The History of Wiltshire After 1066

Under French-Norman Kings

With the death of Harold, last Earl of Wessex, William ‘the Conqueror’ did not receive the immediate surrender of the English which he had expected and therefore advanced with caution, making a wide sweep westward round London and threatening moves towards both Winchester and Highworth on the way. At Berkhamsted, where he had cut off the northern Saxon leaders from those still left in London, he received the surrender of London and the crown from Edgar, grandson of Edmund Ironside, who though still a boy had been elected king by the Londoners, and his bishops. The effects of this Conquest/(Crusade) are still disputed but while it can be seen as just another dynastic quarrel, it made more difference than a simple change of landlords, a takeover by five thousand newly-frenchified Norsemen. There were major changes.

First, there was more central control. The older freedom to hold land and elect earldormen who could elect their king was turned upside down, and the French-Norman ‘nulle terre sans seigneur’ (no land without a master) was applied as meaning that all land was held directly or indirectly from the king. William took a great deal of land into his own hands, not only that of Edward the Confessor and his queen but also that of all the Saxon leaders who fought his invasion or subsequently rebelled against him.

An additional burden of military service, in the form of ‘knight’s service’, was imposed over and above the former fyrd and other common obligations to the king. And a great number of castles, a French-Norman introduction, were built to maintain the security of the new government. Not long after the conquest/crusade William started translating military service in person into money payments, called ‘scutage’; this money was used to hire increasing numbers of mercenaries in the succeeding 12th and 13th centuries and to build up near-permanent armies to fight in Scotland, Wales or France.

The church was reorganised, its sees and abbeys were filled with more able and better-educated priests, and most of the major churches were rebuilt in the ‘Romanesque’ style. Jurisdiction of religious matters was separated from that of lay ones. Few people now agree with the view (c.1930) of Sir John Fortescue, historian of the British Army, that ‘England passed to her good fortune under the sway of a nation that could teach her to obey’, but most probably share the view expressed in 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman’s pupils that ‘The Norman Conquest was a good thing as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and was thus able to become top nation’.(England was most well run ‘country’ in Europe hence why it easy to take over on conquest by a usurper/a war lord in all but name).

Domesday Survey

While many of the English lands had been shared out by the king and his councillors among their adherents, they were ignorant of the country’s resources and of how far these could support the new nobility. In 1085, therefore, when the king was at Gloucester, he ‘held very deep speech with his wise men about the land, how it was held, and with what men’ as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates. An inquest was held in the following year to ascertain for each manor in the country, how much land was there, how many plough-teams, how many tenants and subtenants, villeins, cottagers, slaves, meadow, pasture, woodland and mills as well as its value at King Edward’s death and ‘now’, i.e. in 1086.(This was about material wealth not concerned with the people and much else and how much the Conqueror could squeeze from the country for his benefit as the country was under the full feudal system where everything was under the King and those under him were his serfs on their different levels of responsibility ultimately to the king, feudalism was brought about when the Vikings attacked countries the control of areas came under the control of local leaders as the country broke up and that is what the Duke of Normandy was a Viking leader a blood thirsty one at that as he also imposed the new Roman Catholic Church from the Western Rite Orthodox Church which had been here since St Augustine. The French-Normans were now the military arm protecting the Pope in Rome no longer the Holy Roman Emperor who like the English was of the Western Rite Orthodox Church, We see this at the Battle of Senlac Ridge/Battle on 14th October 1066 when the Duke of Normandy unfurled the Papal banner, a betrayal to the English who for centuries had supported the Church of Rome and the Pope a betrayal never forgotten on that fateful day the English became enemies of the Pope because we would not submit to him, likewise with Holy Roman Emperor hence the Reformation centuries later).

The meaning of much of the information provided by this survey is obscure and the subject of argument. There were also plenty of disputes at the time such as that between Richard Poingiant of Alvediston, who claimed that he held land directly from King William, and the nunnery at Wilton, which claimed that he was their tenant. In addition the unit of survey was the ‘manor’ which was an estate and which cannot always be identified today but could include a village, hamlet, a single farmhouse, or all of them, separated sometimes by some miles, with the implication that its owner held it directly from King William or from a ‘tenant-in-chief’ who did. Nevertheless this survey, which was called a ‘descriptio’ in its own time and was only known as ‘Domesday’, a day of judgment, some ten years later, is hugely informative and is a document unique in European history. It showed that the county was, as it had been earlier and was to be down to the 20th century, one of large estates.


Of the estates, 53 were in excess of 20 hides and 10 were larger than 50 hides. The hide then varied in size from place to place – usually larger on the poorer soils – but it implied enough land to support a self-sufficient family, and was later standardised on Glastonbury Abbey estates as 120 acres. The largest holder of land in 1086 was, as to be expected, King William, who had taken not only the royal estates, which included the boroughs of Bedwyn, Calne, Tilshead and Warminster, but also the extensive personal estates of Edward’s and Harold’s families. His estates now covered nearly one fifth of the area of the county.

Next in size were those of four great ecclesiastics who had built up large estates by gift and purchase well before the Conquest/Crusade: the Bishop of Salisbury (his see was of course at Old Salisbury not New), the Bishop of Winchester, the Abbot’of Glastonbury and the Abbot of Malmesbury. The Salisbury estates were concentrated in three blocks, viz., at Ramsbury, a former seat of Wiltshire’s bishops, in the Vale of Pewsey and around Salisbury itself. Those of the Bishop of Winchester were in a large block round Downton and a smaller block around the Knoyles. Of the total land in the county the two bishops held some seven per cent each, the Abbot of Glastonbury about six per cent and the Abbot of Malmesbury about five per cent.

Other churchmen also held land in Wiltshire. The Bishops of Bayeux, Coutances and Lisieux, William’s friends or relations, were granted 16, 24 and 12 hides respectively, but in their personal not official capacities. Lands held by the Norman Abbot of Bec and the Canons of Lisieux, which had been granted to them before the Conquest, were not disturbed, but many church-owned lands were appropriated by newcomers who claimed that the previous holder had been their ‘antecessor’ and to hold it ‘in chief’, i.e. directly from William. The Church nevertheless counterclaimed, as is often recorded in the Domesday Book, that these lands ‘could not be separated from the Church’, as did the Abbot of Glastonbury at the Deverills and the Bishop of Winchester at Downton, Ham, Enford, Overton and Stockton.

Of the new tenants-in-chief only Edward, Earl of Salisbury, who was now Sheriff of Wiltshire in succession to the Confessor’s sheriff (kept on for some years after the Conquest), had extensive holdings. His lands covered some five per cent of the county, but in line with William’s policy were scattered in 42 pieces, none bigger than the manor of Wilcot which was taxed at 15 hides but had a ‘new church, a very good house, a good vineyard’ as the survey notes with evident envy. The Earl was rewarded for his service as the king’s deputy in the county by receipt of all the fines for law-breaking as well as a large number of perquisites such as the annual tribute of 162 pigs, 1,600 eggs, 240 fleeces and so on, but he was also responsible for the collection of taxes from the county and could be mulcted from his own resources if these failed to meet the king’s expectation or demand.


The Earl of Salisbury’s seat was now at Old Salisbury where a stone keep was erected in the centre of the Iron Age fort and its remaining Saxon fortifications. The former population was removed and the whole of the fort’s site was treated as the bailey to the new keep. Other castles were built at Ludgershall and Marlborough for the king, at Trowbridge for the de Bohuns following its loss by Odo, William’s half-brother, at Devizes by the Bishop of Salisbury and minor fortifications were made at Ashton Keynes and perhaps also at Clack, Oaksey, Sherston and Great Somerford. These castles were concentrated in the north of the county but did not at any time match the taxing rash of new castles erected in the rest of the country. Nor was there in Wiltshire a Saxon revolt like that at Montacute in Somerset, provoked by the Count of Mortain building a castle on the sacred peak of Montacute in 1086. But the savage repression of such revolts there and elsewhere in the West, seems to have made a mark on south Wiltshire, simply by the passage of rapacious soldiers, and is indicated by the reduced value of manors in that area.


The survey does not include all the population, or even all the heads of households, but nevertheless gives a fairly clear picture of its distribution. The major divisions are not so different from the position today and reflect the contrast between the Chalk Country and the Cheese Country which was noted by the antiquaries Leland in the 16th century and Aubrey in the seventeenth.

In the chalklands of the centre and south, population densities were high close to the Salisbury Avon and its tributaries. They were high in the rich Vale of Pewsey and along the Kennet east of Marlborough, while they were low on the north-west side of Salisbury Plain and to its west along the Great Ridge whose chalk upland is obscured by a layer of clay with flints. In the centre of the Plain however is a surprise. This is Tilshead, one of the late-Saxon boroughs, for here a large area of meadow and nine mills were recorded where there is today only a winter-flowing stream. The record of course refers to the whole manor, which may have included some land in the Vale to the north, while the water-table at Tilshead at that time was higher than it is today.

In the clay vales there were low densities in the north, in the extensive Bradon Forest on the cold Oxford Clay, but they were high on the mixed soils from Chippenham to Warminster and again in the Vale of Wardour in the south-west corner of the county. Population was low along its north-west border on the fringe of the Cotswolds, but the number of mills along the deep-cut streams there was high. On the Hampshire border, where there was an extensive forest fringe, later to be designated as the Royal Forests of Chute, Clarendon and Melchet, there was the lowest density of population in the county.

Information about the towns is scarce but 10 boroughs can be identified. Malmesbury is the only one given special mention, for it had a mint, 100 burgesses and a probable population of about five hundred. Four others, Bedwyn, Calne, Tilshead and Warminster, were, as already mentioned, parts of large royal manors. Tilshead, in the middle of Salisbury Plain, had already been important as a sheep and wool collecting centre in late Saxon times. Two others were centres of large ecclesiastical manors, Bradford on Avon of the Abbess of Shaftesbury and Old Salisbury of its bishop. Of the others Cricklade was one of the burhs founded by King Alfred, Marlborough adjoined a royal castle and Wilton was the early administrative centre of the county as well as being another of Alfred’s burhs.

It may never be possible to estimate the population of the county – estimates for England as a whole vary widely – but the number of individuals recorded in the survey was 9,735, of whom 35 per cent were villeins, that is they were occupiers of family farms, and 16 per cent were serfs and virtually slaves. The number of serfs in Wiltshire as in most of Wessex was high, considerably higher than in eastern England, and it is thought that the Conquest had caused a considerable downgrading of the peasants there. The average population was about fifty persons to the square mile, like its neighbouring counties, even though three-fifths of its area was chalk downland occupied by sheep rather than humans. The county was ranked tenth of English counties in the number of persons actually recorded.

The Church

Following the building of the new castle at Old Salisbury, the latter’s importance was increased by the transfer there of the Wiltshire see from Ramsbury. It affords a bizarre illustration of transition from Saxon to Norman rule.

The first Bishop of Salisbury was Herman, a priest from Lorraine who was appointed Bishop of Ramsbury by the Norman-leaning King Edward in 1045. Herman showed his discontent with Ramsbury and was offered instead the abbacy of Malmesbury. To this the monks of Malmesbury objected, the offer was withdrawn, and Herman left England to become a monk at St Omer. In 1058 he returned to be appointed Bishop of Sherborne, but as he had never formally resigned the see of Ramsbury he united the two dioceses. He retained royal favour and in 1065 dedicated a church at Wilton built for Edward’s Queen Edith. After the Conquest he was acceptable to William and assisted at the consecration of the French-Norman Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070.

In 1075 the Council of London ordered that all sees should be removed from villages and small towns to ‘cities’ and the joint see of Ramsbury and Sherborne was accordingly transferred to Old Salisbury. The building of a new cathedral in the north-west corner of the old fort was soon started. Herman died in 1078 and the work was continued by Osmund, a nephew of the Conqueror, who consecrated it in 1092. Its tower was struck by lightning two days later. The new cathedral was of a French-Norman pattern with three apsidal chapels and was relatively small, with a short choir and a nave of seven bays, only 173 feet long overall. It was almost doubled in size by Bishop Roger from 1125 to 1138, but even then it did not compare with the new churches at Winchester or Westminster.


Forests were of great importance to the Norman kings for their hunting if only as a reservoir for deer, as Oliver Rackham has suggested, but restrictions placed on cultivation and the former rights of common in order to protect this hunting, coupled with the extension of ‘forest laws’ to wide areas outside, caused considerable resentment. Florence of Worcester, writing after the hunting incident in which William II was killed in the New Forest in August 1100, evidently thought his death was a work of divine providence for he says ‘At the bidding of King William the Elder the men were driven away, their houses thrown down, their churches destroyed and the land kept as an abiding place for the beasts of the chase, and thence it is believed was the cause of the mischance’. But such complaints, while not new, may well have been exaggerated. Royal Forests were not novel: Wulfgeat and Aluric, huntsmen of Edward the Confessor, were given land in Chippenham and Clarendon Forests respectively for their services, and William the Conqueror took over the woodlands and the customs of his predecessor. It is true that the Norman kings enforced their forest laws rigorously and then extended their application by arbitrary decrees to huge areas of land beyond the forest boundaries, but dispossession seems to have been rare. Only two hides on the Downton manor of the Bishops of Winchester were recorded as ‘waste’ from which ‘men dwelling on them were driven on account of the King’s forest’.

The forests were centred on the royal estates, those of the north and west on estates from Lydiard to Warminster and those of the east on properties from Bedwyn to Collingbourne, and they were generally on poor soils with few inhabitants. But the ‘forests’ were so greatly extended   that by the 13th century nearly one third of the county was subject to their draconian provisions. Some favoured families became hereditary wardens such as the Esturmys for Savernake Forest and the Crokes for Chute Forest, who were descended from Norman huntsmen. But to tenants in and around the forest they provided constant grievances, made worse by the tyrannical and often corrupt conduct of foresters, who at Melksham for instance ‘sold the king’s wood to the great injury of the king and the countryside’.

The French-Norman kings mixed business with pleasure and made good use of the hunting lodges, particularly of Clarendon in the south-east corner of the county, into which a northerly extension of the Hampshire New Forest was created by the Conqueror/Crusader and his son William Rufus. This included Clarendon Park, which was the largest medieval park in the country, five square miles in extent with an encircling deer fence some three miles in diameter. The park’s lodge was enlarged by later kings, notably Henry II and Henry III, to cover six acres and become one of the finest royal houses in England. The Constitution of Clarendon confirming the ancient customs of the kingdom and reaffirming the king’s superiority over the Church on temporal matters, was issued here in 1156. It was unwillingly witnessed by Archbishop Thomas a Becket and led indirectly to his death. After Edward III’s victory at Poitiers in 1356, King John of France was imprisoned here and in 1359 a great hall of Chilmark stone was added to the palace, 83 feet long and 51 feet wide. Nothing now remains but a short length of flint wall and a misleading Victorian inscription commemorating the Constitution.

Civil war

Wiltshire was to suffer considerably before the Constitution was signed, during the reign of the Conqueror’s grandson, Stephen, last of the Norman kings, whose government alone seems to make nonsense of Sir John Fortescue’s adage. Apologists for King Stephen can blame much on Roger, Bishop of Salisbury from 1107 to 1139, an impatient Norman priest who is said to have been chosen by Stephen’s uncle Henry I because of the speed at which he could say mass. He became in turn Chancellor to Henry and Justiciar (king’s deputy) to Stephen, though he had previously promised to support the succession of Henry’s daughter Matilda. He was addicted to castle building, rebuilt the castle at Old Salisbury, built a new castle on parish boundaries at Devizes (hence the name of that town) and refortified Malmesbury in 1118. He was arrested by Stephen in 1139 for causing trouble, as well as for building unauthorised castles. His nephew the Bishop of Ely fled to his uncle’s castle at Devizes, where he and Roger’s mistress were besieged by Stephen who threatened to kill both Roger and Roger’s son if they did not surrender. The castle was surrendered but Bishop Roger died soon after, it is said, from ill treatment when imprisoned.

Churchmen generally while deploring military pretensions in their bishops were outraged by their maltreatment and, on a wave of public indignation against Stephen, his cousin Matilda landed to claim the throne that had been promised her. There followed 13 years of anarchy and civil war, which raged between London, Oxford and Bristol across Wiltshire, so that the tale of the castles besieged, betrayed, recaptured and refortified reads more like a catalogue than an historical account. A castle at Cricklade which had been built without licence was taken and has since disappeared without trace, Devizes was taken and retaken five times, Downton (a castle of the Bishop of Winchester) was taken once, Malmesbury twice and Marlborough once, while Salisbury and Trowbridge castles resisted siege but Wilton, in spite of Stephen’s new fortifications of 1143, surrendered. Peace was made eventually in which it was agreed that on Stephen’s death he should be succeeded by Matilda’s ‘Plantagenet’ son Henry.

The tax roll for the second year of Henry II’s reign (1156) gives some indication of the devastation caused in Stephen’s wars. Over one third of Berkshire, nearly one third of Gloucestershire, about one quarter of Wiltshire and nearly a fifth of Somerset were described as ‘waste’. There was physical recovery and a growth of population by the end of the century but this led to considerable inflation with rising prices and, relatively, falling wages. The large landlords, like the bishops of Winchester and the abbots of Glastonbury, took back more and more land into their own hands, insisted on all the customary labour services of their tenants and generally became more market-oriented and capitalist in their management. There was a considerable increase in sheep farming.

Local government Stephen’s wars had weakened the authority of the crown and decreased the importance of Winchester as the ancient capital and seat of the king’s treasury. But they strengthened the position of the king’s deputy in the county, the sheriff, the earliest and most important crown official outside the capital.The office’s title goes back to the original division of Wessex into shires. The sheriff was responsible not only for collecting the king’s dues but for administering justice, keeping the peace and mustering troops. Under the later Norman kings the post became almost hereditary; the first French-Norman appointee in Wiltshire was Edward, Earl of Salisbury, and his son, three grandsons and a granddaughter, Ela, all became sheriffs. Following the death of Ela, who had married one of Henry II’s many natural sons and founded Lacock Abbey, the office passed to less exalted officials of the court, like the Mauduits and Tregozes, and then to even smaller landholders. In matters of justice they slowly lost ground first to the king’s travelling justices ‘in eyre’ (from the Latin ‘itinere’ meaning on a journey) and then to the more local Justices of the Peace.

Below the county were the hundreds, administrative districts which were originally based on 100 family-farm units and in Wiltshire were all constituted by the tenth century, if not much earlier. Their courts   met every four weeks to administer purely local matters, such as the apportionment of taxes.Beneath these layers of government, the majority of the people lay under the tyranny of the manorial system. Nobles and knights were usually subordinate only to the king but others were subject to the courts of their respective lords of the manor. The ‘Lord’, a title which did not imply ennoblement, usually retained part of the land of the manor in his own hands, the ‘demesne’. The rest was occupied by tenants or used for common or waste. Tenants were bound to the lord and paid ‘rent’ in the form of services, sowing, reaping, carting dung and so on. As time went on many such services were commuted to cash payments and demesnes rented out, but when demand for land rose landlords tried to take it back into their own hands and to re-impose labour services.Thus in 1247 tenants of the Abbey of Bec at Brixton Deverill had to work three out of six working days for their lord throughout the year, the full six days for the lord at harvest time and to cart cheese forty miles to Southampton (for export to Normandy), wool thirty miles to the parent house at Ogbourne and corn ten miles to the market at Shaftesbury. In the same period tenants on the Glastonbury manor of Longbridge had to take the ‘monks’ cloth’ 28 miles to the abbey whenever required. Manorial courts governed the management of commons and waste, the transfers of land, the rights of lord and tenants and escheats. The latter was the reversion to the lord of property where a tenant died without an adult heir. Heirs when old enough had to pay a fine to reclaim their inheritance. Escheats were not abolished until 1925. During the 12th and 13th centuries many such courts turned manorial dues into slavery from which villein tenants could only escape by running away and never returning (for they were considered the property of the lord) or joining the Church, for which they would still have to pay a fine to the lord.


Wiltshire is not rich in French-Norman monuments. Only an outline marking the foundations of Osmund and Roger’s cathedral on the hill-top of Old Salisbury is left, although much of the castle overlooking it survives. Devizes has the splendidly ornamented late-French-Norman church of St John, probably built for Bishop Roger, and Manningford Bruce, a complete village church built over the ruins of a Roman villa. The finest relic is probably at Malmesbury Abbey, already some centuries old by the Conquest, which retains in the portrayal of the Apostles over its south door the finest sculpture of its time in the country.