The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book, together with the five outlying manors that ring the southern half of the parish. Spellings in mediaeval documents are variants of “Calneton”, reflecting the traditional pronunciation, approximately “cahnt’n”, which was regularly used until the second half of the 20th century. It is only in the last 40 or 50 years that the modern pronunciation of “cawnton” has become the norm.
Soon after 1100 a small church was built and the characteristic Norman columns dividing the nave and aisles are still in position. In the 14th century the present main walls, roof and clerestory were built, and the tower was completed in the 16th century. The three old bells were re-hung to allow full circle ringing and three more added as a Millennium project. The largest bell, often tolled at funerals, has the inscription “All ye who hear my mournful sound, repent before ye lie in ground”.
Curiously, in 1349 a wealthy landowner built the south aisle as a chantry chapel which had its establishment completely separate from the rest of the church. Priests from Newstead Abbey came to pray for his soul and, while in the village, they lived in a house at The Grange. There was a vicarage for the parish vicar, but no trace of it remains. This twin arrangement continued for over 200 years until the chantry management was unified with the main church.
An incident in 1456 gives Caunton a claim to a unique place in the annals of sporting history. It is related in a manuscript book “The Miracles of King Henry VI” that a young man in Caunton was injured “in his most sensitive parts” while playing football. This is probably the earliest recorded use anywhere of the English word “football”. The story goes on that, after days of incapacity, he had a vision of “glorious King Henry” and was cured. He was taken to Windsor to recount the tale and demonstrate the game of football to the courtiers
There were six or seven mediaeval open fields surrounding the village, but they were all enclosed in the 18th century. To the west of the main village, Beesthorpe Manor had been co-owned by the monks of Rufford Abbey, but on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII gave it to the Earl of Shrewsbury, who sold it to a local man, Thomas Bristowe, whose family then possessed it for well over 300 years. Other main landowning families included the Warrens, the Taylors and the Holes, a branch of whose family set up the well-known brewery in Newark.
The large Georgian house at The Grange was built in about 1760, and the present splendid Manor in the centre of the village was built in about 1780 to replace a more modest previous dwelling. Caunton’s most famous son, Samuel Reynolds Hole, was born in The Manor in 1819. He was ordained a priest at Oxford in the 1840’s and returned to Caunton where there had not been a resident vicar for many years. The church had fallen into disrepair and he oversaw an extensive restoration, including completely rebuilding the chancel in Victorian Early English gothic style. He was an avid rose grower and filled the Manor gardens with hundreds of specimen bushes. He wrote a book on the subject and founded The National Rose Society, with its annual exhibition in London. He was a popular figure in London society and was a friend of Dickens, Thackeray and other literary figures. He was appointed Dean of Rochester Cathedral, and his invaluable work in restoring that building is marked by a statue of him there. He is buried in Caunton churchyard, and his title lives on in the name of the present school.
The Victorian village school (now a private house) was built in 1840, and a large vicarage for Reynolds Hole’s successors (also now a private house) was built in 1892. Like other villages, Caunton was largely self-sufficient in times past, with shops, a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a baker and a windmill (the tower still stands). The clay around Caunton made strong bricks and there were at least two brick-kilns. The wattle-and-daub cottages were replaced by brick houses which form the older parts of the village you see today.