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The History of Wicken Bonhunt

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A Short History of Wicken Bonhunt

Wicken Bonhunt is a small village 5 miles South West of Saffron Walden in between Newport and Clavering. The village follows the course of a winter brook which joins the river Cam or Granta at Newport. In earlier times the parish consisted of two separate manors, Wicken and Bonhunt. Bonhunt is situated next to Newport where the M11 motorway passes over the B1038 and consists of Bonhunt Farm and the Chapel of St. Helen; one of the oldest buildings in Essex. Wicken forms the central part of the village built around St Margaret’s church. The two names were joined together for tax purposes in Elizabethan times.

The Domesday Book refers to the separate manors of Wica and Banhunta. It records that Saxi, a free man, held Wicken before 1066 as a manor for 3 hides and 13 acres with 9 villagers, 8 smallholders and 3 slaves with 2 ploughs in lordship plus 3 men’s ploughs. Woodland supported 100 pigs, 1 cob, 40 sheep and 36 goats. Its value is given as ‘always £7’.

The two names have been used together in various forms as far as records go. Subsidy Rolls of 1238 refer to ‘Wykes Bonhunte’ and the Feudal Aids of 1412 give the name as ‘Bonant in Wykn’. Other names include Wiken, Wickin, Wykyn, Wickham, Bonant and Bonnet. Wicken is probably derived from the old English Wic (plural Wicum), meaning dairy farm and Bonhunt from Bana’s huntsmen or the old English bann-huntan which means huntsmen liable to be summoned.

A large middle Saxon settlement was discovered in the fields by Bonhunt Farm in the 1970’s. Around 30 structures showed building activity spanning 150-200 years including a long room where knives with gold inlay and gold headed pins were found suggesting this may have been a royal manor. Two stone coffins and a Saxon graveyard were excavated; the human remains showed that many had died from severe battle wounds.

The chapel of St Helen was built in the 10th century, constructed of small flint and pebble with stone quoins under a thatched roof. Some records of its long history survive. In 1316 two messuages, 20 acres of arable land and 8 acres of pasture were given to St Leonard’s hospital in Newport to pay for a priest to celebrate mass for the soul of King John (1199 –1216) within the little chapel. Some of its vicars are known: Miles in 1248, Walter de Foxton in 1308 and Edmund (jailed for shooting the King’s deer) in 1331. The chapel was dissolved in 1543 and left to decay.

The fabric of the building was extensively restored by George H Barnard the owner of Bonhunt Farm around 1918 when he was careful to preserve architectural features. By the 1930’s local directories show the chapel once again in decay and being used as a barn or cow- shed. The manor of Bonhunt, passed from the Green family to the Bradburys, Nightingales and Cranmers.

The main part of the village sits around the parish of St Margaret which originates from the 11th century. Constructed of small stone, it was partly rebuilt in the 12th and 13th centuries with the porch was added in the 16th. It remained the same until the early 18th century when the tower either fell or was taken down and the bells were placed on the west side in a wooden belfry. Parish registers date from 1588. The old rectory burned down in 1590 and Wicken Hall, the Bradbury family home took prominence as the finest residence in the village.

In 1856 a very large Gothic style rectory was commissioned under the vicar John Hanson Sperling. Built solidly of red brick its decorative barge board gables sit splendidly under clustered Elizabethan style chimney stacks. In 1919 the Rectory was sold and its name was changed to Wicken House. The building was later bought by Essex County Council as a residential education centre.

The village was shaped by the Bradbury family from around 1510. Moving from Wicken Hall, William Bradbury had The Brick House built around 1600 and much of the original fabric of the building remains. It is a beautiful symmetrical house of fine red brick in the Dutch style. Above the central doorway a semi circular pediment encloses an ornamental cartouche which bears the Bradbury family coat of arms. Above the doorway a circular niche encloses a classical stone figure.

William’s father Mathew was the second son of Robert Bradbury and nephew to Thomas Bradbury, Sheriff of London in 1498 and Lord Mayor of London in 1509. The Bradbury family records are extensive and trace their time as London mercers, dealing in beautiful fabrics such as silks, velvet and embroidery. Their earliest local home was Catmere Hall, a fine moated residence in Littlebury. The family are best remembered locally thanks to Thomas’ widow Joan who was first referred to in the Mercers Company Acts of Court as Lady Bradbury, a title bestowed on her as widow of a Lord Mayor of London. In the country however, Joan was always known as Dame Bradbury, who together with her brother John, founded the Dame Johane Bradbury School in Saffron Walden. Several members of the Bradbury family are buried in St Margaret’s church commemorated with fine memorials by Sheemakers.

Today in 2008, Wicken Bonhunt retains much of its rural charm with agriculture a mainstay of village life. The population has decreased a little but maintains about the same number as it did in medieval times. The village pub, The Coach and Horses, is today the only public amenity. Sadly, despite a valiant attempt by the Save Wicken House Campaign, Wicken House is in the final stages of being sold to developers by Essex County Council. It stands empty and overgrown as the village waits to be informed of its future. Careful administration by The Parish Meeting group ensures that the village moves with the changes of the 21st century and looks forward to developing new facilities for the future.