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Brief History of Bedford

Bedford probably takes its name from an otherwise unknown Saxon chief called Beda who settled with his followers where the River Great Ouse was fordable some thirteen centuries ago. It is recorded that Offa, King of Mercia, who died in 796, was buried at Bedford and one church (since rebuilt) is dedicated to St Cuthbert, a Saxon saint. King Edward the Elder, son and successor of Alfred the Great, is known from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have come to Bedford in 919 during the wars with the Danes when he ordered the digging of the King’s Ditch (the eastern half of which survives) to defend the town south of the river. The Danes attacked Bedford unsuccessfully two years later and returned to do more damage in 1010.


The regularity of the street pattern of the old town centre seems to indicate an attempt at town planning over a thousand years ago and it is possible that walls or some other fortification existed on the north side of the river. Both St Peter’s and St. Mary’s churches have towers which date from the late Saxon period and in one of them the Bedford mint may have been housed.


The Norman Conquest after 1066 led to the building of Bedford Castle on a large site to the north-east of the town bridge, which may also have existed at this time. The castle belonged for most of its history to the de Beauchamp family from whom it was seized early in the 13th century by a French mercenary Falkes de Breautae, a henchman of King John. A royal army came to smoke Falkes’ men out in 1224 and, after a great siege of six weeks, the keep and walls were ordered to be destroyed, but the mound remained and still survives.


Sixty years earlier Bedford had received from Henry II its oldest extant charter (1166) confirming the town’s right to a merchant guild. At about the same time, Bedford’s first religious house, outside the borough at Newnham (site of Priory Marina), was founded for Augustinian canons by Simon de Beauchamp and his mother the Countess Rohesia.


The first reference to a Mayor of Bedford is in the Close Roll of 1264 and in 1265 Bedford returned two members to Parliament.


A school was provided n School Lane, now Mill Street, by Newnham Priory from the late 12th Century until the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1541. To preserve the school, Bedford Corporation obtained letters patent from Edward VI in 1552 permitting them to accept an endowment for a grammar school. This was forthcoming in 1566 when Sir William Harpur, a Bedford-born merchant tailor and former Lord Mayor of London, conveyed land in Holborn for its support. Two centuries later in 1764 the Harpur Trust was created by Act of Parliament to administer the endowment.


Bedford was well within the Parliamentary sphere of influence during the Civil War of the 1640s. John Bunyan, after possible military service in the garrison at Newport Pagnell, returned to ply his trade as a tinker in Elstow and Bedford, joining the Bedford Independent Church meeting at St John’s in the 1650s. After the Restoration in1660 he was imprisoned for illegal preaching and held in the County Gaol for 12 years until 1672. Here he probably began composing The Pilgrim’s Progress published in 1678. He lived in a cottage, since demolished, on the site of 17 St Cuthbert’s Street.


The County Gaol had scarcely improved since Bunyan’s time a century earlier, as John Howard, a wealthy landowner in Cardington, discovered when inspecting it as High Sheriff of the county in 1773. Thereafter he resolved to devote his life to prison reform. He published The State of the Prisons in 1777 and travelled abroad as well as throughout England. He died in the Crimea in 1790. At about the time he was sheriff, Howard acted as patron to a group which left the Bunyan Meeting over a religious dispute in 1772 and founded a separate chapel, later known as Howard Congregational Church.


Civic and private improvements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries included the building of a Sessions House (site of the Shire Hall) in 1753; the rebuilding of the Swan Hotel by Henry Holland for the Duke of Bedford in 1794; the consolidation of the five parish workhouses into one House of Industry designed by John Wing in 1794, (now part of North Wing Hospital); the replacement of the medieval bridge by the present elegant Town Bridge also designed by Wing (Mayor in 1793) in 1811-13.


The Embankment Gardens were linked to Mill Meadows on the other side of the river by the Suspension Bridge in 1888, and Bedford Park was inaugurated on the same day as the opening of the bridge: a Victorian ensemble with café, bandstand and lodges.


Airship production at Cardington began in 1918 but ended with the R101’s disastrous flight in 1930. During the Second World War Bedford was host to the BBC Music Department and in 1945 Glenn Miller was stationed at Clapham, from where he made his last known flight whilst travelling to France.


The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, founded in 1949, was enlarged in the mid-1970’s. New premises for Bedford Museum, opened in 1960 and based on the Prichard Museum of Bedford Modern School founded in 1884, have been provided in the former Higgins brewery next to the Art Gallery.


In 1974 the Borough of Bedford became part of North Bedfordshire District Council, which was granted Borough status in 1975. In 1992 the Council, conscious of the Borough’s roots and history, restored the ancient title of Bedford Borough and re-developed the original site and castle coat of arms. In 1994 the Local Government Commission, in reviewing the structure of local government in Bedfordshire, recommended that the Borough should be served by a single unitary authority based on the existing Bedford Borough Council. However, in 1995 the government decided to retain the County and District Council structure in the County outside of Luton.


The chain may be taken to other countries, such as twinning purposes, but special customs and/or procedures must be followed. This applies to badges of office.


The flag is only flown on the Mayor’s car when the Mayor is in the car or it is waiting for him. The flag can also be flown if the Deputy Mayor or Speaker is deputising for the Mayor and the Mayor is not in the Borough. It is removed when travelling fast (excess of 35mph) for safety reasons.

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