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Episode 22: Berkshire

Where is Berkshire?

In our twenty-second episode we mentioned lots of interesting places and things in Berkshire, so here are some pictures and links to more information if you're curious to find out more!

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. It is open to visitors throughout the year.

Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, it has since been the home of 40 monarchs.

William the Conqueror chose the site for Windsor Castle, high above the River Thames and on the edge of a Saxon hunting ground. He began building at Windsor around 1070, and 16 years later the Castle was complete.

By 1110, Henry I already had domestic quarters within the Castle, and his grandson Henry II converted the Castle into a palace in the late 12th century.

The walls of the Castle were originally made of timber, but in the late 12th century Henry II began to replace them with stone. The original Norman keep was rebuilt as the Round Tower in 1170, and the entire outer perimeter was renewed over the next 60 years.

From the 1350s until his death in 1377, Edward III turned Windsor from a military fortification into a gothic palace. He spent £50,000 in the process, more than any other medieval English king spent on a single building.

St George's chapel

The work was not completed by the time of Edward III’s death. It continued for another six years into the reign of his grandson and successor Richard II, whose reign began in 1377.

Apart from the modernisation of the King and Queen’s great chambers and the addition of a gallery by Edward III’s great-grandson Edward IV, the late 14th-century apartments survived unchanged until the 17th century.

The only major change made by Henry VII in the late 15th century was to build a narrow range west of the State Apartments. The most significant additions of his successor, Henry VIII, were the gate that bears his name at the bottom of the Lower Ward and the terrace of timber along the north side of the Upper Ward, from where the King could watch the hunt in the park below.

By the time Elizabeth I took up residence at Windsor, many parts of the Castle were badly in need of repair. An extensive programme of improvements was undertaken throughout the 1570s. Elizabeth also built a long gallery overlooking the North Terrace. This gallery was incorporated into the Royal Library during the 19th century.

Charles II, who reclaimed his throne in 1660, modernised the royal apartments, which by 1684 became the grandest baroque State Apartments in England. The rich appearance of the new interiors was heightened by expensive textiles and magnificent tapestries.

The walk established by Charles II

The apartments created by Charles II survived virtually unchanged to the end of the 18th century, when George III gave several of the rooms on the north side of the Quadrangle a neoclassical dressing.

In 1796, he appointed James Wyatt as Surveyor General of the Office of Works to transform the exterior of the Castle into a gothic palace. Wyatt also introduced a vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall (part of which is still visible today) and replaced the Queen’s Stairs with the Grand Stair, which rose in long straight flights north of the Great Gate.

George IV continued his father’s remodelling of the Upper Ward. He invited four architects to submit designs, and Jeffry Wyatville, nephew of James Wyatt, won the competition.

By the time the King finally took up residence at Windsor towards the end of 1828, his improvements to the Castle had cost nearly £300,000.

George IV’s restoration of the Castle was so comprehensive that little was done by his immediate successors. Under Queen Victoria a new private chapel was created at the eastern end of St George’s Hall, and the Grand Staircase was reconstructed. The Royal Mews and riding school, south of the Castle, were completed in the 1840s.


Reading's history and heritage dates back to medieval times and the founding of Reading Abbey by Henry I, who was buried in the Abbey.

There's lots to explore from this period of pilgrimage as well as Reading's second coming as an industrial powerhouse in Victorian times.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

In 1895, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was found guilty of 'acts of gross indecency with other male persons' and sentenced to two years' hard labour. He was sent first to Pentonville, then to Wandsworth and finally to Reading Gaol.

Upon his release in May 1897, Wilde departed for France where he settled near Dieppe. He was never again to see his wife, Constance, nor to return to either England or Ireland.

While at Dieppe, Wilde wrote two lettters to the Daily Chronicle protesting about the brutalities of prison life, including the inhumane treatment of children in gaol.

A month before his second letter appeared in 1898, Wilde published the Ballad of Reading Gaol, a grimly realistic poem which describes the hanging of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, for the murder of his wife. Its publication gave the author's name as C.3.3 (Wilde's number in Reading Gaol, his cell being the third on the third floor of Block C).

Although public executions had been abolished in 1868, private executions still took place. In this poem Wilde's aim was to capture the reality of capital punishment and contribute to the debate on penal reform.

Written in the form of a folk ballad – which enjoyed a popular revival in the 1890s – the voice in the poem is not that of a traditional street balladeer but of a fellow prisoner of the condemned man.

The final stanzas of the poem, including the famous line 'And all men kill the thing they love', raise the ballad beyond social protest to the recognition of a universal human paradox. The poem's final lines, which look forward to Christ's Second Coming, point beyond social reform to the judgement of another world.

Abingdon Abbey

Abingdon Abbey was probably founded in the late seventh century, but its great days started when it was re-founded by Bishop Aethelwold and the Wessex kings about 950.

It remained one of the foremost of the English abbeys, and at the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII its income was assessed as the sixth largest in the country.

At that time it was probably the greatest landowner in the county of Berkshire, and also held property in many other parts of the country.

The Abbey church was of a size and splendour comparable to any of the great cathedrals.

Nothing of it remains, but its outline is marked out on the ground in the Abbey Gardens.

Reading Abbey

From scattered homes to a small Saxon settlement, Reading grew quietly but steadily until 1121, when King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s youngest son, announced plans to build a mighty royal abbey in the town.

Henry chose a site on the edge of the town, on high ground between the River Kennet and River Thames. Henry also gave land to the new abbey, including lands in Reading that had previously been attached to Battle Abbey.

The abbey transformed Reading forever, turning a small market town into an important religious centre known across Western Europe.

The abbey church would be the fourth-longest church in England, after the cathedrals of Winchester and London (St Paul’s) and the abbey church at Bury St Edmunds.

Reading Abbey was an important destination for medieval pilgrims. When King Henry I decided the abbey would be his resting place, he set about acquiring a large collection of saintly relics. These would attract pilgrims who would venerate the relics and contribute to the economy of the abbey and the town.

Pilgrims came to ask for a blessing, give thanks, or ask for a cure. Many were drawn by one of the abbey’s most important relics: the hand of the apostle, St James the Great.

The hand, given by Henry I’s daughter the Empress Matilda, probably in 1133. Matilda inherited it on the death of her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.

In 1539, more than 400 years of monastic life at Reading Abbey suddenly came to an end. On the orders of King Henry VIII, the abbey was closed. Henry took the abbey’s valuable possessions and forced the monks to leave their homes.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward became king. He was too young to rule, so the Duke of Somerset ruled for him as Lord Protector.

Reading Abbey gateway by Rev. Thomas James Judkin (c.1871)

On Somerset’s orders, the abbot’s lodgings were turned into a royal palace. However, lead from the roofs of other abbey buildings, including the church, was stripped and sold.

Good quality stone was taken away and reused both across Reading and beyond. The flint cores of the church walls were left standing.

Some of these ruined walls can still be seen today.

Berkshire's Ruined Castles

Berkshire is home to several castles and ruins that are relatively well-known by now. There are others that are no longer castles, but do mark out the sites of hillforts that used to sit there hundreds of years ago.

Some of these hillforts can be found by large mounds. Many of these mounds are former burial grounds with several archeological studies discovering relics from centuries ago.

The Folly at what was once Faringdon Castle

The Motte of Hinton Waldrist Castle

The Royal Oak Hotel at what was once Yattendon Castle

The motte of Brightwell Castle

Donnington Castle Gatehouse

Donnington Castle overlooks the Lambourn Valley in an important strategic position commanding the crossing of major north–south and east–west routes.

The manor of Donnington was held by the Abberbury family from 1287, and in 1386 Sir Richard Abberbury was granted a licence ‘to crenellate and fortify a castle at Donyngton, Berks’ by Richard II.

Sir Richard had been a companion of Richard II’s father, Edward the Black Prince, at the battles of Crécy and Poitiers.

The castle consisted originally of a curtain wall with four round corner towers, two square wall towers and a substantial gatehouse, constructed around a courtyard in the style typical of the fortified residences of the period.

In the early 15th century the castle was held by Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and later passed into the ownership of the Crown. Henry VIII is reported to have stayed here in 1539 and Elizabeth I in 1568.

During the Civil War Charles I set up his headquarters in Oxford and in 1643 dispatched Sir John Boys, with 200 foot soldiers, 25 cavalry and sufficient cannon to resist a siege, to take possession of Donnington from the Parliamentarian John Packer.

Having taken the castle, Boys built defences around the lower slopes of the hill in the shape of a star, the projections providing sites for gun emplacements that gave a good field of fire.

Between 1644 and 1646 the castle was attacked many times, twice being relieved by the king in person. Only when the Royalist cause appeared hopeless did Boys surrender to the Parliamentarian troops, after first obtaining the king’s permission to do so.

Parliament voted to demolish the badly damaged castle in 1646 and only the gatehouse was left standing.

Windsor Great Park

Windsor Great Park has witnessed countless events throughout history, dating back to pre-Saxon times, each of which has left its own distinctive mark on this impressive landscape.

But it wasn’t until the 13th Century that the areas making up Windsor Great Park were properly defined, creating an incredible variety of landscapes across the 1,942 hectares (4,800 acres) that have grown and been developed over time.

There is a long line of Royal heritage at Windsor Great Park. From William I using the landscape as a hunting ground a thousand years ago, to the original planting of the Long Walk by Charles II, Queen Victoria entertaining on the shores of Virginia Water, to the stewardship of The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as Ranger of Windsor Great Park for nearly 70 years.

The Headless Ghost of Hampden Pye

The north side of Faringdon Churchyard was said to be haunted by the ghost of a headless man who moved amongst the stones cradling his severed head in his hands.

The ghost is believed to be that of Lt. Hampden Pye R.N. He was born in Faringdon in 1647 and was the eldest son of Sir Robert Pye (Junior) who held the manor of Faringdon.

The scene of Hampden’s death is traditionally given as somewhere off the Spanish Coast where there was a major Naval engagement at Redondela where the enemy’s treasure ships were seized and their whole fleet destroyed. The story goes that it was in this battle where poor Hampden was tragically decapitated by a canon.

Back in Faringdon a memorial service in Hampde’s honour had been arranged and before his mother left for the church his spirit appeared to her with his mangled head resting in his hands. It is said that her screams could be heard throughout the town.

For many years afterwards his restless spirit haunted the graveyard until some enterprising, early nineteenth century vicar of Faringdon eventually had the courage to exorcise the spirit of Hampden using bell, book and candle.

This seems to have worked as Hampden does appear to be finally at rest and his spirit has not been reported in Faringdon churchyard within living memory.

The Vicar of Bray

Bray is most famous as the location of the only restaurants outside London with 3-Michelin stars, both Alain Roux’s Waterside Inn and Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. In centuries past, however, it was best known as the home of the ‘Singing Vicar of Bray,’ the star of a well-known ballad.

He supposedly promised to remain “the Vicar of Bray, Sir” no matter what religious denomination he had to adopt.

The ballad indicates he was Francis Carswell (Vicar 1650-1709), but the story was recorded of the rector, as early as 1662, through the turbulent Tudor years.

This period has two possible candidates: Simon Simonds (1523-47), an ancestral cousin of the Reading brewers and brother of one of the Windsor Martyrs, whose death could have inspired his maxim; or Simon Alleyn (Vicar 1523-65) who was buried in the middle of the nave after a very long service as vicar.

Hocktide and Hungerford

One of England’s best known and most ancient customs, medieval Hocktide is also the most important event in the life of the Town and Manor of Hungerford, and takes place annually on the second Tuesday after Easter.

The Blind Woodcutter of Bruelle

A woodcutter who went to sleep in the Forest of Bruelle was horrified, on waking, to find that he had been stricken blind.

He suffered long in his affliction, until in a dream he was directed to offer prayer in eighty-seven churches. This he did and, at the end of his pilgrimage, he went to (Old) Windsor, where he sat in the King's porch.

King Edward the Confessor, hearing of the man's trouble and of his dream, sent for him and placed his hand, dipped in holy water, upon the blind man's eyes. Immediately the woodcutter's sight was restored.

The Order of the Garter

The Most Noble Order of the Garter was founded by King Edward III in 1348, and is ranked as the highest British civil and military honour obtainable.

The order was established to commemorate an incident in which Edward was dancing when one of his partner’s blue garters dropped to the floor.

As bystanders snickered, Edward gallantly picked up the garter and put it on his own leg, admonishing the courtiers in French with the phrase that remains the order’s motto, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Shame to him who thinks evil of it,” popularly rendered as “Evil to him who evil thinks”).

The king inaugurated the Order of the Garter with a great feast and joust, but the identity of the lady thus granted immortality is uncertain. The most popular candidate is Joan, “Fair Maid of Kent,” the king’s cousin, but Katharine Grandison, Countess of Salisbury, has a strong claim, and one Tudor historian named the lady as the queen, Philippa of Hainault.

Herne The Hunter

Herne the Hunter was a great English ghost who haunts the Berkshire woods and countryside.

Rattling chains and tormenting animals, he was marked by the antlers upon his head and his mighty steed.

Herne’s first recorded appearance was in William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, though his historical origins remain open to speculation.

The origins of the name Herne have remained as shrouded in mystery as the specter himself. It has been suggested that “Herne” was linked to the Gaulish deity Cernunnos, whose own name stemmed form the Latin cerne, or “horned.”

Through Grimm’s Law, cerne could have become herne, and thus mean “horned.”

Alternately, “Herne” could be a corruption of Hernian, a title born by Wotan, the Germanic god of the Wild Hunt.

Another theory suggested that Herne was, in fact, a real person whose name was changed by Shakespeare. Herne appeared as “Horne” in several early drafts of The Merry Wives of Windsor, possibly referencing a historical yeoman of Henry VIII’s time.

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