A Very Brief History of Caversham

Lindsay Mullaney has written an interesting article entitled "A Very Brief History of Caversham" which includes information about Caversham from Prehistory to the Reformation, the Middle Ages, The Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham and much more.

From Prehistory to the Reformation

Long before the earliest inhabitants of Caversham made their camp beside the river, the whole of the British Isles lay under the sea, during the Cretaceous Period. Chalk quarried from the great chalk pit near St. Peter's Church contains fossil ammonites and other early sea creatures. These have been dated to 80 million years ago.

The first evidence of human life in the area is about 250,000 years old. At that time the river which we know as the Thames flowed at the level of Caversham Heights. Hand axes have been found in the ancient gravel of the river bed. They were used by hunter-gatherers who lived by following animal herds and collecting berries, leaves and fruits.

Many of these axes were found in the late Victorian period as new housing developments were built in Caversham.

Over thousands of years, including the great Ice Ages, the Thames slowly worked its way down to its present level, finding its modern course about 8,000 years ago. The local inhabitants were still hunter-gatherers. The earliest evidence of farming communities in our area comes from about 3000 BC in the form of stone axes, probably used to fell trees for a temporary farm before moving on after a few years.

With the discovery of bronze, about 2000 BC, farming became more settled and tool use more elaborate. A hoard of Bronze Age axe heads was found during the building of Emmer Green Primary School but there is very little other evidence of local settlement in this period.

By the time that the Romans invaded in 43 AD, iron had already been in use by the local Celts for 500 years. A stone head, found in Priest Hill, dates from this period. A further Iron Age find was a gold coin, dating from between 20BC to 5AD, with the image of Tincommius, King of the Atrebates. It was found near St Barnabas Church in Emmer Green. Just down the road, in Highdown Hill Road,  archaeologists have  found traces of a Romano-British settlement, including pottery and some 4th Century bronze coins. No evidence has been found of a road link to Sichester, so Caversham was probably still a remote farming community. However in 1980 gravel excavations at Dean's Farm uncovered what may have been an early Christian baptismal font, and building debris, perhaps from an early church building, in a Roman well.

Caversham in the Middle Ages

So far, all our knowledge of early life in Caversham has been based on archaeological finds. With the Domesday Survey of 1086 we begin to have written evidence.

According to the Domesday entry for Caversha, a Saxon nobleman called Swein 'held it freely before 1066' but it was now held by Walter Giffard, a Norman lord related to William the Conqueror. The population included two slaves and 28 villagers, including 13 smallholders who owned their own ploughs. There was also a mill which may have been on the same site as the later one commemorated by Mill Lane, next to the river.

The manor appears to have been in the Dean's Farm area and was known as Estthorpe  (East hamlet) but there was a second settlement around St Peter's Church. Open fields separated the two communities. Present-day Westfield Road marks the western boundary of Esthorpe, as it is called in a bailiff's document from the 15th century.

Giffard's grandson, the Second Earl of Buckingham, donated lands near Thame, for the building of Notley Abbey. This Augustinian community (commemorated by Notley Place at the top of Peppard Road, was granted the ownership of St Peter's Church in Kaversham in 1162. The monks were also responsible for the pastoral care of Caversham and the surrounding area, including Kidmore End, Cane End (Canon's End) and Emmer Green.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham

The monks of Notley Abbey were also responsible for the upkeep of 'the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Kaversham'. A document of 1199 confirms this ownership but the Shrine seems already to have been a place of pilgrimage around 1100. Following its destruction at the Reformation, the location of the Shrine was in doubt for many years, but recent research indicates that it almost certainly stood near the manor at Dean's Farm. The Shrine contained a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. Pilgrims came from far and wide to pray at the Shrine and to donate gifts and relics. These included donations from Henry 111 and from many noble families. In 1437 Isabel, Countess of Warwick, gave gold, weighing 20 pounds, to be made into a jewel-encrusted crown for the statue.

Although we no longer have the shrine, there is a very beautiful medieval statue of Our Lady in the Lady Chapel of St Anne's Church, which may give some indication of what it may have looked like.

A further place of pilgrimage in Caversham was Saint Anne's Well, with its healing waters. This was rediscovered in 1906 by the Talbot family, who owned land around Caversham Heights. The 'Memorial Drinking Fountain' erected on the site, can still be seen at the top of Priest Hill

In 1163 Caversham 'hit the headlines' with the trial by combat of two of the kingdom's greatest knights, Robert de Montfort and Henry de Essex, on the island at Caversham which is still sometimes called De Montfort Island, (otherwise known as Fry's Island). Essex was thought to be mortally wounded and was taken to Reading Abbey to die. However he recovered and spent the rest of his life as a monk.

William the Marshal

Caversham's rise to prominence in the Middle Ages was closely linked to William the Marshal who was born in about 1146. He inherited the post of Marshal, the head of royal household security, from his father, John. William himself served under Henry II, Richard, John and Henry III. For much of Henry III's reign William was regent, effectively the ruler of England. He was described as 'the greatest knight that ever lived' and was the most famous jouster of his age.

In 1200, King John confirmed William's ownership of the Manor of Caversham. By marrying Isabella, the daughter of Richard Strongbow, William became the first Earl of Pembroke. He acted as negotiator between the barons and the King at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was signed.

At the age of 73 and in poor health William asked to be taken from his London palace in the Tower of London to his manor at Caversham. The king and whole royal household accompanied him in a flotilla of boats.  In May, 1219, William died at Caversham Manor. His body lay in state at Reading Abbey before being taken to be buried in the Knights Templat Church in London.

Ferries and Bridges

Before the building of embankments, the Thames would have been wider and shallower, flooding the surrounding meadows in winter.

Although a ferry probably existed at Caversham from earliest times, the first documentary evidence is from 1231, when Henry III ordered that an oak should be sent to Caversham to make a ferry boat. Around the same time the first bridge was built here. There was also probably a ford which could have been used to cross the Thames in the summer months.

Like many other medieval bridges, 'le pons de Cauersham'as it is called in a document dated 1131, had a chapel built into its structure, dedicated to St. Anne. Pilgrims on their way to the Abbey, having already visited the Shrine in Caversham, would pray for a safe journey as they crossed the bridge. Some of these pilgrims would have been setting out on the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.

Merchants and packhorses, carrying wool, also used what was described in 1314 as 'the great bridge'. In 1479 a legal document calls it Causham Brygge. Notice how the spelling of Caversham has altered over the years.

The Destruction of the Shrine

The Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries had a devastating effect on Caversham. In 1538 Dr. John London, the Dean of New College, Oxford, was sent by Thomas Wolsey to suppress the Shrine at Caversham and send the statue to Cromwell's palace in London. On September 17th he reported that he had pulled down the place where the statue stood, 'with the lights, shrouds, crutches, images of wax about the chapel' and that he had defaced it thoroughly. The statue was placed in a nailed up chest and sent to London. It is not known what happened to this centuries-old object of devotion.

The people of Caversham may have mourned not only the loss of their shrine but also the income from receiving and entertaining pilgrims. No doubt the chapel on the bridge was closed at the same time. Some stones from the foundations of the chapel were discovered in the 1920's, during the construction of a new bridge. These were incorporated into the Lady Chapel of Saint Anne's Church.


Much of the material in this brief summary is taken from the book "Life in Old Caversham" by Mary Kift. It is available from WordPlay book and toy shop in Prospect Street.

Another interesting local book is "Emmer Green Past and Present" by the Emmer Green Residents Association. Unfortunately it is out of print but copies are available from the Library.

Reading Museum has some archaeological finds from Caversham.

© Copyright Lindsay Mullaney 2010

  • Published: 2013-01-18 15:24:42
  • Updated: 2021-12-10 13:55:59

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