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Ludgershall Concise History


This parish history by John Chandler is taken from his books 'Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire' (Hobnob Press, 2001, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 07 1) and 'Devizes and Central Wiltshire' (Hobnob Press, 2003, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 16 0). The books are the first two of a projected series of seven, under the series title 'Wiltshire: a History of its Landscape and People', which together will offer short histories of every parish in Wiltshire, including the areas now within Swindon Borough. The text included here is the author's copyright and should not be further reproduced for publication without his consent. There may be minor textual variants between the text posted here and the published version.

Dr Chandler will be happy to supply hardback copies of either Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire, which includes histories of 34 parishes in eastern Wiltshire (from Tidworth in the south to Aldbourne in the north and Avebury in the west), with illustrations and maps, or Devizes and Central Wiltshire, which includes histories of 42 parishes in central Wiltshire, with illustrations and maps, for £20 each post free. He can be contacted: by email: John Chandler ; by post: c/o 8 Lock Warehouse, Severn Road, Gloucester GL1 2GA.


Amid expensive improvements to Ludgershall Castle in around 1245, the king (Henry III) decided that Dives and Lazarus would be the appropriate subject for a mural painting on one gable of the new great hall. The inhabitants of Ludgershall, had they been allowed in to see it, might have agreed that, ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’, was indeed a fitting motif. Over the next century they saw the king’s parks extended around their town at the expense of the farmland, and (as they claimed in 1348) to the detriment of their market. The history of Ludgershall revolves around its royal castle (perhaps built upon an iron-age hillfort), the struggling fortunes of the miniature town beside it (a Parliamentary borough from 1295 to 1832), and – during the last century – its rapid growth stimulated by the army and the railway station. Beside Ludgershall itself, the parish includes also Biddesden, which may have begun along similar lines, but has developed very differently; a lost medieval settlement called Berryfield; and Faberstown, a small recent acquisition from neighbouring Hampshire. Crawlboys, however, despite its associations with Ludgershall, lies in the adjacent parish of Collingbourne Ducis.

We encounter both Ludgershall and Biddesden as very small settlements in Domesday Book, but their origins are pushed back into the Saxon period by earlier documents. Ludgershall was bequeathed in a royal will of 1015 to Godwine the driveller (an inauspicious start!); Biddesden is mentioned in a boundary charter of reputed date 901 relating to nearby Fyfield. The charter refers not only to Bedesdene (‘Bede’s valley’), but also Bedesseathe (‘Bede’s pit’ – presumably one of the surviving pits near Biddesden House), and a gara (or triangular piece of land) where the boundary turns by the present cross-roads. This gara, beneath a tree, is a good place to park a car when exploring Biddesden.

Four other places in southern England share the original of Ludgershall’s name, Lutegareshalh, which is thought in each case to denote a small valley where trapping-spears were hidden, primed to shoot off when triggered by a passing animal. This imaginative etymology, in the case of our Ludgershall, can hardly refer to the slight plateau occupied by the medieval and modern settlement. But Crawlboys Lane runs along a minor and perhaps formerly wooded valley, and might have been an appropriate place for such an artful device, which then would have given its name to the wider area.

Ludgershall and Biddesden possessed comparatively small territories, compared with those of their Wiltshire neighbours; this fact, and their juxtaposition to the extensive block of woodland which became known as Chute Forest, suggest that both may have originated as assarts, clearings for arable created by pioneering Saxon farmers, such as the eponymous Bede may have been. If this was the case the assarters probably came from the direction of North Tidworth, which is recorded in Domesday Book as a larger and more populous territory than Ludgershall. Both places lay in Amesbury hundred, and eleventh-century owners of Ludgershall also held a portion of Tidworth. The configuration of their boundaries seems to indicate that what became the parish of Ludgershall (with Biddesden) began as North Tidworth’s long finger into the forest. Before the conquest this finger had been snapped off (the awkward, ragged boundary between the two places remains, weaving through the sheds of the army vehicle depot), so that in Domesday Book none of the three estates in North Tidworth is recorded as having any woodland.

Seen on a map the modern town of Ludgershall resembles an ungainly boomerang, a band of development which extends from west to east some 3km, and which bends in the middle at the historic centre. East of the centre, and stretching as far as Faberstown, are most of the houses, while to the west are military depots and warehouses. All this is twentieth-century innovation. Before the railway arrived in 1882 Ludgershall was small and compact, most of its 400 or so inhabitants living between the castle and the Crown Inn, or along the beginnings of Winchester Street. The topography of this earlier settlement, and the relationship between its key elements – castle, church, main roads, and street plan – will repay a moment’s attention.

Ludgershall developed along an important medieval route between Winchester and Marlborough, thereby tampering with what seems to have been a straightforward road-line by bending and threading it into its rectangular grid of streets. A recent imaginative and perceptive study of the castle in the context of its landscape has suggested that the castle’s southern enclosure was formed out of the surviving earthworks of an iron age hillfort. If this is true, the old route would have passed by (and in prehistory perhaps served) the hillfort, running close to the site of the church, which occupies an unexpectedly aloof position set well back from the High Street. Even if the claim of an Anglo-Saxon date for features in the church must be dismissed, it nevertheless has substantial twelfth-century work, so must be contemporary with the early phases of castle and town; and its odd peripheral position suggests that it is telling us something about pre-castle arrangements, presumably the position of an earlier roadside settlement. During the twelfth century, if the hillfort theory is correct, the earthworks were refortified and a second enclosure was added to its northern side, thus making a kind of double ringwork figured like an eight. The principal castle buildings, from the twelfth century onwards, were created in the northern ring, away from the settlement but overlooking the northern park.

Between the castle and the church, in several stages, a gridded street-plan was laid out obliquely, including at its core a wide high street suitable for marketing. This kind of development, which added urban features to an existing village and so turned it into a small town, was commonplace in Wiltshire and its neighbours during the thirteenth century, especially between about 1220 and 1250. At Ludgershall the earliest reference to a fair is 1248, and to a market 1255, dates which dovetail neatly into the major refubishment of the castle as a royal country house in stages between 1234 and 1261.

Let us therefore examine the castle (with its parks), church, and planted town in more detail, beginning at the castle. Archaeological excavations conducted each summer between 1964 and 1972, and eventually fully published in 2000, clarified the dates and sequence of building work, which correspond neatly with documentary evidence. Disagreements remain, however, over how the buildings relate to earlier and subsequent features in the wider landscape. Timber buildings may have been present on the site before the first recorded royal visit in 1103, although no archaeological evidence for them was found. If they did exist their strategic purpose may have been to guard the route through the forest from London and Winchester to Marlborough and Devizes, where castle-building was also under way. By 1138 Ludgershall castle had been fortified, and it played an active part in the turbulent twelfth-century civil wars. In 1141 the Empress Maud was holed up in it after her defeat at Winchester, and only escaped to Devizes by impersonating a corpse on a bier. Ludgershall and Marlborough castles were administered together during the anarchy period by a wily turncoat, John the Marshal.

To a twelfth-century attacker the castle presented a double problem with its figure-of-eight scheme of revetted chalk defences. The northern ring, built against the hypothetical hillfort, contained a powerful keep and an assortment of stone and timber buildings, including a hall and kitchen. The southern ring (the refortified hillfort itself) housed less important timber buildings, and a large underground room. In these respects Ludgershall was perhaps not unlike its neighbour, Old Sarum castle, where the Norman administration built a circular rampart to contain the principal castle buildings within the existing hillfort. Bellicose function and appearance were retained until around 1200, but during the thirteenth century the keep was replaced by mural towers, and part of the northern defences became a viewing platform, rather like a grandstand, for spectators enjoying hunting displays in the adjacent park. By mid-century a programme of repairing and replacing the buildings within the northern ring had been commenced by Henry III, which included a new great hall and enlarged royal apartments, so as to turn the castle into a fortified country house. Ludgershall’s attraction was no longer strategic; it was becoming a royal hunting box and country retreat.

Royal enthusiasm for Ludgershall waned after 1280, and expenditure diminished accordingly. It had become a country residence for queens and other regal ladies, two of whom preferred to live there rather than in nearby Amesbury Priory, where they were half-hearted nuns. During the fifteenth century it was neglected and by 1547, when it passed out of royal hands, it had fallen down, been robbed of its stone, and replaced by a lodge. The site seems to have embarked on a new career as terraced and landscaped gardens, and what still remained of the castle buildings became romantic ruins – an eyecatcher. Eventually, following the excavations, the earthwork and masonry remains of the castle were consolidated during the 1970s and are in English Heritage guardianship.

The estate which surrounded the royal castle comprised two elements, the parks and the barton. From the castle buildings and the purpose-built grandstand of the northern ringwork a thirteenth-century king could survey his deer park to north, east, and west, fringed by the forest beyond – a delightful prospect for a hunting monarch. This was the North Park, probably the earlier of the two, and the one recorded in 1203. It occupied most of the parish north of the main road and west of Crawlboys Lane, and its pale defines the northern parish boundary. A South Park also existed in the thirteenth century, which extended south from the town to the Hampshire boundary (where South Park Farm commemorates it), and perhaps beyond. During the castle improvements, and later, money and effort were also spent on enlarging, fencing, and restocking the parks.

The virtual encircling of Ludgershall with parkland was an obvious impediment to the community’s farming activities, and one reason for transforming it from a village to a small trading town may have been because insufficient farmland survived to support it. What remained was shared between the castle’s demesne farm (its barton) and the tenantry. The barton lands, which supplied or paid for the everyday needs of the castle, lay south of the town (Kings Field), and in Wooldridge Field towards Biddesden. The tenantry had relatively small east and west fields, now occupied by the housing estates and the medical supplies depot respectively, with common pasture beyond each, towards Faberstown and on Windmill Hill.

Open-field farming appears to have ended quite early (for a chalkland manor), in 1682, when most of the farmland south of the town, along either side of New Drove, was divided into rectangular enclosures and allotted to individual tenants. During the late-eighteenth century Ludgershall’s principal farm, successor to the barton estate, was based on Castle Farm, which had been newly built on the castle site. To medieval and later farmers Ludgershall must have been an unrewarding place: the parish sits entirely on upper chalk, and there is no substantial river valley with hillwash and alluvium to provide more fertile soil. Absence of running water meant that windmills were built east and south of the town, and perhaps elsewhere; Windmill Hill Down, the western tip of the parish, probably refers to a windmill in Tidworth.

From the castle and its lands we turn to consider the church. Standing by the lych-gate (near the site of a substantial well) one’s impression of the church is that it lacks cohesion, an assembly of ill-fitting pieces. The dubious Saxon fragments apart, Norman features in the nave walls suggest that this is the oldest part to survive, contemporary with the castle fortifications. The chancel is later, and seems to date from that productive episode during the thirteenth century when the castle was refurbished and the town laid out. Then, as use of the castle declined, a chantry chapel was built (in the later fourteenth century) to form a north transept, and to replace a chapel in the castle itself. Next, reflecting the erstwhile status of Ludgershall as a parliamentary borough, Sir Richard Brydges, one of its representatives (or possibly his father), built a south transept to be his chapel and resting-place, which seems to incorporate earlier architectural features, presumably robbed from ruined castle buildings. Then, in 1675 as its inscription proclaims, a group of local worthies rebuilt the derelict west tower, thereby bestowing permanence on their bold initials – FE PM CN TM. Only four rectors straddled the two centuries between this and the next major work, the sensitive restoration of the church by the admirable J.L. Pearson, completed in 1874.

Inside, thanks to Pearson, the church has a more unified appearance. Most visitors make their way to its showpiece, the Brydges monument in the south transept (and so miss the crude green man on the wall behind the pulpit). Brydges died in 1558, too late still to be medieval, but a little early to be renaissance. His splendid monument captures both worlds, and adds a little domesticity – the family dog is there with the children. It was restored between 1969 and 1971.

The Brydges family leased and then owned the manor of Ludgershall for much of the sixteenth century. Sir Richard and his father both represented the borough in Parliament, and from their time until reform in 1832 it was for the political power attached to its two seats that men of influence nurtured this poor and, to several observers, wretched little town. General John Richmond Webb, the original of Henry Esmond in Thackeray’s novel, and Lord George Gordon (who provoked the riots) both had the honour of representing Ludgershall; Lord Sydney, after whom the Australian city is named, inherited Erskine House in the High Street, and promoted Parliamentary candidates. Contested elections, here as elsewhere, brought temporary windfall prosperity to franchise holders, and the importance of burgage boundaries in determining votes served as a brake on topographical change. Ludgershall’s last member, Sir Sandford Graham, summed up in 1832 the ludicrous position of such pocket boroughs, by describing himself as the owner of, constituency of, and member for the borough of Ludgershall, and then voted in all three capacities for his own abolition.

The dead hand of electoral franchise transmitted through to the nineteenth century much of the plan and many of the property divisions of the town as they existed at the end of the middle ages. Recent detailed work on the topography of the town (published with the castle excavations) has suggested five phases of medieval development, beginning (before 1100) with a large open space where the town now stands, with the church site and the main road running through it. First to be built up was the eastern side of High Street and part of Winchester Street, and then after 1200 tenements were laid out north and south of the church along St James’s Street. This left a large rectangular open space for marketing, between High Street and St James’s Street. In 1348 the northern part of this space, from the castle as far as what is now Chapel Lane, seems to have been taken over for castle use, a rampart was built along its eastern side, and new rows of tenements were built against it to south and west (Crown Lane, Church Lane). A market cross also seems to have been built at about this date to adorn the attenuated market place, and its base is now preserved behind railings at the site to which it was later removed in the High Street. A ribbon suburb running eastward along both sides of Winchester Street may probably be loosely dated to this period. After the castle’s demise the northern part of High Street became available to the town once more, and this area, together with most of the former open market, was built over, leaving the wide High Street itself (to which the cross was removed) as the focus of the town’s modest market.

There is little evidence that pre-army Ludgershall ever enjoyed much prosperity as a town. Its 1377 taxpaying population, 117, was less than the nearby villages of Bulford or Durrington, half that of Pewsey, and about one-third that of Amesbury. Later medieval tax lists also return Ludgershall lower than many neighbouring villages. In the seventeenth century clothmaking may have brought temporary prosperity, and overcrowding, if a 1676 figure of 493 adult inhabitants in the parish is to be believed, but fires in 1679 and 1681 must have debilitated the community. Apart from the church and castle, the Queens Head Inn is the only building to retain substantial work from before these fires, but a number of cottages, including the thatched row of 15-19 Castle Street, were built in their aftermath.

Before turning to the most recent phase in Ludgershall’s history, we should consider the other settlements in the parish. Biddesden now is as different from Ludgershall as chalk from cheese – an object lesson in the varying fortunes of two adjacent Domesday settlements of similar origins. Biddesden, like Ludgershall, became a medieval parish in its own right. It had a parish church, which was served by Amesbury Priory from the thirteenth century until 1446, after which it became a chapelry of Ludgershall. It is not mentioned again, so it probably fell out of use. It may still have been identifiable as a chapel in the eighteenth century, since a printed Hampshire map of 1759 seems to mark a small church behind Biddesden House, but it is not on a Wiltshire map of 1773. Chapel Copse, in the woods north-west of Biddesden House, occurs on the 1841 tithe map, and presumably this was where it stood.

Medieval tax returns suggest that Biddesden was a very small community. Amesbury Priory acquired part of it in 1272, although some land and tenements remained in lay hands in 1428. At the dissolution the nuns’ holding was acquired by Sir Richard Brydges, whom we met with his family and dog in Ludgershall church, and so began a long sequence of owners with Parliamentary ambitions. A manor house, on the site of the present house and partly incorporated into it, existed by the sixteenth century, but the present arrangement of mansion, driveway, gardens, and parkland, was imposed from about 1710.

The impressive Vanbrugh-style house was built for General John Richmond Webb, who had returned fresh from victory in the War of Spanish Succession; a bell, a souvenir from the siege of Lille in 1708, was accommodated in a special turret built at the north-east corner of the house. The landscaping around the house probably included diverting the lane which runs down the valley from the north, and building a new farm complex further west, away from the house. Earthwork remains of earlier village buildings can be detected in the triangle where the present driveway begins, and further south, where the county boundary crosses the rising parkland. Changes were made to Biddesden House in the nineteenth century, and more notably during the 1930s, at the expense of a new owner, Bryan Guinness. Guinness, who became Lord Moyne in 1944 and died in 1992, was a director of the brewing company, but also a literary figure with Bloomsbury connections; artistic embellishments by Dora Carrington and Boris Anrep, among others, are redolent of long weekend house-parties before the war.

Away from the house and farm, and a few buildings hidden in Long Bottom, there is nothing else to Biddesden. Of Berryfield there is even less. The name occurs in 1272, when land there was given, with Biddesden, to Amesbury Priory; and in tax lists of 1332, 1334, and 1377. In 1332 it had at least five families, but must then have become one of the thousands of medieval English hamlets and failing villages which disappeared between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. A field on the parish boundary north-east of Crawlboys is recorded in the Ludgershall tithe apportionment of 1841 as Great Burrfield, and so may indicate its approximate position.

By contrast Faberstown, with its sign on the main road, is well known, and its not-quite-correct place-name seems to intrigue passers-by. As -town instead of -ton implies, it is a modern creation, the brainchild of Walter Vavasour Faber, MP for Andover from 1906 to 1918. Observing the bustle of military activity around Tidworth and east Wiltshire generally, he decided around 1900 to build a speculative new town on the very edge of Hampshire, against the Wiltshire boundary near Ludgershall. He laid out streets (their names recalling his exploits during the Boer War), pegged out building plots, and built a water tower, which from 1912 also supplied Ludgershall. Faber’s town never materialized, and even within the modest triangle which was developed plots remained empty until the 1960s. By then Ludgershall’s housing estates had crept eastwards as far as Biddesden Lane, and Faberstown became fused to Ludgershall. It remained in Hampshire, however, until a friendly boundary change in 1992 rewarded its good neighbourliness by promoting it into Wiltshire.

Ludgershall’s population has increased sevenfold between 1891 and 1991, from 476 to 3,379. The catalyst for this transformation was the opening in 1882 of a station south of Winchester Street on a new railway line from Swindon and Marlborough to Andover and Southampton. This by itself did not effect the great expansion, but it meant that when, some fifteen years later, the army began to buy land and build its garrisons, Ludgershall became (as a writer in 1907 observed), ‘the busy railway entrepôt for the military section of Salisbury Plain’. The station was repeatedly enlarged and extended, a branch line to Tidworth was built in 1901, and a grand Edwardian Hotel, the Prince of Wales, rose next to the station, on the site of a more modest namesake. Ludgershall station remained of great strategic importance to the army during both wars, but then diminished; the Tidworth branch closed in 1955, passenger services through Ludgershall ended in 1961, and goods services in 1969. The Prince of Wales Hotel became a furniture store during the 1980s, and has now been converted to flats. Topographically, too, the railway track (which still survives) was also significant. It underlined the southern edge of the town, and inhibited any development beyond. Only during the last decade have housing estates begun to spring up on land south of the former station.

The army came to Ludgershall not only to pass through. The War Department bought Castle Farm in 1898, with the intention of using its land for warehouses, depots, and sidings. In the event, implementation of the plan was long delayed, and it was not until the 1939-45 war that all Ludgershall’s western aspect became a sprawling military industrial estate. South of the Tidworth Road massive sheds appeared, arranged along a curving railway line. They have served various functions, but predominantly their use has been to assemble, store, and repair military vehicles. Further north, adjoining Butt Street and the main road to Marlborough, a depot for army medical supplies was built in 1939, and remains in use.

Meanwhile housing estates, new shops, schools and services have arrived in Ludgershall. In 1875, before the railway came, there was a Baptist chapel (of 1810, in Chapel Lane), a Methodist chapel (of 1844, near the Crown Inn), and a National school (of 1856, in Butt Street), as well as a post office, three inns, and about eleven other shops or businesses. A directory of 1935 lists more than forty businesses, including banks, a brewery depot, hairdressers, a tattooist, and two fried fish shops. A new school (now Seawell Auto Controls) was opened in St James Street in 1906, a police station by 1908, and a fire station in 1939. Old buildings have been put to new uses, most surprisingly perhaps the baptistery of the Strict Baptist chapel, which became an inspection pit for a local garage. Private and local authority housing estates have extended in a broad ribbon eastwards along the Andover Road, and south of Tidworth Road between the former station and the vehicle depot. New housebuilding now is extending into the former King’s Field, south of the railway line.

A nineteenth-century village has been pitchforked into a twenty-first-century town. Ludgershall has been forced to grow during times of emergency, when aesthetic considerations have not been uppermost, and the results have been predictable. It has a traffic problem, and an image problem. But it also has one of the best preserved (and least known) castles in Wiltshire, a complex but largely intact late-medieval street plan, the outline of two deer parks, and (at Biddesden) a quite spectacular Queen Anne country house.

NOTES (location: SU2651; area: 774ha; population (1991): 3,379)
General: VCH 15, 119-35; Dixon, W, A history of Ludgershall, 1994. Castle: Ellis, P, Ludgershall Castle: excavations by Peter Addyman, 1964-1972, 2000; History of the King’s Works, 2, 729-31; WANHM 85, 70-9; Town plan: Everson, P, et al, in Ellis, 2000, 97-119; Biddesden: Archaeological Journal, 83, 1926, 98-100; Country Life, 2.4.1938, 352-6. Military: James, N D G, Plain Soldiering, 1987, 85-9.



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