The name Otterton probably comes from two Celtic words meaning ‘water’ and ‘village’. The Saxons settled in the area in about 670 A.D. and the shape and the pattern of the original settlement have changed remarkably little since then. A church was built in the 8th or 9th century, on the site of the present church, and Otterton grew into an important rural community around the sea haven.
Peace was not, however, long lasting and in 1066 Otterton experienced repercussions from the Battle of Hastings. After the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror began to exert his authority over his new subjects and he appointed Robert Cumin to the governorship of Exeter. But he was driven away by the citizens allegedly on the instigation of Countess Gytha, the widow of the once powerful Anglo-Saxon lord Earl Godwin, whose son Harold was killed in the battle of Hastings and who owned Otterton and its surrounding lands, including the manor at Sidmouth. William the Conqueror ordered the resistance in Exeter to be crushed immediately despite its being a very severe winter and an 18 day siege followed, at the end of which Countess Gytha fled to the safety of Flanders. Thanks to an urgent appeal by the clergy, William the Conqueror spared the lives of the rebellious citizens of Exeter, but he strengthened the Saxon castle, left the city in the care of Baldwin and seized the manors of Otterton and Sidmouth.
Shortly thereafter, William granted the manors and 4,000 acres, among many other manors, to the Abbey of Mont St Michel in Normandy, in the diocese of Avranches, in response to their pre-invasion support: many prayers – and a large number of vessels for his fleet. This is where the church’s dedication to St Michael originates. The monks customarily put their lands under local management, usually through a bailiff or a tenant farmer, and the abbey would reap the profits.
Otterton is variously named Otriton, Oderton, Oderyngton, Monk Ottery, Nether Ottery. Included in it was a Capella (Chapel) de la Hedreland, an area also known as Lahedreland, Larderland, Larderham and now Ladram.
By 1161 a Prior and four monks were living in a Priory on the North-East side of the church where the school, churchyard and St Michael’s Close are today. It was during this time that the Saxon church is believed to have been rebuilt as a priory church with the tower at the south west corner, with the addition of a nave and altar built to the west of the tower for the villagers the tower (believed to be late 11th century) thus in the centre. A transept chapel against the tower and a south aisle of the 15th century were later additions using stone from the priory.
During the 14th century and the hundred years war, the prior and monks had been expelled from French priories in England and in 1414 Henry V closed all of them. The Otterton Priory lands were granted to the new Syon Abbey, in Isleworth. The priory church and buildings fell into disuse, leaving the west end nave as the village church. For the next 100 years, building material from the priory ruins were used in buildings elsewhere including a transept chapel against the tower and later a south aisle to the remaining church.
The favour shown to Sion Abbey over the years by succeeding Kings was remarkable, but eventually even Syon fell in the Dissolution of the Monasteries by deed in 1539. Richard Duke, a clerk at the Court of Augmentations (the body that looked after the monastic properties seized by Henry VIII) bought Otterton Manor, about 5,400 acres, for £1,727/4/2. The deed of grant refers to “all those our lordship and manors of Otterton and Budlegh, otherwise called Estbudlegh with all their appurtenancies which late to the Monastery of St Saviour and Brigitta of Syon now dissolved, belonged and appertained. Also our Churches and rectories of Harpford Otterton and Fen Ottery and their rights, glebes, tythes, etc. And also our 40 messuages [a dwelling house with outbuildings and land assigned to its use], 100 cottages, three watermills, and two fulling mills; 6 barns 20 tofts [a homestead], 5000 acres of land, 400 acres of meadow, 2000 acres of pasture, 10 acres of wood, 100 acres of marsh, 5000 acres of furze and heath, and 44 pounds and eight pence of rent, with the appurtenancies in Etonton [Yettington] and the Parishes of Harpeford, Fen Ottery, Otterton, Bykton Eastbudleigh in our County of Devon. Likewise the whole watercourse of the said Oter [the right to make this over was disputed in the 19th century] and the whole fishing of the said water. And the free warren frankpledge [association of 10 householders, not freeholders, providing surety for each other for good behaviour, and already obsolete by now] and wreck of the sea [say no more…] chattels of felons and fugitives and persons about to fly and outlaws. All such things whatever in the Parishes before mentioned & to which are added Salterne [BS], Tudewell, Polehayes, Knolle and Daldyche.”
Duke converted part of the monastic buildings to a new manor house, now the block of houses at right angles to the northern side of the church. Richard served as Sheriff of Devon and died in 1572 whereupon his nephew (also called Richard) inherited the manor. Richard and his wife Katherine Prideaux are commemorated on a brass plaque, once in the Duke family vaults but now positioned on the inside west wall of the Church.
The Duke line failed and in 1785 the Estate was sold to Denys Rolle, and descended by marriage to Lord Clinton.