EWELME – A ROMANTIC VILLAGE ITS PAST AND PRESENT. ITS PEOPLE AND ITS HISTORY.
EWELME, in South Oxfordshire, is indeed a village with a past, and is proud of it.
I grew up in this village and soon came to love it and to steep myself in its history, and although it is more than half a century since I left it, I have always regarded it as pre-eminently - my home: for the fibres of its various memories have woven themselves into my life. My father, Canon C.T. Cruttwell, became Rector of Ewelme in 1901, and at the same time a Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral. He remained at Ewelme for ten years; each spring we migrated, lock, stock and barrel, to our medieval Canon's house in the precincts of Peterborough Cathedral, more familiarly known as the Minster Yard. But at Peterborough, in spite of the charms of the Cathedral, I always felt an exile.
Perhaps the most lively and endearing of my memories of Ewelme were those connected with the various Pageants which I produced there, and which gave a great sense of unity to the hundred performers and a pride in their history to the whole community, - but of this more in a later chapter.
To return to beginnings - the history of Ewelme in Saxon and earlier days is lost in obscurity. It is said by some that the name itself - Ewelme - is derived from the Latin Aqua Alma, the “sweet water” and by others the name is said to be Anglo-Saxon in origin - from Aewhylme - the “water whelming” up from the ground and so giving rise to those “sweet waters”, which spring up on Ewelme Common. Further down the village too are sources in a romantic garden where ageless trout disport themselves in a deep pool, and where children are said to have seen the fairies dancing. From this pool flows, clear and strong, that brook celebrated by Chaucer in these lines:
“In worlde is none more clere of hue, Its water ever freshe and newe, That whelmeth up in waves bright The mountance of three fingers height”.
For the sweet waters of Ewelme brook were famous for the cure of “divers ills” throughout medieval times, and they are still believed by the villagers to have curative properties. (There is also a stream in Gloucestershire called the Ewelme.)
Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet, was connected with Ewelme through family ties, as we shall presently show, and he must have had an affection for the place as he is often said to have “sojourned at Ewelme Manor” with his son Thomas and his daughter-in-law, no doubt finding it a pleasant and convenient retreat from the formalities of court and the rush of a busy life in London.
Ewelme is mentioned in Doomsday Book as La Welme, but without any relevant details. Most probably Ewelme, together with Swyncombe and Stonor and other neighbouring villages and hamlets on the lower Chiltern slopes, formed part at that time of a little known Celtic enclave in that district centring on Stonor, which had been apparently an early centre of British Christianity, as is suggested with much plausibility by the late Don Julian Stoner in his book on “Stonor” and its history, being the record of a family which has kept its faith intact through all those early centuries and through the difficult period of the Reformation up to the present day, where the small Catholic Chapel stands to bear witness of a family's faith, through good times and evil.
Another pointer to the probability of the late survival of a Celtic remnant in this district is suggested by the fact that the Icknield Way (the way of the British Iceni) traverses exactly that terrain and is still visible (and to a certain extent viable) skirting the boundaries of Ewelme and leading direct from Swyncombe Down to Watlington onwards. The interesting suggestion is made by the late Rev. C. Field (Rector of Benson) in his book “The Cuckoo Pen”, that the several so-called “Cuckoo Pens”, i.e. copses of beech trees planted in a thin circle at the top of Swyncombe and other neighbouring Chiltern downs, were the last remaining strongholds of the retreating Britons as the Saxons gradually gained footing upwards from the Thames Valley. The name “Cuckoo Pen” he accounts for as being a Saxon mimic of the strange “cucking” speech of the Kelts. Later the origin of the name was lost, so he believes, and it became confused with the legend of the “Pent Cuckoo” and the “Wise Men of Gotham” who sought to imprison the cuckoo within a circular hedge. Certain it is that the older inhabitants of that district still show traces of a different origin, being smaller and darker than their neighbours across the river, and Dom Julian Stonor gives an interesting map, inferring that there is a much greater survival of Keltic blood in this and other parts of Britain than is usually allowed by more conventional scholars.
Bigod, Earl of Wallingford, seems to have owned the Manors of Ewelme and Swyncombe at the time of the Norman Conquest and to have been left to hold his lands undisturbed. (Was it by reason of his famous refusal of homage to the Normans by a play on his name? “By God, Sir King, I will not” - alluding to the request oath of allegiance - And the King's whimsical reply “By God, Sir Earl, but you shall”!) - However that may be, Bigod remained in possession of his manors till his death, when he was able to leave them intact to his daughter, Matilda, who married a Norman Lord, Milo Crispin. The couple died without issue, and the manors were left in 1087 to the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, Abbey made famous later by its Abbot Anselm - champion of the church against another Norman King. The same dispute was carried out on a small scale over the manor lands of Ewelme and Swyncombe, which were claimed from the Abbey by the King on a tradition of ownership by Saxon monarchs. This dispute lingered on until Edward I's reign, when the title was given by the King to the Bacon family, and so we gradually come to the more romantic annals of Ewelme Manor, for Sir John Bacon's granddaughter Matilda Burghersh married Thomas Chaucer, the poet's son.
Now begins a more personal interest in the owners of Ewelme Manor, for these two, Thomas Chaucer and Matilda Burghersh, had an only child, a daughter, Alice Chaucer, whose “strange eventful history” brought Ewelme from obscurity into the limelight.