A Brief History of the Parish
Evidence of human habitation in the East Garston area has been found dating back to prehistoric times, some thousands of years BC. There are Neolithic earthworks, ditches and enclosures to be seen, as well as pottery fragments and metalwork found that date back to the Bronze Age.
During Roman times, around 43 to 410 AD, local natives must have felt the very close presence of the occupying legions with Ermin Street, the Roman road that linked the important towns of Silchester and Cirencester, passing through the Southern end of the Parish by Woodlands St Mary and Poughley.
With the collapse of their Empire, the Romans left Britain in around 410. Next to invade were the Angles and Saxons, entering Berkshire via the Thames and from Southampton, and occupying the Berkshire Downs in about 560 AD with many Britons fleeing or being enslaved. There is little recorded history of this early Anglo Saxon period other than a book written by Gildas, a British monk, the title of which, “The Ruin of Britain”, sums up what he thought about it.
The Vikings were next to visit, and it was in 871 that a major battle was fought at nearby Ashdown, against the Scandinavian invaders. It was here that King Alfred the Great, who was born at Wantage, defeated the Vikings having travelled to Shefford and Eddington, passing close to East Garston, the day before the Battle. It is hard to believe that local inhabitants would not have been drawn in to fight for the local King Alfred.
During the time leading up to the Norman invasion 1066, a man named Asgar held the position of provider of horses to King Edward. As well as other land, he owned the Lambourn Hundred, an area of land which included a place known as Asgar’s tun, a tun being the Saxon name for a village. Over the years, the name Asgar’s tun suffered many variations, including Esgarston, before finally appearing as East Garston on a map in 1607, although that did not stop the Revd John Tudor leading a spirited campaign in 1904, to change the name back to Esgarston. Despite having failed to win the day, he continued to use his version of the name throughout his ministry as can be seen in the Church registers of the time.
After the Norman Conquest, Asgar’s land was taken from him and given to Geoffrey de Mandeville and shortly after, Asgar’s tun was listed in the Domesday Book with the following assessment of its value:
- 30 hides (a hide being the amount of land required to feed a family and its dependants)
- Land for 20 ploughs
- 2 Mills
- 5 acres of meadow
- Woodland for 40 pigs
- 23 villagers, 12 smallholders and 3 slaves!
- With a total value set at £20.
All Saints Church dates back to 1190, although, there may have been a previous Saxon church on the site. Some of the Norman architectural features still remain today, notably the doors in the North and South walls of the nave and South transept. The Church provides numerous other tangible links with history with a 1576 chalice, still used for special services, and historic registers of baptisms, deaths and marriages, one dating back to 1554. Even some of the yew trees in the churchyard are believed to be between 400 and 600 years old. It is fascinating to think that when that chalice was first used, when those early records were written, and possibly when some of the yew trees were young saplings, Queen Elizabeth 1 was on the throne, Shakespeare was writing his plays, and Sir Francis Drake was defeating the Spanish Armada.
Despite the Berkshire Downland being reserved for the Royal Chase with the area being regularly frequented by various kings’ hunting parties, the next few centuries were hard for ordinary people who suffered from famine, plague and war as the Crusades, followed by the Hundred Years War, drained the country’s wealth. The Black Death of 1349 alone killed about a third of the population and East Garston did not escape its grip.
The ownership of East Garston changed hands many times throughout the following centuries until, finally, in 1919, it was sold by the last Lord of the Manor, Sir Francis Burdett, and the properties went into private ownership.
As if any further evidence were needed that small, remote rural communities do not escape the impact of major world events, the War Memorial in East Garston village proudly displays the names of those who fell in the two World Wars and the roll is called annually on Remembrance Sunday.