In the early part of the 13th century it was decreed by Salisbury that the Dean should exercise a special jurisdiction over the churches and estates belonging to the cathedral and that they should visit them regularly, and so the Deans of Salisbury held visitations.
When the Dean visited Sonning, the priests of all the daughter churches were summoned to appear. The first recorded visitation took place in the year 1220, but it ended in tragedy. The Dean, who had arrived there on the 22nd of August, was taken ill and died four days later. Nevertheless, the visitation was carried out as the records show:
Likewise the chapel belonging to the church of Sonning, the chapel of Herst, of St. Nicholas; not dedicated, it has a baptistery but not a cemetery, it obtains oil of crism from Reading. The chapel is not endowed with any land, and the vicar does not have a house on the church estate, because the chapel has no estate. John who keeps the chapel, had the charter from Jordan the Dean who handed it over to Dean Adam, who kept it and levied a sum of ten marks from him which seems to John to be intolerable.... there is a annual chaplain Nicholas by name.
John may have thought it intolerable that he should have to pay 10 marks to Salisbury for the privilege of officiating in the chapel, the outcome of the agreement made earlier between Abbot Rainald and Bishop Osmund. But what is more interesting is that this is the first time that Hurst was recorded. It means 'woody hill', and it was a natural way for the Dean's scribe to write about the small hill in the forest on which the church stood. It was sited well above the flood plain and at the centre of the manors which were growing up around it. The parish by that time covered a distance of about six miles from north to south, and between three to four miles east to west, a total of 6,898 acres.
An inventory of books, robes and ornaments belonging to the church was recorded, but most of the robes were old and worn, many of the books useless, no glebe land or house for the vicar, and a bell tower which had fallen down. But there was a small barn to keep the tithes in.
In 1220 Sonning did not have a vicarage as the Dean discovered; 'we have seen that the vicar has no house where in he may lay his head'. Consequently a site was found. Had he not fallen ill he may have provided a site for John of Hurst to 'lay his head' too. It was left to the Rev. Allen Cameron to have one erected some 650 years later on the site of the tithe barn. It cost about £3,000 to build, quite a sum in those days. In 1977 a new vicarage was built by the side of the Victorian one and in May 1978 Mr. Cameron's vicarage was auctioned for £58,000.
From the visitation of 1220 we discover that there was a chapel at Sindlesham. It too seems to have been as sore a point with the vicar at Sonning. It was in the fee of Robert of Sindlesham and it appears that he did not fancy the treck across the boggy ground to Sonning. Eventually the vicar of Sonning produced an agreement made between Robert and the Dean which entitled Robert to keep the chapel and chantry, and he and his wife and all his household servants and guests could hear services there. But his 'rustics' could not use it and were required to go to the mother church at Sonning. For this privilege Robert was to make a yearly payment to Sonning church as a mark of the chapel's dependence.
Ruscombe Parish Church, 1984 (click for modern picture)
The parish church of Ruscombe was also held by the vicarage of Sonning. The vicar there, Vitalis, had appointed a chaplain called Jordan to look after the church. But the Dean found him to be inefficient and despite the fact that Vitalis had restored the chancel of Ruscombe church, the Dean reported that both the chapel and Jordan's house were in a ruinous condition. Things do not seem to have improved by 1301 for the visitation that year reported the church to be in poor condition with many broken windows.
The Dean of Salisbury decided to question all the chaplains belonging to the associated churches and test their proficiency. John of Hurst went with his chaplain to meet the Dean who reported: 'John of Herst has a chaplain, Richard by name, he is a young man and knew nothing'. This resulted in Richard being suspended for 'ignorance and insubordination'.
Apparently Richard was not alone in his ignorance of church matters. After questioning Simon, the curate of the mother church at Sonning, who could not read any Latin or even understand the service, the Dean wrote; 'he is sufficiently illiterate'. The aged blind priest from Arborfield could not read or remember the gospels, and was forbidden to officiate any more.
Hurst Parish Church by an unknown 19th century artist (click for later picture)
Much rebuilding was done to Hurst church early in the 14th century. There is a note in the Salisbury records dated 1300 stating that the 'chancel is uncovered'. This record fits perfectly with an account of work described by the Rev. Allen Cameron in A Few Words About Hurst. He was the vicar in 1855 when restoration was carried out and was able to speak at first hand:
About or soon after the year 1300 it is plain that the western portion of the body of the church was either taken down and rebuilt or more likely added to. No doubt the population had increased and wanted more space than the little old church of only two arches afforded. The date is shown by the shape and workmanship of the window between the porch and the tower, and by the character of the arch opposite...
It is also plain that about this time the body of the church received a new roof. The slips of stonework on which the wall pieces and the tie beams rest, are of nearly the same period. Possibly the present roof may be mainly the one erected then, and the porch, from its form and construction, bears tokens of nearly as great an age.
The chancel was also re-built at the same time; at least such appears to be the fact from the form of the old buttresses and some fragments of stonework found in the walls.
In 1274 a record was made of land ownership which gives us the names of some of the villagers who lived and worked in the forest. Surnames, as we know them today did not apply, especially to the poorer members of society. This extract shows how trade names and locations were previously used to identify a person:
They say that Emma de Obrigger holds one and a half acres of encroachment upon the royal forest in the village of Hurst... Henry the miller holds an acre; John Alward an acre; John Attele one and a half acres; Jordan the forester an acre; John the clerk a rood; Ralph Edolf a rood; Henry Aylrich a rood; William the shepherd a rood; John of the march a rood; and William Attewater a rood. All these encroachments are held of the Abbot of Abingdon.
Here we have a group of medieval people who long ago were edging their way into the forests, cutting down trees to enlarge their plots of land, and whose names bear a relationship to those we know today. Now we are familiar with such names as Henry Miller, William Shepheard, Jordan Forester, Thomas Clark and John Atlee.
On another occasion we can see that the name Atlee appears as 'John atte Leye', or John at the meadow. Emma de Obrigger may have been associated with Obrigg Hill, the old name for the small rise in the land just to the west of Bill Hill, a hill that has disappeared under the junction of the M4 and the A329M. William who lived at the water may have had descendants living in the village in the 17th century because the name Attewater appears in the Parish Register at that time.
Abingdon Abbey's interest in Whistley manor was small by comparison with its interest as a major land owner in the county of Berkshire. Its control over medieval life was considerable. It monopolised trade and controlled markets and tenants. It made many enemies in the commercial life of the district, and things became so bad that there was an armed uprising against the Abbey in 1327.
Tradesmen enlisted the help of students from Oxford University to make an assault on the buildings. At a signal given by a peal of bells from St. Helen's church they attacked and a large part of the Abbey was set on fire before they were driven off. With the help of more traders from the surrounding area they made an attempt to take the town the next day. They succeeded in forcing a way into the Abbey and the market house was burned down. Eventually enough troops were called in to restore law and order.
A few years later, in 1348, there was an outbreak of the plague which severely affected the whole country - the Black Death. There are no accurate figures available, but it is generally accepted that Berkshire lost about half its population. In the first year of the outbreak, two Archbishops of Canterbury died and another victim, Thomas de Brackeles, was a vicar of Sonning.
In many villages the church is quite separate from the rest of the community. Some people believe that the Black Death was the cause, as villagers wished to keep their distance from the burial ground, building their homes well away to avoid contamination. Hurst church is indeed quite separate from a large part of the village and the Black Death may be one reason. However, there is another reason why Hurst is a sprawling series of hamlets, rather than a village grouped round the parish church and village green - the grants of manors, or pieces of land, to loyal servants by the Crown out of its royal forest. It was more convenient for the workers and peasants to be housed near the manor or the steward's house, rather than be clustered round the church. And even the earliest houses still standing were built long after the Black Death caused such devastation.
Hurst Church c.18th century. (© British Library. Reproduction prohibited) (click for modern picture)