The History of Warwick
According to history, and legend, Warwick means the ‘dwellings by the weir’ in Anglo-Saxon. It was settled in 914 AD by the sister of King Edward the Elder , Aethelfleda, who fortified the town against the Danish invaders thus creating a Saxon burh. Warwick also has a Roman connection because in AD79 Agricola built a fort in the area during the early years of the Roman occupation.
The Vikings eventually breached the defences and razed the town in 1050. The fortifications later became the foundations of Warwick Castle. A nunnery once stood on the sight of the present day St Nicholas Church , but it was also a victim of the Danes policy of rape and pillage and was burned to the ground along with the town.
The Domesday Book notes that Warwick had a population of 1,500 in 1086, 20 years after the Norman invasion. This would have made it a substantial market town by the standards of the era. It was obviously also deemed significant enough to keep fortified, as in 1068 the Normans built a castle there from wood. The work was part of a large-scale construction campaign across England aimed at bringing awe as well as order to the conquered Saxons. The wood structure was later replaced with a much grander building made of stone in 1260. A city wall was thrown up around the town with three gates, one at each point of the compass except. None was needed in the south where the cliff and the River Avon provided a natural defence. No main sections of the wall survive, only the east and west gatehouses still stand.
The new stone castle was badly damaged by massive siege engines during the Barons War when Simon de Montfort took it in battle during 1315. The damage was later repaired and extended and the resulting updates produced a castle that typifies 14th century military architecture. Warwick Castle is now resplendent with features such as Ceaser’s Tower and still dominates the town. The King of England, Edward IV was imprisoned in the castle in the 15th century.
During the development of the castle, the church continued to vie for influence and land in Warwick. The building of the castle itself had caused the demolition of four houses belonging to the Abbot of Coventry in 1068 because they occupied the perfect strategic position on the cliff above a bend on the River Avon. St Sepulchre’s Priory was founded in the 12th century while St Mary’s Church dates from the same century. Henry VIII shut down the priory but also granted the town its charter of incorporation. The market town now had the right to run its own affairs and appointed at first a bailiff, and later a mayor. In 1571 the Lord Leycester Hospital or almshouses were built by Lord Leicester.
Near the castle is the The Butts. As with many similarly named English streets, this is the place where the men of Warwick would practice archery during the Middle Ages and the times of the Tudor monarchs. During these ages it was not just a custom, but a requirement of law that all men and boys practice with the bow and arrow.
By the 17th century Warwick was a busy market town and the population had expanded to reach 3,000. It was during these times that Britain was ravaged by the plague and Warwick was no exception, the town fell victim between 1604-1605 and suffered many casualties. Nevertheless Warwick quickly recovered, enough to construct a new Market Hall later that century in 1670. A massive fire destroyed much of the old town in 1694, although once again Warwick showed that it was here to stay and was rebuilt to continue to prosper. St Mary’s Church was badly damaged in the fire and was rebuilt between 1698 and 1704 by William Wilson.
At the end of the 1700s a new canal system was opening up communications across the country. The Warwick and Birmingham canal of 1793 was soon joined by the Warwick and Napton, opened in 1800. By this time the population had grown to 5,500 and Warwick was about to enter a period of rapid growth. The Industrial Revolution and the new canals had brought a number of opportunities to the town, which now found itself within easy reach of the rapidly rising Birmingham.
The Victorians worked hard to bring civic improvements and modern infrastructure to the town, including installing a gas supply in 1822. The public hospital was built in 1849 and a clean water supply and sewers followed at the close of the century. The railway came to Warwick in 1855, further accelerating the town’s growth. With the coming of the age of steam much of the country was now within quick and relatively easy reach. Despite these improvements in communications the town didn’t become a manufacturing or industrial centre like some of its neighbours. Warwick retained its market town character even though in modern times it has become conjoined to nearby Leamington Spa by the advancing urban sprawl.