History of Henley-in-Arden
The ecclesiastical and civil parishes of Beaudesert and Henley in Arden now form a small market town of some 3,000 inhabitants. For the length of the High Street the two parishes are separated by the River AIne. Much of their history is common, but there are interesting early differences.

Early History
In Anglo-Saxon times the area was settled by the Stoppingas, a tribal group of the South Angles, who were part of the kingdom of the Hwicce which had its capital at Worcester.

Following the conversion of the Hwicce by Celtic missionaries, led by St Cedd and St Chad, a minster church was built at each of their principal settlements: one of these was at Wootton Wawen.

At some time between 723 and 737 Aethelbald, King of Mercia, gave 20 hides of land to Earl Aethelric, a son of a former king of the Hwicce, for the support of the church at Wootton Wawen. A hide was the amount of land a plough could cultivate in a year and was approximately 100 acres.

The land governed by the minster church was gradually divided over the next 1200 years into twelve parishes, including those of Beaudesert and Henley.

Anglo Saxon map

Medieval Times
Neither parish is mentioned in the Domesday Book, but it is thought that Beaudesert was one of the many landholdings of the Count of Meulan, being the five hides that he is shown as holding in Preston Bagot. Prior to the Conquest it had been held by the Saxon thane Britnod.

Henley was a small part of the lands held in Wootton Wawen by Robert de Toeni, subsequently known as Robert de Stafford. Immediately before the Norman Conquest, the land had been held by the Saxon thane Wagen (subsequently corrupted to Wawen).

The Norman settlers at Beaudesert gave it its name, meaning "beautiful waste". Title passed from the Count of Meulan to Henry de Newburgh, Earl of Warwick and subsequently to the latter's great nephew Thurstan, the first of the de Montforts of Beaudesert. It was he who built the castle on the Mount (below).

In about 1140 Thurstan obtained a charter from the Empress Maud (daughter of Henry I) enabling him to hold a market on Sundays. It was probably this market which led to the settlement of Henley. Peter de Montfort (1st) was granted a market on Mondays in his manor of Henley by Henry III in 1220, together with the right to hold an annual fair on the eve and the feast day of St Giles (his feast day was 1 September). In 1227 this right was extended to his manor of Beaudesert and the fair extended to the day following St Giles' day. Thenceforth the history of the two places - Henley and Beaudesert – is almost identical. In 1449 a charter of Henry VI confirmed to Sir Ralph Boteler his right to hold a market on Mondays and granted him two fairs annually, one on the Tuesday of the week of Pentecost and the two following days and the second on St Luke's day (18 October) and the two following days.


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Henley was laid out as a town in the 13th century: the first recorded reference to one of its tradesmen was in the following century, when Peter de Montfort (3rd) granted the lease of a shop to Fulk the Armourer and his wife Edith for 3 shillings a year in 1333.

Henley's Lords of the Manor went to war on many occasions. Peter de Montfort (1st) joined the Barons in rebellion against Henry III and was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 with his famous namesake, Simon de Montfort: Peter's son and heir Peter de Montfort (2nd) was captured.

After the battle the town of Henley and the castle of Beaudesert were burnt down by the King's army: none of the castle now remains standing, though the outline of its fortifications can clearly be seen on the Mount, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Mount was the subject of a dig by the Time Team in 2002: some of the items discovered are on display in the Heritage Centre, together with a description of the castle and an account of the dig.

The men of the town were noted archers and accompanied their lords when the latter were summoned to join the army of the king. Henley's archers are known to have fought at Evesham in 1265, at Bannockburn in 1314 (where the Lord of the Manor, John de Montfort, was killed), at Crecy in 1346 (under Peter de Montfort (3rd)) and probably at Agincourt in 1415.

The Battle of Crecy 1346

During the 15th century Henley had a hospital for the relief of wayfarers and of the poor. It was rebuilt and re-established in 1449 when Bishop John' Carpenter of Worcester gave an indulgence of forty days to all who assisted in the work.

Battle of Worcester, 3rd September 1651

The Civil War
The most notable event in the 17th century was the Civil War. The sympathies of the local population at this time are uncertain, but the Rector of Beaudesert, John Doughty, was a noted Royalist and was ejected from his living by the Parliamentarians. Henley's position at a cross roads meant that it was frequently on the route of troop movements. In 1642 the Parliamentarian army of the Earl of Essex stayed in Henley on its way westward from Warwick and did so again later in the year on its way to Banbury.

On 17 October the 800 men of Lord Willoughby's Parliamentary force moved through the town, looting on their way. In the spring of 1643 it was the turn of the Royalist troops to pillage the town, Prince Rupert and his army of 2,000 men marching through on their way to the destruction of much of Birmingham. In late April they returned on their way to Oxford.

These passages cost the townspeople dearly, not only in the provision of free accommodation and meals for the troops, but as a result of looting. One of the most unfortunate was John Milward: having been robbed in August 1642, he was again robbed by Parliamentary forces in December 1643 of bedding, brassware, pewter, food and household goods to the value of £30.

Modern Era
The railway age came late to Henley despite the fact that William James, a significant railway pioneer, was born in the town in 1771. A branch line to connect Henley with the main Great Western Railway at Rowington was begun by a private company in 1860 but abandoned for lack of funds. The Great Western Railway completed it some 30 years later and it was opened in 1894.

Henley's first railway had a very short life, as the lines were taken up during the Great War. The railway line linking Henley with Birmingham and Stratford was opened for traffic by the Great Western in 1908.

The present Memorial Hall was built as the Public Hall and Institute in 1909 at a cost of £1,600. During the Great War it served as an auxiliary hospital, manned by Henley's two Voluntary Aid Detachments of the Red Cross. Its commandant was Dr Ernest Nelson, then also serving as High Bailiff.

In 1914 Henley finally won its independence from Wootton Wawen, becoming a separate ecclesiastical parish. Its independence was short-lived, as in 1915 the benefices of Beaudesert and Henley were combined and put under the joint patronage of the Bishop of Coventry and the High Bailiff of Henley.

There is now a single Parochial Church Council and, while there was formerly a Rector of Beaudesert and a Vicar of Henley, the present Rector serves both parishes, as well as the neighbouring parish of Ullenhall.

When civil parish councils were established by the Local Government Act of 1894, Henley became a ward within the Parish of Wootton Wawen.  The Wootton Wawen Parish Council met for the first time on 4 January 1895 at the Board Schools in Henley, and Councillor J Hawkes of Henley was elected its first Chairman. 

Beaudesert held its own Parish Meetings, which did not have the status of a Parish Council, but a representative occasionally attended meetings of the Wootton Wawen Parish Council.    At the Beaudesert Parish Meeting on 22 February 1954 the Court Leet suggested that the Parish of Beaudesert should be combined with the Henley-in-Arden Ward of the Parish of Wootton Wawen. However it was determined that Beaudesert should preserve its own identity and should apply to become a Parish Council. This proposal was accepted by the County Council and Beaudesert held its first Parish Council meeting on 22 June 1955.

Henley-in-Arden finally obtained its independence from Wootton Wawen in March 1957 and held its first Parish Council first on 1 April 1957.

The amalgamation of the parishes was again discussed in 1975. The Annual Assembly of Henley-in-Arden in March of that year agreed that a grouping order would be pursued. Beaudesert’s Annual Assembly in the following month came to the same conclusion. The grouping order was finally made on 10 May 1976 and the two separate parish councils became Beaudesert & Henley-in-Arden Joint Parish Council.  The parishes are still obliged to hold separate Annual Assemblies.

The Court Leet and Court Baron
The courts are a relic of Henley's feudal past. The Court Leet had jurisdiction over petty offences and civil affairs and was empowered to inflict fines and other punishments: the Court Baron dealt mainly with the transfers of property, and land within the Manor. The Courts met jointly and all members of the Court were required to be present or be subject to a fine. The Steward was appointed by the Lord of the Manor and the burgesses of the town elected the officers of the Court each year. The names of the officers varied over time, but those currently elected are the High Bailiff, Low Bailiff, Mace Bearer, Constable, two Ale Tasters, two Brook Lookers, two Affearors, a Butter Weigher and a Hayward. The Town Crier is appointed by the Steward and the Chaplain by the High Bailiff.

The records of the Court still exist from 1546, though the names of its High Bailiffs date back to 1477 and its Lords of the Manor to the Norman Conquest.

In 1974 most such courts were abolished by Act of Parliament as being defunct and obsolete, other forms of local government having been introduced in the 19th century: only 16 named courts were allowed to continue, one of which was Henley. The Court Leet continues to meet annually on the second Wednesday in November to elect its officers. It also administers the Guild Hall Trust, which owns the Guild Hall and other property in the town, including the land between the Guild Hall Garden and the river.

The Court Leet is presided over by the Lord of the Manor, Mrs. Robin Hardy-Freed, daughter of the American lumber millionaire Mr. Joseph Hardy of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania. The latter bought the title at auction in London in 1992 and has shown great interest in and affection for Henley. Through his generosity the Guild Cottage has been renovated and he has provided substantial sums to create a Heritage Centre for the town and its visitors.

The Parish Churches
The Norman Church of St. Nicholas (left) at the bottom of Beaudesert Lane was built at the end of the 12th century, probably by Thurstan De Montfort and became independent of Wootton Wawen. It is noted for its beautiful Norman arches, though the one in the nave has been extensively restored. The east window is virtually untouched and said to be one of the finest windows of its type in the County.

Henley's inhabitants had to worship in Wootton Wawen until 1367 when a church was built in Henley "at the sole charge of the inhabitants, in regard of the large distance, and foul ways in winter time, betwixt this Village and the Parish Church of Wootton Wawen". However, the Vicar of Wootton Wawen retained his right of burial, so that Henley's church had no burial ground.

The present church of St. John the Baptist (right) was built in 1448. This Church housed the Chapel of the Guild of St. John, one of the mediaeval guilds of a social and religious order, its purpose being to "render mutual assistance of all kinds between its brethren and engage in works of charity". The Guild was founded in 1448 by the then Lord of the Manor, Lord Boteler of Sudeley, who was a great benefactor. Restoration of both churches was undertaken in 1979: extensive repairs have been carried out to their towers, roofs and windows.

In 2000 the Millennium was commemorated by the installation of a stained glass window on the southern side of the nave in St John's Church, depicting life in the town at that date.

The High Street
In the centre of the town is the old Market Place where stands the remains of the 15th century Market Cross, one of the few still existing in Warwickshire and the second of Henley's two Scheduled Ancient Monuments. The Cross is built of local stone, but only the raised base of three steps and the lower part of the shaft are left. Originally the cross had a four-sided head with niches, each with a carved relief: the Rood, the Trinity, St. Peter with the key and possibly the Virgin and Child. Proclamations have been made from the Cross for five centuries, including the proclamation of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. A model of the original can be found in the Heritage Centre.

The one mile of Henley High Street is classified as a conservation area and contains over 150 buildings listed as being of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. Notable among them is the Guild Hall, a timber-framed building standing to the north of St. John's Church. It has been extensively restored though many of the original timbers remain. The Guild Hall can be viewed on application to the custodian at the Guild Cottage. The Guild Hall Garden is normally open from 10.00 am to 4.00 pm on weekdays.

The Heritage Centre is at 150 High Street (now known as Joseph Hardy House), parts of which date back to the mid-fourteenth century: it is one of Henley's most noted tourist attractions, having some 4,000 visitors each year.

Dr. Douglas Bridgewater.

About the Author

Douglas Bridgewater spent two years in the army on National Service and was posted to the Headquarters of British Commonwealth Forces Korea that, fortunately for him, was located in Japan. His first degree was in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, followed by a career in the computer industry. On his retirement he represented Henley for four years on Stratford District Council and for eight years on Warwickshire County Council.

During these years he also resumed his studies, being awarded an MA in English Local History and then a PhD in Modern History by the University of Birmingham. He is a member of the Centre for First World War Studies in the University, where he is also an Honorary Research Fellow. Douglas served as High Bailiff from 1998 to 2000 and from 2004 to 2006. He is married to Sue and has lived in Beaudesert for the last 22 years.

Those interested in local history will find more detail in the following:

Records of the Manor of Henley in Arden, Warwickshire by Frederick C Wellstood
(Stratford upon Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1919).

The Records of Beaudesert, Henley in Arden by William Cooper
(Leeds: John Whitehead & Son, 1931).

The Victoria History of the County of Warwick, Vol 3 Barlichway Hundred edited by Philip Styles
(London: University of London, 1945)

Henley in Arden: An Ancient Market Town and its Surroundings by William Cooper
(Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1946). A second edition of this work was published by Barracuda Books in 1992.

Further Links

History of Henley
Heroes of Henley