History of Aylesbury, Buckingham and the Vale
The town of Aylesbury has very early origins; the first significant population dates back to the Bronze Age, and excavations have also revealed traces of an Iron Age hill fort. However, it was not until the arrival of the Anglo Saxons in 571 AD that Aylesbury was given its name (originally this was probably Aiglerburgh). The name itself has been spelt in numerous different ways over the years; in the 'History of Aylesbury' by Robert Gibbs a total of 57 variations are listed!
The first market took place in the 13th Century and the marketplace, although now reduced in size, remains the focal point of the town to this day. During the Middle Ages Aylesbury also had two fairs each year, which were important events attracting people from all over Buckinghamshire to buy and sell their wares.
During the 17th and 18th Centuries the staple cottage industries were bone lace making and duck rearing, largely undertaken by an influx of poorer residents at this time. Throughout the 19th Century Aylesbury achieved widespread fame as the source of Aylesbury Duck, and visitors flocked to purchase the delicacy from local traders.
However, a number of significant events during the 19th Century began to slowly but surely change the character of the town. During the 1820s the canal opened, and then in 1839 Aylesbury acquired its own branch line of the main London and Birmingham railway. Small businesses began to flourish, and from 1850 onwards larger industries started to develop.
By the 1950s and 60s waves of housing and office development produced a massive increase in population. Whilst substantial sections of the old town surrounding the Market Place were demolished through redevelopment in the 1960s, much of historic interest survives, particularly in the delightful streets surrounding the Parish Church of St Mary. The closure of the Cattle Market during the 1980s and the development of large modern office blocks reflects Aylesbury's dramatic change into a large, commercially vibrant town.
Market Square and the Courthouse
The Market Square has several important buildings including the Corn Exchange which was opened in 1865, and the 18th Century County Hall and Courthouse. A balcony, now removed, was used to publicly execute criminals. Luckier modern defendants have included Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, but the most famous trial in Aylesbury's history took place in the Council Chamber at Walton Street, where the Great Train Robbers were convicted in 1963/4.
The meaning of the name Buckingham is 'the place of Bucca's people hemmed in by water'; in the year 914 the area was heavily fortified by Bucca against the armies of the Danes. By the time of the Norman Conquest Buckingham had become a royal borough. King William II gave Buckingham to Walter Giffard who became the Earl of Buckingham. The first Duke of Buckingham was Humphrey Stafford who received the title when the manor of Buckingham was passed to him in the 16th Century. Ownership of the town passed through many hands during the 16th and 17th Centuries. The Manor House in Buckingham, previously the Prebend House, was extremely grand for its time, but it was spoiled during the Civil War in 1644. In 2010 Buckingham University commenced work to restore the house.
The Civil War was a time of split loyalties for Buckingham. Sir Edmund Verney and Sir Alexander Denton were both royalists, but there were also local Parliamentarians such as Sir Richard Temple and Sir Richard Ingoldsby. The town was vulnerable to attacks on two fronts - from Oxford where the King's Court was established, and also London which was held by Parliament. Legend has it that in 1643 Oliver Cromwell stayed in Buckingham, and that King Charles stayed briefly at Castle House.
Fire of Buckingham
One of the most significant events in Buckingham's history is the fire of 1724. Most of the houses were made from timber and plaster, and many roofs were thatched. The fire began in the Unicorn Inn in Market Square; it destroyed 138 houses which were mostly uninsured, and over 500 people were made homeless. They were re-housed in brick-built dwellings in Cow Fair. The 1724 fire explains why, apart from the Chantry Chapel, there are no really old buildings in the centre of Buckingham.
Swans in Buckingham
One of the most striking sights in Buckingham is that of the majestic swans gliding along the River Ouse. 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.
During the reign of Henry VIII Buckingham lost its status as County Town to Aylesbury, but it fought hard to win it back. Lord Cobham built the landmark gaol on Market Hill for the popular summer assizes (with circuit judges and a jury in attendance), and these were held here until 1849. However, Aylesbury had built a new County Hall with improved prisoner facilities, and it managed to win back the summer assizes.
There were a number of coaching inns during the 18th and 19th centuries that are still open today. The Cobham Arms, the White Hart and the Swan and Castle all still have their original coach entrances.
The Grand Union Canal opened in Buckingham in 1799, enabling cheaper coal and Welsh slate for roofing material to be brought in. In 1850 the railway line reached Buckingham, encouraging the building of Chandos Road with its distinctive Victorian houses. The disused railway line today is popular with local walkers.
The building of a number of schools in the area was encouraged by the 1902 Education Act. The independent University of Buckingham is a famous educational institution that was originally supported by Margaret Thatcher prior to its opening in 1976. Aside from its role in education, the University organises a programme of concerts and lectures which are attended by students, staff and townspeople.
In common with many English towns, Buckingham has seen changes during the 20th and 21st Centuries due to the need for more housing and employment. However, it is still a vibrant commercial centre retaining the character of a long-established town.
Buckingham Old Gaol Museum
The town's landmark building housing Buckingham's museum, Tourist Information Centre and souvenir shop. Discover the fascinating story of the building, of Buckingham’s past and the county’s military history. Visit the state-of-the-art glazed prisoners’ exercise yard which is available for hire. See the Flora Thompson display [local author of Lark Rise to Candleford].
People and Places in Aylesbury Vale
Florence Nightingale and Claydon House
Florence Nightingale was a frequent visitor to Claydon House following the marriage of her sister Frances Parthenope to Sir Henry Verney in 1858. She loved the peace and tranquillity afforded by the house, which is surrounded by beautiful parkland. Florence's bedroom on the second floor contains many of her mementos and personal effects, including letters, clothing and photographs, which show how thin and frail she became following her return from the Crimean War.
Claydon is one of England's most extraordinary country houses, and you can see examples of remarkable 18th Century rococo and chinoiserie decoration. It has been in the continuous occupation of the Verney family for over 350 years.
Some believe that the ghosts of Sir Edmund Verney, who died at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, and Florence Nightingale still haunt the house.
Stowe School is a famous independent boarding school situated just outside Buckingham. It is set within a world-famous magnificent landscape garden and parkland, containing work by Sir John Vanbrugh, Capability Brown and William Kent amongst others. You can visit the school on certain days, and the parkland is now maintained by the National Trust.
Famous alumni of Stowe School include Sir Richard Branson (business entrepreneur), Lord Cheshire (V.C. and philanthropist), Christopher Robin Milne (made famous in Winnie the Pooh), David Niven (actor), and Bernard Gadney (captain of a victorious England rugby team).
The Second World War was responsible for the setting up of a hospital at Stoke Mandeville, just outside Aylesbury. It was built originally under the wartime Emergency Medical Services arrangements. The world-renowned National Spinal Injuries Centre was established there in 1944 by Dr Ludwig Guttman. In 1948 Guttmann organised the first ever sports event for disabled athletes on the grounds of the hospital, followed four years later by the first international disability sporting event which heralded the start of the Paralympic Movement. The Games returned to their birthplace in 1984 when Stoke Mandeville stepped in short notice to co-host with New York.
The site of this world famous racing circuit is split between Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. It was the scene of the first ever World Championship Grand Prix in 1948, and since then has played host to a long list of exciting races, involving all of the big names in Formula 1 racing - amongst others James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, and more recently Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
In November 2009, work commenced on a series of dramatic developments to establish Silverstone as a premier motorsport venue and one of the best motor sport facilities in the world for competitors, organisers and spectators alike. This includes the new 3.66 mile Grand Prix Circuit, and the new Stowe Complex and a new Pit and Paddock Complex and Conferencing Facility, the Silverstone Wing, all of which are complete. The Complex offers new garages, a race control building, media centre, hospitality and VIP spectator zones and a primary paddock. In 2011 other developments were proposed including a business park, technology park, spectator facilities and an outdoor stage.
The King's Head, one of Aylesbury's most impressive listed buildings, once fronted the Market Square but today is reached by a quaint cobbled passage. The Great Hall of this ancient inn dates from the 15th Century, and features a window displaying the arms of Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou. Henry VIII reputedly wooed Ann Boleyn at the inn, and it is thought that Oliver Cromwell stayed here whilst on a visit to Aylesbury, which was a Parliamentarian stronghold during the English Civil War. Visitors are welcome to the King's Head.
The town of Aylesbury played a significant role during the Civil War. John Hampden, MP for Wendover, was partly responsible for the outbreak of conflict through his refusal to pay ship tax to Charles I. He went on to successfully lead the defence of Aylesbury at the Battle of Holman's Bridge in 1642, and was a key figure in the defeat of the Royalists. John Hampden's important role in the Civil War is reflected in many local place names and public amenities. There is also an imposing statue of John Hampden in the cobbled market square in Aylesbury.
John Wilkes MP
Radical MP for Aylesbury John Wilkes was a controversial and well-known figure during the 18th Century. He was particularly renowned for womanising and his membership of the 'Hellfire Club'. In 1748 aged 22 he married Miss Mead who was 10 years his senior and they lived together in Prebendal House near the Parish Church of St Mary. A daughter was born, but shortly afterwards the marriage failed and he threw his energies into politics. He was elected to Parliament as member for Aylesbury in 1757.
Wilkes started a radical newspaper called the North Briton, the 45th issue of which launched a damning attack on King George III. Wilkes was accused of seditious libel and taken to the King's Bench Prison. On 10 May 1768, 15,000 people amassed outside the prison chanting 'Wilkes and liberty'. Troops opened fire on the crowds killing seven people. Anger at the massacre led to disturbances all over London. However, the courts subsequently found Wilkes' arrest to be illegal and released him. His career took a turbulent turn following these events but after a period of exile overseas he returned to England, became MP for Middlesex, and ultimately Lord Mayor of London from 1774-75. He died at his beloved daughter's home in London in 1797. He is buried at the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street, where a tablet marks the burial place with the inscription 'John Wilkes: a friend to liberty'.