Buckingham is a lively market town tucked into the north-west corner of the county which bears its name. It lies two miles from the magnificent Stowe Landscape Gardens and is convenient for both Silverstone Motor Racing Circuit and for the horseracing course at Towcester. England’s best known ‘new town’ – Milton Keynes – is a 15 minute drive and provides a fast rail link with London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland. There is easy access to the M1 ( to the east) and to the M40 (to the west). Birmingham can be reached by road in an hour and London in less than 90 minutes.
Origin of the town
Buckingham was a Saxon foundation. There were both Prehistoric and Roman settlements nearby but the site of the present town, within a pronounced loop of the River Great Ouse, is unlikely to have been occupied until the 6th century AD at the earliest.
Its name means ‘settlement of Bucca’s people hemmed in by water’. We do not know who Bucca was nor when he founded his settlement although a delightful story links Buckingham with a miraculous baby saint called Rumbold. He is supposed to have lived during the 7th century AD so there might have been a village on the site by that time.
The first contemporary reference to Buckingham is for the year AD 914 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great) went to Buckingham and stayed there four weeks building fortifications on either side of the river as part of his defence against the Danish incursions. One of these fotifications was almost certainly on Castle Hill, later occupied by a Norman Castle and now the site of the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (pictured on left). The foundation of the shire must have followed soon after the fortification of Buckingham and the town’s former status of county town probably reflected its brief period of importance in the campaigns against the Danes.
Norman, Medieval and Tudor Buckingham
By the time of the Norman Conquest Buckingham was a royal borough with a mint, a church, a market, two mills and fifty three burgesses. Shortly after the conquest a castle was built on Castle Hill and Walter Giffard was created Earl of Buckingham. He never lived there and the castle soon fell into disrepair. By 1305 it was ‘worth nothing’.
Gradually the economic and social focus of the town moved eastwards and the castle became less and less important. By the 13th century the present Market Square (photographed by John Credland, left) where the main roads into the town converge, was becoming the real centre.
Buckingham had two hospitals, one dedicated to St. Laurence and the other to St. John the Baptist. St.Laurence housed lepers. St. John’s became a chantry chapel and eventually home to the Royal Latin School. It is the oldest surviving building in Buckingham and, although much altered, retains an original Norman doorway (pictured on right).
During this period Buckingham enjoyed several royal visits and, in 1513, Catherine of Aragon stayed at Castle House in West Street. According to local legend she introduced lacemaking to the town.
During the reign of Henry VIII Buckingham suffered the first of two devastating fires and her position as county town – already under threat – was lost to Aylesbury.
Trade and Industry
In 1554, Mary Tudor granted a charter of incorporation to Buckingham which had been one of the first towns to declare for her on the death of Edward VI. The corporation was to receive the tolls of a Tuesday market and two annual fairs and could hold borough courts. A new charter was issued in the reign of Charles II when a Saturday market was introduced.
Parts of the market place were set aside for different activities. There was a Wool Hall (later replaced by a Butchers’ Shambles). The Horsefair was in the triangle of land outside Castle House. In the centre of the market place was the Bullring (still so called, pictured right). The part of the market place north-east of the Old Gaol was the Cow Fair. Various guilds flourished in the town. Tanning and other leather-related industries were of considerable importance as was woolstapling. Malting and brewing were both practised and, in the 16th century, a bell foundry flourished for a time. Lace-making, as a cottage industry, was common.
Buckingham still holds two annual charter fairs and the Tuesday and Saturday markets are thriving.
The English Civil War
Buckingham was not a stronghold for either side in the Civil War and the local gentry varied in their support. Sir Edmund Verney, of Claydon House, died carrying the King’s standard at Edge Hill in 1642. Sir Richard Minshull of Bourton and Sir Alexander Denton of Hillesden both declared for Charles and had their houses destroyed by Parliamentarians. Sir Richard Ingoldsby of Lenborough and Sir Richard Temple of Stowe both supported Parliament. The town was vulnerable to incursions from both sides, Oliver Cromwell stayed there in 1643-4 and Charles I spent time at Castle House in June 1644.
The Great Fire of Buckingham
In March 1725 a fire broke out behind the Unicorn Inn in Castle Street. It spread along both sides of the street and consumed parts of Well Street, West Street (pictured as it is today on right) and Market Hill. At least 138 dwellings were destroyed and hundreds made homeless. Rebuilding was slow and piecemeal and an opportunity to improve the quality of the buildings and the layout of the streets was not taken.
18th century revival
The Verney family had paid for a new town hall to be built in 1685. It stood a little closer to Market Hill than the existing building which replaced it in 1784. The front of Castle House was rebuilt in its present form in 1708. In 1748, Buckingham’s landmark building, the Old Gaol (pictured on left) was part of a conscious initiative to regain for Buckingham the County Assizes and with them the return of its status as county town.
The steeple and tower of the parish church, which then stood in the old churchyard in Hunter Street, had been severely damaged in the late 17th century. The tower was rebuilt but collapsed again in 1776 and it was resolved to build a new church in a different location. Castle Hill – site of Edward the Elder’s fortification and the subsequent Norman castle – was donated by the Verneys. The foundation stone was laid in 1777 and the new church consecrated in 1781.
Buckingham was already a coaching crossroads in 1675 and it became even more important in the turnpike era. At least four Buckingham inns were rebuilt as coaching inns during the 18th century. In 1801 the Buckingham arm of the Grand Junction Canal opened and, in 1850, the town became a stopping point on a branch railway line which ran from Bletchley to Banbury. At one point it seemed possible that Buckingham would be on a main line from London to Birmingham. However the second Duke of Buckingham insisted that the line could only pass through his Stowe estate if enclosed in a tunnel. The prohibitive cost of this option caused the project to be dropped. The canal arm was prone to silting and was already scarcely used by 1909. The branch railway closed in 1964 although it reopened briefly in April 1966 to enable the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to visit the town. The route of the canal arm can still be followed on foot and the railway line has been incorporated into an attractive riverside walk.
The influence of Stowe
In 1554, Sir Peter Temple leased an estate at Stowe and his son purchased the freehold in 1591. In the early 18th century Lord Cobham remodelled and extended the house and spent a fortune on the, now famous, gardens employing some of the most distinguished landscape gardeners of his day including Capability Brown. In 1710 the Temple family united by marriage with the Grenvilles, another powerful Buckinghamshire family. By the second half of the century the family was already sliding into debt and, in 1763, had little option but to sell their London town house (Buckingham House) to George III for £28,000. Renamed Buckingham Palace it has been the chief London residence of the monarchs since the reign of Queen Victoria.
The 19th century town
In the early part of the century a marble quarry operated off the present Chandos Road. After it closed the site eventually went to a locally formed company called the Castle Iron Foundry which opened in 1857 under the management of an innovative engineer called Thomas Rickett. In addition to manufacturing agricultural machinery Rickett designed primitive steam cars. The factory later became a steam powered corn mill, then a condensed milk factory. It is now part of the University of Buckingham.
A substantial new brewery – the Swan opened in the 1850s. A Gas Works was built around 1834 and an Electric Light Works in 1888. Buckingham Hospital was established on its present site in 1886. In 1836 the town acquired its own police force, based at the Old Gaol and, in 1892, the officers moved to purpose-built premises on the Moreton Road. In the second half of the 19th century the town supported two newspapers.
Educational provision was expanded with the opening of the National School (pictured left) in 1819 and an infant school in 1863 (both in School Lane). A Board School was created, in Well Street, in 1879.
In the middle of the 19th century many public buildings in the town were modified by locally-born architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. The parish church, the Old Gaol and the chantry chapel were among those so treated.
Into the 20th century
Buckingham was already declining in the late 19th century and the downturn continued into the early 20th when the only area of expansion seemed to be education. The Royal Latin School moved to new, larger premises in Chandos Road in 1907 and again to its present site in Brookfield Lane in 1963. A secondary school was built on the London Road in 1935. Selective education continues in Buckingham as the 20th century draws to a close. Photo:The building pictured used to house the Latin School and is the oldest building in Buckingham.
The Dukes of Buckingham had also suffered escalating decline during the 19th century. In 1848 a great sale of the contents of Stowe House took place and, in 1921, the estate was finally sold. Two years later, Stowe School opened. The school continues to thrive although the gardens are now in the care of the National Trust. Stowe Landscape Gardens have recently been nominated to become a World Heritage Site.
Buckingham enjoyed modest expansion during World War II when people and industries were evacuated there from London. In 1968 Buckingham was twinned with Joinville in France. Shortly before this the decision had been taken to build a new town for 250,000 people at Milton Keynes a few miles to the east. Less than 10 years later Buckingham was chosen as the location for Britain’s first, and only, independent university.
Today Buckingham has a population in excess of 10,000. While offering the facilities of a modern town, with ample parking and a wide range of shops, it has largely retained the charm of its small market town origins. Not for nothing has the District Council designated it ‘The jewel in the crown of Aylesbury Vale’.
This Buckingham History has been written by Shelagh Lewis, © 1999