CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today CLICK HERE

Berkhamsted’s history in 5 key dates

PUBLISHED: 11:40 27 February 2018

First World War officer trainees take a break from trench digging on Berkhamsted Common

First World War officer trainees take a break from trench digging on Berkhamsted Common


Terror, trade, forbidden love and bravery – how just five dates tell something of the remarkable history of a small market town in Herts

1216: Siege on the castle

Rebel lords who had wanted King John overthrown offered the crown to Prince Louis, son of the French king. John was a weak leader – he had lost most of his lands in France, imposed punitive taxes, antagonised the church and alienated his barons, plunging England into civil war.

In October 1216, John died, and the crown passed to his nine-year-old son Henry III. Louis pressed his claim, invaded and took and held London.

At strategic Berkhamsted, Louis deployed his siege engines to the castle while his soldiers engaged in a policy of terror towards locals, killing, raping, thieving and burning. The siege lasted just two weeks. The French Chronicles recorded Louis’ army sending a continuous fire of destruction on to the castle walls. On December 20, Berkhamsted Castle was unexpectedly surrendered. It would take until 1227 to repair it.

The year following the siege Magna Carta was reissued to win over the rebel English barons from Prince Louis, who following defeats on land and sea, returned to France.

1218: Market day

May 2018 will mark the 800th anniversary of the first written record of Berkhamsted Market when it was recorded that the market day had changed from Sunday to Monday. The market is older, being held under ‘custom,’ dating from before the Norman Conquest.

In medieval times traders would have sold their wares from stalls, but gradually these became small wooden huts, which would later develop into shops. Most sold crafts or produce, with trades in 1290 including, carpenter, wood turner, butcher, fishmonger, tailor, salter, glover and goldsmith.

Royal patronage allowed the market to flourish, providing spices, exotic goods, silks and delicate metal work for the wealthy. Both Henry II and Edward IV endorsed the town with royal charters.

1809: King’s liaisons dangereuses

Berkhamsted was an important post town on the coaching route from London to Birmingham. At its height in the 1820s a total of four mail coaches per day travelled in each direction along the Sparrows Herne Turnpike, the old A41. The Sparrows Herne Turnpike Trust was responsible for the 26 miles of road between Bushey and Aylesbury. It held its inaugural meeting in 1762 at the Kings Arms in Berkhamsted.

The legacy of the old coaching inns is still visible today - the Kings Arms still has its arched entrance to the former stables. As well as providing a resting place for travellers, coaching inns were hubs of community life, where inquests might be convened, auctions held, magistrates hold court and public meetings called.

As with many coaching inns, the Kings Arms is steeped in scandal. At the end of the 18th century, it was a favourite haunt of the rich. In 1809, the exiled King Louis XVIII of France began a liaison with the innkeeper’s daughter, Polly Page. The king’s minister, Count Talleyrand, was outraged - not because of the affair but because Polly was ‘paysan’ (a peasant).

1883: Harbinger of doom

The word ‘bourne’ is old Saxon for stream. Over the centuries the erratic flow of the prosaically- named Bourne Gutter gave rise to local legends. It is said to be a ‘woe-water’, its rising being the harbinger of disaster and war. It was recorded that it flowed its full length in 1879 when the harvest was decimated, and Britain went to war against the Zulu. It appeared again in 1883, 1897 and 1904.

Torrential rain in 2000 caused its reappearance in 2001, and it flowed in part in 2003 and 2007. Relatively dry years followed until the wet summers of 2012 and 2014 caused it to flow the following spring.

1914: War games

In 1914, with the development of trench warfare in the First World War, the common land above Berkhamsted was used as training grounds for the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps. Upwards of 12,000 men camped there, digging over 13 miles of trenches (around 600m can still be seen today) and practising attack and defence as well as the skills of battlefield command. The open common next to the dense woodland of Ashridge Forest provided an ideal terrain for military training for those who would go out to command troops.

Incredibly, the men who trained here and who were subsequently deployed to the Western Front wore no head protection other than a cloth cap. By 1915 lethal head wounds from shrapnel led to the introduction of the Brodie protective helmet made from manganese steel. 
Of the young men who trained on Berkhamsted Common, more than 2,000 were killed, with one in four having no known grave. A further 4,000 were wounded. Most of these casualties were on the Western Front, and for many of the Berkhamsted trainees, their baptism of fire would be the killing fields of the Somme in northern France in 1916. The names of the fallen are recorded on the Inns of Court OTC memorial on the common.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hertfordshire visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hertfordshire staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hertfordshire account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Yesterday, 12:26

Christmas isn’t complete without a trip to a festive fair. From German-style food stalls to vintage fetes, Hertfordshire’s Christmas markets have it all

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We quiz author Kevin Exley about his new book that takes the reader on the trail of fascinating stories, new and old, around Berkhamsted

Read more
October 2018
Monday, October 29, 2018

Hertfordshire is a county with a vast, fascinating and sometimes dark and bloody history that has reportedly lead to more than a few angry ghosts sticking around to wreak havoc and take revenge on the living. We have gathered 10 of the most haunted places in the county

Read more
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Make the most out of autumn with these eight walking routes that take in a variety of Hertfordshire’s terrains and - most importantly – have a cosy pub along the way

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

We've selected a variety of spooky activities in the county that are sure to delight the kids

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Charlotte Hussey explores the fascinating world of bats and new projects in the county to help conserve these remarkable creatures

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is asking the public to look out for mammals on Hertfordshire’s roads as part of a citizen science project

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From stately homes to skateparks, we have selected some of the best ideas for things to do in Hertfordshire

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The diverse parkland of Pishiobury Park in Sawbridgeworth is undergoing a five-year plan to promote its heritage and enhance its habitats. It makes for a royal day out

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

From Aldbury to Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire has a plethora of pretty villages. We have picked just 10 that you should visit

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search