The History of Ledbury
Though Doctor Johnson thought Ledbury derived its name from the Welsh ‘led’ meaning the side of a hill, most sources think it more likely that the nearby River Leadon, a tributary of the Severn , is at its root.
It is sure, however, that the settlement is an ancient one, a sizeable place belonging to the Bishopric of Hereford in Saxon times - William I’s Domesday Book in 1086 recorded the large parish church of St Michael & All Angels in what was called by the Norman scribe Liedeberge, and the bishops had a residence there too. The Norman bishop of Hereford in 1135 secured a market charter for the town. His see enjoyed the fruits of a vineyard in Ledbury, an early demonstration of the fruitfulness of the country thereabouts and its links with the production of alcoholic beverages: in later years this saw both hops and cider apples grown on a large scale there, something still celebrated by the Weston’s Cider Visitor Centre nearby in Much Marcle .
A later Bishop in 1232 founded the almshouse called The Hospital of St Katherine which – refounded in 1580 and much rebuilt in the 19th century – still stands in the town, its chapel in use today.
The town was important enough to merit two MPs in Simon de Montfort ’s Parliament of 1265 called without the agreement of Henry III ; but it subsequently had direct links to several monarchs, indeed those links began earlier, King John said to have been a regular visitor at the Bishop’s Palace. In 1327 Edward II was brought to the town under guard on his way to his horrific end at Berkeley Castle ; Edward IV ’s stay was under more favourable circumstances, passing through with his army after victory at Mortimer’s Cross in February 1461.
Royal associations continued in the Tudor era and beyond: Elizabeth I obtained the manor from the Bishop of Hereford, and she granted the place a new market charter in 1584, the document also providing for two annual fairs. Her successor James I gifted the town to his son, the future Charles I , and that foolish monarch mortgaged then sold it outright to the City of London .
Ledbury perhaps had its heyday in the 16th century, when its clothiers and tanners prospered, and that era is recalled still in the architecture of The Feathers Hotel built as a coaching inn then.
In the following century the town saw the first of the two episodes of mass violence in its history: in 1645 the town had just been occupied by Parliamentary forces led by the Governor of Gloucester, Colonel Massey, when Prince Rupert decided to divert his forces marching between Hereford and Shrewsbury to make a surprise attack on the newly ensconced Roundheads. Legend has the April 22 fight beginning in the Talbot Inn in the town centre, some bullet holes in an oak door there cited as evidence of this. Rupert typically behaved with courage and without thought, his horse being killed beneath him at one point, in driving the enemy from the town.
Ledbury’s second violent historic moment came in 1735 when a riot broke out in the town during protests about road tolls, the crowd firing on the home of a local magistrate and attempting to burn it. Some of the men were dressed in women’s clothing, and had their faces blackened, but their disguises proved of little value to several of their number: three were killed by fire returned from the magistrate’s residence; and three more were later executed – two in Worcester, one in London.
Since that outbreak of unrest Ledbury has seen little to excite the historian, but mention must be made of a more peaceable claim-to-fame of the town, its links to various poets: it is claimed William Langland was born there in 1332; Wordsworth visited and wrote about it; Elizabeth Barrett Browning grew up two miles from the place; and poet laureate John Masefield began life there too. That heritage echoes in the poetry festival held in the town every summer, an event heralded by many as the finest of its type in Britain.