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Two miracles in High Wycombe and a muddy shoe in Marlow

St. Wulfstan’s prayer book.
A picture of King David from what is almost certainly St. Wulfstan’s own prayer book.

St. Wulfstan was the Saxon Bishop of Worcester both before and for nearly thirty years after the Conquest. He was a genuinely good and holy man. So good, in fact, that he very nearly became the Patron Saint of England when the idea was created along with the Order of the Garter in 1350. (There is still a movement to get him to replace St George!)

Although the saint is well known in historical circles, it isn’t so well known that two of his many reported miracles took place in High Wycombe, (though one was more likely to have been just outside in Bradenham).

Although a deeply pious and religious man, Wulfstan wielded great power and loyalty. He was made Bishop on the recommendation of both King Edward the Confessor, and the future King Harold Godwinson. Indeed, Harold probably would not have become king if it wern’t for Wulfstan, as it was the Bishop who persuaded the Northerners to accept him. Wulfstan was later a trusted advisor to both William I and William II, regularly attending the courts of both Saxon and Norman Kings, especially at Easter, Christmas and Whitsuntide.

Indeed, it was on one of these trips that he performed his first (minor), Wycombe miracle. His retinue had stayed overnight in a decrepit Wycombe inn, reputedly on the London Road. Next morning, the building began to creak and sag alarmingly. Everyone but the Bishop ran outside. Realizing he was still indoors they shouted for him, but no one was willing to re-enter. Wulfstan stood firm and rebuked their panic and refused to leave the building until the animals had been released. As he walked out of the inn it shook violently and collapsed. The house had delayed its fall while the Bishop was still in it.

The Crypt of Worcester Cathedral, which would still be recognized by St Wulfstan
The Crypt of Worcester Cathedral, which would still be recognized by St Wulfstan

Another tale is told of the Bishop’s piety – he had a particular liking for roast goose. One day, possibly after one of his many night-long vigils and fasts, he had not had breakfast when he was called upon to say Mass. As he entered the church he passed near the kitchen and the smell of goose made his thoughts wander to his dinner. However, his conscience reproached him and he vowed before the altar that from that day onwards, he would never eat meat; he stayed a vegetarian for the rest his life – except for festivals when he ate fish.

The second, and more impressive Wycombe miracle, took place after he had consecrated a local church, often said to be All Saint’s in Wycombe, but St Botolph’s in Bradenham is more likely as it has stonework from that date and the patron of the new church, Swertlin (some texts say Swertin or Swertling) lived there. Indeed his brother, Herding, held a substantial estate there. During the dinner after the ceremony, Wulfstan was told of a maidservant who had a tumour in her head which caused her tongue to stick out and made eating difficult and chewing impossible. He had a gold bezant which was said to have been pierced by the spear of Christ (there were several reputed spears at the time, which was before the famous “discovery” of the spear which saved the first Crusade). Wulfstan dipped this bezant in water to hallow it, and sent the holy water to the maid, who was cured.

The Bishop once lodged overnight at Marlow and, as was his invariable practice, he told his servants that he was going to the church. Unfortunately, this was a considerable way along a road deep in mud – and a storm of snow and sleet was raging. One of his clerks, a man called Frewin, was keen to make Wulfstan changed his mind and led him where the mud was deepest. Wulfstan plunged in mud to his knees and lost a shoe, but he gave no indication that he realized the trick. Eventually he returned to the inn half dead with cold, gently rebuked the impudent clerk and dismissed the offence with a smile – before sending him back to find the lost shoe!

by Gerry Palmer

The enigma of Silchester’s Ogham stone

If you had been standing on the edge of a particular trench in Silchester on one day in 1893 and gazing down into the partially excavated shallow well associated with Insula IX (a house oddly angled at 45o to the Roman city road grid), you would have been lucky enough to see a very odd stone emerging some five or six feet down.

Silchester's Ogham StoneFurther excavations (the archaeologist’s term for spending long periods in thick mud in back-breaking positions) would eventually reveal the stone shown in the picture, which was thrown in, upside down, possibly to “kill” or ritually close the well.

Those with keen eyesight amongst you might have noticed two things – firstly the stone had two strange sets of markings running vertically up one side, both with a line through the middle. Secondly, under the stone and crushed by it, was a pewter flagon. No other objects of interest were brought up at the time.

And here begins the enigma. The stone’s inscription was in Ogham, an Irish script that spread to Wales, Cornwall and west coast Scotland. Silchester’s Ogham stone was then, and remains today, not only the most easterly Ogham inscription ever found in Britain – but the only one found in England at all! More surprisingly it is one of the very earliest of all Ogham inscriptions, probably dating from the early 400s AD. Around 400 inscriptions have been found to date, with the vast majority from the south of Ireland, particularly Kerry, Cork and Waterford. The largest number outside of Ireland are in Pembrokeshire.

The inscription reads EBICATO[S]/[MAQ]I MUCO[I-], which was translated at the time as ‘of Ebicatus, son of the tribe of’, but recently re-translated as “(The something) of Tebicatus, son of the tribe of N”. The missing word is usually taken to be ‘memorial’ or ‘stone’, but ‘land’ is also possible as Irish Ogham inscriptions were used for familial title to land.

So who was Tebicatus and why was he in Silchester? It is probably a safe guess to assume there was more than one person there who understood Ogham script unless Tebicatus oversaw the writing of his own epitaph . In Wroxeter, a man named Cunorix was commemorated with an Irish language epitaph, but in that case Roman script was used.

It is unlikely that Tebicatus was an Irish raider, and it is uncertain if the inscription implies a settled Irish community in Silchester. Quite possibly he was an Irish trader and the stone was inscribed to commemerate his ownership of a town-house sometime in the fourth or early fifth century.

In the 1980’s the authenticity of the stone was questioned, but there are no known Ogham fakes in Britain. Neither the text, nor the linguistics or even the palaeography of the inscription indicate that the stone is not genuine and most scholars now assume it is authentic. However inscriptions of any sort from this area during late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages are rare, so it isn’t easy to tell.

In 1998 the Ogham stone’s well was re-excavated and two pieces of poorly preserved oak were found, one dates to 130-380AD and the other 320-540AD and it is now believed that the well filling probably dates to sometime not too long after 400AD and marked the closing of the well and house.

Text about Ogham

Text about Silchester's Pewter FlagonBy Gerry Palmer


I joined a group from the Maidenhead Archaeological and Historical and Society this summer for the latest of their regular visits to the Roman town of Silchester. This was the fifteenth season of Reading University’s Field School, which brings together a large number of students and volunteers each year at this site. As well as a valuable research and training exercise, the project offers open days and visitor tours each summer at this important site.

Silchester excavation 2010
Silchester excavations in 2010

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) was the centre of the territory of the Atrebates, one of the major late Iron Age tribes in southern Britain. It was first excavated in 1893 as part of a twenty-year project by the Society of Antiquaries. Reading Museum has an impressive gallery with finds from this period. Work has been concentrated on ‘Insula IX’, a small section in the north east of this vast site, and this summer’s excavations have yielded surprising evidence of British cultural resistance to Roman domination as reported in The Times ‘Did Silchester suffer Boudicca’s wrath?’ on September 24, 2010.

The newspaper reports the views of Professor Michael Fulford that, after a period in which the Romans imposed a north-south grid of streets upon the ancient Atrebatic tribal capital, and buildings were constructed along them, the inhabitants then reverted to their Iron-Age habit of orientating their homes northeast-to-southwest, aligning themselves instead with the sunrise. Silchester has also shown evidence of violent burning that may have been connected with the rebellion of Boudicca (AD 60-61). It appears that the Atrebates, although willing consumers of Imperial goods and culture, were less willing to be told what to do in their daily lives.

Intaglio Brooch found at Silchester
The Intaglio Brooch found at Silchester

Prior to the Roman conquest the Atrebates, led successively by kings who issued coinage employing Roman designs and using Latin, had enjoyed extensive trading relations with the Roman world. Evidence for this, mainly in the formof metalwork, glass and pottery, but also foodstuffs, food flavourings and wine, has been discovered. This summer has yielded rich remains of these materials from before the Roman conquest in 43 AD occupation. One of the outstanding finds this season was a small intaglio, a carved gemstone (see photo showing a much magnified image of this discovery) which may originally have fitted into a signet ring and been used for sealing documents. Made from reddish orange carnelian, it has the image of the Roman Goddess Minerva, a carving which would require a high degree of skill to create. It was discovered at the bottom of a mid 1st century AD pit and most likely dates to this period.

It is thought that, when this large Iron Age town was captured in AD 44, which was during the conquest of southern England under the future emperor Vespasian, there was a military occupation and perhaps even a Roman fort. The key clue to this has been the discovery of a large military-style latrine, plus what is believed to be a granary and possible evidence of barrack blocks.

Between AD 50 and 60, there was a client kingdom operating semi-autonomously at a local level in which, thinks Professor Fulford, native identity was asserted, as evidenced by buildings deliberately set out on a north-east/south-west orientation in flagrant disregard of the Roman street grid, which was laid out on the cardinal points. Two years ago evidence emerged that the destruction apparently associated with the Boudiccan revolt had occurred here, an indication that the insurrection had spread further west than had long been believed. While both London and Colchester are known to have succumbed to Boudicca’s forces, it is now thought that the Atrebatic capital may well have been involved too.

It is intended to organise a trip to this site, situated between Reading and Basingstoke, for AiM members in 2011. See for further information.

by Jeff Griffiths

Slavery in Marlow

The word slave comes from medieval Latin, originally it was just a word for the Slavic people.  Although the first textual mention of slavery goes back to the very first written law (the Code of Hammurabi, ~1760 BC), the archaeological evidence goes back much further, at least as far back as Sumer which came into being some 8,000 years ago.

Slave hut
The slave house at the mouth of the River Gambia - the actual house Alex Haley’s Kunta Kinte would have been held - if he hadn’t made up the entire Roots saga!

But before we settle into the more local aspects of slavery, there are a few shocking (and one good) things to know:  the number of slaves in the world today is unknown – but 2.5 million is considered a conservative minimum.  Between 40 & 80% of ancient Greek society, and 30% of the Roman world, was enslaved – Roman civilization alone was responsible for about 100 million slaves. The Atlantic slave trade took some 2 million Africans, the Arab slave trade around 18 million and another 1.25 million slaves were people captured by Barbary Pirates from white Western Europe – including those they took during raids on both UK and Irish ports!

In Doomsday England, around 10% of people were slaves – but, and here is the good bit, in Marlow there were just five out of a population of 107.  Well done Marlow!
There are two known original records of local slavery from the period – the Domesday Book and Ælfgifu’s last Will and Testiment – she was the separated wife of King Eadwig who ruled England until 959 AD.  Ælfgifu seems to have asked for all of her penally enslaved men to be released on her death, though this may have only referred to her estate at Princes Risborough.
table of slave numbersIn 1086 Buckinghamshire’s population was as low as 5103 – of which 845 were slaves (or Servi).   Buckinghamshire actually had the single highest percentage of slaves across entire the south of the country.
Slavery seems to have been on the decline since the time of King Alfred nearly 200 years before, possibly because of the higher proportion of freemen under Danelaw.  Most of them were owned by laymen, with the Church owning somewhat fewer, with just 10% of the people on their lands being slaves.  Surprisingly, William the Conqueror and the other Royals, owned an even smaller percentage of slaves,  but this may have been due to the distribution of slave-holding manors to his nobles during the first 20 years of his reign.
Most slaves seem to have worked in agriculture, often as ploughmen, although women and children were also in slavery at the time, normally as household slaves or dairymaids.
When did slavery finally end in the UK? (there was a slave market in Turkey right up to 1909!).  Not as most people believe with William Wilberforce’s Law of 1807.  Actually slavery has been made illegal several times in England.  It was declared illegal to export slaves in 922 and again in 1102.  Slavery itself was made illegal in 1569 and 1705, then legal again in 1729.  In 1773 slavery was ended again – by declaring that as “soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free.”  But it wasn’t until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution of Slavery was abolished for good in England.  And why was it finally abolished? – well the technical legal reason was that, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth it had been declared “that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in!”  It almost makes you proud.
By Gerry Palmer

In An English Country Churchyard

A neighbouring Buckinghamshire village contains a link with pre-revolutionary Imperial Russia. The parish church of St. Mary’s at Hitcham, situated between Taplow and Burnham, has in its graveyard a large, ornate tombstone which carries a golden Madonna and Child icon. The weather-worn coat of arms and the fading inscription on the flat tombstone hides a romantic story. It is the final resting-place of His Highness Prince Alexis Dolgorouki and his wife Princess Francis.

The tombestone of Prince Alexis Dolgorouki - The parish church of St. Mary’s at Hitcham, Bucks
The tombestone of Prince Alexis Dolgorouki

Alexis and Fanny, as Francis was known, were an autumn love match, marrying when both were reaching 50. Prince Alexis, Secretary of State to Czar Alexander II, came from a long and distinguished noble family in direct line of descent from Prince Dolgorouki of Suzdal, the founder of Moscow in 1129. Fanny was the only child and heiress of the rich industrialist Fleetwood Wilson of Wappenham Manor in Northamptonshire. Their marriage ceremony in July 1898 was a two-part celebration at the Russian Embassy Chapel and at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey.

The Dolgoroukis entertained lavishly in that golden era before the First World War from their various homes at Braemar Castle; at Upper Grosvenor Street in Mayfair; their Mediterranean villa, and also in Russia. Fanny additionally wanted to have a country house suitable to hold what were then popular weekend Thames river parties and so Prince Alexis commissioned the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to build a house on a site in Taplow for entertaining. The result was Nashdom House – Nashdom meaning ‘our home’ in Russian – which, with its formal gardens, was built between 1905 -1909.

Prince Alexis Dolgorouki
Prince Alexis Dolgorouki

After Prince Alexis died in June 1915, Fanny spent most of her days abroad at her villa on the shores of the Mediterranean, continuing to be a generous hostess. Fanny, who was well known for her love of expensive jewelry, died in August 1919. In 1929, Nashdom House was purchased by the Anglican Order of Benedictine Monks and became Nashdom Abbey. In 1987 the monastery was sold and the house was converted into residential flats.

St Mary’s at Hitcham has also played its part in British filmography of a popular kind. It was used for location shooting for Carry On Dick whose theme was based on the Dick Turpin legend. This 26th Carry On film, released in 1974, marked the end of an era for the series, featuring the last appearances of Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques.

By Jeff Griffiths, with thanks to Karl Lawrence who researched the above information on Prince Alexis Dolgorouki which was published in the Hitcham and Taplow Society Newsletter Spring 2009. Thanks also to Fred Russell for the photo of the tomb.

Short Lives and Local Highwaymen

Stand and Deliver – Your Money or your Life!”  these words rang out with sharply increasing frequency in the years that followed the execution of Charles I with their growing numbers of Royalists on the run.  And where was this cry heard more than most places in the country? – the stretch of road from Maidenhead to Reading!  Maidenhead Thicket in particular, notorious countrywide as “the Thycket,“ was amongst the most dangerous place in England, and second only to areas such as Hounslow Heath, Shooters Hill and Finchley Common for some 150 years!

Although there have always been thieves and robbers, and local mention of them goes back to soon after the Norman Conquest, Highwaymen flourished from around 1645 to the early 1800s.

Today, the highwaymen and their legends are romantic figures, but at the time they were considered, well … in truth also as romantic figures – though mainly by the people that they hadn’t robbed, or who didn’t have to travel through the most villainous areas.

But why was our stretch of road so bad?  Mainly because it was one of the busiest in the country, it had good cover and easy escape routes – plus around 90 coaches passing through Maidenhead every day.  In the now demolished Sun Inn there was even one highwayman who worked as an ostler – he would rob coaches on the Thycket and then sympathise with the distraught occupants when they arrived at the inn!

Many of the local court records are full of tales of blood, often listing the amounts of money awarded to the doctors for the work they did in patching up the unfortunate victims, and reasonably often the robbers as well.  However, there are stories which show how the romantic ideal began. Let me take you through just some of them:

John Shrimpton

One highwayman who rove the local paths and byways was John, (know as Jack), Shrimpton.   He was born of good and reputable parents at Penn.  After short spells as a soap-boiler and as an army horse trooper, Jack took to the High Toby between London and Oxford, and for a time there was scarce a coach or horseman that could pass him without being robbed.

Jack, for once finding himself at a loose end in London, visited one of the abundant hostelries, where he found himself in the company of a hangman, and presumably for personal interest asked him “What is the reason, when you perform your office, that you put the knot just under the ear? For, in my opinion, was you to fix it in the nape of the neck it would be more easy to the sufferer.”   The hangman replied: “If one Christian may believe another, I have hanged a great many in my time, but upon my word, sir, I never had any complaint as yet”.  However, he did offer that, if Jack ever came his way he would “be so civil as to hang you after your own way.”   But Shrimpton, not approving of the hangman’s civility, told him that he desired none of his favours, because they generally proved of a very dangerous consequence.

A modern path through Maidenhead Thicket
A modern path through Maidenhead Thicket

Another time, Jack met with a couple of Wycombe bailiffs carrying a poor farmer to jail. He asked what the debt was, and being told it was six pounds, he requested that they went with him to the next ale-house where he would pay it, which he did.  But, being Jack, he then waylaid the bailiffs on their way home, relieved them of his six pounds, and another forty shillings to boot!

A little while later, Shrimpton himself was held up by a poor miller who, thinking that a robber’s cry alone would work, had held Jack up by pretending that an oak plant he was holding was a gun, as he didn’t have a real one.  Jack took pity and offered to help him with a robbery and then split the booty.  Jack gave much encouragement to the “simple” miller, who promptly gave Jack “such a smart blow on the neck that he felled him” and robbed him of eighty guineas – and then he bade Jack to go quietly about his business, or he would have him hanged, according to his own confession, for lately robbing a neighbour! There never was much honour among thieves.

Several years later on Friday, the 4th of September, 1713 Jack was hanged for the wilful murder of a watch-man.   The Bull at Gerrards Cross still has a Jack Shrimpton Bar.

Claude Du Vall

The Black Boy in 1905
The Black Boy in 1905, with kind permission from

Claude Du Vall was born in Normandy in 1643.  He came to England at 17 and quickly gained a taste for drinking, gambling and womanising.  In order to finance these habits he embarked on a course that would make him one of the most famous Highwaymen of the age.
Claud “worked” the road to Reading and was often to be found at the Black Boy Public House on the Windsor Road in Slough.

Du Vall’s dance on the heath
Du Vall’s dance on the heath

Duval won a reputation for gallantry and always treated his victims with grace, consideration and courtesy.  As a result he probably earned far less than many of his “compatriots”   In his most famous exploit, he held up a lady’s coach knowing that there was £400 on board.   However, he took just £100, allowing the lady to keep the remaining £300 on the condition that she danced a Coranto (an Italian dance that was popular at the time) with him on the heath.

Not all stories show him in quite such a positive light.  On one occasion he held up a lady’s coach, stealing everything including a silver baby’s bottle – only returning it when forced to do so by an accomplice!

Duval was hanged at Tyburn in 1670, aged 26, having been arrested while drunk in a London pub.  It is said that many women of high standing pleaded for his pardon, but to no avail.  He is buried in Covent Garden Church, under a stone bearing the epitaph:

Here lies Du Vall; reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc hath he made of both; for all,
Men he made stand, and women he made fall.

Captain James Hind

Another gallant Highway man to operate in Maidenhead Thicket was Captain James Hind, known as the “Prince of Prigs” (a prig being a thief) after a popular play about him at the time.  On his first ever robbery he stole ten guineas, but then gave one guinea back to his victim so that he could get home that night.  Like Du Vall, he was unfailingly courteous.
Hind, like most highwaymen, was a Royalist and among his many famous exploits was a failed attempt to rob no less a person than Oliver Cromwell, along with his seven bodyguards!  Despite his horse dying from exhaustion during the aborted robbery and escape, Hind managed to get away, politely stealing a horse, but not taking the owner’s money so that he could buy another!

Hind was hanged and quartered for High Treason on September 24th 1652 but maintained a cheerful and frolicsome demeanour to the end.  His head was placed mid way over the Seven bridge at Worcester.

Dick Turpin

At the time, virtually nobody had heard of Dick Turpin, he was made famous later by Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth with the (sadly) fictious account of Black Bess’ ride to York.  A quick search across the internet will show you that he was a regular drinker in Marlow’s Crown Pub, the Kings Hotel in Stokenchurch, the Crooked Billet at Black Park, the Black Boy in Slough, the George in Wallingford, the Compleat Angler and the Old Toll House in Colnbrook, to name just a few of them!  However, if he visited all of the many pubs he is associated with, he would never have been sober enough even to slur “Stand and Deliver”!   The historical truth is that he operated mainly in his native county of Essex, and quiet possibly never even came here!

The end of teh highwaymen

By Gerry Palmer

The Nuns of Little Marlow

Despite existing in Little Marlow for over 500 years, very little evidence of its Benadictine priory can be seen today.  Built on a small sandy hillock between Well End and the river Thames, it was known of as “de fontibus de Merlowe” throughout mediaeval times – on account of the vigorous springs that welled up around the site.  Today, the site is in the middle of a leafy, peaceful housing estate, still surrounded by bubbling brooks! A house called the “Abbey” stands where the Priory once stood and if you look carefully, there is some evidence of dressed stones being re-used and a small part of the old priory walls is thought to have been used to create a summer house in the garden.

Although the site of the Priory (sometimes called an Abbey) was already well known, it was only in 1903 that an archaeological excavation took place.  This was undertaken because the owner, Mr Vaughan Williams, had found ancient walls when work was undertaken for a new road through the grounds.   Eventually he uncovered evidence for the entire structure – the first small Priory ever excavated in the UK.

The dig itself was “energetically and efficiently” carried out by Mr Williams himself but overseen by a renowned historian and member of the Society of Antiquaries, C R Peers MA FSA who visited the site each week.  In fact it was C R Peers who drew up the plan of the Priory and wrote an article for the Records of Buckinghamshire (Volume 8).  They found that the buildings were very simple, built of local stone – the quoins (corner stones) were made of chalk and had crumbled away.  The church was aisle-less with no sign of vaulting, however it did have a tower.   The infirmary was found to have been a different build from the rest of the Abbey and from the style was probably 14th century in date.  Interestingly, in all four corners of the infirmary hall large blocks of sarsen stones had been incorporated into the walls.

During the course of the excavation, locally made tiles from the 14th and 15th century were found, some complete with designs. Although they were not of the finest quality they were attractive. One carried the inscription “RICARD ME FECIT” (Richard made me).  A similar tile with this inscription was found near the altar at Cookham Church, but it is not known whether it came from Little Marlow, or it was just made by the same man.  The excavators also found a part of a statue’s leg from an effigy made of Purbeck marble.

The foundation of the nun’s Priory is shrouded in mystery but was some time in the 13th century.  The founders could possibly have been the de Clare family as there is evidence of a connection between the priory and Missenden Abbey (Marlow Priory paid rent for some land nearby owned by Missenden in 1331) and the de Clares were Lords of the manors of both Little Marlow and Missenden.  Also, when the site was excavated, tiles were found bearing the de Clare arms.  The first recorded prioress was Matilda de Anvers in 1230.

It is known that abbey was a small institution with only 25 nuns and was never very wealthy, in fact the nuns were granted permission from the Bishop of Lincoln in 1300 and 1311 to beg for alms and were barely self-sufficient.

However, in 1342 tithes were donated to the nuns at the priory and to this day, there is a large barn-like building opposite the site that’s called the Tithe Barn, though it has been converted into homes.

The Abbey’s estate included the Spade Oak wharf on the Thames which the nuns would have run on a commercial basis.  As the centuries progressed the numbers of nuns diminished.  By the time that Bishop Longland visited in 1530 there were just five nuns and a prioress.  When commissioners visited to oversee the Priory’s dissolution in 1535, three of the nuns were dismissed for being (at 24) too young, leaving only the prioress Margaret Vernon and one “pore mayden” to keep her company, even though the house was in good order.  Fortunately, Margaret Vernon knew Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, and negotiated a promotion for herself to become abbess of Malling.  She was not there long, however, as Malling Abbey was suppressed in 1538. After the dissolution, the Abbey was given to John Tytley and Elizabeth Restwold.  There is no evidence that they ever lived on site which was probably used as farm buildings, possibly as it was of little value.

Little Marlow

As late as 1719, much of the abbey still stood, although it had been partially used as a quarry for building materials for nearby houses (which can be seen to this day).  The hall was pulled down in 1740 and by 1830 the Abbey had all but disappeared.
By Rose Palmer

Little Marlow Tiles
Tile patterns from Little Marlow Nunnery

Little Marlow through pre-history

A few years ago, South Bucks’ first pollen analysis was carried out at Little Marlow, before sand and gravel were to be extracted commercially.  Several associated techniques were used and from the results a clear description emerges of the environment and, to a lesser extent, the lives of the people from around 8,000 BC through to the Iron Age.
Marlow excavations map
The pollen analysis was possible due to the deep peat horizons,  which also yielded radiocarbon dates.  This article has been written to paint a series of landscape pictures to highlight a few of the many results.

A large area of black earth and ‘burnt stone’ was excavated on either sides of a small stream and, excitingly, human activity, (albeit low-level), was found, possibly from a lake/river-side environment which showed evidence of burnt mound constructions, together with a ditch and post-holes.  A few pieces of worked flint and pottery were also found.

The excavation identified five levels in the peat, the deepest related to an early Mesolithic environment; the upper to late prehistoric (ie pre Roman) times and showed evidence of cereal cultivation. To the north of the modern stream, activity was radiocarbon dated to the Middle and Late Bronze Age; to the south there was early Bronze Age activity. This movement across the area was probably due to the stream changing course.

The deepest layer dates to the period after the last ice age and the second and third layers follow on from this.  However between the third and fourth layers there appears to be a gap in the sequence.  This is shown both by a dramatic change in the types of pollen and also by radiocarbon dating.  The deeper layers run through from the late Devensian to the late Holocene (Flandrian Chronozone III), ie about 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC.

Pollen in the lowest layer is indicative of a mainly open herbaceous environment of juniper scrub interspersed with birch and pine. The “herb” assemblages present, were found to include grasses, rock rose and moon wort and imply short turf grassland.  The meadowsweet, marsh marigold and bistort that were found give evidence for a tall herb/meadow grassland.  Also, plants including very high amounts of sedges and horsetail fern were identified and these tell us that there was an area of open sedge fen.  Freshwater algae and occasional aquatic plants suggests that, at one time, there was standing or slow flowing freshwater here soon after the ice age.

The next, (younger), zone started with a dominance of pine and an expansion of hazel, oak and elm, which represents an improvement in climate and a move away from the more glacial woodland plants and landscapes. Such changes are entirely in keeping with the overall picture across southern England, which, we know from elsewhere, was followed by a migration of plant species across the Midlands and northern England.

The third pollen region continues this pattern of change with a sharp expansion of hazel,  followed by an unfortunate gap in the peat record (also shown in the radiocarbon dates), which covered around 2,000 years and probably represented a substantial change in the local taxa and ecology.  It seems certain that the normal widespread dominance of oak and elm over pine would have been demonstrated in the missing layer at the top of region three.

Marlow's ancient plants
Marlow's ancient plants

From roughly 3,000 to the end of the first millennium BC, there is a clear change in the pollen assemblages.  The environment was one of woodland, covered predominantly with lime, oak and hazel.  There is also good evidence of human activity such as cereal farming and the associated weeds that are typical of disturbed ground and cultivation.  There is, however, also a substantial presence of grasses, plants from the daisy family, dandelions, sow thistles and hawk-bits. The period seems to have exhibited both woodland and areas of open agricultural land.

Ten fragments of animal bone were found from the Bronze Age period, all within burnt flint spreads, sadly they were in very poor condition and it is not possible to say if animal bones were a significant component of the original deposits. These bones were from domestic cattle and a pig, together with two red deer bones, and a humerus from a bantam-sized chicken.

Just one charred cereal grain, one sloe stone fragment and one hazelnut fragment were found on the site – (which yielded nearly a quarter of a tonne of archaeological deposits!).  This is extremely low.  Hazelnut fragments, in particular, are usually common and would be expected to be found in greater numbers if the site has included domestic occupation for any length of time.

However, although the density of artefacts found across the site is low, it is actually quite typical of other burnt mound sites across the region. The few pieces of pottery and worked flint that were found suggest that the mounds on the site were constructed from several visits across a long period in the Bronze Age. The low number of finds suggests that visitors did not leave much behind. They boiled water with hot stones and flint, but didn’t undertake activities that used the tools, containers, animal by-products, or any of the other finds that are found in areas of general domestic or industrial activities.

by Gerry Palmer

Hurley’s Hidden History

This riverside village, much loved by film and TV location crews for its timeless qualities, hides a wealth of interest in the course of its long history.

The Olde Bell hotel, once the guest house of Hurley Priory, carries the date 1135 above its entrance, giving it claim to be one of the country’s oldest pubs. The name may derive from a sanctus bell rung there to summon the Prior when persons of distinction came seeking hospitality.

The Old Bell @ Hurley
The Old Bell @ Hurley

The parish church was formed from the nave of Hurley Priory’s church, occupying about half of its original length. Two fine barns built in the fourteenth century stand in the centre of the village, the tithe barn with its dovecot now being mostly hidden behind high walls.

Hurley may have had an early Anglo-Saxon church founded by St Birinus as he converted the Thames Valley in the 7th century. No evidence of such a church has been found but it would have offered a good site. Hurley stood at a fording place in the river – the name Harley-ford directly across the river provides evidence of this – and the nearby prehistoric Danesfield hill fort, situated on a chalk cliff which towers over the Thames, is further evidence of the strategic importance of this spot (Danesfield was investigated by AiM as part of its ROMADAM project). Hurley is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in 894 when the Danes are reported to have passed through it en route from Essex to Gloucester. Further evidence of the importance of Hurley can be found in the record that Editha, the sister of Edward the Confessor, may have been buried in the church here.

The conquest by William of Normandy brought great changes to Hurley. Asgar, who’d was given the land by Edward the Confessor and was his Master of Horse, was removed as Lord of the Manor and replaced by Geoffrey de Mandeville, a right hand man for William at the Battle of Hastings. There’s a reminder of this change to Norman ownership to be found upstream at Frogmill Spinney where a house that had its origins in this time bears the curious name of ‘Poison Ducks’. This is a corruption of the Norman French ‘poisson duc’; in other words, this was the home of the keeper of this stretch of river on behalf of the Norman lord of the manor. In the Domesday Book, Hurley is recorded as being a larger settlement than Marlow
Hurley in Winter The biggest change ever to affect the village happened when Geoffrey de Mandeville founded a Benedictine priory in 1086 in memory of his first wife. The Priory was central to the life of the village for 450 years until Henry VIII’s reforms swept it away in 1536. Its Abbot and monks were more fortunate than most at the Dissolution as they could retreat to the protected mother house at Westminster, taking with them the Priory’s 562 charters, which still exist. These charters reveal that the Abbey of Westminster had exchanged one of its London properties to acquire a forested area near its daughter house. The London property exchanged for Hurley Wood was no less than Covent Garden.

After the Dissolution, Hurley’s monastic estate passed into the hands of John Lovelace in 1545 and this family then became Lords of the Manor. The Lovelaces built a mansion called Ladye Place on the site of the ruined Priory. The first Sir Richard Lovelace went on an expedition with Sir Francis Drake and it’s been said that their fine Elizabethan mansion arose in 1600 from “the legalised piracy of a licensed buccaneer”.
The most significant of the Lovelaces was John, the 3rd Lord Lovelace, who played a significant role in the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution of 1688. He was an ardent anti-Catholic who’d been jailed for complicity in the Rye House plot to assassinate King Charles II and his brother and heir James. Lovelace became a staunch supporter of the cause for the Protestant William of Orange to take over the throne from the Catholic James II. The crypt at Ladye Place, once part of the original Priory, became a centre of plotting and it’s said that fellow aristocratic conspirators would enter by way of underground tunnels that led from the river to the crypt to avoid detection. This crypt, which still stands in private grounds on the old monastic estate at Hurley, became a centre of pilgrimage for those who valued the liberties that had been safeguarded by the plot hatched there. William of Orange and George III both visited this crypt where commemorative tablets record this momentous event in England’s history.

This 3rd Lord Lovelace, however, was a dissolute individual – the Master of an Oxford college said he drank a Quart of Brandy every morning – who left the estate heavily in debt. His son, having no estate to inherit, went to America where he became the Governor of New York State. A township there called Hurley commemorates the link with Lovelace’s Berkshire home. The last Lovelace heir in America died without issue and the line became extinct.

Hurley Church in winterWe may think that lotteries are a modern phenomena but this isn’t the case. A later owner of Ladye Place was a Mrs Williams, the sister of the Bishop of Rochester, who having only bought two lottery tickets, ended up winning separate prizes of £2000 and £500 out of which she purchased the estate. Ladye Place later passed to two brothers called Kempenfeldt, a name of Swedish origin, one of whom was an English admiral. Tradition has it that the brothers had planted two thorn trees in the grounds in which they took great pride. Arriving home one day, Gustavus noticed that the tree planted by his brother, the Admiral, had withered, which he thought a bad omen. Word arrived that same night that Richard Kempenfeldt and an estimated 900 souls had perished off Portsmouth when HMS Royal George sank in August 1782. Until the last century, Ladye Place had fine grounds in which were magnificent Cedar of Lebanon trees that were reputed to have been brought back by crusaders from the Holy Land, a story that might not be implausible considering the proximity of the Templar Order at one time in Bisham.

The Elizabethan mansion became derelict and was eventually pulled down in 1838. Much later, a smaller house also called Ladye Place was erected near the church. Later Lords of the Manor were the Clayton Easts of Hall Place – now the Berkshire College of Agriculture – which then became Hurley’s Manor House. If ever a family seemed to be cursed, it was the owners of Hall Place. Among the litany of premature deaths in the family, one was drowned off Ryde in the Isle of Wight in 1866. Only 10 days later his brother also died and their joint funeral was held at Hurley church where a monument commemorates this sad event. Another member of the family died suddenly in 1932, aged just 24, while playing with his pet mongoose of the lawns of Hall Place as his new wife sat by him. Little wonder then that local rumour was that he’d been struck down by the curse of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Although he had gone adventuring in the desert, he was, in fact, still a schoolboy at the time the tomb was opened. A year later his young widow was killed in an aeroplane accident. They are reputed to be the model for the young aristocratic couple featured in ‘The English Patient’, an award winning book and film.

The second house in Hurley to bear the name Ladye Place was purchased in 1924 by Colonel Rivers-Moore, a retired Royal Engineer. He was intrigued by the surrounding monastic remains and determined to undertake archaeological investigations as the site had hardly ever been touched. He was particularly intrigued by the prospect of finding the tomb of Editha, Edward the Confessor’s sister, whose ghost, known as the Grey Lady, was supposed to haunt the place. By a stroke of luck, a particularly dry summer revealed the outline of the old Lovelace mansion, which stood on the remains of Hurley Priory and trial excavations started. It’s reputed that family members then

began to have visions of a monk instructing them where to find discoveries and that they held séances to seek guidance as to where they should dig.

In the summer of 2007, a party from the Thames Valley Dowsers investigated the reputed underground tunnel that runs from the Olde Bell hotel to the remains of the old Priory behind the church. A cupboard in a bar at the Olde Bell reveals a crumbling staircase entrance which is supposed to lead to the tunnels. Next door to the hotel, Hurley House had a trapdoor through which access to the tunnel had been gained. Dowsing highlighted two tunnels that run from the Olde Bell to the old Ladye Place crypt and then to a property known as the Cloisters, the remains of the old Priory behind the church. Set into the Cloisters’ lawns are gratings which cover entrances to underground tunnels that have been explored and led to the moat, underpinning the stories of the plotters in 1688 surreptitiously entering the crypt by tunnel.

The Williams family who lived at the now demolished Temple House, midway between Hurley and Bisham, were disliked by Queen Victoria for their bad influence on Edward, Prince of Wales. One of the future King’s many mistresses was General Owen Williams’s sister, the Countess of Aylesford, whom he would visit at Temple House. There was a driveway to Temple House leading off Hurley High Street – its entrance gate pillars can still be seen next to the Olde Bell flanking the current footpath. Local rumour has it that Edward would also convey another of his lady friends, Lillie Langtry, to Temple House via this back entrance in a coach with drawn blinds. The entwined initials of General Owen Williams, one time MP for Great Marlow, can still be seen on the exterior of the Olde Bell.

There was a pre-war jibe which went “Are you married or do you live in Maidenhead?”. This referred to the racy image which the town acquired in the 1920s and ’30s, when it became a playground within easy reach for London’s fast set. Guilo Trappani, once the owner of Skindles hotel in Maidenhead, that was the focus for the bright young set and their racy activities, later became mein host at the Olde Belle which then attracted a variety of celebrities and was also favoured by the late Princess Margaret. The hotel and its restaurant acquired the same kind of exclusive reputation back then as a couple of well-known contemporary restaurants at Bray now enjoy. Mill House was also then used as a hotel where ‘temporary honeymoons’ were enjoyed on weekends. In 1933, the Daily Mirror ran a centre page spread about nude midnight bathing at Hurley lock which had people flocking to the village.

During the Second World War, American troops were stationed at Hurley, which became a centre for communications and intelligence activity, with tales told of American agents arriving by boat at the old water gate of Ladye Place. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, General Dwight Eisenhower and President Franklin Roosevelt all stayed in the village at some time during this war period. An American truck driver seeking to take a short cut across the river to get to the RAF station in Danesfield House sank the Medmenham Ferry. The inventor of the swimming tank that was used at the D-Day landings, Hungarian-born Nicholas Straussler, lived at the Refectory and tested models of his amphibious tank in the moat in its grounds*. And Londoners fleeing the Blitz camped out in tents and built temporary shelters on the river meadows. This was the origin of the extensive caravan park that now exists and the reason why bungalows line the riverside up towards Frogmill, having been built before present day planning restrictions on such developments applied. The Dutch royal family, headed by Queen Wilhelmina sat out the war, reportedly with the country’s gold reserve, at nearby Stubbings House, guarded by Dutch military and police who built their own encampment in Maidenhead Thicket.

This small village, which appears so quintessentially English, has thus made its own rich contribution to history over the centuries.

By Jeff Griffiths

* I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the REME Museum of Technology, Arborfield, in researching this information.

Taking the Toll

The earliest recorded toll road in the world is the Susa–Babylon highway, when travellers paid a toll during the regime of Ashurbanipal (who conquered Egypt) some 2700 years ago.   Aristotle and Pliny both mention tolls in Arabia and other parts of Asia and their use was also recorded in India, before the 4th century BC.

Map of the Toll roads around Marlow
Map of the Toll roads around Marlow

In England, the upkeep of bridges was placed in the hands of local settlements by the Bridges Act of 1530 and, some 25 years, later Parliament (like today knowing a good cost-cutter when they saw it!) devolved the care of roads to parishes as statute labour.   Every adult in a parish was obliged to work for four consecutive days a year on the roads – and had to provide their own tools, carts and horses.  1663 saw a section of the Great North Road in Hertfordshire become England’s first road to charge a toll, and the first Turnpike trust was set up some forty years later in 1706.

Mail Coach
Mail Coach

The name “Turnpike” comes from the military practise of placing a pikestaff across a road to block it – it was “turned” to one side to allow travellers to pass.  Turnpike trusts became responsible for improving and maintaining most main roads in England and Wales  and eventually 1,000 trusts administered around 30,000 miles through some 8,000 toll gates.  They were gradually abolished starting in the 1870s, principally due to the growth of the railways.

During  the 1800s, Buckinghamshire had at least sixteen Turnpike trusts, including “Great Marlow and Stokenchurch,” which was incorporated in 1791 and had its term extended for a further 21 years in 1813.  It was responsible for 8.5 miles of road including two turnpikes and a side gate.  There is some evidence for a toll bar at Seymour Court in a Notice of Auction of Tolls in July 1821.  Two other gates are mentioned in the same notice and were at Penley Hills and Well End – which were both in Oxon until the boundary changed in 1896.

The A40 Toll Road.

The road between Beaconsfield and Stokenchurch was “turnpiked” in 1719, with other sections turnpiked later.  In 1751 it was added to the “Wendover to Buckingham Turnpike Trust” and remained part of it until 1852, when the Beaconsfield and Red Hill Trust was formed.

There were five toll gates along this road, starting with the Denham gate, opposite the “Dog and Duck” followed by the Red Hill gate near the 18th milestone.  The Holtspur gate collected tolls at the north end of the road from Hedsor.  High Wycombe’s gate was pulled down in 1826 and replaced by a new toll bar and although the toll house was eventually dismantled in 1978, it has now been re-erected at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, complete with its toll board.  Lastly, the West Wycombe gate was sited where the road splits off to Princes Risborough.

From Chenies through Amersham, High Wycombe, Marlow and on to near Henley-on-Thames.

This road was managed by the Reading and Hatfield Turnpike Trust, which was the very last trust in the county and continued until  as late as 1881.

A TurnpikeDebatably, there was a turnpike at the intersection of several lanes in Little Chalfont. But a statement of income and expenditure for the trust dated 31st October 1829 does not include it.  However a much altered toll house called Beel Lodge does survive there.  A “Whielden Lane” gate appeared on a 1985 – but not on the earlier maps. It stood opposite the ‘Queen’s Head’ and seems to have been demolished for road widening in 1929.  The Terriers gate turnpike was probably sited west of Wycombe Heath – and the gate at Great Marlow was to be found north east of the town where the High Wycombe and Little Marlow roads meet.  The Bisham gate was north of Marlow Bridge and the Greenland gate was opposite Greenland estate. The Ordinance Survey also marks a turnpike at Medmenham, though there seems to be no reason for a gate to be there.

The Marquess of Salisbury and the Earl of Essex, were both afflicted by gout and made annual “treatment” visits to Bath.   To shorten the journey, their lordships actually built their own road from Hatfield!   It crossed the Thames at Marlow and joined the A4 at Knowl Hill – cutting their journey by some 20 miles.

The surviving mile posts on this road are all from an identical cast-iron mould and all show Reading, but give the distance to Hatfield at the top. One of these is still standing in St. Albans at the west end of St. Stephen’s Hill near the King Harry public house. Others are at Chenies, Little Chalfont, Medmenham and Greenlands. Two more have been found locally at the entrance to Bisham Church and at Burchett’s Green.

The Old Toll House at Bisham Gate
The Old Toll House at Bisham Gate

This cottage is of particular local interest and was probably built during the 19th century for the Reading and Hatfield Turnpike Trust. Over the years there have been numerous additions and alterations to the building.  Although there is no direct documentary evidence of a tollhouse at this location,  local oral tradition suggests it was a toll collection point.

I would carry on with this subject – but writing has taken it’s toll on me!

by Gerry Palmer