A history of the parish

The Parish of Cholesbury-cum-St Leonards has been in existence only for some 83 years. It owes its origin to the Local Government reorganisation of 1934 when it became part of Amersham Rural District. The 1973 reorganisation of Local Government brought Cholesbury-cum-St Leonards within Chiltern District Council.

Immediately prior to April 1934, the four villages that comprise the present day Parish (i.e. Buckland Common, Cholesbury, Hawridge, and St Leonards) had separate and in some cases autonomous existences, either as parishes in their own right, or as villages in turn part of other parish constituencies.

Buckland Common (OE Bocland meaning ‘a land held by charter’) was previously part of the Parish of Buckland.

Cholesbury – (OE Ceolweald’s Burg from the plateau camp known as the Bury) was a separate parish prior to 1934. Historically it is connected with Drayton Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’). The manorial rights at Cholesbury giving it some autonomy probably go back to at least the late 1600s.

Hawridge – (OE Haurege meaning ‘Hawk ridge’) also had its own parish meetings. The village had been part of the parish of Marsworth prior to the 1600s. (Note that a part of Hertfordshire separates these two parts of the old parish.)

St Leonards – (from the church in the village of that name) had prior to 1934 been part of Aston Clinton.

Together with the historic villages, areas of woodland and pasture have over the years been added. For example, a parcel of land including a part still known today as Drayton Wood was transferred from the then parish of Drayton Beauchamp creating a boundary demarcated by Grim’s Ditch. More recently a part of Chesham was annexed at the Hawridge end extending the Vale by almost a mile.

Early origins of the Parish

The connections between surrounding parishes are long-standing. Their common origin is interwoven with the mediaeval traditions of land ownership and exchange of properties between the manors and abbeys for over the past 1000 years. The Buckinghamshire Hundreds had their own system of laws and tax collection. Additionally, in this part of the Chilterns the shape of the parishes has been determined by geography and geology and hence how the land was farmed. Each parish was a slice both of the fertile lowland, downs, woodland and the less fertile but valuable upland summer pasture. They sat astride the northern scarp of the Chiltern landscape and the lowland plateau, which we know to day as the Vale of Aylesbury. Over the last 700 years or so settlements sprang up around the seasonal pastures. At times these were abandoned but eventually these communities became more autonomous. Management of the land and particularly the woodland enabled the inhabitants to establish daughter hamlets.

[This profile of Chiltern scarp has been taken from The Chilterns by Leslie Hepple and Alison Doggett and illustrates this point.]

The villages in the late mediaeval period onwards

During the period between the 14th and 19th Centuries the initial dependence of the ‘hill top’ communities on their corresponding valley settlements lessened as they established themselves as self sufficient, if still very rugged and remote villages. The respective manors of Cholesbury and Hawridge became more and more autonomous and able to assert local jurisdiction against the incumbent peasantry and yeomen. Running alongside the manorial courts the associated churches began to influence as well as administer to the needy of the parish. The inhabitants of the parishes were by no means well off. Over this period there was considerable hardship due in main to the poor return from the land. Right up until the end of the 19th century earning a living was a struggle. So much so that in 1832 the parish of Cholesbury became bankrupt and was unable to support the poor. The highlighting of this sad state of affairs did not go unnoticed in Westminster. It eventually led to the establishment of new Poor Laws, transferring responsibility from the Church to the State to support the needy, and also sowed the seeds of State intervention in the form of local government taking over from the Church from around 1880 onwards.

Modern times

Writing in the booklet produced by the Cholesbury-cum-St Leonards Villagers Association in 1967, Teresa Matthews comments:
“The remoteness of the Chiltern Hills cannot be overstated, at least from early times until something like 50 years ago. It is hard to imagine in these days of intense agriculture, urban development and easy travel, how very inaccessible our villages would have been. Only in the last ten years has it been possible to grow large acreages of arable crops, prior to this cattle and sheep were the only products profitable on the farms, with tiny fields of wheat and this of the poorest quality and yield. Within living memory the road from Chesham to St Leonards was ‘so rough and stoney it cut the bicycle tyres and trees overhung the roads for many hundreds of yards.”

What are Hundreds?

Within Buckinghamshire, in mediaeval times the administrative units of land were known as Hundreds. Hundreds were first mentioned in the Laws of Edgar in 970, and by the time of Aethelred the term referred to an area of one hundred hides for the purpose of taxation. One hide being that portion of land for which a load of grain was due. For many centuries after this the Hundreds were used as a fiscal, judicial and sometimes a military district. These units were thus used for the collection of Danegeld, and for the holding of courts for both civil and criminal matters. Originally these were held every month, then every fortnight and after 1234 every three weeks. Manorial courts were still a feature of village life in the early part of the 19th Century.

Meetings to hear complaints were conducted by the Sheriff. They were usually held in the ‘open’ and at a well-known local landmark, such as an earthwork, a tree or tumulus, possible as in Aylesbury. In the Cottesloe Hundred it was at a barrow, or, ‘low’ from which it takes its name, and for the Risborough Hundred it was at the ancient earthwork of that name. Later hundreds usually met in a town or village.

Prior to 1086 and until the time of the Domesday Survey there were 18 hundreds in Buckinghamshire. Between this time and 1290, when the divisions of land were fixed by statute, through amalgamation of hundreds this had reduced to a total of eight.

Of relevance to our villages, the Aylesbury Hundred included the parishes of Buckland (inc. Buckland Common) and Aston Clinton (inc. St Leonards). The Yardley Hundred, which had contained the parishes of Marsworth (Hawridge) and Drayton Beauchamp (Cholesbury) became part of the Cottesloe Hundred.