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The History of Bedford

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The name Bedford is thought by some historians to be derived from a Saxon chief called Beda who settled at the site of a ford across the River Great Ouse . Bedford was a place of some considerable importance in Saxon times. The famous King Offa of Mercia was buried at Bedford in 796. The Church of St Cuthbert is dedicated to a Saxon saint and the present structure stands on the site of a much older church. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records King Edward the Elder , son and successor of Alfred the Great , staying at Bedford in 919 while at war with the Danes. Edward fortified the settlement and had the King's Ditch dug to defend the town south of the river, the eastern half of the which survives today. The Danes attacked Bedford unsuccessfully two years later but were back for more a hundred years later in 1010 and destroyed Edward’s fortifications.

Bedford features a regularity of the street pattern in the old town centre that suggests ancient town planning. It is likely that walls and other fortifications existed to protect the town’s exposed flank on the north side of the river. St Peters and St Marys churches have towers which have been dated to the late Saxon period. It is probable that one of these Saxon churches also housed the Bedford mint.

1066 brought the Norman Conquest to Saxon Britain and the victorious Norman rulers began a massive building program. Bedford Castle was thrown up on a large site to the north-east of the town bridge. The impressive stone castle was initially in the hands of the de Beauchamp family until it was seized early in the 13th century by a French mercenary Faukes de Breauté (or Falkes), one of King John ’s favoured men, on orders of the king. The castle was renowned for its strength and Faukes became emboldened enough to start ignoring orders brought against him after abuses of his power as a landlord. The king grew tired of his unruly former henchman and stormed the castle. After six weeks siege King John breached the castle, although Faukes was allowed to escape. The castle was destroyed in 1224, left a ruin and was never rebuilt. All that remains now is the mound and a modern retaining wall built against one slope.

Bedford received a charter from Henry II in 1166, confirming the town's right to a merchant guild. Bedford's first religious house, outside the borough at Newnham at site of Priory Marina, was founded by Simon de Beauchamp and housed Augustinian canons. A school was founded at School Lane, now Mill Street, by Newnham Priory from the late 12th Century. The priory was was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1541 during the Reformation, leaving the school homeless. Bedford Corporation obtained letters from Edward VI in 1552 allowing them to accept an endowment for a grammar school. In 1566 Sir William Harpur, a Bedford-born merchant tailor and former Lord Mayor of London, gave land in Holborn to the school. The Harpur Trust was created by Act of Parliament in 1764 to administer the endowment.

The town appointed a Mayor of Bedford, who is first recorded in the Close Roll of 1264. Bedford returned two members to Parliament in 1265. After the 1560s Bedford became an important centre for the lace industry. The author and theologian John Bunyan was a tinker in Elstow and Bedford after the Civil War . He joined the Bedford Independent Church meeting at St John's in the 1650s. After the Restoration of 1660 he was held in the County Gaol for 12 years until 1672, after being arrested for illegal preaching. It is thought he began composing ‘The Pilgrim's Progress’, published in 1678, while in the gaol.

The conditions in County Gaol, scarcely improved since Bunyan's time a century earlier, were witnessed by wealthy landowner and High Sheriff of the county John Howard. He witnessed the horrors first hand while inspecting the gaol in 1773 and subsequently devoted his life to prison reform. He published ‘The State of the Prisons’ in 1777 but died in the Crimea in 1790.

The 18th and 19th centuries were a busy time in the town. The Sessions House was built in 1753 and the Swan Hotel was rebuilt by Henry Holland for the Duke of Bedford in 1794. John Wing, Mayor in 1793, designed the replacement for the medieval bridge Town Bridge in 1811-13. The Suspension Bridge, built in 1888, linked the Embankment Gardens to Mill Meadows. Bedford Park, a typical Victorian urban open space complete with café, bandstand and lodges, was inaugurated on the
same day as the new bridge.

Airships were production at Cardington from 1918 until the R101 disaster in 1930. BBC Music Department moved to Bedford in the Second World War and in 1945 Glenn Miller was stationed at Clapham , and it was from there that he made his last fateful flight. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opened in 1949 and was extended in the mid-1970's. The Bedford Museum , originally opened in 1960, has now moved to the former Higgins brewery next to the Art Gallery. The Bunyan Museum opened in 1998.

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