Sunday, 26 May 2019

Wargrave Local History Society

DR DAVID LEWIS spoke about the history of Old Windsor at the society’s November  meeting.

The modern area of Old Windsor dates from the Thirties but the original Saxon settlement was further east on the area known as Ham Common.

It is on the south side of a loop in the River Thames.

Almost all the other local settlements in the Saxon era, such as Dorney, Boveney and Eton, were on the north side, with the possible exception of “Orton”, which may have been on the high ground where Windsor Castle now stands.

Old Windsor had faded by the 13th century so that virtually nothing existed apart from the church, which was then surrounded by fields.

Dr Lewis said that little direct documentary evidence exists so unravelling the history has depended on “piecing together fragments of information from other sources”.

He said Old Windsor might have been of importance as it was where the boundaries of four dioceses met and was also close to the tidal limit of the Thames.

It lay just beyond the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor of London at Staines and was on the boundary of hunting grounds, near the ancient assembly site of Runnymede.

Being at a boundary point, it became a place in medieval times to discuss problems, most notably the Magna Carta in 1215.

Until 1974, the area around the castle was known as “New Windsor”, deriving from “Windlesora”, Old Windsor’s early name.

The word is of Saxon origin, “ora” meaning “on a river bank”. “Windles” is thought to come from the old Norse word meaning “to wind” or “a winch”.

A winch by the river would suggest a place where goods were brought from the river to the land and there was a network of roads in the area.

However, a winch would only be of use if there was already a community of people there to work it.

The manor was divided into New Windsor and Windlesora in the 12th century and the word “Old” added to the latter in the 13th century, although by then the area was ploughed over and virtually nothing existed of the settlement.

The area to the south west, which was very dense London clay, became Windsor Great Park.

It was not suitable for growing crops and attempts to do so in wartime were unsuccessful.

The lower land is alluvium, which is exceptionally fertile and well-watered, so valuable agricultural land.

Archaeology carried out in the Fifties suggested that there had been a short-lived vertical mill there and also buildings made with stone, tiles and glass — all exceptionally rare at the time — as well as “high status” pottery.

No evidence of a royal hall was found, nor coinage, which would have been expected if it was a trading place.

The site was obscure, watery, had no defensive capability and was generally inhospitable.

It must have been of some importance, however, as three documents exist recording its use by Edward the Confessor.

It was a base for hunting, a favourite pastime of Edward, and convenient to reach from Westminster.

Although it had minimal use in the pre-Norman Conquest era, several important events were held there.

After the Normans arrived, the manor was reacquired at considerable expense by William I from Westminster Abbey, to whom Edward had given it.

In the 1070, the Synod of the English Church was held there. This was a very important gathering of bishops and other members of the clergy, the Pope sending his nuncio for the occasion.

Windlesora was also regularly used for the Whitsun “Crown Wearings” until 1107. For this tradition, the populace would come and “sing the praises” of their sovereign.

Gloucester had been used for such for a while but otherwise they were held in Winchester or Westminster.

Windlesora had neither a cathedral nor a royal palace for such events, so presumably there was another reason for it being chosen.

In the Domesday survey of 1086, Windlesora was the second place recorded in Berkshire, valued at just £15.

It is estimated to have had a population of only 300 to 500 but there was no mill and no mention of church.

It had 95 hagae, larger plots of land, which was very unusual.

It was, however, a small settlement, with no royal complex.

Dr Lewis concluded that the name “Windsor” is of 11th century origin, yet the settlement is somewhat older.

What the actual reason was for a village being developed there and becoming a “place of importance” remains a mystery.

The next meeting will be the society’s Christmas party on Tuesday, December 11.

On Tuesday, January 8, local historian and author Audrey Curtis will recount the history of Twyford and Ruscombe. Meetings take place at the Old Pavilion on the recreation ground, off Recreation Road, Wargave, starting at 8pm.

For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit

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