The Impact of Charters on the History of Beaconsfield

Sue Abbey

Photograph of Beaconsfield Charter Fair c1930
Photograph of the Abbess of Burnham at 750th Charter Fair
Mardell, George
Photograph of Beaconsfield Charter Fair taken from Church Tower

Two Royal Charters played a significant part in the history of Beaconsfield. One was responsible for establishing a weekly market on a Tuesday in the Manor of Beaconsfield, and the other the right to hold each year a fair of 8 days duration at Ascensiontide.

Market charter

In the mid 13thcentury the feudal lordship of the Manor of Burnham and Beaconsfield (Bekenesfeld) was acquired by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, ‘King of the Romans’ and the younger brother of Henry III.  In 1255 he obtained, from the King, the right for himself and his heirs to hold a weekly market, so long as the market was not to the detriment of other markets in the neighbourhood.  In 1266 Richard founded an abbey at Burnham and endowed it with this and other feudal rights.  The Market Charter provided a valuable source of income for the Abbess.  A toll was paid to her for every item sold at the market, all stallholders paid rent, and if disputes arose these were tried in her court, with a fee being paid for every judgement.  In 1376 these tolls and market dues were laid down by the Manor Court e.g. a shilling had to be paid for every stall and sixpence on the sale of every horse, mare, pony, gelding, donkey or mule.

The original market was held in the Market Place, with a Market Hall standing in the centre of what is now called Aylesbury End.  Over the centuries changes took place, with Henry V in 1414 confirming the weekly market, but for Thursdays rather than Tuesdays.  As time passed, the market gradually ceased to be held.  However, in 1982 the fifth Lord Burnham sought planning permission to revive the market in the Old Town. He subsequently realised that the Royal Charter required no planning permission so was able to overcome opposition from the then South Bucks Council planning department and the Tuesday market in the car park opposite the Greyhound in Windsor End (which is common land) has continued ever since.  Today there is a thriving local market with a variety of basic household goods, fruit and vegetables, cheese and eggs, fish and bread, together with more specialised items, including picture framing and accessories.  The Market Hall was not demolished until 1952, and prior to that it had been used for many years as a warehouse for the adjoining Day’s Stores.

Charter Fair

In 1269 the Abbess of Burnham obtained a further Royal Charter granting the right to hold each year a fair, with this right passing on to her successors.  Initially the fair could be held over 8 days, but this was reduced to 2 days in 1414 through the issue of a new charter by Henry V.  A fair was also allowed at the Feast of Mathias (23 – 25 February) renewing a grant first made by Edward II.

Originally the fair allowed a yearly market for the trading of goods and livestock, together with the hiring of labour, and this later became known as the Cattle Fair, eventually moving to a fixed date of 13th February.  If disputes arose during the fair, these were settled on the spot by the ‘Court of Dusty Feet’, alternatively known as the Court of ‘Pie-Powder’, with delinquents being put in the stocks or the lockup (later to become the Hall Barn Estate office, and more recently the offices for Eximius in Aylesbury End). The Cattle Fair continued until the end of World War I.  The holding of a weekly market, together with the annual fairs, brought greater prosperity to the inns and taverns, as well as to the local farmers and the community at large. They influenced the pattern of development around the Parish Church and down each of the four ‘Ends’.  Indeed the ‘Ends’ widen out towards the centre of the crossroads, allowing more room for the markets and fairs to extend in all four directions.

The date of the May Fair, which later became the pleasure fair, was decided by the Manor Court in 1863 (in some records 1870) to 10th May, or 11th May if the 10th was on a Sunday.  This date was chosen as it coincided with the original date of the Royal Charter in 1269.  For children in the late 19th century there were special bonuses in the form of extra holidays.  A one-day holiday was granted on 13th February for the Cattle Fair, with parents being encouraged to keep their children at home and safe from the animals thronging the streets, whilst a half day holiday was given on 10th May. Once the date for the May Fair had been fixed there was only one occasion when it was permitted to last 2 days, and this was at the time of the Silver Jubilee of King George V.  During the recent Covid lockdown in 2020, a token children’s roundabout stood outside the Saracens Head, thereby retaining the annual right to hold a fair on 10th May.  Today the pleasure fair, organised by the Showman’s Guild, extends down the four ‘Ends’ from a central point at the current roundabout, necessitating the closure of these roads in the Old Town.  By tradition the fair cannot enter the Old Town until 6pm the previous day, and since 1969 is welcomed by the town crier, Dick Smith, to the cries of Oyez, Oyez and the ringing of his bell to announce their arrival.


Beaconsfield Historical Society “The History of Beaconsfield”  Beaconsfield, (2009)

Beaconfield Historical Society Archive;  E-CF.



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