By Tim Lambert
Aylesbury in the Middle Ages
Aylesbury started as a Saxon settlement called Aegel’s burgh. Burgh is a Saxon word meaning fort or fortified settlement. It is possible Saxon Aylesbury had a ditch and earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. By the 11th century, Aylesbury had a mint and probably had a weekly market.
However, Aylesbury was no more than a large village with a population of a few hundred. For centuries Aylesbury remained a large village rather than a town. Most of the people in Aylesbury made their living from farming rather than from industry.
However, Medieval Aylesbury was an administrative center. Because of its weekly market, it served as a focal point for the surrounding villages. From the 13th century, Aylesbury also had 2 fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a few days. People would come from all over Buckinghamshire to buy and sell at an Aylesbury fair.
In the late 14th century Franciscan friars arrived in Aylesbury. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Franciscans were called grey friars because of the color of their costumes. In the Middle Ages, there was also a leper hospital just outside Aylesbury dedicated to St Leonard. There was also a hospital for the poor and sick dedicated to St John.
In the 1530s Henry VIII closed the friary in Aylesbury and it was made into a private house.
Then in the 17th century John Hampden the local MP became a hero because he refused to pay ship money, a tax used to fund the navy. (Traditionally this tax was only raised in counties with a coast, not inland counties). In 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. Generally, the people of Aylesbury supported parliament.
However, in November 1642, a royalist army occupied the town. Then came the battle of Aylesbury. Parliament sent an army towards Aylesbury and the royalists went to meet them at Holmans Bridge. The men of Aylesbury formed a militia, which attacked the royalists from behind. The royalists were defeated and were forced to flee. Parliament managed to hold on to Aylesbury for the rest of the civil war.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a lace-making industry in Aylesbury. But it was the only significant industry in the town. There were some craftsmen such as carpenters, butchers, bakers, and blacksmiths serving the local community but that is all. For centuries Aylesbury continued as a large village rather than a town with many of its inhabitants farming the surrounding land. Some were craftsmen.
Aylesbury was also a coaching town. It was on several important routes and many stagecoaches stopped at the town’s inns. Alfred the Great made Buckingham the county town of Buckinghamshire in 888. However, in 1725 a fire destroyed much of the town, and the county government was switched to Aylesbury. The old County Hall was built about 1740. In the 18th century, Aylesbury became famous for the local breed of duck.
Aylesbury in the 19th century
Aylesbury grew much bigger in the 19th century. In 1801 the population of Aylesbury was 3,186. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, it was a small market town. By 1831 the population had reached 4,907.
A canal was dug to Aylesbury in 1814. In 1839 Aylesbury was connected to the London to Birmingham railway. In 1863 it was connected by rail to High Wycombe. The railway boosted the population of Aylesbury. Many towns near London began to grow rapidly once they were connected to the capital by rail.
In 1832 50 people in Aylesbury died in an outbreak of cholera. However, amenities improved in 19th-century Aylesbury. From 1834 the streets of Aylesbury were lit by gas. An infirmary opened in 1833. It later became the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital. The first police force was formed in 1837. A cemetery opened in 1857. In 1867 waterworks opened and the town soon had a piped water supply. Also in the 1860s, a network of sewers was built. The famous clock tower was built in 1876 and public baths were built in 1895. Meanwhile in 1894 Aylesbury was made an urban district council.
In the early 19th century the lace industry died out but there was a silk industry in Aylesbury. Other industries were printing and brewing. In the late 19th century condensed milk was made in Aylesbury. However, Victorian Aylesbury remained a market town rather than a manufacturing center. In 1865 a corn exchange was built where grain could be bought and sold and Aylesbury continued to be famous for its ducks.
Aylesbury in the 20th century
In 1901 Aylesbury had a population of 9,240. During the 20th century conditions in Aylesbury continued to improve. A museum opened in Aylesbury in 1908 and in 1912 a statue of John Hampden was erected in the town. Furthermore, Aylesbury gained an electricity supply in 1915. Then in 1917 Aylesbury was made a borough.
In 1920 the council began building Southcourt Estate. It was greatly expanded in the 1950s. Meanwhile, Vale open-air swimming pool opened in 1935. Stoke Mandeville Hospital opened in 1940. Aylesbury Technical School opened in 1947.
In 1951 the population of Aylesbury was still only 21,240 but in 1952 it was agreed it would become an overspill town for London. The population of Aylesbury then boomed.
Meanwhile, Grange school opened in 1954. In 1966 a new County Hall was built and Friars Square was created. In 1974 Aylesbury was made part of Aylesbury Vale Council.
The Civic Centre was built in 1975. Hale Leys Shopping Centre opened in 1983. The Market Square was pedestrianized in 1984. In 1987 the cattle market closed, a sure sign Aylesbury had ceased to be a rural market town.
The Friars Square Shopping Centre closed for refurbishment in the early 1990s. It re-opened in 1993.
Aylesbury in the 21st century
In the 21st century, Aylesbury continued to thrive. Bourg Walk Bridge opened in 2009. Waterside Theatre opened in 2010. In 2020 the population of Aylesbury was 60,000.