The History of Abbotsbury
There is ample visual evidence that Abbotsbury'and the surrounding area have
been settled by man for over 6000 years for this part of the Dorset coast is
rich in archaeological interest.
Originally, Abbotsbury would have been covered in dense woodland which was
gradually cleared from about 6000 years ago. Crude implements found along the
margins of the Fleet (the tidal inlet of water running between the Chesil Bank
and the mainland) suggest the presence of nomadic tribesmen grazing their
livestock; their culture would have been a society consisting of hunter/gatherers.
Towards the end of the middle-stone age, the south-west was 'invaded' by a wave of
farmers who crossed the English channel in boats made of skins stretched across
wooden frames. This society was known as the 'Windmill Hill Culture' and they are
responsible for Abbotsbury's first prehistoric site - the long barrow known locally
as the "Grey Mare and her Colts" which is to be found just over a mile north-north
east of Abbotsbury (OS map ref, 50 deg 40.8 min N, 2 deg 35.2 min W). The long barrow
dates from around 3000BC and has a single burial chamber made of sarsen stones,
originally roofed by a cap-stone at its south eastern end.
The Ridgeway hills that stretch east-west, north of the village, provided a
natural causeway for Neolithic man (4500-2000BC), bronze age man (2000-500BC)
and iron age man (500BC-50AD). This Ridgeway track, apart from facilitating
communication and trade also provided a perfect vantage point from which to scan the surrounding
countryside for enemies - especially necessary in order to organise a defence
should a sea-born attack threaten. There are at least 22 tumuli (most probably
the burial mounds of local chieftains) still existent within Abbotsbury Parish,
giving evidence of a relatively high population density.
The iron-age Hillfort known as Abbotsbury Castle was built on Wears Hill
north-west of the village (OS map ref, 50 deg 40.5 min N, 2 deg 37.6 min W)
lying five miles from the iron-age Hillfort of Eggardon (OS map ref, 50 deg 45
min N, 2 deg 38.5 min W) and seven miles from Dorset's most renowned Hillfort Maiden Castle
(OS map ref, 50 deg 41.7 min N, 2 deg 28.2 min W). This Hillfort would have been very
important strategically in that the first sightings of an invasion could be
notified to the other neighbouring hillforts which made up the defence system
of the region. The Celtic tribe inhabiting this area at that time were known as the Durotriges - see
exploring Abbotsbury Village for further information.
The Roman occupation of this area dates from 43/44AD when Vespasian's 2nd
Augustian Legion carried out a campaign in the region which led to the
subjugation of the Durotriges tribe. It appears that the defenders of
Abbotsbury Castle capitulated rather than resisted however, for there is no
evidence to suggest a violent conclusion - but the Hillfort has yet to be excavated!
Although there was no documented Roman occupation around Abbotsbury, with Durnovaria
(Dorchester) so close, the Romans must have settled the area and there have been sufficient pottery
fragments, remains of Romano/British watercourses, jewellery and coins found
around the village to suggest that this was so.
The Romans withdraw from Britain around 41O AD. At about this time, a church
was thought to have been built to St. Peter by Bertulfus, a holy priest to whom
the saint apparently often appeared. Ancient rumour will have it said that St.
Peter gave the priest a charter consecrating the church. If this could be
proved it would make Abbotsbury the earliest known centre for Christian worship
This first wooden church of St. Peter was apparently ravaged by Saxon raiders
(around 500AD) and Abbotsbury then became a stronghold for Saxon pirates, the
Fleet providing a safe anchorage for their boats. By 650AD the Saxons finally
established themselves in the region, adding it to their Kingdom of Wessex,
whereupon Abbotsbury became a retiring place for the West Saxon Kings. Later
on, in the 9thC, Abbotsbury was to come under the jurisdiction of Glastonbury
Following the Saxon 'invasion', came that of the Vikings (norsemen & danes) who
dramatically landed at Portland (793 AD), killing the King's reeve who thinking
they were merchants had tried to extract customs dues from them! This was the
commencement of two hundred years of Viking encroachment which reached its climax in the
acclamation of the Danish King Canute as the King of England (1016AD).
Canute was a 'heathen' but his steward (husceorl) Orc was a Christian. Canute
granted Orc the lands around Abbotsbury. It was Orc with his wife Thola who
used the site of the early church to found a Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of St. Peter.
EDWARD THE CONFESSOR, WHO SUCCEEDED CANUTE, WAS SUFFICIENTLY IMPRESSED BY ORC
TO RETAIN HIM AS STEWARD AND TO FURTHER GRANT ORC THE SEA SHORE BORDERING HIS
ABBOTSBURY LANDS AND THE RIGHTS TO ALL WRECKS (BOTH UNUSUALLY HIGH HONOURS).
ORC AND HIS WIFE DIED CHILDLESS AND LEFT THE ABBEY AND ALL THE LAND SURROUNDING IT TO THE CHURCH.
ORC WAS BURIED IN THE MONASTERY HE FOUNDED.
Following the Norman conquest, William I confirmed Ore's gift to the church and
from this time onwards Abbotsbury developed into a prosperous community; the
Doomsday Book records that the monastery owned eight manors (ie. villages)
including Abbotsbury and with succeeding Kings and their nobles granting
further land and revenues as well as providing protection, the monastery and
its environs grew increasingly wealthy.
Edward I granted Abbotsbury a charter to hold a weekly market on Fridays and
craft guilds evolved. By this time the monastery owned not only 2000 acres in
the parish but also lands in 12 other parishes, together with houses in
Wareham, Bridport and Dorchester.
During the middle of the 14thC Abbotsbury suffered from the Black Death (the
Abbot also succumbed) this together with frequent attacks from invaders both
from sea and land led to a decline in the monastery and thus Abbotsbury's
prosperity. Nichola, wife of Nicholas de Morteshore held estates around Abbotsbury at this time 'by
service of counting the King's chessmen and putting them in a box when he had
finished playing with them"!
Some time between the end of the 14thC and the beginning of the 15thC the
situation obviously improved for it was at this time that a great deal of
building took place which included the great Tithe Barn and St. Catherine's
Along with other religious houses, the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in
1538 although by this time its decline was again very much in evidence; at the
time of the dissolution the annual income of the monastery was a mere £400 and only
nine monks were resident. Part of the Tithe Barn was left because of its
usefulness and St. Catherine's Chapel survived unscathed by virtue of its being
a useful sea-mark for mariners.
The commissioner appointed by Henry VIII to administer the surrender of the
monastery, land and holdings was Sir Giles Strangways. Four years after
enforcing the closure of the Abbey of St. Peter he bought it for £1906 10s for the buildings, its manor,
000 acres of land, 2 mills and the Swannery. Five hundred years and fifteen
generations later this land still belongs to his family.
The Strangways had come south from Yorkshire at the end of the 15th Century and
settled at Melbury Sampford, a small village north of Dorchester. Sir Giles
father had been buried in the Abbey of St. Peter in 1505 and the family had
founded a chantry which paid for a priest to say a daily mass for his father's soul.
A condition of the purchase was that the Abbey buildings be demolished and Sir
Giles built or adapted a house for himself out of part of the buildings.
At the time of the dissolution the village of Abbotsbury was impoverished, its
chief industry being fishing and the weekly market. Once the monastery was
destroyed, the trade connected with it disappeared.
During the Civil War years Abbotsbury was owned by Sir John Strangways, an
ardent royalist. In April 1643 the family house in the village was occupied by
a detachment of Parliamentary troops. When Sir John's wife, Grace, refused to
co-operate, the house was ransacked. A year later a larger parliamentary force under Sir Anthony
Ashley Cooper marched from Dorchester to rid the village of its royalist
garrison which was then commanded by Sir John's son, Colonel James Strangways.
The parliamentarians stormed and took the church where some of the garrison had fled, then asked Strangways
to surrender the house which he refused to do. A six hour battle followed. Sir Ashley's men burnt
down the small gatehouse to reach the house then set fire to the entrance porch
whilst keeping up a constant fusillade of musket fire that forced the garrison
to stay upstairs. A second parliamentary force used grenades, fireballs and
scaling ladders to reach the 2nd floor window at the rear. Wrenching open
windows, they threw in bundles of faggots, setting the entire house ablaze and
forcing the garrison to surrender. The victorious besiegers began ransacking
the house despite warnings that some barrels of powder might explode any minute.
The powder took fire blowing up all that were in the house - at least 60
parliamentarian men! The house was destroyed and unfortunately almost all the
original monastic records and charters with it.
After the battle, Colonel James Strangways escaped to France but his father and
elder brother, Giles were captured after the siege of Sherborne in 1645 and
imprisoned in the Tower. Sir John was released 3 years later and Giles held to
ransom until the family paid a £10,000 fine. The family's total support for
the crown cost them £35,000 (about 20 million in today's money).
Abbotsbury's fortunes had not improved by the beginning of the 18thC when the
entire western edge of the village burned down. The two annual fairs were now
happenings of the past and Abbotsbury's livelihood depended on farming, fishing
and the spinning of cotton yarn for stockings. The London Journal of 1752
claimed that "all the people of Abbotsbury, including the vicar, are thieves,
smugglers and plunderers of wrecks". Things seemed to have improved, however,
in the mid 18thC following the marriage of Elizabeth Strangways Homer to Stephen
Fox (later the Ist Earl of llchester). It was Elizabeth who built the ill-fated
new Abbotsbury Castle as a summer house (it burnt down in 1913) and began the
Throughout England, the 19thC saw a period of industrial and social revolution
which Abbotsbury mirrored. The medieval strip fields were enclosed. Toll
roads to Bridport and Weymouth were opened. Cottage industries such as basket
and rope-making bought a modest prosperity and improved living conditions meant
that by 1861 the village population had risen to 1069. By 1880 Abbotsbury could
boast 2 blacksmiths, bakers, bootmakers, grocers, butchers, wheelwrights,
tailors, saddlers a cooper and a miller. Within 50 years the list and the
population had been halved due to the 1st World War.
1885 saw the opening of the railway to Weymouth. At this time the Swannery was
considered as a potential tourist attraction, although the railway's purpose
was to transport iron-ore from the opencast quarries in the hills behind the
village. The railway was never profitable and was eventually closed.
The Abbotsbury of today still retains her historic charm. The careful
restoration of many of the cottages during the 1970's led to a Conservation
Award in 1975 (European Architectural Heritage Years). The future of
Abbotsbury is now assured , for with the care of the llchester Estate's policies
together with ever expanding trades and craftspeople, Abbotsbury has a thriving
community who are not only in empathy with their environment but who are
determined that Abbotsbury shall evolve in such a way as to reflect her more
prosperous heritage. The visitor may well hear a word or two that is pure
Anglo-Saxon - evidence that in Abbotsbury a thousand years is not so very long