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Winchcomb (St. Peter)

WINCHCOMB (St. Peter), a market-town and parish, and the head of a union, in the Lower division of the hundred of Kiftsgate, E. division of the county of Gloucester, 15½ miles (N. E. by E.) from Gloucester, and 95 (W. N. W.) from London; containing 2613 inhabitants. This place was formerly called Wincelcumb (from the Saxon Wincel, a corner, and comb, a valley), of which its modern name is obviously a contraction. During the heptarchy, if not the metropolis of the kingdom of Mercia, it was at least the residence of some of the Mercian kings, of whom Offa founded a nunnery here in 787. Cenulph, who succeeded to the throne of that kingdom, after the death of Egferth, Offa's son, who survived his father only a few months, had a palace here, and in 798 laid the foundation of a stately abbey for 300 monks of the Benedictine order, which he endowed with an ample revenue, and dedicated with unusual splendour to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the conclusion of the ceremony, which was conducted by Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by twelve other prelates, in the presence of the king himself, of Cuthred, King of Kent, Sired, King of the East Saxons, ten dukes, and the flower of the Mercian nobles, Cenulph, leading to the high altar his captive Ethelbert Pren, usurper of the kingdom of Kent, whom he had made prisoner, generously restored him to his liberty without fine or ransom. In the year 819 Cenulph was buried in the abbey which he had founded, where also the remains of his son and successor, Kenelm, were deposited; the latter was at length canonized, and the numerous pilgrimages made to his shrine greatly augmented the revenue of the monastery, which was subsequently re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Kenelm. The establishment was afterwards in the possession of Secular priests, and had almost fallen into decay, when Oswald, Bishop of Worcester, in the year 985, reformed its discipline, recovered the lands of which it had been deprived, and restored it to the Benedictine monks, who held it till the Dissolution.

This was a mitred abbey, the first summons of the abbot to parliament now on record being in 1265. Its possessions were numerous, for, at the period of the Norman survey, no fewer than nineteen manors were annexed to it, independently of Winchcomb itself; though the monks having opposed the Conqueror, had been deprived by him of many of their lands. At the Dissolution the revenue was £759. 11. 9. The building is reported to have been exceedingly magnificent, and the establishment so prosperous at one period, that it was "equal to a little university." Very few traces of it remain, but the memorial is preserved in the name of part of a hamlet, which is still called the Abbey demesnes.

Of the civil history of the place few particulars are recorded: the town appears to have been walled, and to the south of the church was an ancient fortress, or castle, which, according to Lei and, having fallen into decay, and the ruins being overspread with ivy, gave the name of Ivy Castle to a spot now occupied only by a few cottages and gardens. Winchcomb is situated in a beautiful vale, at the northern base of the Cotswold hills, by which it is sheltered nearly on every side; and is watered by the little river Isbourne, which flows close to it on the south-east. It consists principally of three streets, extending in a long line from east to west, with North-street and a few smaller ones branching from them. The houses are in general low and of indifferent appearance; and being but little of a thoroughfare, the place preserves an air of seclusion and tranquillity, and has that venerable character which denotes an Anglo-Saxon town. It is abundantly supplied with excellent water from wells and springs. The cultivation of tobacco, which is said to have been first planted here on its introduction into the kingdom, in 1583, was for a considerable time a source of much profit to the inhabitants; but in the 12th of Charles I., the trade being restrained, the plantations were neglected. The principal branches of manufacture at present carried on are those of paper and silk, for the former of which there are two large mills in the neighbourhood, and one for the latter; there is also a tanyard on a moderate scale. The market is on Saturday: fairs are held on the last Saturday in March, on May 6th, and July 28th, for horses, cattle, and sheep; and two fairs take place at Michaelmas for the hiring of servants. Previously to the time of Canute, Winchcomb, with a small surrounding district, was a county of itself; and in the reign of Edward the Confessor the town was made a borough. The powers of the county debt-court of Winchcomb, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Winchcomb.

The living is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £3. 4.; net income, £134: patron, Lord Sudeley. The tithes were commuted for land in 1812. The church, partly erected by Abbot William, in the reign of Henry VI., and completed at the expense of the parishioners, munificently assisted by Ralph Boteler, Lord of Sudeley, is a spacious and handsome structure in the later English style, with a lofty square embattled tower crowned by pinnacles. The walls are embattled and strengthened by buttresses, also terminating in pinnacles; the south porch, of which the roof is elaborately groined and highly enriched, is a beautiful specimen of the style. At Gretton is a chapel of ease. There are places of worship for Baptists and Wesleyans. A free grammar school was established in 1522, by Henry VIII., who endowed it with £9. 4. 6. per annum, which was confirmed by Queen Elizabeth. The school, after being long continued in a house belonging to the corporation, was united to a grammar school subsequently founded by Lady Frances Chandos, for which she erected a school-house in St. Nicholas' street, endowing it with certain property. The income, arising from nearly 20 acres of land, is £45. A school for teaching children to read was instituted by George Townsend, Esq., who endowed it with £5 per annum as a salary for the master (since increased to £20 by the trustees), and also left funds for apprenticing the children, with whom a premium of £15 is given. There are likewise various bequests for the poor. The union of Winchcomb comprises 30 parishes or places, of which 27 are in the county of Gloucester, and 3 in that of Worcester; and contains a population of 10,000. In the parish are two mineral springs, one a strong saline, the other chalybeate, and nearly similar to the water of Cheltenham. Besides the abbey of St. Mary, previously noticed, were a church dedicated to St. Nicholas, in the east part of the town; and an ancient hospital. Tidenham of Winchcomb, Bishop of Worcester, and physician to Richard II., is supposed to have been a native of the towu; and Dr. Christopher Mercet, an eminent naturalist and philosopher, was born here in 1614.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.