Dare I Challenge the Local History Buffs of Tetbury ? Yep !

February 11, 2013


Merlin Fraser; local Tetbury author and amateur history nut asks ‘How did the Cotswold town of Tetbury really get its name and did it ever have a castle ?
His answers will enlighten some but are bound to ruffle a few feathers as he challenges some very long held local beliefs.

He says “for me the wonderful thing about trying to piece history together is it’s like playing with a very large jig-saw puzzle, although usually we don’t have the aid of a decent picture nor any of the pieces with straight edges. So the chances of finding a couple of pieces that seem to fit together are enormous when in fact it doesn’t necessarily mean to say the picture they give is correct.

For example, take how the quaint Cotswold town of Tetbury got its name “everywhere you look; be it online, in the tourist brochures or even on the inside wall of the local church chances are the answer you see will be wrong.”

In this article he attempts to set the records straight and point out how and where these historical inaccuracies came from. Not that he blames those who have misinterpreted the facts because he concludes misleading information is all over the place including places where one might suppose the source to be impeccable.

Before I start I think it worth pointing out the one thing everyone does seem to agree upon and that is that the first written record of the Tetbury area occurs in a document written in 681 AD when King Ethelred of Mercia gave 15 hides of land to the abbey of Malmesbury. In that document it said that the land was close to a settlement called Tetta’s Minster. So called because of its proximity to an Anglo Saxon monastery called ‘Tettan Monasterium’ or ‘Tetta’s monastery’.
Therefore the first obvious question might be; ‘who was Tetta?’

Here again we all have to admit that no one knows for sure, however on one major point I am sure about and that is the lady in question is not who they think it she was.

Sources of misleading information:
The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names has this to say about Tetbury Gloucestershire: Tettanbyrg (c.900), Teteberie (1086) (DB). ‘Fortified place or manor house of a woman called Tette or a man called *Tetta’. OE pers. name + burh (dative byrig)
Here you would assume that something as noble as the Oxford Dictionary would have noticed that the origin of the place named was ‘Tettan Monasterium’ and that the word “Tettan” is the possessive case of the feminine name Tetta. So in this case Tetta’s Monastery, so there was no need for the confusing note about a man called Tetta.

Wikipedia, the font of all modern knowledge, is little better with this “Tetbury is a small town and civil parish within the Cotswold district of Gloucestershire, England. It lies on the site of an ancient hill fort, on which an Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded, probably by Ine of Wessex, in 681.”
Given that the monastery was mentioned in a charter in the year 681 and King Ine’s reign didn’t start until 688 it is unlikely he had anything to do with its foundation nor I fear by either of his sisters as per the next claim.

In a local tourist guide “Tetbury Guide, Walk and Map” published by Tetbury and District Civic Society (with acknowledgements to the History of Tetbury society) on Page 4 of the guide it states:
“Tette, who gave her name to the town was probably the sister of King Ine of Wessex. She later became the Abbess of the famous double monastery for monks and nuns at Wimbourne.”

Here I invite everybody to look a little closer at the above pieces; First piece Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia has this wonderfully inaccurate statement, ‘Tetbury is a small town which lies on the site of an ancient hill fort, on which an Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded, probably by Ine of Wessex, in 681.’

I will deal with the hill fort issue a little later on but considering the monastery was mentioned in a document dated 681 it must have been established some time earlier. As previously stated Ine did not become King of Wessex until seven years after that document.

Second Piece: ‘The first written record of Tetbury, occurs in 681 AD’ True and well documented, when King Ethelred of Mercia granted land to the abbey of Malmesbury. Also true that the land was close to a settlement called Tetta’s Minster so called because of its proximity to an Anglo Saxon monastery called ‘Tettan Monasterium’ or ‘Tetta’s monastery’. However what follows, “Tette who gave her name to the town was probably the sister of King Ine of Wessex” is quite Wrong.

As previously stated the monastery had to have been in existence for some time prior to its mention in a legal document written in 681. We know Ine did not become King of Wessex till the year 688 so it is unlikely that he or any member of his family would have had any influence on the founding of a monastery prior to that time.

Third Piece: From an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ( created around 900AD) we know that King Ine had two sisters; the chronicle names them as Cwenburgh and Cuthburh.

Forth Piece:“Tette, who gave her name to the town was probably the sister of King Ine of Wessex. She later became the Abbess of the famous double monastery for monks and nuns at Wimbourne.”

A little bit Wrong and a little bit Right. As proved above, neither sister was named Tetta or Tette as is claimed. However, King Ine’s sister Cwenburgh is credited with the founding of Wimbourne Abbey in the year 705 where she did indeed become an Abbess.

Fifth Piece: and where I think the main confusion comes from. Records show that there was an Abbess at Wimbourne called Tette. This is true and again well documented, however she was not King Ine’s sister and according to historical records she died in the year 775 AD and therefore highly unlikely to be the founder of a monastery almost one hundred years previously.

So if you look at the time line the Tette of Tetbury is certainly not who they thought she was.

Tetta Timeline

I believe that takes care of the ‘Tet’ of Tetbury so what about the ‘Bury’ bit?

“According to http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/place In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Tetbury “as a small town, a parish, a sub-district, and a district, in Gloucester. The town stands on a rising-ground, 11 miles SW of Cirencester; is supposed to occupy the site of an ancient British strength, called Caer-Bladon…”

My problem with this is that I have seen this fact repeated many, many, times both in print and online, trouble is…it simply isn’t true. However I was interested to find out where the source of the disinformation came from.”

In 1857 the Reverend Alfred Theophilus Lee in his book ‘The history of the town and parish of Tetbury, in the county of Gloucester’ opened Chapter One with this rather interesting statement: “There can be but little doubt that Tetbury was a military station, both in the times of the Britons and Romans.”

Really ? Lee goes on to try and build his case with a few vague references to previous historians but for me he blows his entire argument by concluding: “In the account which the earliest historians gave this part of the country, Tetbury is but rarely mentioned by name.”

There is of course a very good reason for this, ‘The place literally did not exist.’ By that I don’t meant the area was not inhabited it just didn’t have a name.

As we read deeper into Chapter One of Alfred Lee’s book we start to get an idea where much of the speculation as to where the notion that Tetbury ever had a military presence comes from.

Lee quotes from ‘Britannia’ by William Camden (published in 1586) where Camden speaks of the long history of Malmesbury. In the book Camden refers to an even earlier written record Eulogium Historiarum (1366 ) which indicates the origins of the area (Malmesbury) saying that there was an ancient settlement on the site built by ‘Dunwallo Mulmutius King of the Britons,’ and called by him Caer-Bladon. There is a further reference that the same King built castles at Lacock and Tetbury.

I agree that ‘Caer-Bladon’(Fortress on the Bladon(Avon)) is in all likelihood Malmesbury however as to the castles at Lack and Tetbury… my question is, in 1366 how the hell do they know given the location had no name at the time ?

For a start they are speaking of a time period at lease 3- 400 years before the Romans arrived in Britain and we know for a fact that Tetbury doesn’t get a formal name until at least 200+ years after the Romans left !

In Samuel Rudder’s 1779 ‘A New History of Gloucestershire,’ in his account of Tetbury he seems to be the first person to actually question the existence of a castle and even King Dunwallo himself. Although this information is disputed by another historian, Simon Moreau, a few years later, in his 1783 in his ‘A tour to Cheltenham Spa; or, Gloucestershire display’d’: Where Moreau re-quotes the William Camden account. Or perhaps I should say Misquotes the Camden account.

Moreau claims that the old church was built out of the ruins of the castle and doesn’t seem to mention the monastery at all. He then goes on to restate Rudder’s assumption that Tebury was in fact Caer Bladon.

Now given that it is well understood that the existing church, and its predecessor, were build on the site of the monastery, founded by Tette, then that church statement of Moreau’s becomes highly questionable. Plus of course as we know William Camden never claimed that Tebury was Caer- Bladon that honour he most definitely gave to the town of Malmebury.

Returning to Samuel Rudder’s book, in his description of Cirencester he refers to its old pre Roman name of ‘Caer- Ceri or Caer Cori,’ stating that in its true sense ‘Caer’ should be translated as ‘Walled or Fortress,’ another example being ‘Caer-Glou’ or Gloucester.

Rudder then goes on to make this statement: “If then Caer -Cori,(or Ceri), was the fortress or fortified town, on the Corin (old name for the river Churn in Cirencester) why may not Caer-Bladon mean the fortress on the river Bladona the name formally given the Bristol Avon which rises in this parish ? (Here Rudder is specifically referring to Tetbury).

Rudder is correct in his translation and assumption; Caer-Bladon does mean the Fortress on the Bladon,(Avon) he just wrongly attributes the location to Tetbury instead of Malmesbury.

My claim is that from that point onwards everyone else just seems to have followed Rudder’s lead,including Simon Moreau, however there is absolutely no evidence that Tetbury was ever a walled town.

By 1857 Alfred Lee in his book seems to favour the Rudder account that Tetbury was indeed as he put it ‘A Military Station’ from the Iron Age’ and goes on to build his case by adding ‘If a castle was built in the time of the Britons, as thus related by Camden, it would at once be seized by the Romans on their occupation of the country, and made into a military station.’

As proof of this hypothesis he refers to a few finds of Roman coins and a couple of other small pieces as justification. As usual in all of this there is a quaint mixture of both fact and, I’m sorry to say, a touch of romantic wishful thinking.

Again Lee is correct in his assumption that any and all fortified places were indeed seized by the Romans, Caer- Ceri and Caer-Glou (Cirencester and Gloucester) to name just two in the area. However there is no formal mention of Caer-Bladon, which to me signifies that any fortification of that town was no longer of any significant interest or threat to the Romans.

As for digging up Roman coins and bits and pieces in around the area , this is Gloucestershire for heaven’s sake, stick a spade in the ground and sooner rather than later you will find Rome.

Cirencester was a major Roman town, second only to London in importance. It stood on a major cross-roads; The Foss Way which ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) in South West England to Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) in the East Midlands. The other being Ermin Street, running from Gloucester (Glevum) to Silchester (Calleva). (Silchester today is a rather insignificant little place in north Hampshire but was a significant crossroad in Roman times).

Unromantically, if you really want to know what the Romans thought about the area where Tetbury now stands just take a closer look at the route of the Fosse Way!
Did the Romans visit the area? In 400 odd years of occupation I would be surprised if they didn’t pass through it, maybe stop over and trade with the inhabitants but as for a castle or fortification, most unlikely.

Why am I so sure; Well first let us look at the suggested location of this fortification, in the picture from the ‘Ordnance Survey Map dated 1899’ it is identified as ‘Site of Camp.’

Iron Age Camp

In another map I have seen the same site identified as a Ring or Motte and Bailey castle which isn’t Roman or pre Roman but Norman after their invasion of 1066.
Motte and Bailey Castle.

However let’s assume, just for a minute, that it was ever a fortified location, take a look at where St. Mary’s church and the Bartons are located and you will notice that the ‘Camp’ lies below them.

My question is and always has been: Who in their right mind builds a fortification or a castle half way down a hill ? Is it not logical that your enemy would merely attack you from above?

Also at this stage I think it might be worthwhile to challenge the notion that the site now occupied by Tetbury could ever have been the location of a ‘Hill Fort.’

For a start Tetbury is not a hill, OK ! I realise that those who live at the bottom of Gumstool Hill, Fox Hill and Cutwell may wish to differ or give me an argument but let me explain.

To be a suitable candidate for a Hill Fort the high ground needs to be defensible from all sides and at different levels on the way up. A short drive around the immediate area will quickly dispel any lingering doubts. As you arrive from the direction of Malmesbury you can cross over on relative flat ground from Long Newton to the London Road. Same goes for the Bath Road from just past Westonbirt you can circle around via Highgrove to Beverstone on flat ground and again hit Tetbury from behind. Along the London Road from Cirencester you can just drive straight in.

As I said, Tetbury is not a hill. It is a spur, a headland jutting out towards Wiltshire. An accident of fate places Tetbury on an ancient and much disputed border the tiny infant Avon has marked the boundary of many territorial claims and counter claims.

In pre Roman times it was an area dominated by the the Dobunni who were predominantly a large group of farmers and craftsmen, living in small villages concentrated in fertile valleys. They were not a warlike people and were among the first tribes to submit to the Romans during the occupation and they readily adopted the Romano-British lifestyle.

Post Roman era the area was on the Border between Mercia and Wessex and was known to have changed hands several times which merely adds proof to the notion that it was not easily defendable.

When you take a closer look at the site below the church you will notice it makes an ideal site for an Iron Age settlement with their back protected from the cold North winds by a high cliff. To the front fresh running water and arable fields beyond, the man-made earth embankments are just the bounds of the camp there to keep domestic animals in and wild animals out.

So where does the Bury of Tet-Bury come from ?

Initially I think we need to consider the advance of the Vikings and King Alfred the Great who at the battle of Ashdown in 871 halted their progress. After the battle it was Alfred who introduced a sort of ‘National Defence’ system by creating ‘Burhs.’

This was a brilliant new strategy the Burhs ensured that all his subjects would be close to safety as no subject would be more than twenty miles, or a day’s march, away from a refuge.

Like the Hill forts of old they were situated on high ground and surrounded by a wall or ditch.
In a historical document called the ‘Burghal Hidage there was details of how they should be built, manned and maintained. The Burghal Hidage is a unique document, and gives a detailed list of Wessex’s fortified burhs which includes Malmesbury and Cricklade but alas not Tetbury, which is of course well within a day’s march of the Burghs mentioned above.

However, my theory relates more to the definition of the word ‘Burh.’ The old accepted meanings of burh has always been ‘Iron Age hill-fort, modified Roman town or fortified manor, but to that I want to add ‘monastic enclosure.’

I believe I have established, well enough, that the location of Tetbury is not ‘Hill Fort shaped. Nor is there any positive proof that there was ever any walled defensive structure capable of staving off a Viking attack around Tetbury however we did have a Monastery.

Is there any justification to backup my monastic theories, actually quite a lot when you look around, how about Glastonbury, Malmesbury Canterbury Bury St Edmunds, and possibly the most significant of all Paulus byrig aet Lundaenae for St Paul’s in London. At least three of these names clearly mean ‘the burh dedicated to saint Edmund/Peter/Paul’ while the others had a well established monastic presence.

Now given the location of Tetta’s monastery and the position of the lower encampment could it be feasible that the site of the previous Iron Age settlement was modified and adapted as a Burgh to give refuge to the people in the immediate area?

What we do know for sure is that the next major mention that the area gets is after the Norman conquest of England and the written record of the Domesday book in 1087.

So somewhere between the years of 681 and 1087 ‘Tetta’s Minster’ became Tettanbyrg in or around 900 AD and then Tetbury.

So for me the reign of Alfred the Great (871 – 899) and the building of his Burghs fits the bill exactly.

Teteberie, as it is spelled in the Domesday book appears to be quite a thriving place, second in importance within the area to our close neighbour Avening. A priest is mentioned which would indicate the monastery had gone and the Saxon church was in its place.

I think it is also worthy of note that the aforementioned Saxon church remained in place until the eighteenth century which would seem to show a complete lack of interest in the area indicated by the small Norman presence. Saxon churches were more usually modified at least with the square Norman tower.
I think it is fairly obvious that the history and name of the town of Tetbury owes little to any military past however that is not to say that the town does not have a significant place in the history books.

A rich arable area recognised from the times of the Iron Age Britons, always sitting on the border of the region watching the changing face of the country. At a cross roads important to the Romans and everybody ever since, the jealously guarded hunting grounds of Norman Barons, English Kings and the rich County set that followed.

It has been a Cotswold Market town since the beginning of the Thirteenth century that rose to be one of the biggest and most important wool markets in the region.
I think that more than makes up for not having a castle don’t you ?

Now if we could just have a decent Museum to show the world our history !


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