Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Visit to Guildford

By Lauren Gilbert

Sundial at Tunsdale Shopping Precinct (1972) commemorating Edward I and his queen and their time in Guildford

Located in the North Downs of Surrey, on the banks of the Wey, is the town of Guildford. In an area originally settled by the Romans, the town was established by a ford by Saxon time. The origin of the name is unclear. It may be traced to the name “Golden Ford” (guilden ford, of Saxon origin) or, as the town was a market town, it may be related to an ancient trade guild. It is also possible that it is derived from an early name for the river, the Gil or Guilu. First mentioned in Alfred the Great’s will, Alfred left Guildford to his nephew. Upon the nephew’s death, it reverted to the crown and continued to be a crown property and a royal residence until the Tudor era. Henry II built a park where he had a palace there, and Edward I and Queen Eleanor apparently spent a significant amount of time at Guildford, just to name a few royal residents. A royal mint was in operation in Guildford from Saxon times up to the reign of Henry I. The beginnings of the wool and cloth trades were already in place in the 11th century. The governing body of the town, called the Gild-Merchant, was also established before 1255 and was a model for other charters.

Guildford was a centre of the wool and cloth trades by the 12th century. The quality of the river’s water, and the accessibility of three plants used in the dying process: fullers’ teasel (which produced spiny heads used to raise the nap of woollen cloth), buckthorn (the berries of which produce yellow or green dye) and woad (a plant which yields a blue dye). All three plants grew in the area. The cloth trade was so important that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1391 relating to the purchase of Guildford cloth, and the Merchants of the Staple (an important commercial company that controlled the trade) issued a certificate in 1482 attesting that they had no fault to find with the Guildford cloth workers or the cloth itself.

Not surprisingly, a castle was built in Guildford during William the Conqueror’s reign. Originally of wood of motte and bailey design, a tower was added, as was a wall around the top of the motte, in the 12th century. The tower became the sheriff’s headquarters later in the 12th century. Henry III expanded and made many improvements to the castle. The castle was given up without a fight twice: once in the conflict between the barons and King John, again during Simon de Montfort’s rebellion. Subsequently, Guildford Castle (as with other inland palaces) was no longer significant for defense, and became neglected. By 1379, the castle had crumbling, leaving nothing but the king’s great chamber, although the tower continued to be used by the sheriff and a hunting lodge that had been built in the park was still available for royal use.

Guildford Castle in 2005.

The town of Guildford grew as the wool trade became more and more important. The town boasted a hospital (in existence as early as the 12th century) and other significant buildings. The charters previously granted were confirmed by Henry VI in 1423, and a charter of incorporation was granted by Henry VII in 1488. A grammar school was founded in 1507 (and is still a school building today). Unfortunately, the wool trade began to decline after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII (he also closed the hospital). This decline was hastened in the 16th century due to competition. Fortunately, the town continued to be a market center.

Just south of Guildford is Losely Park. Originally, there was a manor house on this site when the estate was purchased in 1508 by the father of Sir William More. During the reign of Henry VIII, Sir William More built the Elizabethan house still on the site after his father’s death in 1549, using stone from disbanded monasteries. He expanded the house in 1562 for an expected visit by Queen Elizabeth (just the first of several visits by royalty through the centuries). The house is still the home of the descendents of Sir William More (the More-Molyneaux family) and can be visited. I had the opportunity to see the house some years ago, and it is an amazing place to visit. (You can click the Losely Park link below to see some fantastic photos of furnishings and artworks on display there.)

The house at Losely Park, taken 1993 by the author

In 1619, the Archbishop of Canterbury established some almshouses for poor old people and tried to revitalize the cloth industry in 1629 with a focus on linen (instead of wool). This effort was not successful, and Guildford remained a market town of little importance. However, the town continued to develop as a theatre was built in 1789, an iron foundry and a barracks were built in 1794. Although the barracks was closed in 1818, the town progressed throughout the19th century: a corn exchange opened, gas lights lit the streets, the streets were paved, drainage established and the first electricity was available during this time. The biggest change was the arrival of the railway in 1845, which allowed easy movement between Guildford and London only 30 miles away. New industries also opened in Guildford. I think it may be said that Guildford came into its own in the late 19th century in many respects, but managed to retain a great deal of its charm and historic appeal as it moved into the 20th century and beyond. It’s a beautiful town with a fascinating history, well worth a visit.

Sources include:
Andrews, W. and Lang, Elsie M. OLD ENGLISH TOWNS. London: Bracken Books, 1985. (Originally published 1931 by T. Werner Laurie, Ltd, London).
Britain Express. “Losely Park” by David Ross, ed. Here.
British History Online. “The Borough of Guildford: Introduction and Castle.” Here.
The Heritage Trail. “English Manor Houses. Losely Park.” Here.
Losely Park. “Discovering the House.” Here.
Williamson, George C. GUILDFORD IN THE OLDEN TIME Side Lights on the History of a Quaint Old Town. London: George Bell and Sons, 1904. Digitized by the Internet Archive 2011. Here.

Image of the sundial taken from Wikimedia Commons Here. From
Image of Guildford Castle from Wikimedia Commons Here. From

Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband.  A member of the Florida Writers Association and the Jane Austen Society of North America, her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was published in 2011.  Her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is due out later this year.  Visit her website here for more information.


  1. The golden ford is either called after the golden sand you can still sea upstream on the River Wey or the golden flag flowers which grew by the water.

  2. The other reason for the growth of Guildford in the 18th and 19th centuries was its position on the London to Portsmouth Road. You can still find signs of four of the Coaching Inns, where horses were stabled, along the High Street.


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