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Rich noblemen passing through with their carriages, servants and hangers-on would have been a familiar sight in 16th century Hungerford, as they made their way from London to their estates further west, or went back to Court again. There were strong connections between the Crown and local gentry families, especially in the reign of Henry VIII. His third queen, Jane Seymour, was from Wolfhall in nearby Savernake, which the King himself visited on a number of occasions. Perhaps the townspeople remembered the stories about the huge feasts, when the expenses for a whole week amount to £300 - an astonishing sum in those days (Rev Canon J E Jackson "Wulfhall and the Seymours" Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, no. 15'. (1875) p 170).
Queen Elizabeth herself may have passed through the town more than once. In 1592 she may well have been visiting her Attorney-General Sir John Popham at Littlecote, when her coachman, Mr Slie, died at 'The Bear1, as recorded in the Parish Registers. In 1601, near the end of her reign, she visited Sir John Popham again. No doubt on each occasion the townspeople would have crowded the streets for a glimpse of the Queen and cheered loudly as she passed through. After all, she was their landlord as well as their monarch, and The Bear1 had been part of the estates of her mother, Anne Boleyn.
As we have seen, the manor of Hungerford was part of ancient royal lands. For much of its history, the manor continued to be part of the Crown estates, although on numerous occasions it was granted to various noblemen, then reverted to the Crown again - this process frequently speeded up by the axeman and his block. That fate was shared by various lords of the manor of Hungerford - the best known being Edward Seymour, Jane Seymour's brother, who rose to become Lord Protector to the young Edward VI. Too ambitious for some, he was executed in 1552. After his death Hungerford became royal lands again and remained so, until it was granted to trustees on behalf of the Town and Manor in 1617.
What was the reality of being part of the Crown estates? As far as the tenants were concerned, it may not have been a great advantage. Elizabeth herself was perpetually short of money, and on a number of occasions surveys and enquiries were made of all the Crown lands to make sure that they were being properly exploited. It was just such an enquiry which revealed that the profits of the fishery, market tolls, etc. were not going into the Crown coffers, but were enjoyed by the townspeople.
There was another disadvantage. Local management of the Crown estates, which were part of the Duchy of Lancaster, was in the hands of Stewards and Surveyors - Crown servants who were unpaid, but who expected to be able to make a very good living by exploiting any profits and privileges. Many complaints were made about Sir Henry Sadler, whose local offices included Keeper of the woods at Hungerford, Lieutenant of Aldbourne Chase and Steward of the Duchy Lands in Wiltshire. He was not a member of the local gentry - he owed these lucrative offices to his father, Sir Ralph Sadler, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (P W Hasler (ed), The House of Commons 1558-1603, Vol 3, p 317).
When not at Court, Sir Henry Sadler had two local houses - one in Hungerford Park and one at Everleigh, near Collingbourne Ducis He does not seem to have been very popular with the townspeople - not only did he over-exploit the woodland, he was also accused of raising rents too high and generally being a nuisance. He lived to a ripe old age; he died aged 80 and was buried in Hungerford Church, although no memorial appears to have survived. By that time, Hungerford had severed the link with the Duchy of Lancaster and had achieved a form of self-government, its privileges safe from the grasp of Crown servants; Sir Henry would not have approved.
Turning attention to the gentry whose local roots were well established, we can mention the Darrells, Hungerfords, and Goddards among others. Perhaps the best known are the Darrells of Littlecote, and especially 'Wild Will' Darrell. Whether he was really responsible for the dreadful murder at Littlecote will probably never be known, but a surprising amount of fact, rather than fiction, is known about him. A collection of State Papers records many interesting details from his household accounts, including the menus shown under [Family Life]. Although most of the Darrell estates were at Littlecote and further west, they also owned Hopgrass farm (VCH Berks, Vol 4, p 194). This had belonged to William Darrell's mother, Elizabeth Essex, who was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Essex of Lamboum. Like the rest of the Darrell lands, Hopgrass passed to the Chief Justice Popham in 1S86, and shortly afterwards Will Darrell died in rather mysterious circumstances (his horse was said to have been frightened by a ghost). His death is noted in Hungerford parish registers: Died suddenly Mr William Darrell of Littlecote 3rd October 1589. Significantly perhaps, the Vicar did not add the phrase 'our good neighbour' or 'our worshipful neighbour' which he often used when recording a death among the local gentry.
Another gentry family with local interests were the Hungerfords (J Bettey, Wessex from AD1000, p 114; H Miller, Henry VIII and the English Nobility, p 26-27). Their connection with the town went back as far as the 12th century, when Stigand de Hungerford was a landholder here. Members of the family continued the link throughout the middle ages, although, like the Darrells, their principal estates were in Wiltshire and further west. Their rise to power and fortune in the 14th century was spectacular; their wealth came from highly profitable sheep farming and royal service. During the 15th century they were one of the most important local landholding families, although they almost came to grief in the Wars of the Roses by being on the wrong side at the wrong time.
By the Elizabethan period there were two separate family estates here. One was the manor of Hungerford Engleford, which was held by Sir Walter Hungerford. He was a very colourful figure, famous for his hawks and hounds, although he did not live in the town of his name (Hungerford family details from S T Bindoff (ed), The House of Commons 1509-1558, Vol 2, pp 409-415). His lands were let out, including the manor house called the Swanne with the lands which were described earlier. Sir Walter died in 1596 and his son Sir Edward, who was a gentleman pensioner to Queen Elizabeth, inherited his lands here. Another family member, Edmund Hungerford, does seem to have lived here. Several entries in the parish registers mention the baptisms of the children of Mr Edmund Hungerford and later Mr John Hungerford of North Standen. It is difficult to be certain how the North Standen branch links to the Gloucestershire and Wiltshire Hungerfords: they were such a prolific family, all with similar names, that historians have found it difficult to sort them out.
The Darrells and the Hungerfords were both very well established gentry families - but there were new families coming in to the scene. The rise of the gentry is a well documented feature of Elizabethan society and it is possible to see how it affected the local area, as families who had previously been of yeomen status gradually acquired more land and enough prestige to rise up through the social scale. In this category we might place the Goddards of Standen Hussey, who were related to the Aldbourne Goddards. By the end of the 16th century, they had become very wealthy. Thomas Goddard, who died in 1609, left 1000 marks each (nearly £700) to his younger children Anne, Alexander and Edward (Goddard wills kindly lent by Mrs J Goddard). They were to be educated by their mother in learning and knowledge such as in her lieth. Also on the boundary between yeomen and gentry we might place the Hiddens, who were successful and well established yeomen, directly involved in large scale fanning in Hidden and Eddington, but never over-ambitious in their lifestyle.
As we have seen, no single gentry family ever dominated the Hungerford area, although many did hold lands and interests here. This is significant, because had there been such a family, the town's privileges and long tradition of self government might have been at a much greater risk. As it was, things got very difficult indeed, as we shall see below.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
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