Project Purley

The Local History Society for Purley on Thames

Purley Before the Conquest

Prehistoric Times

The Thames Valley has probably been populated for around a million years, although the earliest traces are only 250,000 years old. The area is particularly rich in remains from all the stone ages; there are traces of a neolithic camp in the western parts of Purley and a large number of flint implements have been found on the surface and dredged from the Thames.

  Until about 2500 BC it was peopled by the peaceful neolithic farmers of the Windmill Hill Culture, but the next three millennia saw a succession of invasions and migrations, mainly coming along the Thames valley. Whether or not there was an actual replacement of people following an invasion, or whether the process was more one of assimilation of fresh cultural and technical concepts remains a matter for debate.

  However the phases of change are characterised first by the so-called Beaker People who brought the Stone Age to a close and then by the Wessex Culture in which metal working first appeared and hence the name ‘Bronze Age’

  For the next thousand years there was a period of slow development characterised by the spread of more permanent settlement and the establishment of long distance routes for trade and commerce such as the Ridgeway, and of course the River Thames. Along these routes came a continuous stream of new fashions and ideas together with the goods.

Around 750 BC the movement of people began again, with each successive wave bringing a more martial outlook on life and improved weaponry which resulted from the development of iron based technologies. Successive cultures are known by such names as ‘Carps Tongue Sword People’ (750 BC); ‘?Hallstatt’ (500); ‘La Tene’ (300) and ‘Belgic’, the early refugees from the Roman Conquests on the continent (75). The dates are very roughly when the lands around Purley were affected.

  In 50 BC came the final Belgic invasion when the Atrebates, under Commius established their capital at Silchester and they remained a major influence throughout the Roman Period.

  Commius had been made king of the Atrebates by Julius Caesar after he had conquered the tribe, then living in the Arras area in northern Gaul. This was in 55BC. Caesar was intending to invade Britain so he sent Commius as an emissary with a mission to visit as many tribes as possible to persuade them to entrust themselves to the protection of Rome. The reception that Commius got in Britain seems to have been fairly unfriendly as when Caesar did visit Britain the next year Commius was delivered to him bound hand and foot.

A few years later in 51BC Commius led the Atrebates in a revolt against the Roman administration and inflicted a defeat upon Volusensus, a Roman general. In the end however they were defeated by the Roman cavalry and Commius sued for peace. As part of the settlement he was exiled to live somewhere he was unlikely to encounter any Romans and so he and his followers came to Britain.

  The Atrebates were well organised and rapidly extended their territory along the south bank of the Thames to Surrey in the east and to around Goring in the west and thence south taking in most of Berkshire, Hampshire, East Wiltshire, western Surrey and West Sussex. Commius was later succeded by his son Verica.

  A second, and more powerful, Belgic kingdom the Catuvellauni was established north of the Thames under Tasciovanus, originally centred in Hertfordshire the capital moved to Colchester when the Catuvellauni defeated the Trinovantes. Under Tasciovanus’ son Cymbelline the Catuvellauni extended their territory, first to Kent and the rest of Surrey and Sussex and then to take over the Atrebatan territory. Cymbelline reigned from around 5 AD to the time of the Roman conquest over a huge area on south east Britain, although the princes of the Atrebates continued as client kings at Silchester.

  It was a period which saw the introduction of a stable currency, and many other economic features copied from the Roman model. Under strong leadership the area prospered and trade links were established which extended well beyond the immediate borders of the kingdom. It was this increasing prosperity which attracted the Romans once more.


The Roman Period

The first Roman invasion had taken place in 55 BC when Julius Caesar came to survey the possibilties. He came again in 54 BC but travelled nowhere near Purley. He eventually retired permanently to Gaul having established a pattern of trade and commerce between Britain and the Roman Republic.

  The major invasion of Britain took place in AD 43 when, in the time of the Emperor Claudius, Plautius began the process of permanent conquest. The recorded history of England begins.

  The Atrebatans were quite receptive to the Romans as they were familiar with their ways and had been trading partners for many years. They offered no resistance to the new order and seemed rather to welcome freedom from rule from Colchester. In fact the Atrebatan princes  continued to provide most of the local administration until their power was ended in AD 61 and all the reins of government were firmly taken under Roman control after the rebellion by Boadicea. However the separate identity of the Atrebates seems to have persisted until 96AD.

  At first Purley came under the Roman Province of Britannia, but in AD 197 this was split and Purley came under Britannia Superior. A further split took place around AD 300 when Purley was part of Maxima Caesariensis.

  The status of Britain within the Roman Empire had changed dramatically from the time of the revolt of Carausius who proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain in AD 286. Thereafter there were a number of local Emperors who were in effect Usurpers of the Emperor in Rome, on occasions the usurpers succeeded leaving Britain to be governed by Regents or Vicars, at other times they were defeated and replaced by Military Governors.

Such was the concern with power struggles that civic and economic matters were left unattended to. This created a period of increasing inflation with high taxes and debasement of the currency, allied to corruption and neglect on a grand scale. It was a period when the wealthy citizens were able to move out to their estates outside the towns and develop their villas leaving the towns to fend for themselves. There are several Villa sites in the area, perhaps the most noteworthy being near the M4/A340 crossing.

There is a suspicion that there is also a site beneath Purley Parva and Pangbourne was certainly the site of a Roman crossing of the Thames.


The Age of Arthur

In AD 410 the administration in Rome finally abandoned any attempts to administer Britain and she was left to get on as best she could. Britain was subjected to repeated raids from Irish, Scottish and Germanic tribes and often local rulers hired other German groups as mercenaries to protect them.

  The fifth century is full of shadowy figures such as King Cole (Coel Hen), Vortigern and Ambrosius, who seemed to exercise a unifying force over the former Roman provinces. This succession culminated in Arthur who fought a rear guard action against the invaders being pushed further and further westwards until he was finally defeated around 515 AD.

  It was also a period when Christianity emerged as a force in the land. A Christian chapel has been identified at Silchester and a baptismal font at Caversham, both dating to the fourth century. There are plenty of legends of much earlier Christian influence but they remain generally unsupported. In the fifth century however England emerges as both a seat of heresy through Pelagius and a source of inspiration through Patrick.

  Throughout this period Britain was unique among the former provinces of the Roman Empire in western Europe in that the native language was not a derivative of Latin and hence Latin survived as a literary language among scholars and clerics whilst elsewhere it devolved into French, Italian, Spanish and Portugese.  Thus the usual soubriquet of 'The Dark Ages' is not appropriate. Britain developed trade links with the residual Empire in the east and retained a high culture which encouraged economic growth.


The Coming of the Saxons

There seems little doubt that Saxons had been living in the area from the middle of the fifth century, coexisting with the decaying Roman estates and settlements. They were probably the families of the mercenaries, hired by the Britons to protect them, who had settled down to farm. There is absolutely no evidence that they ever formed more than a tiny majority of the population but they brought to Britain a language which was easier for the Celts to learn than for the Saxons to learn Celtic. The Saxons brought about a cultural change in that their culture was more adaptable to the realities of the situation in Britain and the native Celts, along with the newcomers developed into the English.

  What developed was, in a sense, similar to pre-Roman Britain with local chieftains emerging to provide protection and rule of law for their communities whilst owing allegiance to an authority at a regional level. From these arrangements came the development of the early English kingdoms as communities expanded when their easily farmed hinterland was insufficient to sustain a growing population and  groups moved away to form new settlements. The pattern of settlements in the south and midlands of England displays these developments clearly in that there is a fairly regular spacing between settlements of around 1500 metres. 750m is roughly the distance that a ploughman could plough out and back in a day and was thus the limit of  easily farmable land. Occasionally the limit was determined by a natural boundary, such as a river or range of hills but there were also political limits, one of which was important for the Purley area.

  The local kings who emerged at the top of this pile were fairly well settled as regards to the extent of their domains by 700 AD. They all developed a need for a sense of inherited superiority and invented genealogies which derived from the Gods. Part of the imported culture was the legends of the Norse gods and the local kings were all anxious to trace their authority back to Odin or another of these gods. This required that someone in the recent past had come from overseas and established suzerainity over their kingdom.  This as far as Purley was concerned there were two contenders.  The Angle Aella invading from the east and coming up the Thames Valley and the Saxon Cerdic invading from the south.  The boundary between the two kingdoms was a  line roughly from Pangbourne to Theale and then around the southern Berkshire and Surrey borders.  The limit of settlement spread from the east ended abruptly at this border by AD 511 when Aella negotiated a pact with the Saxons under Cerdic

  When Aella died in 518 the boundary moved to the east and central Berkshire came firmly under the control of the Saxons forming part of the kingdom of Wessex.  But by now the settlement boundaries had been fixed and are reflected in parish boundaries today. It was the West-Saxons who gave England a well recorded early history with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although they recorded precious little of the affairs of our area, presumably because it was far from the seat of power and remained relatively peaceful.

  Christianity was reestablished in the area by Birinus who had been sent to Wessex in AD 635 to follow up the work of Augustine in Kent. He was nowhere near as successful as Augustine and although he converted King Cynegils and was given a place to establish himself at Dorchester, he never fulfilled his original mission which had included Mercia. He spent much of his time tramping around the downs to visit and preach to the newly founded settlements and it is quite likely he came our way, but there is no evidence of any visit anywhere, let alone here.

  In 648 there is a record of a gift of 300 hides from King Cenwahl to his kinsman Cuthred and this act is believed to be the establishment of Berkshire as a defined territory.

In 661 King Wulfhere of Mercia launched an attack upon Wessex and defeated King Cenwahl at a site called Posentesburh. This brought Berkshire under the control of Mercia where it remained until 685 when Caedwalla became King of Wessex and set about recovering his lost territories.

  A century later Offa the Terrible launched a second conquest of Berkshire by Mercia. He defeated King Kinewulf in 758 and once more Purley became part of Mercia. In 844 King Brihtwulf of Mercia was granted 14 hides of lands in Pangbourne by Coelred, who as Bishop of Leicester, was the Diocesan for the area. Brihtwulf promptly made the land over to Ealdorman Aethelwulf and a few years later in 851 Purley returned to Wessex when Brihtwulf was defeated by the another Aethelwulf, who was king of Wessex. It is possible that the transfer had actually occurred by negotiation around 849 but the defeat in 851 made it a fait accompli.


The Foundation of Purley

It was during this period, in 834, that the parish church of Pangbourne was founded and it is thought that Purley could not have been far behind. As a river crossing Pangbourne would seem to be a more significant place than Purley, but when one looks at Parish boundaries it is noteworthy that until 1991 the territory of Purley extended into modern Pangbourne, indicating fairly strongly that it was established first.

  The pattern seems to have been that settlement began first in Reading around the mouth of the Kennet and its land extended westwards to around where Greyfriars church now is. This was the western edge of the ancient borough. A second daughter settlement was then founded at Norcot which reached out to share meadowlands with Kentwood which had been founded on the slopes of the hill. Purley seems to have originated at an island in the marshes where the river begins to swing northwards and its territory runs west almost to Pangbourne. When Pangbourne was founded later it could only go further west up the hillside as Tidmarsh had established itself to the south across the marshes from Sulham. If the events had been reversed, ie Pangbourne had been founded first it would undoubtedly have extended its territory eastwards well beyond the Sul Brook, but this did not happen and it too went west. This tends to reinforce the view that there was a Roman villa in the Purley Parva area which had established its territory and quite firmly restricted Pangbourne to a small settlement servicing the river crossing, so that when it too came to look for parish land it had to go west. In any event the main outlines of the parishes had been formed well before the time of Alfred.


Alfred and the Danes

From the beginning of the ninth century the major problem facing Wessex was how to counter the Danes. Between 835 and 880 no fewer than twelve major Danish invasions upon England were recorded, few of which affected Wessex. However many raids were made upon the coastal areas around Southampton.

  The invasion which affected the area most was that of 870 when the Danish Army, which had been ravaging the country for several years, established itself at Reading.

  Three days after they arrived a raiding party lead by two Danish Earls was intercepted by Aethelwulf, who had been granted lands in Pangbourne, and routed at the battle of Englefield. The actual site of this battle is not known but legend has it that it was fought on the slopes of the hill above Englefield and finished off in the area of Dark Lane and Long Lane. In any event it is almost certain that all the able bodied men from all the surrounding villages would have been called to arms.

  Four days later King Aethelred and his brother Alfred arrived and attacked the Danes at their camp in Reading. The attack was a failure and afterwards the Danes regrouped at Ashdown ridge, to the west of Reading. Again they were attacked by a now stronger Saxon force and this time the Saxons prevailed and the Danes were soon in flight back to its camp at Reading.

  King Aethelred died the next year and was succeeded by Alfred who continued his efforts to defeat the Danes, but without success. There were innumerable battles and eventually Alfred bought a respite with money but his did not bring a lasting peace. The conflicts rumbled on for many years and Danish influence strengthened over all the country, but especially in the east. Alfred extended Wessex to virtually the whole of the midlands, south and west of England, engulfing Mercia and managed to retain an independence for Wessex which was denied to the other kingdoms who were forced to pay continuing tribute to the King of Denmark, a tax known as Danegeld.

  Within Wessex Alfred exerted an influence in two major spheres; he fostered learning and literacy and developed the system of civil administration which was to survive for around a thousand years. By the time he came to the throne, the pattern of settlement had been essentially completed and the country was covered with a patchwork of villages, grouped into hundreds which in their turn were grouped into shires.

  Rule of conduct for both public and private affairs were established and ancient Saxon traditions enshrined in the Common Law. Charters were used to define land areas and ownership. A complex system of mutual obligations was developed which regulated landlord and tenant relationships and which developed into the feudal system which was adapted by the Normans, not introduced. The whole system was governed by courts and meetings, known as moots, at all levels and at which all free men were able to speak.

So far as we are aware no Saxon charters survive which refer to Purley and although it is quite clear that the area was settled at a fairly early date, there is no documentary evidence whatsoever.  

The Unification of England

The invasions of the ninth century tapered off leaving many Danish colonies spread out all over England, but chiefly in the east. Gradually the influence of Wessex extended to the rest of England and in 959 Edgar was able to be crowned in Bath as King of all England, not just of Wessex.

  Danish raids began again soon after and in 1006 there was a major invasion which saw a Danish army come up from Hampshire to Reading around Christmas time and burn down a major part of the town. They went on to Wallingford and Cholsey and it must be highly likely that Purley was not unaffected by them.

  The next sixty years saw a struggle between the dynasties of both England and Denmark for the kingship, and, in the confusion the rise of the Godwin family. They had started out as earls of Berkshire but by shrewdly siding with whoever looked like winning had managed to extend their power and influence. In 1051 King Edward won a temporary victory and Godwin’s lands in Berkshire were forfeited and redistributed to Edward’s supporters. A year later Godwin made a comeback and took all his lands back, the earldom of Berkshire going to his son Swein. Swein and Godwin died soon after and in 1053 the earldom came into the hands of his other son Harold who was destined to be the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, although perhaps to be more accurate the last Danish king of England.

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