White Hart Crest of the Royal County of Berkshire David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

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Berkshire History
Tudor & Stuart Times

During this period, the production of clothing yarns was an ongoing activity in many Berkshire villages, such as Shaw, Speen, Greenham and Thatcham. Berkshire cloth became much appreciated for its excellent quality, drawing crowds of customers from the south of England to the county's sheep and corn markets. That at East Ilsley grew to be the biggest sheep fair in the country. While Windsor relied heavily on Royal and courtly patronage during the Tudor Age - bringing Shakespeare to stay at the Garter Inn and write his 'Merry Wives of Windsor' - the towns of Reading, Abingdon and Newbury were centres for the cloth trade. Early 16th century Newbury boasted a clothier named John Winchombe, alias Jack O'Newbury, who was a prominent figure of international renown. He grew rich as well as famous for selecting the best raw wool and turning it into superlative cloth which he sold at market in London. He built the first recognizable factory in the country and was so wealthy that he was able to send a troop of soldiers to fight for King Henry VIII in Scotland. His son built himself a magnificent mansion at Bucklebury and his associate, Thomas Dolman, did similarly at Shaw, where the H-planned Shaw House still stands. Reading was a comparable cloth centre, the home to great men like John Kendrick, who established the original Oracle charitable workhouse (now the site of the famous Shopping Centre), and William Laud, son of a clothmaker, who became Archbishop of Canterbury. A new breed of gentry were quickly becoming established, though traditional landowning courtiers still survived: like Henry Norreys whose indiscretions at a Yattendon ball may have contributed to the loss of both his and Queen Anne Boleyn's heads.

The prosperity that came with the wool and cloth trade had its price, however, as Berkshire farmland was enclosed and converted into sheep pasture. At Milton, Barkham, Southcote and Woolley, for instance, a large area 100 acres in extent was turned over to sheep. This meant lost homes, lost lands, lost jobs and lost rights for many farming tenants, a plight exacerbated by the 16th century trend of engrossing or combining several farms, or creating private parks out of fields and common land. The situation was not helped by the vast change of landownership precipitated by the Reformation and subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries.

In 1534, Henry VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England in order that he might marry Anne Boleyn. His barren queen, Catherine of Aragon, was banished to Easthampstead Park where she eventually received news of her finalized divorce. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries starting two years later, Berkshire lost the great Abbeys of Abingdon and Reading. The latter's Abbot was hanged for trying to save his beloved monastery and, in the early years of Protestantism, as well as during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, there were several burnings of Protestant 'martyrs' in the county, notably at Windsor and at Newbury. The monastic buildings of Berkshire were stripped of their fittings and holy relics were cast upon the fire. Though St. James' hand was discovered bricked up at Reading and can now be seen in Marlow Roman Catholic Church (Bucks). The lead from the roofs and the very stones of the walls were carted away. Sadly, thoughts of turning Reading Abbey into a Cathedral were short-lived and even the Tudor Royal Palace created there has long gone. Abbey lands fell into secular hands, religious lodgings and hospitals disappeared and, not only monks, but large numbers of lay servants found themselves unemployed.

These difficulties were compounded in time of war and struck Berkshire at their worst during the Civil War (1642-1648) between King Charles I and Parliament. The county was not only salted for money, men and supplies, but became one of the major battlegrounds. Berkshire began the war as a largely Royalist stronghold, but fell under Parliamentary control by 1644 and on the way suffered greatly. There were skirmishes throughout the county, particularly in the North where the Cavaliers led raiding parties out from their base at Oxford. Reading was placed under a heavy parliamentary siege in April 1643, but was overrun after ten days when reinforcements were prevented from reaching the town. The two famous Battles of Newbury occurred due to the town's position along a key route to the West. In September 1643, the Royalists tried to prevent the Earl of Essex and his men returning to London after the Siege of Gloucester. The two sides met at Wash Common and a seesaw battle ensued, fought amongst the hedged fields below Round Hill. The Royalists eventually ran out of gunpowder and were forced to flee during the night. Just over a year later, the Second Battle of Newbury was fought at Speen. Prince Maurice held the area for the King, but the Earl of Manchester arrived with a large Roundhead force and a clash was inevitable. Waller & Cromwell secured victory for Parliament by their long march around Donnington Castle to outflank the enemy. This Royalist stronghold was then left alone to a long siege. Charles I had always been unpopular in Windsor and had abandoned his castle there even before the War began. It became a parliamentary stronghold and, in 1645, the Home Park was used as the training ground for Cromwell's New Model Army, with about 10,000 men billeted in the town and the surrounding villages. The castle itself only narrowly escaped demolition during the Commonwealth. King Charles was arrested at Windsor Castle in 1647, and saw his children for the last time at the Greyhound Inn in Maidenhead. Two Berkshire men, Henry Marten of Longworth House & Hinton Manor, former MP for Berkshire, and Daniel Blagrave of Southcote House, were among the Parliamentarians who signed his death warrant in 1649; while the King himself, was finally laid to rest in St. George's Chapel, Windsor.

Almost forty years later, Berkshire saw the only fighting of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In their (successful) attempt to rid England of the catholic King James II, Parliament had invited his protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, to take the throne. The Dutchman arrived in Torquay and marched through Berkshire on his way to London. He was offered the crown while staying at the Bear Inn in Hungerford, but soon met with armed opposition from an advance guard of James' Irish troops at the so-called Battle of Broad Street (in Reading). William was easily victorious and further fighting was later avoided at Maidenhead.

Meanwhile, in the everyday background to such major events, Berkshire had been changing in tune with new methods of transport. Where once pedestrians or travellers on horseback had largely monopolized the county's roads, trains of wagons began to appear during the 16th century and before long were making regular journeys, carrying goods such as silk stockings made in Wokingham or quantities of cloth. Routes to London became established between London, Wokingham and Swallowfield and Bradfield and after about 1657, the wagons were joined by stagecoaches. By 1690, once a day stagecoach services were operating between Abingdon and Maidenhead and London, two services to Reading and nine to Windsor. Over time, these services steadily increased, despite the discomfort of coach travel and the relative slowness of journeys until by 1836, Berkshire was either the terminus or the transit area for 63 coaches a day from London.

Stagecoach travel remained arduous, nevertheless, and there was a big increase in number of inns in Berkshire which could provide places where travellers could rest over for the night or simply take a break from the rigours of the road. By 1686, there were 339 beds and stables for 669 horses available in Windsor, and 376 beds and stables for 572 horses at Reading. The Berkshire villages provided extra accommodation.

Berkshire was also attracting noble and wealthy inhabitants in these centuries, partly due to the county's royal connections, partly because of the county's good communications with and relative proximity to London and Parliament. For instance, Peter Vanlore, jeweller to the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, bought the manor of Tilehurst in 1604. In 1665, Ashdown House at Ashbury and the Palatial Hamstead Park at Hamstead Marshall were built for the prominent courtier, William Craven, first Earl of Craven; although Windsor Castle lapsed as a focus of Royal interest.

Next: Georgian & Victorian Times

By David Nash Ford & Brenda Ralph Lewis


    David Nash Ford & Brenda Ralph Lewis 2001. All Rights Reserved.