Imagine you were travelling in medieval times from London to St Albans. The main road was still -as it had been since Roman times – Watling Street. Originally, Watling Street ran through the Roman town of Verulamium, but medieval St Albans and its abbey, founded by King Offa in 793, lay a bit to the northeast. According to the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, the medieval town was created by the sixth abbot Ulsinus (or Wulsin) in the mid-10th century[i]:
Abbot Wulsin was famous for his spiritual and worldly achievements. He loved the district and people of St Albans and looked after their interests. He brought the people from the surrounding areas together and made them live in the town itself, providing and enlarging a market place. He helped them construct buildings by providing money and materials. He built the churches of St Peter to the north, St Stephen to the south, and St Michael to the west, with a dedicated share of land, to improve both the appearance and resources of the town, and to care for the souls of its people.[ii]
The original route of Watling Street would have by-passed his new town, so he re-routed it to attract visitors to the town and his new churches. Now travellers were to turn off at St Stephen’s Church, go down St Stephen’s Hill and up Holywell Hill.
The new route was not without problems though. The River Ver needed to be crossed, initially there was a ford, but a bridge was built in the 12th century. And Holywell Hill was – and still is – rather steep. Travellers found it easier to go along Green Lane (now Cottonmill Lane) and Sopwell Lane, which turns into Holywell Hill after the steepest bit.[iii] As a consequence many inns and hostels were being set up along the route. To this day, Sopwell Lane is regarded as one of the “best pub crawls in England”.[iv]
Beginnings of Sopwell Priory
This little detour took our medieval traveller not only to a pub but also to the topic of this post: Sopwell Priory, dedicated to St Mary. Sopwell was one of three local daughter-houses of St Albans Abbey, the other two were another nunnery, St Mary de Pré, and a leper hospital dedicated to St Julian.
Though the once thriving market town of Hertford declined after the Conquest, this does not mean that nothing of note happened here. Hertford’s claim to fame is that it had the first recorded commercial paper mill in Britain.
Today, Hertford has the atmosphere of a quiet country town rather than that of a bustling and prosperous trading centre. However, in its Anglo-Saxon days that was completely different.
It all started when – according to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Edward the Elder (reigned 899 to 924) established a burh (a fortification) on the north side of the River Lea, “betwixt the Memer, and the Benwic, and the Lea” [i] in 912 (though there is some controversy about the year, it might have been 911 or 913 as well). The following year, his forces built another one on the southern side.
The Venerable Bede wrote in the Ecclesiastical History of England (731) that a synod of the church in England took place “on the 24th day of September, at the place which is called Herutford … in the year of our Lord 673”.[i] Looks like a perfectly clear statement, doesn’t it? If only it was that easy. Continue reading →
This is the last of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.
St Peter’s Church from Castle Street
St Peter’s Church
I made my way back to the High Street along Castle Street, the original access route to the castle. It used to end at the South Gate, the main entrance to the castle. However, both the gate and the moat in that part were knocked down to make place for the railway in the 19th century.
I walked past Berkhamsted School to St Peter’s Church, at the corner of Castle Street and the High Street. Continue reading →
This is the second of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.
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 →
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.
(This post was updated 21 Dec. 2018)
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.
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.
One of the most important medieval houses in Hertfordshire
A few years ago, an attempt to find traces of Richard III’s family in Hertfordshire led me to Hunsdon. This is a small village in the south-east of Hertfordshire, near the border to Essex. The former manor house, Hunsdon House, is situated to the south of the actual village, next to the church of St Dunstan (find it on a map here).
The Manor of Ware in Hertfordshire during the Middle Ages
The town of Ware has a long history. The oldest dateable artefacts found in the area go back to the late Paleolithic period (c.25,000 – 10,000BC). There is evidence for a more permanent settlement in the Mesolithic period (8,000 – 5,000 BC). The Romans were also there and so it goes on into the Middle Ages, which is the period this post will be dealing with.[i]Continue reading →