Ramsbury is a large picturesque village situated 6 miles (10km) east of Marlborough on the River Kennet at the county border with Berkshire.
Although there have been few prehistoric remains found in the area there is an Iron Age hillfort at nearby Membury. The area was latterly occupied by the Romans with a two storey villa circa 150-350 A.D. mosaic, now fully excavated and open to the public, in the grounds of Littlecote estate just over the Berkshire border. To the west of the village at Mildenhall there was a Roman fort known as Cunetio.
The village dates back to Saxon times with evidence of a settlement during the 5th or 6th centuries. Along with Axford there were several other Saxon settlements through the valley. It was considered such an important settlement that a Bishopric was established and a cathedral built. Some of the early bishops went on to become Bishop of Canterbury. The Bishop’s estate was the second largest non-royal Wiltshire estate of Saxon times and the Bishopric lasted from 909AD to 1058 AD when it was joined with Sherborne and later in 1075AD was moved to Old Sarum, an important settlement located about 3 miles (5km) north of what is today the ‘modern’ city of Salisbury. With the founding of the cathedral city the Bishopric moved to Salisbury where it remains to this day. In 1974 The Bishopric was revived as a suffragan to Salisbury and since then the fourth Bishop Stephen Conway was ordained at St Pauls Cathedral London in 2006.
From the Domesday Book of 1086, an inventory of lands, population, property and livestock drawn up following the Norman Conquest of England of 1066, there were around 800 people, including the officials from the Bishop’s Palace and Cathedral, living in the area at that time.
Although the Bishopric ended in 1075 the estate remained in the possession of the bishops of Salisbury and was one of their favourite places to visit. A market, granted by the Church was being run but it lost out to nearby Marlborough and probably ceased in the 14th century but was replaced by two annual fairs. Right up until the 16th century the bishops continued to stay at the old bishop’s palace. The hamlet of Park Town just west of the village grew up around the palace and there were a string of small settlements around the area mostly along the river. The village took on the appearance of a small town and there were a large number of manors and estates in the parish with cloth making becoming established during the 14th and 15th centuries and a fulling mill on the nearby river Kennet.
The village continued to expand eastwards along the river valley during the 16th century and Littlecote house was rebuilt in 1585. Industries mostly associated with agriculture were well established with tanners, curriers, shoemakers, glovers, candlemakers and also a malthouse.
The village succumbed to the ever present threat of fire in 1648 when 130 houses were destroyed. Whilst the village escaped much of the destruction wrought during the English Civil War (1642-1651) because of its Parliamentarian affiliations, the lord of the manor the Earl of Pembroke was a Parliamentarian, the village stood for Parliament. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarians, stayed at the manor in 1649 and appointed the local clergy. Although the local curate was thrown out when the monarchy was restored in1660 he was responsible for a growing non-conformist movement in the area.
The village continued to play an important part in the area with the main London to Bath road passing through it and through the 17th and 18th centuries there were many large houses built. A successful brewing industry was exporting beer to London with many inns in the village but a second fire burnt down at least 40 buildings in 1781. The village began a slow decline in importance when the present London to Bath road was turnpiked in 1774 and the Kennet and Avon Canal was built to the south which was also eclipsed by the arrival of the railway which ran alongside the canal wall to the south of the village. Today of course the proximity of the main M4 motorway has revitalised the village with a growing population and thriving community.
Perhaps the most significant event of modern times was the construction and operation of the Ramsbury airfield on the hill south of the river in 1941. Although the airfield was quickly returned to agriculture shortly after the Second World War, along with several others in Wiltshire, it played a pivotal role in the invasion of Europe. Although initially used by American aircraft supplying Europe, then by the UK’s Bomber Command for training bomber crews, its primary role was for use by the American allies to train, prepare and finally to invade Europe. The D-day landings of June 1944 were the culmination of a carefully planned invasion of the Europe mainland by joint American and British forces. During those summer months the skies of Southern England were alive to the throb of aero engines as a continuous procession of transport aircraft, bombers and gliders carrying paratroops and munitions heralding the biggest invasion of history. The village quickly returned to its pre-war tranquillity after the war was ended and today little evidence remains of those momentous times. Roger Day’s website www.ramsburyatwar.com and his book of the same name has kept alive the memories and the debt which Britain owes to a whole generation of young Americans many of whom gave their lives in the service of this country during this most recent period of history.Ramsbury