White Hart Crest of the Royal County of Berkshire David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

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The Bull Inn at Sonning - © Nash Ford Publishing

Centre of Episcopal Berkshire

This well known bridging place on the River Thames may well date back to Roman times, for there appear to be signs of a Roman road heading this way across Southern Oxfordshire from Wallingford. It was certainly well established during the Saxon and then Medieval periods when Sonning became an important crossing point for merchants and traders travelling from London to the west. The present brick bridge of twenty-seven bays replaced its medieval predecessor in 1790. The nearby mill and fine mill house are of similar date but, being on the island in the river are actually in the parish of Eye & Dunsden in Oxfordshire.

The name Sonning means "(Place of) Sunna's People". Sunna was a Saxon chief whose people were widespread in Eastern Berkshire. Other settlements included Sunninghill and Sunningdale, and also Sunningwell (in North Berkshire). Sonning was the capital of Sunningum, an administrative province in the late 7th century which may have been the northern equivalent of the "South-Regum": now known as the Kingdom of Surrey. It was probably also connected with southern Buckinghamshire where the Kings of Surrey had a palace at Quarrendon, near Aylesbury. Sonning's importance is shown by the fact that it was chosen as the site for a Saxon Minster from where priests would travel out into the surrounding countryside to preach to the locals. Sonning Minster's territory originally covered Wokingham, Hurst, Ruscombe, Sindlesham, Arborfield and Sandhurst, as well as Sonning itself.

In AD 909, Sonning Minster was converted into one of the twin cathedrals of the newly created diocese of Ramsbury & Sonning. Sculpted fragments of the old cathedral can still be seen built into the present church tower. A Bishop's Palace was built alongside, where holy men such as St. Bertwald, St. Aelfstan, St. Oda and two other future Archbishops of Canterbury often resided over their see. The Bishops seem to have made Sonning into something of a pilgrimage centre, for the church held a relic of "St. Sarik". There was still a chapel dedicated to him in existence around 1600 which may have been on the site of the south chancel aisle. He should probably be identified with the Middle-Eastern St. Cyriacus, whose relics were also revered at nearby Abingdon. It is possible that Bishop Sigeric may have seen him as a namesake and patron and have acquired a relic for Sonning in the 990s.

The Sonning Diocese was later united the Sherborne and transferred to Salisbury, but the Bishops continued to live at Sonning on occasion and the complex was much expanded, particularly upon its crenallation in 1337. St. Osmund owned the manor at the time of the Domesday Book (1086) and, as he is known to have dedicated a number of Berkshire churches, he must have resided there quite often. Bishop Roger of Salisbury stayed at the Palace while attending the funeral of King Henry I at Reading Abbey (1135). He arrived by state barge up the Thames. Bishop Herbert Poor acted as custodian for at least one of King John's noble prisoners and the King himself arrived to receive his ransom in September 1216. The Black Prince frequently rode over from Wallingford and his daughter-in-law, the seven-year-old Princess Isabella of France, became a further prisoner at Sonning upon her husband Richard II's deposition in 1396. She was visited in her splendid gaol by his hopeful supporters, but their insurrection came to nothing. Isabella later returned home, across the Channel, though her ghost remains. King Richard's personal symbol was the white hart (from Rich-hart), as remembered in the local Sonning inn, now unfortunately renamed the 'Great House'.  It was probably the site of the house of Elias the Ferryman around 1100.

There is nothing to be seen of the old Bishop's Palace today but a Tudor wall and a low mound near Holme Park. However, the 16th century Bull Inn is thought to have been the Bishops' Guesthouse where St. Sarik's pilgrims stayed. Its name stems from the bovine supporters and crest of Sir Henry Neville who was the steward to Queen Elizabeth I at Sonning, after she bought the manor from the Bishops of Salisbury. Her majesty visited the place at least twice. The Dean of Salisbury also had a house at Sonning (from c.1284 until the early 19th c.) and Deanery Gardens, a house by Edwin Lutyens, still remain north of the church.

The present Sonning Church, though considerably restored in Victorian times, is largely 13th & 14th century in date. William Scammel was consecrated Bishop of Salisbury there in 1284. It houses a fine collection of monuments. There is a most superb brass to Laurence Fyton (1434), the younger son of the Lord of Gawsworth in Cheshire, who found his own way in life by becoming the Bishop of Salisbury's bailiff. He ran the Sonning estates on a day-to-day basis between intermittent Episcopal visits. Further 16th century brasses and later monuments to the Barker family, Royal stewards, show well the changing fashions of the age. Of what must have originally been a fine Jacobean monument, now only has a small group of six kneeling figures remaining. They were found in one of the old vaults and no-one knows to whom they were a memorial. The most striking monument, however, must be that to Sir Thomas Rich (1667). This extraordinary memorial features no effigy, but four cherubs supporting a slab with two urns, all in stark contrasting black and white. It has been described as "the vilest paganism imaginable" but would have been the height of fashion at the time. Rich was an Alderman of Gloucester who traded out of Turkey and lent the King much money during the Civil War. He bought Sonning Manor in 1654.

The church had some interesting characters to tend to the spiritual needs of the locals. One medieval vicar was in the habit of wearing is sword in the pulpit. Another upset the churchwardens, in the 1570s, by erected a new pew for his wife and his cattle run free in the churchyard. In the 19th century, the vicar was fond of entertaining eminent guests to dinner. Unfortunately, these included an unscrupulous doctor who would laugh and joke with his host while his associates robbed the graves in the churchyard for the his dubious research.

During the Napoleonic War, Lord Sidmouth's house, “The Grove“ looking down the High Street, was the prison of Admiral Villeneuve, the French commander at Trafalgar. Pitt visited him there. At the end of his life, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), came to live at “The Acre” in Sonning, where he painted his second version of “The Light of the World” for St. Paul's Cathedral. A less salubrious residence, a cottage at the end of Sonning Lane called Turpins, is said to have been the home of Dick Turpin's aunt. Being frequently engaged on the Bath Road, Dick would flee the Berkshire authorities by galloping to his aunt's house, then on foot through the churchyard to Oxfordshire and safety. Black Bess would casually stroll down to a loose-box hidden below the cottage. Claude Duval is also said to have owned a house in the village. 


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