White Hart Crest of the Royal County of Berkshire David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

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Burghfield, Berkshire - © Nash Ford PublishingBurghfield
& its 'Cunning' Residents

Burghfield was a pre-Roman Celtic settlement. The are ancient earthworks across the parish, particularly around Pingewood, which preserves the old Celtic word 'pen' meaning head, peak, tip or end. The 'ge' is a contraction of 'coed', Celtic for wood. When the Saxons moved into the area in the 5th century, they did not understand the meaning and added their own descriptive word 'wood' on the end. Burghfield itself is Saxon for 'Hill Field'. The village is built on the slopes of of Burghfield Hill, but such a name seems a bit unlikely. It's possible that the prefix is a corruption of an earlier lost Celtic word; or it may refer to a Bronze Age burial barrow rather than a hill. There were once several in the parish. One excavated example was even used by the Saxons as the focus for a small cemetery.

From pre-Conquest times, the parish was divided into three manors: Burghfield Regis, Burghfield Abbas and Sheffield. Burghfield Regis was the main manor. Its manor house, alias Nether Court, stood on the site now occupied by the Rectory. In the time of King Edward the Confessor, it was owned by his mother, Queen Emma. However, this one of nine manors which she eventually gave to Winchester Old Minster, supposedly in thanks for successfully passing through an ordeal by fire. This had proved her innocence when accused of having a torrid affair with the bishop! It was confiscated from the diocese after the Norman Conquest and came into the hands of the Mortimers. Their eventual heir, King Edward IV, gave the manor its Royal title of 'Regis'. These people were absentee landlords however and the effective lords of the manors were their under-tenants. These were the family of Thomas de Burghfield who proudly took his name from the village sometime before 1175. The De Burghfields were also sub-tenants of Burghfield Abbas which had been owned by Reading Abbey from about the same time.

Matthew, the lord of the latter manor in the early 13th century, was the first to have a bridge built at Burghfield. The villagers had previously had to wade through the marshes and ford the deep River Kennet, and there had been many accidents. The Abbey would not pay for a proper crossing, but, moved by his vassals' brave determination, Matthew put his hand in his pocket for a narrow wooden structure, which he later widened for the use of carts and horses. By the reign of King Edward I,  this bridge had become an important river crossing but overuse had left it in a bad state. The King ordered its repair  and the builder's grandson, Peter de Burghfield (Abbas), found himself presented with a large bill by the King's agent, Theobald Le Carpenter. He protested in the strongest terms and refused to pay because the bridge had only been erected out of the goodness of his grandfather's heart and he was therefore under no obligation to keep it in working order. In the end, Peter's cousin, Sir Roger de Burghfield (Regis), stepped in and agreed to pay for repairs to the southern half of Burghfield Bridge, if Peter paid for the Northern half.  Sir Roger was the most prominent member of the De Burghfield family. A Knight of the Shire (MP) for Berkshire in 1301, he is best known locally for his superb wooden effigy displayed in the parish church. This was, unfortunately, stolen in 1978, but was later recognised in a Belgian Antiques' Market and bought back for £10,000 raised by public subscription!

Burghfield Parish Church was was entirely rebuilt in 1843 in the most extraordinary Romanesque style, although it appears to have something of the Italian Renaissance about it too. The old building was rather attractive, with a stepped wooden tower. It is featured in one of the present building's stained glass windows. There are two further important effigial monuments within. In the porch are the figures of Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, & an earlier Montacute Countess (it is difficult to tell which, as several died around the right time). They are somewhat passed their best, but you can easily imagine their original magnificence, for the painted colours of the Earl's emblazoned tabard can still be clearly seen if you get down on the floor and look underneath. It is not known why these effigies are preserved here, for these two characters were buried at Bisham Abbey, at the eastern end of the county, and it was there that their monuments must originally have stood. Tradition has it that the effigies were dragged from Newbury behind a galloping horse and that the lady turned over en route. Hence her extremely warn state!

Another survival from the old church is the memorial brass to Nicholas Williams (died 1568) and his two wives (though the effigy of one has been lost). Sir John Williams, a direct descendant of Iestyn ap Gwrgant the last Prince of Morgannwg (Glamorgan), had married Elizabeth Moore, a considerable Burghfield heiress, around 1495. She was presumably a descendant of Gilbert de la More who had granted some land in Burghfield to Reading Abbey in 1261. Their second son, also John, had risen to be Keeper of the King's Jewels when he purchased the Burghfield Manors after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He was later made Lord Williams of Thame (where he is buried). His main residence was Rycote Palace in Oxfordshire, but he often stayed at Burghfield because it was closer to London. His sons all predeceased him and his estates were inherited by his eldest daughter, Margery, and her husband, Henry, Lord Norreys of Rycote. It was Henry who granted Burghfield to his wife's cousin, Nicholas, for his lifetime. The Norreys' and their heirs, the Earls of Abingdon, rented the manors out to tenants until they sold up around 1803.

It was probably in Tudor times that Burghfield Bridge was first rebuilt in stone. It had continued to be an important crossing over the Kennet and, during the Civil War, was the subject of a minor clash after the First Battle of Newbury (1643), when Prince Rupert’s cavalry attacked a brigade of Roundhead troops out of that town. The outcome is unknown, but there probably wasn’t much in it. By September of the following year, the bridge had been destroyed and seven hundred Royalist troops, returning to Oxford in disguise after briefly having relieved the Siege of Basing House in Hampshire, found there was no crossing available to them. The foot soldiers were obliged to mount up behind the cavalrymen in order for the horses to carry them across the river.

The 'Cunning Man' public house at Burghfield Bridge is named after a local wizard, the so-called 'Cunning Man of Tadley', who lived in the late Georgian era. The villagers often travelled to Tadley, over the border in Hampshire, in order to consult this man on any number of issues, like thefts or would-be lovers. The churchwardens’ accounts for the parish show that similar practices spread back to at least 1584, when payments were being made to a local witch or 'cunning woman' for helping to recover missing church goods!

The parish must have a wily effect people. It was while crossing Burghfield Common on foot, in 1785, that a Farmer Smith from Silchester, in Hampshire, was stopped by a vicious highwayman. The farmer had just spent a very busy day at Reading market buying and selling and generally working hard for his living. He was not about to give all this up to some lazy ruffian. So the canny Silchester man attacked the unsuspecting thief and pulled him off his horse. Grabbing the bridle, he then quickly mounted the beast and rode off. His trip to market ended up even more profitable than he had hoped for!


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