Berkhamsted’s history in 5 key dates

First World War officer trainees take a break from trench digging on Berkhamsted Common

First World War officer trainees take a break from trench digging on Berkhamsted Common - Credit: Archant

Terror, trade, forbidden love and bravery – how just five dates tell something of the remarkable history of a small market town in Herts

Berkhamsted Castle ruins. The site was besieged by French King Louis in his attempt to take the Engl

Berkhamsted Castle ruins. The site was besieged by French King Louis in his attempt to take the English crown - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

1216: Siege on the castle

Rebel lords who had wanted King John overthrown offered the crown to Prince Louis, son of the French king. John was a weak leader – he had lost most of his lands in France, imposed punitive taxes, antagonised the church and alienated his barons, plunging England into civil war.

In October 1216, John died, and the crown passed to his nine-year-old son Henry III. Louis pressed his claim, invaded and took and held London.

At strategic Berkhamsted, Louis deployed his siege engines to the castle while his soldiers engaged in a policy of terror towards locals, killing, raping, thieving and burning. The siege lasted just two weeks. The French Chronicles recorded Louis’ army sending a continuous fire of destruction on to the castle walls. On December 20, Berkhamsted Castle was unexpectedly surrendered. It would take until 1227 to repair it.

The year following the siege Magna Carta was reissued to win over the rebel English barons from Prince Louis, who following defeats on land and sea, returned to France.

1218: Market day

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May 2018 will mark the 800th anniversary of the first written record of Berkhamsted Market when it was recorded that the market day had changed from Sunday to Monday. The market is older, being held under ‘custom,’ dating from before the Norman Conquest.

In medieval times traders would have sold their wares from stalls, but gradually these became small wooden huts, which would later develop into shops. Most sold crafts or produce, with trades in 1290 including, carpenter, wood turner, butcher, fishmonger, tailor, salter, glover and goldsmith.

Royal patronage allowed the market to flourish, providing spices, exotic goods, silks and delicate metal work for the wealthy. Both Henry II and Edward IV endorsed the town with royal charters.

1809: King’s liaisons dangereuses

Berkhamsted was an important post town on the coaching route from London to Birmingham. At its height in the 1820s a total of four mail coaches per day travelled in each direction along the Sparrows Herne Turnpike, the old A41. The Sparrows Herne Turnpike Trust was responsible for the 26 miles of road between Bushey and Aylesbury. It held its inaugural meeting in 1762 at the Kings Arms in Berkhamsted.

The legacy of the old coaching inns is still visible today - the Kings Arms still has its arched entrance to the former stables. As well as providing a resting place for travellers, coaching inns were hubs of community life, where inquests might be convened, auctions held, magistrates hold court and public meetings called.

As with many coaching inns, the Kings Arms is steeped in scandal. At the end of the 18th century, it was a favourite haunt of the rich. In 1809, the exiled King Louis XVIII of France began a liaison with the innkeeper’s daughter, Polly Page. The king’s minister, Count Talleyrand, was outraged - not because of the affair but because Polly was ‘paysan’ (a peasant).

1883: Harbinger of doom

The word ‘bourne’ is old Saxon for stream. Over the centuries the erratic flow of the prosaically- named Bourne Gutter gave rise to local legends. It is said to be a ‘woe-water’, its rising being the harbinger of disaster and war. It was recorded that it flowed its full length in 1879 when the harvest was decimated, and Britain went to war against the Zulu. It appeared again in 1883, 1897 and 1904.

Torrential rain in 2000 caused its reappearance in 2001, and it flowed in part in 2003 and 2007. Relatively dry years followed until the wet summers of 2012 and 2014 caused it to flow the following spring.

1914: War games

In 1914, with the development of trench warfare in the First World War, the common land above Berkhamsted was used as training grounds for the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps. Upwards of 12,000 men camped there, digging over 13 miles of trenches (around 600m can still be seen today) and practising attack and defence as well as the skills of battlefield command. The open common next to the dense woodland of Ashridge Forest provided an ideal terrain for military training for those who would go out to command troops.

Incredibly, the men who trained here and who were subsequently deployed to the Western Front wore no head protection other than a cloth cap. By 1915 lethal head wounds from shrapnel led to the introduction of the Brodie protective helmet made from manganese steel. Of the young men who trained on Berkhamsted Common, more than 2,000 were killed, with one in four having no known grave. A further 4,000 were wounded. Most of these casualties were on the Western Front, and for many of the Berkhamsted trainees, their baptism of fire would be the killing fields of the Somme in northern France in 1916. The names of the fallen are recorded on the Inns of Court OTC memorial on the common.

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