Taken from: 'St John the Baptist
in Itchen Abbas: A Short History of a Church and its
Community in the Upper Itchen Valley' by Penny Claisse and David Taylor
You will find the church of St John the Baptist in Itchen Abbas,
where the road from Avington joins the main road that runs
between Alresford and Winchester, through the beautiful
countryside of the Itchen Valley.
Walk under the lychgate and up the long path flanked by rose
bushes where the tiny church stands close to the River Itchen. At
first glance it appears to be a twelfth-century building. The
porch has a Norman style arch with ancient stonework. But there
are contradictions - what appears to be a foundation stone in the
exterior north east corner is dated 1862, whilst there are
memorials in the churchyard with early eighteenth-century
inscriptions. This tranquil building holds a story. The
parishioners who worshipped here through nine centuries, the
clergy who cared for the souls and the village in which they have
all lived spring to life in its telling.
Itchen Abbas takes its name from the river beside which it stands,
together with the abbey convent which owned the manor from Saxon
times until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The
manor was variously known as Icene, Ichene and Ichin. The names
Itchen Abbess and Itchen Abbotts were used in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The abbey in question was Nunnaminster, founded as a Benedictine
establishment in about 900 AD by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the
Great. It held Icene during the reign of Edward the Confessor.
There are indications that there was a fair sized settlement here
in Saxon times from the cemetery located behind
the present school. Evidence of even earlier habitation comes
from the flint arrowheads found in the surrounding countryside
and in the disused railway cutting which runs through the village.
It is also certain that at least one Roman nobleman felt at home
in this beautiful spot for on high ground north west of the route
of the old Watercress Line is the site of a Roman villa.
Excavations, carried out in the nineteenth-century, revealed a
pavement but no details were recorded and the site was recovered
The very first record of Itchen Abbas is to be found in the 'Domesday
Book' compiled in 1086, by which date Nunnaminster had been
renamed St Mary's Abbey. A translation in the 'Victoria County
History' tells us:
'Hugh son of Baldri holds Icene of the King. This manor was held
by the Abbey of nuns of St Mary's, Winchester (at the time of
King Edward's death). It was then assessed at 12 hides, now it is
hides. There is land for three ploughs. In the demesne are four
ploughs; and nine villeins and nine bordars with three ploughs.
There are 16 serfs and a mill worth 20 shillings and 24 acres of
meadow. (At the time of King Edward's death) it was worth 15
pounds and afterwards 17 pounds. It is now worth 11 pounds. The abbess of St Mary's claims this manor; and the whole Hundred
and also the county court bears witness that it was the abbey's (at
the time of King Edward's death) and in the time of King William,
and ought of right to be. King William has restored it to the
The abbess of St Mary's was Beatrix, a Norman and the 'Hugh'
mentioned here also owned Oakley, South Warnborough and
Stratfield Saye. Villeins were small farmers and bordars were
labourers. The villeins took their own grain to the abbey mill,
situated where the present mill now stands opposite the church,
paid the abbess for the privilege of having it ground. A hide was
the unit of land that could be ploughed in one year by a team of
eight oxen. It was sufficient to support one household.
The church interior
THE OLD CHURCH
The Domesday Book does not record the existence of a church in
Itchen Abbas. When, then, was the first church built? The present
building is a Victorian reconstruction hence the foundation stone
of 1862. However, it does retain some of the original stonework
in the chancel arch and in the porch. Its style suggests that the construction of the old church began in the late eleventh-century
and some written sources date it as 1092.
John Duthy, writing in 1839, said:
'The church is an ancient structure dedicated to St. John ...
It is clearly of Norman architecture, and probably of the same
date as so many others . . . which were erected in the church
building age which succeeded the Conquest. It had two fine Norman
doorways, opposite each other, in the northern and southern walls;
the latter is now stopped up, and only the former used as an
entrance, encumbered by the common clumsy porch . . . There are
windows in it of a later date and more ornamented character, in
the improved style of pointed architecture. In the interior also
of the church are some good arches of the Norman era. The
pavement in the chancel exhibits a number of those variegated
tiles . . . and which, although they have been called Roman,
Saxon and Norman, and, perhaps, may some of them be of high
antiquity. are, in many instances, as certainly of comparatively
Some years before this was written a vault had been dug under the
church. Two coffins were discovered. Each was cut from a single
block of chalk and had a covering lid and contained a skeleton,
but there were no inscriptions. The age of these burials is not
known but their presence may indicate that the site had a
religious use before the first stone building had been
Jessie Corrie (1855-1945), the great grand-daughter of the
Reverend Robert Wright, writing in 'Records of the Corrie Family'
in 1899, remembered the old church with affection:
'It was a curiosity. There were old high pews with a
whispering gallery for if you spoke into a hole by the chancel
arch what you said could be heard in the loft.'
The yew tree standing in the churchyard was described as 'venerable'
and of'enormous size' in 1839. It may have been planted when the
old church was built.
David Taylor and Penny Claisse,1992