Reformation, Revolution and Restoration 1486-1714

Reformation, Revolution and Restoration 1486-1714

In 1485 the Battle of Bosworth heralded the beginning of a new era and a welcome period of peace after decades of sporadic fighting. There was a new royal family on the English throne—the Tudors—but the England of Henry VII was a far cry from that of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Compared with the Continent, it was a backward country suffering from a long period of population decline. The towns were small and their decayed buildings an outward sign of difficult times. Earlier in the 15th century Windsor had appealed to the King for a reduction in taxes because its houses were in ruins, its people ‘moneyless’; the petition exaggerated, but taxes were reduced from £17 to £10, and when prosperity came back to the town most of its medieval houses were pulled down. In contrast, by the end of the Stuart era in the early 18th century, England was one of the wealthiest nations in the world. But in the intervening two and a half centuries under            the Tudors and Stuarts the country had passed through religious and agricultural upheavals, a great rebuilding of town and country, periods of recession and prosperity, another civil war, and a revolution in the government of both country and county.

The Rural County

Tudor Berkshire had no sharp division between town and country such as we see today, for the trades and markets in the town depended on the produce from the farms, and most towns still contained fields and commons within their boundaries. Reading was the largest town, with a population of around three thousand, which was not much greater than Wallingford had been at the end of the 11th century. Tax assessments suggest that the population of few parishes exceeded a hundred families, and most had considerably less. On a large number of estates the old ways of farming persisted; open fields and commons were found in every part of the county, and here and there, as in Stratfield Mortimer and Coleshill, unfree villeins still performed work services for the lords of the manor. Almost every inhabitant in rural parishes had an interest in the land; renting even an acre or two could make the difference between poverty and relative economic security. For the gentry and nobility, wealth still lay with their landed estates.

Corn was grown in all parts of Berkshire, and from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign considerable amounts were sent down river to London. The trade grew in size and importance, so much so that when movement of grain was stopped during the Civil War, the inhabitants of Reading claimed with some truth that it lost the town at least £2,000 ‘in ready money’ each week. Most farms, however, had a mixed economy, and large numbers of sheep were kept on the sweet pasture of the downlands where the thin chalk soils were made productive by dung from the sheep. Wool and cloth accounted for more than three-quarters of England’s export trade, and in this Berkshire played a vital part. Berkshire wool was of a high quality suitable for making fine broadcloths and kerseys, the name given to narrow cloth. In 1574 it ranked as one of the four highest priced wools in England. Marketing the wool was in the hands of wool merchants who mainly lived in the country districts where they made their purchases; thus for example, Richard and John Yates of Charney Basset and Longworth were members of the English Company of Merchants of the Staple through which the export trade was organised. In 1620 Francis Moore, lord of the manor of East Ilsley, obtained a charter to hold a monthly corn and sheep market which attracted buyers from many parts of southern England.

The main centres of the cloth trade were Reading, Abingdon and Newbury. In the early 16th century Newbury’s chief clothier, John Winchcombe (nicknamed Jack of Newbury), had an international reputation. He was an entrepreneur, and his business was concerned with all stages of the industry from buying the raw wool to selling the finished cloth in the great London market. In Elizabeth’s reign Thomas Deloney wrote a romantic story of his life, historical fiction rather than a biography, but according to this he employed more than six hundred men, women and children, as well as wainsmen and carts to carry the cloth to London. No doubt this was an exaggeration, but Jack did make a fortune, and his cloth was so highly prized that his name lived on as a standard for high quality. In 1549, thirty years after his death, a thousand ‘Winchcombe kerseys’ were sent to the English envoy in Antwerp. It was mainly through his generosity that the church of St Nicholas in Newbury was rebuilt between 1509 and 1533.

Newbury’s other famous clothier was Thomas Dolman who, in 1581, built for himself Shaw House, (now a school) a beautiful mansion costing £10,000, after he retired from trade. By this date the industry was depressed, partly through over-production, and there was wide-scale unemployment. Although cloth manufacture continued in west and north Berkshire, the golden era of England’s woollen textile industry was over. The resentment felt by Dolman’s former workers is summed up in a rhyme written at the time:

Lord have mercy upon us, miserable sinners

Thomas Dolman has built a new house, and turned away all his spinners.

Reading also had its wealthy clothiers, three of whom had sons (William Laud, John Kendrick and Sir Thomas White) who left the town to make their fortunes elsewhere. The most famous of these was William Laud who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Both Reading and Windsor benefited from the money he left, but it was his contemporary, John Kendrick who was so important to the twists of fortune which beset the clothing industry. Kendrick died in 1625 leaving a bequest of £7,000 to Reading Corporation and £4,000 to Newbury, on condition that the mayor and burgesses in both towns provided a house, ‘fit and commodious for setting of the poor on work therein, with a fair garden adjoining’. Such workhouses where the poor could be provided with materials for spinning and weaving are found in other towns, such as Windsor. But what seemed good in theory was not always so in practice, since the poor did not always produce quality workmanship, and the goods could undercut those of the other manufacturers. In Reading the money was mismanaged, and much of the surplus money which should have been used to help poor cloth manufacturers was appropriated by the members of the Corporation or their friends, whose businesses flourished at the expense of the rest. Instead of promoting the trade, Kendrick’s bequest was a major factor in hastening its decline. At Newbury the money was used to build the fine building (the surviving wing, known as Cloth Hall, is now a museum) where 60 people, plus 14 apprentices, were employed making cloth. Cloth production was also strong in the surrounding villages; the inhabitants of Shaw, Speen, Thatcham and Greenham were employed in the production of yarn, and several villages had their own fulling mills. But, although the cloth trade struggled on, the days of prosperity had gone, leaving cloth workers amongst the distressed and unemployed.

The high profits enjoyed by the wool industry in the early Tudor period had encouraged landowners and farmers to enclose areas of pasture. In some cases arable land was also converted to pasture, which meant fewer farm workers and the evictions of tenants whose land had been taken. In the most extreme cases whole parishes were cleared of cottages, as for example Eaton Hastings in the north west of the county, and Tulwick near Wantage, where one John Saunders enclosed 55 acres in 1500 and evicted the last four tenants from the village. Worried about depopulation in many parts of the country, the government ordered a number of enquiries. In 1517 the commissioners reported that in Berkshire land had been enclosed for sheep pasture in 25 parishes, including Barkham, Milton, Southcot, and Woolley where a hundred acres were taken out of cultivation. At Milton 18 people lost employment and the two plough teams were put out of use. Arable farming, however, was also profitable, and among those farmers who did well were the Loders of Harwell who in four generations rose from humble husbandmen to gentlemen. For ten years, 1610 -1620, Robert Loder kept meticulous accounts. He farmed more than three hundred acres on which he grew wheat, barley, pulses and vetches. There were also extensive orchards, and on the downs he had a 65-acre enclosure for his sheep.

Enclosure for pasture was not the only way that landowners were maximising their profits from farming. Engrossing is the term used for combining two or more farms and, whether it was to improve livestock or arable farming, it usually meant the loss of a farmhouse and the eviction of the occupiers. At Fulscot, according to the enquiry, 29 people were turned out after three farms had been engrossed and three houses were pulled down. There were many more cases than those listed in the government enquiry. At Upton in Slough, members of the Urlwyn family leased the manor house and demesne farm during the mid-16th century and, though few records survive to tell us details of their activities, they acquired almost all the land in two of Upton’s open fields. They also obtained ownership of most of South Field belonging to the adjacent manor of Chalvey, to the detriment of its inhabitants. Land was also taken from fields and commons by landowners rich enough to create or enlarge parks. A hundred acres were enclosed at Hampstead Marshall for this purpose, 60 acres at Hurst, and smaller amounts in several other places. On the whole, however, Berkshire did not suffer badly in this direction, and at least one park was turned into farmland. This was Cippenham Park which became Cippenham Court Farm in the 15th century, sometime after it came into the hands of the Molyns family of Stoke Poges. The outline of the park pale can still be traced in hedgerows first planted some five hundred years ago.

Religious Change

The seeds of religious change had been sown long before the Tudor period. In the late 14th century John Wycliffe had questioned almost every aspect of Church beliefs and advocated the translation of the Bible into English.

He was the first of the religious critics known as Lollards. In 1412 a Wokingham man was prosecuted for Lollardy and by the 1420s there was a ‘glorious and sweet society of faithful followers’ in the Vale of the White Horse with members from Abingdon, Buscot, Faringdon, East Ginge, Hanney, Steventon and Wantage. In 1431, under the leadership of one William Perkins, they marched from East Hendred to Abingdon where they attacked the abbey. As in other cases the rising failed and Perkins was executed. It was the last of the Lollard rebellions, but there was a small rising in Wokingham in 1434, and in 1490 Thomas Taylor, a fuller at Newbury, was charged with possessing Lollard books and denying the doctrine of transubstantiation. At Letcombe Basset the priest John Whithorn attracted a group of believers who were charged in 1499 with possessing copies of the gospel and other books in English. In 1518 Christopher Shoemaker of Newbury was burnt to death for reading the Bible out loud in English.

To the Church, the Lollards were heretics who must be punished and prevented from spreading their beliefs. England’s break away from Rome and Henry Viii’s assumption of the position of the Supreme Head of the English Church in 1534, however, had little to do with religious reform, and rather more with Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn and sire a male heir. There may have been need to reform the monastic houses, but Henry’s decision to dissolve them was more concerned with replenishing the royal coffers. The operation took place in two stages. First the smaller houses worth less than £200 were closed in 1536; there were nine of these in Berkshire and one more in Wraysbury which is now within the county. (Bromhall Nunnery at Sunninghill had been closed in 1521.)

Berkshire religious houses on the eve of dissolution

Houses Annual income
Dissolved in 1538 Reading Abbey £1,908 14s 0d
Abingdon Abbey £1,876 10s 9d
Dissolved in 1536 Bisham £ 185 11s 0d
Hurley Priory £ 121 18s Sd
Poughley Priory £ 71 11s 7d
Greenham £ 36 2s 5d
Donnington Priory £ 28 0s 0d
Sandleford £ 18 0s 0d
Ankerwyk not known
Reading Priory not known
Wallingford Priory not known

An investigation by Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners revealed few scandals, though plenty of examples of lax monasteries and nunneries. Two years later the great abbeys were closed. One of the earliest was Abingdon where the abbot and monks accepted the decision—and generous pensions—with little protest. Reading Abbey, however, held out to the last, the abbot, Hugh Faringdon, refusing to surrender the abbey, its treasures or its revenues.

Hugh had been on good terms with Henry VIII. He had signed the petition to the Pope urging him to hasten the proceedings for annulment and had offered the abbey’s library facilities for Henry’s lawyers, but none of this stood him in good stead. He and two of his monks were judged and condemned as common criminals, and were hanged, drawn and quartered; their mutilated bodies hung in a gibbet near the abbey gate, a dire warning of Henrys might and the cruelty of kings.

By 1540 all the monasteries had gone, ransacked of their ornaments, plate relies and money. During the remainder of Henry VIII’s reign, the site of Reading Abbey remained Crown property, and little further despoliation took place until 1548 when, at the instigation of Edward Seymour, Protector of the Realm, the lead from the roofs was stripped. Stone was taken for road mending and other buildings as far away as Windsor. Most other Berkshire religious houses suffered a similar fate, and today all that can be seen are ruins. Greyfriars Priory at Reading, on the other hand, was not destroyed. Henry gave this to the town for use as a town hail, as the hall in use was alleged to be much too small and disturbed by the noise of the washerwomen using the River Kennet close by.

Although the abbey and priory buildings and lands were at first taken into the hands of the Crown, most were soon given or sold to members of the Court, county families, wealthy merchants, or town corporations. The site of Abingdon Abbey was bought by Sir Thomas Seymour, but its vast estates were purchased by a variety of people, amongst them Richard Warde, keeper of the royal treasury, who bought the manor of Winkfield. From the Reading Abbey estate John Winchcombe, the wealthy clothier from Newbury, bought the manors of Thatcham and Bucklebury; he demolished the old manor house at Bucklebury and built in its place a fine Tudor mansion. Windsor Corporation acquired the manor of Windsor Underore which had been given to Reading Abbey by Queen Matilda, and at Bisham the former priory was turned into a house, the home of the Hoby family.

The Dissolution brought about the greatest change of land ownership since the Norman Conquest, but the changes went much deeper than the loss of buildings and the redistribution of land holdings. Parish churches held by abbeys and convents now had new patrons, and the tithes had to be paid to lay owners. It also meant the loss of a whole range of services which the religious houses had performed. Gone were most of the travellers’ guests houses, the leper houses, hermitages and hospitals. The Dissolution was also responsible for adding to the number of homeless and unemployed—not the monks and nuns who were given pensions—but the many lay servants. Few dared to oppose the King, but in 1542 James Mallet, a canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, was burnt to death for speaking out against the Dissolution.

In 1538 Henry Vill’s policies took religious change into every parish with his injunction that each church should have a Bible written in English, though labourers and all women, except gentlewomen, were forbidden to read it. Parishes were also ordered to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. The records of a number of Berkshire parishes show that he was promptly obeyed. The parish registers of Barkham, Basildon, Binfield, Bucklebury and many others all begin in 1538 or the following year. Church services, however, had not changed; instead the old beliefs had become compulsory, and to deny any of the points laid down in the Six Article Statute of 1540 became a crime punishable by death. In 1543 three Windsor men—Henry Filmer, Anthony Pierson and Robert Testwood—became Berkshire’s first martyrs under this law. They were burnt at the stake on the low ground to the north of the castle, an event which was all the more terrible because the men who accused them of heresy were later arrested and found guilty of perjury.

The pressing need for money was again the cause of destructive changes under Edward VI which began with the suppression of chantries and guilds.

The reports of the commissioners are often the only source of information on these chantries, and the picture revealed is a very mixed one. Some, like those of the Brocas Chantry of Clewer, no longer had a priest, others, like the Englefield Chantry at Reading and the John Leigh chantry at Binfield, were alleged to have been dissolved without licence and the income pocketed by the local patrons. In other cases the chantry priest played an important role in parish life, responsible for an almshouse or a school. There were seven such almshouses and five schools with chantry priests acting as schoolmasters in Berkshire. Several of the almshouses and schools survived; the Childrey almshouses and those founded by John Estbury at Lambourn are still in use today although not in the original buildings. The Holy Trinity guild at Windsor had paid a priest to run a small grammar school, but there was no schoolmaster when the royal commissioners made their survey, and Windsor did not get another grammar school until this century. There is little evidence that people protested against the loss of the chantries and guilds, though no doubt most would have been too frightened of the consequences of any rebellion. A few churchwardens pre-empted the removal of church goods by the commissioners and themselves sold the valuables; the churchwardens of St Lawrence, Reading received £47 18s. Od. for their church plate and used most of the money for street paving.

Whereas Henry VIII’s religion might be described as Roman Catholic without the Pope, that of Edward VI was fervently Protestant. Church services were ordered to be held in English, not Latin; Boxford churchwardens’ accounts record the purchase of the new English prayer book in 1549, the year it was first published. In 1551 parish churches in Berkshire were once again surveyed: with what fear and apprehension did the clergymen and churchwardens meet the commissioners? The veneration of saints and the use of anything Roman Catholic was now forbidden; monuments were defaced and wall paintings covered with white paint. In 1553 Thomas yachell of Coley, the commissioner responsible for Berkshire, began the task of stripping the county’s churches of their valuables. The pillage continued for eight months under his direction, and nearly 1,500 ounces of silver and gold plate were sent to London from Berkshire. The parish church now had a very different appearance—but in all too short a time it was to change once again when Queen Mary brought back Roman Catholicism.

During Mary’s reign (1553-1558) parishioners were required at their own expense to re-equip their churches for Catholic services, and strong Protestant priests, like John Leke of Purley who had married, were deprived of their livings. Ancient heresy laws were revived, and during the five years of Mary’s reign more than 300 people were burnt at the stake for their faith, including three at Newbury, a town which recent research has shown to have been strongly and obstinately Protestant. During the early 17th century it ‘possessed a national reputation for religious zeal, unshared with any other town in the county’.

Queen Elizabeth brought back Protestantism. In 1559, one year after she took the throne, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which made her the supreme head of the Church of England, and an Act of Uniformity which made attendance at church compulsory. Clergymen and others holding public offices were required to take the oath, and those who could not, like the Rev Richard Gatskill of Purley, lost their living. The colourful story of the Vicar of Bray who was said to have remained parish priest at Bray through four religious changes cannot be substantiated by evidence. There were at least two vicars at Bray during this period (and maybe four)—Simon Simonds, a conservative Papist, and Simon Aleyn, a fanatical Protestant reformer.

Once again parishes were put to the expense of altering their churches. At Wantage the rejected altar stone was hidden under the church steps where it was found in the 19th century. Some priests continued to celebrate Mass in secret and, when in the 1570s Catholic priests were smuggled into the country, they were supported by several Berkshire families, such as the Hindesleys of Beenham and East Ilsley, the Morris family of Great Coxwell, and the Perkins of Brimpton. Father William Hopkins lived with the Yates family of Buckland, hiding when necessary in a priest hole in the manor house. The newly built Ufton Court, which became the home of William Perkins, had six priest holes and became one of a chain of safe houses for missionary priests travelling inland from the coast.

Roman Catholics who did not attend church were known as recusants and fined at the Quarter Sessions. Ordinary villagers and townsfolk usually paid only is. each quarter, but members of the gentry, such as Thomas Vachell, could be fined as much as £50 per year. In 1586 the fines from 53 Berkshire recusants mounted to £138 6s. 6d. Despite persistent anti-Catholic legislation, some Berkshire families remained true to their faith, and a hundred years later recusancy lists reveal strong Catholic communities at Ufton Nervet, Hampstead Norris, Buckland, Cookham, Englefield and several places in west Berkshire. During James II’s reign when Catholicism again had royal approval, the Eyston’s Chapel at East Hendred was refitted. But religion was one of the main causes of the abdication of James II, and a few days after William of Orange’s march into England, while he was staying at Milton Manor near Abingdon, his Dutch troops billeted at East Hendred celebrated with a ‘wild Popish night’ and smashed the new chapel.

Non-conformists in Berkshire also suffered from persecution, particularly after the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which insisted on conformity. Twelve Berkshire clergy were ejected from their livings in 1660, and another 12 in 1662, but many of these continued preaching, whatever the dangers. In Newbury three aldermen were also removed from office because of their beliefs. After 1672 licences to preach were issued (a useful source of revenue for the Crown), and licences were taken out in Wokingham, Maidenhead and Wallingford, and following the Toleration Act of 1689 nonconformist chapels were built in many Berkshire towns and villages.

Berkshire Levies and the Civil Wars

Today we tend to regard conscription as a 20th-century innovation, but in the Tudor times counties had long been expected to provide levies, that is, men with armour and weapons, whenever called upon. In 1513 Jack of Newbury is traditionally said to have paid for 150 men at his own expense, horsemen, pikemen and musketeers, to fight against Scotland. Usually it was the Lord Lieutenant of the county who was responsible for raising the men to fight from the parishes and towns. When Berkshire levies were called out in 1560 to fight in Scotland, a thousand men assembled at Windsor, another 1,000 at Reading and 500 at Newbury. Arms, however, it was reported, were ‘scarce’ and the armour had to be provided from London.

Berkshire also filled its quota of men to serve in Ireland in 1574 and 1581; on the latter occasion the sheriff was ordered to provide the men with coats of ‘some dark and sadd colour as russet’, not so light a colour as the blue and red commonly used. In 1585 and 1586, men were pressed into service to fight against Spain, and in the following year ‘400 able and selected soldiers’ with their armour and weapons were sent to London from the Hundreds of Wantage, Lambourn, Shrivenham, Faringdon and Ganfield. Another 1,000 foot soldiers and 500 trained men were sent to fight against the Armada.

Levies were occasionally raised during the early 17th century and, as in the 16th century, lists of suitable men—muster rolls—were drawn up by the Commissioner of Array. When this was done for Berkshire in 1629, there were less than a thousand men with armour and weapons with any training. Men and money were also needed for the navy, and the illegal tax known as ship money was one of the grievances against Charles I. The Berkshire Grand Jury expressed their opposition in a petition to the King in 1640.

The inconveniences of these musters, levies and taxes, however, pales into insignificance against the misery and hardship suffered by the county during the six years of the Civil War period At the beginning of hostilities most of the county supported the King’s cause, and the towns of Abingdon, Faringdon, Reading and Wallingford were occupied by royal garrisons. From the outset, however, both Windsor and Newbury were for Parliament and, in spite of an eight-hour artillery bombardment against Windsor Castle and the two battles at Newbury, neither town was taken by the Royalists. High bulwarks and broad ditches were constructed for the defence of Reading, but in Spring 1643 after 10 days of siege by an 18,000 strong Parliamentary force, the Royalists surrendered. That same year the King appointed John Boys commander of Donnington Castle, an important stronghold guarding the western highway. In September the first of the battles of Newbury took place on Wash Common. The Parliamentary forces won the day but at a cost that could be reckoned in 50 cart loads of dead. The following year Abingdon was captured by the Parliamentary forces, and by October the year after, when the second battle of Newbury took place, most of Berkshire was under Parliamentary control.

Situated between London and the King’s headquarters at Oxford, Berkshire suffered from battles and sieges, the movement of the various armies through the county, and from pillaging and the billeting of troops in private houses as well as inns and alehouses. There were gallant leaders on both sides, such as Prince Rupert and the Earl of Essex, commander at Windsor, and many stories of daring attacks, but for soldiers and residents in town and country these were years of horror and hardship, death and disease. During the early years of the war contagious diseases spread amongst the soldiers and civilian population. In some parishes, such as Sonning and Hurst, burials in 1643 were four times higher than average. A recent excavation of a cemetery at Abingdon dating from this period revealed more than 200 skeletons.

Bridges, ferries and mills along the Thames, Loddon and Kennet were broken, and trade disrupted. In 1643 Parliament assessed Berkshire as being able to pay £500 per week, and time and time again the people were expected to provide money and provisions and yet still the soldiers were not paid; starvation was a constant threat. On one occasion royalists unsuccessfully tried to commandeer five cart loads of wheat and 150 sheep from Wargrave, and on another the people of Wokingham were ordered to provide eight cart loads of bedding and firewood for the Reading garrison. At one point during the war there were 700 Roundheads billeted at Twyford.

There were numerous skirmishes at various places in the county—at Chaigrove, Harwell and Coxwell to name but three. In one way or another, few villages in Berkshire escaped from the ravages of war.

The turning point of the war came after the formation of the New Model Army which made civilians into trained soldiers. Training took place in Windsor Great Park, and in 1645 there were some ten thousand men quartered at Windsor and the neighbouring villages. Wallingford, the last of the royalist Berkshire garrisons, was taken in 1646, and Donnington Castle surrendered the same year. By July 1647 King Charles was a prisoner in Windsor Castle. That same month he was allowed to see his children for the last time at the Greyhound Inn at Maidenhead. However the war was not yet over, and Reading and Windsor were both used as meeting places for those who were deciding the fate of the nation. Finally in 1649 Henry Marten of Coley, a former member of Parliament for Berkshire, and Daniel Blagrave of Reading put their names to the king’s death warrant and King Charles was executed in London on 29 January 1649. A few days later, on a snowy night early in February, he was secretly buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor. Berkshire had played its last part in this sorry story.

Travellers, Towns and Transport

At the beginning of the Tudor period people mainly travelled on horseback or walked, goods were carried in boats or by pack animals, and letters were sent by private messengers or by anybody going in the right direction. Two hundred years later the General Post Office had been established and there was a network of public transport by stage wagons, stage coaches and post horses, and a range of private vehicles in use from tradesmen’s carts to gentlemen’s carriages. The coaching era had clearly begun and the problems of the repair of the roads and the safety of travellers had already become a government concern.

The changeover from pack horses to wagons almost certainly took place gradually during the 16th century. Thomas Deloney wrote about a fictional clothier from Reading who owned so many wagons that on one occasion the king was held up for over half an hour waiting for them to pass. John Stow, author of The Survey of London, maintained that long wagons first began coming to London in 1564. There is little evidence to substantiate this statement, but when John Taylor compiled his Carriers Cosmography in 1636 there were carriers travelling once weekly between London and Abingdon, Faringdon, Reading, Tidmarsh, Wallingford and Wantage, and many more passed through the county from further west. No doubt the wagons carried a diverse range of goods, including silk stockings from Wokingham, but the most important were the bales of cloth, so much better protected in a covered wagon than in saddlebags. The carriers were unwilling to be named in John Taylor’s directory for fear that the information would be used for tax purposes, but before the end of the century published descriptions of London included lists of wagons from many more places in Berkshire, including those of James Hewitt of Wokingham, Nicholas Pembroke of Swallowfield and Widow Seyward of Bradfield. John Taylor also wrote of the river trade—’the great boats that do carry and recarry passengers and goods betwixt London and the [town] of Maidenhead … The Reading boat is to be had at Queenhithe weekly’.

Stage coach services were still in their infancy; the earliest known to travel through Berkshire was advertised in 1657. These early coaches were cumbersome vehicles, unsprung, carried only four people, and took three days to get to Bath—’God Willing’. By the late 17th century the travel time had been reduced to two days—summer weather permitting. The lists compiled by De Laune in 1681 and 1690 also listed the stage coaches services, one per day from London to Abingdon and Maidenhead, two daily coaches to Reading and no less than nine daily coach services to Windsor. There were of course coaches which travelled further afield which also served Berkshire towns.

In terms of public transport the Bristol Road (the forerunner of the A4 and more commonly known as the Bath Road) dominates the picture. It is one of only six ‘post roads’ established by the Tudor monarchs. The story of the postal service begins in 1511 when Henry VIII ordered Sir Brian Tuke, his new Master of Posts, to lay postal services along main roads to wherever the King was residing. By Elizabeth’s reign more or less permanent arrangements had been established for the royal postal service and it was recognised that local postmasters would extend this service to members of the public. The earliest surviving accounts for the Bristol Road are dated 1579/80. The postal towns were Maidenhead, Reading and Newbury, and of these Maidenhead was clearly the most important, for the postmaster Robert Davis was paid 20d. per day while all the others along the road were paid only 12d. Later records show that this was because the Maidenhead postmaster was also responsible for the post travelling along a branch road to Oxford. When Thomas Gardener surveyed the Post Office in 1677, the Maidenhead postmaster was paid £40 per year while those of Reading and Newbury received only £30 each. By this date the Post Office had been officially opened to the public and there were post offices also at Abingdon, Faringdon and Windsor. It was common practice to use inns as post offices; in Windsor it was the White Lion which stood in the market place opposite the Guildhall. Letters for Wokingham arrived via Bagshot on the Exeter Road.

The increase in traffic stimulated a corresponding increase in the number of inns and alehouses serving the needs of travellers, though there are few records to chart the process. In 1577, however, proposals for a tax required Berkshire magistrates to send the names of innkeepers (as well as vintners and alehouse keepers) to the government. The figures give some evidence of the importance of the towns for travellers. The table below shows the number of inns for all places with two or more.

A few of these Elizabethan inns still exist, such as the George in Reading, the Mermaid and the White Hart (now known as the Castle Hotel and the Harte and Garter) in Windsor, and the Ostrich and the George inns in Colnbrook. Princess Elizabeth stayed one night at the latter George Inn when, as a prisoner of her sister Queen Mary, she was being taken from Woodstock to Hampton Court.

Inns in Berkshire, old and new, according to the Certificate of Inns, Taverns and Alehouses, 1577


No of inns


No of inns

Abingdon 9 Reading 10
Colnbrook 10 Thatcham 2
Great Faringdon 4 Tilehurst 2
Lambourn 2 Speenhamland 2
Maidenhead 3 Twyford 2
Newbury 7 Wallingford 10
New Windsor 8 Wantage 4
Wokingham 2

There are no comparable figures for the whole county at any other dates during this period, but in 1618 Windsor had 14 inns, and 18 in 1653. In 1686, according to lists drawn up for the Secretary of State for War, there were 339 guests beds and stable room for 669 horses at Windsor’s inns and alehouses. This was more than in any other Berkshire town, reflecting the needs of the Court and Castle rather than the importance of the town in any other respect. In comparison Reading had 376 beds and stabling for 572 horses. The listing was concerned with accommodation in villages as much as towns, and hamlets with only a single alehouse were included: Steventon had only one guest bed, South Moreton no beds but stabling for four horses.

The town charters granted by the Tudor monarchs mark a change in the story of Berkshire towns. Two new boroughs were created—Colnbrook and Maidenhead in 1548 and 1582 respectively. In exchange for their new status and rights to hold markets and fairs, both towns were made responsible for the maintenance of bridges on the Bristol/Bath Road. Colnbrook was still no more than an important thoroughfare village which lay in four different parishes—Horton, Iver, Langley and Stanmore. No town council ever seems to have been formed, but the surviving town records, dating from the 1620s, show the town’s affairs being managed by a bridge (or chapel) warden, a highway surveyor and two rate collectors. The market was situated at the bend of the road outside the George Inn. In the 1590s the butchers erected their stalls so close to the inn that they impeded the passage of the inn’s customers until the innkeeper, William Higgins, obtained an injunction against them.

Maidenhead’s chief citizen was also known as a warden (instead of a mayor). Its charter established a council of 11 burgesses, two of whom were elected as bridgemen. As well as the bridges, the council was responsible for the maintenance of the town chapel and the main roads. The necessary income came from the tolls of the market and bridge and rent from town property; in the early decades of the 17th century these amounted to around £27. When the bridge was unusable, as in 1622, a ferry was provided as laid down in the charter.

Free from the control of the abbeys by their dissolution, Reading and Abingdon at last obtained the independent status for which their inhabitants had fought, and in 1596 Newbury obtained a grant of incorporation. The long established boroughs of New Windsor and Wallingford also acquired new charters with additional privileges and responsibilities. The chief citizens in these five boroughs were known as mayors and each town also had a two-tiered council made up of burgesses, brethren or aldermen (the names vary in the different towns). During their year of office the mayors were also the chief magistrates and had authority to hold borough Quarter Sessions and to appoint the necessary constables and watchmen. The councils could make bye-laws and were responsible for controlling the markets and fairs, licensing alehouses, ensuring that weights and measures were accurate and that the price and quality of ale, beer, wine and other foods were as they should be. Some retail prices and wages—maximum, not minimum—were set by statute or royal proclamation. The town crier read these out loud on market day. In Windsor the ‘ancient place of proclamation’ was at the crossroads where today Queen Victoria’s statue stands. Numerous royal proclamations were issued every year, but in 1563 one directed at Windsor announced, amongst other things, that the maximum price for a bed for the night for one person at an inn should be one penny, and the wages of a married master carpenter no more than 12d. per day. This was a time of inflation and wages and prices were burning issues.

The original charter granted to Wokingham by Elizabeth I did not make that town a borough. Instead it confirmed that the town was still part of the manor of Sonning and came under the jurisdiction of its steward, an officer of the Crown. Its first citizen, known as the alderman, was appointed by Sonning but, with the help of two constables, two bailiffs and two aletasters, he was responsible for much of the government of the town. Not until 1612 did Wokingham get its own town council free of manorial control; the leader of the council was still to be known as the alderman, but the charter also granted the town the right to have its own town hail and town prison. Other towns also had prisons, and towns and parishes alike had their whipping posts, stocks and pillories.

Government of the county

Far more than today, the government of the county and its towns and villages in the 16th and 17th centuries lay with its chief inhabitants. The main instrument through which the law was administered were the justices of the peace, appointed by the Crown to serve a particular county. They were chosen from the county gentry, rather than nobility.

By the beginning of the 17th century there were more than three hundred statutes imposing responsibilities on the justices, more than half of them passed since the beginning of the Tudor period. Their duties were administrative and judicial, and, cajoled and scrutinised by the Privy Council, the justices were to become the effective rulers of county. In the 16th century the main business was conducted at the four general or Quarter Sessions Courts which met at Abingdon, Reading and Newbury. The Assizes met at Abingdon and Reading, but as yet neither borough was securely established as the county town. It was in order to further its claim to be the ‘cheife town’ that Abingdon Corporation built a county hall in the market place in 1678. Berkshire’s county records were destroyed long ago but, of the many duties for which the justices were responsible, the maintenance of roads, bridges, the county prison and houses of correction, and the administration of the laws dealing with the poor, vagrancy, wages and prices and alehouse legislation are likely to have been the most important. In many parts of the country, justices also began holding local sessions to deal with much of the ordinary business and to mete out summary justice for minor offences. How soon this took place in Berkshire is not known, but the compilation of the 1577 Certificate of Inns, Taverns and Alehouses by five different groups of magistrates perhaps offers a clue as to the divisions at that date.

The justices of the peace were also responsible for overseeing the work of the parish officers—the churchwardens, overseers of the poor, highway surveyors and petty constables, and approving their accounts. The officers were unpaid, untrained and often unwilling to accept the responsibilities, and in some parishes, like Enborne, there was a rotating system so that most householders in the ‘middle ranks’ of the community served in their turn. Tudor laws made the parishes responsible for looking after their own poor and repairing the parish roads, and the overseers’ accounts record the collection of poor rates and the disbursement of money to the needy. The homeless unemployed, however, were designated as vagrants, rogues and beggars, persons to be punished and, if able-bodied, set to work, and it was the parish constable’s unpleasant duty to see that this was done. But the treatment of the poor and many other aspects of the social conditions and local law and order cannot be told in terms of laws and proclamations, for the story of every Berkshire parish is different, determined by the character of its inhabitants and those in authority over them.

Manor courts exercised control over the common fields through manor officials known probably as the bailiff and hayward, but courts were held less often than in earlier times and few now had any judicial importance. When disputes occurred over the payment of tithes, it was in the Archdeacon’s Court that the matter had to be settled, and the records for the Archdeaconry of Berkshire tell the stories of numerous conflicts between villagers and tithe owners. After the Dissolution of the tiny priory at Sandleford near Newbury, the local people claimed that Sandleford was a separate parish, and for over thirty years there were annual battles in the cornfields over who had the rights to the tithe—the incumbent at Sandleford or the parson from Newbury.

In terms of law and order, the church was clearly still very important in the parishes, but no longer was it the focus and meeting place for the community as it had been. The Reformation had loosened these ties, and the tremendous increase in the number of alehouses offered a more convivial alternative. In 1577 the county had almost three hundred, with half of the parishes having at least one. The ‘typical’ English village with its green, church and public house in close proximity is found in books more often than in reality, but there are Berkshire examples, including West Hanney and Leckhampstead.

The Great Rebuilding

Despite the problems of poverty and inflation, the period 1570 to 1640 was also one of increased prosperity which was reflected in a wave of building and enlarging houses, from country mansions to humble farmsteads and town tenements. Windsor under the Tudors was a prosperous town; it came 32 in terms of the tax or subsidy paid by the inhabitants to the Crown in the 1520s. It was never to do so well again in comparison with other towns, and by 1662 it had sunk to 44th according to the hearth tax assessments. This waxing and waning of fortunes is reflected in the number of timber-framed buildings which survive in the centre of the town. Only a few have timbers still showing, but low ceilings and floors below street level hint at older structures hidden by brickwork and later facades. So many nobles and courtiers visited Windsor during Henry Viii’s reign that in 1519 a restriction was imposed on the number of horses each visitor was allowed to bring into the town. During Elizabeth’s reign the town got a new market house and for the first time the main streets were paved. Other towns were improved during this period of rebuilding, but whether or not many of the houses have survived to the present day so often depends on the subsequent history.

Visual evidence of the ‘great rebuilding’ can also be seen in numerous Berkshire villages. In villages such as Steventon, Childrey and Hurley, there are clusters of picturesque cottages, still resplendent in silvered timber and creamy plaster or the warm red bricks of a brick infill. Bricks were a new building material in England in the 15th century and Berkshire possesses one of the important early examples, Eton College: the oldest part was built in the 1440s with bricks made at Slough. In Tudor times, however, bricks were still a prestige material, and humbler dwellings were usually timber-framed until the second half of the 17th century. Of the buildings which then made such splendid use of bricks, Berkshire has an abundance of examples, from tine houses to public buildings such as Windsor town hall, the Kedderminster almshouses at Langley Marish, and the almshouses at Maidenhead and Bray.

Country houses ‘built for the pleasure of living’ originated in the 16th century; before this the need to defend the property took precedence over comfort and elegance. Shaw House and Ufton Nervet Manor House have already been mentioned. Ashdown House at Ashbury, near Lambourn, was built for the first Earl Craven about 1665 as a base for hunting on the downs; he also built a mansion at Hampstead Marshall which became his principal seat.

Unlike some counties, Berkshire does not seem to have nurtured families of the land-owning class who belonged to the county for generations; only four families who were important in the county in 1500 still had the same position on the eve of the Civil War. Recent research has shown that the proximity to London was a major factor in this fluidity in the composition of Berkshire’s ruling elite. Many of the newcomers had pursued successful careers as courtiers, civil servants, lawyers or in commerce before acquiring an estate in Berkshire. For example, Sir Henry Neville, a prominent courtier in the court of Edward VI, received Billingbear Park as a gift in 1552; William Trumball, clerk of the privy council, was granted Easthampstead Park by Charles I in 1628; William Dunch, an auditor of the mint during the early 16th century, purchased several Berkshire manors; Peter Vanlore, a jewel merchant, amassed a considerable fortune supplying jewellery to the courts of Elizabeth I and James I before purchasing his first Berkshire manor—Tilehurst—in 1604.

Of the families who were prominent in the 16th century, the Essexes of Lambourn, Norreys of Wytham, Parrys of Hampstead Marshall, Untons of Wadley and Wardes of Hurst had disappeared by 1640 because of financial difficulties or the failure of the male line. Other families, such as the Fettiplaces, Darrels and Englefields, held much smaller estates than in earlier decades. Amongst those at the top of the social ladder and governing elite in the mid-17th century were the Dunches of Little Wittenham, the Knollys of Battel, and the Martens of Longworth. Through their role as justices of peace and sheriff, they formed a close-knit county network which in some measure influenced the affairs of the whole county. Individual members of the families often continued to be involved in professional or business activities in London and, unlike many other counties, Berkshire’s gentry had close connections with the Court and Parliament throughout this period.