For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog back in November, continuing my series of posts about the area of Hampshire where my “Meonbridge Chronicles” are set, the Meon Valley.
In my series of posts on some of the communities of the valley of the River Meon, I have arrived close to the source of the river, at East Meon (Mene or Menes 11th c; Meonis 12th c; East Menes 13th c; Estmune, Estmunes, Moene and Estmeone 14th c; Estmene 15th c; and Estmeane 16th c).
The River Meon rises just south of the village and at first flows north, winding through the village itself before heading off into the countryside towards West Meon, where it turns and flows south, making its short, twenty-one miles, journey through the Meon Valley, to Titchfield and the sea.
For 1,000 years, East Meon was a hundred, a parish and a manor. It was the largest of the estates of the bishops of Winchester, with the magnificent All Saints Church and the bishops’ Court House to reflect its importance. For centuries it knew only one industry, farming, and only one owner, the Diocese of Winchester.
It seems that, initially, no distinction was drawn between East Meon and West Meon (about 4 miles north-west as the crow flies and following the course of the River Meon). East Meon is first mentioned specifically in the mid 11th century, when the then bishop of Winchester, Alwin, granted both Meons to the monks of Winchester, retaining, however, the management of the lands. When Alwin died, in 1047, the manor was held by the new bishop, Stigand, and he continued to hold it after he also became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. He was apparently excommunicated for holding both Winchester and Canterbury, though that doesn’t seem to have affected his continuing to be bishop and archbishop. Stigand attended the deathbed of King Edward and the coronation of Harold Godwinson as king of England in 1066, but after Harold’s death, Stigand submitted to William the Conqueror. However, when William was crowned King on Christmas Day 1066, it was the Archbishop of York who carried out the coronation because Stigand’s excommunication meant that he could only assist!
Stigand was eventually deposed in 1070, but held East Meon until his death probably two years later. At this point, it was seized by William I, and it was he who was holding East Meon in 1086, although, as Domesday tells us, Walkelin (Walchelin), the first Norman (as opposed to Saxon) bishop of Winchester, appointed in 1070, was also holding considerable property in East Meon (6 hides and 1 virgate, with a church). It was Walkelin who, in 1079, began work on a new cathedral church in Winchester, the current Winchester Cathedral, though little other than his transepts and crypt are still extant.
The entry shows that, in 1086, the “Mene” Hundred had 138 households, which was a large community of perhaps 500, and six mills, which also seems a lot, but perhaps their number reflects the extent of the Hundred’s lands.
In 1986, to celebrate the 9th centenary of the Domesday Book, the Hampshire Museums Service and the Sunday Times selected East Meon as the “Domesday Village”. In an exhibition at the Great Hall in Winchester, a model of the village was displayed, depicting it as it might have been in 1086. The simulation was created by Edward Roberts, then lecturer in Mediaeval Architecture at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and Liz Lewis, curator at the Hampshire Museums Service. The model was later transported to Bayeux, where it is on display in La Musée de La Tapisserie, under the same roof as the Bayeux Tapestry.
East Meon continued to be crown property until some time between 1154 and 1161, when Henry II granted it, along with all churches belonging to it, to the diocese of Winchester. From this date, apart from a short period during the Commonwealth, when it was sold with his other lands in 1648 and 1649 as a result of the Root and Branch Bill, East Meon remained with the bishops of Winchester right up to the mid-19th century.
I imagine that it was not untypical that relations between tenants and their lords in English manors were not of the most cordial and, indeed, it is recorded that, in the reign of Edward III, there was a dispute between the then bishop, Adam Orlton, and his East Meon tenants. It seems that, in 1342 and 1343, the tenants wanted “clarification” of entries in the Domesday Book relating to “Menes” (one assumes they felt they were being short-changed in some regard). A century later, in August 1461, when Edward IV went on progress to Hampshire, the tenants of East Meon and elsewhere “in grete multitude and nombre” petitioned the king for relief from certain services, customs, and dues which the bishop, William Waynflete, and his agents were attempting to exact (presumably unjustly). According to one account the tenants seized the bishop, but the king rescued him from his murderous tenants and then arrested and tried the ringleaders, giving judgement in favour of his noble bishop.
East Meon is full of old buildings, including some delightful thatched cottages, strung out along the narrow streets, many of which follow the line of the River. But two of the buildings are of particular note. One is the church, All Saints, described by Nicholas Pevsner as “one of the most thrilling village churches in Hampshire” (The Buildings of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight). The other is the old Court House, the manor house of East Meon, built at the end of the 14th century, which stands opposite the church and is the best preserved of the residences of the bishops of Winchester.
All Saints church
Pevsner doesn’t explain exactly wherein lies the “thrill” of All Saints, but it is certainly a wonderful church. It was built in stages between the 11th and the 14th centuries, the original Norman church with its tower being completed in about 1150. The size and beauty of the church probably reflected East Meon’s importance in mediaeval times, both as a very large manor and as a centre for the bishops of Winchester.
All Saints’ greatest treasure is the Tournai font, one of only seven such fonts in the country (another, of the same period, is in Winchester Cathedral). The font was carved in the 12th century by the sculptors of Tournai from the hard blue-black limestone from the banks of the river Scheldt in what is present-day Belgium. The carvings on the four sides are illustrations from the opening chapters of Genesis, together with birds and animals, in a Romanesque style. It arrived in East Meon in around 1150, just as the original church was being completed, and was probably a gift from the then bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, who was a grandson of William the Conqueror. Henry was King Stephen’s brother, the Chancellor of England and the richest and most powerful man in the country after the king.
I will talk a little more about this font in a future post on some of Hampshire churches’ finest treasures.
The Court House
East Meon was the largest of the bishops of Winchester’s manors in Hampshire, and this manor house reflects that. It perhaps acted as the diocese’s administrative centre as well as being home to a number of monks who played host to the bishop whenever he visited East Meon.
About 20 years ago, an architectural historian called Edward Roberts identified pipe rolls for Court House (those for 1395-6 and 1396-7), which recorded the building of the house. It is thought that the works were carried out almost wholly in 1396, at a total cost of £109 15s 11d, at a time when a labourer’s daily wage was 4d.
The building, consisting of a great hall and a two-storey wing, was a replacement for a similar building, almost certainly Norman, which had stood on the same site. It was commissioned by someone I have mentioned before in previous posts, William of Wykeham, the then bishop of Winchester. His master mason for this building project was William Wynford. It is thought that Wynford might have first met Wykeham when the latter was a provost of Wells Cathedral, where Wynford had gone as master mason. He was made master of works at Windsor Castle in 1364, also under Wykeham. During the 1370s, Wynford worked at Abingdon Abbey, Corfe Castle and Southampton Castle.
When Wykeham founded New College, Oxford (1379) and then Winchester College (1382), it was to Wynford he turned for their design. There is a portrait of William Wynford in the stained glass in the east window of Winchester College. This shows an old man with thinning hair, with the words “Willms Wynfort lathomus” below. His last major work, in the 1390s, was the remodelling of the Norman nave of Winchester Cathedral in the latest Perpendicular Gothic style. But it was also to Wynford that Wykeham turned for the design of his new manor house in East Meon. The Court House is apparently Wynford’s only surviving domestic (as opposed to royal or ecclesiastical) building.
Broadly, the structure of the original house was of a vast hall at the south end, built onto a wing of the earlier Norman building that contained the chapel and, upstairs, the bishop’s chamber. The hall itself is 48 feet long and 26 feet wide and is over 40 feet up to the peak of the roof. There would have been an open fire in the middle of the floor. The walls are 4 feet thick and 20 feet high and are constructed mainly of white malmstone (greensand) from Langrish (2.5 miles to the north-east) and flints from the downs above the village. The roof was constructed during the same months as the great roof of Westminster Hall. There are corbels set into the eaves of the roof that were carved in Winchester and represent heads of bishops and kings. It is thought that the one of a bishop might be William of Wykeham himself, by then in his seventies.
At the north end of the hall there is a service wing with a chamber above. Two doors lead from the hall into the buttery (where drink was stored and prepared for serving) and the pantry (where food was stored). The kitchen itself, as usual in these times when it would represent a considerable fire hazard, would have been a freestanding building to the east.
Above the buttery and pantry is the great chamber, 30 feet by 15, with a timber roof and a large fireplace. It is accessed by an external staircase. Off the great chamber was the garderobe with a drop down to a latrine below.
The new building survived virtually unaltered through six centuries. Under Wykeham’s successor, Cardinal Beaufort, the earlier wing to the south of the Great Hall, containing the bishop’s chamber and chapel, was rebuilt, but later demolished, probably in the early 17th century, when the timber framed farmhouse wing on the east of the hall was built. The farmhouse, for the 750 acre Court Farm, survives today.
We must be very grateful to the mediaeval bishops of Winchester for what they brought to East Meon: a glorious manor house, much of which survives unaltered, a “thrilling” church which certainly survives, and of course that magnificent Tournai font.
And isn’t it extraordinary to ponder upon how very many babies (and adults too) must have been baptised in that font, standing there in All Saints church for over 850 years – not much less than half a century since the writing of the Domesday Book!