Brief History of Bedford
Bedford probably takes its name from an otherwise unknown Saxon
chief called Beda who settled with his followers where the River
Great Ouse was fordable some thirteen centuries ago. It is recorded
that Offa, King of Mercia, who died in 796, was buried at Bedford
and one church (since rebuilt) is dedicated to St Cuthbert, a Saxon
saint. King Edward the Elder, son and successor of Alfred the
Great, is known from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have come to
Bedford in 919 during the wars with the Danes when he ordered the
digging of the King’s Ditch (the eastern half of which survives) to
defend the town south of the river. The Danes attacked Bedford
unsuccessfully two years later and returned to do more damage in
The regularity of the street pattern of the old town centre
seems to indicate an attempt at town planning over a thousand years
ago and it is possible that walls or some other fortification
existed on the north side of the river. Both St Peter’s and St.
Mary’s churches have towers which date from the late Saxon period
and in one of them the Bedford mint may have been housed.
The Norman Conquest after 1066 led to the building of Bedford
Castle on a large site to the north-east of the town bridge, which
may also have existed at this time. The castle belonged for most of
its history to the de Beauchamp family from whom it was seized
early in the 13th century by a French mercenary Falkes de Breautae,
a henchman of King John. A royal army came to smoke Falkes’ men out
in 1224 and, after a great siege of six weeks, the keep and walls
were ordered to be destroyed, but the mound remained and still
Sixty years earlier Bedford had received from Henry II its
oldest extant charter (1166) confirming the town’s right to a
merchant guild. At about the same time, Bedford’s first religious
house, outside the borough at Newnham (site of Priory Marina), was
founded for Augustinian canons by Simon de Beauchamp and his mother
the Countess Rohesia.
The first reference to a Mayor of Bedford is in the Close Roll
of 1264 and in 1265 Bedford returned two members to Parliament.
A school was provided n School Lane, now Mill Street, by Newnham
Priory from the late 12th Century until the Priory was dissolved by
Henry VIII in 1541. To preserve the school, Bedford Corporation
obtained letters patent from Edward VI in 1552 permitting them to
accept an endowment for a grammar school. This was forthcoming in
1566 when Sir William Harpur, a Bedford-born merchant tailor and
former Lord Mayor of London, conveyed land in Holborn for its
support. Two centuries later in 1764 the Harpur Trust was created
by Act of Parliament to administer the endowment.
Bedford was well within the Parliamentary sphere of influence
during the Civil War of the 1640s. John Bunyan, after possible
military service in the garrison at Newport Pagnell, returned to
ply his trade as a tinker in Elstow and Bedford, joining the
Bedford Independent Church meeting at St John’s in the 1650s. After
the Restoration in1660 he was imprisoned for illegal preaching and
held in the County Gaol for 12 years until 1672. Here he probably
began composing The Pilgrim’s Progress published in 1678. He lived
in a cottage, since demolished, on the site of 17 St Cuthbert’s
The County Gaol had scarcely improved since Bunyan’s time a
century earlier, as John Howard, a wealthy landowner in Cardington,
discovered when inspecting it as High Sheriff of the county in
1773. Thereafter he resolved to devote his life to prison reform.
He published The State of the Prisons in 1777 and travelled abroad
as well as throughout England. He died in the Crimea in 1790. At
about the time he was sheriff, Howard acted as patron to a group
which left the Bunyan Meeting over a religious dispute in 1772 and
founded a separate chapel, later known as Howard Congregational
Civic and private improvements in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries included the building of a Sessions House (site of the
Shire Hall) in 1753; the rebuilding of the Swan Hotel by Henry
Holland for the Duke of Bedford in 1794; the consolidation of the
five parish workhouses into one House of Industry designed by John
Wing in 1794, (now part of North Wing Hospital); the replacement of
the medieval bridge by the present elegant Town Bridge also
designed by Wing (Mayor in 1793) in 1811-13.
The Embankment Gardens were linked to Mill Meadows on the other
side of the river by the Suspension Bridge in 1888, and Bedford
Park was inaugurated on the same day as the opening of the bridge:
a Victorian ensemble with café, bandstand and lodges.
Airship production at Cardington began in 1918 but ended with
the R101’s disastrous flight in 1930. During the Second World War
Bedford was host to the BBC Music Department and in 1945 Glenn
Miller was stationed at Clapham, from where he made his last known
flight whilst travelling to France.
The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, founded in
1949, was enlarged in the mid-1970’s. New premises for Bedford
Museum, opened in 1960 and based on the Prichard Museum of Bedford
Modern School founded in 1884, have been provided in the former
Higgins brewery next to the Art Gallery.
In 1974 the Borough of Bedford became part of North Bedfordshire
District Council, which was granted Borough status in 1975. In 1992
the Council, conscious of the Borough’s roots and history, restored
the ancient title of Bedford Borough and re-developed the original
site and castle coat of arms. In 1994 the Local Government
Commission, in reviewing the structure of local government in
Bedfordshire, recommended that the Borough should be served by a
single unitary authority based on the existing Bedford Borough
Council. However, in 1995 the government decided to retain the
County and District Council structure in the County outside of
The chain may be taken to other countries, such as twinning
purposes, but special customs and/or procedures must be followed.
This applies to badges of office.
The flag is only flown on the Mayor’s car when the Mayor is in
the car or it is waiting for him. The flag can also be flown if the
Deputy Mayor or Speaker is deputising for the Mayor and the Mayor
is not in the Borough. It is removed when travelling fast (excess
of 35mph) for safety reasons.