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Narrative History of the Royal County of Berkshire
by Brenda Ralph Lewis & David Nash Ford

B E R K S H I R E

Norman & Medieval Times

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the face of Berkshire, like the face of England, became transformed yet again. The victorious Normans built castles to cow the local populace, the old Saxon estates were awarded to new Norman masters and the feudal system was introduced. An important Norman earth and timber fortress was built at Wallingford. Another was Windsor Castle, by the Thames between the Saxon settlements of Clewer and (Old) Windsor. Here, the local forest provided good hunting for the Norman kings and their nobles, and later, in the reign of King Henry I (1100-1135) the castle also became a palace and a prison. The troubled times of the latter's nephew King Stephen's reign brought many of the country's nobles into conflict with one another and several illegally erected fortresses in the county, like Faringdon where their was a major siege. The King's rival, the Sutton Courtenay-born Empress Matilda, held Wallingford Castle as one of her main bases and famously fled there from Oxford across the frozen Thames.

Twenty years after the Norman invasion, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Berkshire was revealed as a thriving county, heavily populated in the north, with fertile valleys and pastures where dairy farming flourished, together with cheese-making and pig-keeping. Church holdings were prominent, with Abingdon Abbey owning over thirty manors, in addition to large tracts of land in neighbouring Oxfordshire. There were, at least, thirteen other church estates within Berkshire. Among the Norman nobility, Geoffrey de Mandeville built a house and priory at Hurley, Miles Crispin was established at Wallingford Castle and the Royal family were at Windsor Castle on a regular basis, where Walter FitzOther was constable.

By the time of Domesday, Wallingford had a population of some 3,000, Old Windsor, about 500 and Reading, about 700. There was also Ulvritone, the manor of Ernulf de Hesdin where the newly established town of Newbury had some 250 inhabitants. Other Berkshire towns grew more slowly, but a rapid growth in population by the 13th century promoted urban development at Aldermaston, Cookham, Hungerford, Faringdon, Lambourn, Wantage, Wokingham and Wargrave. All of them had the right to hold markets, the vital factor that gave them their urban cachet as commercial centres and their wa much rivalry between them. In 1154, the people of Oxford and Wallingford became infuriated when the Abbot of Abingdon used a forged charter to claim the right to hold a market. They descended on Abingdon and fighting broke out as they attempted to clear the market. The abbot's men managed to foil them however. Later, when the case came to court, the abbot prevailed and his rivals had to content themselves with restrictions on market goods brought in by boat. Six years later, people from Newbury, whose market day was Sunday, tried to ruin Thatcham's chances of establishing a market on the same day. They came in force, to overturn stalls, ruin produce and beat up traders. Subsequently, in 1218, Thatcham's market day was changed to Thursday.

Maidenhead, which derived from a Saxon village called South Ellington, developed rather later, after 1337. At this time, the relative importance of Berkshire's towns was reflected in the facilities they possessed for handling the river traffic which was an important lifeline for trade in the county. Maidenhead, together with Windsor, Wallingford and Reading qualified through their extensive wharves, the last two featuring a complex waterfront that spoke of considerable activity. The county had numerous mills, mainly built close to and powered by the fast-running flow of the River Kennet, and Reading in particular thrived because of the facilities the nearby waters gave to its washing and dyeing industries.

Medieval Berkshire was also well equipped with roads linking its towns and villages. In 1360, when the oldest known official map of Britain was drawn, a road, later called the Bristol or Bath Road and the forerunner of the M4 motorway, was shown running through Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury and Hungerford. It was along this road that trading caravans carried valuable supplies of cloth from Berkshire to the big markets in Bristol and London. Roads, such as St. David's Way, were also used as pilgrimage routes opening, to a wide audience, the great shrines of St. James' hand at Reading, St. Vincent at Abingdon and St. George at Windsor. The latter was further enhanced by the unofficial cults of King Henry VI and Master John Shorne, moved there from Chertsey (Surrey) and North Marston (Bucks) respectively. The Norman King, Henry I, had first set the precedent for making Berkshire the favoured Royal resting place when he was buried in his foundation of Abbey of Reading in 1135. Several other members of the Royal family followed his example, but it was Edward IV who rebuilt the Collegiate Chapel Royal of St. George at Windsor as a Yorkist mausoleum. Most British monarchs have been interred there ever since. Windsor was a popular Royal residence throughout the Middle Ages. King John rode out from there to the sign the Magna Carta at nearby Runnymede (Surrey), in 1215, and was besieged in the castle by the Rebel Barons, the following year, after persuading the Pope to revoke it. Jousting and Tournaments were, later, held in the Great Park and, in 1348, King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter at the castle as the highest Order of Chivalry in the land.

The Royal Chapel at Windsor became the new home of the Chivalric Order and King Edward expanded the complex to serve as a Canonical College. There was a second ecclesiastical college at Shottesbrooke and, as well as the great pilgrimage centres of Reading and Abingdon, other monasteries were founded at Wallingford, Poughley, Sandleford, Bromhall, Hurley and Bisham. The mysterious Knights Templar were originally at the latter and their preceptory remains largely intact. Their brother-order of Knights Hospitaller were at Brimpton, where their chapel survives. These two ecclesiastical orders of knighthood were highly active in the crusades, to which many Berkshire men also journeyed. Their thanksgiving 'Crusader Crosses' can still be seen on churches like Wantage and Sutton Courtenay.

There were also important monastic granges (farms) throughout the county, like Faringdon, Cumnor and the recently excavated, Dean Court Farm (Radley). Nevertheless, the basic characteristic of early medieval Berkshire still lay in its myriad villages, many with village greens, its hamlets, meadows, fields, and woodlands. Individual families still strip-farmed the fields where they grew wheat, oats, barley, rye and beans, and shared common land and common rights which included the right, post-harvest, to cut green crops or stubble left behind after reaping.

More farmland was required as the population grew and woodland was cleared to make assarts, or small field enclosures. Some of these were cleared illegally, as a survey of Windsor Forest in 1333 showed: it noted several assarts created 'contrary to the assize.' The average assart did not amount to much - many comprised no more than a cottage with a garden - and the illegalities did not concern the authorities all that greatly, as long as the assarts in Windsor Forest did not interfere with the royal deer herds - and therefore the royal hunting.

Such activities made Berkshire a desirable residence for the nobility of England, who wished to be within easy reach of the Royal Court at Windsor and London too. Most Royal officials and favourites appear to have had manors in the county. The Brocuses were at Clewer; the Mortimers were at Stratfield Mortimer & Newbury; the De La Beches at Aldworth & Beaumys (Swallowfield); the Norreys at Ockwells (Bray) & Yattendon; Sir Richard Adderbury, the Chaucers and, later the Dukes of Suffolk, were at Donnington; the Earls of Salisbury were at Bisham; the Earls of Pembroke were at Hamstead Marshall; the Holy Roman Emperor Prince Richard was at Wallingford, followed by the Black Prince and then the hated Piers Gaveston; Oliver de Bordeaux was at Bellestre (Foliejon) in succession to John de Drokensford, Bishop of Bath & Wells; William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester was at Wychemere (Bear's Rails). There were fortified manors (or castles) at Beaumys (Swallowfield), Aldworth, Yattendon and Donnington. The Bishops of Salisbury had their Bishop's Palace at Sonning which was treated similarly, making it an ideal prison for Queen Isabelle after her husband, King Richard II's deposition in 1399. Attempts to reinstate him led to armed clashes at Maidenhead. Earlier in Richard's reign, the Earl of Oxford had fought with the King's uncle at Radcot Bridge. Berkshire was spared the battles of the Wars of the Roses, sixty years later, though Edward IV's Yorkist troops rested at Abingdon on their way to the Battle of Tewkesbury and there were savage reprisals in Newbury for its support of this King's cause. The chief protagonist of the conflict, 'Warwick the Kingmaker,' was a Berkshire man, born and brought up at Bisham Manor.

As elsewhere, the Black Death of 1349, combined with poor harvests and outbreaks of sheep disease, proved to be a calamitous reverse for the prosperity of Berkshire. Sheep numbers on the Inkpen pastures were reduced by 75 percent. As for the plague, it wiped out entire communities and contributed to the emptying of at least forty Berkshire villages of their inhabitants. Fortunately, Berkshire made a fairly speedy recovery from the ravages of the Black Death and in time, its numerous farms, large and small, acquired a new basis of economic prosperity in the corn they produced as a staple crop. By the 16th century, Berkshire was a major supplier of corn to London and other centres, and also contributed greatly to the rich wool and cloth trades which comprised three-quarters of England's exports to Europe and made many fine fortunes.

Next: Tudor & Stuart Times




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