A BRIEF HISTORY OF WALLINGFORD
Wallingford - an Ancient Borough
Wallingford is a town steeped in history. From the medieval bridge over the Thames to the grassy banks of its ancient fortifications, it proclaims a colourful past. It’s a town of surprises with the bustle of the Market Place and the tranquillity of the quiet back-streets - a place to explore.
It was the river that first attracted settlers to the area and in the Bronze and Iron Ages the rich soils encouraged farming communities. The Romans in turn left traces of occupation - burials, roads, coins and pottery, but it was left to the Anglo-Saxons to build the first town.
A large 6th century pagan cemetery found in Wallingford indicates the early presence of the Saxon newcomers but by the 9th century there was another invasion threat - this time from the Vikings. King Alfred, the Saxon king of Wessex, defeated the enemy but to defend his kingdom against further Viking attacks he built many fortified towns or burhs and here the story of the town really begins.
The Town is Born
Wallingford was one of Alfred's 'new towns', and the biggest: it was the same size as the king’s capital, Winchester. It was enclosed on three sides (the river formed the fourth defence) by earthen walls capped with a wooden palisade and surrounded by a wet moat - the remains can still be seen today around the Kinecroft. The original 9th century street layout is still largely unchanged. Coins were struck in Wallingford at a Royal Mint and Saxon kings held land in the town and kept soldiers here. By 1066, when the next invader arrived, Wallingford was the leading town in Berkshire.
1066 and All That!
In 1066, fresh from winning the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror came to Wallingford seeking a suitable place to cross the Thames with his army. Wigod, the lord of Wallingford, was a known Norman sympathiser and welcomed William. One of William's knights, Robert D'Oiley, married Wigod's daughter, Aldgitha, and on William's instructions the Normans began in 1067 to build a massive castle here which was to dominate the town's history for the next 600 years. For their co-operation, the people of Wallingford were given an extra hour before curfew - 9pm instead of 8pm - so the curfew bell still tolls just before nine, declaring the king's ancient favour.
Granting of the Charter - 1155
The first phase of Wallingford Castle was complete by 1071 but it was later expanded to have three walls and ditches and to be one of the most impressive and powerful castles in England. During the 12th century civil war between Queen Matilda and her cousin Stephen, it was the chief stronghold of the Queen in central England and here the treaty that concluded the war was drawn up in 1153.
In 1155, Henry II held a Great Council at Wallingford. He openly rewarded the town for supporting his mother Matilda, by granting it a magnificent Charter of Liberties - one of the oldest in England. Together with many special privileges, this Charter allowed Wallingford to have its own Guild and Burgesses and to hold regular markets, traditions which continue to this day. The town’s regalia, including the 17th century silver-gilt mace, are still regularly used and are displayed in the Town Hall.
The Medieval Town
In the 13th century, Wallingford had 11 parishes, each with its own church - one of which was also the Priory, a cell of St Alban’s Abbey. Besides these there was a Hospital run by the Order of St John, a castle church and two gate chapels.
By the end of the next century, the ravages of the Black Death had taken their toll. At least a third of the townspeople died and only four churches were left in use. This, together with the building of a new bridge at Abingdon - an alternative route for traders - led eventually to an economic decline in the life of the town.
The castle belonged to the King but in the 14th century it became part of the Duchy of Cornwall, passing to the eldest son of the monarch. It witnessed frequent royal visitors and residents, including King John and his younger son, Richard Earl of Cornwall, who greatly extended it (those are his arms, right). Edward II gave it to his favourite, Piers Gaveston, who held a huge tournament in the castle ward in 1307. Edward II's wife, Isabella, plotted here against her husband with Roger Mortimer, who was involved in Edward's subsequent murder.
In later years, Edward the Black Prince kept Wallingford as his principal residence. Constables appointed to look after the castle included Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet Geoffrey, and William, Duke of Suffolk, who married Geoffrey’s grand-daughter Alice and was benefactor of the school and almshouses which are still in use in nearby Ewelme.
In the 15th century, Owen Tudor had the task of protecting the young King Henry VI who was tutored at Wallingford. Owen formed a liaison with Henry’s young widowed mother, Katherine of Valois, and from this affair came the great line of Tudor Kings of England.
Change & Decay
By the 16th century the castle was decaying. There was less need for strong castles in the more settled times of the Tudors and Henry VIII shipped timber and lead from Wallingford down river by barge to enlarge his castle at Windsor.
As we shall see, the castle’s final death knell was sounded a hundred years later in 1652.
Wallingford & the Civil War 1642-1651
After the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, London declared for Parliament and the King had to find a new place for his court. He chose Oxford and for the next four years it was his headquarters. Round the Royalist centre a ring of strongholds was established to protect the King. Wallingford was one of them - an important medieval castle re-fortified to meet the challenge of modern warfare. Colonel Blagge was appointed Governor of the castle with the task of improving its decaying defences. The outer moat was filled in, walls were repaired, and nearby All Hallows Church was pulled down to prevent its use as an enemy gun emplacement.
Wallingford Under Siege
By 1646, events had turned against the King. He was forced to leave Oxford, which was soon besieged. It held out until June 24th when the garrison of 3,000 men including the King’s nephews, Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice, were allowed to march out of the city with full honours. Now only Wallingford remained, its garrison faithfully holding the town and castle for the King under the leadership of Colonel Blagge.
On May 4th 1646 Thomas Fairfax had ordered troops to besiege Wallingford. Blagge threatened to set fire to Wallingford if the Parliamentary troops entered the town. Prolonged negotiations followed, with sporadic fighting, Blagge refusing to surrender without the King’s command. Terms were finally agreed and the Articles of Surrender were passed by the House of Commons on July 25th.
At this point, trouble seems to have broken out in the castle - Blagge’s men almost mutinied over lack of pay so the surrender date was brought forward by two days.
Surrender! - and After
So, on July 27th 1646, Colonel Blagge led his gallant garrison out of Wallingford Castle with full honours. They were allowed to march ten miles from the town before disbanding.
Wallingford Castle was garrisoned and used as a prison but in 1652, Cromwell’s Council of State decided it was too great a risk to remain. They ordered - and paid for - its total demolition. The castle stone was sold and some of it was used to build a new tower for St Mary’s church.
Eventually, Cromwell died and in 1660, Charles II was peacefully restored to the throne.
Wallingford - The Later Years
After the demolition of the castle, Wallingford settled down to its role as an ordinary market town. Its ironfounding, brewing and malting industries complemented the rural communities in the surrounding area and the last of these, malting, survived until very recently. The town's parish churches are much diminished in number - there are just three today - but they and the numerous non-conformist chapels are worth a visit.
St Leonard's is the earliest, with late Saxon work in the walls and Norman work inside. St Mary's was rebuilt in the 19th century but it retains the 17th century tower built from the castle stone. The monuments in the church reflect the many benefactors of the town. St Peter's is now redundant but it is notable for its 18th century architecture and spire and as the burial place of Judge William Blackstone, author of the famous law book, Commentaries on the Laws of England. This work was used by the founding fathers of America when they drew up the Constitution of the United States. Blackstone built and lived in Castle Priory, near St Peter's. The Baptist church opposite St Peter's is another 18th century building while the present Roman Catholic Church in the Market Place began life in 1799 as a Congregational chapel! The Methodist chapels belong to the Victorian era.
The railway came in 1866 in the form of the branch line from Cholsey and the ‘Bunk’, as it was known, continued until the Beeching axe fell in 1959. Now the Cholsey & Wallingford Railway Preservation Society has reinstated the passenger service.
Wallingford continues its tradition as a Market Town - today the medieval stalls have been replaced by a weekly Friday Market and a monthly Farmers' Market, plus an agreeable mixture of small businesses, long-established family shops and a supermarket. It also seems quite appropriate that there is a wealth of antique shops in the centre of the town and in the quiet back-streets to delight collectors and browsers with remnants of the past.
(Historic Wallingford - a Walk-round Guide priced £1.95; 1155 and All That! - the Story of Wallingford's 850-Year Old Charter priced £5.99; and Wallingford & the Civil War priced £2.75 are available from the Museum, Town Information Office, local bookshops or direct from the publishers, Pie Powder Press)
© Judy & Stuart Dewey 2006