As it enters the new Millennium the village of Sutton Courtenay can look back at the evidence left by many groups of people who have lived very differing lives here over the past 8000 years. The Sutton area always provided favourable conditions for settlement, with its position between the River Thames and the Ridgeway, good drainage, readily available water at 6 to 10 feet, and the fertilising bounty of alluvial soil regularly replenished by winter flooding. It was also, at least for thousands of years from Stone Age times, an important ceremonial site.
About 600 BC hunter-gathering tribes left behind many fragments of flint from tool making, and some 2000 years later early Neolithic settlers developed an important ceremonial site which was still being used for burial burrows and pits by Bronze Age settlers about 1600 BC.
This site is located on the raised gravel terraces near the Drayton Road and its intersection with the road to Milton, and was central to the wasp-waisted form of Sutton settlement which was preserved in the village land boundaries down through later centuries until very recent times.
The First Millennium
In Roman times an east-west track passed through the traditional ceremonial site and a villa with hypocaust was built at Dropshort. Other Roman settlements may have been located near the present Cross Trees Triangle where a barrow mound marked the crossing of ancient tracks, and under the Abbey outbuildings nearby.
The Anglo-Saxons were already present before Roman legions left and 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 serf labour.
Written records of Sutton’s history began in AD 688 when Ine, King of Wessex, endowed the new monastery at Abingdon with the manor of Sutton. In AD 801 Sutton became a royal vill, with the monastery at Abingdon retaining the church and priest’s house. It’s is believed that that this was on the site of the Abbey in Sutton Courtenay. Thus the two increasingly powerful institutions of church and Crown were both represented in the village from the beginning of the ninth century. George Orwell (aka Eric Auther Blair) Writer/Auhtor (1903-1950) and Herbert Henry Asquith Prime Minister of the UK (1908-1916), are buried in the Village Churchyard.
Medieval Sutton Courtenay
The focus of the village at the time of the Norman Conquest was the village Green, with the royal manor alongside the River Thames on one side, and a church and planned settlement defining the triangular form as much as at present.
The Doomsday Book of 1086, compiled to inform the Norman conquerors of the extent and economy of their newly acquired lands, showed that the manor of ‘Sudtone’ was helf by the king and farmed mainly by tenants who owed him tribute. There were three mills, 300 acres of river meadow (probably used for dairy farming) and extensive woodlands where pigs were kept.
That the royal link with the village was far more than nominal is shown by the fact that Henry I in 1101 chose to send his new wife Queen Matilda to Sutton for her first pregnancy and childbirth, and very possibly also for her second confinement a year later. This second infant was the future Empress Matilda whose son, Henry Plantagenet, granted lordship of the Manor of Sutton to his close companion and henchman Reginald de Courtenay. Reginald was a French ex-Crusader and warrior who helped the exiled Henry gain the English throne as Henry II. Thus the village became even more closely linked with the royal court, and subsequently became known as Sutton Courtenay.
Within the first century of the Courtenay’s lordship, the simpler Saxon triangular village was transformed by the construction of large parts of the four grand stone buildings which surround the Village Green today. Each of the four early stone buildings has its own story: the Manor House, the earlier part of which may have served as the haven where Henry I sent his pregnant wise; Norman Hall, very possibly built as a chapel for the Manor House; All Saints’ Parish Church, which spans the greatest periods of medieval church building, from Norman to Perpendicular; and the Abbey, whose north wing facing the Village Green was built by the monastery at Abingdon in the early to mid-1200s probably as a rectory house and grange from which monks administered the monastery’s wealthy holdings in the area.
In 1284, after years of dispute, Hugh de Courtenay successfully fought the Abbot of Abingdon and won the right to appoint the Sutton Rector and control the valuable Rectory House (now called the Abbey), lands and tithes. Among the important men the Courtenays later appointed rector were the chaplain to John of Gaunt, the executor for the Black Prince, Thomas Bekynton who influenced Henry VI to found Eton College, and Nicholas Colnet, doctor to Henry V at home and at Agincourt.
What of village life in this period? Contemporary records of local disputes give the impression of a lively if quarrelsome community, including not only peasant agricultural workers but also a substantial number of craftsmen and tradesmen. For example, in a 1212 murder tial, 40 Sutton villagers were accused of causing deaths in skimishes with Culham men. The accused including a doctor, a cordwainer, two smiths, two tailors, two hatters and a herringmonger.
The Courtenay power in the village was ended during the Wars of the Roses in 1462 when the Lacastrian Thomas Courtenay was accused of treason, beheaded and his lands and possession forfeited the the Crown. Finally in 1485 Henry VII’s parliament granted the Rectory House and its glebe lands and rectoral rights to the Dean and Chapter of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The right to appoint the Vicar of Sutton Courtenay is still held by St George’s.