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Wilton: Town of Mints, Saints and Carpets

by Moira Allen

Wilton Italianate ChurchThe town of Wilton lies just ten minutes away from downtown Salisbury (or half an hour if you happen to hit "rush-hour" traffic). It's a lovely town that offer several sites worth seeing, and it's well worth a visit if you'd like to shop or get a bite to eat in relative peace and quiet.

The town takes its name from the same source as the county of Wiltshire as a whole: The Wilsaetes tribe, who took their name from the River Wylye, near which they lived. Wilton is first mentioned in 802 as Wilsaete, and later as Wiltunscir (Wilton-shire), but probably existed as a town or village since at least the middle of the 8th century. By the 9th century, it had become the royal seat of the kingdom of Wessex, and remained so until King Alfred moved the royal seat to Winchester. It was also, on and off, the seat of the bishop of Wiltshire; in 970, Oswulf, described both as the bishop of Sonning and the bishop of Wiltshire, was buried at Wilton.

Several factors contributed to Wilton's importance during the Middle Ages. It was the site of the oldest mint in Wiltshire; coins were first minted in Wilton during the reign of King Edgar of Wessex (great-grandson of Alfred the Great), who came to the throne in 959. The mint remained active until Henry III shut down all "provincial" mints in 1250, despite a brief retreat to the safety of Old Sarum when Swein's Danish Vikings sacked Wilton in 1003. Since a law of Athelstan prohibited the minting of coins except in a "port" (town), this indicates that Wilton had a town charter for an early date.

Wilton was also the site an abbey dedicated to St. Mary and St. Bartholomew. This was originally founded as an Anglo-Saxon nunnery by Weolkstan, Earl of Ellandum, in 773, and from the beginning it attracted nuns from noble and even royal families; it was also the home of Wilton's own saint, Edith, who was the daughter of King Edgar. Her tomb attracted many visitors and pilgrims to Wilton, for she had a reputation for healing. In the 13th century the nunnery was replaced by a Benedictine abbey. By the time it was closed by King Henry VIII in 1539, its income was the fourth highest in the country. Wilton was also believed to have possessed no fewer than twelve separate churches at its heyday.

Finally, Wilton was located at the convergence of several major roads, including the "Port Herepath" (town highway), the "Wiltenweye" leading from Hampshire, and the "Theod Herepath" (people's highway) that lead to the Avon Valley. Traffic on these roads made Wilton the ideal location for a market town. Its town charter was confirmed in 1154 by King Henry, and again by King John in 1204. This latter charter cost the burgesses 100 marks and 700 ells (875 yards) of linen, suggesting that clothmaking was by this time one of the town's primary trades.

Wilton Italianate Church

Wilton was also an excellent defensive location, being set upon a ridge and enclosed by rivers on two sides. Despite this, it was burned to the ground twice by the Danes. In 871, the Danes defeated King Alfred's forces at Wilton, leading to a temporary truce between the Wessex Saxons, who offered to pay a Danegeld to buy time to regroup. In 1003, the town was burned by the Viking forces of Swein, who had attacked England in retaliation for King Ethelred's massacre of Danes residing in England (including Swein's sister). Ultimately Swein defeated Ethelred and drove him into exile, becoming the de facto king of England.

The town was put to the torch yet again in 1143 by the forces of Empress Maud, led by Robert of Gloucester, who surprised King Stephen's army in the process of attempting to fortify the town (and more specifically, the abbey). Being built mostly of wood, the abbey was nearly completely restored, but was soon rebuilt in stone. Yet another fire destroyed 25 houses, workshops, looms and outbuildings in the weaving district in1769, but at least this had nothing to do with invading armies!

The ultimate blow to Wilton's prominence, however, was not due to marauding Danes, but to the rise of Salisbury in the 13th century. With its new cathedral, Salisbury became the official bishop's seat for Wiltshire, and the growing town began to supplant Wilton's own market. A new bridge over the River Avon added to Wilton's problems, for it created a bypass that directed traffic to Salisbury. As towns were repopulated after the Black Death, residents and tradespeople tended to move to Salisbury, leaving houses and shops in Wilton to literally stand empty and decay. Eventually, Wilton's primary economic activity was the cloth trade, augmented by the wool market that had once belonged to the abbey, but was granted to the town in 1433. By 1901, nearly 100,000 sheep were being sold annually in this market.

Wilton Italianate Church

In 1741, the Earl of Pembroke smuggled two French weavers into England to introduce new carpet-weaving techniques to Wilton. This resulted in a new rise in prosperity as carpet factories sprouted up around the town. However, both cloth and carpet factories suffered another blow in the 19th century when many proved unable to make the switch from water to steam power. The main carpet factory in Wilton shut down in 1904, but was reopened by Lord Pembroke as the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory, which flourished until being shut down again in 1995 by another takeover. It again reopened and today produces high-quality Wilton and Axminster carpets (and if you take the Wilton Carpet Factory tour, you'll learn how to tell the difference!).

Today, about all that remains of medieval Wilton is the layout of the streets (and even some of the names have changed). From the 17th century onward, waves of new building and reconstruction have either obliterated or refaced the town's medieval buildings. Most of the twelve churches of Wilton had vanished by the 18th century, and many had been in ruins long before that. In 1738, a new town hall was built over the old Guildhall, and in 1845, Wilton's new "Italianate" church replaced its last medieval parish church (whose ruins can still be seen in the town centre, as part of a "Garden of Peace" established in 1938).

When Henry VIII dissolved Wilton Abbey in 1539 (or 1536, depending on which accounts you read), most of the estate was granted to Sir William Herbert, who became the first Earl of Pembroke in 1551. He built the first Wilton House on the site of the abbey, using much of the abbey's stone in the process. Indeed, many houses in Wilton are believed to include stones from the old abbey and chapels, including flints gathered by St. Edith herself.

Today, Wilton offers three major attractions that should not be missed: Wilton House, the Italianate Church, and the Wilton Carpet Factory Museum.

The Wilton Italianate Church

Wilton's Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, also known as the Italianate Church, was built between 1841 and 1845 to replace the original medieval parish church that was falling into decay. The new church was designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt and David Brandon.

Wilton Italianate
Church Stained GlassThe first thing that will strike the visitor about this impressive church is that it does not look like one's typical English parish church. The Byzantine design is inspired by a Roman basilica, while the mosaics of the nave will put one in mind of Greek or Russian Orthodox styles. This may not be a coincidence, as the church was built at the behest of the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, who was born in Russia. Some believe that the church's unusual north-south orientation (most English churches are built upon an east-west axis) was also the wish of the countess, as this was a custom in Russia. It's likely, however, that this orientation was chosen so that the church would directly face the road.

Many of the construction materials were imported from Europe, including black marble columns from the 13th-century Capocci Shrine from the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (which had subsequently ended up in the garden of Horace Walpole). Materials from this shrine are also included in the pulpit, which is particularly striking with its twisted columns and colored stone panels (known as Cosmato work). The pulpit was created by Peter Cavalini, who designed the tomb of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. The marble columns supporting the arches at the south end of the side aisles date from 200 BC, and come from the Temple of Venus at Porto Venere on the Gulf of Spezia. The lions supporting the front doorposts are carved from stone brought from the Isle of Man.

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.

A number of memorials and tombs were brought from the original church, while newer memorials include the recumbent alabaster figures of Lord Herbert of Lea (d. 1861) and his mother Catherine, the Countess of Pembroke (d. 1856). The Dowager Countess left £1,000 in trust for the church, which was to be invested to maintain the stained glass, mosaics, and other ornamentation.

Wilton Italianate Church

The church stands upon the site of an older St. Nicholas church, which was already in ruins by the 1400's. Bones disturbed by the building work are housed in a stone sarcophagus, which stands against the outer southern wall. Another dramatic feature is the church's 105-foot campanile, which originally contained six bells recast from the bells of the original parish church. A new set of bells was installed in 2000 for the Millenium, and the originals were sent to Australia.

Wilton House

Wilton House stands on the site of Wilton Abbey, which was founded as an Anglo-Saxon nunnery in 773 and became a Benedictine abbey in the 13th century. When it was surrendered in 1536 or 1536 to King Henry VIII, he granted the abbey and lands to Sir William Herbert, creating the first Earl of Pembroke. Herbert began building a Tudor manor on the spot in 1543.

Wilton House

Since then, the house has undergone an almost continuous process of building, expansion, and rebuilding. In 1644, the house was garrisoned briefly by the Royalists during the Civil War, when the king sent some of his cannons to the house with a company of foot soldiers to guard them. The Earl of Pembroke, however, seems to have come down more on the side of Parliament, as he did not lose any of his estates during the Interregnum; the house has remained in the same family since the Earldom was established.

In 1647, the house was nearly completely destroyed by fire, but was subsequently rebuilt to a design by Inigo Jones. The 9th Earl of Pembroke (1733-1750) was known as the "Architect Earl," and was responsible for landscaping the grounds and gardens as they are seen today. This included diverting the River Nadder so that it flowed past the house, to be spanned by a magnificent Palladian bridge. Across the bridge, below the brow of the hill, one can see a small classical temple. The 10th Earl, a cavalry officer, built the Riding School at the northwest corner of the house, which includes kitchens, a laundry, and other quarters.

Wilton House

This is where the visitor enters Wilton House today. The main room of the Riding School is now a miniature museum, filled with items that have been found in the area or that are associated with the house. Among these are several highly carved Roman coffins and other Roman stones. A somewhat more unusual exhibit is the set of leather horseshoe-covers that were used to shield the hooves of the draft horses used to mow the extensive lawns surrounding the house, back when a "riding mower" meant something very different indeed! You'll then be ushered into a small room to watch a short and quite entertaining film about the history of Wilton House, narrated by the ghost of one of the last abbesses. From there, you proceed through a reconstruction of a 16th-century kitchen (with ghost), forward in time to a Victorian laundry, and finally into the main house itself.

Wilton House is known for its vast art collection, much of which was acquired by the 8th Earl. Some rooms are dominated by a few large paintings; others are lined wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. Don't miss some of the more interesting pieces besides the artwork, however, such as a beautiful, multi-colored glass chandelier, and matching cabinets of inlaid stonework. And remember that while much of the house is on display, Wilton House is still the residence of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke; in fact, during our visit, we glimpsed the countess taking her dogs for a run by the river.

The gardens are well worth a look, and when you've finished with the grounds, Wilton House offers a very nice tea-shop where you can end the afternoon with a cream tea and a choice of cakes or sandwiches. It was my husband's first introduction to the cream tea, which he fortunately handled better than my own "first time," when I assumed that the clotted cream went into your tea rather than onto the scone.

The Wilton Carpet Factory

Wilton Carpet Factory

The Wilton Carpet Factory is located the Wilton Shopping Village just across the road from Wilton House, so it is easy to combine a visit to both sites at once. A carpet factory might not seem like the most interesting place to visit (our thought was "well, we're here..."), but it is more intriguing than it sounds. A series of wall panels and photos gives the visitor an overview of the history of carpet-making in the area; then, you're given a tour of the modern factory and a short lesson on how Wilton and Axminster carpets are made today. The tour includes a history of the evolution of many of the machines used in the process; some of the older ones still use a punched pattern roll much like a music roll in a player piano. The tour concludes in a small museum housing a variety of historic looms and other weaving and carding devices, as well as a small collection of trade artifacts from the town of Wilton.

From there, you might wish to visit the sandwich shop for a quick lunch, and do a spot of shopping. The "shopping village" consists of old factory buildings, many of which now house factory outlet stores. But beware: if, on your way into or out of the shopping village, you look remotely as if you might be carrying food, be prepared to be mobbed by the Wilton Duck Gang. Many locals obviously come prepared for this, and can be found buried to the ankles in greedy ducks of just about every shape, size and color, from itty-bitty ducklings to exceedingly fat adults. Swans glide a bit more sedately on the River Nadder, which flows beneath the bridge leading to the carpet factory and once provided the power for its machines.


Wilton Italianate Church

Wilton Italianate Church Wilton Italianate Church
Wilton Italianate Church Wilton Italianate Church
Wilton Italianate Church Stained Glass Wilton Italianate Church Stained Glass
Wilton Italianate Church Stained Glass Wilton Italianate Church Stained Glass

Wilton Carpet Factory Museum

Wilton Carpet Factory Museum
Wilton Carpet Factory Museum Wilton Carpet Factory Museum
Wilton Carpet Factory Museum Wilton Carpet Factory Museum

Wilton House

Bridge at Wilton House Wilton House
Wilton House Wilton House
Wilton House Wilton House

The Wilton Duck Gang

Ducks at Wilton Ducks at Wilton
Ducks at Wilton Ducks at Wilton
Swans at Wilton

Related Articles:

St. Edith of Wilton, by Moira Allen

Salisbury: Designed to In-Spire, by Moira Allen

More Information:

Wilton County Council

Victoria Guide to Wiltshire County
(Use the regional search function to search on Wiltshire)

Wilton House

Wilton Italianate Church
http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk (get full URL)

Wilton Carpet Factory

Wilton Shopping Village

Moira Allen has been writing and editing professionally for more than 30 years. She is the author of seven books and several hundred articles. She has been a lifelong Anglophile, and recently achieved her dream of living in England, spending nearly a year and a half in the history town of Hastings. Allen also hosts the Victorian history site VictorianVoices.net, a topical archive of thousands of articles from British and American Victorian periodicals. Allen currently resides in Maryland.
Article and photos © 2007 Moira Allen


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