The Tudors in the Village of Tilehurst, Berkshire

Today, the village of Tilehurst, about 3 miles from the town of Reading in Berkshire, is a quirky mix of 1970s and late nineteenth-century houses, a handful of pubs and local shops. The visible history of the village that we see today in its architecture is overwhelmingly late nineteenth and twentieth-century - a tell-tale sign that the village flourished during the mid-1800s population increase. 

We know though, that Tilehurst has a long history that goes back much further than the Victorians. Its church was founded by 1189, hinting that there was a Medieval community here that would have had need for it. Its name, which was used since the early Medieval period, translates as 'the wooded hill where tiles were made'. Archaeology has unearthed artefacts nearby going as far back as the Romans and a few timber-framed Tudor buildings still exist, huddled in amongst red-bricked modern buildings. 

So what was Tilehurst like in earlier times? And has Tilehurst's Tudor history been lost? 

St Michael's Church, Tilehurst.


Mentally strip back the bay-window-fronted terraced houses, twentieth-century pub fronts and paved streets and you'll see in your mind's eye a village with fields, pathways and a few dwellings sparsely dotted around it. The areas that we know today, including Kentwood and Pincent's were mentioned in Tudor sources, and the Roche map of 1761 (the earliest map we have of Tilehurst) reveals a layout similar to today. New Lane Hill, The Meadway, Langley Hill and even The Triangle are visible on this map. Some place names such as Hall Place and the Tudor building called Goodwins have traces of past villagers in their names: there was a Hall family here in the 1500s and also a family with the surname Goodwyne although I haven't seen anything allowing us to match these places to these families just yet. 

As far as surviving buildings go, there are a scattering of them that were built in the Tudor period. Goodwins, on Routh Lane, just at the back of St Michael's Church dates to the sixteenth century, along with Appletree Cottage (its view covered by hedges) on Neath Road. A Medieval barn was lost in a fire on Pincent's Lane in 2003. But it's the church that is probably the most well-known building that our Tudor ancestors would have known. 

Fields looking out from Little Heath Road, a view that is probably much the same as our Tudor
villagers would have known it

The current St Michael's Church was extensively renovated in the 1850s, with the tower built in 1731. But the Tudor church that existed here hasn't completely been lost to us. A colour sketch, dating from around the year 1800, shows a small, white building enclosed by a wall with a few headstones dotted around the churchyard. Remove the tower, which would have been recently added at the time of the drawing, and this gives us some idea of the way the church might have looked to Tilehurst's Tudor congregation. The more modern churchyard on the opposite side of New Lane Hill was established in the 1900s, and consecrated in 1946. The nature of the church, its small, pre-Victorian size and the modest churchyard in front of it all hint to a small community of villagers here before 1700. 

Evidence points to Tilehurst as a highly agricultural area. Tudor wills specify occupations such as labourers, husbandmen and farm workers. However there were other positions held in the village, including clothiers, cloth workers, a blacksmith, tailor and a servant. (1) Some residents were considerably wealthier and more famous than others. Sir Peter Vanlore, jeweller to Elizabeth I and James I, bought Calcot Manor in 1604 and lived here until his death in September 1627. He was buried here in St Michael's Church, where he now lies with his wife, Jacoba. Sir Francis Englefield, one of Elizabeth I's 'rebel knights', may have been known to villagers as he lived nearby, on Englefield Estate, before he fled to Spain in around 1559. 

There is no trace of an inn or alehouse here in central Tilehurst before the eighteenth-century (a publican is mentioned though in Theale, which was once part of Tilehurst, in the seventeenth century). This is not unusual as Tilehurst  village as we know it now was not on a through-route (unlike Reading where people stopped over on their way to London or Bristol). In addition, part of the general household duties at home was to brew the family's ale, so families would have had their own supply. There is also, interestingly, nothing in the will index to suggest that there were any tile makers in the village at this time. Perhaps the early-Medieval tile-making that gave Tilehurst its name had died out during this period. Or maybe none of their wills survive, or were even made. 

Life for most of the villagers at this time would have consisted of hard physical work, prayer and regular church attendance. In 1559 Elizabeth I made it a legal requirement to attend church services and any non-attendance was reported. There was also a responsibility to the community, including looking after the village's poor, and provision was often made for this in wills. News of royal births, marriages and deaths would have been pinned up by the various rectors onto St Michael's wooden door. Up to 1539 St Michael's services were run by monks from Reading Abbey. There are three Tudor rectors that we know of: John Radley (rector from 1574-1584), John Wharton (1584) and John Leaver (rector from 1584-1613). (2) News was also almost certainly relayed verbally during services, considering the estimate that only 25% of men and 10% of women could read by the year 1600. (3) The rectors were also now responsible for recording the births, marriages and deaths of its congregation, which was enforced during the reign of Henry VIII in 1538.

Reading town, with its functioning abbey in the early Tudor period, was only an hour's walk away and it's possible that Tilehurst villagers made their way to the markets in St Mary's Butts or in today's High Street. In 1639, just after our period, a man from Tilehurst was implicated in a sword fight that took place at The George in Reading before he went on the run. Tilehurst villagers might have travelled to watch the performance of Robin Hood at the May Day Celebrations at The Forbury in 1499, or caught a glimpse between seas of waving hands of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I or Elizabeth I when they came to town. The cloth trade was very lucrative in Reading during the whole Tudor period and it's possible that the clothiers that lived in Tilehurst had spilled into more rural areas outside of Reading town.  

One of the myths that is often shared is that Tudors were born, lived and died within their communities, and that there was little opportunity for travel. This is incorrect, as we know that Sir Francis Englefield escaped to Spain and Sir Peter Vanlore was born in Utrecht. Every one of the Tudor monarchs visited Reading, along with their courtiers and advisors. Family name evidence in Tilehurst also supports the idea of a moving population, with names like Newberie, Kent and Stroud. (1)

It's easy to visualise a Tudor family settling down to a warm bowl of potage, tired and aching from a day's ploughing, cheese-making and tending to livestock. And we can speculate on the topic of conversations they might have had around their wooden, candelit table. There's no doubt that important events such as the Dissolution of Reading Abbey would have rocked the village: the abbey owned some of the lands here and took an active role in St Michael's church up to 1539 and some villagers would have been informed of their new landlords. There would have been outrage too, at the grisly execution of Hugh Faringdon, Reading's last abbot, at the gatehouse of his own abbey in the same year. They would have seen the wording of the sermons change and statues and saintly relics placed on the altar, then removed, placed again and then finally banished during the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century. And news may have trickled down into the village of Sir Francis Englefield's disgrace and the long legal battles of the crown to secure his lands. 

The Tudor history of Tilehurst looks, at first glance, as if it might be lost. But with some context and a bit of delving into the sources, it's possible to start to piece together the Tudor history of a village that might not have had national importance, but is however hugely significant as it paints a picture of vital, everyday Tudor life: the roads, buildings, migration, livelihoods and religious life of those that lived here. 

Do you know more about Tudor life in Tilehurst? Comment below!

Notes

1. Occupation and name evidence from Berkshire Record Office Wills Index
2. A list of Rectors of St Michael's Church can be found here, at the St Michael's website
3. The Time Traveller's Guide to Tudor England, Ian Mortimer. p102. 


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