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

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Hill Figure & Hughes

Tom Brown's School Museum & Parish Church, Uffington, Berkshire (Oxfordshire) - © Nash Ford Publishing

Uffington is best known for its World-famous White Horse, a huge chalk hill figure gracing the White Horse Hill that can be seen for miles around. Not unnaturally, it has many tales told about it. One states that Prince (later King) Alfred had it cut out of the chalk to celebrate his great victory at the Battle of Ashdown (AD 871). Some think the battle took place near Uffington Castle (or at least near Ashdown Park). The most popular story says the figure represents a dragon and was cut to commemorate the killing of this infamous beast by St. George on nearby Dragon Hill. Its blood poisoned the ground where no grass will now grow. Names like Dragon Hill were often given to places where the Saxons found Roman hoards of coins or plate. They believed that dragons collected great stores of treasure like this and hid them away. Dragon Hill could have been built for a surveying tower from which to inspect progress on the cutting of the White Horse. The site of a besieged motte of a Saxon or Norman castle is an alternative, but most unlikely, explanation. Unlike the similar Silbury Hill (Wilts), Uffington’s great mound is considered to be a perfectly natural feature, though the top has been artificially flattened. Saxon charters call the place Eccles Beorh, Celto-Saxon for 'Church Barrow'. This may indicate a pagan site that was converted for Christian worship. The St. George legend backs this theory up, for his defeat of the dragon represents Christianity triumphing over the old pagan religion. The White Horse would, no doubt, have been the god worshipped in pre-Christian Iron Age times. It still has magical associations: try spinning round on its eye three times and making a wish. It could depict Epona, the Celtic horse goddess, or perhaps Beli, the sun god who had strong horse connections, probably because they drew his sun chariot across the sky. The latter is sometimes associated with hilltop churches dedicated to St. Michael, St. George’s heavenly counterpart. Because its design resembles those found on 2,000 year old coins, the White Horse was, for long, thought to date from this Iron Age period. However, recent investigation using new analysis techniques has accurately shown it to be some thousand years older! This makes the horse Bronze Age and its original dedication must have been to a much earlier god.

Nearby Uffington Castle also appears to have originated in the Bronze Age, as does Ram's Hill on the eastern side of the parish. Surprisingly little evidence has been found for Iron Age occupation at Uffington Castle, despite it being a so called 'Iron Age' Hillfort. However, the Romans were active here: probably holding religious festivals associated with the horse. These festivities may be the origins of the ritual scouring (cleaning) of the White Horse that used to take place every seven years. They included a fair with many games and competitions. Much to the resentment of the local players, in 1755, the Berkshire sport of Back-Swording was won by the Lambourn highwayman, Tim Gibbons. Not wanting to be recognised, he was disguised as a gentleman and kept his horse always near at hand. After claiming his prize, he quickly jumped on the beast and rode off.

These lands seem to have remained an area of importance even into Saxon times. The village of Uffington originally made up half the estate of Ashesbury, which was the original name of Uffington Castle. Like nearby Ashbury, it meant 'Ash Tree covered Fort'. Two Saxon charters, setting out the estate boundaries, survive for the period when Ealdorman Athelstan of East Anglia gave the estate away to Abingdon Abbey in the mid-10th century. They mention the Dude Beorh or 'Dydda’s Barrow'  as being very near Uffington Castle. This would appear to be the burial mound of King Dydda of Upper Wessex. He lived in the 7th century and was the father of St. Frideswide (Patroness of Oxford). It could be the small mound to the right of the path heading from the car park to the White Horse. However, recent exploratory work has shown this to be Neolithic, reused in Roman Times. It therefore seems more likely that the Dude Beorh was the round barrow now completely ploughed out of the land just to the north. Excavation has shown this to be Bronze Age, reused in Saxon Times! A number of other interesting features in the landscape are mentioned including the burial mounds then called 'Hawk's Low' and 'Hound's Low'; and also a stud fold, showing that the Berkshire Downs were used for breeding horses even in those far off times. The estate was split in two around this time. The western portion became Woolstone, while the eastern portion was 'Uffington' or 'Offa People's Town'. Nothing seems to be known about Offa but he certainly had no connection with the famous King of Mercia of that name. 

By the time of the Domesday Survey (1086), the Vale of the White Horse had become one of the most populous and prosperous parts of Berkshire, with good arable and pasture lands, woods and a plentiful water supply. The Abbey kept three ploughs at their grange to work their estate but, some of the land, they rented out in order that their tenants could provide the compulsory knights to attend the King. The English monarchs were occasional visitors themselves, as they travelled along the nationally important Port Way and Ridge Way crossing the parish. Edward I passed through in 1291. 

The Abbots had built a church at Uffington by 1146, perhaps earlier. However, the 'Cathedral of the Vale' that we know today wasn't erected until about 1240. It is a very large church, with a central octagonal tower which once sported a tall spire. It is the finest example of an Early English church in the county and was probably built by craftsmen from Salisbury Cathedral. It has hardly been touched since that time. The Abbey must have kept a number of monks at their grange, rather than a mere steward, for the three small chapels projecting from the church's transepts appear to have been for their exclusive use. In 1327, these monks came into conflict with the officer who ran a granary at Woolstone for  the Bishop of Winchester. There was a dispute over pastureland called Summerlease and it was decided that it should be resolved by combat! The Abbot's man was victoriius.

By the 17th century, the abbeys were no more and the Craven family were lords of the manor. William Craven was made Viscount Craven of Uffington and then Earl of Craven, after supporting the King financially during the Civil War. There seems to have been a certain amount of conflict in Uffington for the church was "ruinated in the late wars", probably by Roundhead soldiers from Abingdon. As the monasteries were no longer providing education for the locals, Thomas Saunders, a merchant from Woolstone, left land in 1617 to endow a school at Uffington for twelve poor children. The small stone building that was built with the money is now a the village museum. It was this school which the village children and friends of Thomas Hughes attended in the early 19th century, though he probably had a private tutor. His family had been vicars of Uffington for five generations and lived 'The Hall' on the site of the present primary school. Thomas was born there in 1822. He describes Uffington in detail in his literary masterpiece, 'Tom Brown’s School Days', in which his hero grew up in the Vale.


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2004. All Rights Reserved. This location is now administered by Oxfordshire County Council.