History of Sonning
in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford
S O N N I N G
of Episcopal Berkshire
The name means "(Place of) Sunna's People". Sunna was a Saxon chief whose people were widespread in Eastern Berkshire. Other settlements included Sunninghill and
Sunningdale, and also Sunningwell (in North Berkshire).
Sunningum was an administrative province in the late 7th century, possibly part of the Kingdom of Surrey (which covered most of Buckinghamshire as well as modern Surrey). Its importance is shown by the fact that it was chosen as the site for a Saxon Minster. Sonning Minster's territory originally covered
Sandhurst, as well as Sonning itself.
The forerunners of the Bishops of Salisbury had no Cathedral, but two
Palaces, at Ramsbury (Wilts) and Sonning. The parish churches at these places would have been sort of proto-cathedrals: a piece of Saxon sculpture can still be seen built into Sonning Church tower. Though usually called Bishops of Ramsbury
(Episcopi Corvinensis), these ecclesiastics were sometimes referred to as Bishops of Sonning
(Episcopi Sunningenses). Occasionally they were styled Bishops of Wiltshire, or Berkshire, or both. None is more correct than any other. The Bishops of Ramsbury & Sonning were:
Oda (of East Anglia), 927-952, later Archbishop of Canterbury (d.958)
St. Aelstan (of Abingdon) 974-981
Sigeric 985-992, later Archbishop of Canterbury (d.995)
Aelfric 992-1005, later Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1006)
St. Bertwald (of Glastonbury) 1005-1045
Heremann (Chaplain to King Edward the Confessor) 1045-1078
who united the see with Sherborne, which later became that of Salisbury
Sonning Parish (& Minster) Church once had a chapel dedicated to
"St. Sarik". It was in existance in c.1600 and may have been at the east end of the church, possibly on the site of the south chancel aisle. Variously spelt Sarik, Sarac or Siric, Sonning's saint apparently treated madness. He may have been Sigeric (otherwise Seric or Sirik) who was Bishop of Ramsbury & Sonning from 985 to 995. He was not a recognised saint, but two of his predecessors and one of his successors were canonised. In later life, he was made Archbishop of Canterbury and it was he who advised King
Aethelred the Unready to pay the danegueld to the Danish Invaders. More likely, however, is the suggestion that Sarik be identified with
St. Cyricus who was sometimes known as St. Carroc in Cornwall (though this may have been a different saint). He was a child martyr from Antioch (d.c.304), but was very popular in France, and had connections with lunacy. Abingdon Abbey had some of his relics. It is probable that one of the Bishops, possibly Sigeric who may have seen
St. Cyricus as his patron, had acquired a relic for Sonning as well.
The Bishops of Salisbury continued to have a palace here right up until they sold out to Elizabeth I. She visited twice, but the place later fell into disrepair. It was from Sonning Palace that Bishop Roger (of Salisbury) left for the funeral of
Henry I at Reading Abbey (1135). He travelled up the Thames in a state barge accompanied by many churchmen and worthies of Sonning. King John stayed at the palace, as a guest of Bishop Herbert Poor, for six days in September 1216. He had travelled from Reading and later went on to Wallingford. During his stay, some of the rebel barons met at Loddon Bridge, and not long after they paid up 240 marks (£160) for the release of William D'Albini, who had been captured at the Siege of Rochester and was being held at Sonning. In 1284, William Scammel was actually consecrated Bishop of Salisbury in Sonning Church. In 1337, Bishop Robert Wyville obtained permission to crenellate the palace. In 1396, Isabella, the seven year old daughter of King Charles VI of France, married King
II. Three years later, after the King's deposition, she was sent as a prisoner to Bishop Richard Metford of Salisbury who kept her confined in Royal splendour at Sonning. In the year of her eventual release, the Earls of Salisbury, Huntingdon and Kent had attempted to place Richard back on the throne. They visited the young Queen and informed her of their intentions, but they were later captured and the plot came to nothing. The King's personal symbol was the white hart (from
Rich-hart) after which the local inn was named. The Black Prince often visited the Bishop at Sonning while he was supervising his local estates. In about 1354, it is recorded that
"a fish called a whale" caught in Le Mounts Bay was delivered to him there. There is nothing to be seen of the palace today, though the 16th century Bull Inn may have been the Bishops' Guesthouse where
St. Sarik's pilgrims stayed. It's name stems from the symbol of the Neville family: Sir Henry Neville was
I's steward after she bought the manor. The Dean of Salisbury also had a house at Sonning (from c.1284 until the early 19th c.) and Deanery Gardens, a house by Edwin Lutyens, still remain north of the church.
The 13/14th century Sonning Church has a fine collection of monuments. There is a most superb brass to Laurence Fyton (1434), the younger son of the Lord of Gawsworth in Cheshire, who found his own way in life by becoming the Bishop of Salisbury's bailiff. He ran the Sonning estates on a day-to-day business between
intermittent episcopal visits. Further 16th century brasses and later monuments to the Barker family, Royal stewards, show well the changing fashions of the age. Of
what must have originally been a fine Elizabethan monument, now only has a small group of six kneeling figures remaining. They were found in one of the old vaults and no-one knows to whom they were a memorial. The most striking monument, however, must be that to Sir Thomas Rich (1667). This extraordinary memorial features no effigy, but four cherubs supporting a slab with two urns, all in stark contrasting black and white. It has been described as "the vilest paganism imaginable" but would have been the height of fashion at the time. Rich was an Alderman of Gloucester who traded out of Turkey and lent
the King much money during the Civil War. He bought Sonning Manor in 1654.
The church had some interesting characters to tend to the spiritual needs of the locals. One medieval vicar was in the habit of wearing is sword in the pulpit. Another upset the churchwardens, in the 1570s, by erected a new pew for his wife and his cattle run free in the churchyard. In the 19th century, the vicar was fond of entertaining eminent guests to dinner. Unfortunately, these included an unscrupulous doctor who would laugh and joke with his host while his associates robbed the graves in the churchyard for the his dubious research.
A cottage at the end of Sonning Lane called Turpins is said to have been the home of Dick Turpin's aunt. Being frequently engaged on the Bath Road, Dick would flee the Berkshire authorities by galloping to his aunt's house, then on foot through the churchyard to Oxfordshire and safety. Black Bess would casually stroll down to a loose-box hidden below the cottage. Claude Duval is also said to have owned a house in the village.