The information for this article comes almost exclusively from a book by David Cox, published in 2005, entitled The Church and Vale of Evesham, 700-1215 Lordship, Landscape and Prayer.
The First Church in Evesham
The first church in Evesham was founded by Bishop Ecgwine, when King Aethelred of Mercia granted him a vacant riverside site a few miles upstream from Fladbury (where a church existed), at a place called the hamm. This term refers to an area of higher ground or plateau in the bend of a river. This event took place around 700 AD and the church was reported to have been standing by 703 AD. The term hamm means an area of ‘land hemmed in by water’. Other examples of the use of this term include Offenham, upstream of Evesham, and Pensham and Birlingham downstream. The Evesham site would have been a fertile plain that had supported earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age farmers. In Roman times there would have been some buildings, but their nature and distribution are not yet understood. There have been no post-Roman finds in the locality, so it seems to have been abandoned after about 300 AD.
When the area was selected, it would probably have been wooded, this being partially cleared to give views over the river and countryside beyond. The name of Evesham may have emerged from an association with this seventh-century woodland. An early name was ‘Eofeshamm’ (or ‘Eoveshamm’ by the 11th century) and an obvious interpretation is that a man called ‘Eof’ had been associated with the place. One version of some ancient texts considers that ‘Eoves’ was a swineherd, but the old English for a wild boar is eofor which gives another possibility.
Nothing remains of this first church, but its stones would have been used when the later Abbey church was built on the same site. The original church probably suffered some kind of collapse in the later 10th century and the building of the new Abbey church was begun in ca1079.
Vale of Evesham Estates
The land units around Evesham in 701 AD include the present-day Badsey and Aldington, but an area called ‘Wycweon’ covered the present areas of Wickhamford and Childswickham. The northern part of this area – Wickhamford – was part of the Evesham Abbey estates in 1086. The name ‘Wycweon’ may have descended from two Celtic elements meaning ‘inhabited site near the marsh or moor’. The centre of this land unit was near the present hamlet of Murcot, where Badsey brook is joined by a tributary. ‘Murcot’ comes from the Celtic mor (marsh) and cot (cottage, hut, shelter).
In the early 10th century, the responsibilities of the Abbot of Evesham were considerable and by the 930s the church had nearly 10,000 acres of productive land on the south of the River Avon and nearly 5,000 acres on the north side. An increase in population led to some of the land units being divided up. In this process ‘Wycweon’ was divided into Wickhamford and Childswickham; Bretforton was split into an Upper End and Lower End; Hampton into Great and Little Hampton; Honeybourne into Cow and Church Honeybourne; Littleton into North, Middle and South Littleton. Later, the divisions between Childswickham and Wickhamford and the two Honeybournes were emphasised when parts were placed in Worcestershire and parts were in Gloucestershire.
By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the manorial geography of the Vale estates did not necessarily respect the integrity of the villages. Offenham included Aldington, Bretforton Lower End and South Littleton. Wickhamford Manor had Bretforton Upper End and part of Wickhamford was in Willersey manor.
Certain freeholders on the Abbey’s nearby rural estates, c1190, owed occasional and quite onerous services to the Abbey, but were not its employees. William Pintelthein of Hampton, John of Wickhamford and Richard Francis of Badsey held lands that put each of them under an obligation to carry the baggage of any monks anywhere in England at the Abbot’s expense. Sometimes the tenant had to supply his own pack horse. Ralph Wither of Norton had simply to accompany the monks anywhere in England.
Chapels for the Vale
It seems to be that in the 12th century the Abbey decided to build subordinate local chapels within the deanery of the Vale of Evesham. Only Church Honeybourne seems to have had an earlier chapel. Population growth would have meant too many lay people going to the Abbey church and it possibly hoped to increase its pastoral control over the Vales by the construction of chapels. They were of modest size with no aisles and no fine carvings, to reduce costs. Of the remaining 12th century fonts, that at Middle Littleton has some geometric designs, whilst those at Hampton and Bretforton have no decoration at all. The contemporary doorways at Evesham All Saints and South Littleton are plain and the north doorway at Badsey has only simple mouldings. Had there been rich Norman doorways or fonts, these would have been preserved by later builders. The chapels were utilitarian structures, not expensive works of art.
Provision of the chapels progressed slowly through the century. Bretforton may have been an early example as it was being enlarged, with aisles, by ca1200. The churches at Hampton and Offenham may have been built in the time of Abbot Adam (1161-89) because they are dedicated to saints with whom they had a link at churches earlier in his career. South Littleton was not dedicated until 1204 and it seems to have been one of the last to be built in the Vale. Others mentioned as being built before 1200 AD are Badsey, Bretforton, Evesham St Lawrence, Church Honeybourne, Middle Littleton, Norton, Offenham and Wickhamford. Lenchwick and Evesham All Saints should probably be added to the list, but are not mentioned before 1206.
The chapels had no graveyards in the 12th century and the deceased of the Vale continued to be buried in Evesham. Christian burial did not require use of the Abbey church but payment to the Church was probably incurred. The chapels were provided with fonts, so that the sacrament of baptism could be offered outside of Evesham.
By the 1190s, each chapel was served by a resident priest whose livelihood was equivalent to that of a small peasant farmer. The Abbey provided him with a house and enough agricultural land to support himself. The arrangements were variable: for example, at Norton the priest had to perform labour services, while at Wickhamford and Badsey, the priests were entitled to receive substantial renders of wheat from other manorial tenants. The Abbey always kept the local tythes and appointed the local priests, but seem not to have insisted on the highest standards of the day. The priest at Wickhamford (‘Wichewen’) was married and his widow was living in Evesham c1190. If chaplains were allowed to marry, their sons might hope to succeed them in office, just as the sons of other manorial tenants might expect to succeed their fathers.
The mention, above, of the priest being allocated land in Wickhamford to use for agricultural purposes may be reflected in the 1869 Estate Plan of Wickhamford. This shows a small area of church land, or Glebe, to the north of Manor Road opposite Elm Farm. The house near this area is called ‘Old Vicarage’; this replaced an earlier building, that had fallen into a bad condition, in around 1801. It may be the site of a Norman house for the priest of Wickhamford.
As stated in the opening paragraph, this article is totally dependent on information in the book by David Cox: The Church and Vale of Evesham, 700-1215 Lordship, Landscape and Prayer.
Tom Locke – October 2021