The Ice Age
At this time, the Isle of Wight was joined to the mainland adjacent to the Purbeck Hills of Dorset on the western side. In present times, the Frome river, a major chalk stream, flows into Poole Harbour but then it would have continued east into the Solent, collecting the Stour, Beaulieu, Test and Ichen rivers before flowing into the channel east of what is now the Isle of Wight.
The gap in the chalk ridge that transects the Island from west to east in which Brading sits was cut in the Ice Age by a raging torrent equivalent in width and capacity to the River Amazon above Manaos. It carried melted water, charged with out-wash material, on its way to join the River Frome. The gap formed in this way is now occupied by the River Yar, without the same volume and ferocity!
Post-Ice Age circe 6000 BC
The Isle of Wight had become separated from Hampshire by this time as the ice melted and sea levels rose. This is also the time of the first known settlers around Brading. The climate was warmer; mixed forests of Oak, Elm, Lime, Ash, Birch, Hazel and Elder provided timber for shelter and fuel for fires. The land that became known as Brading was an attractive place to put down roots.
It is sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds. The land rises steeply either side of the river valley: on the west side of the ‘gap’ is the chalk downland known as Brading Down; on the other side is Bembridge Down leading to the end of the chalk ridge at Culver Cliff. There would also have been fertile land in the river valley and easy access to the coast.
Roman Era – a tidal Haven
At a date it is not possible to specify, the East Yar valley became a tidal haven – it would seem to have been so at the time of the Roman occupation in the first four centuries AD. As such, Brading sat at the head of a tidal inlet: the sea nourished its growth allowing maritime trading activities which, by 1180, had earned it recognition as a ‘town’. Unfortunately, the tide brought unwelcome invaders too!
From around 6000 BC to AD 43, evidence of settlement by Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age peoples takes the form of burial mounds of tribal chieftains at Nunwell Down, and weapons, tools, coins and jewellery from different sites. By 75 BC, tribes known as the Belgae had migrated from Gaul to the south of England: communities at Yaverland and Morton, near the site of the later Roman Villa, probably traded with Gaul in the Roman Empire.
In 55-54 BC, Julius Caesar invaded Southern Britain; there is evidence of imported Roman wine and pottery at the Brading Roman Villa site from this time. By 20 BC, local Vectis ware copied Roman pottery designs.
Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43. An unchallenged governorship of the Island by Vespasian followed. The Villa probably had its origins before AD 100 and developed over the next 250 years, with mosaic floors laid around AD 320-340 in its most prosperous period.
In AD 367, ‘The Great Raid’ by pirates marked the end of the Villa as a residence. It was afterwards used for workshops and drying corn, and by AD 400 was in decay. Ten years later, the last Roman garrisons left Britain. The Villa was rediscovered in 1880.
Jutes and Saxons
In AD 449, the Jutes arrived on the mainland and in due time invaded the Isle of Wight from the stronghold they established in Kent. After slaughtering or enslaving many of the inhabitants of post-Roman times, they ruled ‘the Victuarri’ until overcome by the West Saxons.
The West Saxon King, Cerdic with Cynric, his son, invaded the Isle of Wight in AD 530. After Cerdic’s death four years later, the Island was given to their kinsmen, Stuf and Wihtgar.
In AD 661, Wulfere, son of Penda, King of the Mercians (East Angles), ravaged the Island and gave it to Aethelwald or Ethelwalh, King of the South Saxons (Sussex) as a baptismal gift. The priest Eoppa was sent to conduct the first baptisms on the Island.
The fourth violent onslaught in this epoch took place in AD 686. Caedwalla, King of the West Saxons (Wessex) and a descendant of Cerdic, killed Ethelwalh and brutally subdued the Island’s mainly pagan Jutes and South Saxons, wanting to replace them with people from his own territory. He gave a quarter of the Island (three hundred hides) to Bishop Wilfred whose missionaries from Selsey followed – to convert to Christianity the last remaining pagans in the South of England. Although Constantine had permitted Christianity from AD 313 and Bishop Augustine had laid foundations in AD 597-8, the Island population was not easily convinced.
AD 787 – 860 was a time of many sporadic attacks by Danish pirates who used the Island as a place of retreat from their pillages on the mainland south coast. In the reign of Aethelred ‘the Unready’, 866-71, their abuse increased and Islanders were heavily taxed to pay the Danes off in ‘Danegeld’ to stop them owning land.
In AD 871, King Alfred (also descended from Cerdic) came to the throne of England. As the Saxons had previously neglected their navy, he ordered long ships built which would more than match the Danish askrs.
A major confrontation took place in AD 897, it is widely believed in Brading Haven, between six Danish ships and nine of King Alfred’s: sixty-two Anglo-Saxons and allied Frisians died and 120 Danes. Fighting is also recorded as having taken place inland at Bloodstone Copse near Brading between locals and sailors from three of the ships.
By 1016, the Danes finally ruled England under King Cnut (Canute) who is said to have visited the Island in 1022. The position of Master of the Household in the palace of Canute’s son, King Harthacnut (Hardicanute) was held by Stur, whose descendants had much influence through land ownership in Brading after the Norman Conquest.
In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, was victorious at the Battle of Hastings and he appointed William Fitz Osbern to subjugate the Isle of Wight. A Richard d’Orglandes may have been present at Hastings: from 1160 the Oglander family took up an 800 year residency at Nunwell in Brading. Other French nobility, such as the de Aulas, would come to own or lease Brading lands held at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 mainly by William, son of Stur, and William, son of Azor, if not directly by the Crown.
Throughout 1336-1585, although the French and their allies tried their best during the ‘Hundred Years War’ to take the Island, with encounters in Brading at Writleston (1340), Nunwell (1377) and Yarbridge (1545), they failed. The Norman conquerors were the last successful invaders to shape Brading’s development.
Favoured by Kings
The Medieval Period
For almost three hundred years after the Norman Conquest there was stability on the Island. French was the official language imported by those of the nobility who divided Brading lands between them, whilst the commercial life of Brading was enabled to flourish with most activity centred on its harbour, though not just for trade in fish
The linear form of the town centre High Street took shape at this time, and in the surrounding farms and fields corn was grown, cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry were reared, and activities such as quarrying, forestry, brewing, salt-making and woollen textile weaving were commonplace. Families grew their own vegetables and herbs.
In the reign of Henry II, Brading’s status as a ‘town’ was confirmed by the overlord of the Manor of Whitefield – another William, son of Stur, of Gatcombe. In the same year of 1180, Brading Parish Church (St. Mary’s) was built in Anglo-Norman style, and was added to in subsequent centuries by the descendants of the Norman Oglander and de Aula families.
Isabella de Fortibus, the only female feudal ruler of the Island and last of the Norman de Reviers (Redvers) line, sold the Island to Edward I just before she died in 1293, but Edward’s interest in the Manor of Whitefield predated this. John de Hardington, when he bought the Manor in 1279 demised it for the term of his life to the King, at which time Edward took a lease on ‘Brerdynge, in the Manor of Whitefield’. In 1285 he granted ‘Ye Kynge’s Towne of Brerdynge’ a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.
After John de Hardington’s death without heirs by 1293, Edward I took possession of the Manor and in 1302 granted it for the support of his daughter Mary who was a nun at Amesbury. In 1312 it was granted also to Prince Edward, and afterwards remained in the possession of the Crown until 1630.
The Post-Medieval Period
On the south side of Brading Parish Church there are is property which has been part of ‘Brading the Experience’ complex called the ‘Old Rectory Mansion’, with its Queen’s Bower Courtyard Garden. It was built by William Squire in 1502. Henry VIII owned it from 1539-1546 and during this time (1540) he built Sandham Castle Fort to strengthen the defence of this area against the French. It is from this Tudor period that the town seal originates. German Richards lived in the house after his marriage to Henry Squire’s widow, Alice in the late 1550s. His brewery was on the opposite side of the High Street in the Parsonage Farm or Rectory Manor.
The town was favoured by another Charter from Edward VI in 1548 to hold a weekly market and two annual fairs. In the following year, he presented the town with a 5-6 foot bronze cannon as another defensive measure against the French. It was presented to George Oglander as head of the Nunwell Centon, the local ‘Home Guard’ for Brading and, after a chequered history, now rests at The Coach House, Nunwell.
Other royal visitors to Brading in the 17th century were offered the hospitality of the Oglander family. Sir John Oglander played host to Charles I in both 1627 and 1628 when he came on military matters, meeting him at Ryde with his carriage and forty horses for the King’s retinue. In 1628, Charles I used Brading as security for a City of London loan and two years later, Sir John Oglander bought the Manor of Whitefield from the trustees, bringing it back into private hands.
Sir John suffered imprisonment for his allegiance to Charles I in the Civil War and melted down the family silver plate to support the royalist cause. It is well known that Charles I spent his last night of freedom at Nunwell House on 18th November 1647, being offered a small purse of gold by the impoverished Sir John before returning to imprisonment at Carisbrooke Castle and from thence to execution in 1649. At the time of the Great Plague in 1665, Charles II was collected by William Oglander at Brading Quay and entertained at Nunwell.
A monarch whose hand in Brading’s affairs was not so welcome by local landowners was Charles I’s father, James I, who sought to profit from the reclamation of Brading Haven in 1620. The events which led to this and a change in Brading’s fortunes are the subject of the next section.
A modern view of the Yar within the reclaimed marshland opposite Brading Station (right)
A prosperous town
Brading grew and prospered during Medieval times and for most of the Elizabethan era as a small commercial port with a thriving market, and an economy based on agricultural produce, fish, oysters, beer, coal and stone amongst other things. It had an early reputation as the principal town in the eastern part of the Island and by 1350 had a Corporation with a Steward, two elected Bailiffs and thirteen Jurats (similar to Aldermen) and a Court Leet to hear local disputes.
The town boasted many who earned a good living, from the landed gentry who leased land to farmers, to commercial traders; skinners, cobblers, winklers, smiths and smugglers ‘got by’. Undoubtedly, the Hundred Years War took its toll of men and resources: too many of the wealthy landowners left the Island for their other estates on the mainland. The plague also intermittently depleted the population.
However, none of these proved as detrimentally decisive in changing Brading’s fortunes and creating widespread poverty in the 17th century as the draining of Brading Haven. This effectively cut off the maritime life-blood of the town and changed its identity.
Stages of reclamation
Sir William Russell, Lord of Yaverland and Warden of the Isle of Wight in the reign of Edward 1 (1272-1307) is credited with building the Yarbridge causeway connecting Brading at Morton to Yaverland. Although this then stopped ships from Brading reaching the coast at Sandown, it did not affect their passage to the sea via St. Helens.
The embankments built in the 16th century had a very different impact. In 1562, a tendency towards natural siltation of the waterway combined with the enticing prospect of more lucrative agricultural land prompted George Oglander and German Richards of Yaverland Manor to wall in the Oglanders’ North Marsh and other lands to the west of Bexley Point and up to Carpenters on the road to St. Helens. Edward Richards built an embankment across the marshes to Centurion’s Copse on the Bembridge side in 1594 and relocated the town quay to the end of Quay Lane on the seaward side of this embankment, which is now known as the Old Sea Wall. There were numerous pleas (documented from 1576 onwards) for merchants to be allowed access for their boats through these walls to the previous town quays, particularly that at Wade Mill, because their livelihoods were threatened.
What happened in 1616-20 was not the responsibility of the Brading gentry but of another knight of the realm, Sir Bevis Thelwell, who persuaded James I, through one of his favourites, John Gibb, to allow him the use of the remaining undrained portion of Brading Haven from the 1594 embankment to the sea. James I was to receive £20 a year thereafter. The Courts initially upheld the Monarch’s right to these lands which was disputed by the rightful owners, mainly the Worsleys. The resulting embankment was built by Dutch engineers across the Yar estuary from St. Helens to Bembridge and lasted for ten years before it was breached.
Once the Worsley’s claim had been recognised by the Courts in 1652, they allowed another attempt at stemming the tide in 1657 with short-lived success. It was not until 1881 that Jabez Balfour and the Liberator Company succeeded in building an embankment across the harbour to carry an extension of the Ryde to Shanklin railway opened in 1864 as far as Bembridge.
The railway proved little more than scant compensation for Brading for which the loss of commercial activity generated by its High Street harbour marked the start of a rapid decline. After the 1620 embankment was built, the market also began to lose popularity until its closure around 1850. The inability of boats to reach the 1594 new town quay for ten years between 1620 and 1630 would have been enough to damage and change the town’s commercial practices, and although some were able to benefit from the subsequent centuries of uncertainty before 1881, Brading itself had become a stranded town.
For more detail on the ‘Inning’ or Reclamation of Brading Haven, visit Rob Martin’s website http://www.binternet.com/-rob.martin1/bem/reclaim.htm
For WCA Heritage’s Archaeological Report on the Old Sea Wall (2006) click here
For more information on Brading’s history and more recent past, do visit the town and walk the Town Trail. Brading’s Official Town Guide and the Brading Heritage Trail booklet are available from the Brading Centre, West Street, Brading, PO36 0DR Tel: 01983 401770 or from the Brading Station Visitor Centre.
This short town trail is designed to give visitors a glimpse into Brading’s rich history and present day attractions. All the Information Boards are wheelchair accessible, but it should be noted that the High Street slopes to a natural hollow in the centre where the old harbour was located in medieval times, and that pavements are narrow in places.
The Information Boards are in the following locations:
- Brading Station
- Station Road/Lower Furlongs
- Tudor Garden near The Mall
- Town Hall
- Bugle Inn garden
- High Street next to the gift shop
- St. Mary’s Church/Old Town Hall
- Town Trust Car Park
- Inside the churchyard gates (on flora)
- Quay Lane, rear entrance to the church
It is possible to start the trail either from the Town Trust Car Park at the top of the High Street where Information Board 8 is placed, or from Brading Station.
The Station Visitor Centre carries various leaflets and a Brading Heritage Trail booklet which gives the text of all boards except 9. There are two leaflets for the use of parents/teachers: Brading Town Trail Children’s Leaflet and, for older children, A Time Travel Experience along the Brading Heritage Trail, both of which are also included in Brading’s LID Project for Schools in course of production.