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Town History


12th Century

Author Joan Curran

In 1086, when William I sent his officials out to make a detailed survey of his newly acquired kingdom of England, Dunstable did not exist.  The name does not appear in the Domesday Book and most of the area we now know as Dunstable was part of the King’s manor of Houghton.    It was William’s third son, Henry I, who was to decide that a town should be built where the Roman Watling Street crossed the ancient Icknield Way.

It is impossible to say exactly when /Dunstable was founded, only that it was in the very early years of the century.  Henry had seized the English throne in 1100, following the death of his brother, William II, but for the next six years he spent much of his time in France, fighting his other brother, Robert, for the possession of Normandy, which Robert had inherited from their father.   In 1106 Henry finally defeated Robert and achieved his ambition of being the ruler of all the lands once held by their father.  It was time to come back to England.

In the spring of 1107 he arrived back in this country and the name of Dunstable appeared in the records for the first time when he issued a  writ from here, addressed to the Bishop of London, confirming that the Queen had been given permission to ‘place canons regular [Augustinian canons] in the Church of the Holy Trinity, London’.  The writ is not dated but must have been issued in 1107 or 1108, when the Church in Aldgate became a monastery.

Various theories have been put forward as to the origin of the name of the town.  In the front of the first parish register of Dunstable, which begins in 1558, are some verses written by the curate of the time relating an ancient story of a robber called Dun, from whom the town was supposed to have got its name.   But more academic studies of place names have provided other explanations.  The English Place Name Society tells us that the first part of the name, dun,  means hill, while the second part, originally written as staple, refers to a post, possibly marking a boundary.   Dunestaple (or Dunestapel), as it was first called, was therefore the place at the post, or boundary marker, by the hill.  Another theory, while agreeing about the meaning of dun, is that staple comes from the French word for market, estaple, and the name therefore means the market by the hill, or Downs.  (Henry was, after all, French.)

Whatever the derivation of its name two significant events took place in Dunstable early in Henry’s reign,  neither of which can be dated exactly but both of which  played an important part in the town’s history.    One was the building of a royal residence here, often referred to as a palace, though it would probably not have been very palatial by our standards.  It stood on, or near, the site of the Old Palace Lodge, in Church Street, and was possibly either complete, or at least fit for habitation, when Henry came here and issued the writ mentioned earlier.  The main house may have been of stone from the Totternhoe quarries nearby, or it may have been timber framed, like most houses at the time.  The less important buildings –stables, workshops and barns, etc. -  would have been either timber-framed or entirely of wood.  Some years later, in the Pipe Rolls of 1130, the payment of one penny a day was authorised for a steward to look after the house when the King was not in residence.   

The other event was the issuing of a proclamation by the King inviting anyone interested in setting up in business here to come and rent an acre of land:  this set out the terms offered to prospective tenants and was essentially the charter which marked the foundation of the borough.    In common with many landowners, both at home and abroad, Henry was keen to promote trade and stimulate the economy of the country.  He adopted a policy of encouraging both the upgrading of established villages to the status of borough and the planting of new towns where there was no settlement in existence: Dunstable was one of the earliest of these plantations and a very successful one.  (19  new towns were created in England between 1100 and 1130.)  For the landowners the establishment of new towns was certainly financially advantageous, the regular rents received from the tenants being much more profitable than the returns from poor crops, grown on what was often poor soil in an unpredictable climate.    

Creating a successful new town depended on choosing a good site and attracting enterprising merchants, craftsmen and shopkeepers.   Towns needed a good catchment area for their market trade, with easy access from surrounding villages.  Dunstable was obviously in a prime position, being on an important crossroads.   There was good access from the neighbouring towns of St.Albans and Aylesbury to the south and west, and later there would be the new towns of Fenny Stratford and Stony Stratford, where the Watling Street crossed the Rivers Ouzel and Ouse, to the north;  to the east there would soon be  Baldock and Royston on the Icknield Way.  And there were several villages in the surrounding area  near enough for people to come to the market to buy and sell.  

According to the terms of the charter the annual rent for an acre of land was to be twelve pence, the usual rent in most towns at the time.  As an acre was not then a standard measurement so the plots, known as burgages, were not necessarily what we would call an acre.    The contract made with the tenant, who was called a burgess, was effectively like a modern ground lease.  He would erect his own buildings and be free to sell the property or bequeath it to his heirs as he wished.  Unlike the villein on a manor, he would not be required to make any payment in labour to the lord of the manor (in this case, the King).  In addition, the ‘men of Dunstable and their heirs shall have the liberties and quittances throughout his  whole kingdom that the city of London or any borough of England has had from of old’ . If they were accused of any serious wrongdoing they could be tried only by the King’s judges sitting within the borough of Dunstable with twelve of the accused person’s fellow townsmen.

The whereabouts of the original charter cannot be traced. What is believed to be the original Latin text was printed in a book of the 17th century by Sir William Dugdale, who wrote that he had found an old document concerning Dunstable at the College of Arms.  This Latin text was reprinted, with an English translation, in a book published in 1913 by Adolphus Barnard in which he described the Dunstable charter as the oldest one still in existence, but all present day attempts to track it down have so far proved unsuccessful.

Once the boundaries of a new town had been marked out the lay-out of the streets would be decided and plots marked out on either side of the streets.  At  Dunstable an area of about 450 acres was marked out round the crossroads, most of which had been part of the King’s manor of Houghton;  just one section, the quadrant bounded by South Street and West Street, was taken from the manor of  Kensworth and belonged to the canons of  St.Paul’s, in London.  Since roads already existed here the plots were marked along each side of what became known, predictably, as South Street, East Street, West Street and North Street.  And the land behind the houses was left for cultivation or for the keeping of livestock.     There is no evidence that there was ever a defensive wall round the town but there was once a ditch marking the town boundary.

Unfortunately no records survive to tell us how many traders settled in the town or who they were.  In most new towns for which records have survived they show that it took some time for all the plots to be taken up, but there must have been a good response here to Henry’s invitation because there was soon a sufficiently strong community to support a school.

The master appointed to run the school was Geoffrey de Gorham, who had come over from France intending to take up a teaching post at St.Albans.   In the event he was delayed and arrived too late and came instead to teach at Dunstable.   To entertain the townsfolk and instruct them in the Christian faith at the same time he decided to put on a play, based on the life of St.Catherine of Alexandria.  To brighten up the performance he borrowed a set of valuable copes from the monks at the Abbey, but while they were in his care disaster struck  and they were totally destroyed in a fire.   Soon after this Geoffrey left Dunstable to become a monk at St.Albans Abbey, possibly about 1115, or perhaps even earlier, because in 1119 he was made abbot of the monastery.  The date was recorded in the Annals of the Abbey, the first exact date we have in the early history of Dunstable.

King Henry’s second visit to the town, as far as we know, was when he came with his court to spend Christmas here in 1122 and entertained visitors from Anjou during his stay.  His first wife, Queen Matilda, had died in 1118 and two years later his only legitimate son and heir to the throne, had drowned when the ship in which he was returning from France had gone down in a storm.  (Henry actually had at least 19 illegitimate children, but only one legitimate son.)   Perhaps he was already thinking during that visit of founding a church or monastery here as a memorial to Matilda and their son.  He and Matilda were both known for their piety: Henry had founded two important Augustinian monasteries, at Carlisle and Cirencester, and Matilda, with support from Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, had founded the influential Priory at Aldgate, in London.   

So it is not surprising that when the monastery was founded here it was an Augustinian  house.  We know that there must already have been a small community of some kind here by 1125 because among the signatories of a document at Aldgate that year was Bernard, Prior of Dunstable.     The Aldgate monastery already had several daughter houses in Oxford and elsewhere and looked upon Dunstable as a daughter foundation.   But new foundations always needed endowments from their founders, either in money or some other form, to support them: it was not unknown for a foundation, even if granted in theory, not to be able to get established because the financial wherewithal was not forthcoming.      Henry provided the necessary support for the Dunstable Priory by giving it the ‘manor and borough’ of the town of Dunstable.  

It is presumed that the manorial charter confirming this gift was probably presented at the time of his visit at the Christmas season of 1131/2, although it was not drafted and signed here.  It was actually signed at a place called Combe (there are several places of this name but it was most likely to have been either the one in Herefordshire or the one in Oxfordshire, near Woodstock ).  It was  signed by the Bishops of Hereford and Worcester and various other dignitaries ‘apud Cumbam’ and is not dated, but each signatory’s name is followed by the title or office he was holding at the time, from which it is possible to work out that it was signed some time during the years 1131 to 1133.

The charter set out the details of Henry’s gift to the new Priory of St Peter that would enable the monastery to be built and provide the canons with some income.   The canons were to receive the ‘Manor and Borough of Dunstable’ for ‘God and my salvation, and for the souls of William my son and of Matilda the Queen, my wife’.  They were to have all the tolls, rents and taxes due from the borough, grazing rights in several of the villages roundabout and, importantly, the quarry at Totternhoe to provide the stone for their buildings.  The school and the market (another source of income) were also specifically included.  The one part of the town which was not included was the King’s house and gardens where he was accustomed to stay.     

Though the original document no longer exists, we know the text from confirmations of it which were given to the Priory later.   It was not unusual to have such charters confirmed at a fee, by successive kings, to ensure that its provisions were still valid and even, in some cases, added to, and the wording of the original document could then be included in the new charter.  The Dunstable charter given by Henry  I was confirmed by Richard I in 1190 and Henry III in 1227 and it is from the latter that we have the original text.

Once everything was official a master mason would have been appointed to design the buildings and draw up the plans, though who the master mason here was we have no idea.  Skilled stonemasons would mostly have to be recruited from outside the town, though carpenters and other workers were more likely to be found locally.  In the 1130s, in the south-east corner of the town some sort of shelter, probably a collection of wooden huts, would be provided for the masons and the small community of canons would have been nearby to keep an eye on the progress of the building.  All around would have been a typical building site, with supplies of wood and stone and builders’ tools and equipment piled up everywhere.  Before long carts would be constantly rumbling through the town, loaded with stone from Totternhoe and lime and sand for mortar.  For many years to come, though building would largely cease in the winter months, each summer the white walls would grow slowly higher and higher.  Sometimes walls fell down again and had to be rebuilt, a disaster that seemed to befall many medieval buildings from time to time as the masons’ technical skills failed to match their ambitious plans.

Elsewhere in the town trade went on as usual and the town continued to grow.  Though kings and wealthy folk might be able to afford stone buildings, few of the burgesses who came to Dunstable would have been able to.  Possibly, because of the proximity of the quarries at Totternhoe, there  may have been a few more stone houses here than was usual in a town of this size and there were six or seven still in existence in 1542.  Just one stone house of the late 12th century, when the Priory was still a work in progress, survives today as part of what we now know as Priory House.  The front half of the building is a typical Norman stone house of the kind built by a person of some wealth, perhaps a well-to-do merchant, though we have no idea who that might have been.  In the 17th and 18th centuries an extension was added to the back of the house, doubling it in size.  

The burgesses would have had timber framed houses with panels of wattle and daub.  The windows would not have been glazed but had either linen panels, oiled or waxed to keep out the rain, or wooden shutters.  Many houses would have consisted of only one room, serving as living room, workshop and bedroom, the latter perhaps screened off in some way.  \In those early days roofs would have been thatched and fire, of course, was a constant risk in all medieval towns.  Inside the houses furniture was sparse:  tables were trestles which could be taken down when not in use, seating was stools or benches (chairs were only for the rich) and for most ordinary folk going to bed was literally ‘hitting the hay’.    Their water supply was from wells, dug deep down through the chalk.

The Watling Street, then as now, was the main thoroughfare through the town, and with the Icknield Way and two other Roman roads, the Ermine way and the Fosse Way, was designated a royal road.  Royal or not, roads were the responsibility of the town or village through which they passed and Watling Street in particular took a hammering from the traffic which passed through.  Heavily laden carts and horses’ hooves played havoc with the surface and at times there were, not surprisingly, complaints from travellers about the state it had got into.  At one stage the situation was so bad that the King wrote to the Prior, saying that he had been informed that the road had suffered severe damage from the passing through of so many carts and he consequently ordered that everybody, ‘according to his status and means’, should ensure that the holes were filled in and the track repaired as had been the custom in the past.  He ended with a strict injunction that these repairs should be done efficiently, so that he did not have ‘to lay a heavier hand on you because of failure’.

The giving of the town to the Priory meant that the Prior was effectively the lord of the manor responsible for the running of the town and keeping of law and order, and a set of bye-laws, known as a custumal, was drawn up.  This was a list of both the rights and obligations of the burgesses.  They were allowed to have windmills, handmills and horse mills on their land, which meant that they did not have to pay the Prior to have their corn ground.  They were permitted to have a dovecote, a bakehouse and a malt kiln, and woodstacks and dung heaps were allowed as long as they did not obstruct the king’s highway or the market.  Brewing was not allowed in shops because of the risk of fire and pigsties were not to be made outside people’s doors.  Butchers were prohibited from throwing their refuse on to the street where it could be a nuisance to their neighbours.

Market booths had to be dismantled and removed before the end of market day.  The market would have been where the Watling Street widened out in the centre of the town and possibly extended both north and south of the crossroads.  Right up until the 20th century there was still a general market in High Street North and a cattle market in the Square in High Street South.  The shops in Middle Row are though to have evolved from the stalls in the medieval market.  The only coins in use in the 12th century were silver pennies, minted at Bedford and sometimes cut in halves or even quarters in lieu of smaller denominations.

After the Christmas of 1131/2 Henry never came to Dunstable again.  He left for France in 1133 and died there two years later.  His body was brought back to England for burial at the monastery he had founded at Reading.  The death of Henry I saw the end of what had been in general a peaceful and well-ordered reign.  

Although he had done his best to ensure a peaceful transition to the next reign by persuading the barons to swear allegiance to his daughter, Maud, after his death, it was her cousin, Stephen, who swiftly moved in and claimed the throne when the time came.  It was the beginning of a civil war that would last for nearly twenty years and though there were no major battles in this area, the whole country was unsettled and lacked good government.  Stephen visited Dunstable just twice, coming for the first time to spend Christmas in 1137.  

Both Stephen and Maud had sons who could claim descent from William I and it was Stephen’s older son, Eustace, who was expected to succeed him.  But he died in 1153 and a weary and disheartened Stephen was finally prevailed upon by the Church and the barons to make peace with Maud and recognise her son, Henry, as heir to the throne.   Stephen and he met and an agreement was made between them that Henry would succeed to the English throne.   The barons swore fealty to Henry and the two men met again briefly in Dunstable early in 1154 , Stephen’s last visit to the town.   He died on 25th October that year and Henry II was crowned in Westminster Abbey in December.

Henry was a strong ruler and during the 35 years of his reign the country was, on the whole, well governed.  His great contribution to the nation was a re-organisation of the legal system and the whole administrative machinery, the most advanced and efficient of anywhere in Europe.    The one thing most widely remembered about him now is his dispute with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, that ended with the murder of the man whom, so tradition has it, Henry had called ‘this most turbulent priest’.  It was an event which Henry bitterly regretted and for which he did public penance.  It gave rise to the custom of going on pilgrimage to visit Becket’s tomb in the cathedral at Canterbury, which was indirectly to have an effect on Dunstable by increasing the amount of traffic on the Watling Street as pilgrims made their way south ‘the holy blisful martir for to seke’  

The well-oiled machinery of government that Henry II had set up stood the country in good stead when he was succeeded by Richard I, who spent only six months of his reign in this country, none of it in Dunstable.  Richard was more interested in the Crusades and fighting battles than in governing his own country but under the officers of state appointed by him the government continued to function.  Famously he was taken prisoner while returning home from the Crusades in 1193, finally being released only when a huge ransom had been paid for him, but at least the Augustinian canons were more fortunate than their brethren of the Cistercian and Gilbertine monasteries, whose wool crops were seized to help to pay the ransom money.

By the time of Richard;s death in 1199 Dunstable had been in existence for nearly 100 years.  Some of the original burgage plots had been subdivided, houses had been bought and sold or inherited by sons and heirs and some had already been rebuilt.  Trade was good.  The Priory, though not yet finished, was well on the way to completion and the canons would soon be making plans for the dedication of the Priory Church.  The site round the crossroads had proved to be an ideal situation for a new town and Dunstable was now established as an important part of the county of Bedfordshire.  


Like Richard, King John appears never to have stayed at Kingsbury and in 1204 he gave the site of the houses and garden which his great-grandfather, Henry I, had kept for his own use, to the Priory, to use or dispose of as it pleased.   The wording of the charter confirming the gift implies that by this time the buildings had virtually disappeared and there was only an empty plot of land remaining.  A survey of the town towards the end of the century referred to a ‘piece of land’ called Kingesbyr owned by the Priory ‘from a gift of the King’, but not to any building.

In the previous year he had given the town a licence for a three-day market to be held in May:  markets were usually one-day events so this, being for three days, was possibly a fair rather than a market.   The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1731 contained a reference to this market/fair and a byelaw of  Dunstable in 1871 laid down that, along with three others, it ‘shall be held for ever’.  In fact all four of them died out in the early 20th century and only the Statute Market, instituted in that year, continues as the Statty Fair on the 4th Monday in September.  

Much of John’s time and resources in the years up to 1214 was devoted to fighting in  France, in a vain attempt to regain England’s former possessions there. .  In 1212, fearing an invasion of this country by the French, he had demanded men and arms for his campaigns, to which  Dunstable had to contribute 10 shields and 12 doublets for the armoury.  

The invasion, fortunately, did not happen but  many of the English barons, particularly those in the north, took up arms in protest against the King’s  policies and marched south against him.   Eventually the King and the barons hammered out an agreement on a number of reforms and in 1215 the Magna Carta, based on the original charter of liberties given by Henry I at his coronation, was signed at Runnymede.   However, this was not enough to satisfy the barons, who invited Louis, the eldest son of the King of France, to become King of England in place of John.    Louis responded by sending an advance party of troops over here, before arriving himself with his army.    Fierce fighting followed between his supporters and those of the King and Dunstable did not survive unscathed:  in this area Louis captured Berkhamsted Castle and, according to the Annals, ‘did much damage’ to the town of  Dunstable , from which he also ‘received’, as the records say, two hundred marks,  

It was during the turbulent times of  King John, in 1213, that two events occurred in the town that people must have remembered for a long time.   The first was a tragedy.   Like a lot of other places, Dunstable suffered a serious fire that year   As in other places, the fire was said to be accidental, and fire was always a hazard, of course, in the days when timber and thatch were so widely used.  But if the fires were so widespread, might there have been a common factor – a very dry summer, perhaps?

The other event was a much happier occasion, when the Church of the Priory was formally consecrated for worship by Bishop Hugh of Lincoln.  The date chosen was St..Luke’s Day, October 18th, and this, at any rate, must have been a time of great celebration.   

The reign of John ended with his death in 1216, with the conflict between the King and the supporters of Louis still unresolved, but when his young son was crowned as Henry III the support for the French prince ebbed away.   Louis returned to France, and peace gradually returned.

Among the soldiers  recruited by John into his army had been many mercenaries, one of them a captain by the name of  Falk de Breaute, who had served the King loyally while he lived and on his death had pledged allegiance to his successor, the young Henry III.     De  Breaute  had been regarded as someone who could be relied on to maintain law and order, sometimes referred to as the King’s ‘rod’,  but he was also a ruthless and cruel man   One author wrote ‘in a ruthless age his ruthlessness was unsurpassed’.  Nevertheless he had served as sheriff of several counties, being the Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (then held jointly by one sheriff)) in 1221, and been given Bedford Castle when it was seized by the Crown from one of the rebel barons.  Even in the more peaceful times of Henry III he terrorised the neighbourhood and was notorious for his cruelty and vindictiveness.

Complaints about the cruel and unjust treatment meted out by him were numerous and when the King’s justices came in 1224 to hear pleas in the court at Dunstable there were over 30 complaints against him, for which, not surprisingly, the justices imposed heavy fines.  De Breaute did not appear in court, but gave orders that men from his Bedford fortress should go out and capture the justices as they left Dunstable and imprison them in Bedford Castle.   There must have been a scary chase through the town and along the road to Bedford as his men pursued the justices: two of the judges escaped but Sir Henry Braybrook was captured and imprisoned in the Castle.  His wife appealed for help to the King, who immediately ordered the surrender of the castle, but the defenders refused to yield.   The King then gave orders for a siege of  the castle to be mounted and  instructions were sent out to sheriffs all over the country for men and equipment to be sent to Bedford  to prepare for the attack.  

Six siege-engines were put in place, two each on the and east and west sides and one each on the north and south. Two large towers were constructed from which archers could overlook the walls and shoot anyone rash enough to show themselves on the ramparts.   A construction  consisting of a timber framework covered with hides, called the ‘cat’, was prepared, under cover of which miners and tunnellers could attack the foundations of the walls and cause them to collapse. The battle began in earnest on 20th June.  

First the barbican was taken and the men from Dunstable were the first to get inside to the outer bailey.  Though some of the men were killed the successful ones seized the horses and other livestock, along with armour and the horses’ harness and other booty, and set fire to the stores of corn and hay.  Then the miners working at the base of the wall around the inner bailey, next to the tower, undermined its foundations, so that it collapsed.  The Dunstable men surged forward into the inner bailey, but this time many were killed and ten were taken prisoner.   Finally the miners succeeded in starting a fire at the base of the tower, filling it with smoke and causing the walls to crack, so that the defenders surrendered, and the King’s standard was raised. The women and the prisoners were released, but the defenders were hanged next day – some say 23 of them, others as many as 84.  Falk de Breaute was stripped of his possessions and exiled, dying abroad soon afterwards.   The castle was returned to the family who had originally owned it and permission was given for a house to be built on the site, with the proviso that it should not be fortified.


Henry was still a young man of 17 at the time of the siege and it was another five years before his first visit to Dunstable, when he passed through the town in 1229 and stayed at the Priory .  While he was here he was asked by the Prior to settle a long-running dispute between himself and the townspeople, who were accusing him of depriving them of the rights and liberties granted to the town by Henry I.  The King listened to both sides and an agreement was signed between them, but as soon as the King left the townspeople denied that they had signed it.  The case came before the courts so many times that it was several years before the dispute was finally settled, with the King ordering that in future they must settle their differences before the local justices.  In the end the Prior agreed that the townspeople would be granted all their ancient rights, for which they paid him £60.

By the time of his next visit, in 1247, he had married Eleanor of  Provence, and came with her and their two children, Princess Margaret and Prince Edward.  This was obviously a formal occasion and there was an exchange of gifts between the royal family and the Prior. with the Prior.  The Priory received a  bolt of silk cloth and 100 shillings for a thurible and a pyx ,while the King  and Queen received gilded cups and the children were given gold buckles.   In 1265 the King and Queen passed through Dunstable on their way to Northampton, escorting the papal legate, and stayed for several days on their way back to London, accompanied by Simon de Montfort.  

It was at the insistence of the King and Queen that a few years later the canons of the Priory had to accept the arrival of another monastery, a Dominican Friary, in the town.  Because it was a royal request that they should accept the new community they really had no option, but they were anything but happy about it.

 Once again the local residents must have watched as another large building, its new stone gleaming white, rose above the roof tops of the houses in South Street, this time on the opposite side of the road from the Priory.   The Dominicans were an order whose raison d’etre was to preach and teach, and who lived solely on alms given to them by others.  From the Annals it is clear that the canons were not at all happy about the arrival of another religious house on their doorstep.  One translation of the Latin text says that the newcomers gained permission to come here through hard work and ‘seductive words’;  another version says they ‘insinuated themselves against our will’ into the town.  When the Prior actually sat down to eat with the friars for the first time, in 1277, the writer of the Annals thought the event important enough to be included. .    

Obviously the Priory was bound to lose some of its income.  Many people left legacies to the Church in those days, and some of the money which would have come to the canons in the past might in future be left to their rivals.     The Friary always remained a smaller establishment, though archaeological excavations show it did have a large church.  But the two communities existed side by side,  though not always harmoniously, for nearly three hundred years, and the black cloaks of both communities, the Black Canons and the \Black \Friars, must have been a familiar sight in the town.   

In the middle ages wool was England’s most important export, providing most of the revenue on which the King depended, and in the mid-13th century the trade was reaching its peak. Fleeces were exported to the continent from ports around the east and south coasts and the large wool-producing estates, many of them belonging to monasteries, sold their wool directly to merchants based at these ports.  But farmers and small producers needed a go-between to deal with the exporters on their behalf and as a result there grew up a number of regional centres where local merchants would buy their fleeces, gather them together in what was known as a collecta, and arrange for them to be exported.     

In Dunstable there was a small, active group of such merchants who acted as ‘middlemen’, buying fleeces from local producers, and arranging for them to be exported.  The wool trade was strictly regulated and all merchants needed to have a licence (for which they paid) to carry on their trade.  It is from the lists of licences granted that we know the names of many of the Dunstable men engaged in the trade  -   Stephen Angevin, Robert Brian, Henry and Richard Chadde, Richard Cook, John Durant, William Fisher and Richard Young.   Some of the men actually owned sheep themselves, as well as being merchants, renting land outside the town, mainly in Caddington and Kensworth.  The man with the largest flock was John Durant, who rented 300 acres at Caddington and kept 100 sheep, but there were others who kept ten, twenty or even forty animals, and a few who kept perhaps two or three animals and were able to keep them on land on the fringe of the town.   Sheep at that time were kept not for meat but for their wool, with their milk and skins as useful by-products.     Wool which came through the Dunstable centre came from a wide area round the town and was exported through London.  

Although the wool trade proved very profitable for the merchants of the day it was not without its hazards.  The King could and did impose swingeing taxes on the merchants from time to time to raise money for his wars and wool was sometimes impounded by the King for his own purposes.  In the 1270s the King, for political reasons, placed an embargo on the export of wool,  but a small group of six Dunstable traders were among a lucky few who were allowed special licences to continue trading provided they did not send any wool to Flanders  

The wealthiest of the merchants was John Durant, a frequent benefactor of the Priory and moneylender to the Prior.  On one occasion the Prior actually accepted an invitation to a feast given by John  in honour of the Lord of the Manor of Caddington,  contrary to his normal practice, because he owed the merchant money and was afraid of offending him if he refused.  In 1280 half the cost of repairing two pinnacles on the north side of the church and the stone roof of the porch was contributed by the merchant,  and it was he who came to the rescue when there was a problem about the installation of the new Prior by giving the Archdeacon 5 marks for a palfrey for the sake of peace, ‘that the Prior’s installation might [not] be hindered’.   

 The Durant family is one of the few in this period  which it is possible to make some sort of family tree.   The family had come from Caddington and John had kept his connections with the village.  He had married Alice (her surname is not known) and they had four sons, John, William, Richard and Thomas.   No mention has been found of any daughters.   John and Thomas seemed to have stayed in Dunstable, either farming sheep or following in their father’s trade,  William and Richard went to Oxford  and were ‘incepted in arts’ in 1284 and Richard probably took holy orders.    There were still members of the family in the town in the 14th century when Alexander, perhaps John’s grandson, was an attorney;  and a conveyance tells us that a Thomas Durant left a widow, Christina, who remarried after his death and became the wife of John Brian.

 Though there is no memorial of John remaining in the church or churchyard,  the lid of his wife’s coffin is still in the Priory Church, against a pillar in the north aisle.  It was found in the base of one of the buttresses of the church during restoration work and was brought inside in 1934, along with the lid of the coffin of their son, Richard.   It   bears the inscription:

    ‘Here lies Alice Durant, on her God have mercy.  Out of pity, all who pass this way, pray                   for her soul, I beg you, since those who say the Our Father will receive 40 days of indulgences’.  

Fittingly for the wife of the wealthiest merchant in the county, her funeral was, according to report, the most sumptuous ever seen in Dunstable.     

The wool merchants, however, were not the only people from whom the Priors borrowed money.  Because Christians were officially prohibited from lending money for profit, Jews had been the main moneylenders in England since the time of the Conquest .  One of the best known was Aaron of Lincoln, from whom the Prior of Dunstable borrowed £50 in 1185.  The  Charters of the Priory record that Roger, Prior of St. Bartholomew, stood surety for the loan made to Thomas, Prior of Dunstable.     

For much of the 13th century there was a small community of Jews living in Dunstable.   In the early years Flemengus, a Jew from London, with his son Leo and his servants, were given permission to ‘come and go, and stay’ here, with all the liberties and rights of the burgesses of the town, in return for an annual payment of two silver spoons, each equal in weight to 12 silver pence, one to be paid on the Feast of St Michael (September 29th) , the other on St Mary’s Day  (March 25th):   granting Jews this kind of status was almost unheard of at this date.  Three other Jews, Aaron,  Bendinus  and Jacob, are also mentioned by name in various documents.    In spite of this generous treatment one Jew, named Mossy, sued the Prior, claiming that the cleric owed  him £70.   He produced a deed which purported to be a receipt for the money, signed by the Prior.  But he lost his case when the document was found to be a forgery (it was full of grammatical and other errors)   and he was hauled off to the Tower.  He was lucky enough to have wealthy friends who were able to pay £100 to save him from hanging, but he was forced to flee the country.   

Not all Jews were moneylenders, of course.   Some carried on traditional trades and lived quietly and peaceably in the community   Some converted to Christianity and such converts were made welcome, sometimes changing their names, often taking the name of their patron. A few married Christian women.     One convert, known as Henry, had a received letter from the Pope which he presented to the Priory requiring that the canons should provide him and his family with ‘the necessities of  life’ and ‘an official’ of  the Diocese of Lincoln arranged for this to be done.    

Jews were often unpopular among the native population and in 1264 there was a wave of anti-semitism in Bedford when one, Jacob by name, was hanged and rioters seized and burned the mortgage deeds on their property held by Jews.   Kings had sometimes done their best to protect them; King John, for instance, had ordered that they were to be protected and assisted, warning that ‘we shall require their blood at your hands if through your default any evil happens to them, which Heaven forbid; for we know that these things happen through the foolish people of the town, not the discreet, by whom the folly of the foolish should be restrained’.    Henry III also ordered a proclamation to be made throughout  London ‘that no one, under peril of life and limb, molest the Jews in their persons or goods’  and  established a home for converted Jews in Chancery Lane.

In spite of that Jews were taxed extortionately and when a moneylender died his estate was forfeit to the Crown and had to be re-purchased from the Exchequer by his heirs.    By the end of the century many of the Jews, who had by then been prohibited by Parliament from lending money for interest, were ruined and Edward I was looking elsewhere to borrow money.  We do not know how many Jews, if any, were living in Dunstable when all of their race were finally expelled from the country by Edward I in 1290.  

Edward had been a visitor to Dunstable on several occasions.   In 1275 he had come with Queen Eleanor on a formal visit on St.Andrew’s  Day (November 30th)  and  presented  the Priory with  a precious embroidered cloth.   The following spring he was here again, this time to give his verdict on an episode which had occurred here the previous December.   Some of his falconers had been staying at the Priory and had gone out for a night on the town with some companions who were staying in lodgings nearby and in the course of the evening a chaplain belonging to the Priory was fatally stabbed.  The falconers then went back to the Priory, assaulted the door-keeper, woke the canons and caused mayhem in the Priory itself.   The townspeople, hearing the disturbance, marched on the Priory and tried to attack the falconers.    The following day the falconers made a complaint against the Priory and the town to the King.  The Prior protested his own innocence and that of the people but the King would not listen and directed that the case should be heard at the assizes here.   Though the Prior and the town were acquitted by this court the King would not accept the verdict but came himself in March, with 36 men summoned from outside the town and having no connections with Dunstable, to judge the case impartially.   Town and Prior were again declared not guilty and this time the King finally accepted the verdict.

It was in the reign of Edward I that Parliament as we know it, representing the interests of all parts of society, began to evolve, though it did not, as now, have a fixed meeting place. In the autumn of 1290 Edward held a Parliament at Clipstone, in Nottinghamshire.  Queen Eleanor travelled with him and after the business had been concluded they set out on a royal progress. But the Queen became unwell, and though medicines were sought, she died at the village of  Harby, near Lincoln, on 27th November.   Her body was taken to Lincoln and after her internal organs had been removed and buried at Lincoln cathedral it was embalmed in preparation for its journey to London for the funeral on Westminster abbey.    The cortege left Lincoln on 4th December and the King ordered that a memorial to his beloved Queen should be erected in each of the places where the cortege stopped overnight on its journey.  When it reached Dunstable the coffin was taken to the Church and laid before the altar where it rested for the night.    The Annals record that the Priory received a gift of two precious cloths and 120 pounds of wax, for candles.   Before it left Dunstable the bier was set down at the crossroads so that the King’s Chancellor and the nobles might mark the position where the cross was to be erected and the Prior sanctified the place with holy water.     The Queen was buried on 17th December and the King retired to Ashridge, where he spent Christmas.   In January he held a meeting of Parliament there and stayed on until the end of the month, which was not good news for the people of  Dunstable who were compelled to supply the provisions for his court.   

In the autumn of 1291 the stonemasons arrived to start work on the cross.  Although they are always referred to as Eleanor Crosses, they were not actually crosses in form.    No picture of the Dunstable one has survived, but from the three which are still standing, at Northampton, Geddington and Waltham,  we have some idea of what it would have looked like.  All of them were stone monuments ‘of remarkable size’, we are told;   the one at Geddington is nearly 40 feet high.  Though they differed in detail, they were all in three tiers, decreasing in size towards the top. They were decorated with statues and figures and coats of arms, all bearing the arms of England, Castile, Leon and Ponthieu, painted with bright colours and gilded..  On all of them the Queen’s face was said to have shown ‘a serenity and greatness of soul’.  The accounts for the work submitted by the mason cover a period of about two years, but government departments were notoriously slow to pay the bills and the date of the account is not necessarily a guide to when he was paid.  

As the century neared its end Dunstable was at the peak of its prosperity.  From the Bedfordshire returns for a tax imposed in 1297, known as the Ninth, we can glean quite a lot of information about the people of Dunstable of the time.  This was not a tax on what would now be called real estate, but on what were referred to as ‘moveables’, which meant, for townspeople, household goods (apart from basic furniture), clothing in excess of basic needs (a silver girdle was allowed if used every day), produce, livestock and items held in stock by shopkeepers and traders which were intended for sale.   Householders whose possessions were worth less than nine shillings were exempt.    

The value of all these items in the households of Dunstable was assessed by a team of six taxers and a tax of one ninth was then levied on the total value of their goods.  121 people were liable for the tax and in all £22.0s.11d was paid by the townsfolk.  The person whose possessions were valued highest was John Durant, whose property was valued at £20.16s.8d., the highest of any merchant in the county.  But although his property is listed in detail the word ‘deceased’ appears after his name, from which it seems likely that he died after the assessment was made but before the tax demands were actually issued, so it would have been his family who paid the bill.  The average amount payable by the traders of Dunstable was between one and five shillings.

At a time when even townsfolk still lived a semi-rural life, the list of each person’s possessions began with details of the grain he had in store, followed by a list of his livestock.  Almost everybody had a quantity of grain in store – mainly wheat, barley or drage (an inferior grain crop) valued at a standard amount per quarter. One commentator thought the quantities held were rather high, indicating that there must have been a number of grain dealers in the town.   The amounts may also have been affected by the fact that the assessments were made on Michaelmas Day, 29th September, just after the harvest had been brought in ready for the winter.   One interesting fact is that there were a number of people with a stock of barley, while in Leighton Buzzard there was nobody with any at all and in Luton .         (Could this have some connection with the fact that Dunstable is always said to have  been known for its breweries/)  One Dunstable man, John Benere, was a maltster and had malt worth 40 shillings, worth more than his eight quarters of barley, valued at 24 shillings.    

There was a standard value for kind of each animal – bulls (there were only two) were valued at 6s.8d, cows and affers (draft animals) at 5s.0d. and sheep at one shilling.  There were nearly 300 sheep altogether, owned by 27 men between them, most of which must have been pastured outside the town boundary.  They would have been kept not for meat but primarily for their wool, their skins (used for vellum for manuscripts)  and also for their milk.  Nobody is listed as having a stock of fleeces, the shearing season being well past.  And they would all have been exported by the end of September.  Perhaps surprisingly there were only two pigs in the whole list, valued at 1s.6d.each, though just possibly one or two might have been kept by the poorer people not eligible to pay tax.   Poultry were not included.       

Surnames had not become standard at that time and many people were known simply by the trade which they followed, like Norman Carnifex,  the butcher, Henry le Spicer, and Ernald and Reginald  and Faber, the blacksmiths.   Some people were known by the name of the place from which they had come, like John Offley, Richard Chalton, John of Wotton and William of Totternho, and others already used family names inherited from their fathers, like the Durants and the Youngs.    One name which strikes a rather exotic note is Alexander Orenge.  

Unlike today, it would have been possible for the townsfolk to buy all their needs within the town, in the shops or in the market.    There were  4 butchers, 4 fishmongers, 4 shopkeepers selling pease, a seller of oil and tallow, a spicer, a cloth merchant, a maltster, a fruiterer, a poulterer, 3 bakers, 3 blacksmiths a tiler and a carpenter,  For a while earlier in the century there had been a goldsmith (aurifaber), known to us because he had a dispute with the Prior over planning permission for a shop in High Street North.  He had appealed to a higher authority, the Archdeacon, who gave him permission to build his shop provided that he did not allow his windows or doorways to cause any obstruction to passers-by on horseback or with carts.         

Apart from the tradesmen listed above were two other groups of people, both of whom were dependent on the sheep farmers to keep them in business – the wool merchants and the tanners and skinners.   In 1297 there were 8 known wool merchants in the list, though none of them actually gave this as his occupation.  It is from other sources that we know what they did.     There were also 8 tanners and skinners, who made the sheepskins into leather and vellum and whose tanneries no doubt produced the medieval equivalent of the petrol fumes we suffer from today.

In the past century the people of Dunstable had lived through fire and plague, civil war, poor harvests, and crippling taxation.    They had tried – and failed – to win their independence from the Prior and get back the rights given to the town by Henry I.   But in spite of everything the traffic still passed up and down the Watling Street  and the town was busy and prosperous in the Year of Our Lord 1300.


The last decade of the 13th century saw Dunstable at the peak of its prosperity, but in the following years trade began gradually to decrease.  The decline was not as great as in some towns, such as  Bedford;  Dunstable was still paying more tax than Bedford in 1309,  with 170 people paying a total of £22 in that year, but after that the number of taxpayers fell to 114 in 1332, and the amount of revenue collected fell to £13.            

By this time the first coroner for Dunstable had been appointed:  John Fisher, from Woburn, was appointed in 1295 and held office until 1321.  And it was during his term of office, in 1311, that the burgesses sent two representatives to Parliament, the one and only occasion when they did so.   It was an expensive undertaking and perhaps, like the burgesses of a number of other small towns, they just did not consider it worth the cost.  

But parliaments and governments cannot prevent natural disasters, and a few years later the country suffered a disastrous famine.  The Great Famine, as it became known, occurred when terrible weather for three years running, from 1315 to 1317, caused the crops to fail not only in England, but all over Europe.   There was not enough grazing for the livestock, the cereal crops largely failed and what grain there was, was of poor quality.  In some places people were reduced to eating horses and dogs and there were even stories of cannibalism in some countries.  The staple food of bread was scarce everywhere and it was reported that it was almost impossible to buy any even for the King when he visited St.Albans in 1316. Prices rocketed and the people of Dunstable must have suffered like everybody else.      

Ten years after the King came to St.Albans there was a royal visit to Dunstable, but this was no state occasion with a ceremonial exchange of gifts between the Prior and royalty:  this was a brief stop by Queen Isabella leading an army on its way to war, a civil war.   Isabella was the wife of Edward II, a king who had been defeated by the Scots, was at loggerheads with France and was under attack from his own barons in England.  He had alienated the lords and councillors of the realm through his obsession with a young French knight, Piers Gaveston, and when they had removed Gaveston from the scene he enlisted as his allies the Despensers, a grasping and ruthless father and son, hated by the people and loathed by Isabella.  

In 1325, in an effort to solve his problems with France, Edward had sent Isabella on a diplomatic mission to carry out negotiations concerning Gascony, then under English rule, with her brother, the King of France.    While in Paris she met Roger Mortimer, one of the rebel barons who had been imprisoned by Edward but had escaped and fled to the continent.   Together they resolved that Edward must be removed from power.   They moved to the Low Countries and there Isabella made a bargain with Count William II of Hainault:   in return for the betrothal of her son, the young Prince Edward, to his daughter, she would be given troops and a fleet to transport them to England.     She and Mortimer landed with her army in Suffolk on 24th September 1326 and passed through Dunstable on the way to Oxford and the west country.  Though there was no fighting in the area immediately round Dunstable the townsfolk must have been apprehensive as they watched the soldiers passing through.

The invading army soon hunted down and killed the Despensers; the King surrendered in November and was forced to abdicate in favour of his young son, who was proclaimed King Edward III in January 1327.    Edward II was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle and is generally believed to have been murdered there on the instructions of Isabella.   She and Mortimer were to rule England for almost four years, though life under their regency was very little different from what it had been under the previous regime.   Finally the young Edward, then aged eighteen, asserted himself and took matters into his own hands.   In a surprise attack on Nottingham Castle Mortimer and Isabella were seized: he was hanged at Tyburn like a common criminal but Isabella was allowed to live out her days in comfort until her death in 1358.      

One of Dunstable’s claims to fame in the middle ages was as a venue for tournaments and during the time that Isabella and Mortimer were in power a splendid tournament was held here, organised by Mortimer, at which they and the young King and his new wife were present.   In preparation for the visit a team of men were set to work to repair ‘divers houses and other outhouses…within the court of the late John Durrant at Dunstable’.   The famous wealthy wool merchant had by this time been dead for thirty years, but he did have a son also called John though he, too, would almost certainly have been dead by this time, so we cannot be sure which of them was the ‘late John Durrant’ referred to.  At all events seventeen craftsmen were set to work to prepare the buildings for ‘the stay of the king and his faithful servants in his company’.   There were seven carpenters, two tilers (who with their four assistants replaced 1,000 tiles), plasterers and men who repaired the guttering and did various other odd jobs.  There was one stonemason, William de Hokham, perhaps from Norfolk and a plumber named William de Gatesdene (Gaddesden?)   The materials cost £4.15s. 5d and the cost of labour was £3.6s.1d., amounts which would be equal to several thousands of pounds today.  

There must have been great excitement in the town at the prospect of the event and the tradesmen no doubt looked forward to the trade it was expected to bring. .   Edward was to come to Dunstable for tournaments again on two further occasions, the last time, in 1342, being a celebration of the betrothal of his son, Lionel.     He is supposed to have entered the lists himself as ‘a simple knight’, one of 236 knights who are said to have been here.  Queen Philippa and two of their daughters came too, sumptuously dressed for the occasion.   

Things were very different a few years later when, in 1349, the whole country was devastated by the plague.  Brought to this country by fleas carried by rats on cargo ships coming from the east, it first appeared in the Weymouth area in 1348 and spread to London and this part of the country the following year.    Estimates of the number of deaths vary between one third and one half of the population, but with no parish registers in existence it is impossible to know exactly how many people died, in Dunstable or anywhere else.   There are no references in the Annals to anyone having died of the plague here, neither canons nor townsfolk: the only mention of it says that the townspeople made a bell, which they called Mary, perhaps to be rung to remind them to come to church to pray that God would keep them safe from the ‘pestilence’.  The canons at the Priory appear to have been more fortunate than their brethren in St.Albans, where the Abbot, the Prior, the Sub-Prior and 46 monks all died.    

During the second half of the 14th century the English wool trade continued to flourish, but for some reason Dunstable does not appear to have played a great part in it.   The town does not appear in the surviving records of the trade for this period, though it is known that there were still some individuals involved in the buying and selling of wool and there are occasional references to ‘woolmen’ in the town well into the 15th century.     As a town, however, Dunstable appears to have continued to do fairly well.    When a new method of calculating tax assessments was introduced in 1334, and the system of assessing each individual’s liability according to the value of his possessions was replaced by a single tax on the town as a whole,  Dunstable was assessed as the tenth highest out of all the 91 new towns.    The town was required to pay 282 shillings (£14.10p) a year, slightly more than had been collected in 1332 but far less than Newcastle, the highest rated of all the new towns, which paid 1,780 shillings (£89).  Boston, the second highest, paid 1,467 shillings and St.Albans, ranked seventh in the list, paid 354 shillings.    At the other end of the scale eleven of the new towns, obviously the less successful, paid less than 20 shillings (£1) a year.        

During this period the English language began to be more widely used in England and the use of French declined.  Up until this time there were three languages in use in the country:  Latin was the language of the law, used for official documents and legal charters, French was the language of the gentry and taught in schools, and English was used for everyday conversation of the people in general.  In 1362 it was ordered that English should be the language of the law courts, and in 1363 the Chancellor opened the proceedings of Parliament in English for the first time.   Schools began to teach in English rather than French, so that by 1385 one writer claimed that all the grammar schools in the country, which presumably included the Dunstable school, had abandoned French and taught in English.      

In particular there were two men whose work was to have a huge influence on the spread of the use of the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Wycliffe.   Still today most people have heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, even if they have never read them.   They were not Chaucer’s only work; he was actually a prolific writer, both of poetry and prose, but the characters described in the party who went on the pilgrimage to Canterbury have become legendary.   

John Wycliffe, a lecturer at Oxford, believed passionately that everyone should be able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, without having to depend on the clergy to interpret the word of God.  Salvation, he believed, came from scripture and not from the Church.  He began work on a translation of the Bible into English from the Latin text, a huge task for one man alone and many other scholars must have contributed to the completed work.   Before the invention of printing hundreds of copies of this Bible must have been transcribed by hand and preachers were sent out far and wide to distribute the book and pass on its message.    170 copies are said still to exist, an indication that there must originally have been an enormous number in circulation.

 Apart from his conviction that everyone should be able to read the Bible in his own language and that scripture was the only true foundation of faith,  Wycliffe  held a number of what were then considered unorthodox religious views, views which would later become an accepted part of the Protestant faith but which were in his time considered heresy.  The English Bible was banned by Parliament and to own a copy was accounted a crime.  Preachers and distributors of the Bible became known as Lollards and a trial was held by a Synod of the Church at Blackfriars at which their arrest and prosecution was ordered.    In 1414 a Justice of the Peace from Toddington, Thomas Pever, was commissioned to arrest all Lollards found ‘hiding in Bedfordshire’ and one man from Dunstable, a brewer named Thomas Morley (or Murlie), was hanged for Lollardy at Harringay the same year.    Nevertheless, Lollardy continued to exist right up until 18th century.

How many of the people of Dunstable could actually read and/or write at this time it is impossible to say:  the wealthy merchants of the 13th and 14th centuries must at least have been able to keep accounts and almost since the town’s beginnings there had been a school here, from Geoffrey de Gorham’s school onwards.  The charter granting the town to the Priory  had specifically included the school in the town.   The Annals of the Priory named Richard Stanford as master of the school in 1224, when he became a canon.  There was an unfortunate incident that year when a serious fight broke out between the scholars and the townspeople and many of the participants were wounded, one of them (a townsman) fatally.  

Two of John Durant’s sons went up to Oxford in 1284 and must have had some schooling, most probably at the Dunstable school.  William Newton, chaplain of the Fraternity of St John the Baptist, in his will (c.1500) left a penny to each poor scholar, which implies that it was not restricted to the sons of the wealthy.  Richard Mone, in his will of 1506, requested that his grandson be ‘kept to school’.   When the monastery closed in 1540 a list of property belonging to the Priory contained a reference to the ‘ scolehouse’ in South Street, but whether this reference to a schoolhouse means that it was still in use as a school is unclear: a few years later, in 1547, when the Fraternity of St.John was closed down, one of the reasons given for the closure was that it did not contribute to a school.

(The fight between the scholars and the townspeople was not the only occasion when the peace of Dunstable was disturbed by anti-social behaviour.   From the time of Henry III  squatters and vagrants camping on the open ground on the outskirts of the town were a constant problem, with their noisy quarrels and violent and often criminal behaviour.)       

For more than half of the 13th century, from 1337 onwards, England was at war with France in what became known as the Hundred Years War.   Carrying on a war inevitably required money, and when the King needed money, just as inevitably, this meant taxation.     Poll taxes were never popular and in 1381 there had been three poll taxes in 4 years, each one heavier than the last, in addition to the normal taxes which people were used to paying on their possessions.   Protests began in Essex, when villagers near Brentwood refused to pay the tax and an attempt to arrest them sparked off a rebellion.  The men of Essex were soon followed by the men of Kent, led by Wat Tyler, and eventually the movement spread to London and beyond.   On Saturday, 15th June there was a riot in St.Albans and among the onlookers were several merchants from Dunstable. The people of Dunstable had long resented the Priory’s control over the affairs of the town and they took the opportunity to, as they saw it, put the situation right.   They demanded the restoration of the rights given to the burgesses in the original charter given to the town by Henry I.   Thomas Hobbes, landlord of a local inn and their spokesman, confronted the Prior with their demands.   After some prevarication, but aware of what had happened in St.Albans , the Prior gave in and had a new charter drawn up.

The town’s victory was short-lived, however.  Before long the rebellions everywhere were being put down and Dunstable’s new charter was almost immediately quashed at the King’s Court in St.Albans.    Though severe retribution was exacted against the rebels in many places the men of Dunstable were more fortunate.  In a magnanimous gesture the Prior, Thomas Marshall, invested a great deal of time and money in pleading their cause with the justices and as a result none of them was executed.

By 1399 Richard II had reigned for 22 years, but latterly his behaviour had become increasingly erratic and unreasonable.  Indeed, some historians believe that he had become mentally unbalanced.  In the early months of the year his cousin Henry, the eldest son of John of Gaunt, forced Richard to renounce the throne.  And so, for the second time in a century, an English king was deposed.   Henry claimed the throne by virtue of his descent from Edward III and made his speech at his coronation in what the historical records referred to, significantly, as his ‘Mother Tongue’, English.  England once again had an English-speaking king.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                             15th CENTURY

A new century, a new King and a more peaceful reign.     For the inhabitants of Dunstable trade continued as before, declining slowly as the century progressed, though not as much as it did in many other places, in Bedford and Luton for instance.  Lollardy, though by this time  condemned as heresy by the Church and banned by law, still persisted in England and in 1413 risings were being planned by its followers to take place in various places round the country.   The main one was to be in London on 9th January 1414 and a Victorian writer, Charles Lamborn, tells the story, which may well be apocryphal, of a Dunstable brewer named William Morley who rode off to join the insurrection.   He is said to have taken with him a pair of gilt spurs in his baggage and ‘two led horses with rich trappings’ in anticipation of being made a knight after the event.   As it turned out, the King’s spies got word of the rising in advance and the Lollards were met at the gateway to London not by an army of supporters, as they expected, but by the King’s guard.   Many people were arrested and hanged, including William Morley who, according to Lamborn, was hanged with his spurs round his neck.

It is in these early years of the century that the names of three Dunstable inns first appear – the Lion, the Peacock and the Swan.    They stood next to one another in High Street North, on the east side of the road, with the Swan in the middle, the Lion on the south side of it and the Peacock on the north. The Swan was privately owned, but a conveyance of 1422 describes the buildings on either side of  it as being the property of the Priory.    The inn was being conveyed to John and Alice Petever from Alice’s father, Thomas Hobbes, the man who had demanded ‘citizens’ rights’ from the Prior in the Peasants’  Revolt.   The inn later came into the possession of the Dyve family, one of whom founded a chantry in 1515 and endowed a school in East Street (Church Street).   

We know of another inn which was here at this period, the George, from a list of aliens resident in the town.   Aliens coming to live in this country were required to pay for a licence to stay here and among  licences issued to settlers  in Dunstable was one to ‘Janyn,  Hostiller atte George’.   Whether or not this was the same George Inn that stood in High Street South two centuries later we cannot tell.  The records do not give the ostler’s country of origin, they only say that he has licence to dwell ‘within the realm’ with all his goods for life provided ‘he be of good behaviour’.   Two other immigrants, whose place of origin was given, were Adrian Byle from Brabant and Adrian Michael from Rotterdam, perhaps connected with the wool or cloth trades.   Hugh Whitsyde, another alien, had perhaps Anglicised his name, or possibly came from Ireland.  In 1394 he had paid for a licence to live in England, but in 1413 he was paying a further 6s.8d. to live in Dunstable.    

Although there were still woolmen in business here, after 1400 the name of Dunstable no longer appears in the official records of the regional centres where wool was collected.  Trade in general was still good, but the one thing there had never been in the town was a merchant guild.  In many towns there was a fraternity, set up by a group of worthy burgesses, with the object of providing prayers for the souls of the dead at an altar in their parish church, ‘fostering good fellowship among their members’ and very often supporting schools or other good causes.  A fraternity, or brotherhood, as it was sometimes called, has been described by one writer as the equivalent to a modern day Rotary Club.    

In 1442 some of the leading citizens of Dunstable decided to found such a fraternity in Dunstable  and  three of the leading burgesses, William Anable the younger, Laurence Pycot  and Henry Mauntell, submitted an application to the King for the necessary licence, which was granted.    A set of conditions as to how the Fraternity should conduct its affairs was laid down.  The members were to elect two of their number each year to be responsible for the running of the brotherhood, they were to provide property to produce an income of  £36.13.4d a year to pay for a chaplain to say mass daily in the Church for the souls of the dead, and to undertake some charitable works.    

In fulfilment of the last condition the Fraternity provided a Brotherhood House in East Street for six poor travellers and four poor members, with a house next door for the chaplain, who celebrated mass daily at the altar of St.John in the north aisle of Priory Church.   The chaplain in the late 1400s, William Newton, was also the master of the school and left 1d. to each poor scholar when he died.

The great event of the members’ year was the feast, preceded by a special celebration of the Mass and probably a procession, on 24th June, commemorating the Nativity of St John.  In towns where there was a guildhall the feast would have been held there, but there is no reference to a guildhall here or any indication of where the Dunstable Fraternity’s feast was held.   There was probably also a second banquet on the anniversary of the beheading of the Saint on 29th August .

Whether a complete membership register was kept from the very beginning is not known, but there are surviving registers for the years 1506-8, 1522 and 1525-1541.    They record 1,217 names, probably less than a third of the total membership over the whole of the Fraternity’s existence.  Most of the members were artisans and tradesmen and merchants of the middle class, and it is from their ranks that the officers seem to have been recruited.  Each year’s list was headed with a portrait of the President and his wife.   As well as the men from Dunstable the members included gentry from the neighbourhood and some of the higher ranking clerics, including the abbots of Woburn, Ashridge and St.Albans,  and  Maister Dr Smyth,  President of the Fraternity of St Paul’s in London, a Doctor of Physic, who became a member in 1527.  In the same year the last Prior of Dunstable, Gervaise Markham, also joined, the only Prior known to have done so.    

The Register was illuminated with borders lavishly decorated with gold leaf and the colour red, with many depictions of St John’s severed head, and was obviously the work of a number of different scribes.    Though variable, the standard of workmanship was never of the highest quality, but the book is nevertheless a rare and valuable survivor of its kind.  It is now in Luton Museum.      

Apart from the register there is one other item belonging to the Fraternity which still survives, a magnificent funeral pall now on display on the Victoria and Albert Museum.   It was given to the brotherhood by Henry Fayrey and his wife Agnes in about 1500, for the use of the members.  Of  brocaded Florentine velvet, with a border of satin, it is an outstanding  example of medieval embroidery.   In the centre of the side panels John the Baptist is portrayed preaching, with John Fayrey and twelve men on one side of him, representing the male members of the Fraternity, and Agnes Fayrey and twelve female figures representing the women members on the other. Also depicted are Henry Fayrey’s arms, his merchant’s mark, displayed on a woolsack, and the arms of the Mercers’ Company, of which he was a member.   He died in 1516.  

The Fraternity began to decline in 1535 and was dissolved in 1547,  by which time it was no longer giving relief to the poor or maintaining a school or an active chaplain.  The incumbent, John Collop, then aged 50,  was ‘but meanly learned  and not able to serve a cure’.  He was pensioned off at £5 a year.

Some of the members of the Fraternity were commemorated by brasses in the nave of the church, including Laurence Pygot, one of the founder members, who died in 1450.   Other brasses dating from about the same time probably also commemorated members of the Fraternity, but with no register existing for this period surviving it is impossible to tell.  Already some Dunstable merchants had links with the City and described themselves as a mercer, or member of some other guild, and citizen of London.   Laurence’s wife, Alice, died three years after he did and their London connections are clear in her will.  As well as several bequests to the Priory Church and the poor of this town she left money for the priests of the Church of the Blessed Mary Magdalene in Milk Street, London, and for the fabric of the  their church.   The residue of her estate went to her executor, William Cantelow, Alderman of the City of London.    A native of Dunstable who became a citizen of London was Sir Thomas Chalton,  a member of the Mercers’ Company and Lord Mayor in 1450,who would very likely have been a member of the Fraternity.     

But 1450 was also a year that marked an event of far greater significance than the election of a Dunstablian as mayor of the City of London.   It marked the beginning of yet another civil war, the war that we now call the Wars of the Roses.   Essentially it was a conflict between the descendants of two of the sons of Edward III,   Edmund, Duke  of York and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, both sides claiming the English throne.   For over thirty years their descendants fought on battlefields right across the country, from Hexham in the north to  Barnet in the south,    For most of the population the battles were of little concern  unless the fighting took place where they actually lived, when it was a very different story.   Unfortunately for Dunstable, in 1461 it was one of the places in the path of the Lancastrian army.

In 1453 the King had fallen ill and become temporarily insane; his cousin Richard, Duke of York, was appointed Protector of the Realm.  When the King recovered two years later the Protectorate came to an end and the King was back in power, though in reality Queen Margaret was the power behind the throne.  Henry was not a strong character and Margaret definitely was.    Fighting broke out between the two sides, the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, and there was a minor battle between the two armies at St.Albans in 1455.   It was all over in less than an hour, but Henry suffered a slight injury in the neck and was taken prisoner.   A compromise reached later between Richard and Henry allowed Henry to remain king for his lifetime but Richard and his heirs were to succeed him after his death.

In 1459 Henry, as king, was in Dunstable and in an attempt to prevent any attack on him from within his own kingdom he banned the formation of private armies, ordering that ‘no manner of man of this township, of what craft or mystery he be, be adherent or drawing to any lord, to aid or go with him’.   But in spite of compromise agreements and royal commands, the fighting continued.  It was Margaret who was in charge of the Lancastrian army and in 1460, flushed with success after a victory over the Yorkists at Wakefield, she recruited more men from Scotland and the north of  England and even, some say, from Wales, and set out to march on London.    Though there are varying accounts of the Second Battle of St.Albans, all agree that as Margaret’s men  marched through the midland counties of England they robbed and plundered, caused severe damage to monasteries and churches and stole their silver, and terrified the people.  The King is said to have begged the Queen not to lead the men into London for fear they would run amok.    

Their route was down the A1 of today and at some point they turned west and came across to Dunstable.  The Yorkist  army, led by the Earl of Warwick, had come from London up to St.Albans,  and the Queen, who is believed to have had intelligence that they would expect her to enter St.Albans by the road from Luton, prepared to go instead by way of Watling Street.  The story of what happened in Dunstable is where the versions differ.  One account says that there was a small pocket of resistance to the Queen’s men, led by a local butcher, but it was soon overcome.   Another version is that the Yorkists had a small detachment already based in the town before the Lancastrian army arrived.  All agree that the Queen’s men arrived at St.Albans at dawn on 17th February 1461, outflanking the Yorkist army and finally winning the day.  But though she had won the battle requests from the Queen for supplies from London were refused.  She was so hated by the people there that even though she promised not to let any of  her men enter the City the Londoners would not open the gates to allow supplies to be brought out.   

One account of the event says that while the Queen was attempting to negotiate with those in authority in London  her army went back to Dunstable and went on the on the rampage in the town,  but others make no mention of what happened immediately after the battle.  The King was found by the Queen almost alone, having been taken to watch the battle and seen the   carnage before being left by the fleeing Yorkists.   In spite of the Lancastrian victory, the King and Queen did not take advantage of the situation but made their way to the north of  England.    Henry was later taken prisoner at the Battle of Barnet in 1471 and subsequently murdered.         

It would be many more years before the war finally ended on Bosworth Field in 1485.  The next king would be neither a York nor a Lancaster, but Henry Tudor .  Through his mother he, too, had a connection, though slender, with John of Gaunt.   She was  Margaret Beaufort, Gaunt’s great-granddaughter,  but Henry’s claim to the throne was somewhat tenuous.  .

It is a pity that there was nobody in the Dominican Friary in Dunstable to record its history at this period as the annalists of the Priory did of their monastery.    If there had been such a person in the 15th century we might know now how a valuable gold and white enamel brooch, in the shape of  a swan, with a gold chain around its neck, came to be found on the site of the Friary by archaeologists in 1965.   The swan was once the badge of the De Bohun family and Queen Margaret later adopted it for her son’s livery.   It seems most probable it was in the times of the Wars of the Roses that the brooch was lost by someone wearing it as a livery badge, but today we can only speculate.     The workmanship of the swan jewel has been dated as being from the late 14th or early 15th century.   Legends about the swan were current in Europe in the Middle Ages and the emblem came to be associated with knighthood and chivalry.   As far back as 1306  Edward I had had two swans, decked with gold chains, brought into the hall at a feast held to celebrate the knighting of his son, the Prince of Wales, and 267 other young men all knighted at the same time.   

After the Second Battle of  St.Albans  Dunstable was left undisturbed for the rest of the war, though fighting continued elsewhere and there were battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471 and finally at Bosworth in 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III.    Dunstable would not be involved in a war again until the conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians in the 17th century.    

Henry was crowned  at Westminster on 30th October 1485  and in the following January he married Elizabeth of York.    Their first son, Arthur, was born later that year and their second son, Henry, five years later, in 1491.   The succession to the throne seemed to be secure and nobody could have foreseen the complications which would arise over the issue of the succession in the next generation.    

After an uneasy first few years the reign of Henry VII became a time of well-ordered government and a thriving economy.    He was active in overseeing the government and finances of the country, so that a treasury that was almost bankrupt when he came to the throne was not just solvent but had accrued a fortune to be passed on to his heir when he died.   He overhauled and simplified the legal processes of the state.  Above all he was determined to make the monarchy secure and bring to an end the wars and strife that had bedevilled the country for so long.  

In Dunstable peace and harmony did not always reign however.   There was still the occasional disagreement between the Prior and the town, though after the Fraternity had been formed relations between them did seem to improve to some degree.  Nor were relations between the friars and the canons always harmonious.  That the early 1500s were years of increased prosperity for ordinary folks though is evident from their wills.   People had more personal possessions to leave to their heirs.   One man had a collection of three dozen silver spoons, which must have been quite valuable; women and men left expensive clothes and personal items to their families and friends.       Bedsteads and feather beds and other household items began to figure in their bequests.   Houses now had glass in the windows and roofs were tiled, not thatched.     Many people left money to the Priory or the Friary, or even to both.     But there was a downside to this new affluence - inflation.   It is said that in the 1530s goods in general cost twice as much as they had in 1500, and some items four times as much.

In the main streets, by 1540,  the number of inns had increased to at least thirteen – the Angel, the Bulle, the [nether] George, the Lamme, the Lyon, the New Falcon,  the Peacock, the Ramme, the Raven, the Sarzenshedd (Saracen’s Head), the Swanne,  the Whiteharte and the Whytehorse.  These were mostly, though not all, in property rented from the Priory.  The shops built on the site of the old market stalls may have been built in the early 16th century, too.  One shop that is known to have been built about then was, until the 1970’s, at No.7 West Street, well known to local gentlemen as the barber’s shop belonging to Mr. Ellis.  (It is now in the Chiltern Open Air Museum.)  

In April 1509  King Henry VII had died and his son, Henry VIII, was just 18 when he came to the throne.   This was a young man very different in character from his father.   As a young boy he had been betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his older brother, a marriage dictated by his father.   Just two months after his accession he and Catherine were married.  At first the marriage appeared to be a happy one but the failure of Catherine to produce a son (none of their first three babies, all boys, survived) cast a shadow over their marriage.  A daughter, Mary, born on 18th February 1516 was the only surviving child.

Time went by and there was still no male heir to the throne; it was obvious there was not going to be one from this marriage either.   It seemed to Henry that there was only one solution to his problem.  He must marry again.  The difficulty was that he had a wife still living.

The law of the church was that marriage to one’s brother’s widow was forbidden.   Henry argued that his marriage to Catherine, his brother’s widow, was therefore illegal, even though a papal dispensation had been granted to allow it to take place   It should, he argued, be annulled.  If the Pope would grant an annulment Catherine would not be his legal wife and he would be free to marry again.   Such things had been arranged in the past.  But the Pope, influenced by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (Catherine’s nephew) was adamant that he would not annul the marriage.

Things came to a head when Ann Boleyn became pregnant with Henry’s child.   If the hoped-for son were to be recognised as Henry’s legal heir he must be born in wedlock.  In January 1533 Henry and Anne were secretly married and at the same time the Pope was asked to sanction the appointment of Cranmer as Archbishopric of Canterbury.  Parliament then passed an act which made it possible for the Archbishop and the Court of Convocation, rather than the Pope, to deal with Henry’s request.

On the 10h May, ‘in the decent obscurity of Dunstable’ as one writer put it, Cranmer opened the proceedings of the court in Dunstable.   Queen Catherine, then living at Ampthill, was summoned to attend, but did not come.  The court was held in the Lady Chapel of the Priory and for 10 days the validity, or otherwise, of the King’s marriage was discussed.   (This was not the Lady Chapel we know today but was to the east of the present church.)   On 23rd May Cranmer finally pronounced Henry and Catherine’s marriage invalid.  Everything was legalised.  But the hoped-for son did not arrive.   Henry and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, was born in September 1533.      

Of  how interested or otherwise the local population was in the proceedings there is no record.  Did the people go out to watch the ‘celebrities’ coming and going and wait outside the church to hear the final verdict.?  Or were they not greatly interested in the goings-on of the court?   Were Cranmer and the bishops intent on keeping, as we would say, ‘a low profile’?  Had the man-in-the-street, for the most part, any idea of the huge consequences of the series of events that Henry’s  actions were to set in motion?  Did the canons of the Priory have any idea of the cataclysm that lay ahead?

The first consequence of the split with Rome was the creation of the Church of England with Henry as its supreme head:  no longer was the Church in this country under the authority of the Pope.  In 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed and all clergy were now required to take an oath acknowledging the King as Head of the Church.   For the ordinary congregation going to mass every Sunday in the Priory Church there was no noticeable change.   What we think of now as non-conformist services were still a long way in the future.       

Much more far-reaching in its effects was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place over the years 1536-40.   At first it was the smaller monasteries that were closed, on the grounds that many of them were declining and poorly run and in financial difficulties, but all of them were gone by the end of that period.     Reactions to the closures must have been mixed.  The traditionalists must have felt angry and saddened, while the modern anti-clerical thinkers must have felt they were a move in the right direction..  In towns like St.Albans and Dunstable ordinary folk were only too happy to be free of domination by Abbot and Prior.  For the King and Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell there was another advantage in getting rid of the monasteries.   The sale of all the monastic property meant more money in the Treasury.

The monks generally either received a pension or found employment of some kind.  The Crown took over all the property owned by the monasteries and just as William I had wanted to have a list of all his new his possessions  in 1066, so Henry VIII also wanted to know the details of all the property that he had acquired and what it was worth.     A special department, the Court of Augmentations, was set up to carry out the work involved.  The accounts for the properties owned by the monasteries of Bedfordshire still exist and have been transcribed and published, and since the Priory owned most of the town they are a very useful source of information about Dunstable at the time.   Property not owned by the Priory is not included, of course.   

The Dominican Friary was closed in November 1538  and the Priory on 31st December 1539.  There was a proposal at the time to make Dunstable  Priory Church  into a cathedral and  a provisional scheme were actually drawn up in some details   In the end the cost was considered too high and the project was abandoned, but because the north aisle was used as the parish church it was allowed to remain as the parish church of the town.    The rest of the buildings were demolished and here and there small patches of Totternhoe stone, probably from the old monastic buildings, can be seen where it has been used to repair some of our older buildings.

It has been said that the social effect of the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the country  was as great as that of the Conquest.   The changes in society to which it gave rise were as great as those which followed the Norman invasion.  The first years of the Tudor dynasty had not been radically different from the years which had preceded them, but after the Dissolution nothing would ever be the same again.    As Professor Myers wrote,  ‘In economic and social affairs the fifteen-thirties, more than any other time, mark the close of medieval England’.