Episode 18 – Abbotsbury, Dorset

Today we are back in the south of England, right on the coast in fact, just west of Weymouth, to visit the small village of Abbotsbury in the county of Dorset. The ‘Abbot’ part clearly indicates a religious house, and ‘bury’ is an alternative of the Anglo-Saxon ‘burh’ meaning a fortified place. English pronunciation of ‘bury’ sometimes gets shortened to a single sylable, but in this case it’s two. Today Abbotsbury caters for the many tourists who visit each year thanks to its fantastic location and history. Here’s a video of the location.

Nearly two hundred million years ago, the ‘Jurassic Coast’ was formed from the movement of the continents. Later, further geological events created the Ridgeway fault that runs across the north side of the village, continuing until it hits the coast again on the other side of Weymouth. The Jurassic Coast is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The most recent geological impact on the area was the end of the ice age, twenty million years ago, when a very visible, distinctive feature was created: Chesil Beach and The Fleet lagoon. Chesil Beach is a stretch of sand that runs from Abbotsbury for eighteen miles all the way along to Portland Harbour. The beach is separated from the mainland most of the way along by The Fleet, which is a shallow salty area connected to the sea only at Portland Harbour and when tidal conditions allow the water to come over the beach.

Humans have been living around Abbotsbury for over six thousand years and their footprint is marked across the whole landscape. Around the parish archaeological investigations have found signs of tools that would have been used by stone age hunter-gather communities as they travelled around Britain. Later, European farmers crossed the English Channel in boats made of wood and hide and settled in the South West. Known as the “Windmill Hill Culture”, they constructed a barrow known as “the grey mare and her colts” about a mile north-east of the village.

In particular, the Ridgeway shows evidence of human activity from the stone age to the bronze age, and there are around 22 burial mounds of the period within Abbotsbury parish. In the bronze age a stone circle was constructed in the north of the area that is called the Kingston Russell Stone Circle.

By 500 BCE, in the Iron Age, there was a solid Celtic presence in the area in the form of the Durotriges tribe. They constructed a hill fort at a suitable location to the north-west which would later become known as Abbotsbury Castle. It was a great place to look out and see invaders coming from a long distance – at first this was other Celts from the continent, but later the Romans.

Inland, other hill forts such as Eggardon at West Compton and Maiden Castle at Dorchester would have been able to signal to and from Abbotsbury Castle via signal fires. Eggardon and Maiden Castle would then have been able to signal on to other Durotriges forts. These beacons continued in use right up to Elizabeth I’s reign when the Spanish sent a naval fleet against England.

Being in the south of Britain, the Durotriges were more connected to Europe and picked up the use of coins as currency before the Roman invasion of 43-44 CE. The Romans quickly subjugated the tribe, whose culture changed dramatically as they embraced their conqueror’s way of life. The region was controlled from Dorchester – the ending ‘chester’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘camp’, showing the Roman origins of the town.

The Roman presence lasted until 410 CE, when problems on the continent forced them to pull their troops away from frontier lands such as Britannia. This left the Celtic natives alone to defend themselves against… well, anyone who fancied their land.

It is said that around this time a church was built in Abbotsbury, dedicated to St Peter; the Celts would have been Christianised along with the rest of the Roman empire. A priest by the name of Bertulfus was visited by St Peter in a dream, and the Saint gave him a charter for the church. If there is any truth to this story then this would be the earliest known Christian centre for worship in Britain.

Saxons and Danes

It was not long after the Romans left before the Saxons came a-raiding. As I’ve mentioned before with Abbess Roding, the Saxons had been invited to Britain as mercenaries to defend the Celts. Liking the place better than their homelands, the Angles, Jutes and Saxons crossed the North Sea to claim British lands of their own. While it can’t be said to have been a peaceful settlement, it was not a mass-slaughter either. Generally the Saxons put themselves into leadership positions and the ordinary Celts assimilated the new language and culture.

Abbotsbury is a good example of what happened to Christianity. It’s said that around 500 CE the Saxons raided and burned down St Peter’s church, and used the Fleet as an anchorage for their boats. Abbotsbury became a Saxon settlement. Christianity was lost except in the west, in Cornwall and Wales.

As the Saxons grew into their ownership of Britain, they forgot that they were the invaders. After a few generations, most people would have called themselves Saxons regardless of their real heritage. The Saxons became the new ‘natives’ of Britain, forging small kingdoms, fighting one another and taking each other’s land.

One of the main kingdoms that would be formed was Wessex, in the south-west, and Wessex would eventually become one of Britain’s most important kingdoms. After all, it was King Alfred the Great of Wessex who would prove to be the last defence against the Viking invaders in the future. And Abbotsbury was in Wessex.

Christianity eventually returned to Britain, and during the 9th Century Abbotsbury fell under the jurisdiction of Glastonbury Abbey, which was one of the important religious centres of Wessex. This was the time when the Danes (whom we often call the ‘Vikings’) decided that settling on the islands was a lot more fun than raiding and then returning home.

At one point the Danes managed to control more or less the whole of what is now England, but Alfred managed to fight back. He restored Wessex and forged a settlement with the enemy creating the region known as the Danelaw. It was Alfred’s son Edward who became the first King of England, but that didn’t stop the Danes pushing back against the English over the following years, which lasted all the way to 1066 and even a little beyond.

One of the most famous of those Danes was Canute (or Cnut). Canute became king of England by conquest, leading an army of 10,000 raiders across the North Sea from Scandinavia around 1015. They sailed around Kent and then west along the English Channel to the Wessex coastline. By the end of 1015, Wessex had fallen to the Danes, who then went north and took that half of the country. They returned south to siege London in 1016. The Dane’s main opponent was Edmund Ironside, who became king that year after his father Aethelred died.

In October the Danes forced the English into surrender. The terms of surrender gave the north of England to the Danes, while Edmund would rule in the south. On Edmund’s death, the rest of England would go to Canute. But Edmund didn’t rule for long, as he died just a few weeks later, and so Canute became king. He was crowned in London at Christmas 1016.

Canute consolidated his kingship by marrying Aethelred’s second wife Emma of Normandy. Though a pagan himself, he treated Christianity with respect and allowed the church to flourish. Indeed, one of his stewards, Orc, was a Christian.

In 1024 Canute gave seven hides of land to Orc from the village of Portesham (a hide being the amount of land that could sustain a household for a year). This land would form the central part of the Benedictine monastery of St Peter’s at Abbotsbury, which Orc and his wife Thola founded.

After Canute died, his sons fought over his lands in Norway, Denmark and England. Canute’s son Harthacnut became king of Denmark and England, and after he died his half-brother Edward became the English king. Edward had no Danish blood in him, being Aethelred and Emma’s son, so had no rights to the kingdom of Denmark. This instead went to one of Canute’s other sons, Magnus, who was already king of Norway.

Edward is known today for being one of the last Saxon kings of England. He kept Orc on as a steward, and granted him more land around Abbotsbury particularly by the sea, as well as giving the abbey rights to all shipwrecks in the area. After Orc and Thola died childless they gave everything they had to the abbey, and it was here at Abbotsbury Abbey that Orc was buried.

Abbotsbury Abbey

Edward died in January of that fateful year 1066. Being childless, this opened the English throne to several different men, who each felt they had a claim. First Harold Godwinson, who had apparently been nominated as king by Edward shortly before his death. Second Harald Hardrada son of Magnus son of Canute who was King of Norway. Third William Duke of Normandy, who had also had promises from Edward. But Harold Godwinson was the one present when Edward died, and the one who was crowned king of England.

Immediately the Normans and the Danes both began preparations to invade England so that their respective leaders could take the English throne. Weather held William back, so it was Harald who landed first at a place called Stamford Bridge. Harold marched north and defeated the Danes, but then discovered that the Normans had landed in the south. The English army turned right around, aiming for Hastings.

As you are hopefully well aware by now, Harold did not beat William. Instead William became king of England, and appointed his own lords in place of the Anglo-Saxon earls. The cultural structure of the country was fundamentally shifted across all spheres of life. In 1086 William commissioned the Domesday survey, from which we can see the status of Abbotsbury at the time of the conquest.

‘Abedesberie’ in the hundred (administrative district) of Uggscombe was quite a large settlement with 32 villagers, 16 smallholders and 14 slaves. And that’s just the men. The control of the land didn’t change at all between the conquest and the survey, with the lords being Abbotsbury Abbey and Hawise wife of Hugh FitzGrip. At the time the Abbey also held land at seven other villages.

So who was Hugh FitzGrip, and what was his wife doing holding land at Abbotsbury? Well, Hugh FitzGrip was a Norman sheriff who had – according to the abbey monks – unjustly taken a hide of land from them, and then Hawise his widow had taken six more. During the Domesday data gathering exercise, many such disputes were resolved, most in favour of the Normans. Since Hawise’s name made its way into the book, we can see that the monks’ suit failed.

Until the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII five hundred years later, daily life continued in its routine for the monks of Abbotsbury. Abbots were elected, lands were granted, taxes were taken. But there are a few notable events it’s worth picking out.

Late in the reign of Henry III, in 1268, an inquisition was held in Uggscombe to determine the abbey’s rights. The inquisitors were John le Moyne, king’s escheator, and Andrew Wake, a sheriff. Le Moyne’s job as escheator was to uphold the rights of the king as a feudal lord, so it was in his interests to make sure the abbey wasn’t intruding on king’s lands. The sheriff, meanwhile, upheld the law and justice, and would hold courts to determine who should be sent to trial.

During the inquisition, it was confirmed that the abbey held all rights and liberties within Uggscombe. However, other rights in other regions were denied. The abbey exemptions from military service were confirmed, as was the right Edward the Confessor had given to all wrecks from the sea. Finally, the inquisition also confirmed what land the abbey held, which was later backed up by a charter from Henry III. He also let them hold a weekly market and yearly fair.

In 1323, the abbey was granted a license to take some land at Holwell, Somerset. This is after Edward I had instituted the Statute of Mortmain to stop lords giving away land to the church so freely. The grant of land had a specific purpose: to found a chantry. A chantry was a kind of heavenly insurance policy. After someone’s death their relatives would organise for priests to say regular masses for their souls. This would help them to get through purgatory faster, especially if they had a lot of sins to repent for. The founder of the chantry at Holwell was Robert le Bret, whose father Richard le Bret had died. The priests were to say a mass every year for him, his ancestors and all the souls of the faithful.

1339 saw Abbotsbury receive Scottish visitors. Edward III’s control over the Scottish throne was slipping, as we previously saw with Abbey Green. There were often attacks across the border, and on many occasions prisoners were probably taken, particularly if they were high status. In this year two of those prisoners – who hailed from Berwick-Upon-Tweed, then in Scotland but now in England – were brought to Abbotsbury from where they had previously been held at Glastonbury Abbey.

They were not due to stay for long, with their next destination being Tavistock Abbey in Devon, to the west. But Tavistock declined the order, so Abbotsbury was forced to hold them for some time longer. Eventually they were moved on to the priory of Bruton, then to Bristol, Chertsey and finally Shrewsbury.

In 1348 plague came to England. The Black Death devastated the population and the economy. Abbotsbury was not immune. The abbot was one of the first to die, and those tasked with choosing a successor also died before a new abbot could be chosen. Many of the villages under the abbey’s purview also lost their clergy.

Perhaps because of the lack of choices, the next abbot turned out to be… not the best of characters. His name was Walter de Stokes.

Walter treated his position as if he were a lord rather than a spiritual leader. He ran up huge debts for the abbey, so that they were unable to maintain the monastic community. Some of these debts were owed to various members of the abbey household including the prior and clerk. The abbey had agreed that to save money they would all live in one convenient house until the debt was paid off, but Walter refused to comply.

In 1353 after the local bishop visited he wrote a letter to Abbot Walter expressing his concerns. In response, the abbot complained about his “bad treatment” and not living in the way he was accustomed, with his own rooms and servants. The affected monks put in their own complaints against the abbot, expressing how unhappy they were with him. Fortunately for everyone Walter died in 1354 before he could cause any more trouble, but by that time he had run the abbey’s debt to over £855. That’s getting on for £900,000 in today’s money.

Abbotsbury Abbey’s closeness to the English Channel would turn out to be a problem towards the end of the 14th Century. England’s enemies were threatening invasion, particularly the French who were allied to the Scots. Abbotsbury faced regular attacks from the Spanish, Normans and Bretons, which continued until Pope Urban VI intervened.

As covered under Abbey Green, Urban was one of two Popes at the time with the papacy split between Rome and Avignon. Urban was the Roman pope, supported by England; the Spanish and French supported the Avignon papacy. Urban requested that the bishop of Salisbury give the church at Tolpuddle to the Abbotsbury monks, and they gratefully retreated to the inland location.

Urban died in 1389, and his successor was Boniface IX. Boniface, like his predecessor, was recognised by England but not Spain or France. However, King Richard II of England had managed to get some peace with his continental neighbours, and the coastal raiding stopped. Thus Boniface granted Abbotsbury all its land back again, and they returned to the village.

In 1505 a new chantry was founded, this time at Abbotsbury itself. It was a three-part deal between the abbot of Abbotsbury, William the abbot of Morton, and Thomas Strangways. The chantry was to pray for the souls of Alianor and Thomas Strangways, who were Thomas’s parents. Also covered were King Henry VII, Edmund Bishop of Salisbury, and his parents’ friends and ancestors.

The Strangways family would turn out to be very important to the future of Abbotsbury once the reformation came. Following the dissolution in 1539 Sir Giles Strangways leased the land before buying the abbey and estates outright for £2,000. He and his descendants continue to own the village to this day.

Strangways period

Giles Strangways was a prominent figure in the south west, being justice of the peace for Dorset by the time he was 23, and later for Somerset too. He was also High Sheriff of Dorset and Somerset for various periods between 1512 and 1542. Records suggest he was not an entirely honest man, with complaints that he ruled the shire “against all justice”. In addition, it was said that several robberies went unpunished because of “the great bearing and maintenance of the said Sir Giles Strangways.”

He had a son called Henry, two other daughters, and a bastard son whom he would acknowledge and provide for in his will. Henry Strangways had at least one son of his own, and Giles also had other grandchildren.

As a servant of Henry VIII, Giles was often in France due to the ongoing wars, and took his son Henry with him. 1544 marked King Henry’s third invasion of France, responding to the French support of Scotland. An English army headed along the French coast to Boulogne, with Giles and Henry among them. The town was under siege until eventually the French were forced to surrender.

Later that year the French army returned to take Boulogne back. The English dukes who were supposed to defend the town abandoned it, leaving 4,000 men to defend the city while they retreated the rest of the army back to Calais. The French were well in the process of capturing their town back when their soldiers decided looting would be more interesting.

At some point during this time, Henry Strangways was killed. Giles was no doubt devastated. The sixty-year-old’s new heir was his young grandson Giles, Henry’s son.

I’ve mentioned before about how when a young man became the head of a household before he reached twenty-one a lord would take him on as a ward, and manage the inheritance for him until such time as he came of age. As Giles Senior was growing older, he made sure that his grandson would have a good wardship. It was worth a lot, since the warder would be able to decide who the young man would marry, and potentially get a tidy profit from it.

Giles’s wardship was granted in August 1546 to Sir Richard Rich, who would be Lord Chancellor of England under Edward VI. But this was before the older Giles’s death, so Richard would have to wait before he took control of the Strangways inheritance. And then young Giles got married. Suddenly the wardship became worth much less. Richard had lost out. Even if he would run the estate for a few years he couldn’t pick Giles’s wife and strengthen his own hand. It was fortunate timing for the young man, as his grandfather died a few weeks later in December 1546.

In 1549 Giles Strangways junior reached twenty-one and obtained his inheritance. He stood for parliament in Dorset and also saw military service, commanding fifty men under the Earl of Pembroke. His life was cut short in 1562 leaving his wife Joan as the sole executor of the will (which was most likely very unusual) though she had thirteen overseers to help her. His eldest son was just six, and they had five other children at the time. Joan re-married a year later to Sir John Young of Bristol, but Giles’s son ended up a ward to the Earl of Pembroke.

Giles’s grandson John Strangways was born in 1585. Like his great-great-grandfather he was Sheriff of Dorset, and like his grandfather he would become one of the MPs for the constituency of Dorset which had two MPs in total.

John’s time as an MP coincides with the reign of Charles I and the English civil war. He was MP for Weymouth at the time Charles ruled without parliament for eleven years, and was a supporter of the king. This meant that when Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarch John Strangways was in trouble, and was barred from being an MP.

Abbotsbury was not exempt from the devastation caused by the English Civil War. Initially Parliamentarians used the manor house in the village as a base of operations, but when John’s wife Grace refused to co-operate with them they trashed the place and left. The house was then used as a munitions depot for the Royalists.

Colonel James Strangways, one of John’s sons, commanded this stronghold, and the Parliamentarians wanted rid of it. They marched an army out from Doncaster to Abbotsbury. They quickly conquered the church and captured some of the Royalists who’d fled there, then demanded that James surrender. The young man refused, and what followed was a six hour battle. Eventually the Parliamentarians set the house on fire, which forced the garrison’s capitulation.

But combining fire and gunpowder is a recipe for disaster. Some of the Parliamentarian soldiers forgot this simple equation as they stuck around to ransack the manor. Destruction inevitable followed. Over sixty men died in the resulting explosion, and many of the house’s charters and records were lost.

James fled to France, but his father John and elder brother Giles were not so lucky. They were captured and held in the Tower of London – John for three years, and Giles a little longer until the family paid a hefty fine. In total the war would cost them around £20 million in modern money.

We’ve already seen that the republic Cromwell founded collapsed soon after his death, and Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660. John, now in his seventies, presided at one of the restoration ceremonies, but his voice had grown feeble due to old age so it was another who made the glorious announcement that Charles was now king. It must have been a wonderful occasion for the old Royalist.

John returned to his position as an MP in 1661, where he remained until his death in 1666. His son Giles was also elected as an MP in 1661, for Dorset, and Giles’s sons would also become Dorset MPs in their time.

Later Strangways would continue to have a strong connection with the village. In 1758 Susanna Strangways-Horner would found the first school in Abbotsbury. Susanna was a direct Strangways descendant, and her husband Thomas double-barrelled their surnames so that she could inherit the family estates.

Around this time the village reputation was not great; the London Journal of 1752 claimed that “all the people of Abbotsbury, including the vicar, are thieves, smugglers and plunderers of wrecks”. Wow.

But things picked up. Susanna seems to have had a close relationship with Henry Fox, who made his career and fortune in the government and would later become Secretary of War and Paymaster General. She’d married off her thirteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth to his brother Stephen Fox, 1st Earl of Ilchester, in 1736. Elizabeth was her and Thomas’s only surviving descendant. Stephen was in fact gay or at least bisexual, having had an affair with Lord Hervey up until his marriage with Elizabeth. He did his duty by her, however, and they had nine children together.

Elizabeth and Stephen built a grand house at Abbotsbury which, like the old Iron Age hillfort, was called Abbotsbury Castle. This was to be a summer home for the Fox Strangways family. The house stood until 1913 when it burned down in a fire.

Abbotsbury prospered during the Victorian era, with industrialisation changing the landscape. Fields were enclosed, toll roads opened, and in 1880 the population was over 1,000. A railway to Weymouth was also opened, though it failed to make a profit and was soon closed.

The village was impacted by the two world wars of the 20th Century. The First World War cut the population in half, while in the Second World War the village was home to British and American forces due to its proximity with the English Channel and German-occupied France. In fact, Abbotsbury was one of the secondary attack areas for the German invasion plan Operation Sea Lion. The British Army installed strong defences here because of Abbotsbury’s vulnerable position, the Fleet being a very tempting landing spot. There are still some pillboxes in the area which survive from that time.

Today Abbotsbury is an area well-aware of its cultural heritage, and in 1975 the village won a conservation award.

Next time we’re off to Abbots Deuglie in Perth and Kinross, Scotland, which is the furthest north we’ve been so far, and then we come all the way back south again to Devon. I hope the long journeys won’t tire you out!


Abbotsbury History Timeline, Abbotsbury website

The History of Abbotsbury, Abbotsbury website

Chesil Beach and the Fleet lagoon, Chesil Beach website

Abbotsbury, Dorset’s Important Geological Sites

Abbotsbury Castle, Britain Express

Place: Abbotsbury, Open Domesday

Abbotsbury, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 1, West (London, 1952), pp. 1-11. British History Online

‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Abbotsbury’, in A History of the County of Dorset: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 48-53. British History Online

The Escheator: A Short Introduction, Inquisitions Post Mortem

The Black Death in Dorset, Dorset County Museum

STRANGWAYS, Sir Giles I (1486-1546), of Melbury Sampford, Dorset. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 History of Parliament Online

STRANGWAYS, Sir Giles II (1528-62), of Melbury Sampford, Dorset. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 History of Parliament Online

STRANGWAYS, Sir John (1585-1666), of Melbury Sampford, Dorset. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983 History of Parliament Online

The Manor House A Grade II* Listed Building in Abbotsbury, Dorset, British Listed Buildings

Susanna Strangways-Horner (1690-1758) WikiTree

Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House, Joanna Martin, A&C Black, 16 Jul 2004

Defence Area 49, Abbotsbury, Archaeology Data Service


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