Wherwell, and Chilbolton, are part of a string of villages situated in the valley of the river Test. The Test Way runs through Wherwell and Chilbolton and both villages encompass the Chilbolton Cow Common SSSI. Wherwell is the smaller, more compact village with several beautiful thatched, half timbered cottages. Wherwell parish, above the village centre and water meadows, consists of gently rolling chalk downland and sends a tapering arm westwards almost to Danebury Hill.
Two main factors have influenced the history and development of the parish; Wherwell Abbey and the rolling chalk downland. Wherwell Abbey, and subsequent owners of the Estate after the Dissolution in 1539, have owned virtually the whole of the Manor. As a result the content and style of development, and indeed, the social and economic life of the village have centred around the policies and management of the owner. Older buildings in the historic core tended to be built in timber, wattle and daub, cob and chalk and this contributes to their charm today. The topsoil of the chalk downs is thin and shallow, manure has been needed to increase crop yield. From earliest times the pattern of farming life has been influenced by the movement of large flocks of sheep from the Downs, where they graze by day to the fallow, stubble or pasture, as needed, which they fertilize by night.
Evidence of human occupation stretches back five to six thousand years. A quantity of Neolithic and earlier flints was found during recent excavations by Professor Barry Cunliffe on the site of a rare Roman water mill by the River Anton at Fullerton. The miller introduced a bath suite and array of mosaic floors into his villa over a period of time. This suggests growing prosperity, based on milling for an increasing number of farms in the area. There is, as far as we know, only one house in the village that was built during the life the Abbey (No 28 Church Street). Recently, however, a large outbuilding behind the Priory has been shown to be of 13th Century date and was possibly the Infirmary built by the Abbess Euphemia.
The population of the parish reached a high point in the mid 19th Century and has since been in decline. Replies to the Bishop's Visitations in 1725 show about 390 inhabitants and in 1788 "between 4 and 5 hundred", but by the 1851 census the number had grown to 614, declining in 1891 to 583. In 2005 the population was 443.
Wherwell's earliest recorded history which effectively is based on the Abbey. This was founded in 986 by Queen Elfrida, widow of Edward the peaceable, (reigned 959-975). According to the chronicler, William of Malmesbury, this was in remorse and guilt for murdering her stepson, Edward, so that her own son Ethelred could become king. She also founded the parish church. Whether there had been an earlier wooden church in not known, but it is reasonable to assume that the new church was built in stone.
She became the first abbess and is thought to have lived in the abbey in penitence for the remainder of her life (died 1002). Generous endowments were made by Elfrida and her son Ethelred consisting of six local manors - Wherwell, Tufton, Goodworth, Little Ann, Longparish and Bullington. More endowments followed and over the years the abbey became moderately affluent with an increasing need for the trades and crafts which sustained and maintained the land and buildings.
The abbey probably reached its high point in the 13th Century under the rule of the Abbess Euphemia, a remarkable and entrepreneurial lady who increased the complement of nuns from 40 to 80 and also embarked on an ambitious building programme. She arranged a watercourse to carry away refuse from the main convent building and it is probable that we can see the continuation of this stream today.
In May 1539, parliament passed the act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries and Wherwell Abbey surrendered voluntarily on 21st November of that year. All the religious buildings were demolished but among those assigned to remain were the Abbess's lodging, the Infirmary, the Mill and Mill House and other domestic buildings. On 3rd March 1540, the whole of the abbey lands were granted to Sir Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, in exchange for manors in Sussex.
The Abbey Estates passed through several hands until 1743 when the Iremonger family became established. Their estate, which comprised almost the whole of Wherwell village, was auctioned in 1913. The Wherwell Priory Estate was bought by Sir Ernest Cassel and passed into the hands of Colonel and Mrs Jenkins (niece). In 1959, the Priory was bequeathed by Mrs Jenkins to her daughter Marjorie, Countess of Brecknock, upon whose death in 1989, it was sold to James and Clare Hogg. The present day Wherwell Estate is owned by Marquess (David) Camden; those parts in the village centre are gradually moving across into private ownership.
You can read a fuller account of the History of Wherwell, the village and its surroundings, in
- A Walk Through Wherwell by Gordon Pack (out of print)
- Wherwell - by an outsider from Wherwell Anthology XXVI
- Key Dates in the History of Wherwell gives a one-page chronology.