In the Beginning

by Colin Sully

The name Lee is thought to be derived from the old Anglo Saxon word ‘leah’ meaning ‘woodland clearing’. That much of our history seems to be generally accepted. But why would anyone want to settle in a clearing in the Chiltern woodlands? And why just here?

To answer these questions we need to search for evidence going back many thousands of years.

Step back in time…

In a field off the road from Swan Bottom to The Lee, stone-age flint flakes, including a broken blade, have been discovered (probably Mesolithic, 5-10,000 BC). A Neolithic arrowhead, from the last part of the stone-age (2-5000 BC), was also found by school children in the school’s own garden!

Gold bracelet
Gold bracelet

The picture above – courtesy of Buckinghamshire County Museum – shows a bronze-age bracelet made of gold (~1000 BC) also found at Swan Bottom during a metal-detecting survey near the crossroads.

This evidence of human activity in The Lee all relates to a period long before farming began – the time of the hunter-gatherers. So what were they doing in this densely wooded area and why linger hereabouts?

Cross roads

It is clear that hunter-gatherers, drovers, traders and invaders have walked or ridden through our part of the Chilterns for over 5,000 years. The Misbourne valley was an established route from the south east of England to the Midlands. The natural cutting in the Chilterns near Wendover made it an easy route for early travellers.

The Ridgeway, passing through the outskirts of the parish was also part of a prehistoric track, once stretching about 250 miles (400 km) from the Dorset coast to The Wash on the Norfolk coast. It provided a route over the high ground for travellers which was drier than routes through the spring-line villages below.

The movement of people, animals and goods would have been along these tracks and, as the various routes became established, so communities started to spring up along the way.

Defending a way of life

The routes and the communities needed protection from marauders and invaders, so hill forts and fortified villages began to appear, making the most of the advantage of the Chilterns high ground.

Hill forts built during the iron-age from about 500 BC until the Romans arrived in 43 AD are to be found all along the Chiltern ridges. Cholesbury Camp is one of the best preserved local examples of such a fort.

map of the extent of the iron age fort
The extent of The Lee iron-age fort

Grim’s Ditch, from the same period, also passes through the parish traversing the Chilterns; it is thought to be an iron-age territorial boundary.

Meanwhile in The Lee, long before the Old Church was built, the ‘woodland clearing’ was also occupied by a fort, probably iron-age, 0-500 BC. The site of the fort covered about seven acres, was shaped like a pear and surrounded by a rampart. There are still traces of a ditch between the church and the present vicarage. A small community would have lived inside the compound, kept a few animals and also hunted and gathered in the surrounding woodlands.

The arrival of the Romans

From 43 AD until the middle of the fifth century, the Romans brought a new wave of travel and trading to England. They too left their mark in this area.

A labourer digging on Lee Common in 1790 found a small Roman statue – a figure of an old man made from copper coated with gold.

map of earthworks at Bray's Wood
Earthworks at Bray’s Wood

Earthworks from this period are also still to be found in Bray’s Wood, The Lee: a series of enclosures with ditches and banks, together with the remains of a number of ancient buildings, including a forge and a substantial stone house.

Roman pottery has also been found here. Even though much of the site is from a later period, the two superimposed moats are thought to be Roman in origin.

During the centuries after the Romans left (the Saxon period from 500 AD to 1000 AD) the long-distance routes remained and continued to be used. The hill-top communities of the Chilterns slowly grew and, as they did so, local boundaries and ownerships began to become established.

1066 and all that…

Following the Norman Conquest (1066) The Lee was granted by William I (the ‘Conqueror’) to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. He in turn appears to have passed control to the de Turvilles. According to the Domesday Book (1086) “The Lee – a clearing in woodland” was a wooded swine pasture belonging to the de Turvilles of Weston Manor (near Wendover).

At this time, the Chiltern hills were still largely covered with woodland. So we can imagine the community at The Lee also being closely linked to nearby lowland areas more suited to crops and grazing around Wendover – home of the Norman Lord and an important trading town – and Great Missenden where the Abbey was to be built in 1133.

At The Lee, a small wooden chapel was also established around this time inside the compound, on the site of what is now the Old Church.

In 1146 Geoffrey de Turville passed the land at The Lee, including the small wooden chapel, to the Cistercian Monks at Missenden Abbey.

In the next instalment we hear more about how the monks and the lords shaped The Lee for the next four centuries.

Principle sources

  1. A trading county, Bucks CC Archaeology website (2010).
  2. History of the Ridgeway, (2010).
  3. Prehistoric settlements, Cholesbury and St Leonards Local History Group (2010).
  4. Buckinghamshire: Later Bronze Age and Iron Age, Sandy Kidd (2008).
  5. Golden bracelets and rapiers, (2008).
  6. Records of Buckinghamshire, Daniel Secker (2005).
  7. Records of Buckinghamshire, Revd Boughey Burgess (1855). 

Part 2: 12th to 16th Centuries