Sutton Courtenay is a village in the Vale of White Horse, having approximately 2,500 residents, some 12 miles South of Oxford and situated on the river Thames.
History of the village
The river played an important role in establishing settlements in the area. Evidence of human habitation dates back some 8000 years (just after the last Ice Age). Neolithic settlers developed a ceremonial site, also used by Bronze Age people, and Iron Age artefacts have been found.
Roman and Saxon Period
The Romans occupied the site at Sutton and a Roman villa has been investigated by archaeologists. During gravel extraction on the Sutton Courtenay/Appleford boundary a hoard of 4th century pewter and coins was unearthed. Before the Romans left the area, the Anglo-Saxons were already present. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed an extensive Saxon settlement in this area, uncovering a group of buildings and halls, one of which is the largest Saxon hall so far discovered in Britain. It is thought that this area was a significant royal centre associated with early Saxon rulers. In 688, the king of Wessex endowed the Benedictine Abbey at Abingdon with the manor of Sutton. In 801, Sutton became a royal vill - or principal settlement - with the powerful Benedictine Abbey retaining the church and priest’s house.
The Domesday Book of 1089 records that William 1 held the Manor of ‘Sudtone’ which contained three mills, 300 acres of river meadows and extensive woodlands. In 1102, Henry 1’s wife, Queen Matilda, resided in Sutton to benefit from the medical skills of the Abbot of Abingdon. Queen Matilda gave birth to a daughter who became the Empress Matilda upon marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry 1 named Matilda as his successor; however, her claim to the throne was disputed by her cousin, Stephen of Bloise, and civil war followed. Matilda’s son, supported by his companion and fellow Crusader, Reginald de Courtenay, claimed the English throne as Henry II. In 1160, Henry rewarded Reginald’s loyalty by giving him custody of the manor of Sutton. Thereafter, the village became known as Sutton Courtenay. In 1284, Hugh Courtenay won the right, after a long dispute with Abingdon Abbey, to appoint the Rector and control property and land. The Courtenay influence continued until the Wars of the Roses when Thomas Courtenay was tried for treason, beheaded in 1461, and his lands and possessions were forfeited to the Crown. During this latter period the manor house - Norman Hall - the Church and the Abbey (then the Rectory House) were built and developed.
During the Civil War, 1642-6, the vicar, Thomas Fitch, supported the Parliamentarians, led by Cromwell. Unsurprisingly, Fitch was dismissed after the gunpowder he was storing in the church exploded! The village grew slowly. River trade increased with barges bringing goods to the wharf. From 1697-1724, Sutton Mill produced special paper for printing banknotes for the Bank of England. Paper production continued until the end of the 19th century. Agriculture and associated occupations were the main sources of employment and included gravel extraction which still continues today. In 1807, a toll bridge over the river to Culham was built, with tolls being paid until 1939.
In 1912, the village was in the political limelight when the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, built ‘The Wharf’ as his country home. He died in 1928 and was buried in the churchyard. So, too, is the novelist George Orwell, buried under his real name of Eric Blair, and his grave continues to attract many visitors. While Orwell was not himself a resident of the village, his great friend, the newspaper owner, David Astor, was. Astor’s grave can be found next to Orwell’s.
A large housing estate was built in the 1950s at the south end of the village. The village has further expanded and the population increases as housing development continues. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen more profound changes, faster than in any period in the village’s history, as the horizons of the community widen with developments in transport, communications and employment opportunities.