The boundaries of the parish of Great Bedwyn have changed significantly over the centuries and throughout most of its history the area was known simply as Bedwyn or Bedwin. The name is thought to have originated from the Celtic words for grave 'bedw' and white 'gwen'. Perhaps, as John Aubrey declares, a reference to the surrounding chalk hills. The name has often been associated with the Saxon word for bindweed or wild clematis however it seems that Bedwyn (and its variations) was used as a name for the stream long before this time therefore suggesting that the pre-English alternative may be more likely.
Throughout the Middle Ages this large parish included and extended beyond, the modern-day parishes of Little Bedwyn and East and West Grafton. Little Bedwyn became separate in the 16th Century and the Graftons in the late 19th century. The parish now includes only the settlements of the village of Great Bedwyn itself and the small hamlet of Crofton as well as what was once Bedwyn Brail Bailiwick, Bedwyn and Stock Commons and Tottenham Park; areas that were once forested parks or discrete protected areas but were all absorbed into the parish by the late 19th century. The southern parish boundary is defined by the railway and the Kennet and Avon Canal before it briefly follows the course of a Roman road that traverses the parish to the south east. The village of Great Bedwyn sits at the north eastern edge of the parish, Tottenham Park at its western edge abutting Savernake forest, and Crofton to the south. The River Dun flows through the parish and Great Bedwyn village itself. The river is still referred to locally as Bedwyn Brook or Stream which was its official name until the 19th century.
The antiquity of the area is indicated by several substantial archaeological features. There is evidence of early settlement at the Neolithic enclosure around the village of Crofton which was revealed in an aerial photograph in 1976. This causewayed enclosure unusually encircles around 70 acres of land with the river flowing through it. Crofton village is now situated within the enclosure. Evidence of Iron Age settlement exists not far out of the modern parish at the Chisbury hill fort and Bedwyn Dyke. The latter is believed to have been constructed to mark out the eastern edge of ancient boundary of the Bedwyn territory.
Bedwyn parish witnessed much Roman activity: the Roman road through the parish was used to connect Winchester to Cirencester via Mildenhall and was part of organised network of roads in the area. There are also remains of a significant Roman villa at Bedwyn Brail (the second largest in southern England) that may well have been sited on an even older settlement. Construction of the villa appears to have been in three stages, a basic structure surrounded by a ditch soon after conquest, a second more substantial wooden structure around the late 2nd century A.D. and then a third stone courtyard villa started in the mid 3rd century and abandoned at the end of Roman governance. A second Roman fort was discovered in the grounds of the Tottenham Park. It is unknown if this second villa was a satellite farm from the Bedwyn Brail villa or possibly linked to the Roman pottery industry that the kilns in surrounding Savernake forest are indicative of.
Much of the early Saxon activity in the locale focused once more at Chisbury hill fort. It is recorded in the Abingdon Abbey Annals, though not otherwise substantiated, that between 672 and 688 Chisbury was held by the Saxon overlord Cissa: the name 'Chisbury' being a derivative of 'Cissa's burh'. There is evidence of the early Saxons at Crofton, where a 6th or 7th century Saxon burial ground was found near the site of the canal pumping station. The Victorian excavations were not carried out in a particularly thorough manner however and precise details about the burials and any grave goods have been lost. The site has been linked to the battle of Bedanheaford that took place in the year 675 between forces from the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. The name 'Bedanheaford' indicates the ford at the head of the Bedwyn brook, which locates the battle around Crofton.
Great Bedwyn takes on its central role in the area later in the Saxon period. The first references to the territory or estate of Bedwyn are made in England's oldest existing charter of 778 where King of the Saxons, Cynewulf, grants Earl Bica the lands surrounding 'Bedewinde'. At this time the charter seems to identify land around modern day Chisbury and Little Bedwyn. However by the later Bedwyn Charter of 968 these lands extend much further south to encompass not only Great Bedwyn but the settlements of East Grafton, Kinwardstone and Wexcombe. Land within Bedwyn changed hands frequently over the next few centuries between royalty and the church. During King Alfred's reign, the estate's administrative centre at Bedwyn was moved to the burh of Chisbury to be defended against the Danes. When the threat of attack had passed and the old systems reinstated, the establishment of a church at Great Bedwyn appears to have been considered. It is recorded that the Bishop of Winchester purchased land for a church as early as 905. There is unfortunately no evidence about the positioning of this land and any subsequent building, but it is commonly believed that the current 12th century church was built over the former site of a sizable Saxon church. Victorian excavations seem to corroborate this. The existence of Latin gospels dating from 975 that were used at Great Bedwyn in the late 10th century (and now housed in a Swiss museum) also confirm that there was a place of worship at Great Bedwyn during this period. John Chandler states that annotations from these gospels indicate that a college of secular priests was attached to the church, therefore giving it minster status.
Notations in these Latin gospels or 'The Bedwyn Bible' as it is sometimes referred to also indicated that a guild was in existence in Great Bedwyn during the late 10th century. This and the status of the church, all indicate that the settlement of Great Bedwyn had developed into a fairly noteworthy Saxon town by this time. The cruciform layout of the village is also suggestive of its status as a town, as is the wide central street with other streets leading to it where a market would be held. Certainly by Domesday, Great Bedwyn was the equivalent of a borough (it remained unchartered until 1468) with 25 burgage plots and a mint. The mint was one of only around 6 in Wiltshire, although its output was insignificant by national standards. It was in production from the time of Edward the Confessor until a few years after the Norman Conquest. The moneyer of the mint as recorded on the coins was Cild or Cilda. Some of Great Bedwyn's prosperity was due to its woollen industry: producing 'burel', a course cheap type of cloth. There were 8 corn mills listed in the Domesday Book within the Bedwyn area.
The prosperity of the borough was short-lived. The region could not support the three burgeoning towns of Great Bedwyn, Ramsbury and Marlborough in such close proximity. After 1066, Marlborough proved the favoured choice of the Normans as an administrative centre. They fortified the town with a castle and relocated the Great Bedwyn mint there. The establishment of the new town of Hungerford in 1131 added to the economic competition in the area and Great Bedwyn, perhaps due to its less accessible location, appears to have been unable to compete. This demise in prosperity was not sudden however and for the next few centuries Great Bedwyn continued to function as a small town, although never regaining the central status it once held in the region.
Shortly after the Norman Conquest, much of the area around Great Bedwyn became a royal hunting forest and as such remained relatively uncultivated for several hundred years. Great Bedwyn town remained outside of its jurisdiction and commons were made available for local people to graze their livestock on. Although it is presumed that there was a market in Great Bedwyn before this time, the first recorded mention of a market is not until the 13th century: documents from 1270 have referred to it as 'Chepingbedewynde' or 'Chippingbedewynde'. Throughout its recorded history, the market does not seem to have been particularly profitable however. A market house that stood in the market place from at least the 17th century was demolished in 1870 around the time that markets ceased in Great Bedwyn. The parish church was constructed in the 12th century and underwent further rebuilding in the 13th and 14th centuries. There was a hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist in the town from at least 1279 which held a small estate in Crofton, but was otherwise poorly endowed. The hospital still held property in 1409 but is believed to have been disbanded before the Reformation.
It is not until the early 14th century that, according to Chandler, Great Bedwyn had reached its 'lowest ebb'. Its tax records show Great Bedwyn was valued at less than some of the other hamlets in the area and in the 1370s the town registered only 87 poll-tax payers and, unusually considering its previous economy, no weavers. The trend continued into the following centuries, in 1545 Leland described the town as 'a poor thing to sight'.
The relative impoverishment of the town was not echoed by the wealth of the surrounding manorial estates. Although many now fall outside the boundaries of the modern parish of Great Bedwyn, during the 13th century the parish had nine manors, and they were owned by some very wealthy and influential families. The lands of Great Bedwyn town belonged to the prebendal manor (the demesne of which became Manor Farm) and West Bedwyn manor. There were also two manors at Crofton: Crofton Fitzwarren and Crofton Braboef. An effigy of one of the lords of Stokke manor, Sir Adam de Stokke (died 1313), lies in the south transept of the parish church. Sir Adam de Stokke, a crusader, is credited with funding the 14th century construction work on the church.
The most famous manorial residents of the Bedwyn area were the Seymours. The family and their descendents were to eventually own much of the land of the surrounding estates including the two Crofton manors and West Bedwyn manor. Sir John Seymour of Wolfhall Manor (1476-1536) was the father of; Jane Seymour, wife of Henry VIII, Edward Seymour, First Duke of Somerset and Protector of the Realm, and Thomas Seymour, Baron Studley who later married the widowed Queen Catherine Parr. Bedwyn Brail was the site of a planned elaborate mansion for Edward Seymour in the 1540s. Although there is documentary evidence describing the plans for the building, there is little evidence of the construction work that took place before the Duke was executed and the project was abandoned.
In the 16th century the Seymours moved from the manor house at Wolfhall to Tottenham Lodge in Tottenham Park. In the 1660s the Lodge was reportedly renovated or extended but by the early 18th century was in disrepair. The lodge, now in the hands of the Bruce family (descendants of the Seymour line by marriage) was demolished in 1720 and Tottenham House was constructed by Lord Charles Bruce (latterly Earl of Ailesbury) according to designs by Lord Burlington. The house was of a modest size but was extended in 1740 when a banqueting house in the woods and new stables were also built. Very little of these 18th century works are now visible however as in 1820 the house was virtually rebuilt and transformed into a grand stone clad mansion house with lavish interior decoration, the banqueting house was demolished, new stables and glasshouses constructed and other changes to the park were made.
The charter of Great Bedwyn's borough status was confirmed in 1673 and a borough seal featuring a castle and a griffin was given by Daniel Finch. Dr Thomas Willis, whose anatomical and clinical discoveries led him to become a significant figure in medical history was born in Great Bedwyn in 1621.
There were six hop yards in Great Bedwyn in 1675 and malting became increasingly important to the local economy over the next few centuries. It is recorded that in 1648 complaints were made by neighbouring parishes about the quantity of alehouses in Great Bedwyn. Whether anything was done about this is not known as during the 18th century there were 14 alehouses open at various times, including The Cross Keys (built 1763) and The Three Tuns (built 1784) which are still running today. Other trades during the 18th and 19th centuries included, alongside the usual activities; cloth weaving (with imported not home-spun cloth), wig making, and brick making.
From the 18th century a court was held in the market house to oversee law and order in the town. Records describe the problems that afflicted Great Bedwyn at this time: blocked watercourses, dung in the streets, dilapidated buildings, unsafe wells and chimneys, unlawful grazing in the streets and loose animals. Instruments of punishment are recorded: a blind house, cage and cucking stool in the 17th century and a pillory and stocks in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fire blighted Great Bedwyn on several occasions and this grave issue and ways to avoid it are alluded to in the Quarter Sessions. The most tragic of all incidents was in April 1716 when 28 homes on the High Street and Farm Lane were destroyed by a “sudden and terrible” fire and the resulting damage valued at around £1,662. The Quarter Sessions explain:
“…that the said goods were of great value, and that by the said accident most of the said sufferers (who before had acquired considerable substance and lived in a reputable manner, and were helpful to others) are now reduced to great want and poverty and become objects of charity and must unavoidable sink under the burden of this great calamity unless timely relived by the charity of such disposed persons.”
Between the mid 18th century and 1835, when the parish joined Hungerford poor law union, there was a workhouse in Great Bedwyn fitted out with 11 beds and 8 spinning wheels. A master of the workhouse and surgeon were appointed and in 1802-3 nineteen paupers were housed. Unusually for a community of its size but indicative of its remote position, the roads through Great Bedwyn were never turnpiked.
Great Bedwyn had sent representatives to parliament since 1295 but during the 17th and 18th centuries, due to its small population and powerful landowners, it had declined into a rotten borough. Local residents had long been used to being influenced in their voting or encouraged to 'sell' their vote for reward but from 1761 due to the large amount of land held by Lord Charles and his son at Tottenham House, elections were no longer contested at all. Bedwyn's borough status eventually came to an end when it was disenfranchised under the Reform Act of 1832.
The 19th and 20th centuries brought two further events that boosted Great Bedwyn's fortunes briefly before it became the quiet village that it is today. Firstly, the Kennet and Avon Canal was constructed through Great Bedwyn parish in the very late 18th century. Built partially with bricks from the local Dodsdown brickworks (in operation from the 16th to early 20th centuries), the cut follows Bedwyn Stream and passes through Little Bedwyn, Great Bedwyn and Crofton. It was at Crofton in 1801 that John Rennie (the Canal's chief engineer) designed a pumping station to supply the Canal with extra water. A reservoir at Wilton was eventually created in 1837 to feed the pumping station with a more reliable flow of water from Bedwyn Stream. This resulted in the closing of the local water mills which were reliant on the flow of the Stream. A wharf was constructed in Great Bedwyn for the loading and unloading of goods. The completion of the canal was celebrated in the village, one chronicler Walter Money reported:
“The navigation of the Kennet and Avon Canal was opened from Hungerford to Great Bedwyn, July 2nd 1799, when a barge of 50 tons, laden with coal and deals, arrived at the latter place. The barge, having on board a large number of the inhabitants of Hungerford, was accompanied on its passage by a vast concourse of people and received at Bedwyn with great demonstration of joy. An entertainment was provided at the Town Hall and a quantity of beer distributed to the populace and the labourers employed on the canal. The evening concluded with great festivity”.
After the disruption and frenzy of its construction, the canal brought better trade and transport opportunities to Great Bedwyn. However by the 1850s the canal's popularity began to wane in favour of rail transport. It served a brief purpose as a fortified defence line during the Second World War (many of the nearby pillboxes are still visible) but other than that, its future was much the same as other stretches of the K&A. Lack of use had led to disrepair until in the 1960s when the canal was restored by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust. Both the canal and the pumping station now provide recreation and tourism for the village.
In the wake of the canal age, the railway eventually came to Great Bedwyn in 1892 with the Berks and Hants Extension Railway, extending the line from Hungerford through to Devizes. Once more Great Bedwyn was to witness the negative effects of an influx of construction workers on a small community and the positive benefits of enhanced trade and travel opportunities that the new transportation system brought. A station was constructed at Great Bedwyn which later in 1920, came to employ a stationmaster and 3 porters. The railway line and station are still in operation today, however services from Great Bedwyn are much reduced than in its heyday around the turn of the 20th century.
Only a few buildings dating from the 17th century are still standing in the village today. Houses in the High Street and Church Street are mostly 18th and 19th century constructions: a sure result of the 1716 great fire. The last of the village houses owned by the Ailesbury family were auctioned off in the 1920s. The village expanded quite significantly during the 20th century with considerable private and council developments mostly in the north of the village. As with many villages, the number of trades and services has diminished (along with its agricultural focus) throughout the 20th century but Great Bedwyn still hosts a Post Office, village shop, bakery, village hall