Barnstaple, a seaport, market town and municipal borough, in the Barnstaple parliamentary division of Devonshire, England, on the river Taw, near the north coast. Pop. (1901) 14,137. It is served by the London & South-Western, the Great Western, and the Lynton & Barnstaple railways. The Taw is here crossed by a stone bridge of sixteen arches, said to have been built in the 12th or 13th century. The town manufactures lace, gloves, sail-cloth and fishing-nets, and has extensive potteries, tanneries, sawmills and foundries, while shipbuilding is also carried on. The harbour admits only small coasting vessels. The public buildings and institutions include a guildhall (1826), a free grammar school and a large market-place. The poet John Gay was born in the vicinity, and received his education at the grammar school, which at an earlier period had numbered Bishop Jewel among its pupils. It was founded in the 14th century, in connexion with a chantry. There are also some curious Jacobean almshouses. The borough is under a mayor, six aldermen and eighteen councillors.
Area, 2236 acres.
Barnstaple (Berdestaple, Barnstapol, Barstaple, also Barum) ranks among the most ancient of royal boroughs. As early as Domesday, where it is several times mentioned, there were forty burgesses within the town and nine without, who rendered 40s. Tradition claims that King Athelstan threw up defensive earthworks here, but the existing castle is attributed to Joel of Totnes, who held the manor during the reign of William the Conqueror, and also founded a Cluniac priory, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. From this date the borough and priory grew up side by side, but each preserving its independent privileges and rights of government until the dissolution of the latter in 1535. In Edward II.'s reign the burgesses petitioned for the restoration of rights bestowed by a pretended charter from Athelstan. The existence of this charter was denied, but the desired privileges were conceded, including the right to elect a mayor. The earliest authenticated charter is that of Henry I., which was confirmed in a charter of Henry II. The later charter states that the burgesses should have customs similar to those granted to London, and further charters confirmed the same right.
A charter of Queen Mary in 1556 added some new privileges, and specified that the common council should consist of a mayor, two aldermen and twenty-four chief burgesses. James I., by a charter dated 1610, increased the number of chief burgesses to twenty-five and instituted a recorder, a clerk of the market, justices of the peace and other officers. This charter was confirmed in 1611 and 1689, and held force until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which established six aldermen and eighteen councillors. The borough sent two members to parliament in 1295, and so continued to do until the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, when the representation was merged in that of the county. Barnstaple was once famous for its woollen trade, now entirely declined, and as early as the reign of Edward III. was an important naval port, with an extensive shipping trade. That this prosperity was not altogether uninterrupted is testified by the fact that, at the time of the Armada, the mayor pleaded inability to contribute three ships, on account of injuries to trade consequent on the war with Spain. The Friday market and the annual four days' fair in September are held by immemorial prescription.
See J. B. Gribble, Memorials of Barnstaple (Barnstaple, 1830).