WILTON, a market town and municipal borough in the Wilton parliamentary division of Wiltshire, England, 86 m. W. by S. of London, on the London & South-Western and Great Western railways. Pop. (1901) 2203. It lies among the pastures beside the rivers Nadder and Wylye. The church of St Mary and St Nicholas was built in 1844 by Lord Herbert of Lea, in a Romanesque style, richly adorned with marbles and mosaics. The central entrance is upheld by twisted columns based upon stone lions. The belfry is detached. Wilton House, a little to the south, was founded by William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke by the second creation, on the estates of the dissolved convent, which were granted him by Henry VIII.
Tradition says that Shakespeare and his company played here before Jarnes I. in 1603, and the house is rich in memories of Sir Philip Sidney the poet and soldier, of the artists Holbein and Vandyck, of the dramatists Jonson and Massinger, whose father was steward here, and of Inigo Jones the architect. The first folio edition of Shakespeare was dedicated, seven years after the poet's death, to the third earl and his brother. In style Wilton House is Italian of the 16th century, with a porch added by Holbein. The garden front was rebuilt and other changes made by the advice of Charles I., a frequent visitor; and many subsequent alterations were made. The art collections include the marbles gathered together by the eighth earl.
Carpet-making forms the main industry of Wilton; the most famous fabrics being those known as Wilton carpets; Saxony carpets made of short-staple wool; and the rich and durable Axminsters, long woven by hand at Axminster in Devonshire. It is also an important centre for the sale of sheep. The town is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen and 12 councillors. Area, 1915 acres.
A chantry was founded here about A.D. 800, afterwards changed into a priory of Benedictine sisters, and refounded by Alfred. In 968 Wulftrude, a mistress of King Edgar, became abbess; and the same office was declined by her daughter Edith, who died at twenty-three. Miracles, it was said, were worked by Edith's remains, and she became patron saint of the convent, which afterwards gave shelter to many noble ladies and survived until the Dissolution. Its abbess was a baroness of England. Antiquaries have seen in Wilton the capital of a British kingdom. It was certainly the chief town of the Wilsaetas, or men of Wilts, whom Cynric the Saxon leader crushed in 556. It afterwards became a residence of the Wessex kings; and here, in 871, Alfred was severely defeated by the Danes. Wilton was burned in 1003 by Sweyn, the Danish king. After the Conquest it ranked among the richest of royal boroughs. In 1141 Queen Matilda celebrated Easter here with great pomp, and two years later Stephen, who came to found a castle, was driven off by her adherents. The prosperity of Wilton began to fail when Icknield Street, the great highway of commerce, was diverted to pass through Salisbury in 1224; and its decline was hastened by the plague, by which a third of the townsfolk were swept away in 1349.
Wilton (Wylion, Wiltune) was a seat of the West Saxon kings and a prosperous town until the removal thence in 1075 of the seat of the bishop of Sherborne to Sarum. The excessive number of markets held at the latter town in the 13th century caused its further decline into a poor and unimportant place. Sweyn burnt and sacked it in 1003. consequently under Edward the Confessor it rendered only 22. However, Domesday presents it as a valuable royal borough held in farm by the burgesses for 50. From 1204 onwards Wilton figures in various grants. Richard, earl of Cornwall, obtained it from Henry III., and William, earl of Pembroke, finally from Elizabeth. The first charter given by Henry I. (probably in noi) granted franchises to the burgesses of the merchant gild and company of Wilton as enjoyed by London and Winchester, and was confirmed by succeeding monarchs from Henry II. to Henry VI. The corporation consisted in 1350 of a mayor, recorder, 5 aldermen, 3 capital burgesses, n common councilmen and other officers, the mayor being the returning officer. Two members were returned to parliament from 1293 to 1832 and one from 1832 to 1885, at which date Wilton lost its separate representation.
In 1414 Henry V. granted a fair on July 21 and 22. This was cancelled in 1416 and another substituted on July 22 and the three preceding days. Two yearly fairs were obtained by the burgesses from Henry VII. for four days from April 23 and September i. In 1792 the fair days were November 13, September 12 and May 4; the two latter are still held, that in September being one of the largest sheep fairs in the west of England. Henry III. granted three markets weekly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Henry VI., in 1433, one on Wednesday. The latter was still held in 1825, but had ceased in 1888.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)