Middlesex Under the Tudors and Stuarts

Middlesex Under the Tudors and Stuarts

THE peaceful reign of Henry VII encouraged the development of domestic life in England, which the troublous times of previous reigns had scarcely permitted, and Middlesex gradually took upon itself an appearance not unlike that known to its inhabitants of a century ago.

The greatly increased trade of London was having its effect on the population and the City became so overcrowded and unhealthy that merchants who could afford the luxury of country residences within easy reach of their place of business looked to Middlesex to supply these amenities.


Such circumstances encouraged domestic architecture, which during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attained a standard which has perhaps never been surpassed. The Middlesex report published in 1937 by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, with its beautiful photographic illustrations, provides ample evidence of specimens of the builders’ craft which may still be found in the County in spite of modern building developments.

Many of the interesting churches that we know to-day had been altered or rebuilt before the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in spite of modern restoration their outward appearance remains not unlike that presented to the Tudor inhabitants. In many cases the interiors were adorned with those large monuments which became so fashionable during the next two centuries.

The Royal Palace of Westminster and other royal residences in the County and its surrounding districts attracted the passage of courtiers, politicians and lawyers through Middlesex, which resulted in the development of the village inns, of which many interesting examples are still to be found.


In writing this short account of Middlesex, it has been necessary to extract such items as relate to the County up to the middle of the sixteenth century from the general history of England but, from the year 1549, the records of the Quarter Sessions have been preserved and from these a very human picture of the life in the County can be obtained.

The largely increased population of London provided the inhabitants of Middlesex with a ready market for their produce and it may truly be said that by the end of the seventeenth century the whole County was being cultivated for market-gardening and agricultural or dairy produce. Before the eighteenth century, enclosure of common lands in Middlesex had not proceeded very rapidly and attempts to do so were strongly resented. As early as the fourteenth century there is record that the free-holders of Harefield destroyed the dykes, which had been erected by one prominent landowner to enclose part of the common heath. A law case followed and, although the enclosure was upheld, the freeholders gained their point in so far as all future enclosure was prohibited. In 1545 Henry VIII attempted to encourage the enclosure of Hounslow Heath by assigning portions of it to the surrounding parishes and enacting that the land could be enclosed by decision of four commissioners. Nearer London many small enclosures were made and caused the Elizabethan Government serious concern at the loss of open spaces round the City.

The roads were exceedingly bad, and consequently transport became difficult and expensive, and large teams of horses or oxen were required for drawing even the lightest loads. The highways were infested with robbers, and travelling was not only uncomfortable but highly dangerous, while the highway taverns were the haunt of card-sharpers or pickpockets.


To tell of the historical events during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth would be to write the history of England, and only a few events peculiar to Middlesex can be mentioned.

The rebellious army of Sir Thomas Wyatt, in an endeavour to oust Mary from the throne after her intended marriage with Philip of Spain had been announced, crossed the river at Kingston and began a march to Hyde Park. The Lord Mayor, however, got news of it and dispatched an army which routed Wyatt’s forces, part of which fled back to Brent-ford.

On her visits to her sister, Elizabeth once stayed the night at the house of Sir Roger Cholmley, the founder of Highgate School, and on another occasion at the George Inn at Colnbrook, on her way to Hampton Court.

In 1586, Anthony Babington, who had conspired to murder Elizabeth, took refuge at Uxendon near Harrow but was discovered there, arrested, and afterwards beheaded. It was found that Mary Queen of Scots was implicated in this plot, and this discovery led to her execution a short time later.

In 1588 the whole country was haunted by the dread of an invasion by the Spanish Armada, and the trained bands of Middlesex, together with those of Warwickshire and Leicestershire, had the honour of supplying a bodyguard to the Queen. The beacon on Hampstead Heath was one of the chain of flares which was lighted throughout the length and breadth of the country, after the Armada had been sighted.


On his journey from Scotland to London, James I stayed at Theobalds Park on the borders of the County, and was so enamoured of it that he subsequently persuaded its owner, Cecil, to exchange it for Hatfield House. James then destroyed the Palace at Enfield and used the materials for beautifying Theobalds.

Enfield played an important part in the Gunpowder Plot—for Garnett, accused of complicity, had his lodgings there and a few days before Parliament was due to assemble Guy Fawkes visited White Webbs, a house in Enfield Chase, to make the final arrangements. The Earl of Northumberland was imprisoned and fined £30,000 for the part he played in the plot. He tried to compound by offering Isleworth Manor to the Crown, but the King would not accept it.

There was much resistance to the demands of Charles I for ship money and other levies and these led to disorders which occasionally necessitated the calling out of the trained bands. Apart from these incidents, Middlesex saw no actual fighting, but Hounslow Heath, Colnbrook and Uxbridge were favoured camping-grounds for the Parliamentarian Army, and the Earl of Essex reviewed the forces in Finsbury Fields in 1643.


The Civil War hovered round the borders of Middlesex, but the County suffered little more than the burden of the passage of troops through its area. Brentford was the scene of one of Prince Rupert’s most brilliant cavalry charges, but owing to the time wasted in pillaging, his opponent, Essex, managed to collect all his forces in and around London and draw them up in great numbers at Turn-ham Green. Apart from a skirmish on the flank at Acton there was little active fighting. The King eventually withdrew towards Kingston and Essex took possession of Brentford without striking a blow.

Early in 1645 the Commissioners of the King met the Commissioners for Parliament in Sir John Bennet’s house at Uxbridge to discuss terms of peace. No treaty was agreed upon or signed, but the house, now the “Crown Hotel”, has always since been known as “Treaty House “.

In April 1646 Charles, in disguise, fled from beleaguered Oxford, possibly with the intention of going to London. On his way he spent some hours at Hillingdon and here, receiving no message of encouragement from the capital, decided to turn north. He passed through Harrow and Edgware on his way to Southwell in Nottinghamshire, where he surrendered to the Scottish army. Early in 1647, after the Scots had handed him over to the Parliamentary army, he was brought a prisoner to Hampton Court. Here he was visited by three of his younger children, who had been put in the care of the Earl of Northumberland at Syon House, and by Cromwell, who was living at Putney. In November the King escaped from Hampton Court, but was soon recaptured.

Meantime, in July 1647, Fairfax with his army had reached Uxbridge on his way to London. After a conference at Syon House, in company with a number of peers and about a hundred members of the House of Commons, he reviewed the parliamentary troops, some 20,000 strong, on Hounslow Heath.

Many of the more influential inhabitants of the County sided with the King, among them Sir Francis Rouse of Headstone Manor in Harrow, Sir Henry Wroth of Durants and Sir Henry Spiller of Laleham. As a result of their Royalist tendencies these wealthy land-owners suffered considerably from the financial demands afterwards made on them by the Commonwealth, and their tenants suffered also by the breaking up of their estates.

On the King’s death, Middlesex seems to have settled down quietly under the Commonwealth and a number of prominent supporters of the parliamentary party came to live in the County, such as Sir William Wailer at Osterley and Sir William Roberts at Neasden. In 1650 Parliament began to break up Enfield

Chase into small lots for sale to republican soldiers. This action caused considerable discontent and rioters broke down the enclosures in the Chase.

The arrival of the Scottish Army at Barnet in August 1651 caused some consternation in the County and the militia was called up, but the timely victory of Cromwell at Worcester soon restored normal conditions.

In February 166o, General Monk marched with his army from Barnet to the City on his way to open up negotiations for the restoration of Charles II.


Charles II spent much time at Hampton Court which, unlike other royal residences, had escaped destruction during the Commonwealth, mainly owing to Cromwell’s liking for it.

With the idea of overawing the country, James II established a large camp on Hounslow Heath and there in 1686 reviewed 15,000 men. His repeated visits to this camp and the attendant gaieties caused Hounslow Heath to be looked upon as a sort of pleasure resort, but the waning popularity of the King caused the gradual disaffection of the troops, with the result that this camp became a menace rather than a security.

The rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth left the County unscathed, as did the bloodless revolution on the arrival of William of Orange and his Queen, Mary, daughter of James II, and actually the inhabitants of London and Middlesex welcomed their new King and Queen with glad hearts. Both these monarchs became much attached to Hampton Court and ordered the building of the famous Wren wing.

The Dutch friends of the King formed a colony in Middlesex, and when the Duke of Schomberg was given an English title he chose that of Earl of Brentford.

William III was not a popular sovereign. One of the many plots against his life was that hatched by Sir George Barclay, who planned to assassinate the King in a lane between Brentford Ferry and Turnham Green as he returned from a hunt in Richmond Park. The conspiracy became known before it could be put into execution and Barclay escaped to France.

When a breach occurred in the friendship between Queen Mary and her sister Anne, the Princess of Denmark was forced to leave Hampton Court and to take up her residence at Syon House. On her accession, however, she returned and made Hampton Court her residence for the greater part of her reign.


The Middlesex records throw much light on the local administration of the County during the period of the Tudor and Stuart kings. The justices of the peace were the real rulers of the County at this time, and besides trying criminals and punishing offenders, were responsible for the administration of the civil affairs of the community.

The roads were in a deplorable condition, and such maintenance as was effected was undertaken by the freeholders within each parish, who were bound to supply so many men and so many carts, according to the rateable value of their properties. This system of “statute labour” was very unpopular and did not lead to any great improvement of the highways.

Rates were collected as and when the money was needed, and were raised for a particular object; as, for instance, to support a poor family which had become chargeable to a parish or to build a bridge for which the parish was responsible. The more important bridges were a county charge and a rate upon the whole County was raised for their repair.

The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII probably affected Middlesex less than some other counties, for such monastic buildings as existed within it were of minor importance, but the subsequent rules laid down by law for the observance of religion as established by the Church of England brought hardships and inconvenience to those whose conscience dictated otherwise. If any inhabitant refused or neglected to attend his parish church he was brought before the Court and was condemned as a “recusant”.

Puritanism, though exercised with great vigour during the Commonwealth, was not so rabidly followed in Middlesex as in some of the neighbouring home counties.

Various references are found to plagues. Residents from plague-stricken areas of the metropolis sought safety in the country. The King and his Court retired to Hampton, and measures were taken to restrict communication between Hampton Court and London.

Isleworth apparently suffered from the outbreak of 1636-7, but the Great Plague of 1665 does not seem to have seriously attacked the rural areas outside London and Westminster.

We find no mention in the records that the Fire of London had any great effect on the County as it is to-day, though no doubt many whose homes in the City had been destroyed must have taken refuge in Middlesex.