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Abbotsbury - a very brief history

Abbotsbury is a village on the south coast of England ten miles to the north west of Portland Bill. Visible archaeology testifies to its occupation over the last 6,000 years: ancient as well as modern man found it a good place to live. It is unusually sunny yet sheltered from the west and northerly winds.


Abbotsbury from the north: the evening sun throws dramatic shadows over the lynchets on Chapel Hill. The Fleet lagoon, with the swannery, is behind, is separated from the sea by the Chesil Bank. Click here for larger version. Photo: Francesca Radcliffe

Vepasian, in command of the II Augusta Legion, brought the benefits of bureaucratic civilisation to us at the turn of the first century AD. Later, as Emperor of Rome, he flattened Jerusalem and sent the Jews to their travels, which gives him two claims to our attention today.

The local tribe in Roman times was the Durotriges - the 'water and heath people' - whose name reappears in 'Dorchester' - our county town. The tribe had a pugnacious reputation, probably because they stood at the eastern frontier of the residual British kingdoms.

There may well have been a Roman villa here, the headquarters of a military farm, which would have loaded corn into ships of the Classis Britannorum (the 'British fleet') in the Fleet lagoon for delivery to the legionary camps at Exeter, Chester, York and Colchester.

Tradition puts one of the first Christian churches here - it may have been earlier than the better attested wooden chapel at Glastonbury. After the Romans left in AD 410, the church may have been a minster - the base of missionaries preaching to the heathen. There is also a slightly later tradition that Abbotsbury was a summer capital of Wessex, in which case Alfred the Great would have been a visitor.

In common with other coastal areas, Abbotsbury was harried by Viking pirates in the latter part of the first millennium. King Canute of Denmark, who as a young man had been an enthusiastically pagan pirate, found himself later in life - by a strange convulsion of politics - the christian King of England. Obliged to repair the ravages of his youth, he rebuilt Exeter Cathedral and, in Abbotsbury, made a substantial grant of land to his retainer Orc and his French wife Thola, who used the grant to found an abbey.

The abbey flourished until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.It was sold in 1541 to Sir Giles Strangways whose family still owns it today in the form of the Ilchester Estate. One could argue that Abbotsbury has had only four owners in two thousand years: the Roman army, the Wessex crown, the abbey and the Strangways family.

Unusually, the grant of the Abbey estates to Sir Giles required that he demolish the entire Abbey precinct: he may well have sold the roof lead and cut stone to get his money back. He made a house out of part of the abbey buildings; in the Civil War the family held it for the Crown. When it was taken after a bitter skirmish with Parliamentary troops (there is still a bullet hole in the pulpit in the church) the house was accidentally blown up. Until recently it was thought that many documents inherited from the Abbey had been destroyed in the explosion. There were faint hopes that the archive might still be buried in the wreck of the house, but we have found evidence that suggests it was scattered to the winds. It seems that many documents were elsewhere: some surprises are now emerging from the archives. However it is estimated that there is 10 man-years of archiving to do before we know what we have.

After the Civil War, Abbotsbury virtually vanishes from the national record. The farms had good years and bad ones, like the rest of the British countryside. The people eked out a living by fishing and smuggling. Defoe came here and saw the fisherman landing mountains of mackerel on the beach - just as they were only twenty years go. In recent years the ancient pattern of guaranteed agricultural employmnent for life came to an end and the village was forced to join the modern world as a fascinating centre for tourism. The Abbotsbury Heritage Research Project aims, along with the Ilchester Estate, to open up its history to a worldwide audience.

Interesting features

The village, its surrounding hills, fields and woods, and the neighbouring Fleet encompass an extraordinary range of observable features that go back far into prehistory:

Evidence of a major faultline between tectonic plates millions of years ago

Chesil Beach and the Fleet – the largest formation of its kind in Europe - and possibly the world - and part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site

The highest peat bog in Dorset and other unique natural features

Bronze Age tumuli and other pre-historic features

An Iron Age fort and two Roman signal stations

Slight evidence of a pre-Christian temple on St Catherine’s Hill

The only managed swannery in the world

The remains of a major abbey and its precinct, and St Catherine’s Chapel

Almost the entire village protected by listing (Grades I, 2* and 2)

Mining: stone, iron ore, coal and oil shale

Industries: Farming, quarrying, fishing, smuggling, railway.

Church, chapels and school

Coastguards and wrecks.

WW II defensive sites

A rich mine of human memories.