Wargrave Local History Society
February 2001The Wargrave Local History Society welcomed David Burfitt, who gave us an illustrated talk about the history of Hurley. His family had farmed in the area since the 1920s, and David is one of the authors of The Five Villages of Hurley, published recently.
He began by looking at the history of the area from earliest times. Research had shown nothing of importance in the Hurley area before 650BC, and the first documentary evidence was in 450AD, when a ford is mentioned at the start of the Saxon invasion - possibly near Harleyford Manor. In 634, St Birinus came to Wessex, travelling up the Thames, and little churches were built at a number places as a result, and ‘Herlei’ probably had a chapel built at that time. In the Saxon Chronicles the Danes are reported to have traversed Hurley in 894 on their way from Essex to Gloucester.
In the mid 11th century, Hurley, and several Manors around, was held by Asgar, but following the Norman invasion, when William settled at Windsor, the land was taken over (along with other lands in Berkshire and Essex) by Geoffrei de Mandeville, in thanks for his services in support of William. The subsequent Domesday Survey of 1085/6 listed Hurley as comprising 14 hides less one virgate, and includes mention of the church, fisheries etc, the whole being worth £12 (Wargrave, by comparison, was worth £31). Geoffrei’s wife, Athelais, died, and his second wife, Leceline persuaded him to create a priory at Hurley. Over 500 charters that relate to this now rest at Westminster Abbey. By the 14th century, the church had been extended at the east end, so that the whole was about twice the length of the present church (which is the west portion of the ancient structure). The priory attracted many visitors, and to cater for them The Bell was built in 1135. It is said that it got its name from a bell, rather than inn sign, hanging outside which would be rung to say that there was a visitor for the priory. The size of The Bell implies that the priory was an important place in the area.
Life at the priory was recorded on many of the charters, and a former vicar of Hurley translated all these Latin documents and made plaster copies of their seals. Amongst the many events recorded was a complaint by the monks in 1225, as the Knights Templar at Temple had caused flooding at Hurley. In 1235, the Prior was responsible for the negotiations to find a wife for Henry III, whilst a 1391 charter states that Editha, the wife of Edward the Confessor, had been buried at Hurley (although no other evidence has been found for that. In 1538, Richard Leighton surveyed the priory for Henry VIII and was impressed by the high standard of farming in the area. With the dissolution, Hurley was conveyed to Westminster Abbey, and so the charters came to be taken there by the monks. They make what is probably the largest collection of charters of that period from any one place in the country.
The property was then purchased in 1543 by Leonard Chamberlain, who sold it, bought it back, and sold it again by 1545, when it passed to John Lovelace, and his heirs in succession. A large mansion called Lady Place was built close to the church, possible using materials from the demolished parts of the priory buildings. John’s grandson, Richard, was the first Baron Lovelace of Hurley, and became very rich, possibly from his travels with Francis Drake. In 1601 he had the bell chamber added to the west end of the church. Sir Richard is said, according to one document, to have tried at Hurley a boy alleged to have started the 1666 great fire of London. The 3rd Baron had no children, and the line passed to John Lovelace, governor of New York, but soon died out. The debts were such that Martha, the 3rd Baron’s wife, had had to sell the property. After several other changes of ownership, it was eventually pulled down in the 1830s.
David also told us about many other later aspects of the village - the school, the floods, the lock - and the nude midnight bathing there.