The Ancient History of Ropley (100,000 BCE-1709 CE)

Ropley’s prehistory

The earliest activity in Ropley begins with the parish’s earliest finds; a paleolithic flint handaxe dating from around 100,000 years ago, which was found some ten years ago. A number of flint tools from the later Mesolithic period around 9,000-4,000 BCE have also cropped up toward the east of the parish. A flint knife from this period now sits in the stone age display of the Alton Curtis Museum. In the later Stone age, the Neolithic approximately 6,000-4,500 years ago, we begin to find far more evidence for activity and potentially settlement in the parish. A large number of neolithic flint finds such as scrapers (see below), awls, blades and picks have been found over time, with some recorded by the British Museum on the Portable Antiquities Site online.

The production of flint tools requires the “knapping” (removal) of flint from a larger flint nodule to create tools. Knapping is done by taking an implement- typically a larger rounded stone, or sometimes an antler, and striking the flint with enough power from an angle. This creates a characteristic break is which can be identified either as waste (removed and disposed of to create the tool) or the tool itself. These flint implements would have been used by the earliest farmers to hunt animals, to cut rope, to whittle wooden tools and scrape like with a flint scraper pictured below.

Neolithic flint scraper found in Ropley With permission from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Bronze Age

Ropley is a haven of Bronze Age activity; the first concrete signs of settlement in the area an early bronze age burial mound come in this period. These graves called tumuli would’ve been prepared for high ranking tribal leaders or officials who were worthy enough to have a ceremony prepared and several tonnes of soil piled atop their corpse. In Ropley there are 2 and potentially more of these, both stemming from this time.

The Lyeway gold torc

Ropley has some national renown for the Lyeway torc (see right) found by a local farmer in the 1840s near Lyeway. The golden arm band made of twisted gold marks one of the best preserved and remarkable gold torcs in all of England. The piece now sits in the Cornwall County Museum and was officially dated to the late bronze age-around 1,000-800 BCE. A couple of bronze axes were also found some years ago by metal detectorists.

It is a common misconception that with each change of material age; stone to bronze to iron, a complete revolution and move to a new material culture occurred, this is however not the case. The new materials were very costly in time and resources to produce, hence they could only be afforded by some, for some applications. For example flint was still in frequent use well into the bronze age, even 16th Century flintlock pistols relied on knapped flint to create a spark. Hence bronze age flint tools can also be found, and in Ropley some of these have been found.

The Iron Age

The iron age marked a full transition to agricultural life with settlements starting to take shape as small farmsteads with enclosures. These small abodes would have consisted of a small wattle and daub huts with a thatched roof often protected by coppice fence and sometimes with a protective ditch and bank earthwork. Recreations of these huts can be seen at Butser hill Ancient Farm. Iron age activity in Ropley is very noteworthy; a number of enclosures can be seen as circular and rounded crop marks visible in satellite images.

Finds from this time are also numerous; metal detectorists have found several coins, fittings and brooches from this period. This ancient community was drawn here likely due to Ropley’s high rolling hills over the Arle valley and the presence of streams which have since then run dry.

Roman period

Sestertius coin of Postumus circa 260AD found in Ropley With permission from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Roman Ropley is a fascinating period. Coins (see right), brooches, buckles, spoons and even a gold ring litter the parish, along with a lot of features and archaeology. A large number of finds and crop marks show a farmstead (location withheld) standing in the parish, along with a number of possible roman roads running west-east. Some of these theoretical roman roads are doubtful as they present no evidence, other than their straightness, for being so.

It is possible that a roman villa exists somewhere in the parish as has been proposed by Dr. Chris Heal in his book “The Four Marks Murders”. We can deduce this as a somewhat regular distance (around 6km) between the villas in Hampshire exists, and there is a noticeable void somewhere in the vicinity of Ropley. East Hampshire was a particular hotspot in roman times, nearby villas such as those at Bramdean, Old Alresford, Stroud and Holybourne suggest an area dense with villas and farmsteads.

Anglo Saxon Ropley

After the Romans evacuated their British colony some 1,600 years ago, the British Isles and much of Europe too, entered the dark age, known as such because of the lack of written records, the overall decline in quality of life and a surge in looting of settlements. It is no surprise then that very little is known about Ropley in this period. We do not know when the area was settled by Germanic peoples nor do we have much physical evidence of their presence, but we do have a great linguistic legacy left by them.

Those who settled Ropley were Anglo-Saxons, like much of England, in the nearby Meon Valley, however, were Jutes. The Saxons who settled Ropley gave its name; ‘Hroppan-leah’ meaning “Hroppa’s settled woodland clearing”. Hroppa was probably a patriarch of a household or leader of the local community and, amongst others, lived in a woodland clearing, in Old English a ‘leah’. Interestingly Hroppa is related to the modern name of Robert.

Almost all of Ropley’s hamlet, field and lane names stem from these Saxon invaders who brought over old English. They named Ropley Dean; after the valley (Old English ‘denu’) they named Harcombe meaning “a valley where goats are kept”, and they named neighbouring West Tisted, Medstead, Bighton, Bishop’s Sutton etc. It is this trace that the Saxons left of their landscape that is more valuable than any coin hoard, or golden buckle, because even though this time is largely mysterious and forgotten the linguistic legacy left tells us so much about their environment and their relationship to it. With the arrival of the Germanic invaders came with little question the most important change in all of British linguistic history. The Saxons did not however dissapear without a physical trace, as of yet a few finds from the latter part of this era have appeared. Saxon potsherds dotting some parts of the parish and most significantly a limestone coffin that was discovered accidentally during the building of the Mid hants railway in the 1860s. These very tantalising finds are all we have so far to show the origins of Saxon Ropley.

Medieval Ropley

With the Norman invasion in 1066 we consider the beginning of Medieval England, the end of fractured kingdoms, the end of the Danelaw and for the first time since the romans the creation of a (somewhat) stable unified domain. Our medieval history is fascinating, and we begin to see the parish coming into its own. Ropley is first mentioned in 1172 as ‘Roppeleia’ in relation to its ‘chapel’, nowadays St. Peter’s Church. Much of Ropley comes into the hands of rich norman families like the Gervais and Gilbert families, the latter of which gave their name to Gilbert Street.  Another significant landowner in the village was the Bishopric of Winchester who held the Manor of Ropley, a very profitable estate. Most notably the bishopric was one of the most powerful and wealthy positions in all of England and even Europe. Later in the late 1380s and 90s the entirety of the bishoprics lands in Ropley was donated by the then bishop Wykeham for the founding of Winchester College. Gifts of land from wealthy Ropley landowners, in particular the Gervais families, added to the college’s domain in the parish, which parts of still exist today. The inhabitants of Ropley are also not as elusive as their Saxon ancestors. In order to track his expenses and accounts the bishopric creates many legal documents naming and detailing a lot of information about Ropley and its inhabitants. We see familiar names start to appear, such as the Budd family who have lived in the parish since the 1400s and potentially earlier.

Medieval settlement in Ropley expands on the previous anglo-saxon hamlets and adds farmsteads like North Street,  Lyeway and Ropley Soke. St. Peters church is rebuilt atop a saxon church in the late 1000s and is an impressive feat of Norman architecture. Smugglers in Monkwood and the Smithy on Church Street, are both houses whose constructions date to the 1400s. The archaeology of this time is also wealthy, with hammered silver coins, potsherds, buckles, cauldrons and decorative metalworking pointing to farmsteads and holdings lost to time. Some of these finds give insight into the nobility of Ropley such as this gold plated and enamelled buckle plate dating from the 1200s found in the parish last year (below).

Gold plated buckle plate from the 1200s With permission from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Post medieval Ropley

The post medieval period of Ropley is incredibly well documented. The previously mentioned court rolls of Ropley, document and detail land acquisitions and transfers dating back to the 1300s and compiled in the 1600s. These records are a remarkable view into the lives of the many people that lived in Ropley over the centuries. These papers are all remarkably well preserved in the Winchester College archives. Four Marks, Ropley’s former hamlet was first recorded in a perambulation document as ‘fowremarkes’ in the 1550s. The document details the boundary of the Manor of Alresford and lists many local place names. By the mid 1600s the civil war was raging in Hampshire, Ropley was between two major battlefields in Hampshire, Alton in 1643 and Cheriton in 1644, the parish therefore fell victim to a lot of military traffic. It was said that the troops of Sir William Waller mustered on Four Marks Hill. The traces of military footfall are to be found throughout Ropley, such as a lead cannonball made for a Falconet Cannon (below), buckles, buttons, smaller ammunition and coins.

Civil war lead cannonball

Civil war lead cannonball With permission from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

In the early 1700s Ropley was the first parish nationwide to be enclosed by act of parliament, this part of Ropley’s history is likely most well known as enclosures are arguably the single-most significant change to British landscape and how we perceive it. Even today long rectangular fields in Four Marks are visible, where once the common fields of Ropley stood.

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