A History of Amesbury

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Amesbury

According to an old legend, Amesbury was founded by a man named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was King Arthur’s uncle. In reality, Amesbury takes its name from a Celtic hill fort. It was built sometime before Christ. The fort is called Vespasian’s Camp though, in fact, it has nothing to do with the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Long after it was built, in the 6th century AD the Saxons arrived in Wiltshire and they founded a settlement near the old fort. The Saxon word for fort was burh, which in time became bury. The first part of the place name is derived from a man’s name. Perhaps the surrounding land belonged to a man with a name like Ambre.

Ambre’s burh or Amesbury grew into quite an important place. By the 10th century, it belonged to the king. The Witan, a body of powerful and important men met at Amesbury twice.

Then in 979, a nunnery was founded at Amesbury. In the year 975, the Saxon king Edward the Martyr was murdered. Many people believed that his stepmother Aelfthryth was involved. Whether she was or not according to tradition she founded the nunnery at Amesbury as a penance. At any rate, it was replaced by a new nunnery of a different order in 1177.

Medieval Amesbury

In the early Middle Ages Amesbury slowly grew in importance. In the 13th century, it was granted the right to hold weekly markets. (In the Middle Ages there were few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market). Amesbury was also allowed fairs. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area).

In the Middle Ages Amesbury was a busy little town. It benefited from being on the main road from London to Exeter. (In those days Exeter was far more important than it is today). However, to us, Amesbury would seem tiny. It probably had a population of less than 1,000. It was also more like a village than a modern town. Many of the people made a living at least partly from farming.

Furthermore, like the rest of England, Amesbury was devastated by the Black Death, which struck in 1348-49. By the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), when the nunnery was closed it still only had a population of several hundred.

Although the nunnery was closed in 1540 and demolished a private house was built on the site. In 1661 it was replaced by a new house designed by the architect John Webb.

In the 17th century, Amesbury was famous for making clay pipes for smoking. However, in the 18th century, Amesbury seems to have declined and its population fell slightly.

Modern Amesbury

At the time of the first census in 1801, Amesbury had a population of only 721. Even by the standards of the time, it was no more than a large village. By 1851 it still had a population of less than 1,200. In the late 19th century the population of Amesbury fell.

However, it recovered in the early 20th century, and in the latter part of the century, it grew rapidly. n During the 19th century the Amesbury fairs declined and they ended completely in the 1880s.

In 1837 a workhouse was built in Amesbury. Life in the workhouse was made as harsh as possible to discourage people from seeking help from the state.

Amesbury Abbey was rebuilt in 1840 by the architect Thomas Hopper (1776-1856).

There were some improvements to Amesbury in the 19th century and the early 20th century. In the late 19th century Amesbury gained gaslight. Then in 1922, Amesbury gained an electricity supply. Meanwhile in the 20th century sewers were dug and water mains were installed. In the 1920s a recreation ground opened. The railway reached Amesbury in 1902 but it closed in 1963.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the army bought land on Salisbury Plain. Amesbury found a new role in providing goods and services to the army. n Modern Amesbury

In 1936 the Plaza cinema was built in Amesbury. It was demolished in 1993. Meanwhile, the first council houses in Amesbury were built in the 1920s and 1930s. More were built after 1945. A bypass was built in 1970. A new library was built in 1973. A Sports Hall was opened in Amesbury in 1974. A new police station was built in 1976. Amesbury gained a mayor in 1997.

A church in Amesbury

Today Amesbury is a small but attractive town. Today the population of Amesbury is 9,000.