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Doccombe Manor: what's the story?

Updated: May 9, 2023

On December 29th 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. This was the culmination of a dispute over the control of the church and its courts between Becket and King Henry II that had led the king at Christmas to utter in despair: ‘Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?!’. The knights had to do penance when they found out subsequently that the king had not meant his drunken words to be taken literally. For his part William de Tracy set off for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but caught a disease en route and made his last will and testament as he lay dying in a monastery in Italy.

In a charter dated at some time between February 1173 and July 1174 de Tracy granted ‘one hundred shillings of land in Moreton, namely Doccombe’ to support a monk of Christchurch Priory Canterbury to pray ‘for the salvation of the living and the repose of the departed.’ This is the first recorded reference to Doccombe Manor found so far and for the next 367 years its 1500 acres on the north-east corner of Dartmoor remained under the control of the Benedictine monks who used the building of Canterbury Cathedral for their Priory.

De Tracy delivering the mortal blow to Becket's skull (Michael Edwards)

Its association with the revered memory of St Thomas of Canterbury meant that, even after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the establishment of the Anglican Church, Doccombe Manor was still a church property under the lordship of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. Under attack from the Disestablishment Movement in Victorian times, the church decided to shed some of its property, including its ‘poor little far flung manor in Devon’. Ownership passed to the Gregory family that had acted as local stewards for Canterbury until most of it was sold up to its tenants and local farmers after the First World War. Unfortunately, the new owner decided to close the Gregory Arms pub! It had been very popular with the workers of nearby Blackingstone Granite Quarry, some of whom lived in the hamlet and were working on the construction of the 'last castle built in Britain' - Castle Drogo at nearby Drewsteington.

Seventy years later the remaining part of the manor, about 400 acres of Mardon Common, passed into the hands of the local farmers. The historical significance of this part of the manor has only been appreciated in fairly recent times. It has several prehistoric remains; the widest stone circle in the Dartmoor National Park, a stone pillar circle (seen below), reeves or stone boundary lines and several cairns, including a so-called ‘Giant’s Grave’. There are also medieval reeves and the remains of ridge and furrow ploughing. Deep gullies on one side are probably the remains of tin-working from the mid sixteenth-century when a ‘John of Doccombe’ appears in the records of the Chagford Stannary. There are also several remains from the Second World War when US combat engineers camped on the common and practised for the follow-up campaign to the D-Day landings in 1944.

Prehistoric granite pillar circle on Mardon Common

Finally, the manor also had a third ownership with Moretonhampstead manor of the 900 acres of Teign Valley woods in the parish, including one wood still called St. Thomas Cleave. Disputes over the woods between the two manors led to a line of stones and a baulk or bank being set up to establish the boundary that is still very visible today. Timber was a very valuable resource, including the production of charcoal, and was carefully controlled by appointed wood wardens of both manors. Some of the woods became part of the Dartington Estate in the 1920s and were heavily coniferised. The woods, now known collectively as Fingle Woods, are today in the joint ownership of the National Trust and the Woodland Trust who have embarked on an ambitious programme of clearing the conifers to allow for natural regeneration of broadleaf trees and traditional ground plants.


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