This collection of records is concerned with the county of Berkshire as it existed before the redrawing of the county boundaries in 1974. At that time northwest Berkshire, the area north of the downs and south of the Thames, including the Vale of the White Horse, became part of present day Oxfordshire. Historic Berkshire was quite literally defined by the River Thames that provided its wandering northern border. That border was established in Anglo-Saxon times, when it formed the boundary between the kingdom of the West Saxons to the south and the kingdom of Mercia to the north. In 820 Wessex gained ascendancy over Mercia but the status of what was north Berkshire remained ambiguous. It was not until the early tenth century that ‘the Thames at last emerged as the definitive frontier between the two realms.’ The town of Wantage, in the Vale of the White Horse, still celebrates its West Saxon heritage with a statue in its market place of King Alfred, who was born there in 849.
The Thames valley, and its important fords and bridges crossing the river, made the county a frequent battleground as the Anglo-Saxons struggled first amongst themselves, and then against the invading Danes. During the ninth century the county suffered heavily from the Danish raids. Reading was captured in 871 and became the base from which the invaders proceeded to destroy the Saxon abbey at Abingdon. The abbey was refounded and rebuilt during the next century and became one of the foremost Benedictine abbeys in the kingdom. The Normans early established residence in Berkshire. William the Conqueror, as he swept across the country, crossed the Thames at Wallingford, and Wallingford became an important Norman military site. With the accession of Henry II and the Angevin dynasty by the treaty of Wallingford, the honour of Wallingford was taken over by the Crown, making Berkshire essentially a royal county. Windsor had become a royal residence as early as 1095. The three Berkshire fortresses on the Thames (Wallingford, Windsor, and Reading) were central to the skirmishes between Stephen and the Empress Maud in the early twelfth century. Reading emerged as the fourth important site in the county with the laying there of the foundation of the second great Benedictine abbey by Henry I on 23 June 1121. The abbey was dedicated in 1164 by the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Beckett, an occasion which was one of the last amicable meetings between Thomas and Henry II. During the struggles among Henry II's sons, and later during the Barons' Wars, the castles of Wallingford and Windsor became frequent pawns in the fighting. After the Battle of Lewes, a popular song lampooning Richard, earl of Cornwall, named both castles. Wallingford was also a favourite residence of the early Plantagenets.
In the twenty-first century Berkshire still proudly called itself the ‘royal’ county. This appellation is drawn from the medieval past, when Windsor and Wallingford were major royal residences with extensive land holdings attached. There were no other great magnates in the county such as the Courtenays in Devon or the Percys and the Nevilles in the north. Camden’s comment in closing his article on the antiquities of Berkshire is quite telling, ‘Haec de Barkshire, quae hactenus Comitis honore insignivit neminem.’ The royal house was the major landowner in the county except for the two abbeys at Abingdon and Reading. After both were dissolved (Abingdon in 1537/8 and Reading in 1539), and their lands confiscated, a very high percentage of the land in Berkshire was held by the Crown. This meant that the later Tudor monarchs were able to grant land in the county to their favourites.
The later years of the thirteenth century saw the emergence of the system of parliamentary representation from cities and boroughs to complement the representation of the knights of the shires in parliament. Berkshire was called to send two knights to the parliament of 1295. Reading and Wallingford also sent two members – representation they would maintain throughout the period covered by these records. Windsor and Newbury were called to send two representatives to the parliament of 1302, although Windsor had no representation after that until the late fifteenth century and Newbury was dropped entirely after the parliament of 1337. Abingdon did send a single representative to that parliament but did not again send a representative until it became a borough in 1558. The members who sat for Berkshire as knights of the shire and represented the towns, especially in the later sixteenth century, were almost invariably local gentry, making a close link between the county families and the lawmakers.
In the first year of the reign of Edward II, the king bestowed the honour and castle of Wallingford on his favourite, Piers Gaveston, and a great tournament was held there to celebrate the marriage of his niece, Margaret, to Gaveston. After Gaveston’s fall, Wallingford returned to the Crown. Always in need of sources of revenue, Edward appropriated the lands of the disgraced Knights Templar in Berkshire at Bisham and Templeton in 1310.During the later struggles between the king and Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, both Windsor and Wallingford became targets of the rebels. The reign of Edward III began at Wallingford at the close of 1326 with Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer in attendance there at a great Christmas court. The adult Edward III preferred Windsor Castle and it was there he established the Order of the Garter and held the first ‘round table’ as a showcase of chivalry. He engaged William of Wickham to undertake major renovations of the castle. Berkshire was also the site of one of the great dynastic marriages of the fourteenth century, when Edward’s third son, John of Gaunt, married his kinswoman, Blanche of Lancaster, in Reading Abbey in 1359.
During the later fourteenth century, despite the frequent levies for the king’s French wars, Berkshire was less caught up in national affairs. The Peasants’ Revolt was fought elsewhere. Only at the turn of the fifteenth century did a royal palace in Berkshire again gain prominence. Henry IV and his family celebrated Christmas 1399 at Windsor, when the earls of Kent, Salisbury, and Huntingdon plotted ‘to falle on the kyng sodennly at Wyndesore under the coloure of mummers in Cristmasse tyme,’ in an attempt to murder him and his heirs and restore the deposed Richard II to the throne. Word of the plot reached the king, who was able to escape to London while the conspirators, thwarted of finding the king, visited Richard’s queen, who was then at Sonning, near Reading, and then marched north and west through the county through Wallingford, Abingdon, and Faringdon. The plot sputtered out in Cirencester.
In 1399, Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet and cousin of the new king’s Beaufort half siblings, became constable of Wallingford Castle and steward of the honours of Wallingford and St Valery. This mark of royal favour added to the income brought to him through his marriage with Maud, daughter and coheir of Sir John Burghersh of Ewelme, Oxfordshire. His lands in Berkshire helped him establish a power base between the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. He was sheriff of Berkshire and Oxfordshire twice (1400–1, 1403–4), and as one of the knights for Oxfordshire sat on many commissions dealing with Berkshire issues such as treason, Lollardy, and commissions of oyer and terminer. He was speaker of the House of Commons five times from 1407 to 1421. As a local landowner he joined the confraternity of the Holy Cross in St Helen’s Church, Abingdon. Chaucer thus became the first of the well-connected commoners who established themselves with the central government and received much of their income from land granted to them by the Crown in Berkshire. He died in 1434 and left his estates to his only child, Alice, by now married to her third husband William, then earl but later duke of Suffolk. On 19 January 1439/40 Alice, along with her brother-in-law from her first marriage, William Phelip, and Suffolk became joint constable of Wallingford Castle, and after Suffolk’s death in 1450 she became sole constable. Alice died a very wealthy widow in 1475 and is buried with her father in the Ewelme parish church.
The struggles of the Wars of the Roses were largely conducted away from Berkshire. Only very late in the civil war, just before the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, was there any action in the county, when Edward IV rallied his troops at Windsor and marched west through Abingdon to cut off Henry VI and Queen Margaret advancing from the west. After the accession of Richard III there was a brief flurry of support from Berkshire gentry (including a member of the Norris family) in support of Henry of Richmond; this quickly subsided when Francis, Lord Lovell, one of Richard’s closest advisors, was made constable of Wallingford in August 1483. Lovell and John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, Alice Chaucer’s son, were part of the refounding of the confraternity of the Holy Cross in St Helen’s, Abingdon, in the next year.
The early sixteenth century seems to have been relatively prosperous for the county, judging from John Leland’s observations in 1542 that describe the 'fruitful ground of corn' around Wallingford, the 'plentiful wheat and barley' of the Vale of the White Horse, and the valuable timber of the eastern part of the county. Windsor became the favourite country palace of the early Tudors and as one historian has put it, ‘throughout the reign of Henry VII Berkshire was little more than the home county of the royal household.’
It was also a favourite place for the young Henry VIII, with many lavish entertainments and tournaments being staged there. He established young Princess Mary in her own household in the manor of Ditton Park, just over the river in Buckinghamshire.
But with the Dissolution of the monasteries, the patterns of landholding and the politics of the county changed profoundly. The effect of the destruction of the abbeys of Abingdon and Reading on their towns and parishes will be discussed in more detail below. However, several men associated with Thomas Cromwell and later with the court of Augmentation in the last years of the reign of the old king and Edward’s reign became members of parliament for Berkshire borough ridings – Sir John Mason, Richard Amyce, and Thomas Vachell. Mason and Vachell, both Berkshire men, were instrumental in easing the transition of Abingdon from a vassal of the abbey to a prosperous borough, while Vachell’s role in Reading was, as we will see, more equivocal.
Berkshire did not escape the more disturbing results of the religious changes. There had been a history of Lollardy in the county. In July 1389 William Rammesbury of Sonning confessed his Lollardy in the bishop of Salisbury’s court and was given extraordinary penances. One of these refers to the mimetic performances in churches and so appears in these records. In 1499 three parishioners of St Laurence’s, Reading, and two of St Giles’, Reading, were tried and convicted of heresy by the bishop of Salisbury and forced to publicly renounce their sins. The parishioners of St Laurence’s, John and Alice Bisshopp, a tanner and his wife, and John Roye, after a general humiliation in the market place, were compelled on Palm Sunday ‘to walk in the festive procession round the parish of St Laurence bearing penitential faggots and torches.’ This picture of convicted Lollards walking with their fellow parishioners in an elaborate ceremony of late medieval English Catholicism is a paradigm for the way in which the tensions of the religious changes were expressed in Berkshire, and particularly in Reading. Reading Abbey was a major symbol of the old religion – a pilgrim site, a centre of learning, and a major political power – yet in 1528 Thomas Garrard (Garrett), called by the biographer of John Taverner, the musician, ‘a clandestine purveyor of heretical books,’ was said to have sold sixty Lutheran texts to the prior of the abbey, John Shirburne. During the dissolution of the two great abbeys, Thomas Cromwell himself took a personal interest in the Berkshire abbeys and was supported by local magnates who shared his Protestant convictions. On the other hand, the last abbot of Reading, Hugh Faringdon (né Cook), John Eynon, the priest of St Giles’ parish, and John Rugge, a former prebendary of Salisbury, were executed for treason, probably in the Forbury or courtyard of Reading Abbey, on 14 November 1539. Their sedition had been to uphold papal supremacy. In 1544 there were further executions, this time of Protestants in Windsor. In 1549 the small enclosure risings in Berkshire that paralleled Kett’s more substantial rebellions in Norfolk and the West Country were brutally put down. Two weavers of Newbury and a shoemaker of Reading were arrested in November 1549 for ‘machinating and compassing the king’s death’ and executed in Reading. Although the 1549 risings were seemingly sparked by economic grievances and a sense that the country was being mismanaged by the Protector, serious arguments have been made relating the risings to ‘popular ecclesiastical conservatism.’ This may also be reflected in the response of the men of Berkshire to Mary’s declaration of her intention to rule. They participated with enthusiasm in the march with men from Buckinghamshire and Middlesex to London in support of the ‘the Queen’s Majestes person and her tytle’ on 16 July 1553.
Similar religious conservatism advanced the career of Sir Francis Englefield, another member of the Berkshire gentry whose fortunes were greatly enhanced by gifts from the Crown. Englefield is in the southern part of Berkshire in the valley of the Kennet west of Reading. Sir Francis’ grandfather, Sir Thomas, had been advisor to Henry VII and speaker of the Commons in 1497 and 1510. His father had been sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire in 1519. Francis came in to his estates in 1543 and at about the same time married Katherine Fettiplace, a member of a gentry family from northern Berkshire associated with two villages with records in this collection – Appleton and Childrey. In 1547 he served as sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, following in his father’s footsteps. In 1549 he became a member of Princess Mary’s household and faced several interrogations from the duke of Northumberland’s council about the celebration of Catholic rites in her household. With her succession, his career prospered and he became a member of her privy council 25 July 1553. He was elected to four of the five Marian parliaments from Berkshire and was made keeper of the dissolved abbey at Reading that the queen, following the lead of Thomas Seymour, retained as a Crown possession. With the accession of Elizabeth, Englefield went into exile on the Continent and his lands and offices of Berkshire once again returned to the royal gift.
Any lingering Catholic sympathies that may have existed in mid-century did not survive Mary’s death. During Elizabeth’s reign Berkshire was dominated by a tightly interwoven group of Protestant families closely tied to the Crown. Of the eighty-three members returned to the Elizabethan parliaments from Berkshire and the four boroughs of Abingdon, Reading, Wallingford, and New Windsor who were not burgesses elected by their towns, close to seventy-five percent were members of the Neville, Norris, Knollys, Unton, or Hoby families, were patronized by them, or were patronized by their patron and friend Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who held many of the influential royal appointed positions in the county. He was, for example, high steward of all four boroughs in the county – Abingdon, Reading, Wallingford, and New Windsor – for most of the reign. He was also the second husband of Lettice Knollys, countess of Essex, daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and mother of Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, who inherited many of his stepfather’s offices in the county on Leicester’s death in 1588. These members of the new Elizabethan aristocracy were joined in parliament, for the most part, by men elected from the boroughs who were equally strong followers of the new state church.
Of the families that became dominant in the county under Elizabeth, only two – the Nevilles and the Hobys – held the majority of their land in Berkshire. The Norris’ seat was at Rycote in Oxfordshire and Sir Francis Knollys’ principal residence was also in Oxfordshire, at Rotherfield Greys, just above the river near Henley. His son, Sir William, later the earl of Banbury, built the house where he frequently entertained the court at Caversham, again in Oxfordshire, just across the river from Reading. The Unton land spread north from their seat at Wadley near Faringdon into Oxfordshire and included the borough of Burford.
Sir Francis Knollys, a privy counsellor from the time of Elizabeth’s accession and Henry, Lord Norris, ‘were the two leading magnates in Berkshire and Oxfordshire.’ Earlier scholarship assumed that these two ambitious men, both with many sons, were rivals, but the more recent understanding, given their similar and strongly held Protestant opinions, is that they were more colleagues in the managing of the two counties. Sir Francis, his brother Henry, and four of his sons – Henry, William, Edward, and Robert – all sat in the parliament of 1572, the largest family group in the Commons. All represented constituencies in Berkshire or Oxfordshire. The eldest, Henry, who pre-deceased his father, was elected member of parliament for Reading in 1563 and for the next twenty-three years he and his brother Robert sat in parliament as one of the members for that constituency. William, the second son, who became his father’s heir, represented an Oxfordshire constituency until he was elevated to the peerage in 1603. Richard, the fifth son, represented Wallingford in the parliaments of 1584 and 1586. Richard’s son Robert was the member of parliament for Abingdon in the parliaments of 1614, 1624, 1625, and 1626, the county in 1621, and Wallingford in 1628. He acquired the estate of his uncle Henry near Stanford in the Vale and, along with another member of the Knollyses called Francis, was a generous contributor to the Stanford parish.
The Norris family did not have the extended parliamentary tradition of the Knollyses. Lord Norris had been the member for Berkshire in the first Edwardian parliament and was the member for Oxfordshire in 1571. He became Lord Norris in 1572. His first son William was one of the county members in 1572, but was killed in Ireland before the end of that parliament, and his fourth son Henry was the county member in the parliaments of 1589 and 1597.
Both Francis Knollys and Henry Norris received royal favour and the land on which their fortunes were based because of the personal relationship between Queen Elizabeth and their wives. Katherine, Lady Knollys, was the daughter of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary and William Carey, a Berkshire gentleman, and so the queen’s first cousin. She was a favourite lady of the bedchamber until her death in 1569, when the queen paid for her funeral in Westminster Abbey. Much of the land that provided Sir Francis with his income came to him as gifts from Elizabeth to her ‘beloved kinswoman.’ Lord Norris enjoyed the queen’s favour in large part because of her friendship with his wife Margery, or Margaret, the second daughter and coheir of Lord Williams of Thame. Williams, as Sir John Williams, had had custody of Elizabeth on several occasions during the reign of Mary and entertained her at Rycote on her way from the Tower to Woodstock. Whether Elizabeth met Margery Williams then or at some other time we cannot know, but we do know that Margery was a royal favourite and given the name ‘my crow’ because she was very dark. Rycote was Elizabeth’s destination after her onerous visits to Oxford in 1566 and again in 1592. Lord and Lady Norris’ masque in her honour in which they present the virtues of their many military sons will be included in the REED Oxfordshire collection.
The Neville family, with most of their land concentrated in the southeast of the county not far from Windsor, was the third most powerful family in Berkshire. Sir Henry Neville (1520–93) was the son of Sir Edward Neville, a favourite of Henry VIII, who became embroiled in the alleged plot of Henry Courtenay, marques of Exeter, and Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, in support of Reginald, Cardinal Pole, and his campaign to challenge the king’s declaration of himself as head of the church. Neville was beheaded but his son Henry, the king’s godson, was allowed to inherit his father’s estates. Unlike his father, Henry did not challenge the break from Rome and, indeed, in later life was seen to be a staunch ‘favourer of religion,’ a term used in contemporary documents for those following the Protestant cause. By 1546 he was a groom of the privy chamber and in Edward’s reign he associated himself with Northumberland’s faction. As earl of Warwick, John Dudley made Neville a gentleman of the privy chamber – along with ‘his friend Henry Sidney’ – and Neville was knighted the following year, when Warwick made himself duke of Northumberland. Sir Henry Neville was one of the members of parliament for Berkshire in the first four Elizabethan parliaments. He married three times – first Winnifred Loss, through whom he acquired the manors of Billingbear, Culham, Waltham St Lawrence, Warfied, and Wargrave near Windsor. Her father had been ‘a surveyor of augmentations and a great speculator in ex-monastic properties.’ Neville’s second wife was Elizabeth Gresham, daughter of Sir John Gresham, who bore him six children. Two of his four sons, Henry and Edward, followed their father to parliament as members for New Windsor. His third wife was Elizabeth Bacon, daughter of Nicholas Bacon and his wife Anne Cooke. This made a strong family connection between the Nevilles and the Hobys of Bisham (a formerly royal property on the Thames north of the Neville estates) since Thomas Hoby’s wife was another of the Cooke sisters. The Cooke sisters had been part of the queen’s childhood and so also had a special claim on her affections. After Thomas Hoby’s death Elizabeth married John, Lord Russell, and it is as his widow that Lady Russell presented an entertainment to the queen at Bisham in 1592. That entertainment is part of this collection.
The last important county family were the Untons. The first Tudor Unton of any prominence, Thomas, had been sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire and was knighted at the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533. His elder son Alexander was knighted at the coronation of Edward VI, and Edward, his grandson and Alexander’s eldest son, was knighted at the coronation of Elizabeth. Their seat at Wadley was in the northwest edge of the county near Faringdon. Edward succeeded to the family estates after Alexander’s death. He was the member of parliament for Malmesbury in 1554, Oxfordshire in 1563, and Berkshire in 1572. He married Anne Dudley, the eldest daughter of Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector, and the widow of John Dudley, earl of Warwick. She was styled the countess of Warwick all her life. She and her sisters, like the Cooke sisters, had been highly educated and were part of the coterie of intelligent and lively Protestant women that included Princess Elizabeth, giving the Elizabethan Unton family a special tie to the queen as well. Sir Edward and Lady Anne entertained Elizabeth during her progresses of 1572, 1574, and 1575. The wider Dudley connection continued to take an interest in Anne Seymour and her children by her second marriage. In this way the Unton children had access to the households of Lady Mary, wife of Sir Henry Sidney and mother of Sir Philip Sidney, the earl of Leicester, Catherine, wife of Henry Hastings, earl of Huntingdon, and Ambrose, earl of Warwick. The Unton estates eventually came to Edward’s second son, Sir Henry, who had been knighted by Leicester at Zutphen and had been one of ‘knights and his kindred and friends’ who walked in Philip Sidney’s funeral procession in February 1587. He served as the member for Berkshire in the parliament of 1593. Through the patronage of Essex he became the ambassador to France in 1595 and died there in 1596.
These five interconnected families, four with strong personal ties to the queen and all with ties to the earl of Leicester, dominated the life of Elizabethan Berkshire, serving their turns as members of parliament, sheriffs, justices of the peace, commissioners for ecclesiastical causes, lords lieutenant and, after Leicester’s death, high stewards of the four boroughs. All were strongly Protestant in religion and personally committed to the queen and her government. Francis Knollys was a member of that government from her accession to his death in 1596, when his offices were taken over by his second son and heir, William. Whatever popular support there may have been mid-century for the old religion, Berkshire, from the accession of Elizabeth, was in the hands of members of the ruling Protestant oligarchy.
But this dominance began to wane in the last years of the old queen and into the reign of James I. Although all managed to escape with their lives, Sir William Knollys, Sir Francis Knollys the younger, and Sir Henry Neville the younger were close enough to Essex to be suspected in his rebellion. With Elizabeth’s death the pattern of power in the county became less clear. Of the Elizabethan families, only the Knollys continued to hold power. William became first Baron Knollys of Greys, then Lord Wallingford, and finally the earl of Banbury. He continued to have influence in both court and the counties of Berkshire and Oxford, being lord lieutenant of the two counties from 1596 until his death, and high steward of Reading, Abingdon, and Wallingford in Berkshire, and Banbury and Oxford in Oxfordshire. He lost favour with the fall of his father-in-law, Thomas Howard, first earl of Suffolk, and withdrew from the court after 1619. His brother Francis was the member of parliament for Berkshire in the parliaments of 1604 and 1625 and for Reading in 1640. A very old man by this time, Sir Francis had become a staunch supporter of the parliamentary side.
Under Elizabeth the county had prospered so that, by the early seventeenth century, Berkshire was the sixth richest county in the kingdom. The reign of James was a relatively quiet one in Berkshire, but during the reign of Charles I, its strategic position once again made it the centre of the Civil War that was to come. The military importance of the county, unnoticed for almost four hundred years, re‑emerged during the early stages of the war. It was an important link for Charles between London and his stronghold in Oxford. The river and its crucial bridges provided an important defence against the parliamentary forces advancing from London. However, when Reading was besieged by the parliamentary army in the spring of 1643 and surrendered on 27 April, the king withdrew to Oxford. By the end of that year, the tide of events had turned and the royalist forces were once again in control of much of Berkshire. The parliamentary forces withdrew from Reading and the town was briefly recaptured by the royalists, only to be surrendered again in May 1644. Wallingford Castle was one of the last fortresses in the kingdom to hold out for Charles I. It was later destroyed by order of the Commonwealth government so that only a ruin remains today. The effect of the Civil War on an already faltering economy was devastating. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that some measure of prosperity returned to the county.
Abingdon was not incorporated until in 1556, eighteen years after the dissolution of the abbey that had dominated the ‘vill’ for over 600 years. The chamberlains' accounts, which begin in 1557, are therefore the accounts of a very new corporation. Until Dissolution, the history of the town of Abingdon is largely the history of the abbey. The monastery was first founded c 680–700 but fell to the Danes in the ninth century. About 954, King Edred chose Ethelwold, then a monk at Glastonbury and destined to be bishop of Winchester, to refound the abbey and become its first abbot. Although small and poor, the new abbey – and its abbot – played an important part in the tenth‑century monastic revival in England. Ethelwold was a friend and disciple of the great Dunstan at Glastonbury and shared Dunstan's reforming zeal. Aware of the intellectual ferment on the Continent, Ethelwold sent Osgar, a trusted monk of Abingdon, to study at the great Benedictine house at Fleury, recently reformed under the influence of Cluny. When Ethelwold became bishop of Winchester in 963, Osgar succeeded him as abbot at Abingdon, where his experience at Fleury became an important influence on the life of Abingdon Abbey.
During the tenth century, the abbey came into the possession of seven manors in northern and western Berkshire – Cumnor, Barton, Marcham, Charney, Uffington, Lockinge with Farnborough, and Milton. To these were added, by the time of Edward the Confessor, Hanney and Goosey. After the Conquest the abbot became increasingly secular, building his own private lodgings and, by the early twelfth century, entertaining as a secular magnate. During this same period, new manors accrued to officials of the abbey – Chievely and Welford to the chamberlain, and Winkfield, Whistley, Hurst, and the 'vill' of Abingdon itself to the kitchener. All these estates were managed in a manner that allowed the abbey to survive a turbulent fourteenth century of misrule, plague, and a long series of lawsuits with the townspeople of Abingdon and other tenants from 1345 on. The relationship between the abbey and its tenants, particularly the 'vill' of Abingdon, was an acrimonious one. The matter at issue was whether the townspeople of Abingdon, by the fourteenth century a community prospering on the wool trade, had the rights of burghers to order their lives and markets, or whether they were merely tenants of the abbot. Parliament found for the abbot, and the final century and a half of the life of the abbey was spent in constant tension between the townspeople and the abbot who acted as secular lord.
By the end of the fourteenth century a new building project was in hand, employing ‘master masons of such eminence that Abingdon must have been in the van of architectural developments and achievements in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.’ During the fifteenth century the abbots of Abingdon, as 'mitred abbot[s]' (that is, abbots with secular jurisdictions similar to bishops), played important roles in national affairs. Abbot John Sante (1468–96), for example, was a ‘notable diplomat in the reigns of Edward IV and Henry VII, and a papal nuncio.’
Abingdon was the first of the greater English abbeys to be dissolved on 9 February 1537/8. At that time it was the sixth wealthiest monastery in the kingdom. Demolition of the buildings started soon afterwards and the townspeople of Abingdon were left to establish a new life without the force that had dominated their lives for centuries. A major source of tension had been a dispute at the end of the fourteenth century between the abbot and the neighbouring parish church of St Helen over a burial ground. In default of any town government, the focus of communal life in the town was the parish of St Helen, and thus a dispute between the parish and the abbey was but another aspect of the quarrel between the town and the abbey.
The parish of St Helen had two medieval guilds associated with it. The first, the guild of Our Lady, was founded in 1247 and seems to have been a typical religious guild of the period. The second, the fraternity of the Holy Cross, is harder to trace and even harder to define. However, by 1436 when its records begin, it had undertaken to rebuild the bridges across the Thames at Abingdon and Culham. The success of this enterprise enhanced the reputation of the fraternity and led to its incorporation by royal charter in 1441. Along with such regular concerns of religious guilds as the provision of almshouses and the care of the ill and the indigent, this fraternity continued its quasi‑municipal concerns by adding three extra flood arches to Abingdon bridge. Meetings of the fraternity or 'Fellowship' were held in a little room called the Exchequer, over the north porch of St Helen's Church. Various lands, properties, and money accrued to the fraternity during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Donations from all over the country were stimulated by the action of the first two benefactors, Sir John Golafre and William Dyer, vicar of Bray, early in the reign of Henry VI. During the late fifteenth century, the fraternity was a powerful organization, counting among its members such prominent local magnates as John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, and Francis, Lord Lovell. It also became recognized as the representative of the townspeople in their struggles with the abbey. In 1520 the fraternity procured a renewed charter granting it a three days' fair from Henry VIII.
Both Abingdon guilds were suppressed by legislation passed by the parliament of Edward VI in 1548. There followed a period of hiatus in the life of the town, but fortunately a native son, Sir John Mason, one of Cromwell’s circle and a man who survived to serve all four Tudor monarchs as counsellor and ambassador, established a way forward. Mason, according the letters patent dated 28 December 1551, took stewardship of the dissolved abbey for the court of Augmentations. This follows hard on a record of an incident of public disturbance in the town that had occurred the month before, which required a special commission of oyer and terminer to investigate. Mason had been the member of parliament for Reading in 1547. Over the next few years he would manage the transition of the governing structures of Abingdon, with the help of Roger Amyce, who himself had been the member for Reading in the 1545 parliament, and would represent Windsor in the first Marian parliament, and again in 1559. In 1553 an act of the privy council restored ‘to the townesmen of Abendon of suche landes as, having byn appointed for the maintenaunce of ij bridges and the sustentacion of certaine poore men, were taken lately from them to the Kinges Majesties behoof uppon coullour that the same were within thact of Chaunteries.’ That same year Christ’s Hospital was established, taking over the functions of the fraternity of the Holy Cross with Mason as its first master. Four of the last masters of the fraternity were among the governors of the hospital, as were two of the principal officials of the guild of Our Lady. During the next three years the townspeople sought incorporation and were assisted in their work by the survey made by Roger Amyce in 1554. The town received incorporation in 1556, at which time two of the same four masters of the dissolved fraternity became members of the town council. By this transition the civil functions of the fraternity were vested in the new town council and the charitable functions in the new hospital. From the accounts of the incorporated town contained in this collection, it is clear that Abingdon was a favourite stopping place for travelling players following the road west, a route made possible by the bridges maintained for so many years by the fraternity. An unusually large number of visits from players of local and national patrons appear in the chamberlains’ accounts that survive from 1557–88.
For the rest of our period the town of Abingdon maintained itself as a small wool‑manufacturing borough. Although an attempt was made in 1559 to organize the craft guilds, little came of the scheme. Local pride continued to be vested in the lovely parish church of St Helen and the prosperous charitable foundation of Christ's Hospital.
During the period covered by this collection of documents, Reading, situated near the confluence of the Thames and the Kennet, became the undisputed leading town of the county. The physical nature of the town, built on the marshy banks of the Kennet, dictated much of its history. There were nineteen bridges within the town – many short spans crossing branches of the slow moving river – that had to be maintained. The higher ground had been claimed by the Benedictine abbey. The founder of the abbey, Henry I, intended his foundation to be a great pilgrimage site. He presented it with the hand of St James in 1126 and, although that relic remained its greatest treasure until Dissolution, by the end of the twelfth century it had acquired 241 other relics. Jeanette Martin provides the list ‘29 of Our Lord, 6 of the Virgin, 19 of the patriarchs and prophets, 14 of apostles, 73 of martyrs, 51 of confessors, and 49 of virgins.’ Henry I was buried before the high altar after his death in Normandy in 1135, and frequent parliaments were held in the abbey over the centuries. Over the years the library grew in importance and in November 1530, as the king sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon, ‘an inventory and books’ were sent from the abbey to Hampton Court ‘to aid the king’s search for arguments favourable to his cause.’ The abbot held two large fairs a year in its forecourt, the Forbury: one granted by Henry II that lasted four days, around the feast of St James, 25–8 July, and the second granted by King John that lasted four days, around the feast of Sts Phillip and James (Jacob), 30 April–3 May. The traffic in pilgrims and the fame of the ancient fairs made Reading an important destination for many travellers from its founding.
Like Abingdon, until Dissolution the town of Reading lived under the shadow of its abbey. However, unlike the townspeople of Abingdon, those of Reading early came to a sometimes uneasy accommodation with their abbot. On 1 February 1253/4, the settlement of a suit brought by the burgesses against the abbot led to an agreement whereby the abbot conceded the right of the townspeople to hold a corn market and to have a guild hall. The abbot annually nominated a burgess to be ‘Custos Gildae.’ This arrangement held until 24 April 1542 when, after several years of diplomacy, the burgesses of Reading persuaded Henry VIII to recognize the Gild Merchant as the corporate community of Reading, confirming all former charters. Strictly speaking, then, although the early chamberlains' accounts refer to the leading burgess as ‘Mr Mayor,’ he was ‘Mayre of the Gilde Merchaunte of the burghe of Redyng’ until the town was incorporated.
The uncertain standing of the chief burgess is clear from an answer made by Richard Cleche to a bill of complaint brought against him by John Thone, the abbot of Reading, around the turn of the sixteenth century. The abbot had defaulted in his duty and no ‘maister of the gilde otherwise called the Mayre’ had been appointed ‘by the space of three or four years.’ The affairs of the town were getting out of hand and the townspeople had elected Cleche to bring back some semblance of order, since for over a year ‘mysruled people dayly incresed and continued as carders, dicers, hasarders, vacabonds.’ The affair was eventually settled.
Small steps toward autonomy and true borough status were taken during our period. For example, in 1480 it was agreed that the common chest should pay the five pence annual tax to the abbot for every burgess in the borough. But the abbot continued to exercise jurisdiction in many ways. As late as 17 February 1519/20, Henry VIII confirmed articles for the regulation of the weavers' trade at Reading that empowered the abbot ‘to choose one person out of three who are to be yearly presented to him to be the keeper of the seal for sealing the cloth.’ However, the uncertain legal standing of the town made it an easy pawn in the complex game of power and wealth derived from property that was played out in Reading from just before the Dissolution until the ‘full’ charter of incorporation was granted to the town (by then boasting the earl of Leicester as its high steward) by Elizabeth in 1560.
Hugh Faringdon (né Cook), the last abbot of the Reading Abbey, had seen the dangers approaching and ‘attempted to minimise threats to his abbey by appointing Cromwell steward of the abbey for life’ in 1536. Faringdon’s wooing of the chancellor had no effect on the fate of the abbey, but it did give Cromwell an interest in Reading, and in 1539, the year the abbey was dissolved, he had himself appointed steward of the borough and liberty of Reading. On 17 September of that year a local man, Thomas Vachell, who had been the member of parliament for Reading since 1529, joined two other close associates of Cromwell, Richard Pollard and Sir John Williams of Thame in Oxfordshire, when the inventory of the abbey was made. A month later, on 14 November, Abbot Hugh and two other priests were executed on the grounds of the abbey – a summary execution ordered by Cromwell and much criticized by later Catholic sympathizers.
Reading Abbey and all its riches now lay open to the men who surrounded Cromwell. Thomas Vachell was one and another was the shadowy figure of Sir William Penyson. According to the most recent historian of the abbey, Cecil Slade, early in 1540 these two men ‘were put in charge of the abbey, Vachell concentrating on its surviving portable wealth, Penyson on its buildings.’ By the end of July 1540 Cromwell had fallen, but Vachell and Penyson continued to control Reading and the dissolved abbey. Penyson was appointed in Cromwell’s place and later that year he and Vachell together selected William Edmunds as head of the Gild Merchant, from three nominees in ‘magna aula nuper Monasterii Radingie.’ By the next year Penyson has disappeared from the records, and Vachell alone acted for the king in choosing Richard Turner as ‘mayor.’
The riches from the sale of the abbey assets that Vachell and Penyson and those associated with them were accruing were not the chief concern of the members of the Gild Merchant. Their aim was to acquire a charter of incorporation that would allow them to control their own affairs in the town, without continuing interference from an external overlord. The initial leader of the struggle for independence was Richard Justice. The abbey was dissolved in mid-September 1539 and on 9 October Vachell, acting as Cromwell’s deputy, appointed Justice ‘mayor.’ He was the son of Henry Justice, a burgess and one of the abbot’s bailiffs, brother of Thomas Justice, of New College, Oxford, and vicar of St Laurence’s parish from 1502–11. In October and December that year, under Justice’s leadership, the Gild admitted five men – John Appowell, Hugh Langley, William Edmundes, John Bell, and Robert Bowyer (Boyer) – ‘of whom the latter three were to take leading roles in the conduct of the borough’s affairs’ in the mid-century. William Edmunds, the man Penyson and Vachell would choose as ‘mayor’ in 1541, would prove to be particularly important. He was a notary and a parishioner of St Laurence’s parish, being responsible for the important inventory of the parish goods in 1517 and serving as churchwarden from 1518–20. In 1523 he became one of the members of parliament for the borough. From 1523–41 he was clerk of the peace for Berkshire. In 1529 Abbot Hugh made him ‘under-steward for life of the monastery’s possessions in Berkshire.’ Edmunds had experience and he had connections. These he put to the disposal of the Gild. Led by Mayor Richard Justice, the Gild in 1540 petitioned the king for a charter when he came to stay in new royal residence; Edmonds ‘almost certainly’ had drawn up the petition. No action was taken until 1541. That year, Vachell chose a very senior burgess, Richard Turner, as ‘mayor.’ Turner was by no means merely a tool for Vachell’s ambitions. He had already been ‘mayor’ five times since 1523 and was a veteran in the struggle for municipal independence. He joined with Edmunds and Justice in renewing the petition to the king which was at last successful. Henry granted the town its first limited charter and, for the first time, the Gild Merchant as the new burgess council was able to elect its own mayor. This was the first step toward the final incorporation of the town in 1560. As they moved toward that event, the burgesses of Reading were acutely aware of the need to cooperate with the Crown that had the power to grant their final wish. Particularly during the Protectorate, the leading citizens of Reading adhered to the new religion with open enthusiasm. For some it was a case of following their convictions, but the motivations of others were undoubtedly mixed. The reward they all sought was unequivocal incorporation that would grant them the powers to govern themselves.
The power of the pre-Reformation abbot extended over more than the commercial life of the Gild. He was also the rector of all three parishes in Reading, appointing vicars to serve the parishes. The relationship between the abbey and the parish of St Laurence was particularly close, since the vicar of St Laurence’s was a ‘corrody vicar’ – that is he lived in the abbey and was part of the abbot’s household. St Laurence’s was the largest parish in Reading, with more than 1,000 parishioners. It was physically adjacent to the abbey, with its west front opening on to the marketplace, but its eastern end enclosed within the precinct of the abbey in the ‘Forbury,’ or forecourt of the abbey itself. St Laurence’s stood at the gate of the abbey grounds and would literally have been the ‘gate-keeper’ for the many pilgrims thronging to venerate the relics of the abbey. The parish had relics of its own – a piece of the Holy Cross and a bone of St Laurence – and it had two chantry chapels that attracted the patronage of wealthy pilgrims. More than the other two parishes in Reading, St Laurence’s was dependant on the abbey for its leadership and for its continuing prosperity. This prosperity allowed the parish to create a rich tradition of parish drama and festive customs. This tradition could not survive the religious transformation of the mid-sixteenth century.
The first blow to St Laurence’s prosperity came with the physical seizure of the abbey precinct. During the last years of Henry’s reign the physical property of the abbey itself, and the local land holdings that had supported it, began to be distributed. Thomas Vachell received substantial property in the town, as did Sir William Gray, a prominent anti-papal satirist, writer of ballads, and associate of Cromwell, who would become the member of parliament for Reading in the first Edwardian parliament. In the physical property of the abbey itself, the Crown had acquired an asset that would be used by members of the royal house for close to a century. As Slade has put it, ‘The king could utilise high quality buildings at so convenient a distance from London, so royal accommodation was set up, concentrated on the former abbot’s lodging.’ The first ‘keeper of the mansion house or chief mansion of Reading’ was William Penyson, who also received the profits from the two annual fairs held in the Forbury – the courtyard behind St Laurence’s between the abbey gates and the handsome and capacious abbot’s house. At the same time stables for the royal horses were created in the dormitory of the former guesthouse, to the north of St Laurence’s, that would be used well into Stuart times. Henry VIII himself was there only briefly but his children would all spend more time there. More important, as Slade remarks, ‘even if used only occasionally, the royal accommodation had to be kept ready.’ It is perhaps as an agent of the king to supervise the property that Francis Knollys, then a minor official in the government of Edward VI, is mentioned as the ‘lessee of Reading Abbey’ in 1551. St Laurence’s now had as its nearest neighbour, not a ‘mother house’ sharing the profits from the pilgrims and a liturgical life, but a royal residence with government officials constantly in residence.
The second blow to St Laurence’s prosperity came with the Dissolution, under the Protectorate, of chantry chapels and religious guilds. Much of St Laurence’s income had come from the fees paid to the chantry chapels that were sustained by the Jesus Guild and the Guild of Our Lady. At the same time many of the money-making activities in the festive season were being curtailed. St Laurence’s was physically too close to the royal officials to flaunt the new prohibitions as the country parishes could. The last vicar appointed before Dissolution was a man called John Maynsforth, who had been curate and who served until his death in 1550. From 1550 until 1565 the parish had no vicar but was served by transient clergy. Although the vicars of St Laurence’s before Dissolution had often been Oxford scholars and absentees or pluralists, the abbey and its resources had always been there to provide continuity. After Dissolution the combination of declining income and no clerical leadership led to a severe decline in the place of St Laurence’s in the town, despite the fact that many of the leading citizens continued to be parishioners.
During the Protectorate, the ‘Manor and Lordship of Reading’ and profits from the two fairs held in the Forbury were acquired by Seymour himself. It is possible that he stayed in the ‘royal accommodation in the abbey’ during the summer of 1548. Shortly thereafter he and Sir Richard Sackville, of the court of Augmentation, ordered the roofs of the conventual buildings of the abbey – the church, the cloisters, the dormitory, and the chapter house – to be stripped for their lead. The task took three months to complete. This particularly spectacular act of plunder was included in the accusations against him when he fell from power and was beheaded in January 1552. The stripping of the roofs essentially laid the conventual buildings open to destruction both by the weather and the citizens of Reading, who used the stone for many purposes including the repair of the roads and bridges. One of the major uses of building material from the site was for the rebuilding of the parish church of St Mary organized by Thomas Vachell, himself a member of the parish. The enterprise was overseen by George Hynde – a minor official and plumber – and took three months to complete.
On 13 September 1551 Edward VI paid a formal visit to Reading when he was escorted by the mayor ‘thorough the towne into the kynges place.' After citing that record Slade adds, ‘i.e. royal accommodation in the abbey.’ Five months later, at Somerset’s death, the abbey property once more reverted to the Crown. Two years later Phillip and Mary visited Reading and again stayed on the abbey site. During Mary’s reign her privy counsellor, Sir Francis Englefield, was appointed keeper of the abbey, during which time the parish of St Laurence finally acquired a small churchyard of its own in the old ‘Forbury.’ When Englefield went into exile, the direct control of the abbey once again reverted to the Crown.
A further important aspect of the presence of the abbey in the life of Reading was the grammar school it had sponsored since its foundation. Martin has argued that the schoolmasters during the period of change had a profound impact on the future religious allegiance of the lay leadership of the town. During the period from 1530 until c 1546 the schoolmaster at Reading was the Humanist Leonard Cox, a friend and student of Melanchthon, a correspondent of Erasmus, and an important member the group of English schoolmasters dedicated to reform. He was followed as the master at Reading after several short incumbencies by the Protestant martyr Julins (Joscelin) Palmer, who had been a tutor in the household of Sir Francis Knollys. Martin suggests that the men who came to be the civic leaders in mid-century had been thoroughly grounded in reformed thinking from their days as schoolboys. Under the final charter of incorporation granted to the town by Elizabeth in 1560, the Crown devolved to the town the responsibility for the school, but also the property ‘all that our house tenement or messuage with the appurtences called the Scholehouse in Redinge aforesaide.’ The school house had been in the refectory of the former guesthouse next to St Laurence’s since about 1486. The town council made the final significant move of an important municipal site to the abbey grounds when in 1578 it moved the town hall from the old Greyfriars hall, where it had been since Dissolution, to the chamber above the schoolhouse.
Despite these moves to strengthen the civic presence in the old abbey grounds, the abbot’s house remained a royal residence that was used extensively during the reign of Elizabeth, either by the queen or her ministers, and had to be kept in a state of readiness. We know from Nichols that Elizabeth visited Reading in 1568, 1592, and 1602, and stayed there for a month in 1572, accompanied by Sir Francis Knollys. Extensive renovations were made to the chancel of St Laurence’s in 1568 to accommodate her. James I gave the site to Anne of Denmark and it is probable that she stayed there during her journeys to Bath, when she was entertained by William Knollys at Caversham. The royal stables continued to be in the grounds of the abbey throughout the Civil War. Sir Francis Knollys II is named in a lease for a property in the area called ‘Hole in the Wall’ in 1637. He seems to have taken up residence there, since the lease refers to him as ‘of Reading Abbey.’
Through all these shifts and changes St Laurence’s continued to function, despite its economic difficulties. But it was now restrained by two neighbours with whom it shared a wall and an open space. The church remained at the centre of power in Reading, but after 1539 neither neighbour favoured the festive customs of the old religion that had been so important to the lives of the people of St Laurence’s.
Reading emerged from the dominance of the abbey as a substantial town. In the Clark and Stack hierarchy it ranked as one of the second‑rank provincial centres of the day. Its prosperity grew from its location as a trading centre, acting as a corn market for the substantial barley crop of the northwestern regions of the county, and as a textile-manufacturing centre for the wool‑producing area to the west around Newbury and the Downs. Its importance as a wool centre was recognized in 1617 when it was made one of the twenty‑three wool staple towns of England. One historian has remarked that Reading might be considered ‘one of the relatively few urban success stories’ of the period, making the transition from abbey town to independent corporation without losing its economic momentum.
The new charter, dated September 1560, established the structures of the independent town government. The borough council was to consist of nine head burgesses (including the mayor), and twelve or more secondary burgesses. Corporately they could own lands and tenements and collect rents to maintain the borough and administer its affairs. The council was to appoint two treasurers, two serjeants at mace, and a clerk of the market, while the mayor was to be justice of the peace and appoint each year the necessary constables and watchmen. Among the responsibilities of the council was to be the oversight of the Saturday market and the four annual fairs, and the reception, from them, of the tolls that had formerly gone to the abbot. The council was to make and enforce by‑laws for all the tradesmen of the town. An undated ordinance of about a decade later organized the various craftsmen into four general companies – the Clothiers, the Mercers and Drapers, the Tanners and the Leatherfellers, and the Cutlers and Bellfounders.
The Reading textile industry shared the troubles that afflicted the wool trade generally during the sixteenth century, but it also shared the revival of that industry early in the seventeenth. However, the revival was short‑lived and three years after Reading was named a staple town, the trade depression of the 1620s took hold. The problems of the industry were compounded by outbreaks of the plague in 1625 and 1630–1. By the 1630s unemployment was a serious problem in Reading, as cloth lay unsold and the mayor of Reading sought freedom from the privy council to market their goods in Flanders. Nothing was able to stop the steady decline of prosperity and the steady increase of concern for the poor. By the end of our period the problems were further compounded by the occupation of the town by both the royalist and parliamentary troops, forcing loans and demanding quarters. The townspeople became preoccupied with their own troubles and suspicious of strangers who might become charges upon the town, as we can see from the increasing custom of paying the travelling players not to play but to leave town as quickly as possible. The successful prosperity of the mid‑sixteenth century had changed to defensive poverty a century later.
As we have seen, Wallingford was an important royal site in the Middle Ages, with an important royal residence there from the twelfth century. Borough account rolls survive from this period that record the stabling of the horses of Henry II. Similar records survive from the next century, but from the time of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the importance of the town declined. Part of the reason for this was the new bridges at Abingdon, built by the members of the fraternity of the Holy Cross, that diverted the main road from London to Gloucester, away from Wallingford. By 1438, where there had once been eleven parishes, there were only four, and by the time Leland visited the town in 1542 he recorded ‘there be but 3 poore Paroch Chirches in the Towne.’ A similar decline can be traced in the seventeenth century. Nine alehouses were suppressed by the corporation in 1621 and in 1636 the town was described as ‘a good market town and stands commodiously having two taverns.’
The earliest charters of the borough date from its days of royal favour under Henry II. These were confirmed by Henry III. In 1508, when the corporation statute book begins, the officers of the town were ‘the mayor, three aldermen (who controlled the gild), two bailiffs, two constables, two mace-bearers, two victual tasters, and two ale tasters,’ along with eleven other burgesses who held no office. It was this small oligarchy that constituted the group who elected the two members of parliament from the town. For most of the reign of Elizabeth the parliamentary representation for the borough was controlled by the Knollys and Norris families. When Sir William Knollys was first elevated to the peerage in 1616, he took the name of Lord Wallingford, and in 1621 he became high steward of the town for life.
From its position of royal importance in the high
Middle Ages, the town slipped into a situation
barely distinguishable from rural neighbours. In
1538–9 the honour of Wallingford (that comprised
not only the town but also the castle and manors
in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire,
Middlesex, Surrey, Hampshire, and Worcester) was
merged with the royal manor of Ewelme. At
that time the town council seized the opportunity
to abandon its Hocktide custom of dancing with its
Costes in The borrowyng of
certeyn Rayment for the
daunceres.’ During the late
sixteenth century only two fairs, which were held
on St Nicholas' Day and at midsummer, brought
revenue to the town. During the Civil War
Wallingford again became a strategic military site
and the castle, which had fallen into ruin, was
rebuilt. One of the
last actions of the war was the sixteen-week siege
of Wallingford by General Fairfax after the defeat
of the king at Naseby.
Windsor, or to give it its official name, the Royal Borough of New Windsor, came into being because of the castle built there by William the Conqueror. The original village, Old Windsor, was a royal residence in Anglo‑Saxon times, but the new rulers removed the site of the castle two miles northeast to its present location. The town grew up around the castle. By a charter first granted by Edward I in 1277, Windsor was a free borough with a guild merchant. The guild, the guild of the Holy Trinity, seems to have been a combination of the guild merchant situation in Reading and the religious guild model of Abingdon. Edward IV granted a charter of incorporation in 1467, providing for a mayor, bailiffs, and burgesses. This charter and the rights it granted to the town were all confirmed by Henry VII in 1500, Henry VIII in 1515, and by Edward VI in 1550. James I granted a new charter in 1603. All these confirmations highlight the interest taken by the reigning monarch in the town.
The major incident in the early modern history of Windsor was the trial and execution of the so-called ‘Windsor martyrs’ – Protestants who died for their cause in Windsor in 1544. The issue was the Act of the Six Articles, passed by the privy council after the fall of Cromwell, that upheld the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and denied the right of clergy to marry. The ringleader of the resistance to this or any measure that smacked of a return to Rome was one of the choirmen in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Robert Testwood. Implicated in his actions were Henry Filman, Anthony Pearson, a priest, and the organist of the Chapel Royal, John Merbecke. Evidence of their sacramentarian heresy was gathered and delivered to Stephen Gardiner, the conservative bishop of Winchester and a leading member of the failing Henry VIII’s privy council. Although Merbecke was pardoned, Testwood, Filman, and Pearson were eventually burned at the stake in Windsor.
Elizabethan Windsor was under the strong influence of the earl of Leicester who, besides other offices related to the castle and the royal forest, was the high steward of the borough until his death in 1586, when he was succeeded by Henry Neville. The town does not seem to have been independently prosperous. Then, as now, it lived under the skirts of the castle and had only a small cloth trade to supplement its role of providing services for the royal establishment, and the thriving school across the river at Eton. Like Wallingford, Windsor had more in common with the neighbouring country parishes and villages than it did with the larger abbey towns.
The early records of Newbury are lost and, although it was an important town near the eastern ford of the Kennet and the crossroads of routes from east to west and south, it is unclear whether it was a borough in the early period. As we have seen, it sent members to the parliament in 1275, but had no representation after 1337. The most important institution in medieval Newbury was the large hospital of St Bartholomew’s that survived Dissolution to be taken over by the townspeople, as the charitable functions of the guild of the Holy Trinity in Abingdon were taken over by Christ’s Hospital. From the first extant charter of 1596, it is clear that master clothiers controlled the town. Unfortunately, no town records survive for our period. The only evidence that does survive from Newbury is the curious case in the ecclesiastical courts of the hapless town musician, Phillip Holmes, who was forced to lead a party of drunkards in procession through the churchyard of the parish church, during which there was an assault. The accounts of the churchwardens of the parish of St Nicholas begin in 1601, and until 1631 record receipts from a church ale held in the guildhall.
Neighbouring Thatcham, although not mentioned as a borough in Domesday, had some minor attributes of a borough during the Middle Ages, before it was given to Reading Abbey along with its market and fair. The only surviving evidence from our period from Thatcham is in the churchwardens’ accounts of St Mary’s parish church. Similarly, Wantage, in the Vale of the White Horse, was a settlement of some importance in the Anglo-Saxon period, but became simply a manor with a small market town held by various royal favourites, including Alice Perrers, Edward III’s mistress. Only the records of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul survive from our period.
Despite the political and economic dominance of the royal court and the abbeys, Berkshire was essentially a rural county. Then, as now, its small towns and villages lived separate lives of their own tied to the land and its production. There are four natural divisions in the county: the Vale of the White Horse on the north, a rich agricultural area; the grazing land of the stony Berkshire Downs; the valley of the Kennet to the southwest, with its secret corners toward the Wiltshire border; and the forested area stretching from the Kennet to the Thames including, besides Windsor Forest itself, stands of woods near Wargrave, Sonning, Swallowfield, Bucklebury, and Aldermaston. Evidence for some kind of dramatic or musical activity survives from thirty different parishes in the county, ranging from the 'urban' parishes of St Laurence's, Reading, and St Helen's, Abingdon, to tiny country villages such as Ashampstead and Longcot. The evidence for nine parishes is found only in the act books of the ecclesiastical courts of the archdeacon of Berkshire and the dean of Salisbury. Evidence from one parish, Cookham, comes from a manor court roll, another parish, West Wittenham (now Long Wittenham), from the rolls of Exeter College, Oxford, and important fourteenth-century evidence for Sonning from the register of John Waltham, bishop of Salisbury (1388–95). However, the vast majority of the evidence comes from the churchwardens' accounts of twenty separate parishes. Each parish has a different history and different customs, but as the wardens of each carefully recorded their receipts and expenditures, they incidentally preserved for us shards of evidence of folk drama and other activity in Berkshire.
The survival of the evidence owes much to the dedication of local antiquarians. Arthur Preston, both mayor of Abingdon and churchwarden of St Helen's, saw that the manuscripts of both corporation and parish were preserved and wrote much about the district. Charles Kerry, curate of St Laurence's, Reading, lovingly worked over the churchwardens' books and published a history of the parish in 1883, which he dedicated to the mayor and the town council. Some antiquarians were even more ambitious. Two eighteenth‑century gentlemen, one called Richards and another called Mores, sent round a questionnaire to all the Berkshire parishes, inquiring about local customs. The answers are compiled in large scrap‑book collections in the British Library and the Reading Public Library. From the answers to question fourteen, 'What wakes, parish feasts, doles, or processions are observed in the parish, and on what days?,' it is possible to detect some eighteenth‑century survivals that may reflect earlier activity. Local parish histories abound from Berkshire and are often based as much on this type of evidence as they are on the transcriptions of original documents. Some amateur historians, frustrated by lack of local evidence, make assertions that are not borne out by the sparse facts available. Nevertheless, much that might have been destroyed has been preserved, restored, and made available for research through the efforts and concerns of parish antiquarians.
Since 1994 the Berkshire Record Society has been publishing scholarly editions of surviving county records. Eighteen editions had been published by 2017, in twenty-four volumes. The two collections of most interest for mimetic entries before 1642 are volumes six and seven, Reading Gild Accounts 1357–1516 (2002), edited by Cecil Slade, and volumes nineteen and twenty, Reading St Laurence Churchwardens’ Accounts 1498–1570 (2012), edited by Joan Dils. Both these editions provide the full context for the mimetic records that are edited here from those two important Reading sources.