History of Bedfordshire

(See also article on Bedfordshire)

Bedfordshire is an English shire county which lies between approximately 25 miles and 55 miles (or approximately 40 and 90 kilometres) north of central London.

Political history

The Saxon invaders were naturally attracted to Bedfordshire by its abundant water supply and suitability for agriculture, but the remains of their settlements are few and scattered. With one exception, they all occur south of the Ouse. The most important is a cemetery at Kempston, where both cremation and earth-burial have been found side by side.

Early reference to Bedfordshire's political history is scanty. In 571 Cuthwulf inflicted a severe defeat on the Britons at Bedford and took four towns. During the Heptarchy what is now the shire formed part of Mercia; by the Treaty of Wedmore it became Danish territory, but it was recovered by King Edward (919 - 921). The first actual mention of the county comes in 1016 when King Canute laid waste to the whole shire. There was no organised resistance to William the Conqueror within Bedfordshire, though the Domesday survey reveals an almost complete substitution of Norman for English landholders.

Bedfordshire suffered severely in the civil war of King Stephen's reign; the great Roll of the Exchequer of 1?65 proves the shire receipts had depreciated in value to two-thirds of the assessment for the Danegeld. Again the county was thrown into the First Barons' War when Bedford Castle, seized from the Beauchamps by Falkes de Breaut one of the royal partisans, was the scene of three sieges before being demolished on the king's order in 1224. The Peasants Revolt (1377-1381) was marked by less violence in Bedfordshire than in neighboring counties; the Annals of Dunstable make brief mention of a rising in that town and the demand for and granting of a charter.

In 1638 ship-money was levied on Bedfordshire, and in the English Civil War that followed, the county was one of the foremost in opposing the king. Clarendon observes that here Charles I had no visible party or fixed quarter.

The earliest original parliamentary writ that has been discovered was issued in 1290 when two members were returned for the county. In 1295 in addition to the county members, writs are found for two members to represent Bedford borough. Subsequently until modern times two county and two borough members were returned regularly.

Sub county level administration

Bedfordshire is divided into nine hundreds, Barford, Biggleswade, Clifton, Flitt, Manshead, Redbornestoke, Stodden, Willey and Wiscamtree, and the liberty, half hundred or borough of Bedford. From the Domesday survey it appears that in the 11th century there were three additional half hundreds, viz. Stanburge, Buchelai and Weneslai, which had by the 14th century become parts of the hundreds of Manshead, Willey and Biggleswade respectively.

Until 1574 one sheriff did duty for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the shire court of the former being held at Bedford. The jurisdiction of the hundred courts, excepting Flitt, remained in the king's possession. Flitt was parcel of the manor of Luton, and formed part of the marriage portion of Eleanor, sister of Henry III, and wife of William Marshall. The burgesses of Bedford and the prior of Dunstable claimed jurisdictional freedom in those two boroughs. The hundred Rolls and the Placita de quo warranto show that important jurisdiction had accrued to the great over-lordships, such as those of Beauchamp, Wahull and Caynho, and to several religious houses, the prior of St John of Jerusalem claiming rights in more than fifty places in the county.

Industry and agriculture

Owing to its favorable agricultural conditions, up until at least the late Nineteenth Century Bedfordshire was predominantly an agricultural rather than a manufacturing county. From the 13th to the 15th century sheep farming flourished, Bedfordshire wool being in demand and plentiful. Surviving records show that in assessments of wool to the king, Bedfordshire always provided its full quota. Tradition says that the straw-plait industry owes its introduction to James I, who transferred to Luton the colony of Lorraine plaiters whom Mary Queen of Scots had settled in Scotland. Similarly the lace industry is associated with Catherine of Aragon, who when trade was dull, burnt her lace and ordered new to be made. As late as the 16th century the lace makers kept Catterns Day as the holiday of their craft. The Flemings, expelled by Alva's persecutions (1569), brought the manufacture of Flemish lace to Cranfield, whence it spread to surrounding districts. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and consequent Huguenot immigration to Great Britain, gave further impetus to the industry. Defoe writing in 1724-1727 mentions the recent improvements in the Bedfordshire bone-lace manufacture. In 1794, after the French Revolution, further French refugees joined the Bedfordshire lace makers.

Prominent landed families

Woburn Abbey, belonging to the Russells since 1547, is the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, the greatest landowner in the county. The Burgoynes of Sutton, whose baronetcy dates from 1641, have been in Bedfordshire since the 15th century, whilst the Osborn family have owned Chicksands Priory since its purchase by Peter Osborn in 1576. Sir Phillip Monoux Payne represents the ancient Morioux family of Wootton. Other county families are the Crawleys of Stockwood near Luton, the Brandreths of Houghton Regis, and the Orlebars of Hinwick.

Ecclesiastical history

On the division of the Mercian diocese in 679 Bedfordshire was allocated to the new see of Dorchester. It formed part of the Diocese of Lincoln from 1075 until 1837, when it was finally transferred to the Diocese of Ely. In 1291 Bedfordshire was an archdeaconry including six rural deaneries, which remained practically unaltered until 1880, when they were increased to eleven with a new schedule of parishes.

Antiquities and architecture

The monastic remains in Bedfordshire include the fine fragment of the church of the Augustinian priory at Dunstable, serving as the parish church; the church (also imperfect) of Elstow near Bedford, which belonged to a Benedictine nunnery founded by Judith, niece of William the Conqueror; and portions of the Gilbertine Chicksands Priory and of a Cistercian foundation at Old Warden. In the parish churches, many of which are of great interest, the predominant styles are Decorated and Perpendicular. Work of pre-Conquest date, however, is found in the massive tower of Clapham church, near Bedford on the north, and in a door of Stevington church. Fine Norman and Early English work is seen at Dunstable and Elstow, and the later style is illustrated by the large cruciform churches at Leighton Buzzard and at Felmersham on the Ouse above Bedford. Among the perpendicular additions to the church last named may be noted a very beautiful oaken roodscreen. To illustrate Decorated and Perpendicular the churches of Clifton and of Marston Moretaine, with its massive detached bell tower, may be mentioned; and Cople church is a good specimen of fine Perpendicular work. The church of Cockayne Hatley, near Potton, is fitted with rich Flemish carved wood, mostly from the abbey of Alne near Charleroi, and dating from 1689, but brought here by a former rector early in the 19th century. In medieval domestic architecture the county is not rich. The mansion of Woburn Abbey dates mainly from the middle of the 18th century in its present form.


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