The Dark Ages, Normans and Beginnings of a Church
This ponderous title covers two aspects of Minal life in early medieval times. It could be considered the time of dark deeds or tribal ambitions and of barbarous bands, or it could be taken as meaning that a curtain was drawn over the events of that period - for little was written or recorded about ordinary people of the time. It was as though there was a reversion to more primitive times. The great Roman roads, paved and cambered, which could have been the start of a great British network, were mostly allowed to decay - overgrown and neglected.
However it was during this period that the first known written reference to Mildenhall was made. In the Cartularium Saxonicum of 803 AD, the name of MILDENHALD was shown on a map. In the Wiltshire Archaeological Society's notes for 1932 it is recorded that a Saxon broach has been discovered.
About the same time, in 804 AD the Abbot of Glastonbury secured and made available a piece of land 'to build a new church'. The full meaning of this statement can be taken to mean that, either a church was to be built there, or that a NEW church was to replace an earlier one. If there had been a place of worship on the site before this, being of wood, little would have remained. Certainly nothing is recorded of a former building.
There is a story, largely unfounded, that Saint Augustine, travelling from Kent towards Wessex to spread Christianity, passed through Minal in about 597 AD. There is no documented evidence of this, but in the stained glass of the east window there is a head entitled AUGUSTINUS, so perhaps the story had credence when the glass was put up in the 16th Century. The remaining glass, including this head is amongst the oldest in the County.
Now for a piece of detective work. The question is 'If there was a village settlement in Saxon times, where was it?" Looking at a map or plan of Mildenhall as it is today, it seems that that in medieval times the whole settlement was spread more widely around the church. Today Church Lane and the main street of the village are the only two roads, and it has been so for many centuries. There is something missing, for a village of those times would hardly have developed as a letter 'L' and failed to form the usual grouping around the church centre.
I have written in the earlier chapter that is possible that the Roman road zig-zagged across the valley to make a crossing of the river, and that the piece of higher ground around the site of the church would have been the logical site of a Post-Roman or Romano-¬British settlement. Travellers would have met, settled and perhaps built dwelling and trading posts there, if only to avoid the inevitable problems that come from living in the wet lands. So, perhaps the first Mildenhall would have been at this place.
Modern technology, in the shape of aerial photography may help to solve this question. In a vertical photograph taken in 1981 there are clear ground markings to the west of Benefice Buildings, in what is now farm land. These take the form of dark lines in the crop and soil which might well be the layout of a street and dwellings of a medieval settlement. If this is such a site - and only a scientific survey can prove this - then a pattern will begin to emerge showing the original village being gathered around the church. Later a gradual migration northward up the slope to the 'winter road' line would have taken place.
Reference to a large scale Ordnance Survey map of Mildenhall village will show another significant feature. Immediately to the north and east of the church there is a three-sided earth work with sides of about 220 feet in length. Some of this still remains to be seen in a field. Again, this may be part of the medieval village site.
As has been said, there may have been a wooden church building more or less where the present church stands, but there are no traces of this now. The stonework of the lower courses in the tower shows definite Saxon patterns, especially in the form of corner stones between courses. The walls here are about four or five feet thick (1.23 metres). To add to this there is a flat buttress on the south-west angle which is original. The two middle chamber window openings are remarkable in that they have two lights or openings with square heads, caps and bases which indicate Saxon influence. These are a curious survival of an older type of window and indicate a very early influence on the stonework of the lower two courses. Possibly this was the sanctuary of the former church, which was to become the tower as we now know it
In seeking stone for the tower and the new building, it may be the case that the builders utilised some of the Bath stone still remaining above ground at Cunetio, the Roman fortress. It was only a quarter of a mile away and had been standing as a ruin for only some four hundred years.
Little or nothing is known of individual people at this time. The Dark Ages had come and were nearly gone. Shortly a French King was to invade and conquer Britain, and the era of the Normans was to commence.
The conquest of Britain by William of Normandy in 1066 was followed by a short period of adjustment. Estates were given to French noblemen and a general change took place. The new King needed to know details of the country he had acquired, and in 1086 sent forth commissioners, scribes and escorts to most of England to record the extent of the lands, their value and potential level for taxation.
Based on Winchester, the Commissioners visited every place. Their findings were recorded and formed the "Domesday Book", the first example in the world of a nationwide catalogue.
The entry for Minal, written in Latin manuscript, translates as follows.
The Church itself holds MILDHALLE. Edward holds from it. Hugolin held it before. It was in the Abbot's hand before 1066; it paid tax for 10 hides. Land for 10 ploughs. Of this land 4 hides in Lordship; 2 ploughs there. 15 villagers and 5 smallholders with 4 ploughs. A mill which pays 30/-; meadow, 10 acres; pasture ½ league long and 3 furlongs wide. Woodland as much. The value was £12; now £18.
In addition to Mildenhall, surveys were also taken in Poulton and Stitchcombe. The three taken together cover the parish as we know it today and total 21 Hides (120 acres). Ploughs 17. Villagers 19 Smallholders 17. Mills 3, totalling £60. Value was £22.10s To be £28. 10s
Within the county of Wiltshire, the total ploughs in each settlement was 5 on average, and Mildenhall had twice that number. The population averaged 25 to each settlement, and again the parish had more than this. Mills are about average, but would vary according to the proximity of rivers.
In the first thirty-five years of the 12th century, Poulton was granted to the Abbey of Tewkesbury. In 1261, there was the first reference to the manor of Mildenhall. Isabella Basset was the lately deceased holder of the gift, the value of the manor being £25. In 1282, the de Moun family had the manor, (then valued at £20. 11s 5d) and it consisted of 360 acres of arable land, 242 acres of meadow, woods and fishing; four freemen's rents of 42/- ¬and the cottagers also 42/-. By 1355, Bartholomew de Burghersh held Mildenhall as part of the manor of Aldbourne, holding for Knight's Service. It was worth £12 per annum.
In 1545, King Henry VIII required a 'benevolence' tax to be levied as his coffers were again empty. Five Mildenhall men are quoted as being charged - Hey, John Jones the Elder and the Younger of Woodlands, Plasted and Bryne. In 1576 Queen Elizabeth I levied her first tax and for this 12 men of the parish paid from 5/- to 11/8d as part of their tax. All these men are named in the church records.
Around 1100 AD, the nave of the church was begun in stone. The arches are clearly of Norman influence with symmetrical curves and round columns. The capitols in the north aisle are plain, but those on the south are decorated and presumably a little later in date. The west door to the tower was made later, perhaps when the nave was being completed. About this time the tower was raised to a third level and an Early English pattern of window was included. The chancel was not added until the 12th or 13th century, with a new pointed arch being cut through from the nave. There is a well hidden priest's door on the south side of the chancel. After this time, the church would have looked much as it does now in its plan. A period of about six hundred years was to follow before the first (and last) major alteration was to take place.