Back to [Elizabethan Hungerford]
On the accession of Good Queen Bess:
On the 17 Nov 1558, Queen Mary died and her half sister Elizabeth succeeded to the throne of England. We do not know how the news was brought to Hungerford, but surely it was greeted with a mixture of relief and optimism. The last years of Queen Mary's reign had witnessed epidemics, bad harvests, war and religious persecution. No doubt the courage of Protestant martyrs, such as those at Newbury, hardened popular opinion against Queen Mary, and her Spanish marriage was never popular.
Along with the rejoicing for the succession of a young and popular Queen, at the same time there may have been considerable uncertainty about the future. What would the new reign bring? Would the new Queen strengthen the 'old religion' or turn her country further away from Rome? Would she marry? Would the country be at war or at peace? Nonetheless, the problems of everyday life may have been of more concern to ordinary people than the change of monarch. Maybe they looked back to the times of' King Harry as the good old days, with some justification - wages were good and inflation was low.
The struggle for independence from the Crown:
The Elizabethan period brought mixed blessings to Hungerford. It shared in the general prosperity of the Elizabethan age, but these were also very difficult times for the townspeople because their customary privileges were almost lost. Hungeiford and Sanden Fee were under the lordship of the Crown, administered as part of the Duchy of Lancaster's estates until 1617 when the Town and Manor was formally established. Until then, the Crown had a claim on all rents and profits as well as all 'natural assets' including the woodland and fishery. However, the freeholders of the town enjoyed certain rights and privileges, which they justified by the claim that Hungerford was a borough. With this ambiguous relationship, there was certainly potential for trouble.
Several town histories have focused on the struggle to secure independence from the Crown, but rather than repeat what has been written, it seemed important to understand the wider context. This meant extending our study to the whole parish, because Standen Hussey, North and South Standen, Hopgrass and Eddington were all manors in their own right, each with its own lord of the manor. Some were held by local gentry families, such as the Goddards or Darrells. Others were part of the scattered estates of the Hungerford family, whose main lands were further west in Wiltshire. The presence of different gentry families inevitably led to competition for valuable assets such as the fishery. Some extremely acrimonious disputes were a consistent feature of the Elizabethan period - with a notorious trouble maker such as 'Wild Will' Darrell of Littlecote in the neighbourhood, this was not particularly surprising. However, our study is not limited to these intrigues, colourful though they may have been.
Maps, documents and fieldwork:
Today, there is a great deal of interest in the lives of ordinary people in the past. Many readers will be familiar with parish registers as a source for family history, but they are also extremely useful as a source for social history. Other records can increase and develop our knowledge, especially probate records such as wills and inventories. With careful analysis, they readily provide access to the lives of local people, their possessions and their trades, and the slowly improving living standards. Even the town and the surrounding countryside can be used as a source of information, while maps and sources from a later period can help in locating places mentioned in Elizabethan documents.
Each section in this booklet is quite self-contained and has a different theme. Chapter 1 is really about visible history: using the evidence of buildings, fields, woodland, roads, paths and tracks in conjunction with primary source material. The final part of the chapter includes, in full, a detailed survey from 1591, which is compared with 19th century sources in order to trace the history of the local landscape. Chapter 2 is about ordinary people: how they lived (and died), what were their trades and occupations, and what kind of furniture they had. A probate inventory of all the goods and chattels of an Elizabethan yeomen is fully transcribed. Finally, Chapter 3 is about local politics, with an explanation of the structure of local government, the struggle over the 'missing' charters, and the gentry families who were involved. Evidence of a fierce argument over the church pews is discussed, with the suggestion of a growing gap in wealth and status between "the pillars of the community" and the rest of the population.
A traveller's impression:
What did Hungerford look like some four hundred years ago? This is the most immediate question which springs to mind, but we have no maps or illustrations to hand, nor any contemporary descriptions. An Elizabethan traveller - a clergyman maybe, travelling from Oxford to Salisbury - would have passed through a quiet town, with a broad High Street. He might have received a courteous 'touch of the hat' from local people, as they went about their daily business. He may well have stopped for refreshment at one of the inns - 'The Bear' or 'The Crown' - before he went on his way.
A small market town, on the fringes of Wiltshire and Berkshire, with pleasant commons and woodland, might have been our traveller's main impression of Hungerford, and this is still very much the case today. However, it does not take a history lesson to point out the changes which have taken place since then. Very few 16th century buildings survive, the Church has been re-built and Hungerford is much larger than it was. Yet much has survived. We still have some of the commons, much of the woodland and the layout of the main streets has changed very little. Many individual house plots on the High Street can claim to have their bounds exactly as their medieval ancestors, even though the house itself would have been re-built many times.
In many ways it is the heritage around us today which inspires curiosity about the past, and this is the starting point of our study. Bringing together all the different sources can never provide the whole picture, but that is not the aim of this booklet. Above all, we want to make Elizabethan Hungerford 'come to life'. If by the end of the booklet our ancestors seem less remote, we may have succeeded.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
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