The Hundred of Whorwellsdown


Victoria County History



Elizabeth Crittall (Editor)

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'The Hundred of Whorwellsdown', A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 8: Warminster, Westbury and Whorwellsdown Hundreds (1965), pp. 193-197. URL: Date accessed: 17 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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THE hundred of Whorwellsdown lies in the western part of the county along the southern fringe of the Avon valley south of Bradford and Melksham. From its centre, the village of Steeple Ashton, it extends west between Trowbridge and Westbury, crossing the valley of the Biss and reaching the River Frome and the Somerset border near Rode. To the south it reaches past Edington village well into the downland of Salisbury Plain, and to the north to Semington Brook, another tributary of the Avon, near Melksham. A detached outlier of the hundred, part of Tilshead parish, lies about 5 miles east of the southern tip of the hundred, entirely on the high chalk plateau of the plain. The bulk of the hundred, including all the centres of population, thus lies in the vale. The low flat clay country of the region is varied here, however, by outcrops of Corallian strata around Hinton, Steeple Ashton, and West Ashton and of cornbrash near Semington, both of which give slightly higher and better-drained land somewhat more suited to arable farming. Most of the vale country is, however, permanent pasture for dairy farming. The downland is given over to arable farming or military training. Although little but agriculture is now carried on in it, the region once had a flourishing cloth industry. It appeared in most of the villages in the hundred in the later Middle Ages, being chiefly centred on the fulling mills driven by the tributaries of the Avon. By 1600 most clothiers had forsaken the villages for Westbury, Trowbridge, and Melksham, but weaving and spinning for the town clothiers were carried on in many of the cottages in the villages until the mechanization of the industry in the 19th century. No place in the hundred has ever grown beyond a village, although Steeple Ashton had a market in the Middle Ages, and North Bradley and Southwick both attained considerable size and prosperity by the 19th century because of their dependence on the trade of nearby Trowbridge.

Whorwellsdown hundred c.1840

Figure 9: Whorwellsdown hundred c.1840

In 1084 Whorwellsdown hundred included the Abbess of Romsey's manors of Steeple Ashton and Edington, and estates belonging to laymen at Edington, Coulston, and Keevil. (fn. 1) North Bradley and Southwick were at this time part of the manor of Steeple Ashton. (fn. 2) The tithing of Bulkington in Keevil parish has been part of Melksham hundred since at least the 13th century. (fn. 3) It was not mentioned separately from Keevil in 1086, but at least some of the 2½ hides of demesne assigned to Ernulf of Hesdin in 1084 in that hundred may have been there. (fn. 4) If this be so, the hundred of 1084 contained Steeple Ashton, North Bradley, East Coulston, and Edington, and the tithing of Keevil, all of which were reckoned to be in it in 1831. (fn. 5) To the list at both dates should perhaps be added part of Tilshead, which lay in Whorwellsdown in the 13th century (fn. 6) and in 1825, when it was called the tithing of South Tilshead. (fn. 7) Its connexion with this hundred must have arisen from the property held there by the Abbess of Romsey by 1206, (fn. 8) later reckoned part of Steeple Ashton manor. (fn. 9)

The hundred jurisdiction may have been included in the original grant of Steeple Ashton to the abbey of Romsey, for in the 13th century abbesses claimed to hold it by gift of King Edgar. (fn. 10) King Stephen, however, granted the hundred to the abbey as Henry I had granted it, to be held at a rent of 40s. paid to the sheriff, (fn. 11) and it is quite likely that Henry's was the first grant. The hundred remained with the abbey until the 16th century. Unlike its other property in the district, it was not apparently subject to the arrangement with Sir Thomas Seymour, (fn. 12) and must have passed to the Crown at the Dissolution. It was, however, granted to Seymour in 1547, (fn. 13) but on his attainder reverted to the Crown and was granted in 1565 to Humphrey Skelton and Nicholas Holbourne. (fn. 14) Before the end of the century it had been acquired by the Paulets, lords of Edington Romsey, (fn. 15) and thereafter descended in the same way as that manor. (fn. 16)

The hundred as granted to Romsey by Henry I was said to include all pleas belonging to it, (fn. 17) but in 1233 there was litigation between the abbey and Ela, Countess of Salisbury and sheriff of Wiltshire, about the nature of the abbey's liberty. The abbey finally recognized the sheriff's right to two tourns yearly, at which he was to hold the view of frankpledge, enforce the assizes of bread and ale, make attachments of false measures, and hold the pleas of the Crown and pleas about beasts taken and detained against pledge. To the abbey were left pleas of battery and medley where felony was not mentioned, pleas of the wounding of horses and cattle, and actions of debt and other pleas not subject to the king's writ. Permission was, however, given to the abbess to negotiate for the sheriff's rights in return for a payment over and above the 40s. reserved on the original grant, as she had held them before the dispute arose. (fn. 18) Some of the rights allotted to him do indeed seem to have passed to the abbey (see below), but sheriffs regularly held two annual tourns in the hundred until at least the 16th century. (fn. 19) Yet in 1502 three men were sworn into frankpledge in the abbess's court, (fn. 20) so the distinction between her rights and those of the sheriff was perhaps not clear.

The earliest known records of proceedings in the abbess's hundred court are for two courts, one held in December 1261 adjourned from Martinmas, and the other in June 1262 adjourned from Hocktide. (fn. 21) Martinmas and Hocktide were the usual seasons for the sheriff's tourn, so that they are no doubt records of the business belonging to the abbess in that court. They show the procedure of presentment of offences by the tithingman of each tithing of the hundred typical of a tourn. (fn. 22) Presentments include infractions of the assizes, hue and cry, and bloodshed, so that the abbey had acquired at least some of the pleas allotted to the sheriff in 1233, (fn. 23) and in 1274 the abbess did indeed claim the assizes of bread and ale and a gallows. (fn. 24) In 1289 the rent paid to the sheriff for the hundred was £4, twice the original sum, (fn. 25) which again might indicate an increase of liberties after 1233. In addition to these matters, the courts of 1261-2 heard disputes between party and party; many of them probably related to debt, but one at least concerned a broken contract about the building of houses at Tilshead. A three-weekly hundred court was also held by the abbess in the 13th century. (fn. 26) Records exist for both courts for a number of years in the 15th and early 16th centuries. (fn. 27) They dealt with pleas of debt and trespass, infractions of the assizes, decay of roads and hedges, bounds of fields, strays, and minor assaults. Between 1412 and 1538 a considerable falling-off of business at all the courts of the hundred is noticeable, both in the presentments of the tithingmen, which became commonly 'all well', and in suits between parties. The profits which accrued to the abbess decreased proportionately, and in the 16th century were often only a few pence at each court. (fn. 28) The greatest profit came from the more distant tithings and freeholders who paid fines for respite of suit. Yet the courts were still being held late in the 16th century, (fn. 29) and the two views of frankpledge still in the early 18th century. By then no suits were heard in them, and the presentments of the tithings chiefly concerned defects of roads, bridges, bounds, and gates. (fn. 30)

In 1261 the tithings of Tilshead, Coulston, Tinhead, Edington, West Ashton, Keevil, Bradley, Southwick, Semington, Littleton, Hinton, and Ashton owed suit to the hundred court. Of these Tinhead, Edington, Southwick, and Ashton were each represented at the court by two tithingmen, and the remainder each by one. (fn. 31) Two tithingmen from Keevil failed to attend, and it was said in 1268 that the vill had withdrawn its suit for 7½ years. (fn. 32) In 1289 Richard de Arundel, lord of Keevil, acknowledged the abbess's right to the suit. (fn. 33) All the tithings continued to do suit to the courts in the early 15th century. Those which had been doubly represented were referred to as 'two tithings', and were apparently divided geographically, for one of the Southwick tithings had its suit relaxed, while the other appeared. (fn. 34) After the mid15th century Keevil never appears to have done suit to any of the hundred courts. The distinction between the parts of the other double tithings seems to have been lost by the 18th century, except that Steeple Ashton was divided into upper and lower tithings. (fn. 35)

Apart from this change all the tithings of 1261 except Keevil were still doing suit in the 18th century. There had, however, been one addition, a tithing called Battlesfield, which appeared, at views of frankpledge only, fairly regularly from 1413. In that year it appeared by a tithingman and another, 'as accustomed', and presented the default of another suitor. (fn. 36) In 1442, however, only a tithingman appeared, but made no presentment, and asserted that he was not bound to do so. (fn. 37) Thereafter this right of making no presentment was variously affirmed. Thus in 1493 the tithing 'presented nothing but said "Farewell and have good day"', a phrase which regularly recurred thereafter, and in 1497 the tithingman came with his dog and said the same. (fn. 38) Tithingmen were still appearing in the 18th century, (fn. 39) and a dim memory of the custom remained at Tinhead in 1897, when an old man said that at a 'manorial' court once held at the 'George' there it was the custom that the hayward should carry a dog in his arms and say 'Here come I and my dog to open this court'. (fn. 40) Since Battlesfield was usually the first tithing to appear, there is little doubt that he had heard of this custom. This tithing was almost certainly part or the whole of East Coulston. In all the 15th century courts it is described as the tithing de Bello Campo, which is the usual Latin equivalent of the family name Beauchamp, and the Beauchamps were lords of part of East Coulston at that time. It was only in the 16th century that the name was translated as 'Batillisfyld'. The tithing called Coulston in the 15th and 16th centuries apparently included West Coulston in Edington, (fn. 41) and may have been only West Coulston. In the 18th century it was distinguished as West, although East Coulston residents owed suit to the hundred. (fn. 42)

The hundred was divided into inner and outer parts in the early 18th century, (fn. 43) but it is not known in what way or for what purposes.

For purposes other than suit of court the division of the hundred into units has not varied much from that outlined above. In 1334 Baynton in Edington was separately assessed for taxation, but in 1377 it was included with Coulston. (fn. 44) In 1576 it was again treated separately for the assessment of a subsidy. (fn. 45)

Thomas Tinny was pardoned for acquiring the bedelry of the hundred in 1328, (fn. 46) but it is not clear that it was a grant in fee, and nothing more is known of its being so held. Among those who held the office of steward, Peter of Testwood, (fn. 47) Thomas Gore, (fn. 48) and Anthony Stileman (fn. 49) were all considerable property owners in Steeple Ashton. (fn. 50) In the later 16th century two constables for the hundred were chosen in Quarter Sessions. (fn. 51) In the 18th century the officers were usually a bailiff and three constables, one each for the outer and inner parts of the hundred and one for Steeple Ashton. (fn. 52) In 1770 the bailiwick of the hundred was held at farm for £6 a year. (fn. 53)

In the late 13th century, (fn. 54) and as long as records of it exist, the three-weekly court of the hundred was held at Steeple Ashton. In the 16th century it was held at the church house there. (fn. 55) Almost all the earliest records of the view of frankpledge show that it was held at Whorwellsdown. (fn. 56) This is the now lost name of the low rounded hill on which the boundaries of Steeple Ashton, Edington, and Bratton meet near Crosswelldown Farm. (fn. 57) In the 16th century it was still held there under an oak or thorn tree, but had also been sometimes held in a field at Steeple Ashton. (fn. 58) The hundred court was held at Tinhead in 1708, and this may have been the usual meeting place at that time. (fn. 59) The court held at the 'George' there, the tradition of which remained in 1897, was no doubt the hundred court or at least the court for part of it, perhaps the out-hundred of the early 18th century. (fn. 60)

Beside the privileges connected with the courts the lords of the hundred also claimed certain rights in woods and commons as appurtenant to it. In 1328 the custody of the abbess's woods in Ashton and Edington was granted with the bedelry. (fn. 61) In the late 16th century there was a series of disputes between the Crown and the Marquess of Winchester about the woods in the hundred. Although the Marquess claimed them as appurtenant to the farm of Steeple Ashton, (fn. 62) deponents believed that the right of driving them for strays twice a year belonged to him as lord of the hundred, and that he could take trees from them for making pounds. (fn. 63) In the early 18th century the hundred court presented the custom of the commons of the hundred and defaults of pounds, and haywards for the various tithings were sworn in it. (fn. 64)

The name of Whorwellsdown has retained more meaning than that of many of Wiltshire's hundreds, for it was coupled with Westbury as the name of a rural district from 1872 to 1934, (fn. 65) and was in 1960 still the name of a petty-sessional division. No consistent local tradition of the correct way to pronounce the word Whorwellsdown seems to remain.


1 V.C.H. Wilts. ii, p. 188.
2 See p. 202.
3 V.C.H. Wilts. vii. 79.
4 Cf. ibid. ii, pp. 193, 199, and vii. 1, 79. If this were so, it might account for the discrepancy between Ernulf's 7 hides of demesne at Keevil in 1086 and his 6 hides 1 virgate of demesne in Whorwellsdown in 1084.
5 Ibid. iv. 330.
6 S.C. 2/208/1; J.I. 1/1004 m. 92d; several small estates in Tilshead in 1086 cannot certainly be assigned to a hundred in 1084.
7 Hoare, Mod. Wilts. Branch and Dole, 42; its history is reserved for treatment with the remainder of the parish.
8 Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 162.
9 See below.
10 Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 235, 277; V.C.H. Wilts. v. 45-6.
11 Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 102.
12 See p. 241.
13 Cal. Pat. 1547-8, 26.
14 C 66/1017 m. 4.
15 C 142/262/125.
16 See p. 241.
17 Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 102.
18 Bracton's Note Bk. ed. Maitland, ii, p. 592, iii, p. 128; Select Pleas in Manorial Courts, ed. Maitland (Selden Soc. ii), 176-7.
19 Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 278; V.C.H. Wilts. v. 20.
20 S.C. 2/208/7 m. 13.
21 S.C. 2/208/1; the second was printed by Maitland, Select Pleas in Manorial Courts (Selden Soc. ii), 178-83, but he apparently did not know of the first
22 Pollock and Maitland, Hist. Eng. Law, ii. 558-9.
23 Select Pleas in Manorial Courts, 177.
24 Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 278.
25 J.I. 1/1006 m. 52d.
26 Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.) ii. 278; Feet of F. Wilts. 1272-1327 (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 32-3.
27 S.C. 2/208/4 (1-2 Hen. V), /5 (21 Hen. VI), /7 (9, 10, 13, 14, 18, 19 Hen. VII), /8 (2, 3, 6, 7, 9 Hen. VIII), /9 (17-19 Hen. VIII), /10 (25, 26, 30, 31 Hen. VIII), on which what follows is based.
28 V.C.H. Wilts. v. 66.
29 E 134/26 and 27 Eliz. I/Mich. 4.
30 Dorset R.O., D. 45.
31 S.C. 2/208/1; in the part of the roll printed by Maitland (Select Pleas in Manorial Courts, 176-83) Ric. Hordy is named by a clerk's error tithingman of Southwick rather than Bradley, which he represented in 1261, and Walt. Nele, made tithingman in court, must have been from Semington.
32 J.I. 1/998 m. 32.
33 Feet of F. Wilts. 1272-1327 (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 32-3.
34 S.C. 2/208/4.
35 Dorset R.O., D. 45.
36 S.C. 2/208/4 m. 2.
37 S.C. 2/208/5 m. 2d.
38 S.C. 2/208/7 mm. 2, 7.
39 Dorset R.O., D. 45.
40 W.N. & Q. ii. 242. For a similar custom at Broughton Gifford, see W.A.M. xli. 231-2.
41 e.g. it presented Baynton Lane in 1502: S.C. 2/208/7 m. 13.
42 Dorset R.O., D. 45, esp. 1703, 1706.
43 Ibid.
44 V.C.H. Wilts. iv. 302, 311.
45 Taxation Lists (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 141.
46 Abbrev. Rot. Orig. (Rec. Com.), ii. 25.
47 J.I. 3/130 m. 33 (1343); V.C.H. Wilts. v. 26-8.
48 J.I. 3/147 (c. 1359).
49 E 134/25 & 26 Eliz. I/Mich. 4.
50 See p. 206.
51 Sess. Mins. (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), passim.
52 Dorset R.O., D. 45.
53 Hants R.O. 11, M 49/121.
54 Feet of F. Wilts. 1272-1327 (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 32-3.
55 E 134/25 & 26 Eliz. I/Mich. 4.
56 Feet of F. Wilts. 1272-1327 (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 32-3. S.C. 2/208/4-5; W.A.M. xiii. 105-18; but the two 'arrear-hundreds' of 1261-2 were at Ashton: S.C. 2/208/1.
57 P.N. Wilts. (E.P.N.S.), 135-6.
58 E 134/25 & 26 Eliz. I/Mich. 4.
59 Dorset R.O., D. 45.
60 W.N.& Q. ii. 242.
61 Abbrev. Rot. Orig. (Rec. Com.), ii. 25.
62 See p. 208.
63 E 134/16 Eliz. I/Trin. 6; E 134/25 & 26 Eliz. I/Mich. 4.
64 Do set R.O., D. 45.
65 V.C.H. Wilts. iv. 338.

Steeple Ashton