The village is nestled only half a mile mile north of the ancient Icknield Way which is probably over 3,000 years old. This is an Iron Age trading track which runs for some 400 miles diagonally across England from the coast of Dorset to the Norfolk Wash. A parallel track of 87 miles is The Ridgeway which runs along the top of the Chiltern Hills a couple of miles beyond.
The name Ewelme in the form Aewilme occurs in an Anglo-Saxon land charter of the 10th century and is therefore pre-Norman. The name aewylm is an Anglo-Saxon word for a spring of which there are many flowing down from the Chiltern Hills and implies a whelming up of water.
In the Domesday Book of 1086 it is referred to as Lawelme three times and Lavelme once. The Domesday Book described four Normans holding Ewelme with a population of about 200.
The small settlement was not much changed until Thomas Chaucer, the son of Geoffrey Chaucer, married the heiress Matilda Berghersh and made Ewelme their home, creating a grand moated manor house. Their daughter Alice married the Earl of Suffolk William de la Pole who played a prominent role in government in the reign of King Henry VI and was awarded the Dukedom of Suffolk by a grateful sovereign. Their son John, the second Duke of Suffolk, made a grand marriage into the Plantagenet Royal family and lived in the manor.
After the Tudor victory over the last Plantagenent King Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, King Henry VII allowed the Duke to keep his title and home. Ater his death his sons rebelled and the de la Pole properties were forfeit to the Crown. Ewelme became a favourite place for King Henry VIII to visit when he was creating his hunting park from the Thames at Benson to the top of the Chiltern Hills. Ewelme was given to his daughter Princess Elizabeth in 1551, and although she visited several times, she allowed Ewelme ‘Palace’ to fall into disrepair, and it was finally completely demolished by 1613 on the orders of King James I.
Ewelme again became a quiet agrarian settlement until the start of the building of RAF Benson in 1937.
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Thomas and Matilda Chaucer
Thomas (1367-1434) was the son of Geoffrey Chaucer the renowned English poet and courtier to three Kings. Due to his father’s prestigious position in Edward IIIs Court, Thomas’s godfather was the King’s son John of Gaunt, who’s service he later entered. Gaunt paid the dowry for Thomas to marry Matilda Burghersh (1379-1436), a daughter of a wealthy Lincoln dynasty. Ewelme was one of her manors. They married in the early 1390s and made Ewelme their country home, probably enlarging an existing Manor House or building a new one.
Thomas rose to prominence in the Court of Henry V, being on the King’s Council, High Sheriff of Oxfordshire. Constable of Wallingford Castle, an MP from 1400-1431 and Speaker of the Commons on four occasions.
Thomas and Matilda had one daughter Alice, who was born in Ewelme in 1404. With ambitions for her future, they betrothed her aged ten to Sir John Phelip a 31 yr old widower who died of dysentery at Harfleur in 1415. Around 1421 she was married to widower Thomas, Earl of Salisbury, so becoming a Countess, but he died in 1428 besieging Orleans.
Thomas and Matilda were buried in the church with their brass effigies atop a decorated Purbeck Marble tomb. They did not live long enough to see their daughter become a Duchess.
The De La Pole’s
Alice Chaucer’s third husband was William de la Pole (1396-1450). The de la Pole’s wealth was gained by trading in wool with the Low Countries where they noticed the brick buildings. They built kilns in Hull which made them a second fortune, and ‘obliged’ Edward III by funding his wars against the French. Their wealth gave the prominence in government and at Court and they became Marquises and then Earls of Suffolk. William’s father Earl Michael, died of dysentery at Harfleur in 1415 in Henry V’s campaign. His elder son also Michael, was killed three months later at the Battle of Agincourt leaving his brother William with the earldom.
William married the rich twice-widowed Alice Countess of Salisbury in 1430 and became prominent in Henry VI’s reign, rising to become Lord Chancellor of all England and awarded the Dukedom of Suffolk in 1448. Ambitious and avaricious, he betrothed their only son John to Lady Margaret Beaufort of the Lancastrian Royal House. This was a step too far for the resentful nobility and William became the ‘most hated man in England’. He was impeached on 18 Articles, accused ‘of sundry treasons and misprisions’ and banished for 5 years. On his way to France, William was unlawfully apprehended as he set sail from Dover and assassinated. His head struck off with six strokes of a rusty sword.
Alice deserted the doomed Lancastrian King Henry VI as the King had dissolved the betrothal of her son to Lady Margaret Beaufort in 1453. In 1458 Alice married John to Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of Richard, Duke of York, the sister of King Edward IV and King Richard III. Alice, a rich widow, left the Wingfield estates in Suffolk, and spent her latter years in Ewelme, dying in 1475. On her magnificent tomb she is entitled - ‘…the most serene princess’.
The last Plantagenent king Richard III was killed at the Bosworth Field in 1485. His heir at that time was his nephew John, Earl of Lincoln, the son of the second Duke of Suffolk and hence the grandson of William and Alice de la Pole. Henry Tudor seized the throne and Ewelme was forfeited to the Crown. Surprisingly, Duke John de la Pole and his Duchess Elizabeth Plantagenet, were allowed to retain their Manor, but their sons were gradually dispossessed and/or executed. Henry VII and his Queen Elizabeth of York, the Duchess’s niece, visited for a month in 1490, and 9 months later their second son Henry was born - so he could have been conceived here. After that visit the Manor became known as a ‘Palace’.
Henry VIII often stayed at Ewelme ‘Palace’ and established a hunting park from the Thames at Benson to Park Corner and a Hunting Lodge at Ewelme Park. He brought Ann Boleyn here three times and was on honeymoon with Katherine Howard in 1540 when two Kings Counsels were held here.
In 1551 Edward VI gave Ewelme to his sister Princess Elizabeth and as Queen she visited often with her favourite Robert Dudley. Lovers Lane bridleway is allegedly named after their strolls.
Elizabeth allowed the ‘palace’ to fall into disrepair and James I ordered the complete dismantling so by 1613 only the accommodation building remained. This was remodelled into the Manor existing today by Edward Rudge after 1815.
After Ewelme’s prominence in the 16th century it again became a quiet agrarian community with the land farmed by a succession of wealthy yeoman farmers. Most village men worked on the land and wives obtained domestic work for the ‘big’ houses. The watercress industry was set up after 1890 which employed village men, some for their lifetime. It ceased production in the 1980’s. In the 1920’s and 1930’s the Cowley Motor Works in Oxford were opened offering more highly paid jobs. In 1937 the building of RAF Benson was begun and work on the Station continued to be available during and after the war. Rowse’s Honey Factory was set up in 1961 situated at Kings Pool until it moved to the Wallingford Industrial Estate in the late 1980’s. At present a major employer of local men is Grundon’s Waste Management company which began buying up Ewelme farmland land in 1946 for gravel extraction and has evolved into the largest recycling business in the south. Hazel & Jefferies a recycling, road surfacing and skip hire company are operating at the top of Eyres Lane in a former Mains scrapyard. Another Mains scrapyard site is in use for other purposes. Ewelme Coachworks in the High Street is a specialist car repair service.