The village of Kington St. Michael lies either side of the road between Chippenham and Hullavington which runs north-west from a small valley below Tor Hill rising about 20 metres to the brow of a hill overlooking the next valley. The earliest settlement, established by the 10th century, was at the southern end of the road around the stream in the valley. Here on the south-facing slopes are the church and manor house and other, later, principal buildings of the village. The parish of Kington St. Michael once included the hamlet of Kington Langley with its chapel of St. Peter but this became a separate parish in 1865. The present parish of Kington St. Michael now lies to the west of the A429 Chippenham-Malmesbury road.
The name was originally just Kington, indicating a royal farm or manor and was first recorded in 934. After lands were given to Glastonbury Abbey by King Athelstan and a priory of Benedictine nuns was established, the word ‘Minchin’ was often added and the field name of Minchin Piece still exists. After the rededication of the church to St. Michael the name is normally recorded as Kington Michel or Kington Michael from 1279.
Evidence of prehistoric settlement in the area is provided by the Neolithic chambered long barrow at Lanhill and an early Bronze Age bowl barrow at Barrow Farm. This part of Wiltshire is likely to have been Romanized from the latter part of the 1st century A.D. with a Roman settlement at Easton Grey, a few miles to the north, and a villa at Stanton Court in the next parish. Although the first recorded settlement here is in the 10th century, it is likely that there was earlier Saxon settlement in this area.
Lands in the parish were bestowed upon Glastonbury Abbey in 934, c.941 and 987 and a house of Benedictine nuns was established, although both date of foundation and the name of the founder is unclear. The first person recorded as endowing the priory was Robert Wayfer of Brimpton in c.1155. A dwelling for two pauper women was maintained by the Crown but this is only mentioned in 1218 to 1232. The lands of the Priory do not seem to have been that great at any time. The original church of the nuns was rebuilt between 1222 and 1234, when the new dedication of St. Michael was made, and was again rebuilt in the 15th century. The number of nuns in the house varied with records indicating as many as 9 around 1500 and as few as 3 in 1535. In 1511 the then Prioress, Cicely Bodenham, was carried off by Sir Thomas Kelly, a bad character who was curate of Castle Combe, when he robbed the Priory. His motives for taking her are unknown but were probably mercenary and she survived and became Abbess of Wilton in 1534. In 1537, when the Priory was dissolved, there were 4 nuns and 11 servants. The Priory, with its lands and revenues, was granted to Robert Long of Draycot. The range of 15th century buildings on the west side of the cloister and the earlier frater on the south side now form part of the farmhouse at Priory Farm.
Kington Cross, a market cross, stood near the turning to the Priory. John Aubrey says that there was ‘a little market Fridays for fish, eggs, butter and such small gear’. This was probably for the convenience of the nuns. The right to hold a three-day Michaelmas fair had been granted in 1266 and this became famous for its ale and geese.
From the 12th century onwards this was a fairly prosperous area, and the number of tenants on the Glastonbury estate increased around this time. The Domesday Book records only a small estate called Kington, with the considerable lands owned by Glastonbury called Langhele. These latter included much woodland which was much reduced shortly afterwards. Although the principal occupation, until the 20th century, was farming it is possible that there were weavers in the surrounding area by the mid 16th century and, although John Britton says that, “there was never a loom in the parish”, he does record cottage industries of carding and spinning wool by the women. Although there was little population growth between the 1670s and the 1760s the centre of the village was rebuilt in the late 17th century and early 18th century. The new buildings were of stone although the roofs were still thatched and thatch remained as a roofing material until well into the 20th century.
The present imposing manor house was rebuilt by Herbert Prodgers in the 1860s. He demolished the 17th century house, which had replaced the earlier Court House, used by the Abbot’s Steward. The village does not seem to have had many ale houses. The first recorded is The White Hart in a small courtyard. The name was reused for a house on the other side of the street, which had gone by 1842. The present public house was originally called The White Horse Inn and was renamed The White Hart Inn when after the earlier house of that name closed. It is an 18th century building, restored in 1880, and is now called The Jolly Huntsman.
In 1672 Isaac Lyte, a native of Kington, born in 1612, who became an alderman of the City of London, left £600 for the building of almshouses for six poor unmarried men. They were completed in 1675 and are the oldest secular buildings in the parish. Around 1760 the Chippenham to Malmesbury road was turnpiked and a little later the road through Kington St. Michael and Hullavington to Malmesbury was also made a turnpike. Improved communications were of benefit to the village, the economy prospered and there was substantial population growth at the end of the 18th century. At this time, as well as farmers and farm labourers, there were tailors, two blacksmiths and a carpenter in the village which also boasted a slaughterhouse, malthouse and public house. Farms did suffer neglect in the 18th century but were improved in the 19th century and the population peaked at 615 in 1851. At this time there were carpenters, masons, a thatcher, butchers, bakers, maltsters, tailors, a grocer, a blacksmith and various home industries such as dressmakers and laundresses.
In 1855 the chapel of St. Peter in Kington Langley became a church in its own right and the village became a separate parish in 1865. By this time the two villages had similar-sized populations. From the 1850s onwards the population declined with the lowest number recorded in 1961, after which the numbers increased again.
In the early 20th century the village hall was built before the First World War and after the war 18 council houses were built in the northern part of the village. Electricity reached the village in the 1930s and after World War II it was noted that more inhabitants were professional people or worked in engineering in Chippenham, and fewer worked on the land. A mains sewerage system was installed in the 1960s and the village was connected to a gas supply in the 1970s. In the 1960s the Lyte Almshouses were restored and bathrooms were added. In the early 1970s small groups of houses were built at The Orchard, The Close and The Ham, while the larger Ridings estate of 60 houses included the new school.
The hamlet of Easton Piercey is now part of the parish of Kington St. Michael but until late in medieval times was a separate village and parish with its own small chapel, graveyard and cross. The chapel was taken down around 1610. The early name was Easton Piers from the Piers family who owned the manor in the mid 12th century. The present Manor Farm is on the site of Easton Piercey Manor House which was largely demolished in 1630.
Kington St. Michael is remarkable in having two great Wiltshire antiquarians born within its boundaries. Both are of national repute and their works are still widely used by historians. John Aubrey was born on 12th March 1625 at Easton Piercey, a property that was inherited by his mother from her father, Isaac Lyte. He was educated at the Latin School at Yatton Keynell church and later with the Rector of Leigh Delamere. He went to Trinity College, Oxford, leaving at Christmas 1648 because of the ill health of his father. His father died in 1652 leaving him debts and expenses of law suits and, owing to disastrous love affairs and litigation, John Aubrey lost most of his property over the next 17 years. In 1669-70 he had to sell Easton Piers Farm.
He spent much time in the company of learned men, was a founder member of the Royal Society and brought Avebury and Silbury Hill to the attention of the King, Court and scientific men of the day. Although he published nothing in his lifetime, leaving all his papers to Oxford (where they were finally accommodated in the Bodleian Library), most of his manuscripts have now been published. These include Brief Lives - many being men of his acquaintance – Natural History of Wiltshire and Monumenta Britannica. Many have accused him of being credulous but he was no more so than many men of his time and he recorded much, particularly on the subjects of geology and natural history, that shows he was ahead of contemporary scientific thought.
He was the first to collect information on Wiltshire and other counties and recorded manuscripts, buildings and monuments that are now gone. He can fairly be called Wiltshire’s first historian.
On 7th July 1771, 146 years after the birth of John Aubrey, John Britton was born in a cottage on the main street of Kington St. Michael. He was the eldest son in a family of ten, whose father unusually combined the trades of baker, maltster, shopkeeper and small farmer. John Britton has written on his early life and the village in the first volume of his Autobiography. Although his mother was active and a good manager, his father’s wits deserted him and the children were shared out among relatives. John was sent to an uncle in London who did not treat him well and eventually apprenticed him to a wine merchant. Labouring in the cellars affected his health but London did provide him with access to books, which he read voraciously. At this time he met W.E. Brayley, apprenticed to an enameller, who was to become his friend and collaborator in many works. After leaving his apprenticeship he spent seven years in various occupations, which included writing, singing and reciting at clubs and theatres. Gradually he moved into literature. One of his editors suggested a two-volume work entitled Beauties of Wiltshire which was published in 1801; a third and much superior volume covering the north of the county appeared in 1825. With his friend Brayley he began a series called The Beauties of England and Wales, which grew to 26 volumes, although only the first eight were written by the original authors. In 1805 he began a new work – Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain – and in 1814 began the magnificent Cathedral Antiquities of England, beginning with Salisbury Cathedral.
Britton was a careful and diligent writer on topography and architecture and from humble beginnings achieved much recognition and respectability. He died on 1st January 1857 and the recently-formed Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society were able to obtain his collection of Wiltshire books and local material from his library.