The History of Henley in Arden
Henley-in-Arden lies in Warwickshire, the name is a reference to the fact that the area was heavily forested and known as the Forest of Arden. In Saxon times, the area was populated by a tribe of South Angles known as the Stoppingas. The Stoppingas were part of the Kingdom of Hwicce. When the Hwicce converted to Christianity by St. Cedd and St. Chad, a minster church was built at each of the Kingdom’s principal settlements. One of these churches was built at Wootton Wawen, which lies about a mile to the south of present day Henley-in-Arden. The minster church at Wootton Wawen was responsible for governing 12 parishes, including Henley and Beaudesert.
The first charter granted, which helped the growth of Henley, was given to Thurstan De Montfort in 1140 bestowing certain rights to hold a market at Beaudesert where he had built a castle. In 1220, Henry III granted Peter De Montfort a Royal Charter granting him the rights to hold a weekly market and a yearly fair at Henley. Such charters were vitally important to the medieval towns as they tried to establish themselves, as the markets would attract trade from all over the surrounding area; bringing wealth into the developing town. Peter De Montfort died at the Battle of Evesham alongside his more famous namesake Simon De Montfort . Reprisals were then taken by the Royalist supporters for the De Montfort’s part in the Baronial uprising and the castle at Beaudesert was destroyed.
Henley’s prosperity suffered at first after the fall of Beaudesert, but by the end of the 13th century its prosperity had been revived. Henley became an important market place for people in the parish of Wootton Wawen. The journey to church for the parishioners was hazardous for the local inhabitants, so a new church was built at Henley in 1367. The present church of St John the Baptist was built on the site of this original church in 1448. In 1449, Henry VI granted a new charter to Henley, confirming its right to hold weekly markets and giving a grant to hold a fair biannually. The remains of the 15th century Market Cross can still be seen in the old Market Place in Henley, it is one of the few that are left in the county of Warwickshire . There are a great many buildings of historical interest still intact in Henley-in-Arden, such as the half-timbered Elizabethan Guild Hall. The High Street is about a mile long and is a Conservation Area, due to the abundance of historic buildings.
During the early 17th century, town officials tried to improve and maintain Henley by dealing with some of the typical problems of the time. These included sanitation issues, such as the banning of pigs running loose in the streets; but also included keeping the rising numbers of landless poor from entering the town. This was a growing problem in the country at the time, and Henley seems to have suffered quite badly. Such people were generally considered undesirable and probably violent by the townsfolk. Court records from the time show a disproportionately high number of incidents of violent affray in the area between 1590 and 1620. The town is only eight miles from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford upon Avon and the road that leads out towards Henley is Henley Street. Shakespeare is believed to have been referring to events in Henley at the time of writing ‘Love’s Labour Lost’, when the character Rosaline says “Better wits have worn plain Statute Caps”. At the time a number of people were prosecuted in the court for breeching the statute that stated that woolen caps must be worn on Sundays or other Holy Days. As there is no known reference in the Bible to the wearing of woollen hats, it seems that this was a purely economic measure, designed to support the local wool industry. 19th century Henley was a small, yet thriving, market town. There were weekly markets held on Mondays, together with three annual fairs; on Lady Day, on the Tuesday of Whitsunday and on October 29th. The latter fair was dedicated to horses, cattle, sheep and hops. The population of Henley-in-Arden was just over 1000 at this time. By the end of the 20th century this had doubled to just over 2000, although this figure only includes those within the actual parish. If the surrounding urban areas are taken into account, this figure is nearer to 3000.
Today, Henley-in-Arden is a popular destination to those visiting ‘ Shakespeare Country ’. It retains much of its original charm with many beautiful and ancient buildings. The history of Henley-in-Arden is on display at the Heritage Centre , which is based at Joseph Hardy House. This is in itself an interesting piece of history, with some parts of the building dating back to around 1345.