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Sutton means “South Town (i.e. Farm)”: south of the town of Abingdon that is.
The original Saxon village of sunken-floor ‘grub-huts’ and post built houses was excavated in the 1920s. It was the first Anglo-Saxon village discovered by Archaeologists and dates from the 5th and 6th centuries. There was also probably an important cemetery in the area for metal detectorists have found high-status gold jewelry there. These were probably the graves of the retainers of the 7th century Kings of Wessex whose palace appears to have been revealed by aerial photography just to the south at the nearby village of Drayton. Its great halls were not unlike those excavated at Yeavering in Northumberland.
In May 2010 Channel 4 Television filmed in the village of Sutton Courtenay for their Time Team Programme; Tony Robinson and the Team try to locate one of the rarest of archaeological sites – an Anglo Saxon Royal complex. Aerial photos suggest that an empty Oxfordshire field in the village of Sutton Courtenay could have been the home of Royalty over a thousand years ago.
You can watch the Full Time Team Episode Online here.
The Parish Church has several interesting features. Note the crusader crosses by the door to the 12th century tower, which were supposedly carved by local soldiers returning from the crusades. They wished to thank god for their safe return while at the same time blunting their swords, which they intended never to use again. The brick Tudor porch displaying the rebus of Thomas Bekynton, a carved play on words showing a beacon & tun, reminds us that this was built as his memorial with money that was supposed to go to the poor! Most of the church is 14th century and imitates the great cloth merchants’ churches of East Anglia.
The village is unusual in that it is the home of three very historic domestic buildings. George Orwell (author of 1984) and Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister 1908-1916) are also buried in the local Churchyard.
Matilda, Queen of King Henry I came to live here, near her gynaecologist, the Abbot of Abingdon, for the birth of her first child in 1101. Sadly, the baby died, but she stayed on, and it is now generally believed that her second child, the Empress Matilda was also born here, a year later, probably in the room above the undercroft.
The ancient Manor House is at the focus of the old Saxon manor which was the site of a Royal palace like that excavated at Cheddar (Somerset). The Witan met there in 1042. Most of the present building dates from the 14th & 16th centuries. However, one wing dates mostly from the 13th century and part of it, including a vaulted undercroft, from the 11th! ie. the period of Royal residence.
Sutton Courtenay Manor House is Grade II* Listed and enjoys a slightly elevated setting with far reaching westerly views to the river and on all sides over its attractive gardens. The house consists of two wings with a central block, enclosing a stone flagged courtyard, and is of distinctive architecture with its fine sharp pointed gables and Ipswich-style lattice windows. The principal reception rooms are arranged in the main wing and have some fine panelling, oak floorboards and leaded light windows. Arranged mainly over two floors, the principal accommodation is supplemented by a nursery wing and kitchen wing providing ample secondary accommodation. All three wings have access onto the inner courtyard with its fine ornamental garden and beautiful covered loggia.
The village name of Courtenay derives from the family of that name who took on the manor in about 1177. Sutton was originally one of their major estates, but they inherited important lands in the West Country and their Berkshire home became less significant. They are now the Earls of Devon, and live at Powderham Castle (Dev). It was Reginald de Courtenay, a landless young man from a well known family, who first became Lord of Sutton. He had attached himself to Henry of Anjou (later Henry II) and helped negotiate this young man’s way to the English throne which his mother had lost. As a reward, he was given the birthplace of this very woman. She was the Empress Matilda.
It was Reginald’s younger son, Robert, who expanded on the buildings at Sutton by erecting the house known today as “Norman Hall” in about 1192. It may originally have been a chapel. It was certainly part of the same complex as the manor house until about 1306. After the family’s move to Devon, they apparently rarely stayed at Sutton and the manor house was acquired around this time by the Brunce family, one of whom became Bishop of Norwich. They, naturally enough, named it “Brunce’s Court”. It is a very attractive building today, notable for its vine-covered east wing (c.1500) with Ipswich windows that, presumably, explain why the building is painted pink in the East Anglian style.
The third great house of the parish was the Rectory House, now called “The Sutton Courtenay Abbey”, built mostly between 1284 & 1290 and incorporating some of an earlier dilapidated Parsonage that had been used as a Grange for The Sutton Courtenay Abbey. The Courtenays had managed to wrestle the building away from the Abbot during an, apparently rigged, court case! The great timber hall, that survives to full height today, was later (c.1330) clad in great blocks of stone when it began to lean.
As an elegant stone mansion, “The Sutton Courtenay Abbey” made the living at Sutton a very attractive one, luring such men as the chaplains of the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, the doctor of Henry V and the secretary of King Henry VI: Thomas Bekington, who later became Bishop of Bath & Wells. Unfortunately, many of these men were so caught up with affairs of state that they rarely visited Sutton, leaving the running of the parish Church to various underlings.
In the past, agriculture, a local paper mill and domestic service were the main sources of employment within the village. Now the prime employers include local scientific establishments of UKAEA (at Harwell) / AEA / JET Project (at Culham) and the Didcot Power Station. There are many commuters using Didcot Parkway Railway Station, London being a mere 45 minutes away.
Didcot Power Station itself falls within the boundaries of Sutton Courtenay parish and is clearly visible from the village. Didcot ‘A’ Coal Fired Power Station was Shutdown after 43 years in March 2013, later the Southern 3 Cooling Towers were demolished by Explosive Demolition in July 2014, with the 3 remaining Northern Cooling Towers which are closer to the village due to be demolished by the end of 2016, leaving the smaller Didcot ‘B’ Gas Fired Power Station which is less visible.
Sutton Courtenay is also home to several large quarries that have been used for gravel extraction, and then used for landfill activities taking domestic refuse from London via a separate rail terminal (see Greenways and Waste Recycling Group (WRG)).
Settlement in the parish dates from at least the Neolithic period, when the alluvial plains of the local River Thames made the area fertile for agriculture. The Romans were present in the village as evidence of a ceremonial site and road survive. Excavations have revealed rough Saxon huts of the early stages of Anglo-Saxon colonization, but their most important enduring monument in Sutton was the massive causeway and weirs which separate the millstream from Sutton Pools. The causeway was probably built by Saxon labour.
Written records of Sutton’s history began in 688 when Ine, King of Wessex, endowed the new monastery at Abingdon with the manor of Sutton. In 801, Sutton became a royal vill, with the monastery at Abingdon retaining the church and priest’s house. It is believed that this was on the site of “The Sutton Courtenay Abbey” . The Domesday Book of 1086 shows that the manor of ‘Sudtone’ was owned half by the King and farmed mainly by tenants who owed him tribute. There were three mills, 300 acres (1.2 km2) of river meadow (probably used for dairy farming) and extensive woodlands where pigs were kept.
In 1912 the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith chose The Wharf (which he built in 1913) and the adjoining Walton House for his country residence. Asquith and his large family spent weekends at The Wharf where his wife Margot held court over bridge and tennis. She converted the old barn directly on the river which served for accommodation for the overflow of her many weekend parties. A painting of the period by Sir John Lavery (now in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin) shows Elizabeth Asquith and her young friends lounging in boats by the riverside. Asquith signed the declaration that took Britain into the First World War here. He and his family remained in the village after he resigned as Prime Minister. He is buried in All Saints’ churchyard.
The churchyard is notable as the location of the burial place of Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell. As a child he fished in a local stream. He wanted to be buried in the churchyard or whichever was the nearest church to where he died. However he died in London and none of the local churches had any space in their graveyards. Thinking that he might have to be cremated against his wishes, his widow asked her friends whether they knew of a church that had space for him. David Astor, a friend of Orwell’s who lived in Sutton Courtenay, explained the problem to his local vicar, and arrangements were made.
See more about the village Past and Present in the History Pages.
Famous People linked with the village of Sutton Courtenay
- Empress Matilda, 12th-century “Lady of the English” and claimant of the throne of England, was probably born at Sutton Courtenay Manor.
- Thomas Brunce, 15th-century Bishop of Norwich.
- Norah Bourke Lindsay, British garden designer.
- Thomas Bekynton, Bishop of Bath and Wells.
- Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister and Earl of Oxford.
- David Astor, Newspaper publisher.
- Eric Arthur Blair / George Orwell, Writer & Author.
- Jacques Goddet, organiser of the Tour de France, went to school here.
- Hugh Macdonald Sinclair, nutritionist.
- Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, great-granddaughter of Herbert Henry Asquith, have moved to the village in recent times,purchasing the Mill House (which had been owned and improved by her grandmother, Violet Bonham Carter).
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