Sherborne's History and Heritage

Settled during Roman times, Sherborne was the gateway to rich lands lying to the west of the dense forest of Penselwood with water meadows, chalk down-lands and gentle slopes over biscuit-coloured stone. 

The Saxons sought safety here from the invading Danes and by AD 705 a Saxon cathedral was founded here by Aldhelm, who was appointed the first bishop of Western Wessex. Alfred the Great may well have been schooled in the Cathedral where his brothers Ethelbert and Ethelbald are buried. 

Sherborne’s name comes from the Saxon words Scir Burn meaning a clear brook or stream. 

In AD 998, the Cathedral became a Benedictine Abbey and it is the teaching ethic of the monks that became a feature of the town from that time on.  

500 years later, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the monastic buildings became Edward Vl’s Sherborne School – his crest can be seen both at the entrance to the school and on the part of the Abbey Church used by the Head Master as his private lodgings. The Lavatorium, originally a washing place for the monks, was moved out of the Monastic cloisters in the mid-16th century and renamed the Conduit, it is now a Sherborne icon situated in The Parade. 

Sherborne in World War II 

Although Sherborne was not a prominent target during World War II, the town did suffer an air raid on 30th September 1940. The intended main target for the raid had been the Westland Aircraft factory at Yeovil, but due to cloud cover, the target was missed that day and instead, the bombs were dropped on Sherborne. The town sustained substantial damage and a number of buildings were destroyed. Bombs fell near to Sherborne Abbey, but apart from broken windows the Abbey was not damaged. However, eighteen people were killed. Their names are recorded at the town’s war memorial by the Abbey alongside those of 29 American soldiers. 

On the 30th March 1944 there was an accident in the grounds of US Army Hospital 228th Camp Unit near Sherborne. A truck rolled over a live mine, whilst the troops were recovering mines at the end of a mine-laying exercise. The colossal explosion hit C Company. In 1989 a plaque was placed outside Sherborne Abbey to honour those killed. 

During World War II, Sherborne Castle served as Commando Headquarters for the D-Day landings. 

Sherborne’s Schools 

Sherborne’s history is closely linked to schooling and it is now home to a number of prestigious boarding schools. 

In Saxon and Medieval times, Sherborne’s cathedral and later its monastery would have provided education. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 came the licensing of the King Edward VI Free Grammar School. Originally a school for poor boys from the town, it became gradually enlarged and enriched by fees from boarding students, and in 1871 it became an independent public school for boys. It is now called Sherborne School and was one of the filming locations in The Imitation Game - this is the school which wartime codebreaker Alan Turing attended. 

Sherborne Girls is the equivalent for boarding female students and was opened in 1899. 

Sherborne Prep School was founded in 1885 and caters for children from 3 to 13 for day and boarding. 

Sherborne is also home to Sherborne International – a boarding school for children from overseas. 

Famous Connections 

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618) called Sherborne his ‘Fortune’s Fold’ and purchased a 99-year lease on Sherborne Old Castle and its park in 1592 after his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. However, finding the property to be too damp he abandoned it in 1594 and started building a new castle (now called Sherborne Castle and Gardens). After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, he fell out of favour with her successor King James I of England and Raleigh’s Sherborne estates were forfeited. The link between the Old Castle and Sir Walter Raleigh is the clove pink flower (known locally as Lady Betty’s Pink) – introduced to Sherborne by Lady Elizabeth Raleigh. For special occasions, flowers are cut to decorate Leweston Chapel in Sherborne Abbey where Sir Walter and Lady Betty sat for services. 

William Macready (1793 – 1873) was a famous actor-manager who lived in Sherborne House from 1850 to 1860 and whose guests included William Makepiece Thackeray and his close friend Charles Dickens, who gave one of his famous readings in the drawing room of the house. 

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) was a novelist and poet. In his book ‘The Woodlanders’ Sherborne features as ‘Sherton Abbas’ where Giles Winterborne sold his apple trees in the Market Place and which also includes references to Sherborne Abbey. 

Famous Students 

The boys and girls of Sherborne’s schools are a familiar sight on Sherborne’s ancient streets and, over the years, many of those young faces have become instantly recognisable. 

They include: David Cornwell (John le Carré) - the author of “The Spy who came in from the Cold”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”.  Tom Bradby - author and a senior correspondent for ITN. Cecil Day-Lewis - Poet Laureate. Sir Richard Eyre - film, opera and theatre director. John Le Mesurier - BAFTA award-winning actor (Dad’s Army). Jeremy Irons - Oscar winning actor. Chris Martin - lead singer and founder member of the band Coldplay. James Purefoy - actor. Lord Sheppard - former Bishop of Liverpool and England test cricketer. Alan Turing - Enigma code breaker and Charlie Cox -actor. 

Old Girls from Sherborne Girl’s School include: Soprano Dame Emma Kirkby, founder of Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidjh, author Sophie Kinsella, TV personality and socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and actor Maria Aitken. 

Discover more on a guided walking tour

Why not book a Blue Badge Tourist Guided Walk with Sherborne Walks and they will tell you all you need to know about Sherborne's facinating history and heritage. Explore the town and unlock over 1,300 years of history!

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