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Kings John & Henry III in Newbury
Royal Hunts & Jousts

The reign of King John is interesting to Newbury historians on account of his being the reputed founder of St. Bartholomew's Hospital there, and as having instituted the annual fair, which is still kept up. He was probably well acquainted with this place from his frequent visits to the town, and to his favourite hunting seat at Freemantle Park, not far away at Kingsclere (Hampshire). It is difficult to realise at the present day, but at this time the whole district was apparently little more than a continuous woodland and, as such, appealed to the sporting instincts of the Norman and early Plantagenet Kings. The chief part of the southern portion of Berkshire was occupied by the great forest of Windsor, which extended in one direction into Buckinghamshire, and in another into Surrey as far as Chertsey, Cobham and even Guildford; and reached westward as far as Hungerford along the vale of the Kennet, which was deforested in 1226. King John was at Newbury in 1200, 1203, 1204, 1210, 1214, and 1215, the date of the grant of the fair, as shown by his ‘itinerary’ and other confirmatory evidence.

His son, King Henry III, was at Newbury in the years 1222, 1223, 1226, and 1228, when, it appears, he lodged at an hostelry or guest-house then existing in the town, and apparently used for the lodging and entertainment of the Court when travelling or engaged in hunting expeditions in this neighbourhood. There is a record of an hostelry of this character in 1444, on the west side of Bartholomew Street, which belonged to Winchester College, and was used for the convenience of the students and others journeying between Wykeham's famous foundation at Winchester and New College, Oxford.

On Ash Wednesday 1248, a gathering took place in Newbury, which must have caused much excitement and interest amongst the quiet burghers of the town in those days, graced, as it seems to have been, by the presence of the King, Henry III. It was a great tournament in which young William de Valence, the King's half-brother, rashly tried his immature strength against his sturdy peers and, being overthrown more than once, was soundly beaten into the bargain "to teach him the first steps in knighthood."

These passages of arms were often productive of grave breaches of the peace, besides causing the death of a certain number of distinguished jousters occasionally, and they had fallen under the ban of the church, and been especially anathematized. But in spite of such condemnation, the King found reason to continue tournaments and there is no doubt that the custom was a very popular one. The ostensible object was to instruct the nobility in the management of their horses and lances. They also encouraged a military spirit and an emulation for martial glory in time of peace. But a more cogent motive was, perhaps, to be found in the revenues which accrued to the King's private purse, what we would now call the ‘entrance fees’ being very heavy.

Two years after the tournament at Newbury, William de Valence received, at the King's hands, the nearby manor of Benham, hence called "Benham Valence," which keeps the name of this early owner green in the neighbourhood to this day.

There was another important assemblage at Newbury at the close of the same year, between the King's nobles and Richard, Earl of Gloucester, but the annalists do not record anything about the occasion.

Edited from Walter Money's "History of Newbury" (1905)

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.