The name of Wargrave is almost certainly of Saxon origin, deriving from "Weir-Grove": an area of woodland - part of the far-reaching Windsor Forest - near a weir which the first settlers must have constructed on the Thames. A more romantic story has the Vikings invading this part of the country in the late 9th century and fighting the local Berkshire yeomanry at this spot where they later buried their dead in a mass "War-Grave". The Norsemen were certainly active in the area at that time when they made Reading the headquarters for their conquest of Southern England. Queen Emma, the wife of the Anglo-Danish King Canute, is said to have had a palace at Wargrave and an old legend tells how she gave the manor of Wargrave to the Bishopric of Winchester in thanks for coming through an 'ordeal by fire' unscathed.
Queen Elizabeth I confiscated the manor, after the Bishop of Winchester annoyed her during one of his sermons, and gave it to Henry Neville of Billingbear Park (Waltham St. Lawrence). It remained in the family until the 19th century. The Nevilles had divided loyalties during the Civil War, but Wargrave, with its growing mercantile interests, seems to have sided with the parliament. At one point, a foraging party from the Royalist garrison at Reading tried to commandeer five cartloads of wheat and a hundred and fifty sheep from Wargrave. The villagers managed to call in help from some passing Windsor troopers and the Cavaliers were sent packing.
The wider parish of Wargrave has been the home of ancient farming families for centuries: the Cotterells, Fords, Piggotts, Silvers, Guys, Lewendons, Langfords, Headingtons and the unusually named A'Bears. Robert Piggott became rich enough to found the village school in 1861 for "24 girls and 24 boys to be educated in reading, writing and religious knowledge." In the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, as the farmers increased their wealth through speculative land deals, many of the old farms became converted into grand mansions and the area is rightly noted for its fine 'manor' houses. Most of these were around Harehatch. Park Place, on the Remenham border, was where General Conway built a bridge on the Henley Road from the ruins of Reading Abbey.
Another well-known resident was the 7th Earl of Barrymore. He was a well known 18th century gambler, practical joker and general party animal. He made Wargrave the toast of London society in 1791, when he built a magnificent theatre in the village, at a cost of over £60,000, and installed Delphini of Covent Garden as the resident clown. King George IV was amongst the regular visitors. Unfortunately, Barrymore was accidentally shot while escorting French prisoners to Dover and, beacuse of his vast debts, had to be hurriedly buried under the chancel of Wargrave Church. He lived at Barrymore House, off the High Street.
This central area of the village is probably best known for its inns which once served the myriad of coaches travelling between Henley and Reading. The George & Dragon has a superb, though now rather dark, pub-sign encased in glass, which was painted by two Royal Academicians, G.D. Leslie and J. Hodgson. It is mentioned in Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat'. A bright copy is also on display. The Bull, is most famous connection seems to be its ghostly landlady who howls with distress as she is evicted from her home.
In the mid 14th century the parish had a small chapel dedicated to Corpus Christi to which a recluse, Alan De Elsefield, attached his modest hermitage. The parish church is thought to have been founded around 900 AD on the pleasant Mill Green, where fairs were later held on All Saints' Day each year. In 1362, John Buckingham was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln at Wargrave Church. The ceremony had to take place outside the Lincoln diocese because the Dean and chapter did not approve of the appointment. Wargrave was probably chosen by the Bishop of Salisbury from nearby Sonning, as being convenient to the River crossing back into the Lincoln See. On 28th March 1707, the church was the scene of the whirlwind wedding of Frances Kendrick, Lady of the Manor of Calcot, and a poor lawyer called Benjamin Child. According to legend, the Berkshire Lady, as she was later called, had taken a fancy to this young man at a party. At a masked duel, she had then forced him to choose between fighting and marrying her. He chose the latter! A Madame Tussaud is buried in the churchyard - grandaughter-in-law of the famous wax-worker. The church itself is, however, most famous for being one of the more unfortunate victims of the Suffragette Movement. The building was completely gutted by fire during a riot in 1914. The plate and parish registers (dating from 1538) being snatched from the flames!
See also Harehatch
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