Amesbury (St. Mary and St. Melorius)

AMESBURY (St. Mary and St. Melorius), a town and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Amesbury, S. division of Wilts, 7 miles (N.) from Salisbury, and 78 (W. S. W.) from London; containing 1171 inhabitants. This place was anciently called Ambresbury, and that name is probably derived, not from Aurelius Ambrosius, as hitherto generally supposed, but from the combined appellations of Stonehenge and an ancient camp, both situate in the parish and near the town; viz. Ambres, holy or anointed stones, and burg, or bury, a camp; "the holy stones near the camp." A monastery for 300 monks is stated to have been founded here by Ambruis, a British monk, or, more probably, by Ambrosius; it was destroyed by Gurthurm, or Gurmundus, a Saxon chief. After the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity, a synod was held at Amesbury, in the reign of King Edgar, to adjust the differences that existed between the regular and the secular clergy, which had been previously discussed in an assembly held at Calne. About 980, Elfrida, widow of the same king, founded here a nunnery of the Benedictine order, which she dedicated to St. Mary and to St. Melorius, a Cornish saint, in expiation, it is supposed, of the murder of Edward, her step-son, at Corfe Castle. In 1177, the abbess and nuns were expelled, on the ground of incontinence; and Henry II. made it a cell to the foreign abbey of Fontevrault. Queen Eleanor, widow of Henry III., assumed the veil in this convent, where she died in 1291. It was at length made denizen; and at the Dissolution its revenue was £558. 10. 2.

The manor and principal estates of Amesbury originally appertained to the abbey, and at the Reformation were granted to the Lord Protector Somerset, from whose family they were carried by the marriage of a female descendant into the family of Bruce, subsequently earls of Amesbury. They afterwards passed by sale to Lord Carlton, who left them by will to the Duke of Queensberry, husband to the celebrated duchess; and on the death of the last duke, they descended by entail to Lord Douglas of Bothwell Castle, by whom they were sold to Sir Edmund Antrobus, at whose decease they passed to his nephew, the present baronet. A mansion was built by the Somerset family nearly on the site of the ancient abbey; it has been taken down by Sir Edmund Antrobus, who is replacing it by an extensive and elegant edifice, judiciously preserving the magnificent saloon of the former building. The town is situated in a valley on the banks of the Avon, and consists of two streets; it is neither paved nor lighted, but is well supplied with water. The market, which was on Friday, has been discontinued: fairs are held on May 17th, June 21st, and December 21st.

The parish comprises 5600 acres; the surface is undulated, and the soil a gravelly loam upon a chalky subsoil. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of the Dean and Canons of Windsor, with a net income of £141: about 5 acres of land in the parish of Hungerford, purchased by Queen Anne's Bounty, belong to it. The church, originally of Norman architecture, has recently undergone a thorough repair; it is warmed by two very handsome stoves, which cost £189, and were presented by Sir Edmund Antrobus. There is a place of worship for Wesleyans. In 1677, John Rose bequeathed property for the establishment of a superior and a secondary school, the former for boys, and the latter for boys and girls: the endowment consists of a farm in the parish of Ditchett, county of Somerset, comprising 52½ acres, and of a messuage and garden at Amesbury in the rent-free occupation of the master. Here is also a school founded under the will of Mr. Henry Spratt, in 1708, and endowed with land now let for £50 per annum; other schools are supported by subscription. The poor law union of Amesbury comprises 23 parishes or places, and contains a population of 7698. To the west of the river is an ancient encampment with a vallum and deep fosse, occupying an area of forty acres, commonly attributed to Vespasian, but undoubtedly of British origin: the road from Amesbury to Warminster is cut through its rampart. The poet Gay passed much of his time at Amesbury, under the roof of his generous patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.