History of the Town of Buckingham

The Charter granted to Buckingham by King Charles II in 1684 describes the town as “The Loyal and Ancient Borough of Buckingham”. The description is apt; even in 1684 Buckingham was over a thousand years old. Today it can look back on more than fourteen hundred years of history. It has experienced both triumph and disaster. It has had many rulers – Saxons, Danes and Normans. There have been times of prosperity; for a while in the Middle Ages Buckingham was an important wool town. But there have also been periods of decline and economic adversity. If we add the Civil War, visits by royalty and the Buckingham fire of 1725, all in all we have a really fascinating history. The story of Buckingham makes it one of the most interesting communities in this part of England.

The beginning to the Norman Conquest
11th to 14th century
15th to mid-18th century
Mid-18th to 20th century

If you have enjoyed the above potted history and would like to read more about the History of Buckingham, take a look at The Book of Buckingham by John Clarke (Barracuda Books, 1984; available in the University Library). You may also enjoy reading about the infant St Rumbold of Buckingham, who lived (and died) in about AD 650.

The beginning to the Norman Conquest

There have been people in the Buckingham area since the Stone Age and there are many signs of human activity in the Iron Age and in Roman times. But Buckingham itself dates from the seventh century. The town of Buckingham is said to have taken its name from the leader of the first German settlers – Bucca’s people. Buckingham literally means “meadow of Bucca’s people”.

The original Buckingham was a very small village; today most of the site is occupied by the Hunter Street Campus of The University of Buckingham. The village was concentrated at the top of a loop in the Great Ouse river, a good defensive position. (In the troubled times between the seventh and eleventh century such things were important). Buckingham became part of the Kingdom of Mercia but the territories of the rival Kingdom of Wessex were not far away. Military considerations became even more crucial when England was invaded by the Danes. For nearly a hundred years Buckingham was on the front line of the struggle between the Saxons and the Danes. During periods of truce the frontier ran along the Watling Street, the modern A5, only a few miles to the east and north of Buckingham.

But the Danes often crossed the frontier and Buckingham was in Danish hands for some years around 900. One of the most striking sights in Buckingham is that of the majestic swans gliding along the River. According to one legend a Danish chieftain used the sign of the swan as his personal standard. Today the swan still appears in the arms of Buckingham, in those of the county and in the crest of the University. For a while, the Danes controlled the entire valley of the Great Ouse with armies based at Buckingham, Bedford and Huntingdon. The rulers of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex were determined to regain the area and the re-conquest of Buckingham became one of their top priorities. In 914, King Edward the Elder arrived in Buckingham with a large army. Many of the local Danish leaders surrendered to him and Edward decided to build a fort here. Today this is the site of Buckingham Church; the higher ground means that the tall spire can be seen for miles around. The very steep slope from the Church down to Well Street would have created great difficulty for any attacking force.

Buckingham Church, approached from Castle Street, stands on the site of the medieval castle

The presence of the fort, whether as a strong point to resist renewed Danish attacks or as a jumping-off point for Saxon attacks on Danish armies based at Northampton or Bedford, gave Buckingham an importance far greater than a mere village. It became one of the Royal Burgs of Wessex and became a county town. The late Saxon Kings had a clear policy of promoting the development of Buckingham. The market established by Danish settlers at Langport, now a hamlet in the grounds of Stowe, was transferred to Buckingham and people were encouraged to move to the town with promises of low taxation. Buckingham was governed by a Reeve who was appointed by the King. The town also had a royal mint and silver pennies were produced for nearly one hundred years. Buckingham, a Royal Borough, with its own mint, was entitled to imagine that a glorious future awaited it! But lady luck was not on its side.

11th to 14th century

Shortly after the Norman Conquest the original village site and the lands attached to it, including the hamlet of Gawcott, were given to the Church. The estates provided part of the endowment of the rich Prebendary of Sutton (Kings Sutton in Northamptonshire) cum Buckingham attached to the new Cathedral of Lincoln. The name Prebend End is still used to describe this part of Buckingham and the town was to remain in the Diocese of Lincoln until 1850. The original Buckingham Church was in Prebend End and the site is now occupied by a disused graveyard. There was also the large Prebend Manor House, sometimes used by the Prebend but more often let to tenants, which was was one of the finest in Buckingham but was destroyed in the Civil War in 1644. There was clearly much opposition to the Normans who found it especially difficult to impose their rule in the forest of Whittlewood which then covered much of the land between Buckingham and Northampton. If the logic of King Edward’s fort had been to fight the Danes, that of Buckingham Castle was to overawe the locals.

The Norman doorway of the Chantry Chapel

Although sometimes absentees, the Giffords and their successors the de Braose family tried to turn Buckingham into a major commercial centre. Now the town grew beyond the loop of the river and a very large market square was laid out – still the main shopping area of the town. Different parts of the square were used for the sale of differing types of produce – cows at the east (curiously still known as North End Square), bulls in the middle (the Bull Ring) and butter and groceries in Market Hill. Horses were sold in West Street and sheep and wool in Well Street. The Woolpack Inn in Well Street indicates its former role.

But the plan was probably overambitious as Buckingham did not have good natural transport. Prior to the eighteenth century most of the successful towns in England were either on the coast or on navigable rivers. Another problem concerned the state of the Castle; the buildings were neglected and in 1305 were described as being worth nothing. One of the chief functions of county towns was to hold the Shire Assizes but with the Castle in ruins there was no suitable building available in Buckingham. The Assizes moved elsewhere and were often held in Newport Pagnell.

Buckingham got into serious difficulties in the fourteenth century. Around 1300 the population of England reached levels not seen again for four hundred years. Already there was hardly enough food to go round. Then shortly after 1310 the climate began to deteriorate. Summers became colder and wetter and crop yields fell. The inevitable result was famine. The Buckingham area suffered badly in the famine of 1316. We have sad accounts of inquests held in Buckingham concerning people found dead from starvation at the side of the road.

In 1349 the Black Death struck causing heavy mortality in the Buckingham area, especially among the clergy and members of monastic orders. Virtually all of the community at nearby Luffield Priory perished. The plague returned several times in the course of the next century. By 1500 there were probably fewer people living in the area than in Roman times. The fall in numbers had all sorts of social and economic implications; labour became scarce, old style serfdom disappeared, rents fell and some of the old landowning families either became extinct or were forced to sell up. Their lands were often acquired by enterprising new men.

15th to mid-18th century

Bartons Hospital

The rebuilt Barton’s Hospital

Despite this downturn in fortune, Buckingham struggled on valiantly. The new landowners, families like the Bartons and the Fowlers, tended to live locally – unlike their predecessors. They had often acquired their money in London, either through the law or through trade, but now they spent it in Buckingham. They also showed a strong sense of civic responsibility; the Bartons paid for the rebuilding of the Church and endowed a town charity. Even today a row of almshouses in Church Street is known as Barton’s Hospital. Buckingham did particularly well in the late 15th and early 16th century. For the first time since Roman times bricks were being used in buildings – although difficult for farmers the heavy clay of North Buckinghamshire is ideal for brick making and soon an industry developed which has continued till recent times. We can see some early brickwork in Church Street – especially in the twisted chimney attached to what was later the Prebend End Manor.

Some of Buckingham’s leading residents had friends in high places. The Fowlers were Henry VII’s hosts when he visited Buckingham and the same family also entertained Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, in 1513. Catherine is an important figure in Buckingham’s history; a devotional crucifix, which is supposed to have belonged to her, can still be seen in Buckingham’s Old Gaol Museum. According to legend it was Catherine who introduced the women of the area into the craft of lace making, an important part of the local economy for several centuries.

Buckingham’s affection for Catherine of Aragon did not bode well for the town when her marriage got into difficulties. It is curious how often national dramas, like Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine, have local dimensions. Of course Catherine’s rival was Anne Boleyn and Anne’s father was Lord of the Manor of Aylesbury – Buckingham’s rival for the position of county town. It was a sign of the times that Henry appointed an Aylesbury man, Sir John Baldwin as Chief Justice. A fire in Buckingham provided a suitable excuse for the transfer of the Assizes to Aylesbury.

Buckingham displayed little initial enthusiasm for the Reformation and its attitude was revealed sharply in the events following the death of the boy king, Edward VI, in the spring of 1553. Edward had taken his father’s Reformation several steps further and there was a pro-Catholic rising in the area in 1548. One of Edward’s measures was the suppression of the Chantries. The Buckingham chantry became the Royal Latin School – another of the town’s major institutions. Fortunately the building, dating from the 12th century, survives. It now belongs to the National Trust and is Buckingham’s oldest building. When Edward died Buckingham gave its support to Catherine of Aragon’s daughter – the Catholic Mary Tudor – rather than to the Protestant claimant, Lady Jane Grey. Mary was so grateful for the town’s support that on 17th January 1554 she issued a royal charter that established Buckingham as a borough to be governed by a Bailiff and twelve burgesses.

The Charter certainly gave a psychological boost to the town and seemed to promise financial independence and economic recovery. These hopes were fulfilled but only in part since poor transport and heavy soil made progress slow. But at least the land was now increasingly used for the best purpose; clay land is not ideal for grain or for sheep farming, but it produces good grass and is suitable for cattle – whether for meat, dairy products or leather. It was in Elizabethan times that tanning began to acquire a major importance in Buckingham. A bell foundry was also established and some of the bells made by the Powell family – originally Ap Howells from Wales – still ring in the towers of local churches.

Timber-framed buildings in St Rumbold’s Lane

The Temples were for Parliament in the Civil War and so was the town of Aylesbury. Not surprisingly most of the people of Buckingham supported the King. There were many skirmishes and one important siege – at Hillesden – in the course of the war. Buckingham was really in a kind of frontier zone as it had been between Saxons and Danes many centuries earlier. There were royal garrisons at Oxford and Banbury and Parliamentary ones at Aylesbury and Newport Pagnell. Prince Rupert, Charles I and Oliver Cromwell all came to Buckingham. It wasn’t long, however, before Buckinghamshire saw a Parliamentary victory. Despite the civil war troubles Buckingham did quite well in the 17th century; the restoration of Charles II helped the town prosper, whilst Parliamentary Aylesbury suffered. There were a number of guilds set up, and over 30 different trades flourished – from clothiers to goldsmiths and candle-makers to tanners.

Disaster came in 1725 with another terrible fire. Most of Castle Street and parts of Market Hill, West Street and Well Street were ablaze. According to one account, the fire destroyed 138 houses and left over a third of Buckingham homeless. The 1725 fire explains why, apart from the Chantry Chapel, there are no really old buildings in the centre of Buckingham.

Mid-18th to 20th century

The gothic Old Gaol

Buckingham’s main economic problem had always been poor communications but turnpike roads were beginning to improve matters. Still it was difficult to travel more than fifty or sixty miles in a day. There were many journeys that required an over-night stop or at any rate a change of horses. Buckingham became a place of coaching inns – the Swan and Castle (now the Villiers), the White Hart, the Cobham Arms and the George (now both converted to other uses). Buckingham was an obvious place to break a journey between Oxford and Cambridge or between London and the Midlands. Between the late 1740s and the early years of the 19th century Buckingham experienced something of a building boom. In 1748 the Old Gaol, now a museum, was built in an attempt to win back the Assizes from Aylesbury. The old church fell down in 1776; a new one being constructed on the site of the old Castle in the 1780s. There was a new town hall as well and a branch canal, linking Buckingham with the main Grand Junction Canal, was opened. All this resulted in a boom at the end of the 18th century with the Buckingham tanners benefiting from links with Northampton, a thriving boot and shoe town.

Another setback hit the town in the mid 19th century, when Buckingham was excluded from the London to Birmingham railway line. The main line was built some miles away from Buckingham and the town had to make do with a branch line that opened in 1850. The bankruptcy of the Duke of Buckingham in 1848 had a terrible effect on the Buckingham economy and the town lost the last remnants of its county status. The wool sorting trades declined and in the 1870s, as the agricultural depression hit hard, many Buckingham people left for Wolverton, London and the new colonies to look for work. Between 1841 and 1931, Buckingham’s population went down by a quarter – from around 4000 to about 3000 – at a time when the national population more than doubled.

But there were compensations for those who remained in late Victorian Buckingham. The town acquired more facilities – a hospital, mains drainage, water supply and electricity, all before 1900. Perhaps because of the interest of Florence Nightingale, who spent her declining years at Claydon House, health care in Buckingham was much better than average. There were several years in the 1890s and early 1900s when the death rate was the lowest in the country. The Church had been remodelled by Gilbert Scott, the famous local architect, there were several new chapels and existing schools had been expanded and new ones established. Perhaps Buckingham was declining in relation to the rest of the nation – but a reading of the local papers around 1900 gives a rather different impression.

There were even times when Stowe was once more the focus of attention. For some years the house was leased to the Comte de Paris, the exiled claimant to the French throne. It is said that the Comte declared that he liked Stowe because it reminded him of Versailles. Notices in French were installed at Buckingham station for the convenience of his visitors. But the real significance of the Comte was not with railways but with another form of transport. Until recently, a garage in Buckingham carried on its letter head the wonderful legend: “Suppliers of Motor Cars to the Court of France”. Buckingham had become perhaps a little bit of a backwater in the railway age but the future was with roads and here it was much better placed.

Stowe Avenue, leading from Buckingham to the Corinthian Arch

Like other communities Buckingham suffered grievous losses in World War I but at least some of its soldiers were spared the futility of trench warfare in France. These were the men of the Bucks Yeomanry, the regiment that made the last successful cavalry charge – against the Turks, not far from Jerusalem, in 1917. Perhaps the most important development of the inter-war period was the opening of Stowe School, indicating a future in which the dominant theme would be education and not only education but independent education. There was some new housing, both public and private, but the full impact of the 20th century came with World War II when the bombing of London brought a host of evacuees, many of whom remained after the war and added a new energy and vitality to the town. The war also brought the reallocation of factories from London, American soldiers and airmen, construction workers and others.

And the sense of dynamism that appeared with the war continued afterwards. The population of the Home Counties was rising fast and spilling to their farthest corners and there was the Milton Keynes project beginning in the late 1960s. The implications for Buckingham were immense. But there was something missing. Buckingham has always been a little bit different from other places. The danger now was that it would become indistinguishable from the rest of outer suburbia. Lots of other places were gaining universities. Buckingham got one too – but Buckingham got an independent university.