Wherwell Parish History I
Before the Reformation the Parish of Wherwell was in the hands of an important Abbey of Benedictine Nuns, whose Abbess was Lady of the Manor of an area much larger than the existing Parish.
Wherwell is remarkable for an extraordinary dramatic history, and in early days, when the influence of the Abbey was most powerful, it must have been a place of considerable importance. Kings hunted in the surrounding forests, and Queens, when exiled, took refuge there.
The first mention of Wherwell is to be found in the will of King Edred
[946-955 AD), in which he bequeathed to Hyde Abbey, Winchester, The "towns of Wherwell, Andover, and Clere".
The Abbey was founded in the reign of King Ethelred, son of King Edgar and Queen Elfrida. In the words of the old chronicler, William of Malmesbury, it is thus recorded:-
"There was a nobleman of celebrity called Aethelwold, one of the confidants of the King, and him he commissioned to visit Elfrida, daughter of Ordgar, Duke of Devonshire, (whose charms had so fascinated the eyes of some persons that they had commended her to the King) and to offer her marriage if her beauty were equal to the report.
Hastening on his embassy and finding everything consonant to general estimation, he concealed his mission from her parents and procured the damsel for himself. Returning to the King, he told a tale which he made for his own purpose, that she was a girl of vulgar and commonplace appearance, and by no worthy means of such transcendent dignity.
This caused the King to lose interest in Elfrida, but eventually he had reason to suspect that he had been duped by his friend. To put the matter to the test, the King appointed a day when he would visit this far-famed lady. Her husband, greatly alarmed by this prospect, went ahead to his wife, confessed what had happened and besought her that she would protect him by attiring herself as unbecomingly as possible. Elfrida appeared to consent this stratagem, but instead adorned herself at the mirror and omitted nothing which could stimulate the desire of a young and powerful man”.
Nor did events happen contrary to her design, for, as the Chronicler states, "he fell so desperately in love with her the moment he saw her that dissembling his indignation he sent for the Earl into a wood at Warewell under the pretence of hunting and ran him through with a javelin".
There is in the depth of Harewood Forest in the Parish of Longparish (Middleton) a cross, commonly known as "The Monument" which bears this inscription on the plinth :
"About the year of our Lord DCCCCLXIII (AD 963) upon this spot beyond the time of memory called Deadman’s Plack, tradition reports that Edgar, surnamed the peaceable, King of England, in the ardour of youth love and indignation, slew with his own hand his treacherous and ungrateful favourite Earl Athelwold, owner of this forest of Harewood, in resentment of the Earl’s having basely betrayed and perfidiously married his intended bride and beauteous Elfrida, daughter of Ordgar, Earl of Devonshire, afterwards wife of King Edgar, and by him mother of King Ethelred II, Queen Elfrida, after Edgar’s death, murdered his eldest son, King Edward the Martyr, and founded the Nunnery of Wor-well”
On the back of the plinth is another inscription saying
"This Monument was erected by Col William Iremonger AD MDCCCMV (1825)"
The murder of King Edward the Martyr, Queen Elfrida’s stepson, at Corfe Castle, is a matter of history. Edward went to visit his stepmother and half brother at Corfe Castle on 18th March 978, nearly three years after his father unexpected death in July 975. Why he went is not known, but that evening, after a day’s hunting, the young king was murdered by thegns at the gap of Corfe and his body was thrown into a bog where it remained for nearly one year. Whilst there has never been any evidence to establish the complicity of Queen Elfrida, the result was that her own son, Ethelred, became King.
According to the Chroniclers Ethelred, who was only ten years old, was not party to this murder. When the report of his half brother’s death reached him, Ethelred wept. This so irritated his furious mother, that, not having a whip at hand, she snatched up some candles, and nearly beat his life out, so that he dreaded candles all the rest of his days.
Whether Ethelred was unready or not, he certainly showed no gratitude to his mother for his elevation. When he came of age, he forced her to retire from active political life. For her part Queen Elfrida thought that it was time to smooth her passage to a higher authority. Tradition tells that on her way to London, she came to the gates of Salisbury, but the people of Salisbury shut the gates and threatened to stone her. She went on to Amesbury, where there was a nunnery, and there she did penance for the bloodshed in which she had been concerned. As proof of penitence she founded Wherwell Abbey in AD 986, and became its first Abbess.
At some stage later she also founded the Parish Church. According to the chronicler, "And in the peace, which by the inhabitants is called Wherwell, founded the Church of the Holy Cross, beseeching Christ, that He who wounded on the (ever) memorable Cross, shed His blood for the redemption of the human race, might deign to grant her the pardon (purchased) by His death, His wounds and by the shedding of His blood rich (in graces)”
Queen Elfrida spent the rest of her days in quiet contemplation and penitence until one day in AD 1002 , looking in the river, she fell in and was drowned. In the Cartularv of Wherwell in the possession of Joshua Iremonger in 1743, it is thus touchingly put :
"in the year of Our Lord 1002, the 15th December, died the lady Elfrida of pious memory, Queen of Edgar the Peaceable, formerly King of England.”