Henley Town Profile


Henley-in-Arden & Beaudesert Warwickshire

The two parishes of Henley in Arden and Beaudesert are now, for all practical purposes, one small market town of some 3,500 inhabitants. In medieval times the two Manors, although separate, were always associated. Beaudesert, the elder of the two, is linked with the powerful De Montfort family who settled there after the Norman Conquest and gave the Manor it’s name – originally “Beldesert”, a derivation from the Norman French meaning “Beautiful Waste”. For many years the name was pronounced “Belser”, but now known locally as Beaudesert, and pronounced in the English, not French fashion.

St John’s and the Guildhall

In the 11th century Thurstan De Montfort built a fortified Norman castle of wood and stone probably on the site of an ancient British castle, on the hill known locally as “The Mount”. In 1140 the same Thurstan De Montfort was granted a Charter by the Empress Matilda – daughter of Henry 1 – to hold a market and weekly fair in his castle. The people of Beaudesert prospered and the town of Henley grew, to accommodate the traders and users of the market. It is thought the Norman Church of St. Nicholas in Beaudesert Lane was also built by Thurstan De Montfort, being noted for its east window, said to be amongst the finest in the County. Apart from Thurstan’s son, Henry, granting a mill to the monks at Wootton Wawen, the first document of importance mentioning Henley was a Charter granted in 1220 by Henry III to Peter De Montfort to hold both a weekly market and yearly fair at the feast of St. Gile. The history of Henley and Beaudesert is all but identical. Peter de Montfort was amongst the most powerful of the Barons siding against the King and in 1265 was killed with his famous namesake – Simon de Montfort – at the Battle of Evesham. As a reprisal the town of Henley and its castle were burnt down by Royalists after the Battle and no vestige of it remains, although the outline of its fortifications remain.

By 1296 Henley was a styled borough, the rise of the burgher class meant Henley became an important market town, but had no church. Henley and Beaudesert although now joined remained two separate ecclesiastical parishes, the former in the ecclesiastical parish of Wootton Wawen. It was both a difficult and dangerous journey and so in 1367 “at the sole charge o the. inhabitants” a church was erected in Henley to be a Chapel at Ease to the mother church at Wootton Wawen. A Chapel was erected, then in 1448 the present church of St. John the Baptist was built. This Church housed the Chapel of the Guild of St. John, one of the medieval guilds of a social and religious order its purpose being to “render mutual assistance of all kinds between its brethren and engage in works of charity”. The Guild was founded by the then Lord of the Manor – Lord Boteler of Sudeley who was a great benefactor. The two benefices of Beaudesert and Henley were joined under one incumbent in 1915.

The remains of the 15th century Market Cross – one of the few still existing in Warwickshire – is composed of local stone but the raised base of three steps and shaft are all that is left. The cross was saved from destruction during the 17th century, kept covered and attached to the Old Market Hall which was pulled down in 1793. The head of the cross finally fell and was lost about 1894. Proclamations have been made from the Cross for five centuries and recent declarations of national importance include the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1952 and her Jubilee in 1977. A model is to be found at Joseph Hardy House.

The one mile of Henley High Street is classified as a conservation area and contains many buildings of architectural interest.

A major characteristic of the town is the Lord’s Waste, although little is known about its influence, function or history. Along the length of the High Street the demarcation between the Lord’s Waste (which originally was cobbled – some of which remain to this day) and the public footpath is easily identified. Whilst Warwickshire County Council, as highway authority, take responsibility for maintenance of the public right of way, it will not assume any authority for the area known as the Lord’s Waste. As ownership, and therefore legal responsibility for its maintenance, cannot be identified, popular opinion has decreed that current ownership be vested in the property owner as a frontage, but subject to the right of the public to have access over it. Any future planning consents should take account of the need to maintain the landmark as an historic feature of the town.

The Guild Hall, a half-timbered Elizabethan building stands in a beautiful walled garden north of St. John’s Church. Having been extensively restored, many of the original timbers remain. Meetings of the Court Leet and Court Baron, the feudal courts for the administration of justice within the Manor, were revived in 1915 and continue annually with traditional ceremony, for the appointment of a high Bailiff and other officers of the Court. The Court Leet had jurisdiction over petty offences, civil matters and inflicted fines and punishment and continues annually, the second Wednesday of November, to elect the officers of the Court in the traditional manner. The Court Baron dealt mainly with transfers of property and land. The Courts were presided over by the Lord of the Manor (in his absence the Steward) and all members of the Court would be present. The burgesses would elect the officers annually, – High Bailiff, Low Bailiff, Mace Bearer, Constable, two Brook Lookers, Ale Taster, Butter Weigher and two Affearors. The Town Crier is appointed by the Steward, Chaplain and High Bailiff. The Court Leet is now presided over by the current Lord of the Manor, Mrs Robin Hardy-Freed, daughter of the American lumber millionaire Mr Joseph Hardy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who bought the title at auction in London and has shown great interest and affection for the town and it’s inhabitants. Through his generosity the Guild Cottage has been completely renovated and substantial sums provided for the Heritage and Educational Centre.

We are grateful to the Heritage Centre for allowing us to use their guide as the basis of this brief history.