The town is set in the upper Kennet Valley on a major east/west route between London and Bath and a lesser north/south route between Swindon and Salisbury. A Romano-British burial site and Roman coins and pottery have been found in the town and it would seem likely that there was Romano-British occupation of the area with the Roman settlement of Cunetio (Mildenhall) so close. The Mound, or Mount, now part of the Marlborough College complex, is probably prehistoric but the reason for its construction is unknown; the most probable suggestion is that it was a super barrow, a sort of mini-Silbury Hill. An excavation in the 1950s discovered antler picks that were used in its construction. The Arthurian association with Merlin is medieval and is unlikely to have been voiced before the 13th century.
The name Marlborough is first recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Merleberge’ which is thought to derive from hill or barrow of Maerla, a lost Old English name similar to a recorded Germanic one. Maerla could have been buried there or he might have owned it. The interesting point is that there is no reference to the town before 1086. Was it, like Devizes, created by the Norman conquerors? There is some evidence for this although it is also likely that there was a Saxon settlement here. The parish of Preshute, which surrounded Marlborough until the early 20th century, was a Saxon Royal estate that was taken over by William I. In the Domesday Book it states that Marlborough was held by the King and that from the third penny the yield would be £4. This came from the profits of the administration of justice and would seem to confer borough status although property in the town is not listed, as is the case with other royal estates. Could this mean that Marlborough had only just been created by the Normans and that they did not need to survey it?
Historians have pieced together a possible sequence of events that would explain the lost early history of Marlborough. The estate of Preshute had early settlements around Preshute church, and at Manton. A late Saxon settlement was established on a rectangular pattern around The Green in what is now Marlborough, above the River Kennet. Manton appears in the Domesday Book but Preshute does not and it is likely that its church is the one mentioned with one hide of land under Marlborough. The Normans, recognising a good defensive position, where the chalk downs narrow the communication route of the Kennet Valley, built a castle on the existing mound and created a town between it and the existing settlement around The Green. In this case the King carved the land out of Preshute, which he already owned, and possibly gave it a new name as that of the Saxon settlement at The Green has been lost.
Early settlement has been shown to exist on Kingsbury Street and The Parade on a north-west/south-east alignment and there is evidence that the early east/west route was through St. Martins and Silverless Street continuing on a line to the north of the present High Street. The High Street, which follows a chalk outcrop between the clay with flints found to the north of the High Street and in St. Martins, and the gravel and alluvium to the south, is a planned 12th century Norman development. Burgage plots front it on either side and the width is sufficient for a market to be held. A back lane developed to the north.
The castle itself may have been built when William I transferred a mint from Great Bedwyn to Marlborough in 1068. It lay outside the borough in Preshute parish although it probably took over the western end of the High Street and St. Peter’s Church. There is little early documentary evidence although as Henry I spent Easter at Marlborough in 1110 it is likely that there was a suitable defended residence at that time. The castle itself is first mentioned in 1138 when it was strengthened by forces loyal to the Empress Maud. It was held against the forces of King Stephen in 1139 and 1140, during the civil wars of the Anarchy period. The castle remained loyal to Maud until her son, Henry II, succeeded to the throne in 1154.
Between 1209 and 1211 substantial building works were carried out by John of Marlborough and the castle became a provincial treasury. It held an important position in the civil war of 1214 and was heavily fortified against the French invasion of 1216, but it was surrendered to Louis of France. William Marshal recaptured it for Henry III in 1217. For 50 years, from 1220, Henry III and his family favoured Marlborough as a residence and in 1267 it was the scene of Henry’s last parliament. After his death its importance as a fortress declined although Queen Eleanor continued to use it until her death in 1291. After that it was held by various Queens of England and was last fortified in 1360.
In 1391 it was reported that a complete rebuilding was needed to restore the castle and by 1400 it was possible that it was derelict and uninhabited. When John Leland saw it in 1541 it was in ruins but still recognisable with part of the keep standing.
Meanwhile, to the east of the castle the town had developed and expanded. It had been governed by the King until 1204 when a borough charter gave the administration to the burgesses. Markets were also granted on Wednesdays and Saturdays and these were held at the eastern end of the High Street between the high cross, where the town hall now stands, and the corn cross, near the Castle and Ball. In the poll tax returns for 1377 Marlborough was ranked 5th of Wiltshire towns but was probably actually the 3rd largest after Salisbury and Wilton.
Religious foundations included the Gilbertine (White Canons) Priory of St. Margaret’s, founded c.1200 and standing on the south bank of the Kennet, and a house of White Friars (Carmelites) that was founded by 1317 on the south side of the High Street. The hospital of St. John the Baptist was founded before 1215 and lay in ‘the Marsh’ on the site of the present St. Peter’s School. A grammar school was founded in the town in 1500 and its history can be found under ‘Marlborough Grammar School’ in the School section.
By 1200 the town had become one of the most important cloth-making centres in the kingdom with many weavers and fullers. There was a fulling mill by 1215, a very early date for such a mill. As a market centre it took over from the Saxon markets of Bedwyn and Ramsbury and by 1302, when the King stayed at Ramsbury, there were 18 people supplying ale and 26 supplying fish from Marlborough.
This steady growth and prosperity was subject to a traumatic interlude in 1653, by which time the town was the second largest in the county after Salisbury. The great fire of Marlborough began in a tanner’s workshop and engulfed both sides of the High Street and an area around St. Mary’s Church. There is some dispute over the amount of damage caused to property with an eye-witness report stating:
“St. Mary’s Church, with the market house, and all the chief houses in the town on both sides of the High Street burnt to dust, three hundred families at least out of doors.”
Certainly what visible medieval building that remains is chiefly in Silverless Street and there was devastation of timber-framed buildings but little loss of life. From other observations made shortly afterwards it would seem that many houses were repaired rather than being completely rebuilt. There were further, lesser, fires in 1679 and 1690 and most of the surviving visible architecture is of the 18th and 19th centuries, with building often refronted in brick or mathematical, or hanging, tiles.
The London to Bath route, on which the town lay, became especially important from the 1660s when five different coaches were passing through the town. In 1676 the recorded population was 3,200; a very large population for the time, for although it rose to 3,908 in 1851, at the start of the 20th century, in 1901, it was only 3,046. In the 18th century Bath Spa was the resort of the wealthy with many families travelling there from London via Marlborough. In 1752 the former mansion of the 6th Duke of Somerset, built on the castle site, became the Castle Inn. This was no ordinary inn but a luxurious and elegant house providing the grandeur of Bath to titled and wealthy visitors. The town became even more prosperous with large numbers of innkeepers and horsekeepers and also many merchants providing everything needed by both horses and humans.
The coaching trade was probably responsible for there being a coffee house in the town by 1771 and for the fact that the only 18th century newspaper in the county, outside Salisbury, was published here – the Marlborough Journal from 1771-74. It contained mainly Bath news and when it ceased was replaced by a Bath newspaper. The coaches continued to grow in number. There were 60 a week by the end of the 18th century and 140 a week in 1839. This was the zenith for with the coming of the railways in 1840 the coaching trade finished and Marlborough was destined to be a backwater until the rise of the internal combustion engine.
In religious matters Marlborough was largely Anglican as befitted a parish on the chalk. It had two separate parishes of St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s each with a parish church, St. George’s Church at Preshute and a medieval church of St. Martin’s in Preshute parish to the south-east of the town. In 1662 the vicar, William Hughes, could not agree to sign the Act of Uniformity, like many other vicars, and was deprived of his benefice. With like-minded parishioners he formed an Independent church which survived until the late 20th century. Compared with towns in the west of the county there were few non-conformist chapels and a small number of Dissenters. The histories of all churches and chapels can be found under ‘Churches’.
Town development in the late 18th century consisted of houses built along St. Martin’s, Kingsbury Street, Barn Street, and on new sites. The only substantial house of this period is Kingsbury Hill House of 1774. All other large houses had already been built, or rebuilt, after the 17th century fires. Yards and alleys behind the High Street, mainly on the south side, had small cottages built on them, which were mostly demolished between 1925 and 1933. In 1843 Marlborough College opened and became a dominant feature of life in the town. A brief history of the College can be found under ‘Schools’. The college expanded westwards in the 19th and 20th centuries while most council and private housing occurred to the north and south in the 20th century with private houses in the late 20th century built to the west on College Fields and around Manton.
After 1840 and the loss of the coach trade the town was left adrift from any main railway line. In 1864 a 5½ mile line was built to connect the town with the Berks and Hants Extension Railway at Savernake. In 1881 the Swindon, Marlborough and Andover Railway provided a through line but this was not of major importance. During the 20th century the town became mainly residential and although in the last decade of the century the High Street has been revitalised with the development of various yards for retail outlets, there is little industry.
Industrial Marlborough was largely a medieval and early modern phenomenon. There was a thriving medieval merchant class and Jews were encouraged to settle in the town. The cloth industry, starting in the 12th century, was important in medieval times but then diminished although it was still in existence until the end of the 18th century. Steam-powered factories were impractical owing to the difficulties of transport for coal and it was in the western Wiltshire towns, which were served by canals, that the industry continued through the 19th century. There was an early tanning industry flourishing from the 14th century to the 17th century and although this declined in the late 17th century the industry survived until the late 20th century. There was a considerable pin-making industry from at least the mid 16th century into the 18th century and ropemaking continued from 1660 into the late 20th century.
Of the markets granted in 1204, that held on Saturday became an important cheese market. The market still continues in the middle of the High Street, where it has been held for 600 years. Also in 1204 was the grant of an 8 day fair, starting on 14th August, the eve of the Assumption. This continued until the 1960s, by which time it had become a sheep fair on Marlborough Common. In 1224 a 4 day fair was granted, beginning on the eve of St. Martin’s day, 10th November, and held on the ‘new land’ of Preshute parish that became St. Martin’s. By the 18th century this was held on The Green and only lapsed in the 1960s. In 1246 another 4 day fair was granted starting on 28th June and dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. By the 18th century this had become a horse fair and it lapsed in 1879. The hiring and mop fairs developed from the medieval fairs and were essentially labour markets. Those of Marlborough still continue as pleasure fairs with the Little Mop on the Saturday before old Michaelmas Day (10th October) and the Big Mop on the Saturday after. The High Street is closed to traffic on both occasions.
The borough has provided a good range of administrative functions, buildings and public services from 1204. In that year the court was established, by 1270 there was a guildhall and in 1281 comes the first mention of a prison, other than that at the castle. An almshouse existed by 1575 and a pest house (for infections diseases) in 1608. As the town lay on a main 17th century postal route there was a post office by 1610. St. Mary’s parish had its own workhouse by 1698 and the town was first lit by oil lamps in the 1690s; a form of illumination that continued into the 19th century. There was a police force from the early 18th century, which also manned the firefighting equipment although this was managed separately from 1747.
A private gas company was set up in 1822 and was lighting the High Street by gas by 1831. In 1846 this was extended to the rest of the town and in 1907 was introduced into the outer area, included in the borough in 1901. Electricity was supplied to Marlborough College in 1924, was extended to the Town Hall in 1924, and to the rest of the town in 1926. The borough had its own electricity station in Pewsey Road by 1937. A public cemetery was provided at a fairly late date, in 1924.
The different administrations of parts of Marlborough were resolved in the 20th century. In 1925, lands of Preshute Within to the south, north and a small area to the west of the town were included in the new civil parish of Marlborough with the former parishes of St. Mary and St. Peter. This included the area around Preshute church, the St. Margaret’s district and the western part of Marlborough Common. A further 824 acres of Preshute parish was transferred to the town in 1934. In 1974 Marlborough ceased to be a borough and became a parish council under Kennet District Council.
Today the town of Marlborough is once again filled with the passing traffic that became common from the 1930s. There was a small respite after the M4 motorway was opened in 1971, thus relieving the A4 London road but Marlborough is once again a busy bustling place.
Concise History: Wiltshire: A History of its Landscape and PeopleThis community has been included in John Chandler's on-going series and the full text is available here.