouth today is bigger than 17 of the 22 cathedral cities in England, but of course, London is bigger than all of them put together, with a population of over 200,000.

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