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Berkhamsted high street.jpg
The High Street, Berkhamsted
Grid reference: SP993077
Location: 51°45’36"N, 0°33’36"W
Population: 16,243  (2001)
Post town: Berkhamsted
Postcode: HP4
Dialling code: 01442
Local Government
Council: Dacorum
South West Hertfordshire

Berkhamsted is a historic town in Hertfordshire. It is in the west of the county in the old Dacorum Hundred between the towns of Tring and Hemel Hempstead. It was once a royal residence described by Simon Schama as being to the Plantagenets what Windsor is the current Royal family. It was briefly and unsuccussfully a borough. The Town Council still sits in Civic Centre across the road from the Old Town Hall, built at public subscription and saved from demolition by Berkhamsted citizens against the new Dacorum Borough Council sitting in Hemel Hempstead in the 1970s.

Berkhamsted is in the Chiltern Hills, in the wide valley of the River Bulbourne, to the west of Hemel Hempstead.

The town's most prominent role in national affairs took place in early December 1066. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, having defeated the English army at Hastings and slain King Harold II, encircled London finally crossing the River Thames at Wallingford. At Berkhamsted he was met by a delegation of the English establishment. He accepted the surrender of the English and took Edgar's submission. Archbishop Aldred, Earl Edwin, Earl Morcar and the chief men of London swore loyalty to William in return for good government. He was offered the crown there but instead said he would accept the keys to London in Berkhamsted but would accept the crown of England in London. Thus, in Berkhamsted, William of Normandy became William the Conqueror. A traditional local legend refers to Berkhamsted as the real capital of England.[1]

Berkhamsted today is most well known for Berkhamsted Castle, now in ruins but once a popular country retreat of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. Berkhamsted is also the home of the British Film Institute's BFI National Archive at King's Hill,[2] one of the largest film and television archives in the world, which was generously endowed by John Paul Getty.


The name of the town has been spelt in a variety of ways over the years, and the present spelling, Berkhamsted, was adopted in 1937. The town is known locally and affectionately as "Berko".[3]

Earlier spellings of the name include Berkhampstead, Muche Barkhamstede, Berkhamsted Magna, Great Berkhamsted and Berkhamstead. The earliest recorded form of the name is the Old English Beorhoanstadde,[4] and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the events of 1066 it is spelled Beorhhamstede.[5] Historian Percy Birtchnell identified over 50 different spellings and epithets since the Domesday Book.[6]

It is believed that the name means "homestead amongst the hills" (which in normalised West Saxon spelling would be beorgena hamstede.


Berkhamsted was the terminating point of the Norman invasion of 1066.[7] Having defeated King Harold II and the English at Hastings, William of Normandy led the Norman invading army to circle London crossing the Thames at Wallingford and making for Berkhamsted. Here he accepted the surrender of Edgar II (also known as Edgar Aetheling or Eadgar Cild), the English heir to the throne who had been proclaimed king just weeks before in London, along with the Archbishop Aldred, the Earl Edwin and the Earl Morcar.[8] They swore loyalty to William and thus in Berkhamsted William of Normandy became William the Conqueror. However, he declined to accept the crown in Berkhamsted saying he would receive the keys to London in Berkhamsted and would have the crown in London which he did, and his coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 .

Berkhamsted Castle was built in the same year, and rebuilt in stone soon after. It became a favourite country retreat for the Norman and Plantagenet dynasties.[7]

The entry for the town in the Domesday Book in 1086 describes Berkhamsted as being in the Tring Hundred and includes descriptions of vineyards, 26 plough teams and 1 priest. It was valued at £16 a drop of £8 since the Norman invasion.[9]

Berkhamsted received several royal charters. The first, granted by Henry III in 1216, freed the men and merchants of the town from all tolls and taxes wherever they went in England, Normandy, Aquitaine and Anjou.[10] A second charter in 1217 recognised the town's oldest institution, Berkhamsted Market.[10] Originally held on a Sunday it was changed to Monday, again by charter, when St. Peter's Church was built next to the High Street and the new rector objected to the noise. Other towns were forbidden to hold markets within 11 miles of Berkhamsted. Disputes with Aylesbury led to goods from both towns being banned from each other. The market is now held on a Saturday.

In 1618 James I granted the town a charter making the town a borough. But after supporting the Parliamentarians during the Civil War, Berkhamsted lost its charter at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

In 1866 Lord Brownlow of Ashridge House attempted to enclose and privatise Berkhamsted Common with 5' steel fences built by Woods of Berkhamsted and thereby, claim it as part of his estate. Local hero Augustus Smith MP (1804) led gangs of local and hired men from London's East End brought out on the new railway on a specially chartered train to break the fences and protect Berkhamsted Common for the people of Berkhamsted. East End toughs and local Berkhamsted men and women fought that night against Brownlow's men in what became known nationally as the Battle of Berkhamsted Common.[11] Born in Ashlyns Hall in 1804, Augustus Smith constantly fought for the common man. He died having reformed working class education in the Scilly Isles and today is commemorated by the award of the Augustus Smith scholarship for state school students in Berkhamsted.


Main article: Berkhamsted Castle

The walls of Berkhamsted Castle

Berkhamsted Castle is a ruined Norman castle standing behind the town (out near the railway station). It is an ancient royal castle, once a favoured royal residence but now with little but its size to tell of its former greatness. It belongs to the Duchy of Cornwall but is in the care of English Heritage

Berkhamsted Castle was once the home of Edward, the Black Prince and his wife, Joan of Kent. Geoffrey Chaucer was constable. Work first began on the construction of the castle in 1066.[12]

The original structure of timber and earthworks was replaced by a stone castle 1080s [13] and became a favourite home of Norman and Plantagenet monarchs. Simon Schama refers to Berkhamsted as being to the Plantagenets what Windsor Castle is to today's Royal Family.

From 1155 until 1165 the Henry II's favourite Thomas Becket was appointed constable. The surviving flintwork walls remain from his building plans.[10] Percy Birtchnell suggests, in a rather unique interpretation, that one of the reasons for Beckett's fall from grace and assassination was his overspend on Berkhamsted Castle which stretched the King's finances.[14] Records show that there was a chamber in the Castle named St Thomas's.

A king who spent much time here were Henry III, and it became a residence for his son, Richard Earl of Cornwall. A tower of three storeys in the castle was built to commemorate birth of Richard's son Edmund in 1249. This potential future king died as an infant. His mother, Henry's wife, Sanchia of Provence, also died in the castle in 1260.

In 1309 King Edward II granted Berkhamsted to his lover Piers Gaveston.[15] To cememnt his positin in court Piers married Margaret de Clare, the grand daughter of King Edward I in Berkhamsted Castle. However, in 1312 Gaveston was assassinated and the castle returned to the crown.

However, it was to Berkhamsted in 1353 that Edward brought his most celebrated prisoner, John II, King of France.[15] As a royal prisoner he could not be taken to anything other than a royal residence.

Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, spent his honeymoon here with Joan, the Maid of Kent in 1361.[16] The entire court celebrated for five days to celebrate the marriage in Berkhamsted and on Berkhamsted Common. Aged only 16 he was the hero of the Battle of Crecy. His lieutenants included Berkhamsted men such as Everard Halsey, John Wood, Stephen of Champneys, Robert Whittingham, Edward le Bourne, Richard of Gaddesden, and Henry of Berkhamsted. At the Battle of Poitiers, Henry saved the Prince's baggage[16] and was rewarded with 2d a day and was appointed porter of the royal castle at Berkhamsted.

Berkhamsted remained a Royal Castle until it was abandoned in 1495.[15] Much of the stonework was plundered for building materials for the town and nearby manor house Berkhamsted Place[15] (demolished in 1967) but the impressive earthworks and two of the original three moats remain. Half of the third was lost when the London and Birmingham Railway line was built.

During the Second World War much of London's statuary including the statue of Charles I now found at the top of Whitehall on Trafalgar Square, were relocated to the grounds of Berkhamsted Castle.[15]

Parish church

St Peter, Great Berkhamsted

Berkhamsted's parish church is St Peter's, one of the largest parish churches in Hertfordshire. It was consecrated in 1222 by the Bishop of Lincoln, although parts of the church are believed to be older.[17] At the back of the church lies a marble tomb of a knight and his lady. It is thought to be that of Henry of Berkhamsted, one of the Black Prince's lieutenants at the Battle of Crecy.

The poet William Cowper was christened in St. Peter's,[18] where his father John Cowper was rector.[19]


A narrowboat near the Ravens Lane bridge

The Grand Union Canal runs through Berkhamsted parallel to the High Street. The section from the River Thames at Brentford to Berkhamsted was completed as part of the Grand Junction Canal in 1798 and the extension to Birmingham in 1805.[20] The canal became part of the Grand Union Canal in 1929.

The town also stands on the River Bulbourne, which is not navigable which today supplies much of the water for the Grand Union Canal built by the Canal Duke, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. His monument stands in Ashridge, an expanse of native broadleaf woodland to the northwest of Berkhamsted (National Trust). With the advent of canal transport, Castle Wharf became a hub of inland water transport and boat building. The town is still known as the Port of Berkhamstedas it was where the Grand Junction Canal coming from the north was joined to the Grand Union canal from London. One former boat builders' yard was located by the Castle Street bridge. In 1910 it was turned into a timber yard run by William Key and Son timber merchants and importers, and in 1963 the business was taken over by J Alsford Ltd, a family-run timber merchants from Leyton in Essex.[21] The timber yard has since gone, but the site is marked by a Canadian totem pole.

Totem Pole

The totem pole at Alsford's Yard

In the early 1960s, Roger Alsford, a great-grandson of the founder of the timber company, James Alsford (1841–1912), went to work at the Tahsis lumber mill on Vancouver Island. During a strike he was rescued from starvation by a local Kwakiutl community. Alsford's brother, William John Alsford, visited the island, and in gratitude for their hospitality, commissioned a totem pole from the Canadian Indian artist Henry Hunt.[22] The western red cedar pole, 30 feet long and 3 feet in diameter, was carved by Hunt at Thunderbird Park, a centre for First Nation monuments.

The completed pole was shipped to Britain and erected at Alsford's Wharf in 1968. Alsford's warehouses were demolished and replaced in 1994 with a housing development, but the totem pole remains in place today as an unusual local landmark. As it stands in the private walled grounds of the flats, it can only be viewed at a distance from the public road. It is one of only a handful of totem poles in the United Kingdom, others being on display at the British Museum and Horniman Museum in London, Windsor Great Park, Bushy Park and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.[23]

The carvings on the totem pole represent four figures from North American First Nations legend: at the top sits Raven, the trickster and creator deity; he sits on the head of Sunman, who has outstretched arms representing the rays of the sun and who wears a copper (a type of ceremonial skirt); Sunman stands on the fearsome witch-spirit Dzunukwa; at the base is the two-headed warrior sea-serpent, Sisiutl, who has upstretched wings.[24]

Other sights of the town

The Old Town Hall

The town is home to the oldest extant shop in the United Kingdom, dated by dendrochronology of structural timbers to between 1277 and 1297.[25] Evidence has been found that it may have been a jeweller or goldsmith. The shop, at 173 High Street, until recently Figg's the Chemists, is currently (2006) in use as an estate agent which has proved controversial as some residents of Berkhamsted think the site should be preserved.

The Town Hall was built at public subscription from Berkhamstedians, and designed by Edward Buckton Lamb.[26] It comprised a market hall (now Brasserie Chez Gerard), large assembly hall and rooms for the Mechanics' Institute. When the Berkhamsted Urban District Council was abolished in 1974, the new Dacorum Borough Council drew plans up to demolish the site, but following a 10-year citizens' campaign during the 1970s and 80s, which eventually ended at the High Court, the site was saved for the people of Berkhamsted.[26]

The site now occupied by the Pennyfarthing Hotel dates from the 16th Century, having been the site of a monastic building that offered accommodation to religious guests passing through Berkhamsted or going to the monastery at Ashridge.

Ashlyns School, a large building built in 1935 which contained the former Foundling Hospital, which relocated from London in the 1920s.[27] It contains stained glass windows, especially around the Chapel, a staircase and many monuments from the original London hospital founded by Thomas Coram in 1740.[27] The School Chapel housed an organ donated by George Frederick Handel.[27] The school was used a backdrop to the 2007 comedy, Son of Rambow.

Berkhamsted School, a minor public school was founded in 1541 by Dean Incent[28] and attended by the celebrated author Graham Greene, whose father was headmaster there.[29]

As well as Berkhamsted Place, the town had another Elizabethan mansion, the smaller Egerton House, which stood at the east end of the High Street. The house was occupied briefly (1904–1907) by the Llewelyn Davies family who were close friends of the author and playwright J M Barrie; the Davies's middle son, Peter Llewelyn Davies, was the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. The house was demolished in 1937, and the site is now occupied by the Grade II-listed Rex Cinema. Recognised by English Heritage as a fine example of a 1930s art deco cinema, the cinema was designed by architect David Evelyn Nye for the Shipman and King circuit[30] and opened in 1938. Its interior features decorations of sea waves and shells. The Rex closed its doors in 1988 but reopened in 2004 after an extensive redevelopment. The cinema has been restored to become one of the most popular and sought-after entertainment attractions in the area, often selling out entire performances. It was the first 1930s cinema to be restored and opened since 1975. The site also regularly hosts guest presenters from the cast or crew to introduce the films.

Nearby Ashridge House was the home of the Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, affectionately known as the Father of Inland Navigation.[31] His canals sparked a rush of canal building nationwide. His climable monument stands in a grove of native broadleaf woods on a Chiltern ridge, Ashridge.[32]

To the northwest of Berkhamsted stand the ruins of Marlin's Chapel, a 13th-century chapel standing next to a mediæval fortified farm. The walls and moat surrounding the modern farm still remain and are reputed to be haunted.[33]

Famous people

Famous people born in Berkhamsted include the novelist Graham Greene (1904–1991), whose father was headmaster of Berkhamsted School, which Greene attended. One of Greene's novels, The Human Factor, set there and mentions several places in the town, including Kings Road and Berkhamsted Common. In his autobiography, Greene wrote that he has been moulded in a special way "through Berkhamsted". Greene's life and works are celebrated annually during the last weekend in September with a festival organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust.[34]

Other notable historical Berkhamstedians have included the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper (1731-1800)[18] and First World War General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (1858-1930).[35] The town was also the childhood home of Clementine Churchill, the wife of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.[36] During Second World War Charles de Gaulle, living exile from Vichy France, resided in Berkhamsted.[37] The de Gaulle family settled in Berkhamsted from October 1941 to September 1942.[38]


  • Football: Berkhamsted FC play in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division. They were formed in 2009 after the demise of Berkhamsted Town FC.


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Berkhamsted)


  1. Birtchnell, p. 12
  2. Hastie, p. 60
  3. Berko promoted as Tring stumble in race for third place Berkhamsted Gazette, 22 April 2010
  4. British History online – Berkhampstead St Peter Retrieved 26 june 2009
  5. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Peterborough / Worcester Chronicle (1066)
  6. Cobb, John Wolstenhol. Two Lectures on the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted. BiblioBazaar. ISBN 978-0-559-17029-4. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hastie, p. 11
  8. Remfry, p. 9
  9. Birtchnell P, A Short History of Berkhamsted, p.12, Clunberry Press 1972
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 History of Berkhamsted by Percy Birchnell
  11. Birtchnell, P: A Short History of Berkhamsted, Clunbery Press, 1972.
  12. Berkhamsted Castle Timeline
  13. Birtchnell, P: A Short History of Berkhamsted, Clunbury Press, 1972.
  14. Remfry, p. 14
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Remfry, p. 20
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hastie, p. 15
  17. Hastie, p. 16
  18. 18.0 18.1 Hastie, p. 102
  19. Alumni Oxonienses 1500–1714. Abannan-Kyte. 1891. pp. 338–365. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  20. The Grand Junction Canal – London's Long-distance Link
  21. Tearle p.20
  22. Tearle p.21
  23. Tearle p.3
  24. Tearle p.7
  25. Restoration boost for oldest shop. BBC. 26 February 2003. Retrieved 1 December 2008. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 Hastie, p. 66
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Hastie, p. 116
  28. Hastie, p. 120
  29. Hastie, p. 122
  30. Classic movie theatres designed by David Evelyn Nye
  31. Sanecki, p. 30
  32. Hastie, p. 52
  33. Birtchnell, P: A Short History of Berkhamsted, Clunbery Press, 1974.
  34. Graham Greene Birthplace Trust
  35. Hastie, p. 58
  36. Hastie, p. 119
  37. Hastie, p. 107
  38. Mahrane, Said (June 2010). "de Gaulle 1958–1970". Le Point (Grand Angle) (8).