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The town had long been in dispute with the Duchy of Lancaster regarding the status and rights of the inhabitants. Many traditions surround Hungerford's association with John of Gaunt. Chief amongst them is that it was John himself who granted the inhabitants of the town the right to fish in the River Kennet, from Eldren Stubb (on the river just below Leverton) as far as Irish Stile (at least two miles below Kintbury).

To support this tradition, there is in the town's possession an ancient (and battered!) brass horn, which is said to have been given to the town by John of Gaunt, as guarantee of those rights. The horn has the word 'Hungerford' on one side, and on the other is a partially defaced word 'Actel' or 'Astel', along with the badge of the Crescent and Star, now recognized as the Arms of Hungerford.

It is said that there was a written charter confirming those rights, but that the Duchy copy was lost in the fire at John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace in The Strand during the riots of 1381, and that the town's copy was allegedly stolen in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. A detailed account of the events surrounding the trial in 1573 of the two men charged with the theft is given in the Reverend Summers' book Story of Hungerford. In summary, however, the court found that the burgesses of Hungerford were not a 'Corporation' sufficient to plead; that there was no proof of the removal of the documents from the town chest; and that even if documents had been taken, there was no proof that the town had suffered any loss as a result!

In the developing struggle between the Duchy and the burgesses of Hungerford, this 'Charters Case' encouraged the Duchy officials to attempt to regain control of the fishery, or at least to get some payment for it. If there was no charter proclaiming the right of free fishing, then the Duchy were going to try hard to prevent the apparent 'poaching' of its waters. For their part, the residents of Hungerford, having enjoyed free fishing for generations, were not going to give up the benefit lightly.

This strength of feeling may seem rather out of proportion to a generation who now in the 1980's fish the rivers largely as a recreation. But in the Middle Ages eating fish was an important part of the diet, a good source of protein throughout the year, and especially welcome during the late winter when the only meat available would have been salted during the autumn. Following the Reformation, the former fish-eating day of Friday became compulsory, with the addition of Saturday, and in 1563, Wednesday. The growing importance of fish made the right of free fishing especially valuable. A 'battle royal' commenced!

An appeal was made by the burgesses to Queen Elizabeth when she was staying at Salisbury with the Earl of Pembroke, who was High Steward of Hungerford. She replied, in the now famous letter, on 7th September, 1574, confirming 'that the said inhabitants should hereafter have use and enjoy without interruption all such liberties and profits and benefits as heretofore time out of mind and remembrance of man they had used and enjoyed'. This royal reply might appear at first a true shot in the arm for the townsmen, but note that at no stage did it actually spell out any specific right. It was, in effect, a very diplomatic document; the Queen clearly did not wish to get too involved in the struggle between the Duchy and some of its tenants!

For the next 40 years or so, a succession of legal wrangles, inquiries, and surveys was carried out, and there are good accounts both in Summers' Story of Hungerford and Davis' The Story of an Ancient Fishery.

It was only after the death of Queen Elizabeth, during the reign of James I in 1611, that matters were eventually resolved. The Duchy set up yet another commission to inquire into the history of the 'Kynnett, commonly called the Hungerford Brook, famous above all rivers thereabouts for good trout, which fishery had been impaired by lewd and ill-disposed persons fishing unlawfully'. Of the many concluding statements, the following were perhaps the crux:

1. The fishing extended from Elder Stubb to Irish Stile;

2. The King (James I) was Lord Royal of all water except the mill pounds;

3. The townsmen of Hungerford had had the right of fishing in the waters, three days a week, time out of mind.

The inquiry had to a large extent gone against the townsfolk, and it signalled an end to the 'John of Gaunt' era of heresay rights. In the future, Hungerford was going to have its rights secured on a legal and recognized basis. As they were not a corporation, the townspeople decided to proceed by means of feoffees, or trustees.

The present Town and Manor of Hungerford, now a registered charity, is the immediate descendant of the 1617 feoffment. As Hungerford residents will know, many properties along the High Street (and elsewhere) still hold common rights - in all, a total of about one hundred and thirty houses enjoy this privilege.

Next is [Open Fields]

See also:

- The Case of the Missing Charters