Wilton near Salisbury lies about 3miles (5km) west of the city and took its name from the Anglo-Saxon Wilsaetes tribe living on the banks of the river Wylye.
The Wilsaetes and Wilton also gave their name to the county of Wiltshire. The shire county was first mentioned in 8th century as Wilsaete and later in the 9th century as Wiltunscir.
Wilton figured prominently as both an ecclesiastic and royal centre for Wessex and the shire. In 871 the balance of power shifted when the Danes scored a victory and Wilton was burned to the ground. Wilton Abbey was of great importance at this time and this became one of the foremost religious foundations of England. A magnificent shrine to St Edith was erected by King Cnut and Wilton became an important place of pilgrimage during the 10th and 11th centuries. Despite various setbacks resulting from the Danish Wars and later during the power struggles between King Stephen and Empress Maud for the crown Wilton continued in the ascendancy. After the wood buildings of the town and Abbey were set on fire the Abbey was rebuilt in stone. In 1154 King Henry II confirmed the original Charter for the town permitting the burgesses of the town the rights to tolls and dues and prosperity grew.
The building of the new Salisbury Cathedral and city plans from 1220 onwards posed a big threat to Wilton. Try as they might the burgesses of Ancient Wilton were unable to stem the flow of trade and commerce to their developing neighbour. Although this meant a slow decline Wilton had its prestigious abbey, cloth and other trades. Salisbury’s continued growth led to an erosion of Wilton’s economy and following the Plague in the mid 14th century many of the businesses relocated in nearby Salisbury. A boost to the Wilton economy was granted in the form of a new sheep fair in 1433 and the wool trade that resulted.
In the next century the Wilton Abbey was closed and handed over to Henry Vlll during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and much of the estate granted to Sir William Herbert who became Earl of Pembroke in 1551. William was succeeded by his brother Philip in 1630. Despite the upheaval in England during the Civil War and the subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy the estates and Wilton survived intact.
Weaving on a small scale was about the only industry left in Wilton by the 17th century but with the assistance of the Earl of Pembroke a carpet industry began when two French weavers were brought to Wilton to teach the locals the craft. The early weave was a variation on the Brussels weave and the first carpet factory was started in the west of the town. From this period much of medieval Wilton underwent rebuilding and further carpet factories appeared. Carpet weaving prospered through the 19th century especially during the Napoleonic Wars when there was little competition from Europe.
Carpet weaving has had a chequered history at Wilton with the main carpet factory changing hands and in more recent times the threat of closure was never far away.
Despite all the changes, the introduction of modern machinery and takeovers the Wilton carpets never really went out of fashion and although no longer known as Royal Wilton (there was a management buy out of the plant in 1997) carpet manufacture continues on the site to this day.
Within the factory estate in more recent times the Wilton Shopping Centre has been developed. This is a tasteful area of mixed retail shops, including the Wilton Carpet factory shop, with a restaurant and outdoor seating. It is an ideal spot in which to relax and shop away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Salisbury and Wilton.
There are several interesting buildings and places in Wilton to visit, the most prominent and well known of course being the Earl of Pembroke’s Wilton House. Often described as England’s most beautiful country house this has been the country seats of the earls of Pembroke for over 400 years. The entrance to Wilton House is almost opposite the Wilton Carpet Factory on the west side of the Wilton town centre.
There is much of historical importance to visit in and around the ancient town of Wilton. Worthy of mention is also a most beautiful church, the Church of St Mary and St Nicholas just beyond and west of the centre of Wilton on the banks of the river Nadder. This remarkable building was constructed between 1841 and 1844 at the behest of the Dowager Countess of Pembroke in the Romanesque style. Whilst looking a little out of place far away from its Mediterranean roots it is nonetheless a beautiful piece of architecture and quite fascinating to visit.
Visitors should not be overwhelmed by the ‘contemporary’ city of Salisbury and pause awhile to visit its elderly neighbour Wilton which was after all an established ecclesiastical and commerce centre of royal patronage long before Salisbury Cathedral was built. It is but 3 miles (5km) away from Salisbury and quickly reached by car or public transport. Its compact centre makes an interesting morning or afternoon day out from Salisbury. Wilton near Salisbury