The A338 is part of an old Roman Road, heading south from Alchester and fording the Thames at Oxford, before reaching the pagan religious complex at Frilford/Marcham and then Wantage. It eventually joined the Ermin(e) Way probably around Lambourn Woodlands. It was alongside this road, in the Denchworth Road area of the Western town, that the first settlement at Wantage grew up: a Roman village serving the agricultural community in the countryside surrounding it. It appears to have emerged in the 1st century and survived well into the 4th. It had buildings of both wood and stone and particularly impressive were its 'tower-granaries' where, no doubt, grain was stored before being sold or taken as taxes to feed the Roman army. There was, of course, an extensive cemetery too.
This place-name could possibly be an early Celtic word, something like Gwynedd-iog, or 'White Hills Place' referring to the Berkshire Downs. Although, as it originally seems to have referred to two rivers (the Letcombe Brook and a second parallel one, now defunct), there seems little reason to doubt the standard interpretation of it being Saxon for 'Waning River'. Although it is also said to have been named after the moles in the area which are locally called 'wants'. Wantage Church was a Saxon Minster and the Saxon kings had a Palace here. King Aethelred the Unready drew up the 'Wantage Code' of laws when the Witan met there in AD 995 and King Alfred the Great was born there in AD 847. His statue, by Count Gleichen, stands in the market place. Wantage is thus known to the literary World as 'Alfredston'. Thomas Hardy sent Jude the Obscure here as an apprentice stone-cutter.
In the early 13th century, King John's adversary, Fulk FitzWarin of Whittington (Salop), seems to have got hold of the Manor of Wantage from the Earl of Pembroke. The house stood somewhere in the region of Court Close (also the traditional site of the old Saxon Palace). Fulk was a famous outlaw and, though he rented Wantage out to the Fettiplaces, one of his many escapades was centred on Windsor Forest (See also The Village (Old Windsor)). In 1295, his great grandson, Fulk FitzWarin, 1st Baron FitzWarin of Whittington, and his wife, Princess Margaret of Powys-Wenwynwyn, bought the manor outright. In the parish church, there is a fine effigial monument to their grandson, William La Frere FitzWarin KG, supposed Baron FitzWarin of Wantage. Although he lived in the manor house, it was actually owned by his brother, hence the appendage to his name. He died of the Pestilence in 1361. Nearby is another memorial that may have originally lain in the north FitzWarin Chapel (later occupied by the organ). It is to William's son, Lord Ivo FitzWarin (1414), and is described as one of the finest monumental brasses in England. He stands five foot tall in full armour and sports a moustache (his beard may be hidden). This man was the father-in-law of the famous Dick Whittington. Lord Ivo (alias Hugh), as well as being a landed lord and a soldier who served with the Duke of Gloucester at the Siege of Nantes, was apparently a rich merchant with premises in Leadenhall Street in London. It was here that he took in the poor orphaned Dick who went on to marry his daughter, Alice, and become three times Mayor of the City.
There are many brasses in Wantage Church, a large building of varying ages. Another FitzWarin, a priest in vestments, is thought to be amongst the oldest in the country. Other treasures include amusing stone corbels and the highly carved 15th century choir-stalls (with misericords) in the chancel. A small piece of Saxon carving can be seen near the pulpit, and there are crusader crosses on the massive pillars supporting the 13th century tower (the oldest part of the church). These were carved by soldiers coming back from the crusades who wished to blunt their swords while at the same time giving thanks for their safe return. A curfew bell used to be rung out from the tower, up until relatively recent times. It was paid for by a bequest from a local man who had become lost in a blizzard on the Downs but found his way back to Wantage by listening to the sound of the church bells.
There was once a second church within the parish churchyard. The Pope himself granted an indulgence to those who made a pilgrimage to the old Norman chapel of St. Mary on the Virgin's Feast Day, and it was a place of worship well into the 16th century. In 1597, however, it was converted for use as a Latin School or grammar school. This is the present King Alfred's School, refounded in new premises two hundred and fifty years later. However, it still retains a fine Norman doorway removed from the demolished chapel. It is beautifully carved with birds' heads and lozenges. Joseph Butler, a local lad who went to the school in the first decade of the 18th century, went on to become both Bishop of Bristol and of Durham. He was a highly influential figure in the Church of England made particularly famous by writing his 'Analogy of Religion'.
A small contingent of Royalist troops were stationed in the town during the Civil War, as an outpost from Wallingford and Oxford after Abingdon had been taken. It was probably after their expulsion that parliamentary troops destroyed Wantage's Market Cross. It had stood in the centre of the market-place since at least Tudor times, asking passers by to "Pray for the Good Earl of Bath and Barnaby the Builder". The old Market Hall had replaced it by 1654. This was probably a two storeyed building within open arcading at ground level, much like the one at Wallingford. It was, unfortunately, demolished in 1835. Wantage has been holding a market since at least 1203, but this seems to have been formalised by King Henry III in 1246. It also once held a fair on St. Faith's Day (6th October), a fact that caused much quarrelling with the nearby village of Shellingford which held a fair on the same day until the Abbot of Abingdon agreed to stop it (at least officially).
The traditional trades of Wantage men were largely concerned with the manufacture of hemp, sacking, hats and tallow, as well as tanning. This last industry is remembered by the sheep's knucklebones still to be seen used as paving in the courtyard of Stiles' Almshouses. However, despite the hard work of some, in the 18th century, Wantage was famous throughout the land as 'Black Wantage' the home of layabouts and criminals. It was always said that if a prisoner escaped from the Bow Street Runners in London, they would know to search for their prey in Wantage. Such a reputation sprang from the town being a centre for gipsies, pedlars and hawkers, as well as some vagrants. In those days, gambling was the favourite pastime of the people of Wantage, particularly at cock-fights and badger-baits. There was frequent Bull-Baiting at the Camel Inn and this is remembered by the name of the 'Bull Ring' in the market-place.
The town's was eventually 'cleaned up' through the efforts of Rev. William John Butler from the mid-19th century onwards. Shortly before, the Agricultural Revolution had brought Wantage back to life and it became an important focus for the manufacture of agricultural tools. It was also in this area, as well as around Faringdon, that the Berkshire Pig was first bred by local farmers. The bacon from these large black animals was often used to make the local dish of Berkshire bacon pudding, a suet roly-poly filled with home cured bacon and flavoured with sage and onion. Once widespread across the county, these pigs are now classed as a 'rare breed'. The great Victorian benefactor to the town was Lord Wantage of Lockinge House. He won the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War and built a fine art gallery for Wantage to house paintings of other men who had been given a similar award. Unfortunately, these have since been sold and the Victoria Cross Gallery is now a small shopping centre; but the town still retains its statue of King Alfred which he also paid for.
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