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Amesbury: A Stepping Stone to History

by Pearl Harris

For most people, Amesbury is merely the nearest town to Stonehenge. However, this pretty little Wiltshire town is steeped in history, and is a lot more than a mere stepping stone.

Situated 9 miles north of Salisbury and 14 miles west of Andover, Amesbury has a population of 28,000 and lies in the heart of Salisbury Plain, an area inhabited by man for over 4000 years. It has also been known as "Ambrosbury", "Ambresbury" and "Amblesberie" at various times in the past. This has been a center of Christian worship for centuries. There is reference in the Welsh Triads of a great monastery of 300 monks, known as the "Choir of Ambrosius", situated here.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, the 5th-century founder of this monastery, was the leader of several British tribes who opposed the ferocious Saxon invaders for many years. He established his headquarters in this region and the area became "Ambrose Burgh." Some people believe that the name Amesbury is derived from this. If the legend of Queen Guinevere has any historical basis, it is to this "holy house of Almesbury", as described by Tennyson, to which she was banished and later died.

In the 6th century, the monastery was destroyed by pagans, but there is evidence of a Saxon church that replaced it. Records show that a Synod was held here in King Edgar's reign under Archbishop Dunstan.

Amesbury Abbey

The history of the present parish Church, the "Abbey Church of St. Mary and St. Melor" or the "Amesbury Abbey Church" as it is variously known, dates back to 979, when Queen Elfreda founded a Benedictine Abbey, supposedly in expiation of her crime for being the cause of the murder of her stepson, King Edward, at Corfe Castle. After the murder, Queen Elfreda's son, Ethelred, became King. There is no evidence that she was indeed involved in Edward's murder, but in those days the founding of religious establishments was a recognized form of doing penance. Amesbury Abbey was a modest establishment, dedicated to St. Mary, and also to St. Melor, a boy saint of Brittany, murdered by his uncle in strangely similar circumstances to King Edward's murder. Legend has it that the remains of St. Melor were brought to Amesbury in Saxon times. The Abbey of Amesbury, by all accounts, appears to have been a very important one and was mentioned in the Will of King Alfred.

Amesbury celebrated a millennium year in 1979, a thousand years after the establishment of the Abbey. In 1995 the Church also celebrated the millennium of the auspicious occasion on Easter Day 995, when the Bishop of Wiltshire was made Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of King Ethelred.

In 1175, the year in which Thomas a'Beckett was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, Henry II was the King involved in the murder. He was offered absolution by the Pope on condition that he founded three abbeys. He found excuses to evict the "English" nuns at Amesbury Abbey and started to refurbish the Abbey on a grand scale. In 1177, King Henry II re-founded the Abbey as part of the Order of Fontevrault, extending the buildings. Royal favor was enjoyed by the Abbey during the ensuing centuries, with further extensions taking place.

The Bell PubIn 1283, King Edward I's daughter, Mary, entered the Convent, where she spent the rest of her life. In 1287, King Edward's mother, Eleanor of Provence, also took her vows and was later buried here. The precise location of her grave remains unknown, making her the only Queen of England without a known grave. In 1501, Katherine of Aragon stayed in the Abbey on her way to London for her marriage to King Henry VIII's elder brother, Prince Arthur.

At the time of the Reformation, the Abbey was dissolved and many buildings destroyed. The lands were granted to the Seymour family, Henry VIII having married Jane Seymour in 1536. The Abbey Church was given to the people of Amesbury, who up to the present time have been allowed to use part of the Abbey as their parish church. Sadly, little remains of what must have been a noteworthy monastic site. The whereabouts of the relics of St. Melor and the body of Queen Eleanor remain a mystery. However, a few important links with the past have endured.

The Amesbury Psalter, a beautifully illustrated book of Psalms written in the 13th century is presently in the possession of the Library of All Souls, Oxford. A fragment of a Saxon wheel-headed cross is on display in a glass case and thought to date back to Elfreda's foundation of the Abbey in 979. It was recreated and placed in the center of Amesbury during the Millennium celebrations.

The outer walls of the flint and stone cruciform church building reveal evidence of a much larger medieval construction. The interior has an aura of simplicity and light. The main entrance leads to the 15th-century south aisle with a decorated wagon roof and the font with a Norman bowl of Purbeck stone on a 15th-century base. The nave is mainly Norman, with 16th-century carved oak beams.

The 15th-century Amesbury Clock is housed within the north transept. This is one of the earliest known examples of British clock-making skills. The two oldest church bells date from 1619, whilst the two newest commemorate World War II.

This historic church continues its centuries-old links to Royalty to this day, falling under the patronage of St. George's Chapel, Windsor. HRH Prince Charles has visited the church on two occasions, once to plant a tree in commemoration of the millennium in 1979 and once to attend a musical concert. The Abbey Church is open daily throughout the year for services from April to September and visitors are always welcome.

Antrobus House

Amesbury town itself has increased greatly in recent years, with new housing estates having been constructed. However, the old centre has lost nothing of its former charm. In the quaint town center, architecture dating from the 19th, 18th, and earlier centuries help it to retain its original character. Former oil-lighting brackets may be seen on the wall of the building in High Street, opposite Barclay's Bank. Sadly, most of the original thatched roofs have disappeared, but two are to be seen near the library and one near the church.

High Street and Church Street with their travelers' inns would have catered to the east-west traffic through the ages, and Salisbury Street was once the site of the weekly town market. A classical mansion, known as Amesbury Abbey, is built on the original site of the abbey and is now a private nursing home.

West Amesbury, previously known as "Little Amesbury", contains charming thatched and timbered cottages. West Amesbury House is a 17th century residence with mullion windows. It contains the remains of a medieval house, which is thought to have been associated with the Priory at Amesbury.

Greyhound PubIn May 2002, the phenomenal discovery was made of the richest Bronze Age burial site ever excavated in Britain. The grave of a man dating to around 2,300 BC was revealed during excavations for a housing development in Amesbury and the man was called by the media "The Amesbury Archer" or the "King of Stonehenge".

Experts believe that the "Amesbury Archer" originally came from either the German, Swiss or Austrian Alps. Later, the grave of a younger man, probably the Archer's son, was discovered nearby. Both were apparently of aristocratic status, as the two graves contained over one hundred objects including arrowheads, copper knives and gold earrings.

The Trafalgar Clumps may be seen just west of Amesbury on the A303 bypass. These beech trees were planted about 200 years ago to represent the alignment of the French and British ships at the Battle of the Nile. Their planting on the estate of the Duke of Queensbury is thought to have been at the instigation of Lady Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson's mistress, who befriended the Duke after Nelson's death.

One mile west of Amesbury is a concealed Iron Age hill fort, known as Vespasian's Camp, after the Roman general and later Emperor, who campaigned in this part of Britain. This fort has never been excavated.

The visitor to Stonehenge is well advised to linger longer in and around the fascinating town of Amesbury which, for centuries, has been a travelers' haven. As well as containing a veritable historic treasure trove, Amesbury provides a host of modern services, good restaurants and high quality accommodation for the 21st-centruy traveler.

Related Articles:

The Eternal Mystery of Stonehenge, by Pearl Harris
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/stones/stonehenge.shtml

Stonehenge: The Giants' Dance, by Sue Kendrick
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/stones/stonehenge1.shtml

More Information:

Amesbury
http://www.this-is-amesbury.co.uk/enter.html

Wessex Archaeology: The Amesbury Archer
http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/projects/amesbury/archer.html

The Amesbury Archer
http://www.archaeology.co.uk/ca/issues/ca184/archer/archer.htm

Weird Wiltshire: Woodhenge
http://www.weirdwiltshire.co.uk/stones/woodhenge.html

Woodhenge
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodhenge

This is Amesbury: Woodhenge
http://www.this-is-amesbury.co.uk/woodhenge.html


Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in South Africa. In 2002, she emigrated to the Czech Republic with her husband, their dog and cat. Pearl resides permanently in the Czech Republic where she works as a freelance travel writer, English teacher and proof-reader. Her main passion is travel. Having traveled extensively in Africa, Europe,the USA and UK, she never intends to stop. Other interests are pets, photography, reading and writing. Pearl, a retired Diagnostic Radiographer, has a B.A. in English and Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL qualification. Her only daughter, a professional photographer, lives in New Orleans.
Article ©2007 Pearl Harris Photos courtesy of Salisbury and Stonehenge Tourism Partnership/Bryn Jones

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