Chronicles: Early history of the Undercliff Part 2 – Medieval

Last week’s article Early History of the Undercliff Part 1 ended with the Romans, who withdrew from Britain in 410 AD. They had already been defending the south and east coast against Saxon raids. Once the Romans had left, the Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to settle in Britain which eventually became ‘England’.  The next invasion was by the Vikings, who occupied much of northern England, and raided the island in the tenth Century. The Anglo-Saxon period came to an end with the Norman conquest in 1066.


In 686 the Island was the last part of England to be converted to Christianity, following its annexation by the Christian kingdom of Wessex in 625. The Anglo-Saxon settlement at Bonchurch probably had a church which was later replaced by the Norman church of St. Boniface. St. Boniface himself is reputed to have visited from his Hampshire monastery around 710 AD to preach at Pulpit Rock in Bonchurch.  The legendary St. Boniface Well is located on St. Boniface Down and his name has been used locally for a church, a road, a school and a pub.  Later he went as a missionary to Frisia and became Archbishop of Germany.  He was martyred in 754 by pagan brigands. The National Trust has a plaque on the Downs close to the well. The Ventnor Heritage Centre sells a small pamphlet about the well and the saint.

The discovery of a Christian cemetery at Flowers Brook suggests that there might have been another centre of population in this area, possibly lost to landslide and coastal erosion. This small Anglo Saxon community may have moved to St. Lawrence, where a church was built in the 12th century. There may also have been a temporary Viking settlement at Flowers Brook as a Viking burial has also been found there.

The modest medieval churches at St. Lawrence and Bonchurch (1070) served small communities with a subsistence economy based mostly on fishing and farming.  These little churches were not extended over the years which suggests that these communities did not grow very much. There was a fourth Medieval settlement at St. Catherine’s Point. Archaeological evidence from the eroding cliffs shows that kitchen middens (refuse heaps) were fairly common, and the flat clifftop terrain still displays evidence of abandoned ‘ridge and furrow’ fields which are associated with successful medieval settlements. But apart from the saint’s name, there is no evidence of a church, unless it was lost to the sea.


After the Norman victory over the Anglo Saxons at Hastings in 1066, William Fitz Osborne, who had fought at the battle, became ‘ Lord of the Island’.  The ‘Domesday Book’ commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086 was to be a comprehensive record of settlements, manors, goods and livestock in the whole of England, for taxation purposes. It records Anglo-Saxon manors in our area at Bonchurch, Luccombe, Stenbury, Week, Niton, Chale, Gotten and Wroxall.

The largest manor was Wroxall which had 41 peasant households, the third largest manorial population on the Island. It also paid the highest land tax of £27 which suggests substantial wool production. Wool was more profitable than arable farming. Luccombe also had sheep, but a population of only 8 peasant households and paid £4 in tax.  Bonchurch manor was even smaller and paid just £1.

St. Boniface church in Bonchurch was built by monks from the Abbey of Lyra in Normandy, probably on the site of a Saxon wooden church.  The monks had been granted the tithes of Luccombe and Bonchurch manors by William Fitz Osborne. The chancel, nave and south door are examples of Norman architecture. Another Norman ecclesiastical building was a priory at Appuldurcombe which was associated with the Norman Benedictine abbey of Montebourg. Henry V was at war with France in 1414 when he suppressed this priory.

The Ventnor Heritage Centre has recently mounted a new display concerning the periods mentioned here and last week.  Other island museums with displays covering this period are Carisbrooke Castle, Newport and Brading Roman villas and Newport Guildhall museum.

Richard Downing, Ventnor & District Local History Society . This article first appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in 2016.