Marlborough: A Potted History

Marlborough’s history began with the building of a Norman motte and bailey castle following the Conquest of 1066. All that survives of the castle today is the motte, known as the Mound, now within the grounds of Marlborough College.

Marlborough’s earliest mention is by the chronicler Florence of Worcester who relates that in May 1070 Aethelric, a dissident English bishop, was imprisoned here following his deposition at a synod held in Windsor. A castle must have been built by then as a secure place would have been needed to hold him.

The castle was unsuccessfully besieged by King Stephen in 1139. It was granted to the then “Prince” John and was the scene of John’s first marriage to Isabel of Gloucester in 1189. In 1194 John tried to seize the throne whilst his brother King Richard the Lionheart was held captive on his return from the Crusades. The castle was taken by a “great army” led by Hubert Walter, King Richard’s justiciar and archbishop of Canterbury. John’s rebellion collapsed, Richard’s ransom was paid, and Richard returned to England.

John became king in 1199 after his brother was unexpectedly killed in an attack on Chalus castle in France. As king, John visited Marlborough frequently and, in 1204, gave the town its first charter granting fairs and twice-weekly markets that are still held on Wednesdays and Saturdays to this day. He also gave land from the castle estate which became Marlborough common.

In 1204 John lost Normandy to France. He spent the rest of his reign trying to regain it. The barons footed the bill for John’s unsuccessful military campaigns and in 1215 they rebelled. To avoid civil war John signed the Magna Carta at Runneymede in June. He very soon broke his promises and civil war followed. Prince Louis of France invaded England. John died of dysentery in October 1216. On his death Hubert Walter surrendered Marlborough castle to Prince Louis. The situation was only saved by the barons’ unswerving loyalty to John’s young son, King Henry III, who, guided by the aged William Marshal, persuaded Louis to surrender his claim to England.

King Henry III re-issued the Magna Carta and showed promise as a king who would bring stability and peace. But, like his father, he too fell out with the barons; one of whom, Simon de Montfort led them in a renewed struggle for baronial power. In 1267, in the great hall of Marlborough castle, a new agreement was signed between the king and his barons. This document was called the Statutes of Marlborough and was signed in the presence of the papal legate giving it the Pope’s blessing, something the Magna Carta never had. This was the high-water mark for Marlborough castle, making it nationally important.

By the 14th and 15th centuries the military importance of castles diminished as England became generally more stable and the invention of gunpowder and the development of guns meant they could more readily be attacked and destroyed. By 1610 there was virtually nothing left of Marlborough castle; only a “heap of rammel and rubbish” according to the antiquarian and topographer William Camden.

The Seymour family built a mansion on the site of the castle. As wardens of the nearby Royal forest of Savernake the Seymours had acquired much wealth and power. Jane Seymour had been the third wife to King Henry VIII and the mother of Henry’s only legitimate son Edward, who ruled as King Edward VI.

The town had become a thriving market town and had expanded into land once dominated by the castle. The old castle church became the church of the western parish of St Peter and St Paul which covered the High Street and the land above it and below it. St Peter’s was rebuilt in the gothic perpendicular style at this time as was the eastern parish church of St Mary.

In 1576 Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter of incorporation to Marlborough enabling it to govern itself and pass its own by-laws. In 1597 an anti-government play called the Isle of Dogs was performed at the Rose theatre in London. As a result all London theatres were forced to close and stage companies had to look elsewhere for patronage. William Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlains Men, performed in Marlborough en route to Bath and Bristol.

The town had a part to play in the 17th century civil war between Parliament and King Charles I. On Monday 5th December 1642 a Royalist army sacked Marlborough and led off to captivity in Oxford castle 120 people, including the Member of Parliament John Franklyn, who had bravely defended their town.

In April 1653 most of the buildings in the High Street were burnt down in a devastating fire. Oliver Cromwell, then Lord Protector, did not forget the people of Marlborough who had largely backed Parliament in the civil war. Cromwell organised a national subscription to pay for the rebuilding of the town.

In the 18th century the London to Bath and Bristol road was improved through a series of turnpike acts. The traffic that resulted enormously benefited towns like Marlborough that were on the route. In 1784 the Royal Mail, urged on by John Palmer a Bath businessman, selected the new road as the first mail coach route. It was very successful and ushered in a golden age of coaching that was to endure until the coming of the railway in the mid-19th century. Coaching inns, taverns, and hostelries all benefitted.

In 1810 the Kennet and Avon canal between Reading and Bath was completed. It avoided Marlborough passing through Devizes instead. In 1841 the Great Western Railway also avoided Marlborough by choosing an alternative route via Swindon 12 miles to the north. The letters GWR meant “Great Way Round” to the people of Marlborough.

The early 19th century witnessed turbulent events. The area around Marlborough had erupted in November 1831 when the Swing riots saw threshing machines smashed as large groups of impoverished agricultural labourers got together. In April 1831 the people of Marlborough paraded effigies of their two Members of Parliament around the town before publicly burning them at the crossroads. The abrupt ending of the lucrative coaching trade in 1841 brought economic disaster.

The situation was saved when the redundant Castle Inn found new owners in 1842. A group of Church of England clergymen and other interested parties supported by such people as William Gladstone got together to set up a school for the sons of clergymen and others in order to provide a cheap education for those unable to afford public school fees. In August 1843, 203 boys between the ages of 8 and 16 became Marlborough College’s first cohort. The experiment came close to collapse due to lack of funds, inadequate food, crowded accommodation, and insufficient supervision by the masters of the time who considered their job to be teaching rather than pastoral. The crisis came in November 1851 when large quantities of fireworks were let off to be followed by considerable vandalism by a small number of boys. The Master, Matthew Wilkinson eventually succeeded in putting down the rebellion but he wisely decided to leave the following year taking up instead the more peaceful job as vicar of West Lavington. Wilkinson’s successor, George Cotton developed the House system, encouraged organised games, and fully supported prefects. Since Cotton’s time Marlborough College has evolved into one of Britain’s top public schools but its revolutionary origins should not be forgotten.

The college has changed Marlborough’s identity. Basking in its shadow the town has tried to emulate the college by embarking on a quest for the picturesque that continues to be its raison d’etre today.