Domesday Book and before

Offa, King of Mercia, founded St Albans Abbey in 792/3, after a dream told him where to find the remains of St Alban, England's first Christian martyr. The abbey was endowed with extensive estates, mainly in Hertfordshire (which was on the eastern edge of the kingdom) but stretching west and north. These included Winslow, which must previously have been a royal manor. The evidence is a Latin charter recorded in 13th-century St Albans documents, including Matthew Paris the historian of the abbey, and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon "perambulation" which describes the boundaries of the manor (see below). One source goes further. A 12th-century Latin text called The Lives of the Two Offas states that Offa was praying for divine approval for his project of founding a monastery (he did not yet know where) when the chapel was suddenly filled with divine light and a wonderful fragrance, and this took place at Wineslaue, 20 miles from St Albans, which he promised to give to the new monastery. The Lives is not always historically reliable, but one of its sources may have been oral tradition at St Albans, to which tenants from Winslow would no doubt have contributed. The text does not mention the hunting palace which has often been claimed, but the chapel would hardly have existed in isolation. For the text and commentary, see Michael Swanton (tr. & ed.), The Lives of the Two Offas (Crediton: Medieval Press, 2010).

Matthew Paris on Offa's donations to St Albans

Latin text in Chronica Majora, p.361

Furthermore the most powerful king Offa gave to the blessed protomartyr Alban his demesne vill which is about 20 miles from Verulamium and called Wineslawe, and as much land in circumference, as is still now attested in the king's writings which are kept in the said church.

More information about Offa's hunting palace at Winslow is given in the 12th-century Vitae Offarum Duorum. This is the source of Arthur Clear's statement : "we have the direct authority of Matthew Paris, that King Offa had a Palace with a Chapel at Winslow, and that the Manor was of great extent" although according to the latest editor (Michael Swanton (tr. & ed.), The Lives of the Two Offas (Crediton: Medieval Press, 2010)) Matthew Paris was not the author. Hence the following letter written by Arthur's son Alfred Clear.

Bucks Herald, 7 March 1908


Dear Sir,
Your correspondent “Sigma” inquires if there is any trace or tradition of the whereabouts of King Offa’s palace in this town. Unfortunately, there is not. Both my late father and myself have made many inquiries, but without avail. It is known that Swanbourne was burnt by the Danes, and there is every probability that Winslow shared the same fate. At any rate the St Albans records speaks of the “new town of Winslow”, and this may or may not have been on the site of the old Saxon village; hence one hardly knows in what direction to look for a residence. But there is certainly an ideal spot for one. I refer to the artificial plateau which exists on the top of Shipton Hill, overlooking as it does Dene (Dane) Hill and commanding the ancient ford of Shipton, with the long valley through which winds the brook, at its base, and the three ridges of Oving, Grandborough (at which lived King Offa’s friend, the Saxon thane, Egelwin, the Swart [sometimes Aethelwine, Niger or Black; he held 5 hides at Grandborough which were left in his will to St Albans]), and Botolph Claydon in full view. The fact that no record of any foundations having been found here may possibly be accounted by the buildings being of wood, or during the eleven or twelve centuries that have elapsed they may have been covered to such a depth that ordinary digging or ploughing would not discover them. Although not the highest piece of ground in the parish, it is certainly the most commanding, and it lays on what is considered the oldest side of the town.
I remain, yours truly, A.J. CLEAR, Winslow, March 2, 1908

NB Clear was wrong about the nature of the new town of Winslow, and about Athelwine the Black, who was two centuries later than Offa. The reliability of Matthew Paris and the Life of Offa has been much debated, although there is no reason to doubt that Offa gave Winslow to St Albans.

Charter granting Winslow to St Alban's Abbey in 792 (known only from 13th-century and later copies)

Latin text in: Baines, A.H.J., "The Winslow charter of 792 and the boundaries of Granborough", Records of Bucks 22 (1980), 1-18

God and our lord Jesus Christ reign in perpetuity.  Although everywhere in the whole world the merits of the blessed martyrs who spilled their blood for Christ should be celebrated with the exaltation of divine praise, and their glorious examples should be followed with God’s help, for us in particular however the memory of the most blessed Alban, who in this island of Britain shone gloriously in his martyrdom, is to be observed, always with pious intention and careful concern.
            Hence I Offa, by the grace of God king of the Mercians, with my son Ecgfrith, for love of almighty God and by the intercession of this saint, shall grant with perpetual right land of 30 hides in the places whose names are listed below, to my lord Jesus Christ for the church of St Alban where he first as a youth was made a victim in suffering.  And I render this donation more delightful because heavenly protection has deigned to reveal in our times such noble treasure which was long shut away and hidden by the natives of this land.  Therefore these are the names of the above-mentioned lands. Æt Uuineshauue of 12 hides with its boundaries. Æt Scelfdune or Baldinigcotum of three hides, of which three hides the boundaries are these: Suanaburna, Heortmere, Stretuuealeb’roc [or “Stret, Wealeb’roc”].  Also indeed of 10 hides where it is called Scuccanhlau or Fenntuun with the wood which is named Horwudu, with its boundaries.  Æt Lygetune of 5 hides, which land Abbot Alhmundus, evading military service, owes to me by way of reconciliation.

There is also a 10th-century document written in Anglo-Saxon, which gives the boundaries of the manor, possibly as a result of its being re-granted to St Albans.  See:

Entries from Domesday Book for Buckinghamshire (1086)

[Mursley Hundred]  The Abbot holds Winslow himself.  It answers for 15 hides.  Land for 19 ploughs; in lordship [dominio] 5 hides; 3 ploughs there; a fourth possible.  17 villagers [villani] with 5 smallholders [bordarii] have 15 ploughs.  3 slaves [servi].  Meadow for 19 ploughs.  From the woodland, 10s a year.  The total value is and always was £11 13s 4d.  This manor lay and lies in the lordship of St Albans Church.

 [Waddesdon Hundred]  The Abbot of St Albans holds Granborough.  It answers for 5 hides.  Land for 9 ploughs; in lordship 2 hides; 2 ploughs there.  7 villagers with 4 smallholders have 7 ploughs.  1 slave; meadow for 2 ploughs.  In total, value 100s; when acquired, £4; before 1066, 100s.  This manor lay and lies in the lordship of St Albans Church.

The inhabitants listed are only adult males, and there is much debate about what multiplier to use in order to arrive at a population figure. Little Horwood is not listed separately and was presumably included with Winslow.


Copyright 1 August, 2015