A History of Warwick

By Tim Lambert

Medieval Warwick

Warwick began as a Saxon settlement. The name Warwick is derived from two Saxon words, wering, which meant weir, and wic, which meant houses or settlement. So it was wering wic the settlement by the weir.

In the 10th century, Warwick was made into a fortified town or burh. The Saxons created a network of fortified settlements called burhs across their kingdom. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men from the area could gather together in the local burh. A ditch and a wall protected Saxon Warwick. However, Warwick was more than a fortress. It also had weekly markets and a mint. Saxon Warwick was a flourishing little town.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Warwick probably had a population of about 1,500. To us, it would seem tiny but settlements were very small in those days. By the standards of the time, Medieval Warwick was a fair-sized market town.

The Normans built a castle at Warwick. At first, it was of wood but later it was rebuilt in stone. The castle stimulated the growth of the town because the garrison provided a market for the town’s goods.

In the Middle Ages Warwick was protected by a wall. There were three great gates in the north, east, and west. Today East Gate and West Gate still stand.

St Sepulchre’s Priory was founded in the 12th century. In the 13th century, Dominican friars came to Warwick. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Dominican friars were called black friars because of the color of their costumes.

St Mary’s Church dates from the 12th century. The Beauchamp Chapel is the burial place of Richard Beauchamp who died in 1439.

In Medieval Warwick, there were the same craftsmen you would find in any town such as brewers, butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. However, Warwick was a market town rather than a manufacturing center. As well as weekly markets from 1261 Warwick also had annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from far and wide.

Warwick 1500-1800

In the 16th century, Henry VIII closed Warwick priory. On the other hand, he incorporated Warwick. (That is he granted it the right to form a corporation to run its affairs). At first, the corporation was run by a bailiff but later Warwick had a mayor. Oken’s House was the home of a 16th-century bailiff named Thomas Oken.

Meanwhile in the late Middle Ages and in Tudor times, by law, men had to practice archery on Sundays. They practiced at the Butts. Like many towns, Warwick still has a street named The Butts.

In 1571 Lord Leicester founded almshouses known as Lord Leycester Hospital. n By the early 17th century Warwick was a bustling little town with a population of about 3,000. However, like all towns at that time, it suffered outbreaks of plague. The plague struck in 1604-05 and killed many people. Nevertheless, the population of Warwick continued to grow and Warwick Market Hall was built in 1670.

Then in 1694 disaster struck Warwick. A fire destroyed many of the buildings in Warwick. However they were eventually rebuilt and the town continued to prosper.

The nave and tower of St Mary’s Church were destroyed in the fire. They were rebuilt in the years 1698 to 1704 by William Wilson. Warwick Court House was built in 1725.

At the end of the 18th-century transport to and from Warwick was improved when canals were dug. The Warwick and Birmingham canal opened in 1793. The Warwick and Napton canal opened in 1800.

Modern Warwick

In 1801 Warwick had a population of over 5,500. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. It grew rapidly in the early 19th century but growth then slowed. By 1951 Warwick only had a population of 15,000.

There were a number of improvements to Warwick in the 19th century. In 1810 some of the streets of Warwick were paved and in 1822 Warwick gained a gas supply. In 1849 a hospital was built and in the late 19th century a clean water supply was created and sewers were dug. A public library opened in Warwick in 1866. Furthermore, the railway reached Warwick in 1852.

From 1881 horse-drawn trams ran from Warwick to Leamington. At the beginning of the 20th century, they were replaced by electric trams. However, they gave way in turn to buses.

Through the centuries Warwick was a market town rather than a manufacturing center. That remains true today but Warwick University was founded in 1965. In 2024 the population of Warwick was 37,000.

Warwick Castle