The History of Henley on Thames
Henley-on-Thames probably owes its existence to the English King. Henry II. Early records of a medieval settlement there date to 1179 and record that King Henry II "had bought land for the making of buildings". The existing Thursday market is believed to have been granted by a charter of King John who was Richard I , the Lionheart’s brother and successor. King John then handed the manor of Benson, which included the town and manor of Henley, to Robert Harcourt in 1199. History also records that a church had been established at Henley by 1204, although it probably was built before this mention. It seems Harcourt enjoyed some royal favour and influence as, in 1205, the settlement received a paviage grant to improve the roads and pathways there. Documents from 1234 give the bridge its first mention. By 1278 Henley is being described as a hamlet of Benson, complete with a Chapel. It is likely that a street plan plotting the future growth of Henley had been established by the end of the 13th century.
Henley-on-Thames was demesne of the crown and, in 1337, it was gifted to John de Molyns. The de Molyns family controlled Henley for the next 250 years. A market was known to have been established there by 1269 but in 1284 it is recorded that the jurors of the assize of that year could not be sure by what warrant the earl of Cornwall held a market and fair in the town of Henley! The Corpus Christi fair was established by a charter granted by Henry VI .
The town, like most in England, suffered greatly at the hands of the Black Death that swept through the land in the 14th century. It is thought that Henley lost around 60% of its population. These huge death tolls caused great hardship but also presented opportunity. Labour prices rose and landowners suddenly found it far more difficult to recruit and retain good labourers and skilled men. Black Death marked the beginning of the end of the old feudal system that had kept the common man subservient to the rich landowners for hundreds of years.
By the start of 16th century Henely-on-Thames had fully recovered from the devastation wrought by the plague and had extended along the west bank of the Thames . Friday Street marked the boundary in the south and the Manor, now Phyllis Court , was at the northern edge of the town. The town also included Hart Street and New Street and, to the west, Bell Street and the Market Place.
Henry VIII incorporated Henley-on-Thames in 1568, and granted it the use of the titles ‘mayor’ and ‘burgess’. Henley’s location in the heart of England, along the Thames and relatively close to London meant that it suffered at the hands of both sides in the English Civil War . King William III , while on his march to London in 1688, is known to have rested here. The King stayed at the nearby Fawley Court where he received a deputation from the Lords.
Henley-on-Thames enjoyed a period of prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries when the town was well known for manufacture of glass. Henley Bridge, a five arched bridge across the river, was constructed and opened in 1786. Henley was also a centre for the production of malt as well as the trade in corn and wool. The port Henley-on-Thames, and the fact that London was easy to reach via the Thames, meant that it supplied London with timber and grain.
It is likely that, as these industries and trades diminished, Henley-on-Thames would have receded into obscurity and become just another small English town. It would likely have been little known outside the county of Oxfordshire, where it lays. That fate was put behind the town when, at a public meeting in Henley town hall on 26th March 1839 , Captain Edmund Gardiner made a proposal that was to push the small Oxfordshire town into the limelight and give it a lasting place in History.
Captain Gardiner suggested: “that from the lively interest which had been manifested at the various boat races which have taken place on the Henley reach during the last few years, and the great influx of visitors on such occasions, this meeting is of the opinion that the establishing of an annual regatta, under judicious and respectable management, would not only be productive of the most beneficial results to the town of Henley, but from its peculiar attractions would also be a source of amusement and gratification to the neighbourhood, and the public in general.”
This led to the establishment of the famous regatta which was first staged in 1839 and became known as Henley Royal Regatta from 1851, when Prince Albert became the first royal patron. The regatta has undoubtedly meant that this sleepy yet historic English country town has a name that is familiar to many people all over the world.