The Ancient Town
The town of Marlborough nestles in the Kennet Valley, surrounded by downland and forest and can trace its history back to Neolithic times. The area possesses some of the finest surviving Neolithic relics with both Avebury and Stonehenge being World Heritage Sites.
A mile to the east of the town lay the Roman settlement of Cunetio, (now within the Parish of Mildenhall), at the crossing of the roads between Londinium (London) and Aquae Sulis (Bath) and Corinium (Cirencester) and Venta Belgarum (Winchester). Cunetio later became a planned, gridded town with walled defences. It was occupied for about 300 years until it was abandoned in the early 5th century. In 1978, the largest coin hoard from Roman Britain was discovered there. This is now on display in the British Museum.
At the time of the Norman Conquest, a motte and bailey castle was built in what are now the grounds of Marlborough College. It utilised a prehistoric mound which legend says is the burial place of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician. The tradition frst appears in the Sixteenth Century and is refected in the town’s motto: UBI NUNC SAPIENTIS OSSA MERLINI – ‘Where now are the bones of the wise Merlin?’
The Castle was a royal residence, handy for the hunting grounds of the Savernake Forest. This may have been the reason that King John gave the town its frst charter in 1204.
In the days before it established a permanent home, Parliament met wherever the King was in residence. In 1267, the Statutes of Marlborough were passed under Henry III. They deal with the rights of the citizen and are the oldest statute laws that have never been repealed.
In the later Middle Ages, the castle fell into ruins as military technologies made such buildings outmoded and the royal family opted for more comfortable accommodation. The building became a kind of quarry, its stones providing a resource for the townspeople. It is said that the coping on the walls of the graveyard at St Peter’s Church came from the castle. The estate passed into the hands of the Seymour family, who were numbered amongst Henry VIII’s many in-laws.
The town’s importance as a staging post on the road between London and Bristol ensured that it received a number of visits in the 1590s from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare’s acting company. A performance in the courtyard of the White Hart Inn (Blue Plaque at Russell Square by the Marlborough & District Conservative Club) would be followed by one before the Mayor and his guests in the Guildhall.
With the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, the townspeople were strongly for Parliament, while the Seymours held the Castle for the King, who dispatched a force under Lord Digby to take the town. When Digby demanded its surrender, the townspeople replied “The King’s Majesty, providing he were attended in Royal and not in war like wise, should be as welcome to that town as ever was Prince to People, but, as to delivering up the good Town of Marlborough to such a traitor as Lord Digby… they would sooner die.” What became known as ‘The Battle of Marlborough’ ensued, fought in the streets, alleys and even the churches of the town. After Digby captured and looted the town, he marched 120 prisoners through the snow in chains to Oxford.
The Wiltshire History Centre, located in Chippenham, has a wealth of resources - it would be easy to spend a day searching through old documents, photographs, maps, newspapers, town council minutes and more, and is a great place to visit if you are researching family or local history. As a taster, there are a number of extracts from The Marlborough Times and Wilts and Berks County paper, dated 11th October 1902, discussing the opening of the current Town Hall on our Town Hall pages.
The Wiltshire History Centre website has a page dedicated to Marlborough.