Like many places in the Cotswolds, Winchcombe’s story begins far back in the prehistoric period. What makes Winchcombe’s history special, though, is its prominence as a royal town in Saxon times, its importance as a pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages, and its Victorian expansion. All three periods have left their marks on the town.
People had settled in the hills around Winchcombe at least as far back as 3000 BC. We know this because archaeologists have found pottery of this date in the area and because of Belas Knap, the striking chambered long barrow set at about 950 feet above sea level, to the south of the town. Belas Knap was excavated in the late nineteenth century and again in 1928-30, when 38 skeletons were discovered. After the second excavation, the barrow was restored. With its drystone retaining walls, stone-lined burial chambers, and fine false entrance at the northern end, it is probably the best surviving example of this type of Neolithic long barrow.
There is little archaeological evidence for early or middle Bronze Age settlement in this area, but by the later Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and the Iron Age, which started soon after this date, there is more activity. Hilltop enclosures such as the one on Nottingham Hill, next to Cleeve Hill, a couple of miles from the town, date to the early Iron Age (from around 800 BC). So there were probably people living in the hills around Winchcombe when the Romans arrived.
The Roman period
There are several Roman sites near Winchcombe. The hills to the south contain two villa sites, and finds in and near the town suggest that there was almost certainly some sort of settlement in the valley. An excavation at Almsbury revealed the remains of what was probably a Roman farmstead a stone’s throw from the town. Winchcombe was probably a minor settlement during the Roman period – either a farming community or a village that was here because of the river.
Winchcombe’s fortunes changed dramatically in the Saxon period. By the early eighth century, the place had become, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, a major royal centre of the sub-kingdom of the Hwicce, a people who owed allegiance to the kings of Mercia.
King Offa of Mercia is said to have founded a nunnery here in the eighth century. By 811 it was rebuilt and dedicated to St Mary. Later still, in about 972, it was refounded as a Benedictine abbey. Winchcombe was still growing in importance and in 1007 it became the centre of its own county, Winchcombeshire, which lasted a mere ten years before being absorbed into Gloucestershire. Edward the Confessor was said to have granted the town a market.
Although there is not much left of Saxon Winchcombe, parts of the Saxon ramparts are preserved as an earthwork in the land on the southern side of Back Lane.
The Middle Ages
Winchcombe was one of the four Gloucestershire boroughs mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. In the following centuries both town and abbey prospered, benefitting from the trade in wool from the surrounding farmland and, increasingly, from the economic benefits brought to the town by pilgrims. Visitors came to the shrine of Saint Kenelm in the abbey and also to the nearby Cistercian monastery at Hailes, which housed a phial containing what was said to be the blood of Christ. Innkeeping and a trade in pins and other souvenirs made many Winchcombers prosperous.
This prosperity is still reflected in St Peter’s church, one of the most impressive of the great late-medieval churches of the Cotswolds. It was built, largely in one go, in the 1460s, with funds partly provided by the town, partly by the Abbey, and partly by Ralph Boteler, lord and builder of nearby Sudeley Castle. St Peter’s is a superb example of the Perpendicular style of architecture.
There is also evidence of the innkeeping in the town, where one early inn, the George (now converted to flats) can still be seen. The inn bears the initials of Richard Kidderminster, abbot of Winchcombe from 1488 to 1525, under whom the abbey became a byword for learning. But for all Kidderminster’s fame, his monastery was in decline. Incomes fell and so did numbers – by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539 there were only eighteen monks in the abbey.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century
Winchcombe’s decline continued in the Tudor and Stuart periods. In 1575 the town’s burgesses petitioned Queen Elizabeth to grant a second fair and a Tuesday market, for ‘the town [had] fallen into great poverty, ruin, and decay’. The nearby Sudeley Castle, by contrast, had a heyday, being home to the young Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) and to Henry VIII’s widow, Katherine Parr.
By the early seventeenth century, Winchcombers were growing tobacco and flax to try to scrape a living. When the authorities tried to stop them (there was pressure to bolster the trade with Virginia by importing tobacco from across the Atlantic), the locals refused to give up growing tobacco, defending their land with billhooks and scythes when the militia turned up to try to destroy their crops.
The town’s decline meant that there were few new buildings, although two notable exceptions are the Chandos Almshouses (built in 1573) and the Jacobean House in Queen’s Square (built in about 1615–16 as a school). In addition, many existing houses were extended and some had their timber structures replaced with stone. One substantial house that must have been remodelled at this time is the building that is now the Corner Cupboard Inn, whose interior walls contain fragments of medieval carving that look as if they came from the former abbey.
At this time, therefore, the centre of the town must have gained much of its present architectural character, with a variety of houses and other structures that mix the typical local building materials – the timber-framing of the Vale of Evesham and the creamy limestone of the Cotswolds.
The nineteenth century
During the nineteenth century the town began to expand once more. New houses were built on the edges, especially to the north and the southwest. The town’s centre was enhanced with the creation in the 1830s of Abbey Terrace, with its distinctive high walk and market place, and with several building projects sponsored by the Dent family, owners of Sudeley Castle, notably a school (1867, designed by George Gilbert Scott) near St Peter’s church and the almshouses in Dent’s Terrace (1865, by the same architect). The Victorian period also saw the building of Winchcombe’s Town Hall (1853), in the very middle of the town where High Street and North Street meet. Several of the town’s churches – including the Union Church (now C3 Church) in Gretton Road (1873–8) and the Wesleyan Methodist Church (1884–5) date to this period. St Nicholas Catholic Church was built in 1875–6 as a grammar school (said to be on the site of a medieval church) and converted for worship in 1915. Winchcombe also had to wait for the twentieth century before it was connected to the railway network. The station opened at Greet in 1905 and it is now part of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, a thriving heritage line.
The period between the end of the Second World War and the present has seen Winchcombe grow greatly in size, with a number of new housing developments. The increase in population has helped the town hang on to its variety of shops, pubs, restaurants, and other businesses, ensuring that it is both a lively working town and a welcoming centre for visitors, just as it has been since the medieval period, when pilgrims flocked to the Abbey.