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Preface to Berkshire


Berkshire is a landlocked county in the centre of southern England, bordered by Oxfordshire to the north and east, Wiltshire to the west, Hampshire to the south and Buckinghamshire and Surrey to the far east. In outline it is like a boot, with the toe pointing east. It is the sixth smallest in area of the traditional counties, and was made smaller still in 1974 when the entire area north of the Berkshire Downs, including the towns of Wantage, Faringdon and Abingdon, became part of Oxfordshire for administrative purposes. It is now effectively a county for ceremonial purposes only; it has no county council and its entire area is divided into several Unitary Authorities. As ever, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture respects the traditional boundary. The county boundary to the north and west is formed by the river Thames as it runs through Lechlade, skirts Oxford to the west, and continues south through Abingdon and Wallingford before turning east to pass to the north of Reading and on through Henley to Windsor. The north of the county is drained by the river Ock that runs eastwards through the Vale of White Horse to join the Thames at Abingdon. In the south is a network of rivers, including the Kennet, Loddon and Lambourn, whose extensive tributaries drain the entire southern section. Berkshire cannot be called mountainous; its highest point is found at Walbury Hill near Newbury in the Inkpen Beacons, a southern outlier of the Berkshire Downs, with an elevation of 297 metres (974 feet). The chief towns of modern Berkshire are Reading, the county town since 1867 with a 2001 population of 143,000, Maidenhead (59,000) and Abingdon (36,000), the former county town.

Landscape, Geology and Building Materials

The Cretaceous chalk formation of the Berkshire Downs dominates the southern part of the county and associated with this are deposits of the material known as clay-with-flints, which is precisely what its name suggests. It may represent the insoluble residue left after the chalk has been weathered away, with an added contribution of Palaeogene sediments. Flint nodules occur both in the clay-with-flints and the underlying chalk. They were widely used for building and, in their knapped state, for decorative facings throughout the county, but especially in the southern part, from Combe in the west to Hurley and Bray in the east.

The Roman Catholic church of St James, Reading, a flint building of 1840 by A. W. N. Pugin

North of the Downs, the Vale of the White Horse is a clay formation largely covered with sand and gravel deposits (the blue area of the map), and a similar terrain, the Oxford Clay, covers the far north of the county and the valley of the upper Thames. Between these two clay belts is the North Berkshire Ridge, formed of Jurassic limestones and sandstones of the Corallian Group. This rubbly, shelly stone has been quarried since the Middle Ages for local use, as at Faringdon, and most famously in building Oxford colleges.

Church Street, Faringdon, largely built of Corallian Limestone

South of the Downs, and of a line running from Hungerford in the west through Reading to Windsor in the east, the surface contains the clays and sands of the Reading, London and Bagshot beds. These are unsuitable for building except that local hardening within the sandy beds produces boulders of tough sandstone which appear on the surface when the softer sands are weathered away. These are the famous Berkshire sarsens, used in the neolithic barrow of Wayland’s Smithy, Ashbury. They are found over most of the county serving as corner-stones, gate-posts and stepping stones or supplementing other building materials in walls. They were extensively used in the building of Windsor Castle.

Wayland's Smithy; a neolithic long barrow built using sarsen stones

Another geological oddity from the southern part of the county is the Tertiary conglomerate or pudding-stone made of pebbles naturally cemented into blocks by iron oxide. As a building material it is better than nothing, and was pressed into service in the tower of Wokingham church and in the nearby churches of Binfield, Winkfield and Warfield. It will be seen from the above account that Berkshire is not well provided with building stone, but the extensive clay deposits were exploited by a brickmaking industry which covered the entire area but which centred mainly on the south and east, around Reading and Wokingham. Brick was not much used in the medieval period, but the 17th and 18th-century brick towers of Wargrave, Winkfield, Hurst, Ruscombe, Purley, Finchampstead and Shinfield are distinctive additions to their parish churches. When high-quality ashlar was required for important buildings, it was imported from outside the county. The limestones of Headington and Taynton were quarried nearby,and the latter was used in conjunction with Caen stone for the ashlar facings and decorative sculpture of Reading Abbey.

St James's Finchampstead with a brick tower of 1720

Early Berkshire

The Ridgeway looking east towards Uffington Castle

The discovery of the earliest evidence of settlement in the county is associated with the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century expansion of Reading, when Palaeolithic flint implements were found in the gravel of the Thames, Kennet and Loddon at sites including Coley, Grovelands, Tilehurst, Caversham, Sonning and Twyford. At Furze Platt near Maidenhead a mjor flint-working site containing more than 250 hand axes was discovered. In contrast very little in the way of Palaeolithic weapons has been discovered on the Downs or elsewhere in the county. Typical of Mesolithic settlement, around 10,000 BC, are the plentiful finds of finely shaped tools and scrapers found in the Kennet valley, between Thatcham and Hungerford, beginning in the 1950s. Neolithic finds, including pottery, indicate settlement around 4,000 BC in the east and south of the county, and the major overland route known as the Ridgeway, that runs through the county from Goring in the east to Ashbury in the west appears to date from this period. On it lie Wayland's Smithy; a neolithic chambered tomb, and the Lambourn Long Barrow. Bronze Age burials are represented by the bell-shaped barrows scattered across the Downs, of which the Seven Barrows, near Lambourn are the best known.

They indicate extensive settlement on the Downs by this time. The spectacular White Horse carved into the hillside overlooking Uffington is certainly the best known of the county's archaeological sites, and a good deal of the local outrage caused by the 1974 county boundary reorganisation was centred on the loss of this traditional symbol (and its subsequent removal from the county coat of arms). It measures 355 feet (108 metres) from nose to tail, but the date of its creation has only recently been established, and earlier estimates vary wildly. The earliest mention of it in the written record is in a late eleventh-century document from Abingdon Abbey, but it is much older than this; optical stimulated luminescence testing (OSL) carried out in the 1990s provided a date between 1400 and 600 BC, placing it in the Bronze Age. Iron Age occupation, after c.800 BC, is most obviously represented by hill-forts. Berkshire is unusually rich in these, and the best examples are at Uffington Castle and Walbury Camp.

Around 50BC the Atrebates arrived from Gaul, led by Commius who established his tribal capital at Calleva, just outside the county in Silchester (Hampshire). Traces of the Iron Age earthworks survive, but the site is now dominated by the remains of the first-century AD Roman town and cantonal capital of Calleva Atrebatum. Calleva was at the centre of a Roman road network, linking it to London, Fishbourne, Winchester, Exeter, Gloucester, Lincoln and Chester, but after the withdrawal of the legions, Calleva quickly lost its pivotal role, and by 450 it had been abandoned, and only traces of the road network survive in the local area. Within Berkshire itself there is no evidence of any major Roman town, although villa farms throughout the county indicate that most of it was under cultivation for grain production in the period up to 400. Anglo-Saxon settlement in this region is dated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the arrival of Cerdic and his son Cynric in 495, and the foundation of the Kingdom of Wessex in 519, but the chronicle makes no mention of any town in Berkshire associated with these events. What we do find, however, is a good scattering of Anglo-Saxon placenames and very little in the way of Celtic names, apart from the names of rivers like Ock, Thames, Kennet and Loddon, which seems to indicate that much of the settlement of the county was Anglo-Saxon. A sequence of places in central Berkshire ending in -field, Bradfield, Burghfield, Swallowfield etc., cover a large fertile area along river valleys that were systematically cleared of woodland for cultivation in this period. The introduction of Christianity to Wessex followed the mission of Birinus from Rome in 635. Minsters were founded at Thatcham, Reading, Lambourn, Kintbury and Cookham, and Abingdon abbey was founded in 675.The only Anglo-Saxon buildings to survive are parts of the towers of Wickham and Cholsey, a doorway at Aston Tirrold and a tympanum at Strattenborough Castle Farm, Coleshill, and all of these date from the eleventh century. The Anglo-Saxon shire of Berkshire first appeared as an administrative division of the Kingdom of Wessex in the 840s.

Berkshire and the Domesday Survey

Some indication of the population of counties at the end of the eleventh century can be obtained from the Domesday Survey, and although absolute numbers are difficult to come by because only the heads of households seem to have been counted, it is possible to compare counties. On this basis, Berkshire comes sixth of the 40 counties with a population density of 9.0 households per square mile, although the density varied considerably across the county. It was generally higher north of the Berkshire Ridge, with densities reaching 13-14 households per square mile in the hundreds of Marcham, Hormer and Wantage, and rising to 18 in Sutton. In the south-east, in Ripplesmere, Beynhurst and Charlton hundreds, the population density fell to 2-4. The way the population was distributed over the land changed from north to south as well. North of the Ridge settlement was highly nucleated, with the population concentrated in good-sized villages and little in the way of settlement between them; technically a combination of high nucleation and low dispersion density. To the south, villages were thin on the ground but there was a high density of dispersion over the countryside, with many isolated dwellings and farms. This picture has changed considerably since the Middle Ages, especially in the east where the possibility of commuting exists, but traces of the pattern remain on the west Berkshire Downs.

By the time of Domesday the county was divided into 22 hundreds, varying in size from Bray, with only one Domesday place named (Bray itself), and only 18 hides of ploughland recorded, to Wantage, with 240 hides and 15 named places. In all 192 places are named in the Domesday Survey. As ever, interpreting the Berkshire Domesday is fraught with problems. In 17 cases, holdings were described without any indication of their locality, so it is unclear whether they were in places mentioned elsewhere or in other unnamed places. Abingdon was clearly an important place, as the properties of the abbey are surveyed at some length, but there is no entry for the town itself, or for its monks and their agricultural activities. Matching Domesday settlements with those of today is generally straightforward, although there are a few ambiguities. First, not all Domesday vills survive, although in some cases their memory remains. Follescot, for example, is gone, but its name survives in Fulscot Farm, while South Moreton. Acenge and Lierecote have disappeared without trace. On the other hand, some places that probably existed at the time of Domesday are not mentioned in the Survey, such as Arborfield, Ruscombe, Sandhurst and Wokingham. These were all tythings of the Bishop of Salisbury's manor of Sonning in a later period, and are assumed to have been covered in the Sonning entries. Of the rural Domesday population of 6,160 recorded for Berkshire, the highest proportion were villeins (44%), followed by bordars (30%). There were 804 slaves, forming a relatively high 13% of the population.

As for the agricultural landscape; woodland, and hence pig farming, was concentrated in the south of Berkshire. The royal forests were not surveyed, although there are incidental references to Windsor Forest in the entries on Cookham, Windsor and Winkfield. In contrast, meadow was mostly in the north, in the Vale of White Horse. In the south it was concentrated in the valleys of the Kennet and Lambourn. Pasture is rarely mentioned, presumably because it was generally free. In 34 places fisheries are recorded, mostly at places along the Thames, Kennet and Loddon. Mills were recorded at 94 places, sited on the smaller streams as a rule. In 58 places churches or chapels were recorded, generally just one in any place, but two in the entries for Basildon, Bray, Brimpton, Hendred, Moreton and Welford. As is well known, churches were not systematically recorded in Domesday, and here as elsewhere churches were noted when they were associated with taxable land.

Domesday Landlords

The main landowners in Berkshire were the king, with 47 estates including Windsor, and much of Wallingford besides, and the abbey of Abingdon, also with 47 holdings not counting Abingdon itself. After these came Henry of Ferrers (22 holdings), Count William of Evreux (13) and William FitzAnsculf (12). Henry de Ferrers fought alongside William the Conqueror at Hastings, and was rewarded with 210 manors, mostly in Derbyshire and Leicestershire. He served William as castellan of Stafford and was soon granted the lands in Berkshire of Goderic, former sheriff of the county, and of Bondi the Staller and the Anglo-Saxon magnate Siward Barn. He is supposed to have been the first Norman High Sheriff of Berkshire. Count William of Evreux took part in the conquest of England with 80 ships supplied by his father, Count Richard. As a reward he was given estates in Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, but not in great numbers, and his main power base remained in Normandy, where he continued to represent the Conqueror politically and in battle. He negotiated a peace treaty with the Count of Anjou, for example, and fought against the rebel Duke of Maine, Hubert de Saint-Suzanne. After the Conqueror's death he supported Robert Curthose against William Rufus's attempts to take the Duchy. He died in 1118 and is buried at the abbey of Saint-Wandrille, Fontenelle. William FitzAnsculf, son of Ansculf de Picqigny, was another major Norman landowner with holdings in 12 midland and western counties, and a seat at Dudley Castle (Worcestershire). On his death the estates, castle and title passed to his daughter Beatrice, married to Fulk Paynell, and when the Paynell male line died out to the de Somerys, through marriage to Hawise, sister and heir of Gervase Paynell. In 1194 her son Ralph de Somery succeeded to the barony. Later, in the early 14thc, the barony and castle passed by marriage to the Suttons.


Only two places in Domesday Berkshire were specifically called boroughs; Wallingford and Reading. Wallingford was the chief town of later Saxon Berkshire and by far the largest town in the county with approximately 500 buildings, 290 of them held by the King, and a population estimated by Darby between 2,000 and 3,000. There are references to a moneyer, smiths and a Saturday market, and the site of the castle is now a public park.

A view in the ruins of Reading Abbey

Reading contained only some 60 dwellings, divided between the King and the Abbot of Battle, and a recorded population of 161, perhaps implying an actual population of around 800. Most of them were engaged in farming, and no market was recorded at that time, but its position was encouraging for commercial activities. It lay at a crossing of the Kennet,and close enough to the Thames to benefit from river traffic from London. Furthermore it was at the crossroads of the routes from Oxford to Winchester and from London to Bath and Bristol (which had formerly passed through Calleva). After 1121, of course, its importance grew thanks to Henry I’s foundation of his abbey, and his encouragement of pilgrimage traffic.

Several other places must be considered as towns of some importance. Windsor was second to Wallingford in terms of the number of dwellings listed (95 in the town), but it is possible that they were only occupied when the King was in residence. Wantage was the site of an Anglo-Saxon royal palace, the birth place of King Alfred, and Ethelred II held a council there in 990. It lay on crossroads linking it to Abingdon, Hungerford and the important Thames crossing at Wallingford. It remained a royal manor until the reign of Richard I, but its importance waned with the arrival of the Normans, and the palace was abandoned. The town of Abingdon grew with the monastery, and Offa of Mercia built a palace there, but at the time of Domesday no town was recorded and there were only ten traders before the Abbey gates. Although the west of the county was the most widely inhabited and cultivated area, the population was dispersed among farmsteads and small villages, and apart from Wantage there were no towns to compare with Wallingford, Windsor or Reading. Lambourn contained three manors, the largest belonged to the King but only amounted to 110 inhabitants, two mills and a church. Thatcham had been the site of a Saxon Minster, and in 1086 its church had two clerics, but the manor, belonging to the King, was approximately half the size of Lambourn. Thatcham’s near neighbour Newbury (Ulvritone) was being developed by its lord Arnulf of Hesdin, and the Domesday Survey records 51 dwellings there and a value which had increased from £9 before 1066 to £24. Bracknell was a village in the Easthampstead Rural District until it was designated a new town in 1949. It was originally planned to house 25,000 people, a total that was reached by the mid-1960s, but its present population is more than 50,000. In area it has expanded far beyond its original intended size, absorbing the village of Easthampstead and occupying farmland to the south.

Major Buildings

Abingdon Abbey

Berkshire has no cathedral, although there was an important Anglo-Saxon Minster at Thatcham. On the other hand, it could boast two major Benedictine abbeys in Abingdon and Reading. Abingdon, founded in 675 and refounded by St Aethelwold in 955 reached its peak of prosperity under Abbot Fabritius (1100-17), growing during his abbacy from a community of 28 monks to 78. Only a 15th-century gatehouse and a minor late-medieval administrative range remains of the abbey, although a small number of reset voussoirs from the church have been discovered. Reading was built by King Henry I from 1121 as his burial church, and when complete was among the greatest monasteries in England. It has substantial remains on site despite its wholesale demolition after the Dissolution. The chief glory of Reading Abbey, however,is the extensive sculptural work surviving from its cloister, most of which is now in Reading Museum and Art Gallery.

The Coronation of the Virgin capital and one of the foliage capitals from Reading Abbey, now in the town's museum

There were three other Benedictine monasteries of minor importance.

The former priory church at Hurley

Hurley Priory was founded before 1087 as a cell of Westminster Abbey, and its nave survives as the Parish Church. Wallingford Priory, a cell of St Albans first colonised by monks sent by Abbot Paul (1077-93) has no surviving fabric, and this is probably true of Steventon (a cell of Bec-Hellouin) as well. The house of Benedictine nuns at Bromhall is likewise completely lost. From the Cistercians there is only a grange of Beaulieu (Hants) situated in Faringdon. The Augustinian canons had three houses in the county. Poughley, near Chaddleworth,was founded c.1160 and what remains of it is now a farmhouse. Sandleford dates from c.1200 but was largely rebuilt by James Wyatt (1780-81). Bisham was initially a Templars’ house, transferred to the Augustinians in 1337. There were no Dominican houses in the county, but the Franciscans had the Greyfriars in Reading, which was moved to its present site in 1285. Of Berkshire’s castles, Windsor and Wallingford deserve most attention. Old Windsor Castle had its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, or even earlier. William I erected a castle two miles to the NW, which Henry I subsequently enlarged, and this goes by the name of New Windsor. This was rebuilt by Henry III, and again under Edward III, so that little or no Romanesque fabric remains, although stones from Reading Abbey were used there in the construction of the Poor Knights’ Lodging after the Dissolution. Wallingford had been fortified before the Romans on account of its strategic position at the Thames crossing of the great western road. A stone keep was erected by D’Oyley of Wallingford (1067-71), and the castle retained its importance throughout the Middle Ages. By the reign of Mary, however, it had fallen out of favour at the expense of Windsor, and it was extensively quarried for works at Windsor Castle in the 16th century. A little picturesque masonry survives but little else. Other Norman castles are recorded at Reading, Newbury, Farringdon and Brightwell but little or nothing remains of them.

Lesser Buildings

Avington parish church

Such Romanesque work as can be seen in Berkshire is largely concentrated in its parish churches. Tidmarsh and Avington are rare examples of 12th-century buildings that stand practically as built, both with an important carved doorways, and the latter with a beakhead chancel arch and the remains of vaulting in the chancel. Also worthy of note are the large and early chip-carved chancel and apse arches at St Leonard’s, Wallingford.

The S doorway of Padworth church

Padworth is another of the county’s jewels, with two high-quality carved doorways and a chancel arch. Romanesque doorways survive in large numbers, generally without tympana, but the tympanum of Charney Bassett with its unusual Alexander iconography is justly famous.

The Alexander tympanum at Charney Bassett

The most elaborate of the doorways are to be found at Padworth, Tidmarsh, Bucklebury and Lambourn. Romanesque fonts are also well represented. The Purbeck/ Sussex table font is rarely found here, but interesting tub-shaped fonts with arcading and figures or other motifs are to be seen at Avington and Enborne.

The enigmatic fonts of Avington and Enborne

Reading Abbey has left its mark on the town, where carved stones are to be found at a large number of sites. Elsewhere in the county, the abbey’s influence has made itself felt in the form of sculptural motifs copied at Avington, Frilsham, Cholsey, Bucklebury, Lambourn. and Shellingford. Beyond Berkshire, the tympanum of the south doorway of St Swithun's, Quenington (Gloucestershire), showing the Coronation of the Virgin, was doubtless copied from Reading. Other sculptural motifs having their origins at Reading Abbey are found as far afield as Chirton (Wiltshire), South Cerney (Gloucestershire) and Stoneleigh (Warwickshire).

Corbela and decorative panels in the Moat Garden at Windsor Castle

Finally a mention should be made of the rich collection of carved stones at Windsor Castle, formerly believed to have been spolia taken from Reading Abbey at the Dissolution, but far more likely to have been carved by the same royal workshop for Windsor itself.


Initial fieldwork was carried out by Ron Baxter and Kathryn Morrison between 1989 and 2001. Ron Baxter wrote the site reports, and Berkshire was the frst county to appear on the CRSBI website when it opened in 2001. Photography was carried out with a Nikon FM2 camera using Kodak T-Max b/w film. Periodic updates to the county have been made since the early days, with the aim of making the contents more suitable for web delivery.

Select Bibliography

  1. R. Baxter, The Royal Abbey of Reading, Woodbridge 2016.
  2. A. Clifton-Taylor and A. S. Ireson, English Stone Building (new edition), London 1994.
  3. H. C. Darby and E. M. J. Campbell, The Domesday Geography of South-East England Cambridge 1971, 239-86.
  4. P. Morgan (ed), Domesday Book: Berkshire, Chichester 1979.
  5. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Berkshire, Harmondsworth 1966.
  6. D. Phillips, Berkshire:A County History, Newbury 1993.
  7. B. K. Roberts and S. Wrathmell, An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England, London, 2000.
  8. M. G. Sumbler (ed), British Regional Geology: London and the Thames Valley (4th ed.), London 1996.
  9. G. Tyack and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Berkshire, New Haven and London 2010.
  10. Victoria History of the County of Berkshire, London, 4 vols. 1906-24.
  11. C. King, A History of Berkshire, London 1887