Village Name & Early History

The Village Name

Researched and written by Richard Crumbleholme


The Doomsday Survey of 1086 lists only Wintreburne for the whole area along the south Winterbourne river.  

However, Terry Hearing (local Martinstown historian) notes in a parish magazine of March 2016 :

......."Steepleton is much smaller in Domesday (than Compton Vallance and neighbouring Abbas) and paid tax of 15 shillings on only about 200 acres. The Lord was a King's thane (or knight)  - a Saxon called Brictwin who owed his allegiance direct to the king."    

He also notes the relative values of the neighbouring villages : Compton Vallence was the most valuable at £20 whilst Martinstown was £10 and Winterbourne Abbas £16

(Source - original source unknown) 

Later, the first recordings of the village name appear as :


            Stipelwinterburn 1199;   Stepelton 1219;   Wynterburn Stepilton 1244; [i]


There are two Winterborne rivers in Dorset, this south Winterborne is a tributary of the river Frome and ultimately flows to the sea in Poole harbour some 30 miles to the east. The name means a winter stream - one that flows most strongly in winter and derives from the old English   winter-burna


The south Winterborne river emerges at Winterbourne Abbas immediately to the west of Winterbourne Steepleton. The addition is Latin Abbas - "abbot" because this manor belonged to the Abbey of Cerne. In medieval times, it was sometimes known as Watreleswyntreburn  from OE waeter-leas = waterless .


The spelling of Winterbourne was never constant. By local custom only Steepleton & Abbas retain the "u" [ii]


There is a suggestion that Steepleton means a village with a church steeple from the Old English stiepel and tun.  It has also been suggested that it derives its name from having one of only three stone church steeples in the Dorset (the others being at Iwerne Minster and Trent).  

However, as the church tower was not built until the C14th and spire not added until the C17th, this seems unlikely. It is far more probable that the steepness of the valley sides at this location gave rise to the name. The old English word stipple or steap (the latter from the Old Norse staup) describes a steep place.


Early History

For detailed information please use the link below to the British Archaeological sites, Ancient History and Archaeology, Historical Places, Metal Detecting finds & Archaeological Distribution Maps within 3km of the church in Winterbourne Steepleton :

Pre-historic Occupation :  The parish has forty nine round barrows and large areas of Celtic field systems.  Originally the barrows would have been white chalk and would have been far more conspicuous than they are today. Most of the barrows or tumuli appear to have been sited to be viewed  from the valley itself. This would suggest that the valley was occupied for hundreds of years in this early period. Winterborne St Martin to the east has the most barrows of any Dorset parish and Maiden Castle, Europe's largest earthwork.


In Steepleton parish there are the following :

Near Loscombe Farm : a round barrow, a rare square barrow. There is also an Iron Age field system in this area.

Near Coombe farm : Two Neolithic chambered long barrows

Throughout the parish there Bronze Age bowl, bell and disc barrows plus a dyke and field systems

The Valley of the Stones (near parish boundary)         (photos RC)    Prehistoric barrows (tumuli)         

Roman Occupation : The line of the Roman road heading west from Dorchester forms the north boundary of the parish.  

An early Roman fort or signal station of the 1st century AD was excavated in 1970 by the late Bill Putnam[iii] on an earthwork on Blackdown (SY603881). 

The site is located just north of the turning to Little Bredy on the road from Steepleton to Portesham

Above : Overgrown site c2003                Above : Three photos taken in March 2018 - site has been cleared and the ditches are clearly visible.

(photos RC)                                                 Left : looking south, east side ditch;  middle : looking north with road to RHS;  Right : looking west, south ditch

A classic playing card shaped rampart with external ditches on all sides. It measures some 45m x 25m. A single entrance on the east side was located with large sockets for gate posts. Evidence of a platform within gave rise to speculation that this formed a signal post between Dorchester & Abbotsbury Hillfort. It is shown as  an "earthwork" on this map extract (below the word “earthwork")

The proximity of Dorchester as a major Roman centre together with the Roman road to the north of the parish (a major route to Exeter) must have ensured that the valley was occupied fully during the four centuries of Roman occupation.

Saxon Occupation : From the tenth century, the Saxons established methods of land management and administration with land divisions known as Hundreds. These were nominally 100 hides in area. A hide was originally the amount of land that could be ploughed in a year using one plough with an eight-ox team. The area thus varied with soil quality and could vary between 60 to 180 acres. The Hundred Court, presided over by the Hundred Reeve, would usually meet monthly to consider criminal offences, minor ecclesiastical matters, private pleas and also to levy taxes.


Meetings were held at an agreed traditional site, the hundredal moot. These places were either well known by name or by physical feature and were often at the junctions of parish boundaries.  Dorset had a total of 39 Hundreds, 7 met on church land, 6 on Royal Manors, 15 met at ancient monuments and the remaining 11 at geomantic sites.


Winterbourne Steepleton was sited in the northernmost tip of the Uggescombe Hundred. This Hundred extended north to enclose the village whilst the adjoining villages of Winterborne Abbas and St Martin on the Winterbourne river were rather strangely in neighbouring Hundreds. 

The Doomsday Survey of 1086 AD shows the Hundred of Uggescombe 

Uggescombe is a name now lost said by Hutchins to be Mystecombe, NE of Portesham (marked on 1st edition OS map (SY700854). 


The Uggescombe Hundred met at an ancient site - a Motbeorh[iv] . This site is mentioned in the Portesham Charter[v] of 1024 and appears to be located at the junction of the Abbotsbury, Longbredy and Portesham parishes on the ridgeway. The Littlebredy parish probably also extended to this point once but is now some 100 yards away.

The moot stone was perhaps on an ancient processional route to Kingston Russell stone circle via the Hellstone, Hampton Stone Circle and the Grey Mare & Her Colts

The site was probably near the gateway to the present day Gorwell Farm just off the small back road leading from Hardy's Monument down to Abbotsbury.  

< Near the gateway, there are some ancient hedges together with a small pudding stone of approx 1500mm long and 450mm in diameter. This is thought to be the Moot Stone. (OS 588 867)[vi].  

It is now loose and has been moved as it was formerly standing and on the other side of the gate[vii].

(photo RC)

The nearby steep valley bottom to the south of the road was the original Ucga’s  Coombe[viii] which gave its name to Uggescombe. This Hundred was recorded 

as Oglescoma in Domesday and consisted then of 104 hides.


The valley or coombe lies approximately north / south. The view shows Lyme Bay and Portland in the distance.

In Doomesday (1086), Steepleton was recorded as having only approximately 200 acres on which it paid tax of 15 shillings. The Lord was a Saxon named Brictwin who was a thegn (ie an Anglo Saxon noble / knight) of the King. Winterbourne Abbas, the village to the west, was much larger and held by the Abbot of Cerne and the remaining 1200 acres were assessed at £16. Martinstown to the east was assessed at £10 on some 700 acres including a water mill. It is therefore assumed that a water mill did not exist at Steepleton at the date of the Doomsday Survey.

In Steepleton village, the RCHM [ix] identifies the Parish Church as having quoins at three corners of the nave dating from the C11th (ie pre-conquest). This makes St Michael’s church the oldest along the south Winterbourne river. 

< The well known stone carved Angel is a rare example of Anglo-Saxon sculpture probably relating to the casting down of Satan by St Michael. It is thought that this was originally one of two supports to a rood or crucifix within the church. It was moved outside the building in the 18th century but has been moved inside again in the late 20th century for protection. (Photo RC)

< Mediaeval Cross stone base - to the right hand side of church porch doorway (photo RC)

The Medieval Period :  

There are earthwork remains of shrunken villages close to the existing village. Strip Lynchets are still very clearly visible. A pendant dating to the C14th was found in the South Winterborne. 

The Manor of Steepleton was divided into the Portes and Martels moieties named after past tenant families. In the 13th century, Richard de Portes was lord of the former but a century later it was held of the chief lords, the Mortimers, Earls of March by the Devereux family. In the 15th century, it was held by the Dukes of York. 

In 1269, the other moiety was held by William Martel but a century later it too was held by the Devereux family. Later on, the the history of the manor is more complex with various families holding both moieties of the Crown. The Willoughby de Broke family were in possession in early Tudor times with the Trenchard family (of Lytchett Matravers) as lessees of the Manor House and its demense lands.

The marriage of the Willoughby heiress to John, 2nd Marquis of Winchester in 1528 gave the Paulet family possession for the next 250 years. The tenancy of the Manor was transferred by the Trenchards to Richard Lawrence in 1541. This family remained in possession until the restoration on 1660.

Sources :

[i] Mills AD; Dorset Place Names , p59

[ii] Hearing, M; The Book of Martinstown,   p7[iii] Putnam WG; DNH&AS Vol 92 p140 Excavations on Blackdown Winterbourne Steepleton

[iv] Harte, J  Cuckoo Pounds and Singing Barrows p24

[v] DNHAS  DP vol 114, 1937 p59

[vi] Knight, P Ancient Stones of Dorset  p 106 & 116

[vii] Sandra Harding, a former headteacher of Portesham school sketched this some time prior to 1993. mentioned by Harte & Knight above.

[viii] Harte, J  Cuckoo Pounds and Singing Barrows p67

[ix] RCHM Dorset SE II p394

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