Until 1854, Earley was a liberty in the south-western portion of the large parish of Sonning. The more southerly manor was Whiteknights Park. It has been the home of the University of Reading since 1947 and is rarely considered part of Earley at all. In essence, however, it is all that remains of the pre-1276 deer park and manor of Earley Whiteknights, otherwise known as Earley Regis or Earley St Nicholas. Legend says that the eponymous White Knight was a Norman soldier who gave up his manor and travelled barefoot to the Holy Land after he had accidentally killed the brother of his Anglo-Saxon lover. He was eventually buried in St Nicholas' Chapel which stood near the Wokingham Road gate to the park. This was a twin to the chapel at the more northerly manor of Erleigh Court.
The real White Knight, however, was a man named John d'Earley IV. He was given the nickname after having seen much action in King Edward I's campaigns in Scotland, presumably in shining armour. The D'Earleys lived at the manor from which they took their name throughout the medieval period. They were minor barons, some of whom became highly embroiled in national events. The most famous of the family was Sir John d'Earley II, the foster-son of the Regent of England, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who lived at nearby Caversham Castle. After Marshal's death, D'Earley commissioned a now-famous epic poem about his mentor's life from John the Troubadour. D'Earley fought for King Richard I in France and for Marshal in Wales and Ireland. He brought the news of King Richard's death back to England and was, at one time, Marshal of the Royal Household to King John, though their relationship was generally rather stormy. The D'Earley family were eventually forced to sell off their Earley lands in order to pay ransom demands from the Spanish King in the mid-14th century.
The Catholic Englefield family eventually took on the estate after Englefield House was confiscated from them during the religious persecutions of the 16th century. During the Siege of Reading, the Governor, Sir Arthur Aston, used to ride out to Whiteknights to dine with Anthony Englefield (died 1667). In early 1643, the parliamentarians discovered this and sent 200 horse and 600 foot soldiers from Windsor Castle to kidnap him. However, Aston was warned by his scouts and so stayed safe within the fortifications of Reading that night. In the late 18th century, the manor was bought by the family of the flamboyant Marquess of Blandford (heir to the Duchy of Marlborough) who led a life of great revelry there. He laid out ornamental gardens that were the envy of Kings - some trees from which still survive - and collected paintings and a most astonishing library of rare books. Eventually the poor man went broke and was forced to retire to Blenheim Palace.
Read more history of Earley and other nearby settlements, like Maiden Erlegh & Lower Earley, in David Nash Ford's book, 'Mid-Berkshire Town and Village Histories'. Click to Order direct from the Author.
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