An historic market town in the west of Hertfordshire where the crown of England was offered to William the Conqueror in 1066.
Two months after winning the Battle of Hastings, the Normans skirted the Chilterns, causing havoc wherever they went, and were ready to advance on London. The Saxon leaders, anxious to save further destruction, rode out from London to talk with the invaders and offer William the Crown of England. The meeting took place at Berkhamsted, and here, on accepting the submission of the Saxons, William of Normandy became William the Conqueror. He rode on to London and was crowned King of England at Westminster on Christmas Day, 1066.
Berkhamsted was a place of importance in sparsely populated West Hertfordshire. Work was already proceeding on the Castle at the time of the Domesday survey in 1068. The vast earthworks, thrown up nearly 900 years ago, survive almost intact, but broken walls are all that remain of the stone buildings which, in the second half of the 12th century, replaced the original houses and palisades.
King and queens, princes and princesses, court favourites and distinguished foreign visitors stayed at the castle. That is why the early history of the town is studded with famous names. Thomas a Becket held the lease for several years and was responsible for the first stone buildings. The Black Prince was especially fond of his home at Berkhamsted and spent a lot of his later years here, also supporting the construction of St Peters Church. One of the most famous residents of Berkhamsted Castle was Geoffrey Chaucer.
The demands of a busy and often overcrowded castle must have helped to make Berkhamsted a good market town at a very early period. The weekly street market, for many years held on a Saturday, is by far the oldest local institution. It was old even in the 13th century, when market day was changed from Sunday to Monday. Greater respect for the Sabbath may have been inspired by the building at that time of our two ancient parish churches which pre-date by at least three centuries any other building which is still in regular use.
During the mid-19th century, Berkhamsted expanded and the first industrial quarter was established in the eastern part of the town, with chemical works and sawmills surrounded by new streets of terraced cottages. In mid and late Victorian times the eastward thrust was continued by the building of Ellesmere Road and George Street. By the end of the 19th century a pastoral hillside had been criss-crossed by new roads. Many large villas were built for newcomers who were attracted by the town’s schools and by a fast train service to London. The season ticket era had started.
The rate of growth was necessarily retarded during the two World Wars, but since 1945 the town has grown considerably. One after another, large houses, some standing in extensive grounds, have been pulled down, to be replaced by new housing estates.
But despite so many changes, Berkhamsted retains much of its old charm and individuality. Its most distinctive feature is a fine High Street. Part of the Akeman Street of Roman times, it is long and almost straight, a lifeline which divides the town and yet brings the towns people together. And in every direction we have easy access to some of the finest countryside to be found in the Home Counties
The Rising Sun pub on the canal towpath outside Berkhamstead
The 5,000-acre Ashridge Estate, once home to Henry VIII, has a rabbit warren of bike tracks and bridleways for family adventures on clear, crisp days, and provides a picturesque backdrop to the Hertfordshire town where William the Conqueror was handed the crown of England.
The Grand Union Canal has a stream of inviting canal-side pubs and a year-round monthly farmers’ market. Berkhamsted, full of Victorian cottages and town houses, will suit those looking for a period property with original features.