Wickham: not just “a pretty townlet”

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog back in September, continuing my series of posts about the communities of the Meon Valley.

The motivation for my posts about the history of the Meon Valley is simply that this area of Hampshire, as well as being where I live, is the setting for my historical novels, the “Meonbridge Chronicles”. Not that all my posts have been directly relevant to my novel-writing research, but it’s just fascinating to explore the past of a place you love, and turn up interesting little snippets of information about it that you didn’t already know. So, I’ve decided to continue with my theme, and this time I’ve discovered at least one snippet that I found really quite surprising…

Last month I wrote about Titchfield, the settlement near the sea end of the valley of the River Meon and, today, I’m moving a few miles upstream to the next place of any size along the river, Wickham (oð wic hæma mearce in the 9th century; Wicheham in the 11th; Wykham in the 13th; Wickham in the 14th).

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Wickham is an attractive little town (or large village – I’m never quite sure which it is, with a population now of about 4000), popular with visitors. In the 16th century, the writer John Leland described it as a “pretty townlet”, so it was agreeable even then. Wickham is no longer a market town (apart from the occasional farmers’ market) but it became one in the 13th century, and remained so for many centuries thereafter, and a busy, prosperous place it was, as it still is. Wickham also has a very famous son – a 14th century son –and both the town’s history and that of its son are certainly worth an airing.

In Neolithic times, the only sign of any habitation in the place that would one day be “Wickham” was probably a fording place that enabled travellers to cross the River Meon. Neolithic artefacts found in the village bear witness to these possible early visitors. There is evidence too of Iron Age and Roman sites in and around the village, including iron and bronze making as well as pottery kilns. Wickham is sited on the route between the two important settlements of Winchester and Chichester, probably making it of strategic value to the Romans. It is possible that Wickham became an important Roman settlement, with an industrial base.

The first mention of Wickham in history is in a document dated 826 AD, when the village is mentioned in a royal charter. The original village lay on the east side of the River Meon, where the church still stands and the medieval manor house was once located.

After the Norman Conquest, the king, William I, granted the manor of Wickham to Hugo de Port, one of many lordships he granted to the de Port family. The village appeared in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as part of the Titchfield Hundred, and the present church of St Nicholas dates from 1126 and was run by the Canons of Titchfield.

Wickham’s record in the Domesday Book says:

4 brothers held it from King Edward as 2 manors. Then and now it answered for 12 hides. Hugh acquired it as 1 manor. Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 2 ploughs; 15 villagers and 6 smallholders with 7 ploughs. 5 slaves; 2 mills at 20s; meadow, 8 acres; woodland at 5 pigs. Value before 1066 £10; later £4; now £7

Its total population at that time was probably around 120.

In the 13th century, Wickham was held, under the de Port overlordship, by a family called Scure. The manor passed down through the Scures until 1381, when Sybil Scure, who was married to John Uvedale, inherited it and brought Wickham into a family with whom it remained for the next 350 years. The manor house of the Uvedales stood to the south of the churchyard. Excavations in the 1960s showed that manorial buildings had been erected on the site in the late 11th century, when a large, aisled, timber-framed hall was built. It was replaced with a smaller, stone-built, hall in the 13th century, with a moat and some fish-ponds. The lords of Wickham seem to have been both important and wealthy, for excavations also revealed the high quality of some of the pottery they had imported from Normandy and Spain.

However, there is more to tell of the 13th century lord, Roger de Scures. For, on August 13th 1269, King Henry III granted a charter to Roger, allowing him – “for ever”, the charter says – to hold a market in Wickham every Thursday and an annual fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas.

“Know ye that we have granted and by this our charter have confirmed to Roger de Scures that he and his heirs may have free warren in all the demesne lands of his manor of Wykham in the county of Southampton for ever. So that those lands be not within the boundaries of our forest. On condition that no one shall enter those lands to hunt in them or take away anything that may belong to the warren without the leave and will of the said Roger or his heirs upon forfeiture of ten pound. We have also granted to the same Roger that he and his heirs shall have for ever a market at his manor aforesaid every week on Thursday and that they may have there a fair ever year for three days, that is to say on the vigil, day and morrow of the Translation of St Nicholas unless that market and fair may be to the damage of the neighbouring market and fairs.” 

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Saint Nicholas depicted in a 14th-century English book of hours

The “Translation” refers to the movement (or rescue), in 1087, of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra (in present-day Turkey) to Bari, in Italy, to save them from potential destruction in the religious conflict that was ravaging the region. The relics still remain in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari.

The event is celebrated as a religious holiday in some Eastern Orthodox churches, but it seemed to me a curious anniversary for a little town in southern England to honour with a fair. The rationale for it is, I suppose, simply that Saint Nicholas was the saint to whom Wickham’s church was dedicated.

 

The holiday was originally celebrated on May 9th, the date in 1087 when the relics were brought to Bari, but it was moved to May 20th (something, I think, to do with the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian) and thus it has remained. The Wickham Fair – a three-day event in the Middle Ages –attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds.

But what might seem extraordinary is that Wickham still holds a one-day fair on May 20th every year, 750 years after it was instituted.

In earlier centuries, the fair apparently traded in livestock of many kinds, including pigs, sheep, cattle and horses. But eventually it became essentially a horse-trading fair, which is what it is now, and is thought to be one of only two such events in the whole country. Thousands of members of the traveller community come from all over the country to show and sell ponies and horses, and to race them, with and without buggies, up and down the Winchester to Fareham road. A funfair fills Wickham’s great square for the rest of the day on the 20th.

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Wickham’s square is said to be one of the largest in Britain and it is from the time of the royal charter of 1269 that the layout of the village, with this broad market place, probably began to emerge. A road sign on the approach to Wickham from Fareham declares the village to have a “13th century market square”, which I have always thought just a little misleading. For, while it is undoubtedly true that The Square had its beginnings in the 13th century, and would once have been surrounded by contemporary buildings, sadly, few medieval buildings are still standing there.

Nonetheless, it is an impressive square, with a fine collection of 16th, 17th and 18th century houses surrounding the broad marketplace, a few of them quite grand, probably built by the increasingly prosperous merchants and skilled craftsmen. But there are certainly houses with 15th century origins in Bridge Street, a narrow road, apparently known as Grub Street in the Middle Ages, that crosses the River Meon at the east end of the square.

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These cottages on Bridge Street are known as “The Old Barracks” and represent one of the best examples of a Wealden hall house in the area. They are timber framed with plaster infill and with later brickwork cladding. Timbers have been dated by dendrochronology to c1495. There is apparently a reference in the Parish Register to three cottages in Bridge Street called “The Barracks” in 1556 (the reign of Mary Tudor), which probably refers to this building.

Bridge/Grub Street is thought to have been part of the early settlement, referred to already, centred around the church and the (long since disappeared) manor on the east bank of the River Meon. After the development of the new square and its associated buildings in the 13th century on the drier, west bank of the river, Bridge Street was the connecting route between the old settlement and the new, via what was at first a ford, then a wooden bridge, and finally, in 1792, a stone bridge.

In 1334 Wickham was worth 6 pounds, 8 shillings and 6 pence in taxes paid to the Crown, which was more than Fareham, which today is vastly larger, so 14th century Wickham must have been a prosperous place. By 1700 it probably had a population of around 500, and two hundred years later the population had more than doubled. Now there are more like 4000 inhabitants, though that presumably doesn’t include the many residents of neighbouring villages who regard Wickham as their local centre. And it certainly doesn’t include the thousands who flock there, not only on fair day, but on every other day of the year, especially in summer, to admire the broad square and lovely old buildings, and to do some trading of their own in the antique shops, and enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants and cafés.

But what of Wickham’s most famous son?

William was born in 1320, his father a modest freeman, John Longe, who moved to Wickham with his young family. Somehow the lord of the manor, then John de Scures, recognised that young William was bright and sent him to a school in Winchester.

And John was right. This bright but poor boy became clerk of the king’s works, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England. He called himself William of Wykeham, in honour of the place that nurtured him.

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Winchester Cathedral
WyrdLight.com [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
On leaving school it seems that William became secretary to the constable of Winchester Castle, before passing into royal service in 1347. In 1349, he was appointed rector of a living in Norfolk, despite apparently not having taking holy orders, but then a few years later took on a series of jobs as clerks of works. He rose rapidly in service to the king, Edward III, and by 1359 was responsible for the castles of Windsor, Leeds, Dover and Hadleigh, as well as many royal manors.

But only two years later he was a royal secretary, concerned with the king’s finances, and by 1363 was a royal councillor. It is hard to understand how one man could undertake so many rôles, but in these few heady years, he seems to have taken part in the negotiations between England and France during the Hundred Years War, he was a canon at Lincoln Cathedral, and a Justice in Eyre in the Midlands, and also Lord Privy Seal. By 1366, William was elected as Bishop of Winchester, but also held other livings with an annual income exceeding £800. The following year, when he was consecrated as bishop at St Paul’s in London, he was also appointed Chancellor of England. However, he found it hard to raise the money for the king to resume his conflict with France, when it resumed in 1369 and, finally, he lost the king’s favour and resigned his role as Chancellor in 1371.

However, all was not lost. As Edward III’s health and energy declined, William maintained good relationships in high places and received more important appointments but, in the topsy-turvy world of medieval politics and jockeying for position, he fell out of favour again and in 1376 was banished from court, his church incomes seized. But his banishment didn’t last, and in 1377, he was pardoned by the new king, Richard II, shortly after his grandfather, Edward, died. (The king’s own father, Edward, the Black Prince, had died in June 1376.) Under Richard, William resumed his position as a royal councillor, and served as Chancellor again from 1389 to 1391.

In the meantime, William was making educational foundations. It seems that he was genuinely kind-hearted and generous, excusing poor tenants on his manors their customary payments, paying off debts of others, and giving food daily to many poor people. He also supported poor scholars at Oxford University for many years before he founded New College in 1379. His grammar school, Winchester College, in Winchester, obtained its royal licence in 1382, though it was several years before either institution was open for business. At both, however, William required daily prayers to be said for the king and queen, for himself and his parents, and all of his former patrons, including Sir John Scures.

William was concentrating on his foundations by the time Henry IV deposed Richard II in 1399, but he welcomed the new king in Winchester in 1400. He died at Bishop’s Waltham (a few miles north of Wickham) in 1404 and was buried in his chantry chapel to the south side of the nave in Winchester Cathedral. At the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in England and, although he did leave legacies to his descendants, much of his wealth went into the schools and colleges.

Strong, Sampson, c.1550-1611; William of Wykeham
William of Wykeham (Photo: New College, University of Oxford)

William’s motto was “Manners makyth man”, adopted also by his foundations. Jean Froissart, in his Chronicles, said of him: “Everything was done through him, and without him nothing was done.”

Quite an accolade for a poor boy from a little Hampshire village.

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