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Amesbury is a small town that has seen its major growth in population occur since the 1920s; in 1921 the population was 1,530 and in 2001 it was 6,812. Over two millennia it has veered between being a small town and a large village on several occasions. Set in the valley of the River Avon, to the north of Salisbury, it lies at an important river crossing for the road from London to Warminster, Bridgwater and Branstaple, with a road to Mere and Exeter branching off to the west of the town. The town itself is built on an area of gravel, on the bank of the Avon, and gravels and alluvium make up most of the valley floors. There are outcrops of chalk all over the parish and these soils have led to the predominant sheep and corn husbandry that existed to the end of the 19th century.
The town is surrounded by an ancient landscape. There was settlement on the downs in neolithic times, between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago, when the first Stonehenge and many of the surrounding earthworks were created. Stonehenge, as we know it, was built around 3,900-4,100 years ago and was probably the major religious and ceremonial structure in southern England at this time. The surrounding area was heavily farmed and the area was densely populated in neolithic and bronze age times, although there was no settlement at Amesbury.
Major settlement near Amesbury first occurred in the iron age at the wrongly-named Vespasianís Camp. This large hill fort of c.500 B.C., to the west of Amesbury on the west bank of the river, could have enclosed 1,000 people from a substantial area around. During the Roman period Romanised iron-age Celts would have continued to live and farm in the area, although there were no estates based on villas here as there were in other parts of Wiltshire. It has been plausibly suggested that the name Amesbury comes from a personal name ĎAmbrií and that the hill fort could have been one of the strongholds of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a landowner who led resistance to the Saxons.
The area is likely to have been settled by the Saxons by the 7th century and Amesbury became a reasonably-sized community, and later a royal estate, on an important early river crossing. It was a notable settlement by the 10th century when, in 979, a nunnery was founded for the Benedictine order. Although the nunnery owned some local estates it owned nothing in Amesbury itself and did not attract great gifts of land, being one of the poorer foundations.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Amesbury was owned by the King and had 8 mills along the River Avon. By using modern interpretation of Domesday figures we can estimate that the population of the estate was between 700 and 900 people, although only 217 heads of households are listed. These would have been scattered over a large area and it is impossible to estimate the size of Amesbury at this time.
The town probably stagnated until the late 12th century when the nuns were accused of irregular living and their Abbey was appropriated by Henry II. He replaced it with a lavishly-endowed double Priory of the Fonteuraldine order. This was their fourth, final, and largest house in England and was part of the Kingís penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. The Priory prospered and Amesbury prospered with it. In 1219 a Thursday market was granted to the Lord of the Manor and land opposite the present Abbey Lane was used as the market place. By 1252 a 3-day fair on the vigil, feast and morrow of St. Melor was granted and local people would have enjoyed the stalls of traders from far afield.
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