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 in Britain!

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 Abbey.

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.


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 Chapel.

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 Sub-Tropical Gardens.

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 after all!