MERDON AND OTTERBOURNE
The South Downs of England descend at about eight miles from the sea into beds of clay, diversified by gravel and sand, and with an upper deposit of peaty, boggy soil, all having been brought down by the rivers of which the Itchen and the Test remain.
On the western side of the Itchen, exactly at the border where the chalk gives way to the other deposits, lies the ground of which this memoir attempts to speak. It is uneven ground, varied by undulations, with gravelly hills, rising above valleys filled with clay, and both alike favourable to the growth of woods. Fossils of belemnite, cockles (cardium), and lamp-shells (terebratula) have been found in the chalk, and numerous echini, with the pentagon star on their base, are picked up in the gravels and called by the country people Shepherds' Crowns--or even fossil toads. Large boulder stones are also scattered about the country, exercising the minds of some observers, who saw in certain of them Druidical altars, with channels for the flow of the blood, while others discerned in these same grooves the scraping of the ice that brought them down in the Glacial age.
But we must pass the time when the zoophytes were at work on our chalk, when the lamp-shells rode at anchor on shallow waves, when the cockles sat "at their doors in a rainbow frill," and the belemnites spread their cuttlefish arms to the sea, and darkened the water for their enemies with their store of ink.
Nor can we dwell on the deer which left their bones and horns in the black, boggy soil near the river, for unfortunately these were disinterred before the time when diggers had learnt to preserve them for museums, and only reported that they had seen remains.
Of HUMAN times, a broken quern was brought to light when digging the foundation of Otterbourne Grange; and bits of pottery have come to light in various fields at Hursley, especially from the barrows on Cranbury Common. In 1882 and 1883 the Dowager Lady Heathcote, assisted by Captain John Thorp, began to search the barrows on the left hand side of the high road from Hursley to Southampton, and found all had been opened in the centre, but scarcely searched at all on the sides. In July they found four or five urns of unbaked clay in one barrow--of early British make, very coarse, all either full of black earth or calcined bones, and all inverted and very rough in material, with the exception of one which was of a finer material, red, and like a modern flower-pot in shape. Several of these urns were deposited in the Hartley Museum, Southampton.
Of the Roman times we know nothing but that part of the great Roman road between Caer Gwent (or Venta Belgarum, as the Romans called Winchester) and Sorbiodunum (Old Sarum). It can still be traced at Hursley, and fragments of another leading to Clausentum (Southampton) on the slope of Otterbourne hill.
In Dr. Milner's History of Winchester, written at the end of the last century, he describes a medallion of mixed metal bearing the head of Julius Caesar, which was dug up by a labourer at Otterbourne, in the course of making a new road. He thought it one of the plates carried on the Roman standards of the maniples; but alas! on being sent, in 1891, to be inspected at the British Museum, it was pronounced to be one of a cinquecento series of the twelve Caesars.
The masters of the world have left us few traces of their possession, and in fact the whole district was probably scarcely inhabited; but the trees and brushwood or heather of the southern country would have joined the chalk downs, making part of what the West Saxons called the Jotunwald, or Giant's Wood, and the river Ytene, and so Itchen seems to have been named in like manner.
These were the times when churches were built and the boundaries of estates became those of parishes. The manor of Merdon, which occupied the whole parish of Hursley, belonged to the Bishops of Winchester by a grant of Oynegils, first Christian King. Milner, in his History of Winchester, wishes to bestow on Merdon the questionable honour of having been the place where, in the year 754, the West Saxon King Cenwulf was murdered by his brother in the house of his lady-love; but Mr. Marsh, the historian of Hursley, proves at some length that Merton in Surrey was more likely to have been the scene of the tragedy.
Church property being exempted from William the Conqueror's great survey, neither Merdon nor Hursley appears in Domesday Book, though Otterbourne, and even the hundred of Boyate or Boviate, as it is in the book, appear there. It had once belonged, as did Baddesley first, at first to one named Chepney, then to Roger de Mortimer, that fierce Norman warrior who was at first a friend and afterwards an enemy to William I.
The entire district, except the neighbourhood of Merdon Manor on the one hand, and of the Itchen on the other, was probably either forest ground or downs, but it escaped the being put under forest laws at the time when the district of Ytene became the New Forest. Probably the king was able to ride over down, heather, and wood, scarcely meeting an enclosure the whole way from Winchester; and we can understand his impatience of the squatters in the wilder parts, though the Cistercian Abbey of Beaulieu was yet to be founded. Indeed Professor E. A. Freeman does not accept the statement that there could possibly have been thirty-nine village churches to be destroyed in the whole district of "Ytene."
The tradition lingered to the present time at Otterbourne that the corpse of William Rufus was brought back in Purkiss's wood-cart from Minestead to Winchester for burial in the Cathedral, along a track leading from Hursley to Otterbourne, called at each end King's Lane, though it is not easy to see how the route could have lain through both points.
The parish of Hursley lies in the hundred of Buddlesgate, and division of Fawley; and the village is situated on the turnpike-road leading from Winchester to Romsey, and nearly at an equal distance from each of those places.
The parishes by which Hursley is surrounded were, when Mr. Marsh wrote, Sparsholt on the north; Farley on the north-west; Michelmersh and Romsey on the west; Baddesley, North Stoneham, and Otterbourne on the south; and Compton and St. Cross on the east.
The whole parish was then upwards of twenty-eight miles in circumference, and contained 10,590 acres of land, of which 2600 were in common, 372 in roads and lanes, about 1000 under growth of coppice-wood, and the rest either arable or pasture.
The soil in the parish of Hursley, as may be supposed in so extensive a tract of land, is of several different sorts; in some parts it is light and shallow, and of a chalky nature; in others, particularly on the east and west sides of the parish, it is what is called STRONG land, having clay for its basis; and in others, especially that of the commons and fields adjoining, it consists principally of sand or gravel. Towards the west, it is entirely covered with wood, not in general bearing trees of large size, but some beautiful beech-trees; and breaking into peaty, boggy ground on the southern side. The northern side is of good rich loam, favourable to the growth of fine trees, and likewise forms excellent arable land. This continues along the valley of Otterbourne, along a little brook which falls into the Itchen. It is for the most part of thick clay, fit for brick-making, with occasional veins of sand, and where Otterbourne hill rises, beds of gravel begin and extend to the borders of the Itchen, through a wooded slope known as Otterbourne Park.
The boundaries of estates fixed those of parishes, and Otterbourne was curiously long and narrow, touching on Compton and Twyford to the north and north-west, on Stoneham to the south, and Hursley to the west, lying along the bank of the Itchen.
The churches of both parishes were probably built in the twelfth century, for though Hursley Church has been twice, if not three times, rebuilt, remains of early Norman mouldings have been found built into the stone-work of the tower. And on the wall of the old Otterbourne Church a very rude fresco came partially to light. Traced in red was a quatrefoil within a square, the corners filled up with what had evidently been the four Cherubic figures, though only the Winged Ox was clearly traceable. Within the quatrefoil was a seated Figure, with something like scales in one hand, apparently representing our Lord in His glory. The central compartment was much broken away, but there was the outline of a man whom one in a hairy garment was apparently baptizing. The rest had disappeared.
These paintings surmounted three acutely-pointed arches, with small piers, and square on the side next the nave, but on the other side slender shafts with bell-shaped capitals, carved with bold round mouldings and deep hollows. Two corbels supporting the horizontal drip-stone over the west window were also clear and sharply cut; and the doorway on the south side had slender shafts and deep mouldings, in one of which is the dog-tooth moulding going even down to the ground on each side. This is still preserved in the entrance to the Boys' School.
These remnants date the original building for about the thirteenth century. It may have been due to King Stephen's brother, Bishop Henry de Blois of Winchester, who is known to have raised the castle whose remains still exist on his manor of Merdon, where once there had been a Roman encampment. So far as his work can be traced, the first thing he would do would be to have a similar embankment thrown up, and a parapet made along the top, behind which men-at-arms would be stationed, the ditch below having a stockade of sharp stakes. In the middle of the enclosure a well was begun, which had to go deeper and deeper through the chalk, till at last water was found at 300 feet deep--a work that must have lasted a year or more. Around the well, leaving only a small courtyard, were all the buildings of the castle meant for the Bishop's household and soldiers. The entrance to it all was probably over a drawbridge across the great ditch (which, on this side, was not less than 60 feet deep), and through a great gateway between two high square towers, which must have stood where now there is a slope leading down from the level of the inner court to that surrounded by a bank. This slope is probably formed by the ruins of the gateway and tower having been pitched into the ditch, as the readiest way of getting rid of them when the castle was dismantled afterwards. We are indebted to the late Sir John Cowell for the conjectural plan and description of the castle.
As soon as the Bishop had completed this much he would feel tolerably safe, but he would not be satisfied. He could hardly have room in his castle for all his retainers, and he could not command the country from it, except towards the south; therefore his next work was to make an embankment and the ditch on the outer side of it. It was then an unbroken semicircle, jutting out as it were from the castle, and protecting a sufficient space of ground for troops to encamp.
In case of an enemy forcing their way into this, the defenders could retreat into the castle by the drawbridge. The entrance was on the east side, and in order to protect this and the back of the castle, by which is meant the northern side, another embankment was made and finished with a parapet. Also as, in case of this being carried by the enemy, it would be impossible for the defenders in the northern part of the castle to run round the castle and into shelter by the main gateway, he built a square tower (exactly opposite to the ruin which yet remains), and divided from it only by the great ditch. On either side of the tower--cutting the embankment across, therefore, at right angles--was a little ditch, spanned by a drawbridge, which, if the defenders thought it necessary to retire to the tower, could at any time be raised (the foundations of the tower and the position of the ditches can still be distinctly traced). Supposing, further, that it became impossible to hold the tower, the besieged could retreat into the main body of the castle by means of another drawbridge across the great ditch, which would lead them through the arch (which can still be seen in the ruins, though it is partially blocked up). The room on the east side of this passage was probably a guard-room. In some castles of this date there were also two or three tunnels bored through the earth-work from the inner courtyard to the bottom of the great ditch, so as to provide additional ways of retreat for such men as might otherwise be cut off in those parts most distant from either of the great gates, in order to secure the outlying defence.
Henry de Blois must have been thinking of the many feudal castles of his native France. He was a magnificent prelate, though involved in the wars of his brother and the Empress Matilda. The hospital of St. Cross, and much of the beauty of Romsey Abbey, are ascribed to him, and he even endeavoured to obtain that Winchester should be raised to the dignity of a Metropolitan See. It does not appear that all his elaborate defences at Merdon were ever called into practical use; and when his brother, King Stephen, died in 1154, he fled from England, and the young Henry II. in anger dismantled Merdon, together with his other castles of Wolvesey and Waltham; nor were these fortifications ever restored. The king and bishop were reconciled; and the latter spent a pious and penitent old age, only taking one meal a day, and spending the surplus in charity. He died in 1174.