II  Going to Church

After the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror had a comparatively easy passage to London to claim the throne. Not all the country was hostile to him in his attempt to take Harold's crown. Among his Saxon allies was Athelm, and because of his loyalty to William's cause, he was rewarded by being appointed Abbot of Abingdon. In 1084 William spent Easter at the Abbey. Later that year his friend Abbot Athelm died. He was succeeded by Abbot Rainald.

Two years later the Domesday Survey was commissioned. This provided an inventory of most of the country, listing manors, land owners, some buildings, livestock and part of the population. The result of this survey shows that Rainald at Abingdon was lord over a total of 31 manors in Berkshire. Amongst them was Whistley:

In Charlton Hundred.
The Abbey holds Whistley itself, and always held it.
Before 1066 it answered for 10 hides; now for 7 hides. Land for 12 ploughs. 16 villagers and 1 smallholder with 9 ploughs. A mill at 5s. and 250 eels; meadow, 10 acres; woodland at 50 pigs; a fishery at 300 eels. The value was £10; now £6

Domesday entries for Whistley (above) and Sonning (below).

The entry for Whistley suggests that the Abbot's holding had reduced in size and value but it is more probable that he had been reassessed. The number of 16 villagers does not account for all the population of the area. Only those who were tied to the manor were recorded.

Until recently a derelict cottage, Mill House, stood on or close to the site of the Saxon mill mentioned in the survey. There is however no mention of a manor house or church, but the Domesday Book did not necessarily mention all such buildings. A house must have been erected for the Abbot's representative, and a wooden church did exist at Whistley before 1089.

Another entry in the Domesday Book relevant to the district is the one dealing with the Bishop of Salisbury's manor of Sonning. This manor not only included Sonning, but Woodley, Sandford, Sindlesham, Bearwood, Newland and part of Winnersh. There were two mills belonging to Sonning manor, one of them could be either the mill at Sandford or Sindlesham, both were in Sonning Parish.

In 1089, only three years after the Domesday Survey, the scribes at Abingdon recorded that a church had been built at Whistley. They pointed out that this was because of the problems encountered by the villagers when they tried to get to Sonning where the local church was situated:

Concerning a chapel at Whistley... in the time of Abbot Athelm there was no church, for it is joined to the parish of the priest at Sonning. But because it was very difficult for the inhabitants in the winter when the floods were out to go to Sonning for the purpose of attending divine service, and besides the Abbot turning on his journey to pay a visit to those parts, finding that the place never had a celebration of Mass, then for the first time a wooden chapel was built there and by the hand of Bishop Osmund was dedicated in the name of Saint Nicholas.

Bishop Osmund was not appointed to the see of Salisbury until 1087 so was not in a position to dedicate the chapel before then. Abbot Athelm, who caused the chapel to be built, died in 1084, so it must have been between those dates that the wooden chapel was built. But the idea of the people at Whistley having their own church was causing problems, the Abbey's records continue:

Then in the days when Rainald governed the Abbey, the clerk of the church of Sonning complained to the Bishop that on account of his directions concerning the chapel at Whistley, he had suffered loss, thereupon the Bishop forbad the chapel to be officiated in. In the next lent just before the fast began the Bishop came to Abingdon where the Abbot came to an agreement with the Bishop about the said chapel.

So the vicar of Sonning was complaining about losing his congregation from Whistley, and no doubt some of his income too. The Abbot and the Bishop met to arbitrate:

This is the arrangement made between Bishop Osmund and Abbot Rainald about the church at Whistley which Abbot Athelm had built and had caused to be dedicated by the same Bishop. In the same church the Abbot of Abingdon will appoint his clerk, performing the duties of the services of God, receiving all the offerings from everybody which were ordered to the same church and reserving them to his own use for serving the church. For which, the Abbot will give to the Bishop every year on the feast of All Saints half a mark of silver; the church of Sonning retaining nevertheless all those dues which it had in the days of King Edward from the church of Whistley. This arrangement was made in the 2nd year of the reign of William the younger, the day before the Ides of March, when the Bishop was spending Lent at Abingdon.

Thus the Abbot could appoint a priest for the chapel and services could be held there, but payment was to be made annually to the Bishop and the church of Sonning was to retain the dues previously received. This has meant that for centuries Hurst church was regarded as a chapel-of-ease to the church of Sonning. The title 'perpetual curate' was created for the incumbent of a church, which, though not an ancient parish church, has a parish conferred on it. The right to appoint the perpetual curate for Hurst is now exercised by the Bishop of the Diocese; originally this was Salisbury, but in more recent times it has come under the Diocese of Oxford.

Salisbury Cathedral (New Sarum) engraved for Dugdales England and Wales Delineated.


The foundation charter of the cathedral at Old Sarum has been preserved and it gives a full list of all the churches and manors with which Bishop Osmund endowed it. Among these we find 'the churches of Sonning with all the tithes there'. This included the chapel at Whistley as well as those of Wokingham, Ruscombe, Sindlesham, Sandhurst and Arborfield. Building of the cathedral at Old Sarum was abandoned in the 13th century because the site lacked a good supply of water, but a new cathedral was started at New Sarum, later to be called Salisbury. From the date of the foundation charter in 1091, all the tithes from Hurst have gone, through Sonning, to augment the cathedral's treasury. The Rev. John Wimberley, perpetual curate of Hurst from 1919 to 1936, wrote:

Bishop Osmund's generosity and other virtues were so loudly praised that in 1456 the Pope canonised him, and a special indulgence was promised to those who visited Salisbury on the festival of Saint Osmund. But I have no friendly feeling towards him. The commuted value of the Hurst Tithes, which he gave away, is £1,540 a year, all that comes back is the £299 a year which the Ecclesiastical commissioners allow the Vicar from the 'Common Fund'.

The parish of Ruscombe covers an area of 1,294 acres. This could be more or less the same area as the 10 hides of land granted there by Bishop Osmund to endow the new cathedral at Salisbury in 1091. The oldest part of Saint James's church dates to the 12th century.

Shortly after the Norman conquest, and in some cases before that event, large portions of the forest had come under the jurisdiction of two authorities; the church at Salisbury and the lords of the manors. In some cases, as with the manor of Sonning, they were one and the same. 

Photograph of the rear of Hurst Parish Church of St Nicholas which gives an
impression of the first Norman stone church.