In medieval times the parish as it is known today consisted of the two separate manors of “Wicken” and “Bonhunt” (or “Wica” and “Banhunta” as they are referred to in the Domesday Book). Wicken was situated to the west of Bonhunt in the region that today forms the central part of the village of Wicken Bonhunt around St. Margaret’s church. Bonhunt was situated next to Newport in the region where today the M11 motorway passes over the B1038 and which includes the ancient chapel of St. Helen. It was not until Elizabethan times that Wicken and Bonhunt were united as Wicken Bonhunt, although historical records show the two names were used together in earlier times. For example in the Subsidy Rolls of 1238 reference is made to “Wykes Bonhunte” and in the Feudal Aids of 1412 reference is made to “Bonhunt in Wykn”. Other names that have been used throughout history for Wicken and Bonhunt are Wiken, Wickin, Wykyn, Wylden, Wickham, Bonhunte, Bonant and Bonnet. The word “Wicken” is most probably derived from the old English word Wic (plural dative “Wicum”) meaning “dairy farm” - the change of -um to -en being common in this area of England. The derivation of “Bonhunt” is less clear but it most probably derives from “Bana’s huntsmen” or the old English “(ge)bann-huntan” meaning “huntsmen liable to be summoned”.
The oldest surviving building in the parish is the chapel of St. Helen or St. Elene. Mention is made of the chapel in 1340 when John Flambard, of Bonhunt, had licence to endow St. Leonard’s Hospital, Newport, “that the brethren might find him a chaplain to celebrate mass for his soul, within his manor of Bonhunt, in the chapel of St. Elene, there”. This shows that, at that time, the chapel was a private one attached to Bonhunt manor for the use of the lord of the manor and his dependants.
Although the chapel is usually described in recent literature as being of Norman origin, an investigation by an historical society at the turn of the last century came to the conclusion that it was most probably a Saxon building. The most prominent Saxon features are the slight thickness of the walls, the sloping jambs of the windows and the large stones at the bases of all the quoins. The one Norman feature present, the base of the window in the north wall of the chapel, was thought to have been added subsequently.
There has been a church in the main part of the village since at least the middle of the 11th century, although today the only relic of the original place of worship is the square, lead-lined Norman font. Much of the character of the present church of St. Margaret owes itself to the generosity of John Sperling. In 1858, when his son, the Rev. John H. Sperling, was rector of the church, John Sperling financed the rebuilding of the chancel arch, nave and tower and the restoration of the main part of the chancel. The restored church tower included a steeple but this fell into a state of disrepair and was replaced in 1936 by the present capped structure. The chancel actually dates from the end of the 12th century and contains the original old lancet windows, piscina (stone basin with drain) and sedilia (seating for clergy). During the restoration work, fragments of glass similar to those contained in the chapel of St. Helen were found embedded in the church walls. Another interesting feature of the church walls is the presence of two sundials of unknown date carved into two corner stones where the south and east walls meet. The church has a belfry housing three bells. The treble bell was made by William Culverden of London in the early 16th century and is inscribed “Sancta Luce”; the second, manufactured by Taylor, of Loughboro, 1859, is inscribed “Deo dedit J.H. Sperling, Rector, Cantabo laudes Tuas Domine”; and the tenor bell weighing 14 cwt is inscribed “Deo et ecclesia de Wickham Bonhunt dedit John Sperling, hujus ecciesie patronus. Sonoro sono meo sono Deo.”. For about 100 years until 1967, 100 strokes of the tenor bell were tolled at 8 p.m. each week day as a curfew. Of special interest inside the church are a number of monuments to the Bradbury family from the 17th and 18th centuries; an embroidered banner of St. Margaret designed by the noted architect G.F. Bodley and made by the London Ecclesiastical Embroidery Society in about 1860; and the piped organ installed in the chancel in 1887. For communion services there is a platen inscribed “Dea et Ecclesia Sta Margarite de Wicham Bonhunt, dedit John H. Sperling, A.M., Rector, 1856.”, although the valuable small silver chalice and cover owned by the church and dating from about 1700 is stored in a bank vault for safe keeping.
Originally there was a rectory to the north of the church near the manor house of Wicken (now known as Wicken Hall). However it was accidentally burnt to the ground in 1590 and, when rebuilt, was sited away from Wicken Hall. The wooden rectory was enlarged at the beginning of the 19th century but it had fallen into a state of disrepair by the time that the Rev. John H. Sperling came to occupy it. He therefore decided to knock the rectory down and to rebuild it at a different site. The large mansion that was built for the rectory was reported at the time to have cost £5000 to build. Today this building, which stands in beautiful gardens, is known as Wicken House and is owned by Essex County Council who use it mainly as a residential youth centre. However Wicken House and its grounds are also made available to the village for such functions as parish meetings The Wicken Ball and the annual fete known as “The Wicken Event”.
Although the “Terrier” (register of church property) for 1810 mentions the ownership by the church of a “brew-house” (or brewery) in the village, it seems that the village did not acquire a true public house until the middle of the 19th century. This is borne out by the national censuses of 1841 and 1851, the latter, but not the former, listing one of the villagers (Thomas Nash) as being employed as a publican. From the end of the 19th century until 1964 the public house was owned by the Bunting family and is now a Greene King pub.
Although the public house is now known as “The Coach & Horses”, it was called “The Three Horseshoes” up until the early part of the present century. Today the picturesque, thatched “pub” appears to have lost none of its original character and charm and visitors can be assured of a warm welcome whether they wish to imbibe or dine. The pub sign is that of a horse-drawn coach, the faces of the coach passengers being those of village characters, past and present, taken from originals by Gill Potter which hang in the public bar.
Behind “The Coach & Horses” a private road leads to Wicken Hall past St. Margaret’s church on the right and a large Jacobean barn (now converted into two dwellings) on the left. Although Wicken Hall is set well back from the pub and church, under the feudal system of medieval England it would have been the centre of village life and the residence of the lord of Wicken manor. From at least the middle of the 14th century to the middle of the 18th century, the estate belonged almost exclusively to firstly the Barlee (or Barley) family and then the Bradbury family. The only person outside these two families to own the estate in this period was Robert Chatterton who purchased the estate from William Barley in 1557. He subsequently sold it, in 1580, to Matthew Bradbury (a nephew of Thomas Bradbury - the Sheriff of London in 1498 and the Lord Mayor of London in 1509). The present Wicken Hall dates from the 16th century. It has been much altered since and, at one time, was encircled by a moat. Until comparatively recently, Wicken Hall was a farmhouse but is now purely residential. William Bradbury inherited Wicken Hall from his father, Matthew Bradbury, in 1587 and held the estate for 35 years before, on his death in 1622, it passed to his first son Matthew. In about 1602, William Bradbury built Brick House for his second son Wyman or Wymond. This impressive building stands about one quarter of a mile to the west of the church and bears the arms of the Bradbury family over the front door.
Up until the early part of the 18th century Wicken Hall and Brick House were owned by the two branches of the Bradbury family before coming into the common ownership of Joseph Sharpe who married into the Bradbury family. It is interesting to discover that William Bradbury’s two sons, Matthew and Wymond, married daughters of William Whitgift of Clavering, Matthew marrying Janne and Wymond marrying Elizabeth. Thomas, the second son of Wymond and Elizabeth Bradbury, emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1634 and his descendants now regularly visit the village to rediscover their roots. In St. Margaret’s church there are memorials to three children of Anne and Francis Bradbury (a grandson of the Matthew Bradbury who was Wymond’s brother). In fact Anne and Francis had seven children in all and must have expected that one of them would eventually inherit Wicken Hall from them. However not one of the children survived their parents. None died more tragically than William, a captain in the guards, who was killed in a duel, or James, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, an army chaplain who was slain at the beginning of the 18th century in the War of the Spanish Succession.
A small stream, Wicken Water, runs through the village connecting Wicken with Bonhunt. In summer months there is often only a trickle of water, but a sudden downfall of rain will turn the waters into a gushing rivulet which can cause flooding of the B1038. Indeed up to 40 years or so ago, Wicken Water was a much larger stream which, between the world wars, flooded and caused two small cottages to become uninhabitable. These cottages were situated next to Clarks Cottage opposite “The Coach & Horses” and their footings can apparently still be seen. Photographs of these quaint cottages are displayed in the Snug Bar of “The Coach & Horses”.
The B1038 rises steeply at the eastern end of the main part of the village. On its north side, there is a verge that has been identified in recent years as being of special ecological value because of the abundance of wild plants, including the rare bee orchid, growing there. The western side of the village has developed mainly since World War II although there are notable exceptions such as Pilgrims Cottage and The Barn, a tastefully converted barn originally belonging to Brick House.
The houses known as The Meads were constructed in 1948 and most of the remaining houses in this part of the village in the 1970s.
In Norman times approximately half of the land of the parish was wooded, the remainder being arable and pasture land. Over the years the woodlands have gradually been replaced by arable land although wooded areas still remain notably at the western end of the village. One small privately owned wood bordering the Rickling Road includes a dressage ring.
The agricultural land was “enclosed” in 1853 resulting in the land being owned by Wicken Hall Farm, Wicken Bonhunt Farm, Rectory Farm, Brick House Farm and Lower Farm. At this time John Osborne, the then miller of the village, also owned some land and there was a village school known as “The National School”. In recent years the individual identities of the various farms have been lost and Quendon Estate now administers all the surrounding land on behalf of the Al-Maktoum family of Dubai.
A “windmill” no longer exists in the village although a bakery, baking bread daily in wood-fired ovens, survived on the site until 1963. The “school” has now been converted into a private residence.
Although early historical records of the parish are scarce, those that are available provide a fascinating insight into village life from Norman times onwards. The Domesday Book tells us that, in 1066, Wicken manor was held by a freeman named Sexi and another freeman named Aluric held Bonhunt manor. In 1087, Wicken manor belonged to Gislebert, son of Turold, and Bonhunt manor belonged to Saisselin. In the “Feet of Fines for Essex”, references are made in 1261 to a dispute between Simon le Flemeng and his father John le Flemeng over property in “Neuport, Bonhunte and Wykes” and in 1296 to a dispute between William and Sarah de Rockesle and William and Joan de Helpeston over property in “Neuport and Wykes”. Annual court records of Wicken manor between 1342-1349 refer to Roger de Barlee as lord of Wicken manor and mention offences such as not grinding grist at the lord’s mill, cutting down trees in the lord’s wood, taking apples and not properly performing work services, such as reaping. Among the names mentioned in these court records are John atte Water, John Chilham, John Carpenter, William Taylor, Robert Baldwin, Hugo atte Well, Avis atte Water, Adam Carter, John Scogy, Mathew Sad, Eustace Lovecot, Nicholas Page, John Jolyf, William Sygonn, Alice Scogy and Simon le Melner. The 1349 court record shows that the first six names listed above all died of the Black Death that was rampant in England between 1348-50. A further court record in 1393 refers to new names such as Henry Shepparde, William Howland, Oliver Best, William Dawe, Robert Plomer, John Burgeys, John Cook, William Pycot and Lewis Blodelowe and names previously referred to in the earlier court records such as Baldewyne, Tailor, Jolyf, Scogy and Carter. Field or tenement names in these same court records include Madefreyes, Panyotts, Shorteland, Reynoldegarden, Melynscroft, Felmefeld, Hommede, Westmede and le Longestokkyng and typical offences included encroachment with animals (mainly sheep) and failure to repair tenements.
The name of Howland, mentioned above, is prominent in Wicken history, the family being freehold farmers until at least the 17th century that farmed a large farm opposite Brick House. Originally this farm was known as the Wood but, probably in about the middle of the 18th century, it was renamed Howland Farm in memory of the Howlands. This name was retained when the Bunting family sold the farm to Quendon Estate. In the Public Record Office wills of various members of the Howland family can be inspected including those of Elizabeth (1576), John (1567), another John (1607) and William (1565). Furthermore, in a list of depositions for Essex, reference is made to John Howland appearing in court in 1589 for alleged breaches of the pound against the authority of William King, the bailiff of the hundreds of Uttlesford and Freshwell.
In the period between 1831 and 2001, the population of the parish increased from 134 to about 220 and the number of dwellings increased from about 30 to over 80. In addition to losing the school and the bakery in this time, the village also saw the demise of a sweet shop, a blacksmiths next to the pub, a coal merchants at the corner of the Arkesden Road and the local village cricket team which used to play the odd game between the two world wars on a meadow behind the sloping field opposite the pub.
Despite these changes the parish today remains a friendly, close knit community. The modern buildings generally blend in well with the older ones to provide a charming village setting unspoiled by modern development.