DUNSTABLE: Geographical and Historical information from the year 1866.


[Transcribed information from The Imperial Gazatteer of England & Wales, 1866-9]

"DUNSTABLE, a parish, a town, and a sub-district, in Luton district, Beds. The town stands on a chalky eminence, in the centre of the Dunstable chalk down, near the foot of the Chiltern hills, at the junction of Icknield and Watling streets, on the line of railway from Hertford to Leighton-Buzzard, 5 miles W by N of Luton, and 20 S by W of Bedford. It was the Maes-gwyn of the Britons, the Magiovinium, or possibly the Forum-Dianæ or the Durocobrivæ, of the Romans, and the Dunestaple of the Saxons; and it is thought by some to have got its Saxon and its present name from dun, "a hill," and staple, "a commercial mart," — by others, to have got them from a bandit chieftain, called Dun or Dunninly, who infested the neighbourhood in the time of Henry I. Remains of a British camp, occupying about nine acres, called the Maiden Bower, and supposed to have been afterwards the Magintum of the Romans, are about 1½ mile distant; and vestiges of another strong ancient fortalice, called Tottenhall Castle, and comprising keep, mound, and double fosse, are a short way further off. Many traces of Roman occupation are in the vicinity; and large quantities of copper coins of Antonine and Constantine, were found in 1770.

The town was overrun, first by the Danes, afterwards by bandits, who secreted themselves in neighbouring woods and thickets; but was resettled or rebuilt by Henry I., who destroyed the woods and thickets, gave great encouragement to peaceable settlers, took the town under his own management, gave it a charter and corporate privileges, founded at it a priory of Black canons, and erected on a neighbouring locality, afterwards known as Kingsbury farm, a royal palace. Henry subsequently gave the town to the friars of the priory, and invested them with extra-ordinary powers over it, but he retained the palace entirely in his own possession; yet King John afterwards gave them the palace also, with its gardens, simply on condition that they should accommodate the monarch and his suite within their own walls. King Stephen met his successor, Henry II., at Dunstable, in 1154. The town was destroyed by fire in 1213, but was soon afterwards rebuilt. A great synod was held at its priory, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1214. King John was at its palace, in 1215, on his journey toward the north. Louis, the dauphin of France, with the rebellious English barons, halted here one night in 1217. Henry III. was here in 1223. An insurrection of the townsmen against the friars of the priory occurred in 1229; resisted, for a time, the interference of the Bishop of Lincoln; and was at length quelled by compromise through the Archdeacon of Bedford.

An assemblage of discontented barons and knights took post here in 1244, ostensively for holding a tournament, but really for prosecuting a political design; and sent a peremptory missive to the Pope's nuncio, who was opposed to them, commanding him instantly to leave the kingdom. Henry III. was often at the priory; and, when here in 1247, was accompanied by his Queen, Prince Edward, and Princess Margaret, and received the present of a gilt cup.

Another royal visit was made hither, along with the Pope's legate and the Lord of Leicester, in 1276. An affray between the King's retainers and those of the prior occurred in 1276; and was adjusted by the King in person, sitting as judge. A tournament was held at the town in 1279.

The corpse of Queen Eleanor was deposited one night at the priory, in 1290; and her funeral procession passed through the town. A cross, in memory of her, was afterwards erected in the market-place; and this stood till the time of the civil war, and was then demolished by some troops of the Lord of Essex. A grand tournament, on occasion of Edwards III.'s return from Scotland, and attended by him and his Queen, was held at the town in 1341. Henry VI. visited Dunstable in 1457 and 1459; Elizabeth, in 1572; and James I., in 1605. Some of the earliest English theatricals on record were performed at Dunstable in 1110, under the auspices of the abbot of St. Andrews; several Lollard martyrs were put to death here in the time of Henry V.; and the sentence of divorce between Henry VIII. and Catherine of Arragon was pronounced in the priory church, by Archbishop Cranmer, in 1533.

A house or hospital for lepers was founded in connexion with the priory; and a monastery of black friars also was established here, and countenanced by the court, much against the will of the priors and canons. The priory was granted, after the dissolution, to Dr. Leonard Chamberlaine, and passed to Colonel Maddison; but its church was designed, by Henry VIII., to be a cathedral to Bedford diocese. No part of the church now stands except the nave with the aisles. The architecture is mainly Norman, but includes early English, decorated, and perpendicular portions. The nave is Norman and very broad, — the arch is lofty, the piers groups of small shafts, with some slightly-figured capitals; the clerestory is perpendicular; the front shows a good Norman arch, filled with perpendicular tracery; and the interior has a fine wooden screen, stoney stalls, twelve brasses, monuments of the Chews, and an altar-piece of the Last Supper by Thornhill.

The town consists chiefly of four streets, in cruciform alignment, toward the four cardinal points. Some of the houses have an antiquated appearance; but many are modern and neat. There are a head post-office, two railway stations, two banking-offices, two chief inns, a parish church, which is the quondam church of the priory, five dissenting chapels, a workhouse, an endowed school with £331, a suite of alms-houses with £133, and a variety of charities, including the school and almshouses, with £2,288. A weekly market is held on Wednesday; and fairs on Ash-Wednesday, 22 May, 12 Aug., and 12 Nov. The town is famous for the manufacture of straw hats and bonnets; has recently carried on that manufacture more extensively than before; and is famous also for the size of its larks, obtained in the neighbouring country, and sent in great numbers to London. It is a polling-place; was, at one time, summoned to send members to parliament, but made no return; and re-acquired a municipal government in 1865. The town is regarded as conterminate with the parish; that being the district of the local lighting board. John of Dunstable, and Settle, the rival of Dryden, were natives. The parish contains 390 acres. Real property, £13,388; of which £330 are in railways. Pop., 4,470. Houses, 884. The property is much subdivided. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Ely. Value, £150. Patron, the Lord Chancellor. — The sub-district contains five other parishes. Acres, 13,869. Pop., 9,293. Houses, 1,898."

[Description(s) transcribed by Craig Pickup ©2002]