A Brief History of Wye




Between 50 and 400 A.D. Wye was probably a Romano-British country estate, which became a royal estate belonging successively to kings of Kent, Mercia, Wessex and England. There is a reference to Wye as a Royal Vill (one of the regional centres of an independent Kingdom of Kent) as early as 762 A.D. which implies the existence of an important settlement for some considerable time before that date. The early pre-Christian settlement grew up by the ancient track way that ran along the line of the North Downs to Dover and crossed the River Stour by a ford close to where the present Wye bridge stands. The name Wye means Holy Place or Heathen Temple probably derived from an early pagan temple or shrine in Wye. In 1067 the Lordship of Wye Manor passed to the Abbey of St. Martin at Battle, by gift of William the Conqueror, continuing in its possession until 1534 and the ecclesiastical ravages of Henry VIII. The first written information on Wye appears in The Domesday Book produced in 1086, almost twenty years after the attachment of Wye to Battle Abbey.




Mediaeval times in Wye were often tumultuous, reflecting the power struggles between the barons, the Church and the monarchy. In 1225 Battle Abbey obtained a charter from the young Henry III granting a market to Wye every Thursday and a three day annual fair from 11th to 13th March; this latter continued until the early twentieth century. The Parish Church, now dedicated both to St. Gregory and St. Martin to echo the name of Battle Abbey, was re-built in the late thirteenth century on its present site overlooking the market square. [The minster church, dedicated solely to St.Gregory, which existed in Saxon times and was mentioned in The Domesday of the Monks and in the grant to Battle Abbey, was probably situated on Bolt’s Hill or near Wye Court where the original pagan temple had stood.] In front of the church, facing the large market square known as the Forum, a two-storeyed market hall with the ground floor, open, and an enclosed first floor known as the speche house, was eventually built. The area around this market hall, i.e. the present Green, Church Street and High Street, was gradually developed, made possible by the creation and rental of house plots, or ‘messuages’ by Battle Abbey. Thus Wye began to grow into a small market town. Several mediaeval cellars remain today, the most notable being the Undercroft on Bridge Street, opposite the junction with Church Street.




Several mediaeval kings visited or stayed at Wye, probably at Wye Court, the manor house built by the Abbey and of sufficient size and importance to host the court and its many followers and bear the attendant heavy expenses. Written evidence shows that Edward I, Edward II both as Prince of Wales and king, celebrating Christmas in Wye between his father’s death and his own coronation, and Henry VI, all resided here, sometimes for prolonged periods; witness the seven weeks in 1429 spent in Wye by Henry VI. Both he and his father, Henry V, had strong personal links with John Kempe, born and raised at Olantigh, who became Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England in 1426 and who obtained a royal licence on 27th February 1431 for the foundation of the College of St. Gregory and St. Martin for secular priests, at Wye. Kempe also decreed that there should be a free Grammar School for poor boys. The re-construction, about 1440, of Wye Church where the parents of John Kempe were buried, was at his instigation.



Following Henry VIII’s breach with Rome came the Dissolution under which Battle Abbey was suppressed in 1538 with the ownership of Wye College passing to the Crown in 1545. Henry granted the College to Walter Bucler, secretary to Catherine Parr and the changes in the fortunes of Wye must have been dramatic as the income from land donated to the College by Kempe stopped and the process of the Reformation began. These were turbulent times for the whole country and indeed, the next 150 years were troublesome for Wye. During the Roman Catholic Queen Mary’s brief reign when the previously banned altars, crucifixes and images of saints were re-instated, in January 1557, two Protestants were burned at the stake in Wye. They were among the sixty-four heretics burned that year in Kent alone. It is likely that Wye was chosen because of the continuing Protestant adherence of some inhabitants.. Elizabeth’s long and popular reign never resulted in a royal visit to Wye, despite the fact that the Manor of Wye had been given to her favourite cousin, Henry Carey. In fact, he never resided here, as the Manor was leased to the Twysden family, after which a recent development in the village has been named.


On the 20th July 1572 the steeple of Wye Church was fired by lightning and the resulting heavy damage to the steeple, belfry, chancel and part of the south transept took over twenty years to restore. In 1627 the churchwardens reported on the ruinous state of the chancel and in 1628 the wooden part of the spire was replaced. Even so,

just over a century after the fire, in March 1686, the church tower fell at the end of a Sunday morning service. No lives were lost as the swaying of the bell ropes gave sufficient warning for evacuation. No restoration was attempted for the following twenty years, but 1706 saw the-building of a sturdy tower and a small chancel in Queen Anne style . The church seen today is a much smaller and more modest house of worship than the noble edifice of Kempe’s day but “new, exceeding handsome and clean” as reported by the Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1711.




Although Kent had kept clear of involvement in the Civil War at first, but later Royalists seized key towns in East Kent such as Canterbury, Sandwich, Sittingbourne and Maidstone. The Battle of Maidstone in 1648 resulted in a Royalist defeat and it was in the later mopping up by the Ironsides that a chance skirmish took place on the road between Olantigh and Wye. John Ingnorham and three other unknown Parliamentary soldiers were killed, and their deaths recorded in the Wye Burial register of June 1648. The deaths of John Leggat of Croundal, Georg Grevel, a ‘wever’ and John Godden of Godmersham in the same incident, were similarly recorded.


Olantigh, the former home of John Kempe, Wye’s most illustrious son, had bought by the Sir Timothy Thornhill about 1619. His Royalist son, Colonel Richard Thornhill, brought his second wife, Joanna, there on their marriage in 1653. She was widowed three years later, and became Dresser to Queen Catherine of Braganza in 1666. When she died in 1708/9 she left the residue of her estate to teach poor boys and girls to read and write. As there was little residue, the foundation of the school was made possible by the generosity of her nephew and executor, Sir George Wheler. He bought the College buildings to house both the Grammar School established in 1447, and the charity school which was one of the first elementary schools for girls in the country. Wye primary school today, in Bridge Street since 1894, is called the Lady Joanna Thornhill (Endowed) School.



Later in the eighteenth century the Reverend Philip Parsons, both minister and schoolmaster of Wye Grammar School for fifty-one years from 1761 to 1812, established one of the earliest Sunday Schools in the country in 1785. He was a ‘scholar and archaeologist of no mean order’ and recorded all the Wye church monuments for posterity; a useful service as many are now entirely illegible. Meanwhile John Sawbridge of Olantigh became Lord Mayor and M.P. for the City of London; he tirelessly advocated more democratic elections to the House of Commons. His famous sister, fellow Radical, historian and polemicist, Catherine Macaulay, wrote a history of England which covered the seventeenth century, and was a guest of George Washington during her visit to the newly-independent United States. Her writings were reputed to have had an influence on the ideas behind both the French Revolution and the American War of Independence.




In the early nineteenth century a smock windmill was built where the small village hall now stands and the water mill was reconstructed. This reflected a more productive agriculture, of which hop growing was another important feature. But it was the coming of the railway in 1842 and the establishment of the South Eastern Railway workshops in Ashford, which led to the growth of Ashford while the fortunes and population of Wye declined. However, the extension of the railway through Wye in 1846 opened up a purely rural, ancient village to outside influences and eventually to the rebirth of Wye College as a centre of higher education in agriculture and horticulture. In 1894 the South Eastern Agricultural College opened and moved into the extended buildings of Kempe’s original College. The railway also brought enthusiasts to Wye Racecourse, a famous feature of the village between 1881 and 1975.




The beginning of the twentieth century was heralded by the Crown, cut in 1902 by College students on the Downs above Wye, to commemorate the Coronation of King Edward VII. It has become an enduring symbol of the village. The First World War saw the establishment of an aerodrome in 1916, which became a centre for the Anglo-American Training Squadron a year later. The War Memorial records the names of the twenty-nine villagers, and a College Memorial, the one hundred and twenty-seven students and staff, all killed in that war. In the Second World War, Wye became a ‘khaki’ village almost on the front line, with many briefing visits made by the then Lt. General Bernard Montgomery. A major training centre for the Women’s Land Army was established in Wye College and from November 1940 to October 1944, Wye was the Headquarters of the most easterly Division of Southern Command. A military oil-storage depot was established on Bramble Lane, linked to PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean) which supplied fuel to Allied army units in the north of France.


The second half of the century saw the expansion of the village; Wye almost quadrupled in size during that time. The post-war council estate on the former Church Field appeared in the mid-fifties; and in the sixties the cherry blossom disappeared from Cherry Garden Lane and from the orchards, to be replaced by Orchard Drive and Chequers Park. Thirty years of rapid village expansion into fields and orchards was stopped during the 1970s by planning restrictions and subsequent house-building has had to take place within the built-up area of the village. Meanwhile Wye’s historic core, now a Conservation Area, remains largely unchanged since Georgian times.




Wye has a rich and varied history and this overview is just that. It is based on a number of books about the village which readers may well wish to consult for themselves to obtain much fuller information.


A New History of Wye: The Heritage of a Kent Village. Ed. Paul Burnham and Maureen de Saxe. Wye Historical Society. 2003.

Wye Parish Church of St. Gregory and St. Martin, Kent: A Historical Guide. Anne Findlay. Wye Historical Society. 2006.

The College at Wye: A Historical Guide. Paul Burnham. Wye Historical Society 2007.

The Old Book of Wye. G.E.Hubbard. Pilgrim Press Ltd. Derby. 1951.

Wye in the Eighteenth Century. Bryan Keith-Lucas. Geerings, Ashford, undated.

Parishes - Wye | The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 7 (pp. 340-368)

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