Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire

Part II:  Berkhamsted Castle

This is the second of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

When I visited Berkhamsted, rather than the town itself, my first stop were the ruins of the castle. As the reason for my visit was to pay my respects to Cecily Neville, the mother of Richard III, it was only polite to go to where she had resided.

The castle is located a bit away from the town, on higher ground, instead of the marshy river area.  Berkhamsted was an important strategic location, as it was on one of the main routes between London and the Midlands, approx. 30 miles (= 48 km) from the capital.

Don’t be confused by today’s entrance to the castle area.  You will pass the Keeper’s House, but this is only from the 19th century. Continue reading


Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part I

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire

Part I:  Historical background & References

This is the first of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. The posts are based on a talk I gave at the recent Ricardian convention at Albury, where members of the Richard III Society from Australia and New Zealand met.

Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted

A few years ago, while visiting the UK, I decided to go to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where the mother of Richard III, Cecily Neville, duchess of York, had resided for a long period.

(Great) Berkhamsted is a town in western Hertfordshire.  Not to be confused with Little Berkhamsted, a village, also in Hertfordshire, approx. 6 km east of Hatfield.  When we lived in central Hertfordshire for five years in the 1990s, Little Berkhamsted was much closer to home and easily visited.  However, a trip to the other Berkhamsted so far west had been in the too hard basket at that time!

It took the distance from Australia to put things into perspective.  So, when, many years later, I was going to drive from St Albans to Oxford, it was the perfect opportunity to make up for my earlier negligence.  In anticipation of my trip, I told some friends that I would be going to meet up with Cecily Neville for a coffee.

Cecily Neville

The name Berkhamsted is of Old English origin, Beorhðanstædæ.  The ending ‘-hamsted’ is straight-forward and translates to ‘homestead’ in Modern English.  However, it gets more tricky with the beginning ‘-berk’.  There are two explanations from which word this might be derived.  German speakers have a bit of an advantage, when it comes to understanding Old English.  Many Old English words have equivalents in modern German.  As do both the words that may have been responsible for “berk-“.

It could refer to birch trees, Old English berc or beorc, as in the German word Birke, making it the ‘birch-grown homestead’.[i]  The second explanation goes back to the Old English beorg, with its modern German equivalent Berg, which would give us a ‘homestead among the hills’[ii].  Both birch trees and hills can be found in the area, making either explanation equally feasible.  The first documented use of this name is in a will of the year 970.

Berkhamsted developed along what used to be the Roman Akeman Street, in the marshy area of the Bulbourne River (and nowadays the Grand Union Canal).  The Akeman Street connected two Roman capitals, Verulamium (modern day St Albans) and Corinium (Cirencester).  It might very well have been an older track, which was then developed into a road by the Romans.[iii]

This old linear structure of the town survives to this day.   In the wider area, the modern A41 follows the same course as the Roman road did.  These days, A41 bypasses the town, but that is just a fairly recent innovation.  If you follow the High Street, you can easily recognise the original route.

Incidentally, this is also the road I took on my travels.  From St Albans I drove to Hemel Hempstead, mastered the “Magic Roundabout” (I admit, this had given me sleepless nights in anticipation) and then on the A 41 until I came to the turnoff for the town centre.

Though neolithic finds and remains of Roman settlements have been discovered in the area, the town, the “homestead” of its name, seems to have only developed in the late Saxon period. This is supported by archaeological finds from that time.

The original manor of Berkhamsted covered what is now two parishes:   to the north, Berkhamsted St Mary, alias Northchurch, the original parish; and Berkhamsted St Peter, which is the location of the present town and the castle. This latter parish had been cut out of Berkhamsted St Mary, probably around the year 1100.  The Domesday Book mentions a priest, who probably served the church of St Mary in Northchurch, where parts of the walls of a small Saxon structure survive.

After the conquest, the centre of the town shifted from Northchurch to the present centre of town.  We know from the Domesday records that there were two late Saxon watermills, probably on the sites of the Upper and Lower Mills.  The Upper Mill supplied the castle with flour and was also known as Castle Mill.

Berkhamsted made its way into the history books after the Battle of Hastings.  Harold had been killed in the battle and Edgar Atheling[iv] was proclaimed king, but was never crowned. It was at Berkhamsted that he, together with several bishops and earls, surrendered to William of Normandy in early December 1066.  This opened the way for William to be crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of 1066. There is some discussion, whether this event took place at Berkhamsted, the town, or at Little Berkhamsted, the village, but most experts agree that it was the town.

Berkhamsted’s status as a town was recognised in 1156 by Henry II by a royal charter.  This charter confirmed the rights and privileges of the men and merchants of Berkhamsted, which they had enjoyed during previous reigns, going back as far as Edward the Confessor.  This gives a good indication that the borough and the market predate the conquest of 1066.  These rights and privileges included that the merchants of the town did not need to pay tolls and taxes anywhere in England, Normandy, Aquitaine and Anjou.

Its recognition by Henry II gave rise to the town’s prosperity.  It developed into an important, though probably undefended trading centre along this important route in the 12th and 13th century.

The local economy benefited.  Documents from the 13th century show a wide variety of trades, including carpenters, butchers, brewers, tailors, a goldsmith and a weaver and even a banker.  There was a forge in town.  It had a triangular market place and the property layout of a typical medieval market town.  The most important trade was the wool trade.  In one building, 173 High Street, timber structures dating back to the late 13th century were found, which seem to have belonged to a domestic aisled hall.  It must have belonged to someone quite wealthy, maybe a wool merchant.

Edward IV granted the town another Royal Charter, which prohibited that any other market town was to be set up within eleven miles.  This must have acknowledged and protected the role Berkhamsted played in the area.


References (for all three parts):

Brady, C., et al, Berkhamsted Conservation Area – Character Appraisal & Management Proposals, Built Environment & Management Service Ltd, 2012. Online available at URL:–history-final.pdf [last accessed 28 Nov. 2018]

Doggett, N., ‘The influence of the Dissolution on Hertfordshire’s towns in the sixteenth century’, in:  A County of Small Towns:  The development of Hertfordshire’s urban landscape to 1800, ed. by Terry Slater & Nigel Goose.  University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008, pp.333-361 (Berkhamsted School pp.335-336)

Falvey, H., ‘Crown Policy and Local Economic Context in the Berkhamsted Common Enclosure Dispute, 1618–42′, Rural History, Vol. 12, Issue 02 (Oct. 2001), pp 123 ­ 158.  DOI: 10.1017/S0956793300002417

Goodall, J., The English Castle: 1066-1650.  Paul Mellon Centre BA, 2011.  ISBN 9780300110586, p.189

Laynesmith, J., Cecily Duchess of York.  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

Laynesmith, J., ‘In the service of Cecily, duchess of York’, Ricardian Bulletin (Sept. 2017), pp.54-56

Lea, C., ‘Dr John Incent, Dean of St Paul’s 1540-45’, Your Berkhamstead (June 2011), pp.12-13

‘Berkhampstead St Peter: Introduction, honour, manor and castle’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, Vol. 2, ed. William Page. London, 1908, pp. 162-171. Available online at British History Online, URL:  [last accessed online 16 Oct. 2018]

Pearce, D.R.A., ‘The Vision of John Incent, Founder of the ‘Free Schole”, The Friends of St Peter’s Newsletter, No. 7 (Autumn 2017), p.3.  URL: [last accessed 30 Oct. 2018]

Remfrey, P.M., ‘Berkhamsted castle’, Anglo-Norman Castles.  URL:  [last accessed 1 Dec. 2018)

Rowe, A., “Berkhamsted”, in: Rowe, Anne, Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire.  University of Hertfordshire Press, 2009.  ISBN 9781905313488, pp.62-67

Sherwood, J., ‘Influences on the growth and development of medieval and early modern Berkhamsted’, in:  A County of Small Towns:  The development of Hertfordshire’s urban landscape to 1800, ed. by Terry Slater & Nigel Goose.  University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008.  ISBN 9781905313440, pp.221-248

Thompson, I., ‘Berkhamstead’, Extensive Urban Survey – Hertfordshire (2006).  Available via Archaeology Data Service, URL: [last accessed 16 Oct. 2018]


Berkhamsted Castle.  URL: [last accessed 25 Oct. 2018]

‘Berkhamsted Castle’, Gatehouse Gazetteer.  URL: [last accessed 16 Oct. 2018]

‘Berkhamsted Motte and Bailey Castle’, Heritage Gateway.  URL: [last accessed 28 Oct. 2018]

‘Berkhamsted Castle’, Pastscape.  URL: [last accessed 28 Oct. 2018]

Dacorum Borough Council, Berkhamsted Conservation Area, Character Appraisal & Management Proposals. 2015.  URL: [last accessed 31 Oct. 2018]

The Parish Church of St Peter Great Berkhamsted  URL: [last accessed 23 Oct. 2018]


[i] This is the explanation given by Gover, J.E.B., A.Mawer & F.M. Stenton, The Place Names of Hertfordshire. English Place-Name Society, Vol.XV. Cambridge University Press, 1938, pp.27-28

[ii] Sherwood, p.224

[iii] ‘Romano-British remains: Roads’, A History of the County of Oxford, Vol., ed. L F Salzman (London, 1939), pp. 271-281. Online at URL: [last accessed 29 Nov. 2018]

[iv] Hooper, N., ‘Edgar Ætheling (b. 1052?, d. in or after 1125)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23 Sept. 2004) [last accessed online 26 Nov. 2018]

Part II:  Berkhamsted Castle

Part III:  Some important places in town

God’s House: Part IV

William and Alice de la Pole’s God’s House at Ewelme[i] – Domestic Buildings & School

This fourth and last part of the series about God’s House in Ewelme will look at the domestic buildings and the school.

The domestic quarters

At the western end of St Mary’s church is an impressive wooden door.  This leads down some steps to a covered passage connecting the church and the almshouse quadrangle.   In each of the external walls of the passage there is an archway, opposite of each other.  Originally, they probably had wooden doors, which could be opened on feast days to allow processions to walk around the church.  Normally they would be kept closed to allow the almsmen to get to church without getting wet and being blown away by the wind.  The passage is built in brick with stone details and can be linked architecturally to the later building period of the church.

God’s House: Part IV

Passage to the alsmhouse from the church

Continue reading

God’s House: Part III

William and Alice de la Pole’s Foundation at Ewelme[i] – St Mary’s Church

Parts III and IV of this series about William and Alice de la Pole’s foundation at Ewelme will deal with the buildings of God’s House.  Most of these still stand and provide a glimpse into a long gone-by time.  This post deals with St Mary’s Church, which still serves as Ewelme’s parish church. Continue reading

God’s House: Part I

William and Alice de la Pole’s Foundation at Ewelme[i] – Family Background and Ewelme Manor

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ewelme and its St Mary’s Church with the adjacent almshouse and school.  This was an experience which has resonated with me since that day.  It was an opportunity to come close to “normal” medieval people, not just the high-status people.

Ewelme is a village approx. 25 km south east of Oxford.  Its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “æwelme”, meaning a fresh spring, which refers to the stream which still runs through the village.

580 years ago, on 3 July 1437, William and Alice de la Pole, the Earl and Countess of Suffolk. received a royal licence to found an almshouse supporting a community of two priests and thirteen poor men, which was to be called God’s House.  The priests and poor men were to pray for the King, and the Earl and Countess during their lives and later for their souls, as well as the parents and friends and benefactors of the Earl and Countess. Continue reading

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

As we have seen in my last post, John of Wheathampstead, abbot of St Albans, travelled in 1423/24 to Italy to attend the Council of Pavia/Siena and to visit the Pope.  Both on his way to Italy and back, he visited Cologne.  This part of his trip was of particular interest to me, as I grew up in the Cologne/Bonn area of Germany.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

Cologne in 1531. The unfinished cathedral is on the right.

Continue reading

Digging deeper at St Albans

Digging deeper at St Albans

John Whetehamstede found at
St Albans Abbey

Most mornings, still half asleep, I have a look at Facebook on my phone to see whether anything monumental has happened overnight.  Most mornings I am disappointed, but the other morning I was suddenly wide awake:  Another cleric had been found, but not just any old cleric!  This one is John Whetehamstede, well-known to anyone interested in the late medieval period and the Wars of the Roses as an eye witness to the two battles of St Albans.

Digging deeper at St Albans

St Albans Cathedral seen from the east

Continue reading