Marlborough Town, Wiltshire

Marlborough Town

Marlborough is a market town in the English county of Wiltshire on the Old Bath Road, the old main road from London to Bath. It is well known for having the widest high-street in Britain.

The first sign of human habitation is the pre-historic mound (tumulus), in the grounds of Marlborough College. It is possibly of similar age to the larger Silbury Hill five miles to the west. Legend has it that the Mound is the burial site of Merlin[1] and that the name of the town, Marlborough comes from Merlin’s Barrow. The town’s motto is Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini – Where now are the bones of wise Merlin[2].

Further evidence of human occupation comes from the discovery of the Marlborough Bucket an Iron Age burial bucket, with decorations of human heads and animals on sheet bronze.

Roman remains and coins have been found two miles to the East of Marlborough, at Mildenhall (Cunetio).

A later Saxon settlement grew up around The Green and two early river crossings were made at Isbury Lane and Stonebridge Lane.

The first written record of Marlborough dates from 1087 when the Domesday Book was finished. The borough received its charter to hold a market in 1204.[3]

    * In 1067, William the Conqueror assumed control of the Marlborough area and set about building a wooden motte and bailey castle, sited on the pre-historic mound. This was completed in around 1100 and stone was used to strengthen the castle, in around 1175.

    * William also established a mint in Marlborough, which coined the William I and the early William II silver pennies. The coins display the name of the town as Maerlebi or Maerleber.

    * William I established the neighbouring Savernake Forest as a favourite Royal hunting ground [4] and Marlborough Castle became a Royal residence. Henry I observed Easter here, in 1110. Richard I (Coeur de Lion) gave the castle to his brother John, in 1186. Henry II stayed at Marlborough Castle, in talks with the King of Scotland. King John was married here and spent time in Marlborough. He even established a Treasury. Later, Henry III was also married here.[5]

    * Henry III held Parliament here, in 1267, when the Statute of Marlborough was passed (this gave rights and privileges to small land owners and limited the right of the King to take possession of land). This seven-hundred-year-old law states that no one shall seize his neighbour’s goods for alleged wrong, without permission of the Court. It is the oldest piece of English law which has not yet been repealed.

    * The castle fell into disrepair by the end of the 14th century but remained Crown property. Edward VI then passed it to the Seymour family, his mother’s relatives.

    * The 1204 Charter granted the Borough an annual eight-day fair, commencing on 14 August, the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady (15 August), in which “all might enjoy the liberties and quittances customary in the fair at Winchester”. He also established that weekly markets may be held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. These continue to this day.[6]

    * In 1498 Thomas Wolsey was ordained priest in (the now redundant) St Peter’s church. He later rose to become a cardinal and Lord Chancellor.

    * In 1642, Marlborough’s peace was shattered by the English Civil War. The Seymours held the Castle for the King but the Town was for Parliament. With his headquarters in nearby Oxford, King Charles had to deal with Marlborough. “A Town the most notoriously disaffected of all that Country, otherwise, saving the obstinacy and malice of the inhabitants, in the situation of it very unfit for a garrison… this place the King saw would prove quickly an ill neighbour to him, not only as it was in the heart of a rich County, and so would straighten him, and even infest his quarters.” The King sent Lord Digby to take the town of Marlborough. He left Oxford at the head of four hundred horses, on the 24th November. When he arrived, he chose to parley first, thus giving the inhabitants a chance to prepare defences and to recruit troops. They mustered about seven hundred poorly-armed men. At this point, the Town issued a reply to Digby. “The King’s Majesty” he declared, “providing he were attended in Royal and not in war like wise, should be as welcome to that Town as ever was Prince to People; but as to delivering up the good Town of Marlborough to such a traitor as Lord Digby … they would sooner die”. After some early skirmishes, Royalist troops infiltrated the Town down its small alleyways. The Town was captured and looted and many buildings were set ablaze. One hundred and twenty prisoners were marched in chains to Oxford. The Town was later abandoned by the King and took no further part in the war.

    * On 28 April 1653, the Great Fire of Marlborough burnt two hundred and fifty houses to the ground.[citation needed] Fire swept through the Town again in 1679 and again in 1690. This time, an Act of Parliament was passed “to prohibit the covering of houses and other buildings with thatch in the Town of Marlborough”.[7]

    * In 1689, William III created Sir John Churchill, the distinguished Army general, Earl of Marlborough. In 1702, William’s successor, Queen Anne created Churchill Duke of Marlborough.

    * Nobel Prize winning author William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, grew up in the town. Golding lived on a house in the Green. Golding was educated at the former Marlborough Grammar School, where his father was a science master.

In 2004, Marlborough Live celebrated 800 years of its Town Charter, among the celebrations was a street play by the Marlborough Players entitled “Wheels of Time” and a visit from HRH Prince Charles. During the rebuilding of the town after the Great Fire of Marlborough in 1653 which destroyed almost the entire town, the high street became what is claimed to be the widest in England. This allows ample space for a local market which is held twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Every summer the town holds a jazz festival with local pubs, clubs, hotels and various other venues playing host to live jazz music over the course of a weekend. Every October the high street is closed for the two Saturdays either side of 11 October for the Marlborough Mop Fair. This was originally a hiring fair for agricultural workers seeking employment but now has become a funfair. The right of the town to close the road to hold the fair is set down in the Charter.

On the north side of the high street is the Merchant’s House, which is currently under restoration but part of which is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays in summer. The house was built following the Great Fire of 1653. It was the property of a silk merchant and, rarely for a house of this type in a town centre, still retains its original room pattern. Of great interest are the wall paintings recently uncovered, which are undergoing careful conservation. One room painted in a striped pattern, copying silk hangings, is perhaps unique in Great Britain.

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