Aldbourne Heritage Centre

Early Aldbourne and some very important people!

Gytha, Countess of Wessex

Domesday Book 1086 states that in 1066: ‘Rex ten Aldborne Ghiđa tenuit T.R.E.’. So Gytha (modern spelling) held Aldbourne for the King in 1066: but who was she?

Research shows that she was from an important Danish family and on a trip to Denmark with Earl Godwin, his foremost supporter, King Canute decided that she would make Godwin a good wife. Although somewhat of a come down for her, the marriage was successful. They had 11 children, including 6 boys who almost all became powerful Earls in their own right. One daughter, Edith, married King Edward the Confessor, and a son, Harold, became King.

Gytha had wealth and power. However, her life of influence became one of tragedy. One son died at Stamford Bridge, fighting on the opposite side to his brother the King and she then lost three at the Battle of Hastings. There is a story that she walked the battle field with Harold’s mistress, looking for her son. When they found Harold, she asked William if she could give him a Christian burial, but was refused, understandably – William did not want any reminders of King Harold. Gytha, along with some of her remaining family and grandsons, twice led a rebellion to try to oust William from the throne but failed and went into exile in Denmark and little more is heard of her. She is considered one of the most influential and important women of her age.

Matilda and the Counts du Perche

Sometime after 1080, the Victoria History of the Counties of England states that Aldbourne was given to a Count Perche. Researching the history of the House of Perche, we discover who they are and where in France they came from. The important information, is that Count Routrou II was given the manors of Aldbourne and Wanborough, as a dowry on his marriage to Matilda, Henry I’s illegitimate daughter. This same Matilda was unfortunately drowned in the White Ship disaster of 1120. A great many of the young aristocracy of the day were on this ship, considered one of the biggest and safest in the fleet. The story goes that they got drunk, worse still they got the crew drunk, and the ship floundered on a rock. Nearly all of the young nobles of the time including William, heir to Henry I, died.

Aldbourne stayed in the Perche family for several generations until one Thomas du Perche had the misfortune to be in command of the army of Louis VIII who had invaded England, hoping to oust the throne from King John. He was killed at the battle of Lincoln, 1217, right in front of the cathedral. This battle, won by English forces under William Marshal, was pivotal in preventing the French from gaining control of England.

The King, immediately, confiscated Aldbourne and gave it to William Longespée. On his death it passed to his wife Ela, Countess of Salisbury.

Ela, Countess of Salisbury

Ela was another incredibly important woman of her era. She was immensely rich, and Countess of Salisbury in her own right. On her father’s death her mother took the 9 year old child and hid her in France with relatives so the king could not marry her off. The story goes she was found by a knight acting as a troubadour and brought back to England, where Richard I gave her in marriage to William Longespée. William, was the illegitimate son of Henry II so the royal connection with Aldbourne continued. Ela is famous for not only endowing Laycock Abbey, but also, with her husband, for founding Salisbury Cathedral and investing in the town so that it became rich and prosperous. When William dies, Ela acts as Sherriff of Wiltshire in 1227-8 and 1231-7 appearing in person to render accounts at the Michaelmas sessions. Ela acted for a time as abbess of Laycock Abbey where she ended her days.

Two remarkable women, French counts and illegitimate royals! What next for Aldbourne? See the April issue!