Plympton is an ancient Stannary town, an important trading centre in the past for locally mined tin and, until the River Plym silted up, a seaport, at which point trade moved down river to Plymouth.
The town is actually older than Plymouth, of which it officially became part in 1967, and is an amalgamation of several villages, including St Mary's, St Maurice, Colebrook, Woodford, Newnham, Langage and Chaddlewood, now linked together by housing estates and industrial sites. In 2004 the town celebrated its 1,100 birthday.
Heavily residential, populous and effectively the north-eastern suburb of the city of Plymouth, the focal point of the town is the Ridgeway, boasting a wide and varied range of shops and other businesses. It also benefits from having two free car parks. Plympton remains dominated by its now ruined Norman motte-and-bailey castle and still retains a cohesive medieval street pattern. A number of historic buildings in the local vernacular style of green Devon slate, limestone and lime-washed walls, with Dartmoor granite detailing survive, attesting to all periods of its history.
The earliest surviving documentary reference to the place is as Plymentun in the charter of the West Saxon king Edward the Elder dated around 900 AD. Rather than because of its location on the River Plymm, its name may be derived from the Old English adjective plymen, meaning "growing with plum-trees”.
Near the Iron Age hill fort of Boringdon Camp, Plympton is also listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 as being held by William the Conqueror. His fourth son, Henry I, subsequently granted the feudal barony of Plympton to Richard de Redvers early in the twelfth century, whose family were to later be the Earls of Devon.
Also towards the start of the twelfth century the Norman cleric and Bishop of Exeter William Warelwast converted the original Saxon monastery and founded Plympton Priory. The Augustinian canons soon became the second richest monastic house in Devon after Tavistock and Edward, the Black Prince, was was entertained there by the Prior in 1348.
The town was granted Stannary status in 1328, joining Chagford, Ashburton and Tavistock, and governing the district from the Erme to it’s head and in a line from there to Roborough, enabling the coinage of tin to take place. The Stannary towns were able to meet out their own justice, and had great power over the lives of the tinners. However following the Civil War in 1642 the Stannary towns went into decline, and the industry ceased during the 1700s.
From the time of Edward I Plympton sent two members to parliament. However only freemen were able to vote, around 100 in number and, as a result, the town was effectively a Rotten Borough until the Reform Act of 1832. Sir Christopher Wren was one of the two members during the reign of James II.
On 16 July 1723 the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds was born in the town, the third son of the Reverend Samuel Reynolds, master of the Plympton Free Grammar School, and lived there until 1740, when he was apprenticed to the fashionable London portrait painter Thomas Hudson, who had also been born in Devon. Many of Reynold's paintings were purchased by his friends the Parker family living at nearby Saltram House, now owned by the National Trust, and are still on public display there.
In 1887 John Bartholomew's Gazetteer of the British Isles described Plympton as a small market town with a population of 1,146.
Plympton Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification built in the early twelfth century. In 1136 its owner, Baldwin de Redvers, rebelled against King Stephen resulting in the castle being burnt. It was rebuilt with a circular stone shell keep on top of the motte surrounding an inner circular tower but was besieged again in 1224 by Henry III. During the Civil War it was used as the Royalist Prince Maurice’s headquarters during the siege of Plymouth until he was forced to withdraw in 1644, after which the site was abandoned.