History of Wilton

The Anglo-Saxon founders of Wilton chose an excellent site for their settlement where the east-west ridge, topped by the Great Ridgeway and a Roman road, drops to the fertile plain where the Wylye and Nadder rivers join. The enclosing rivers and nearby downland provided natural fortifications for a settlement that was also close to rich agricultural land.

This settlement, on an area of firm gravel soil, became the fortified place of the Wilsaetes tribe who took their name from the river Wylye beside which they dwelt. The Wilsaetes and Wilton were to give their name to the whole county of Wiltshire. It is likely that a shire based on Wilton existed by the first half of the 8th century, although it is first mentioned in 802 as Wilsaete and later in the 9th century as Wiltunscir. The historic county boundaries were established by 900. Wilton itself was established as a royal seat of the Kingdom of Wessex by the 9th century, although after the Danish wars of King Alfred the seat moved permanently to Winchester. Wilton however remained the administrative centre of Wiltshire until the 11th century.

At times during the 10th century Wilton was the seat of the Bishop of Wiltshire, although he more normally resided at Ramsbury, before moving to Old Sarum at the end of the 11th century. Strategically Wilton was important in the defensive loop around Wessex with the decisive battle against the Danes in 871 being fought at Wilton, after which Wessex and the Danes made peace. Unfortunately Wilton was burned to the ground by the victorious Danes.

Ecclesiastically Wilton was of great importance because of Wilton Abbey. A religious house that was enlarged in 871 had been founded earlier in the 9th century and this became one of the great religious foundations of England. This Benedictine nunnery was a house for nuns of the highest birth, an example being St. Edith, the daughter of King Edgar, and the nun, later Abbess, Wulfthryth. She was born in 961 and spent most of her life at Wilton. She was an intelligent and free-speaking young woman who built a chapel dedicated to St. Denis that was consecrated by St. Dunstan. She died in 984 and, after miraculous events had occurred at her tomb, she was made a saint. King Cnut erected a magnificent shrine to her and many pilgrims were attracted in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Wilton itself was a borough with a fairly important Wiltshire mint, being one of the earliest in the county and not finally closing until 1250. Growing in stature as a trading centre and market it was probably re-fortified by King Alfred after 871. However in 1003 the town was again burned by the army of the Danish King Sweyn, who invaded the country after Ethelred the Unready had unwisely murdered many of the Danish settlers. The town must have been rebuilt and it increased in prosperity as, by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, it was of considerable value.

Unfortunately we do not know the number of burgesses or other inhabitants at the time of Domesday as this was a royal manor and no details were provided other than its value. The Abbess of Wilton must have owned burgages in the town, but again these are unrecorded, although several Wilton burgesses are recorded in local villages. The abbey also held several manors in the county. A market was obviously flourishing and by 1121 Henry I granted the burgesses their first Charter giving them the right to tolls and dues. Wilton suffered during the Anarchy Period as it was being fortified by King Stephen and his army when, on 1st July 1143, a force of the Empress Maud, under Robert of Gloucester, surprised them. Robert set fire to the town and the abbey, largely built of wood, was mostly destroyed. The abbey was soon rebuilt in stone and in 1154 Henry II confirmed the original charter for the town. A charter from King John in 1204 cost the burgesses 100 marks (around £66) and 700 ells (875 yards) of linen cloth. The latter would seem to indicate the strength of the medieval cloth trade in the town.

The medieval street plan of Wilton is virtually unchanged although some names have changed with East Street becoming North Street (geographically it should be North-East Street!).

The medieval centre lay at the intersection of the four main streets at Four Corners with a network of lanes surrounding the market place there. The Anglo-Saxon centre had lain a little to the south-west at Kingsbury, the site of the royal palace. There were 12 churches that were said to be parish churches, although some may have been chantry chapels. Details of most of these will be found below under ‘churches’. Three of these stood on the market place, which also contained the guildhall, market cross and borough gaol. The busy market had many stalls and shambles and the existence of a small Jewish community testified to the prosperity of the town, as such communities were only to be found in thriving towns that required injections of capital, which few of the local landowners possessed as their wealth lay in property.

The great blow to this prosperity came with the building of the new Cathedral and planned city of Salisbury from 1220 onwards. The new city’s market rapidly gained ascendancy and the building of a bridge at Harnham, over the Avon, effectively bypassed Wilton on the trading route. Naturally Wilton fought back with fines on merchants for the lost trade and Royal proclamations forbidding trade in Salisbury on Wilton’s three market days. Much of Wilton’s trade was taken away but with an important abbey, the cloth trade and other industries, such as gloving and needlemaking, the borough was able to continue albeit a little less prosperously. A boost to the economy was the wool trade, which had been under the Abbey of St. Mary but a charter of 1433 granted a new fair. This sheep fair originally took place in the centre of the town and covered a wide catchment area.

By the end of the 15th century the busy centre was in decay and some of the houses and lanes, in what had been the early industrial area, were disappearing. This seems to have been caused by the gradual erosion of Wilton’s economy by the growth of Salisbury. Although all places suffered from the effects of the Black Death in the mid 14th century, when around ⅓rd of the population died, it may have happened that Wilton did not regenerate like other towns and new merchants and craftsmen set up in Salisbury leaving empty houses in Wilton to fall down. Certainly, the medieval industries, other than cloth-making, disappeared from the town. This left houses concentrated in a relatively small, densely inhabited central area with the outer suburbs, such as Bulbridge, Burden’s Ball and Ditchampton relatively unpopulated.

In the next century the abbey was closed down and surrendered to Henry VIII on 25th March 1539. Although it had apparently been in financial difficulties at various times it had been one of the most important nunneries in the country and its income in 1535 had been the fourth highest in the country. In 1541 much of the estate was granted to Sir William Herbert, who became Earl of Pembroke in 1551, taking the title from his ancestors, the Earls of Pembroke of the first creation.

Although he did not initially live at Wilton he had a comprehensive survey of his Wiltshire estates carried out in 1562. This includes a map of the centre of the town, which is rare for such an early date. The original Wilton House, using much stone from the abbey, was completed around 1550. Considerable additions were made by Henry, the 2nd Earl, in the 17th century but the fame of the house was provided by his wife, Mary, sister of Sir Philip Sydney. The house became a great cultural centre with Edmund Spenser and Philip Massinger using it as their headquarters, while Sir Philip himself is believed to have composed ‘Arcadia’ in the grounds. The 3rd Earl, William, was also a noted patron of the arts and founded Pembroke College at Oxford. Tradition has it that King James I held court at Wilton in 1603 when Shakespeare and his company gave the first performance of ‘As You Like It’.

William was succeeded in1630 by his brother Philip who was responsible for numerous alterations, including a new south front and extensive gardens. During this time the Civil War passed Wilton by, with little suffering for the town as the Earl remained fairly neutral and retained his estates. However, an outbreak of the plague in 1645 did cause several deaths and the Market Cross was partly destroyed as a Popish symbol. After the restoration, Charles II visited Wilton House and he was followed in the later 17th century by many of the great diarists and writers of the time, including John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and John Aubrey.

Earlier industries had disappeared and by the 17th century weaving was the main occupation. There do not seem to have been the large clothiers found elsewhere in the county and most businesses were family concerns or men who employed a small number of workers in their workshops. The carpet industry began around 1741 when two French weavers were brought in by Lord Pembroke to teach local people the new technique. The original Wilton carpet was a variation on the Brussels weave known as ‘Moccadoes’ and was produced in an early factory on a site now occupied by the Wilton Health Centre and St. Edith’s Church. More factories appeared in other parts of the town and eventually what was probably a woollen mill at Burdensball became the main carpet factory. Cloth and carpet weaving were both carried out in the town until the 19th century when cloth weaving ended after the failure of the local industry to adapt itself to the change from water to steam power.

From the mid 17th century Wilton underwent a process of rebuilding that has removed nearly all traces of the medieval buildings. Several of the 17th century houses have survived although many of the larger houses remaining were built in the 18th century. A new Town Hall, on the site of the Guildhall, was built in 1738, several older houses refronted and a number of two-storey cottages built. The Free School began in 1714, providing education for poor boys while three of today’s inns – The Greyhound, The Pembroke Arms and The Wheatsheaf, were built in the 18th century. The medieval inns seem to have disappeared during the rebuilding from 1650 onwards.

18th century Wilton suffered both epidemics and fire. A notable epidemic occurred in 1737 when the abnormal number of 132 burials took place owing to an outbreak of a virulent form of smallpox. A devastating fire took place on 14th August 1769 when 25 houses and various workshops, outhouses and looms were destroyed. The total destruction was valued at £4,600 and collections were taken in all Salisbury churches for the relief of the homeless. Rebuilding took place and at the close of the 18th century Wilton was a prosperous small borough with industries associated with a small town and with much of the parish area being farmed. The turnpiking of roads from 1760 had brought about improved communications and trade while the moving of the site of the annual sheep fair from the town centre to an area to the west of the town must have brought about a large increase in capacity.

At the start of the 19th century carpet weaving was prospering during the Napoleonic Wars but suffered from European competition after the peace of 1815. Before the building of the railways in the 1840s Wilton was served by a number of coaches, including one that travelled 285 miles from Falmouth to London in 21 hours. The Great Reform Act of 1832 reduced Wilton to returning one member of Parliament and even then the constituency had to be enlarged as Wilton had so few houses. In 1837 Wilton appointed ‘Day and Night Police’ to help the Parish Constables – two years before the County Police Force came into existence. A Union workhouse was opened in 1837 on the outskirts of the town, just in South Newton parish.

For many decades from the mid 19th century the carpet factory prospered and the borough began to introduce new and improved services. A gas works was built in 1854 to provide domestic and street lighting. This was purchased by the town council in 1888 and continued until 1935, after which gas was supplied from Salisbury. There were severe cholera epidemics in 1849 and 1854 and this provided the impetus for the building of a new drainage system in 1857. The railway arrived in Wilton in 1856 with the building of a Great Western branch line from Westbury. Three years later, in 1859, the Salisbury and Yeovil (later London and South-Western) Railway was built and Wilton possessed two railway stations.

The sheep fair continued to grow during the 19th century with 40,000 sheep in 1883, rising to between 90,000-100,000 in 1901. The town was thriving in the latter part of the 19th century with many visitors coming to see the new churches, local industries and farming doing reasonably well and the benign influence of Wilton House as an employer and wealth provider for the area. In 1873 the tightrope walker, Blondin, attracted a paying crowd of between 20,000 and 25,000 to Wilton Park.

The beginning of the 20th century saw a sharp reversal in fortunes when the carpet factory collapsed with heavy debts and had to close in 1904. With the assistance of Lord Pembroke a new company, the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory, was formed and eventually most of the workers were re-employed. In 1912 the town benefitted from the creation of the recreation ground and bowling green sited between the Warminster and Wylye roads. The town was still subject to periodic flooding and a severe flood in 1915 was the stimulus for an extensive flood relief programme. After the First World War the town contributed its quota of new houses for returning soldiers by the building of a council estate to the north-east of the town. Further improvements came in 1928 when electricity came to Wilton.

In the years between the wars literary life centred on the circle around Edith Olivier, daughter of a rector of Wilton. She attracted many of the famous people of the period, such as Cecil Beaton and Rex Whitsler, and encouraged local farmer Arthur (A.G.) Street to write his first book – ‘Farmers’ Glory’ – leading to a career as a writer and broadcaster. Edith became Wilton’s first lady mayor in 1938, an office of which she was very proud. She remained mayor until 1941 and contributed much to the local war effort.

After the Second World War the carpet factory returned to full production and another council estate was built, this time to the north-west of the town. Although the railway stations closed the town continued to expand and in the 1960s two estates – the Seagrim Estate and the Bulbridge Estate – were built to the south of the town. These were set apart from the rest of Wilton, however, and have probably not contributed greatly to the life of the town. Centuries of history came to an end in 1974 when, on local government reorganisation, Wilton lost its borough status, although it was eventually able to retain its mayor.

The carpet factory was in trouble again in the 1990s and closed in 1995 after a takeover. A group of former managers completed a successful purchase of the factory, however, and re-established it under a slightly different name. In the latter part of the 20th century tourism became more important to the local economy with Wilton House attracting an increasing number of visitors, thus boosting the local economy through employment, hotels and bed and breakfast, and some additional customers for local shops.

The Church of England parish church of St Mary and St Nicholas was built as a replacement for St Mary’s Church between 1841 and 1844 at the instigation of the Countess of Pembroke and her younger son Baron Herbert of Lea, designed by the architect Thomas Henry Wyatt in the Romanesque style, with considerable Byzantine influences. For a small town, the church is enormous, representing the wealth of its benefactors.

The most notable external feature of the church is the 105 feet (32 m) campanile. Many of the materials used in the church’s construction were imported from Europe, including marble columns from Italy and stained glass from France.

The windows include several 12th- and 13th-century panels from France, as well as painted Flemish or German roundels from the 16th-century. The rose window includes glass from the 16th century that was originally looted by Napoleon’s army. The church also includes windows brought from the original parish church, as well as a number of fine contemporary Victorian windows.

On completion of Wyatt and Brandon’s ‘Italianate’ church in 1845, this ‘old’ church in the Market Place was partially demolished, leaving only the chancel with one bay of the nave, and the ruins of the arcades and tower arch.

Apart from the charming 18th-century ceiling, there are fascinating memorials to the people of Wilton in the remains of this church, which stands surrounded by the romantic ruins of its arcades and tower arch.

Visit Wilton, the Ancient Capital of Wessex