In June 2015 I attended a training session run by the CBA (Council for British Archaeology) for their Local Heritage Engagement Network (LHEN). The LHEN is a CBA project to support groups like ours by providing resources and advice as well as an opportunity for local groups to share knowledge and learn from each other.
The workshop was about advocacy and activism and the purpose of the event was to help local communities involved in protecting archaeology. This mainly relates to local authorities and planning decisions and the impact of the ongoing cuts to council services.
Some councils are cutting their archaeology posts and there is a danger that planning applications do not get assessed for archaeological impact as well as they should do – West Sussex being an example where this is already happening.
The director of the CBA – Mike Heyworth – took part, and there were several delegates from other archaeological societies, a BBC radio producer and a British Museum researcher present.
There was a presentation by the Archaeology Officer of Southwark Council, which highlighted all the important work that council archaeology services provide.
The Horsham Archaeology Group explained how they were fighting to protect archaeological sites in their district after their county archaeological service had been axed. And representatives of the ‘Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort’ campaign, told us about their struggles against the plans to build houses close to this important monument.
There was a lot of useful advice, but if Bucks CC are providing a decent service and planning applications are properly assessed we may not need this advice right now. However, we need to remain alert to potential changes, as if we hear that Bucks CC may be cutting their archaeological service then we could use this guidance to try and prevent damage being done.
AIM supports the work of LHEN and will follow its development. You can find out more on the LHEN website which includes a growing toolkit of information and guidance.
Archaeology In Marlow have been keeping tabs on a recent archaeological investigation. The 46 page report has now been published, revealing that two young individuals were buried in Marlow around 4,500 year ago! A summary of the findings follow.
In Spring 2013, Northamptonshire Archaeology, now MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) Northampton, were commissioned by Talmage Homes, to conduct an archaeological excavation on a site to the rear of 90 High Street, Marlow. The investigation was headed by Simon Markus whose team discovered some amazing artefacts during their excavations.
Local historians will know that the earliest recording of the town of Marlow dates from 1015AD, where it is referred to as Merelafan in the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici.
In March 2013, an area of approximately 200 sq.m. was opened up within which, a pit, dated to the mid 12th century, contained a pile of approximately 250 re-deposited bones, radiocarbon dated to a much earlier date.
Photo’ courtesy of MOLA Northampton
In addition, amongst the remains was a piece of Bronze Age (Beaker) pottery, which was probably from a pot buried with the bones, as well as medieval finds from the 12th-14th centuries.
When the 250 bones and fragments from the skeletons were examined, it soon became apparent that the remains appeared to be those of two youngish individuals fairly close in age. Those bones that could be assigned as a specific skeleton were recorded as a full skeleton and the individuals were labelled ‘Skeleton 1’ and ‘Skeleton 2’.
Skeleton 1 was an older juvenile (10-12 years) based on the condition of teeth and bones at the time of death. Skeleton 2 was also close to that age (10-11 years). Due to the age of the remains, it was not possible at this time to determine the sex of each individual.
The discovery of Bronze Age pottery raised the possibility that the bones might be from a Bronze Age burial, and likely a barrow (burial mound), which was disturbed around the 12th century AD. Bone samples from the two identified individuals were sent to the USA for radiocarbon dating. The skeletons were found to date from approximately 2030 BC (between 2140 and 1950 BC), making them Early Bronze Age in date.
The single piece of Bronze Age (Beaker) pottery, weighing 12g, is decorated with bands of multiple horizontal lines of comb impressions, flanking a single surviving narrow zone, 10mm wide, which contains a saw-tooth pattern also formed from comb impressions.
Photo’ courtesy of MOLA Northampton
An aerial survey (Lidar), around the barrow cemetery at Low Grounds Farm, identified the site as a possible island on the Thames. This would mean that the High Street burials would have been separated from the Farm by a section of the Thames. They are, however, at a similar height (within 2m) and so the High Street burial may represent an outlier to the Low Grounds cemetery. As this cemetery has been dated by form only, it is unknown whether the two sites were active at the same time.
So, it looks like people lived in Marlow well before Anglo-Saxon times and that Marlow was a ‘des res’ around 4,500 years ago!
Many thanks to MOLA Northampton; article written by John Laker for Archaeology In Marlow (AIM) using extracts from the MOLA report.
Jill Greenaway spoke to the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group on 6 November about this collection which she curates at Reading Museum. Around 500 items were discovered from the non-tidal part of the Thames, from its source in Gloucestershire up to Teddington Lock, in a period which covered from 1911 to 1980.
An historic agreement with the Thames Conservancy Board (TCB) is allowed for all archaeological items found in this upper section of the river during dredging to be deposited with the Museum on indefinite loan.
Then, in 1996, Thames Water, successor to the TCB, donated the collection to Reading Museum.
Additionally, the collection of river based finds by George W. Smith has bolstered the collection. The speaker told how, after the extensive floods of 1947, a programme of deep dredging was launched which added to the yield.
However, it is likely that many more items were missed. The dredger crews only recovered what they recognised as being of interest and so much may have passed unnoticed. Another problem was identifying the locality as no careful recording was done as the dredger made its passage along the river. ‘Above or below’ a bridge, lock or riverside pub was as close as they normally got. Thus, no evidence could be deduced from the finds with any accuracy, such as crossing points on the river.
Finders were rewarded with ten shillings for items handed in but this was a sum that was not increased from when it was instituted in 1932! We were reminded that, in the days before municipally-organised rubbish disposal, rivers were often used as dumps which helps to explain the eclectic nature of the items ranging from Mesolithic flints to Victorian ginger beer bottles.
The most important part of the collection is the large quantity of beautiful Bronze Age and Iron Age metalwork weaponry. Similar discoveries, from the London section of the Thames and other English rivers flowing into the North Sea suggest a prehistoric cult of ritual offerings made to river gods.
However, the speaker was sceptical of the claim that the 23 skulls in the Collection necessarily related to burial rites pointing out that accidental river fatalities – and criminality – over the last 10,000 years may have been equally responsible.
A recent National Gardens Scheme open day at the SAS Institute at Medmenham provided access to the Hurley Weir capstan. This is historically important as the only remaining example on the Thames of those capstans that once hauled boats upstream when there were only ‘flash’ locks – rather like dams – and not the ‘pound’ locks of today. The men who provided the manual power to turn the capstan wheel – usually rough individuals – were known as ‘tow rags’ which provides one explanation of from where the unflattering description ‘toe rag’ derives. The capstan had survived until the 20th century because of the efforts of Viscount Devonport who pledged to preserve it and donated oak from his estate to replace decayed timbers. The capstan wheel (see photograph below) was then restored in the 1980s by two men, David Empringham and Christopher Barnes-Wallis, the son of the man who invented the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ used in the WWII ‘Dam Buster’ raids.
The capstan wheel is to be found on the Buckinghamshire bank of the river close to the end of the walkway over Hurley weir (see photo bottom left) It stands on that portion of riverside land that Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, later 1st Viscount Devonport, bought to annoy his neighbour and rival Robert Hudson of Sunlight Soap fame who had acquired the next door Danesfield estate in the 1890s.
In point of fact, Kearley had actually refused to pay to acquire his peerage citing his unpaid posts of national importance as justification enough for his elevation. An interesting history of the century-old Wittington House, built by Kearley and which now stands at the heart of the SAS Institute’s Medmenham estate, can be found at http://www.sas.com/offices/europe/uk/corporate/history.html
The pottery assemblage comprised 296 sherds with a total weight of 4229g. It comprised a mixture of Iron Age and medieval fabrics, indicating that there were two entirely separate phases of activity at the site, one in the Early Iron Age (C9th – 5th century BC), and the other in the early 12th – early 13th century.
The following fabric types were noted:
F1: Sand and Flint. Moderate to dense sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less. Sparse angular white flint up to 1mm, some carbonized organic material. 94 sherds, 2423g.
F2: Coarse flint. Moderate to dense angular white flint up to 2mm. Moderate to dense sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less, some carbonized organic material. 6 sherds, 51g.
F3: Fine flint. Rare to sparse sub-angular flint up to 0.5mm, sparse to moderate sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less, some carbonized organic material. Thin-walled, burnished vessels. 4 sherds, 17g.
F4: Shell. Sparse shell fragments up to 5mm, sparse sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm. Most of the calcareous inclusions had dissolved. 2 sherds, 36g.
The range of fabric types is typical of the Iron Age pottery of the region, and can be paralleled at a number of sites, such as George Street, Aylesbury (Allen and Dalwood 1983) and Oxford Road, Stone (Last, 2001). Trench 6 produced all but three sherds of the Iron Age pottery from the site. Most of it consisted of plain bodysherds from different vessels, but all but two sherds from Trench 6, context 3, were from a single vessel. The pot in question is a large jar (rim diameter = 300mm, 20% complete) which was partially reconstructed, and had a fingertipped rim and two rows of fingertip impressions on the outer body between the rim and shoulder. It is in reasonably good condition, although all the sherds are slightly abraded. The fabric is very soft however, so the attrition seems most likely to be due to bioturbation rather than redeposition via human activity. A large area of the lower body was also reconstructed, and it seems very likely that more of the vessel is stratified beyond the limits of the trench. The rim-form and decoration is very typical of the pottery of the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age period in the south of England (Knight 2002), and suggests a date of the 9th – 5th century BC for the assemblage.
The medieval assemblage was recorded using the coding system of the Milton Keynes Archaeological Unit type-series (e.g. Mynard and Zeepvat 1992; Zeepvat et al. 1994), as follows:
The pottery occurrence by number and weight of sherds per context by fabric type was included by Paul but is too detailed to include here. Each date should be regarded as a terminus post quem. The bulk of the medieval pottery occurred in Trenches 6, 7 and 8.
Most of the pottery comprised unglazed, sand-tempered wares which can all be regarded as part of the fabric MS3, Medieval Grey Sandy Ware tradition of Buckinghamshire. It
would also appear that it is mainly is of fairly local manufacture, as the fabric very similar to that of medieval wares from kiln-sites at Great Missenden (Ashworth 1983; Blinkhorn in press) and Denham (McCarthy and Brooks, 1988, 293). A few sherds were noted with vertical or diagonal incised decoration on the outer bodies. This is typical of the so-called ‘M40 Ware’ tradition (Hinton 1973). Such pottery was manufactured at the Denham kiln, and also at Camley Gardens, Maidenhead (Pike 1965). The Denham scored sherds are dated to the early 12th century in London (Vince 1985, 37), although the kiln itself produced an archaeomagnetic date for its final firing of AD1250 +/-20 (McCarthy and Brooks 1988, 293). The Camley Gardens wares usually have noticeable flint in the fabric, which the sherds from this site lack, so Denham seems the most likely source of the scored wares, and it is entirely possible that some of the plain sandy wares also come from that source. All the rimsherds in MS3 were from jars, and there were no obvious jug sherds anywhere amongst the assemblage. This is a trait more typical of the earlier part of the medieval period, jugs are much more common in the later part of that era.
The largest group, from Trench 7 Context 3, is in good condition and the sherd size is fairly large. A number of vessels in the group are represented by more than one sherd, and the group appears to be the result of primary deposition, suggesting that there was medieval occupation in the immediate vicinity of the trench.
The only pottery which can be definitely dated to the 13th century is the fragment of Brill/Boarstall ware from Trench 1 Context 1. Such wares are usually very common on sites of the 13th – 14th century in Buckinghamshire. For example, this was the case at George Street, Aylesbury (Yeoman 1983), and suggests that activity at Warren Wood did not extend much beyond the beginning of the 13th century. In addition, glazed London Wares, which are known from sites in High Wycombe (eg. Thompson 2009) from the mid-late 12th century onwards, and Surrey Whitewares, which are common at places such as Maidenhead from the second quarter of the 13th century onwards (eg. Whittingham 2002, 89) are also absent, which reinforces this suggestion. The single sherd of TLMS3, dated to the 14th century, seems likely to be a stray find.
It would appear therefore that the medieval activity at this site was from the early 12th to the early 13th century, and may have started in the late 11th century.
Local folklore has it that Hardicanut (Canute’s son and the king of England from 1040 to 1042, also known as Harthacnut) had, as one of his lodges, the intriguing double enclosure in the woods at Burnham Beeches. After all it’s called Hardicanut’s Moat (as well as Harlequin’s palace and Hartley court).
I would like to talk a little about this intriguing Viking king, but first it is interesting to look at the double enclosure itself, as there are good physical parallels between it and our dig at Warren Wood (albeit on a smaller scale as our entire enclosure is roughly the size of their inner enclosure). The date range for the construction of both enclosures is the same (see Warren Wood news and article).
Hardicanut’s Moat lies in ancient woodland that was probably once a part of the Royal Windsor forest; the inner enclosure covers one and a half acres, and the outer another eight. The outer moat and ditch form a somewhat wonky fat diamond shape and the inner enclosure is sub-rectangular and sits at an angle to it.
The inner enclosure’s ditch is broken by a few gaps, though these are probably not original. No buildings have been found within the enclosure (but as it is scheduled they may simply not have been found yet). However, the inner enclosure is divided by several banks and it has been suggested that one may exist between two of these. There is also evidence of a well (though I couldn’t spot it with the naked eye) and a suggestion of a second building (possibly a kitchen / brew / bake house) nearby.
There are other slightly raised areas, which may be building platforms.
Pottery and building materials are common and easy to spot laying on the surface (especially around the entrance way). But, sadly these are modern, some probably dating from a local 19th century pottery kiln and others even more recent, from the time the Beeches was used as a vehicle depot for the D-day landings.
The ditches and banks of the outer enclosure are much smaller and in poorer condition than those of the inner. They are believed to have enclosed an area to keep domestic animals, probably pigs and deer, as well as an area for vegetables or grain. Evidence implies that much of the degradation of the outer banks and ditches has been in the last hundred years.
This leads to the obvious speculation that the outer enclosure at Warren Wood could also have been used for animals or crops. Warren Wood’s inner enclosure, with its mass of flint and roof tiles, as well as its pottery is an obvious parallel to the probable dwelling in the Burnham Beeches inner enclosure.
Hardicanut’s moat is believed to date from between C12th and C14th, which ties in neatly with the new 12th to early 13th century pottery dates from Warren Wood. This was the golden age of building moated houses – though surprisingly they were often a fashion item rather than for defence. There are literally dozens of them in Buckinghamshire, two more lie within Burnham parish alone.
Sadly the date puts the enclosure around two hundred years after the death of Hardicanut, and so it seems that local folklore has played us false! However, Park Lane lies just 100 metres west of the enclosure and, together with Green Lane and it formed the boundary between Burnham and Dorney. Green, in a boundary name, is said to derive from the Old English Gemaere and indicates a Saxon origin. So it is still, just, possible that there is a link to a time before our Viking after all!
This tenuous link was enough to set me off on the trail of Hardicanut, though I no longer believe he had a hunting lodge nearby. Anyone who has the bad taste to die while making a toast at a wedding, is always interesting to investigate!
Hardicanut – King of England
Having dispelled the local story that Hardicanut ever lived in Burnham Beeches, I have to say that this is a good thing as, unlike his father Cnut (also spelled Canute) he and his brothers were not pleasant people. When Hardicanut became king he had his half-brother’s (Harold) body disinterred from Westminster, publicly beheaded, thrown in a sewer, retrieved and then thrown into the Thames.
To be fair, Harold had not only usurped his place as king of England, but had tricked their younger brother, Prince Alfred, into capture and had six hundred of his men barbarously tortured and killed. Alfred was then stripped naked, tied to a horse, taken from Guildford to the Isle of Ely, where his eyes were torn out and he died miserably a few days later.
Hardicanut was the son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy (who had previously been married to Æthelred the Unready and had held out against Cnut’s invasion after her husband died). Though Hardicanut was made King of Denmark when his father died, it is unclear why he didn’t also become King of England, though it is possible that it was arranged for him to rule south of the Thames while his brother Harold would reign to the north. Certainly the penny coin shown supports this as it was struck around at this time. However, Harold became overall regent.
Fear of invasion from Magnus of Norway probably kept Hardicanut away from England, and two years later in 1037,Harold was accepted by the English as their king. Having come to an agreement with Magnus, Hardicanut and his mother Emma planned an invasion of England but delayed it as Harold became ill and died.
Hardicanut was welcomed to England with open arms, (probably because he came backed with 62 warships at a time when the English navy had only 16!) However, as these “peaceful” invaders needed payment, a geld of £21,000 was levied – a huge sum of money for the times.
Although the English were used to a king ruling with a council, Hardicanut ruled as a ruthless and feared autocrat. He caused great hardship in 1041 by increasing taxes in order to to double the size of the navy at a time of a poor harvest. His tax gatherers were so harsh that people in Worcester rioted and killed them. Hardicanut reacted by imposing the legal but unpopular punishment of “harrying” and ordered his earls to burn the town and kill the population. Fortunately most fled.
After a reign of just two years Hardicanute died from a seizure at a riotous drinking bout in Clapham to celebrate the marriage of the daughter oh his Thane, Osgod Clapa. Collapsing whilst making a toast, he never spoke again and died a few days later. As he had never married and had no children, he was succeeded by another half-brother, Edward the Confessor, restoring the Saxon line for the next quarter of a century. Hardicanute was buried at Winchester Cathedral where he still lies along with both Cnut and his mother Emma.
Archaeological conferences come up with some odd things, few more so than one on the Prehistory of the Channel islands that I just attended. The “Big Question” was to try to fix one of the “Big Problems” in Archaeology – why did the start of the Neolithic age take around 1200 years to cross the Channel from France to the UK? A smaller question was “Why is there large a Neolithic Channel Islands tomb in Henley?”
On the outskirts of Henley, just past the drive to Templecombe, is a thick hedge. 150 yards behind this, on private land, is a very impressive and totally genuine Neolithic Passage Grave from around 3,000 BC. There is only one tiny thing wrong with it – it was moved from Jersey lock, stock and standing stone, in the late eighteenth century.
On 12th August 1785, the militia was levelling a hilltop to act as a parade ground, in an area that was later to become Fort Regent, in the strategically placed capital of St Helier. The soldiers “discovered” a megalithic monument that came to be called the “Mont de la Ville”. (Actually, although this story has been generally accepted, it turns out that a Philip Morant read a paper about this tomb to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, nearly twenty five years earlier!)
At that time General Marshall Conway was retiring after spending several years as the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey. The islanders decided to present him with the tomb, which was thought to be a Druid temple, as an unique gift of gratitude. Upon discovering that he would have to transport it at his own expense, he was somewhat reticent to accept. Indeed it was only when Horace Walpole wrote to him, “Pray do not disappoint me but transport the Cathedral of your island to your domain on our continent,” that he finally agreed.
In March 1788 the stones were taken up the Thames to Conway’s house outside Henley and the monument was re-erected on a hill overlooking the river. The tomb consists of a covered passage leading into a circular unroofed chamber with a number of cists, each with a capstone, arranged around the edge. No known prehistoric finds were uncovered at the site during the removal.
HERM & the Neolithic Question
It is easy to see why people would be interested in the Channel Islands – they were a half way along several of the main trade routes between France and the UK. The timing of Neolithic changes there could nudge us in the direction of an answer. Indeed, that’s why two of the UK’s most senior archaeologists – Professor Barry Cunliffe (Oxford) and Professor Chris Scarre (Durham) have been working there for many years.
One of the most interesting papers at the conference covered an excavation of some of the 16 Neolithic tombs on the tiny Isle of Herm. The excavations also covered the ground between tombs, where the team found a large and very clear area of ard marks (from ancient ploughing) traced in the soil. Some of the tombs are very early and include pottery from the late 5th Millennium BC. Surprisingly, none of them show much resemblance to tombs from the same period across the water in France. Indeed some seem to be unique. I visited Herm back in 2002 and 2004 and the photo shows one of the unusual tombs we found there.
The conference also covered the finds and provisional conclusions from other excavations, covering several islands over the last few years. The most recent discovery had been made just five days before! Two tentative conclusions were drawn, though only one related directly to the Neolithic question:-
The Neolithic didn’t happen overnight, nobody woke up one day and decided to give up hunter-gathering for farming. It was a slow and gradual process, with different aspects, such as arable farming, livestock domestication, permanent settlement, pottery production and social changes all happening at different times. This created a wide blurring over time and implies that the Neolithic question is perhaps too simplistic to have a meaningful answer.
This led to a profound second thought on the basic process of archaeology, where many theories have become widely accepted only to change completely on the basis of a few new finds. So, perhaps the amount of evidence we have, which is often based on chance and unrepresentative excavations in too few places, creates a limit on how accurate any conjectures might be. This highlighted the fact that any current answer to the Neolithic Question was probably formed on far too little evidence to be sound. Indeed the evidence that was used to pose the question in the first place may not be too sound either!
This is a list of simple hints and tips that can be used for identifying and dating some objects. Lack of space sadly means lack of supporting photos. These tips are not absolute – but they are helpful.
Palaeolithic Neanderthal hand axes are subtriangular as in the photo – they date before 40K BC.
Tranchet axe: This shape is typical, in the UK they date from the Neolithic (after ~2500 BC) and Mesolithic (~12-2.5K BC). Mesolithic ones are likely to have the end cut off at an angle. Much earlier and cruder ones are found (Acheulian period) in Africa (~1.5Ma).
Polished Axes: These work extreemly well as axes, they date from the Neolithic. This example was found in Marlow.
Ceramics: are made from Earthenware (like a flowerpot) or stoneware (smoother, heavier and much harder) Stoneware dates from 16th Century onwards.
Bellarmine jars (they have a grotesque face on them) date from after 1550 and become more common after 1600.
Wheel-thrown pottery (as opposed to coiled and smoothed) dates from either from the late Iron Age (Belgic) or from the 13th Century onwards. You can almost always see traces of the coils in non-thrown pottery.
Pottery inclusions: If local pottery inclusions are shelly they are usually from North Bucks. If inclusions are flinty it is Prehistoric. Roman inclusions were sand or (sometimes) shell. If the inclusions are grass, vegetable or grog (broken pot) it is Saxon – and the pottery will look and feel very grotty and like a soggy digestive biscuit!
Pot shape: Neolithic bowls usually have rounded bases, sometimes with a little lip at the top and occasionally two or four lugs for suspension. Medieval pots often have saggy bottoms (just like some from Warren Wood!)
Beaker pottery usually accompanied a burial or cremation. They were well made and often had a herringbone pattern. Circa 2.5 – 1.5K BC. The shape in the photo is typical.
Pottery colour: This is usually a red-herring – it depended more on the firing than the date and should usually be ignored.
Pottery shape – see the Ashmolean website for an excellent section on this – http://potweb.ashmolean.org/PotChron1.html then change the 1 to a 2 – 9 for more.
Roman Samian Ware: around half of all pots have a potters identification mark. It often has a foot ring and no inclusions.
(Close up of slashing in handle) Brill Ware: impressive part glazed jugs, usually green or white and often with stabbing / slashing on the handles. 13th -14th Century.
Glaze: If it is glazed it is from the 13th Century onwards (though there is some very rare Roman glazed pottery). If there is glaze inside a pot usually dates from 13th – 15th century.
Pot rims: Medieval rims are usually flat topped, Roman rims are usually curved.
Hieroglyphs: – probably Egyptian, but also found on tourist tat!
By Gerry Palmer
All photographs are of the collections in Buckinghamshire County Museum
Not far from the roar of traffic on the A404 Marlow by-pass above is the neglected site of a once important part of our local history. Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham carries the name of the Tudor Princess who spent some years confined at Bisham Abbey in her youth before she ascended to the throne. One may safely assume that this local example of a holy well would have already been ancient before it ever acquired the name of the Virgin Queen however.
Holy wells were frequently pagan sacred sites that had later become Christianised.* It is likely that the place where the spring that emerges from the chalk through a natural arch of tree roots on Bisham hill would have been venerated for hundreds of years, maybe far back into the Celtic past. There is evidence of brickwork around the spring, but this is now in a poor state of repair, showing how this place of significance has become neglected.
An early mention of the well at Bisham occurs in 1338 when its fame for cures had begun to spread across the county. Springs acquired reputations for particular healing qualities and Bisham’s well became renowned for curing eye conditions.
Much folklore grew around these locations and ceremonies or rituals were often centred on holy well sites. At Bisham a tame bird and a hermit were said to live in the tree next to the well. The miraculous nature of the cures claimed for the well attracted the attention of the 14th century Bishop Erghum of Salisbury who had a manor house not far away at Sonning. Concerned at the attention this location was attracting, and deeming it to be a threat to Mother Church, the Bishop had the spring filled in with stones and the tree associated with the well cut down. The power of the common people prevailed, however, and some ‘sons of the devil’, as they were described at the time, from Marlow and High Wycombe soon restored the well to use.
Piers Compton, the historian of Bisham Abbey writing in the 1970s, reported that people within living memory still attributed healing powers to the waters that bubble out at Elizabeth’s Well. Analysed in 1905, it appears that the spring water’s qualities match those of well-known spas. The field in which it stood had even once taken the name of Holy-well. Today, an ancient oak tree towers massively over the site of the spring, perhaps a successor to the tree that was deliberately felled. The oak, of course, was sacred to the Druids. One sees in this tree and the neglected well both a link with the distant past and a lingering belief in the curative nature of holy water down the ages.
Please note that Elizabeth’s Well is on private land.
by Jeff Griffiths
*The characteristics of such places have been described in an earlier AiM Newsletter. See Holy? – Well, Well, Well! by Gerry Palmer, AiM Newsletter April 2011.
The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton was first published by Thames Valley Press in 1973.
Desborough Castle is a little-visited scheduled ancient monument on the edge of a housing estate on the south side of the Wye Valley, between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. From the castle there is a steep drop into the valley below, and so it has clear views in both directions along the valley. The Golden Ball, with its associated Iron Age camp, can clearly be seen, as can the town of High Wycombe. The site has been used for thousands of years and the valley has been an important routeway through the Chilterns from at least the Bronze Age.
Today, the main part of the monument is not, as widely believed, the remnants of a hillfort, but is a medieval ringwork castle with an east-facing entrance. A large 12 feet deep ditch and a 16 foot high bank run right around the area, which is now covered in trees. A lynchet in the open area around it runs roughly parallel to the ringwork defences and follows the contours of the hill. Part of the castle was excavated in 1968 by C. Saunders, who found the ploughed-out remains of large rampart and ditch fortifications. However, although the excavation was unable to date the lynchet, it is probably Late Bronze or Early Iron Age due to its construction and size, and so these are probably the remains of a Bronze or Iron Age hillfort.
A variety of chance finds in and around the castle gives us some idea of how long people have been using the area. The oldest is a Mesolithic flint axe, but other worked flints have been found both on the surface and during a 1987 dig that excavated the area in front of the entrance (Records of Bucks vol 30). The flints date to the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. Most finds from the dig were medieval but some were a surprise, such as Roman roof tiles and pottery, which imply there may be a yet undiscovered Roman building nearby.
The dig concentrated on the level ground between Rutland Avenue and Booker Lane. Five trenches were dug and under deep plough soil they found a variety of earthworks, including a 5m wide ditch and postholes from a simple farm building. Also uncovered was a large linear feature that was 12m wide and at least 2.75m deep. The diggers couldn’t reach the bottom for safety reasons but, although unconfirmed, it seems likely that it was a massive ditch that protected the area on its weakest side by cutting off the spur of the hill to form an outer bailey. On the west and north sides the ground falls steeply into the valley below.
Over the years other unusual artefacts have been uncovered, including two Greek coins. One, a gold coin bearing the image of Phillip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), was donated to the British Museum. The other was a bronze coin from Ambracia (a Corinthian colony in western Greece), dating between 238 and 168 BC. An Iron Age brooch and a Roman coin were also found but perhaps the largest discovery of all was referred to by Delafield in 1743 as “an entire stone window frame like in ancient churches”. All traces of this window have disappeared, as has any building surrounding it. Delafield also reported that in the interior of the ringwork there were foundations, bricks and medieval roof tile. Mr Watts in the 1950s also saw foundations and a tile hearth within the earthwork. Today, nothing can be seen amongst the trees and undergrowth.
It was Delafield who first mentiond the name Desborough Castle – previously it was simply known as “the Roundabout”. Desborough, however, was the name of the original Saxon Hundred and the castle site has been identified as the moot or meeting place for the Hundred court. Indeed it has been suggested that the small remaining mound on the west side of the castle, which was subsequently cut across by the ringwork ditch, was the mound used as the moot. There is the possibility that it is also the remains of a Bronze Age barrow.
The castle lay in the manor of West Wycombe and was occasionally mentioned in the manorial rent records. In 1350 “John ate Castel” died there from the pestilence and in 1389 there were tenements in Dustleburgh. Other names for the area were Chasteleye, Castle field, Castel Garden and Dusteburgh Meadow.
It seems that the ringwork was built in the Norman period and it may have been a siege castle at the time of the Anarchy (the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda 1135-1154). However, the earliest pottery found dates to the early 12th century – later than one would expect if it was contemporary with the construction of the Castle. As it was part of the manor of West Wycombe it would have been owned by the Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and King Stephen’s brother and greatest ally. He is known to have built seven castles during 1138 and Desborough could easily have been one of them. It must have been an impressive sight perched up on the hillside with its massive ditch and bank, presumably topped by a palisade.
From the records it is known that Stephen was “apud Wycumbam in obsidione” (i.e. “in the siege at Wycumbam”) at some time during the Civil War. It is most likely that he was there to lay siege to the motte on Castle Hill, which belonged to Brian Fitz Count, one of Matilda’s most important supporters. From the hillside Stephen and his followers were in an ideal position to control the valley and the road to Oxford and Wallingford, as well as to observe the activities in Maud’s Wycombe castle.
The archaeological dig, the manorial records and the Pipe Rolls (the records of the Royal exchequer) seem to indicate that the castle was abandoned in the early thirteenth century. The animal remains and the pottery found show the occupants were high status, as does the evidence for large buildings within the ringwork, but nothing can be certainwithout further excavation.
Finally, as the castle became ruinous the outer defences were deliberately filled in to provide arable land for a local farmer – and they were used this way until the demand for homes became overwhelming and much of the area was covered with housing. Fortunately, the castle and the grassy slope have been left as open space for us to enjoy and explore.