Bishop's Cannings is the third largest parish in the county after Calne Without and Ramsbury and is nearly 50km in circumference. The original parish was even larger encompassing not only the villages of Bourton, Easton, Coate and Horton, but the chapelry of St. James also known as Southbroom and the detached tithing of Chittoe (situated between Bromham and Lacock). Chittoe with the villages of Bromham and Poulshot became a civil parish in 1883, and the Chapelry of St. James, which also included the tithings of Roundway, Wick, Nursteed and Bedborough, in 1894 became the modern parish of Roundway.
The modern parish runs roughly from north to south being broadest at the north where it is dominated by the south-western slopes of the Marlborough Downs. The actual village lies in the south of the parish next to the Kennet and Avon canal. The main road from Devizes to Swindon (A361) runs just north of the village and is at right angles to a minor road that runs from Calne to the village. Part of this road is known as Harepath Way, a name said to be derived from the Old English indicating the track was followed by a Saxon army, there is further evidence of this as Harepath Farm is situated north-east of Horton.
The Wansdyke runs north-west through the centre of the parish, to the north of Bishop's Cannings village. In the extreme north-west of the parish is the North Wiltshire Golf Club, laid out in 1898. In the north-east of the parish there are training gallops for the stables at Beckhampton. To the south is Echilhampton hill and Nursteed road between Devizes and Upavon and to the east is Roundway and Devizes.
The name of Cannings possibly originates from the old English word Caneganmersc or Caninganmaersc. In 1010 the Danes burned Northampton, gathered a large force, crossed the Thames into Wessex and marched as far as Caningan maersc, burning and ravaging as they went. This marshland has been identified as being where the Kennet and Avon canal now runs, which passes through both All and Bishop's Cannings. The village may not have acquired its prefix of Bishop's until the 13th century, but it was probably the chief settlement in the bishop's parish long before and may have possessed a church before the conquest (it was claimed that Saxon masonry was found during the church restoration in 1880.)
Bishop's Cannings appears in the Doomsday book as a large and rich manor with enough land for 45 plough teams and with a population of about 600. The tithing of Cannings consisted of the manor of Cannings Canonicorum which consisted of 140 acres of arable, 32 acres of meadow and enough pasture for 730 sheep. The manor of Bishop's Cannings was held by the Bishop of Salisbury as early as 1086 and remained in the hands of successive bishops until Bishop Roger (1102- 1139), builder of Devizes Castle, who forfeited the estates in the reign of Stephen. The estates were then restored in 1157 and remained in the hands of the bishop until the 17th century. Between 1647 and 1659 the estates were sold by the state to Samuel Wightwick for £6,065 15s and 7d but were restored again to the bishop in 1660. The manor had a number of lessees including Robert Drew of Southbroom, the Principle Secretary of State to Charles I and II, and Thomas Henry Sutton Southeron Estcourt who would later endow the National School in Bishop's Cannings with £20 a year for ever! In the 19th century the manor of Bishop's Cannings passed into the hands of Ecclesiastical Commissioners and was sold to the crown in 1858. There were manors in Bourton, Coate (or Cotes) and Horton (or Horton Quarles).
In the tithing of Roundway no manor has been recorded but there was at least one major estate held under the Bishop of Salisbury. From the 14th to the 18th century the senior branch of the Wiltshire family of Nicholas held land in the tithing. The Nicholas Family lived in a house called Nicholas Place, the site of the house was probably around the end of Quakers Walk.
In the 19th century the Roundway estate become associated with that of New Park. The Willey family owned New Park and by descent through the Suttons to the Escourts. New Park was bought by the Colston family, who renamed it Roundway Park, in the middle of the 19th century. In 1916 E. F. Colston was created as the first Lord of Roundway. He was succeeded by his son in 1925, who sold the estate in 1948. The house, pleasure grounds, kitchen garden and a paddock called "Home Ground" were sold to Wiltshire County Council. The remainder of the estate comprising of 1,584 acres was sold to the Merchant Venturers of Bristol as trustees for the charity, which supported those who have diseases, which are chronic and incurable.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Bishop's Cannings was built in the second half of the 12th century. It then probably consisted of chancel, nave, north and south transepts and a two-story sacristy. In the 13th century a central tower was added or possibly re-built and the porch was either added or rebuilt in the following century. During alterations in the 15th century a spire was added to the tower and at the same time the north and south walls of the aisles were raised. The nave walls were also raised effectively blocking the original clerestory windows and so traceried windows were fitted in their place. The church is mainly built of ashlar with a roof of stone slates.
Before the Reformation there was a chantry chapel in the church of Bishop's Cannings called "Our Lady of the Bower". In 1563 this chapel since it had been built in a way that was "repugnant and contrary to divine law" became a tomb for John Ernle and his family. Sir John Perrott, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, purchased the chancel land in the 16th century.
At Old Shepherd's Shore in 1613 Anne of Denmark, queen of James I, was accosted by the villagers of Bishop's Cannings led by their Vicar, George Ferebe, who sang a song especially composed for the occasion and invited her to listen to the church bells pealing in the distance in her honour. He is also said to have entertained James I with "bucolic's" of his own making and it has been said that during this time Bishop's Cannings "would have challenged all England for music, football and ringing."
The value of tithes was considerable. In 1649 the tithings of Cannings, Bourton, Easton, Horton and Chittoe for corn, grain, lambs, wool, and hay amounted to £421.
In Chittoe, the detached portion of Bishop's Cannings parish, there seems to have been at one time a chapel. No trace of the chapel remains and for some years before 1845 the inhabitants of Chittoe were well accustomed to being married at Bishop's Cannings and burying their dead there. The quickest way between the two villages was a track that ran across the downs which became known as "The Burying Road". In 1845 the Church of St. Mary was built in Chittoe which put an end to the pilgrimage.
There were two Methodist societies in the parish at Coate and Horton. The former in 1832, 1837 and 1842 reported at having 5 members but by 1850 it no longer existed. The latter continued with more success and in 1951 still had 9 members.
Coate school was built in 1858 by E. B. Anstie the tobacconist from Devizes; he on a visit to Jamaica was converted and started Gospel services in a cottage in Coate in 1841. The building continued to be both chapel and school teaching, in 1859, 30 children. When the Anglican school was built c1870 the school had few pupils but still continues as a chapel to this day.
There are a number of earthworks in the parish that do not seem to be prehistoric in origin. It has been suggested that they are pastoral in origin and were enclosures for sheep and their shepherds or used as military encampments during the civil war. Bishop's Cannings parish lies partly within the belt of green sand which runs from Devizes to Burbage. There are also areas of chalk marl, therefore, corn and sheep farming are carried out extensively. At the end of 16th century the parish still followed the open field system of farming in typical mediaeval fashion. In 1859 the parish had 11,310 sheep, 164 horses, 262 cattle and 313 pigs.
Fishwater, a marshy hollow at Bourton has the distinction of being the source of the western headwater of the Salisbury Avon. The infant river's effect on the greensand in the vale is doubtless reflected in the name Horton meaning "muddy farmstead" through which it next passes.
In July 1643, the noise of battle echoed around the hills of Shepherd's Shore as Sir Ralph Hopton's Royalist army defeated Sir William Waller's Parliamentary forces at the battle of Roundway Down. To the west of Shepherd's Shore, at the limit of the parish, is Morgan's Hill, part of which is managed as a nature reserve by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The name is supposed to have derived from John Morgan, who in 1720, having robbed and murdered his uncle was hung on the hill before a large crowd. The post hole from the gallows was still visible in 1894. A few years later the existing golf course was laid out nearby, and before 1914 masts were erected, by the Marconi Company, for the first of a series of wireless stations. Devizes Wireless Telegraph Station was originally intended to form part of an Imperial chain of wireless stations but the outbreak of war prevented completion and the scheme was abandoned in 1922. The site was then taken over by the General Post Office and used to communicate with vessels at sea. New sites at Burnham-on-Sea and Portishead were created and the Devizes station was closed, huts and masts dismantled in 1929.
In 1828 an article in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette announced that in Laywoods near Bishop's Cannings some labourers, who were digging for peat, came across a quantity of very old pewter dishes buried about 6 feet underground. One of the labourers proclaimed "that they must have been deposited at the time of Noah's flood" however it is more likely that they were Roman. Unfortunately no other account of the event or what happened to the pewterware has been recorded.
Between 1831 and 1931 the population of the village halved from 1,365 to 665 and only the recent housing built at the latter part of the 20th century has brought the population back up to what it was in 1831.
The population of the village and the school did suffer some fluctuation due to the armed forces presence in Devizes. The Headmaster of the school in 1968 mentioned that the children from the "new Anzac estate" entered his school, instead of schools in Devizes. The coming and going of forces children in the school did make the provision of meals and equipment very hard to budget for.
The Moonraker legend dates from the eighteenth century, about 1791, and concerns a group of Wiltshiremen smuggling brandy. To avoid being caught by a passing exciseman while getting their contraband out of a pond, they pretended that they were trying to get what they thought was a cheese. The exciseman, identifying the cheese as the reflection of the moon on the water, went away chuckling at their stupidity, leaving the smugglers to recover their goods. On the face of it Bishop's Cannings, which has no village pond, seems an unlikely venue for the story. However, this can be easily explained as the Crammer in Devizes, a seemingly excellent pond for moonraking used to lie within the parish of Bishop's Cannings, until 1835. Secondly, as John Chandler noted "the village has long had a reputation for idiocy, or feigned idiocy, which made it the butt of many folk tales recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries."
On the edge of the parish along side the Devizes to Beckhampton road (A361) on the parish boundary is a grave marked by stones at its head and foot. Reputedly it belongs to Walter Leader. About 1811 the royal mail coach was attacked by a gang of highwaymen, who killed the driver, took everything valuable and rode off towards Beckhampton. On the way they met a labourer from Devizes, Walter Leader, who was returning home drunk. They stunned him and laid him by the wreck of the mail coach and the dead driver, with a pistol in his hand. At the trial the evidence seemed conclusive and Walter Leader was condemned to death for the murder of Henry Castles, driver of the Royal Mail. On a misty morning as he was being led to the gallows he said that he saw a man approaching on horseback. The fog thickened and no one could be seen and Walter Leader was hanged. Half an hour later a breathless horseman arrived bearing a reprieve. There had been a quarrel among the highwaymen, one had turned king's evidence at Bath and a rider had been sent post haste with the news. The body was taken down from the gallows and buried by the side of the road.
James Pound (1669 - 1724), son of John Pound who was born in Bishop's Cannings, taught his nephew James Bradley (1693 - 1762) who later became Astronomer Royal.
William Bayly (1737-1810) was the son of a farmer from this parish. In 1772 and 1776 he sailed with Captain Cook and in 1785 became headmaster of the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth.
Mrs Ida Gandy (born 1885) (nee Hony), was the daughter of a former Vicar of Bishop's Cannings and published a book called A Wiltshire Childhood which contains reminiscences of her childhood there.