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History of Wantage in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford


Where the Great are Born

The name is something like Gwanet-inge, Celtic for "Dog River (River)" just like the Kennet. Wantage Church was a Saxon Minster and the Saxon Kings had a Palace here. King Aethelred the Unready drew up a code of laws when the Witan met there in 995 and King Alfred the Great was born there in 847. His statue, by Count Gleichen, stands in the market place. Wantage is thus known to the literary World as Alfredston. Thomas Hardy sent Jude the Obscure here as an apprentice stone-cutter. A couple of centuries ago, the place was known as Black Wantage as it was a centre for both migratory pedlars and cut-throats. Badger-baiting and cock-fighting were popular in the town, and bull-baiting took place at the Camel.

In the early 13th century, King John's adversary, Fulk FitzWarin of Whittington (Salop), seems to have got hold of the Manor of Wantage from the Earl of Pembroke. The house stood somewhere in the region of Court Close (also the traditional site of the old Saxon Palace). Fulk was a famous outlaw and, though he rented Wantage out to the Fettiplaces, one of his many escapades was centred on Windsor Forest (See also The Village (Old Windsor)). In 1295, his grandson, Fulk FitzWarin, 1st Baron FitzWarin of Whittington, and his wife, Princess Margaret of Powys-Wenwynwyn, bought the manor outright. In the parish church, there is a fine effigial monument to their grandson, William La Frere FitzWarin KG, Baron FitzWarin of Wantage. Although he lived in the manor house, it was actually owned by his brother, hence the appendage to his name. He died of the Pestilence in 1361. Nearby is another memorial that may have originally lain in the north FitzWarin Chapel (now occupied by the organ). It is to William's son, Lord Ivo FitzWarin (1414), and is described as one of the finest monumental brasses in England. He stands five foot tall in full armour and has a moustache, unusual in brasses. This man was supposedly the father-in-law of the famous Dick Whittington. Lord Ivo (alias Hugh), as well as being a landed lord and a soldier who served with the Duke of Gloucester at the Siege of Nantes, was a rich merchant with premises in Leadenhall Street in London. It was here that he took in the poor orphaned Dick who went on to marry his daughter, Alice, and become three times Mayor of the City.

There are many brasses in Wantage Church, a large building of varying ages. Another FitzWarin, a priest in vestments, is thought to be amongst the oldest in the country. Other treasures include amusing stone corbels and the highly carved 15th century choir-stalls (with misericords) in the chancel. A small piece of Saxon carving can be seen near the pulpit, and there are crusader crosses on the massive pillars supporting the 13th century tower (the oldest part of the church). These were carved by soldiers coming back from the crusades who wished to blunt their swords while at the same time giving thanks for their safe return. A curfew bell used to be rung out from the tower, up until relatively recent times. It was paid for by a bequest from a local man who had become lost in a blizzard on the Downs but found his way back to Wantage by listening to the sound of the church bells.

There was once a second church within the parish churchyard. The Norman chapel of St. Mary was a place of worship well into the 16th century. In 1597, however, it was converted for use as a Latin School (grammar school). This is the present King Alfred's School, refounded in new premises two hundred and fifty years later. It still retains an old Norman doorway carved with birds' heads and lozenges.

A small contingent of Royalist troops were stationed in the town during the Civil War, as an outpost from Wallingford and Oxford after Abingdon had been taken.

The area around Wantage and Faringdon was where the Berkshire Pig was developed by local farmers. The bacon from these large black animals was often used to make the local dish of Berkshire bacon pudding, a suet roly-poly filled with home cured bacon and flavoured with sage and onion. The pigs are now quite rare, but their pork is, apparently, a delicacy in Japan!

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