Amesbury’s history extends as far back as the Iron Age, when a large hill fort – Vespasian’s Camp – was built overlooking the River Avon. Over the years, Roman structures have been excavated in the Stonehenge landscape. Most recently, a large Roman graveyard was discovered, which included the famous Amesbury Archer.
It is widely believed that the name of Amesbury derives from Ambrosius Aurelianus, who led the Romano British resistance to Saxon invasions in the 5th century.
The first signs of permanent occupation in Amesbury came with the building of the Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian’s Camp, though it is a common mistake to think it is named after the Roman Emperor of the same name. Whilst there is evidence of some Roman occupation in the area this is restricted to small finds near South Mill Hill. The earliest documentation that show traces of the name Amesbury were in the 11th century however it was not until the Saxons arrived in the area following their victory at Old Sarum in 552, that a true settlement was formed.
The first factual date for Amesbury was 979 when construction of the first abbey was commenced, though it is thought to have been dissolved in 1177. The Abbey of St Mary & St Melor was founded in 979 AD, dissolved by Henry II and replaced with a double priory. The priory and associated buildings were destroyed during the Reformation, but the Parish Church survived. Amesbury became an estate, and was given to Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford. The estate remained in the Seymour family until 1675. Several grand homes were built, including Kent and Diana houses.
The Doomsday Book in 1086 has an entry showing it to then called Amblesberie and lists among numerous entries land for 40 ploughsand 8 mills paying £4.10s.
Following the dissolution of the first abbey a decision was made to create a nee priory which was completed in 1186. The Priory prospered and in 1285 the daughter of Edward 1st and Eleanor of Provence, Edwards mother entered the Priory.The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry 8th spelt the end of the priory.
During the medieval period the town had prospered and grown though it is likely that this took place in the area of West Amesbury to a larger extent. Several name(s) such as Earls Court, Countess and Coneybury Hill, from that period are still in use today.
In the 1600(s) Clay Pipe manufacturing commenced and records show that there were four pipe making firms in operation.
The 1700(s) bought about the era of Stagecoaches and Turnpike roads, the George Inn and the former New Inn (now the site of Commilla House) both are evidence of journey’s from London through to the West Country, whilst the Tollhouse in Countess Road one of many in the area still stands. The estate subsequently passed to the Bruce family, and then to Lord Carleton, who bequeathed it to his nephew Charles Douglas, 3rd Duke of Queensberry. It remained in the Queensberry family until 1824.
In 1824 the Antrobus family acquired the estate and it remained their property until 1915 when, after the last heir was killed in France, the grounds were sold - including Stonehenge - to private bidders. The mansion, however, remained in their hands until 1979.
In the early 19th century, William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry, planted the Nile Clumps to commemorate Admiral Nelson, and had the hill fort landscaped as part of the grounds around the mansion. The growth in population without a similar growth in employment led to the establishment of Workhouse in 1837 which could house 150 inmates, the number of inhabitant’s dropped fairly rapidly and in 1851 83 were recorded as resident, it continued to be used until 1930 changing its role to a Public Assistance Institution. It was demolished in 1966/67.
Greater changes to the Town were influenced by the choice of Salisbury Plain as a military Training area, this was started by large scale manoeuvres in the area around Beacon Hill in 1872. Due in part to the success of these manoeuvres the Salisbury Plain Training area in 1902 the then War Department took ownership if large parts of the plain and established many camps including Bulford, Tidworth and Larkhill, which remain today.
During this period many railway companies were formed and proposed lines were built or planned. Today there is little evidence of any rail connections however the planned Grateley, Amesbury, Shrewton to Westbury line was partially built and terminated in Amesbury though an extension to Bulford was built later, this line closed permanently in 1965 The proposals for a line from Salisbury via Amesbury to Pewsey was never built.
A narrow gauge railway was built by for the construction of Larkhill camp in 1914/15 with a line running from Amesbury station through to Larkhill extending toRollestone Camp with branches to Stonehenge Aerodrome and Druid Lodge. It ceased to operate in 1928. Sections of the track can still be seen today and one part forms a public right of way.
Amesbury’s military connections continued when in 1917 part of the then Red House Farm estate was requisitioned for the use of an aerodrome and was known as Red House Farm Aerodrome. Its name was changed to the now familiar Boscombe Down shortly after opening and remains in being today.
With the building of the military establishment at Boscombe Down in 1939, Amesbury began to expand. There have since been substantial developments on the land between the old town centre and Boscombe Down. Several new housing estates have been completed, and the most recent one - Archers Gate - has taken its name from the discovery of the Amesbury Archer.