Winchcombe & Belas Knap
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
If you read my last post on St Kenelm you would know now that his final resting place was an abbey at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. This fascinating town grew from a Roman farmstead to the capital of the kingdom of Mercia, before lapsing into a frontier town of outlaws after the prosperity of the Medieval pilgrimages – before being regenerated again into the beautiful Cotswold town that it is today.
Cleeve Hill is a limestone ridge that looks down over the town, the highest point of the Cotswold range and the location for the ancient burial chamber of Belas Knap. This neolithic mound was first built around 3000 BC and appears to have been used by several generations of tribes over time. 38 skeletons were unearthed in 1963 which have been dated to roughly 1000 years after the barrow's construction, so whatever reverence this place compelled in early Britons must have been powerful. It is an atmospheric site, I first visited in thick fog& and had the place to myself for some time - it almost felt as if time had turned back. The chambers can be entered and the supporting stones inside are huge.
Winchcombe itself was a place of importance for the Anglo Saxon tribes collectively known as the Hwicce, they maintained allegiance to the kings of Mercia and so the abbey which went on to house St Kenelm was founded. It was rebuilt and rededicated several times and became the richest abbey in the kingdom at one point, maintaining this prosperity (helped in no small part by constant pilgrimages to St Kenelm's tomb) until it's demise at the hands of Henry VIII. As was common practise, many of the stones and statues were taken and used as building materials around the surrounding area, and a few buildings in Winchcombe still boast abbey features today.
Henry's wife Catherine Parr was buried at Sudeley Castle, a magnificent fortified baronial residence built on the foundations of an earlier castle constructed during the short reign of Stephen during the period known as The Anarchy. The castle has been rebuilt and added to over the centuries and is now the home of the Dent-Brocklehurst aristocratic family, much of it open to the public and even – for the extremely large pocketed and well connected – occasionally used as a wedding venue.
Nothing lasts forever, and after the demolition of the abbey the town fell into some decline, caused to some degree by the adoption of massive sheep ranges over the old agriculture and the enclosures of common land that often went along with this. Probably as a result of this Winchcombe became an outlaw stronghold during the early 1600s, where laws were not important but making a living was – by any means. Sheep and cattle rustling and the resulting clandestine wool sales were common, and the locals also turned to growing tobacco on makeshift plantations – completely illegal at that time and still heavily legislated against today. The militias attacked these plantations, attempting to burn them down and shut down this operation that the crown saw as a threat to the colonies in the Americas, but the men of Winchcombe defended their land and battle commenced, with makeshift weapons of billhooks, pitchforks and axes.
Today the town's main streets have the golden hue of Cotswold stone with many fine inns, houses and public buildings going up during the 1800s, attracting tourists and locals alike. From the neolithic simplicity of Belas Knap to the glittering splendour of Sudeley Castle, the former capital of Mercia still shines.
Belas Knap, showing it's "false" front entrance
One of the Belas Knap chambers
The George Inn at Winchcombe, with a lintel from the old entrance to the abbey in place
Sudeley Castle today
One of the charming old Cotswold stone inns of Winchcombe