A Brief History of Abbots Langley

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Based on Abbots Langley: A Hertfordshire Village, by Scott Hastie and David Spain, published by Abbots Langley Parish Council

The name of the village derives from 1045 when, it is recorded, a Saxon, Ethelwine the Black and his wife Wynfelda, gave ‘Langelei’ (denoting a long meadow or long lea) to the Abbot and the monks of the monastery of St Albans, who for several hundred years played an important part in the affairs of Abbots Langley.

The Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 took place not long after the Saxon’s gift to the Abbot had been confirmed by Edward the Confessor. In the wake of the subsequent occupation, the Norman, Paul de Caen, became Abbot. We learn from the Domesday Book that in 1066 he held authority over an area of land of 3 hides (one hide is equivalent to approximately 120 acres in modern terms), the value of all the land at Abbots Langley being assessed at £10.

The Parish Church of St Lawrence the Martyr was dedicated as early as 1154. The tower of the church dates from the twelfth century, as do the fine Norman arches that adorn the north and south arcades. Domesday records indicate that it is likely that a Saxon church preceded the Norman structure on this site.

The international historical significance of Abbots Langley is as the birthplace of the only Englishman ever to become Pope in Rome. Nicholas Breakspear was born at Breakspear Farm, near Bedmond in approximately 1100. He became Pope Adrian IV (1154-1159). One of his Papal Acts was to permit Henry II to conquer Ireland and bring that country into the sphere of the Roman Church. He allegedly choked to death on a fly.

In the 14th century, plague, famine and the Black Death stalked the village, taking heavy toll. Despite brief but bloody disturbance from the Peasants Revolt in 1381, the supreme power of the Abbot in Abbots Langley survived until the reign of the Tudors.

In 1539, Henry VIII, having seized Abbots Langley as his own, sold the manor to one of his most loyal and military commanders, the military engineer Sir Richard Lee. During the Civil War (1642-1649), Hertfordshire supported the Parliamentarians and St Albans, together with surrounding villages was brought to a state of near starvation. An independent state of mind was shown by Abbots Langley people, who did not like the strict Puritan regime forbidding cock-fighting and dancing round the maypole. Despite all this civil turbulence, it is interesting to note that the parish registers were kept up to date.

In fact, the Parish Registers are of uncommon antiquity and completeness, beginning in the year 1538, as ordered by Henry VIII. The early registers are very beautifully written on parchment. The records are now housed in the County Archives at County Hall, Hertford.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there followed a long period of relative calm in England, when the social order remained unchallenged. The squires and gentry lived well and the common folk worked hard on the land, raising their crops undisturbed. With the cementing of the land-owning aristocracy in the Georgian period, working folk began to find employment as servants, maids and gardeners. Many of the domestic staff were actually recruited in London and brought to Abbots Langley by the estate owners. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many fine houses and estates were being built in the local area. The land around Abbots Langley was then considered to be a very attractive rural location which was still quite close to London’s high society.

 

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