Wilton: Early history

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

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'Wilton: Early history', A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962), pp. 7-8. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp7-8 [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "Wilton: Early history", in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962) 7-8. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp7-8.

. "Wilton: Early history", A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962). 7-8. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp7-8.


Wilton situated at a strategic point on the river systems of southern Wiltshire (fn. 1) was an obvious choice as a place of settlement by the migrants from the south, who about the middle of the 6th century founded the kingdom of Wessex. How early Wilton became the royal seat of the kingdom is unknown, but evidence of the 9th century shows it clearly established as such. There, under the traditional style of Kingsbury, the king had a palace where, it has been said, the royal archives were kept and from whence royal charters were issued. Thus the concordat of 838 between the King of Wessex and the Archbishop of Canterbury made at Kingston on Thames was confirmed at Wilton, and while the great council of 854, at which King Ethelwulf tithed his lands, was held at Winchester, the charter which gave effect to its decisions was dated at Wilton. (fn. 2) After the Danish wars of Alfred the primacy of Winchester in Wessex was unquestioned, (fn. 3) but Wilton remained the administrative centre of the smaller region, later known as Wiltshire, which undoubtedly existed as a distinct unit before the end of the 8th century. (fn. 4) Indeed it is true to say that Wiltshire grew out of Wilton.

The importance of Wilton in the early ecclesiastical history of Wiltshire is of necessity obscure, since the very word Wiltonienses might apply either to Wilton or to Wiltshire. When about 909 a new West Saxon bishopric covering at first Wiltshire alone, and later Wiltshire and Berkshire, was created, Wilton appears at any rate occasionally to have been the seat of the bishop. The fact that Oswulf, sometimes described as Bishop of Sonning, sometimes of Wiltshire (Wiltuniensis), was buried at Wilton in 970 is evidence for this, although Ramsbury was the more usual place of residence for the bishop in Wiltshire until at the end of the 11th century he transferred his seat to Old Salisbury. (fn. 5) In all other respects, however, Anglo-Saxon Wilton was of supreme importance. The late 9th century witnessed a concerted series of attacks by the Danes in a determined attempt to conquer the surviving kingdom of Wessex, and this struggle revealed the importance of Wilton in the whole defensive scheme of the kingdom. A great loop of fortresses was flung round Wessex and the Wiltshire fortifications on the southern part of this line appear to have been at Wilton and Tisbury. (fn. 6) Any stand made at Wilton would serve to cover the great ridgeways through Grovely Forest and between the Nadder and the Ebble, together with the Roman road to Dorchester. The importance of this particular part of the defensive scheme was proved in 871, the vital year of battles, for after a succession of victories which carried them well within the outer line of defence, the Danes sought to penetrate deeply into the south and south-west of Wessex precisely at this point. The last battle of the campaign of 871 was fought 'in monte qui dicitur Wiltun, qui est in meridiana ripa Guilon (Wylye), de quo flumine tota paga illa nominatur'. (fn. 7)

References to Anglo-Saxon Wilton, scanty though they are, reveal all the more important attributes of an early borough in government and trade. It was a minting place of more than passing importance; of the six mints of Wiltshire, the earliest known coins were minted at Wilton and Malmesbury; these were the small cross coins of Edgar; moreover the Wilton mint remained in operation with only short periods of inactivity, longer than any other mint in Wiltshire, and it was not finally closed until 1250. (fn. 8) The continued existence of this provincial mint indicates something of the nature of the borough itself, for a law of Athelstan stated that 'there shall be no minting except in a port' (town) and this shows that at least by the reign of Edgar, Wilton must have been a recognized trading centre with some kind of fortifications. Indeed, reference to these fortifications may occur in a charter of c. 1045 where the limits of a royal grant of land were traced from the 'Pool of the Brittons' to the 'old wall', and then along this to the Nadder. (fn. 9) The presence of the mint, with its facilities for exchange, and the many routes which converged on the town, made Wilton an ideal market centre, and trade would flourish behind the safe walls of the royal town. Moreover, the foundation or revival of the nunnery of Wilton in the 9th century was to establish Wilton as the seat of one of the great religious foundations of England, and the long association of the house of Wessex with this foundation was to be continued by the postConquest monarchy. (fn. 10) For this reason alone, the medieval importance of Wilton would have been assured.

The 11th century opened with disaster for Wilton, for the fresh Danish invasion of 1003 penetrated into Wiltshire, and Sweyn's army plundered and burnt Wilton before going on to Old Salisbury. The fortunes of the town were thus seriously affected, and it appears that the moneyers of Wilton took refuge within the more defensible area of Old Salisbury where, for the time being, they carried on their occupation. (fn. 11) Little beyond this is known of the 11th-century history of Wilton until the time of the Domesday Survey. (fn. 12) Then its place in the Survey suggests that it retained a position of some importance among the Wiltshire boroughs. It had been for a time in the custody of a keeper, (fn. 13) who accounted directly to the Crown for all royal rents and dues. It was, moreover, one of the four Wiltshire boroughs to have a number of houses annexed to rural manors, and a number of tenants of rural manors as burgesses, (fn. 14) facts consistent with a view of Wilton as a centre continuing to attract trade and business.


  • 1. See p. 1.
  • 2. G. M. Young, Origin of the West-Saxon Kingdom (Oxford, 1934), 8–9.
  • 3. Ibid. 7–8.
  • 4. V.C.H. Wilts. ii. 1–2.
  • 5. Ibid. 26–30.
  • 6. Burghal Hidage in A. J. Robertson, Anglo-Saxon Charters, 247.
  • 7. Hoare, Mod. Wilts. Branch and Dole, 66.
  • 8. H. de S. Shortt, 'Bibliography of Wilts. Coins in early Medieval Hoards', W.A.M. liii. 413–8; 'The Mints of Wiltshire', Arch. Jnl. civ. 112–128; V.C.H. Wilts. ii, pp. 16–18.
  • 9. G. B. Grundy, 'Saxon Land Charters Wilts.', Arch. Jnl. lxxvi. 290.
  • 10. V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 231–34.
  • 11. R. H. M. Dolley and D. M. Metcalf, 'The Reform of the English Coinage under Eadgar', Anglo-Saxon Coins, 153; see below, p. 53.
  • 12. V.C.H. Wilts. ii, p. 115.
  • 13. See below.
  • 14. The houses were annexed to the manors of Durnford and Marden, and the manors having tenants, who were burgesses of Wilton, were Salisbury (7), Netheravon (5), Durnford (4), Fifield Bavant (2), Stratford Tony (1), Castle Combe (1), Sherrington (1), Odstock (1): V.C.H. Wilts. ii, pp. 20–1.