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Ancient extent of Bedfordshire
Ancient extent of Bedfordshire

Bedfordshire is an English ceremonial county which lies between approximately 25 miles and 55 miles (or approximately 40 and 90 kilometres) north of central London.

Anglo-Saxon Bedfordshire

Early 5th century Saxon burial sites have been discovered at Kempston[1] and Sandy, two Bedfordshire towns on the River Great Ouse and its tributary the River Ivel, as well as at Luton, in the south of the county on the River Lea (a tributary of the Thames). These sites are all in the vicinity of Roman towns, suggesting that these may have been the site of Saxon foederati employed by Romano-British inhabitants to protect their towns.[2] A seventh century settlement at Stratton, near Biggleswade has also been found.[3]

The area may have remained part of a British enclave until the Battle of Bedcanford (Bedford) in 571, when Cuthwulf inflicted a severe defeat on the Britons and took the towns of Eynsham, Aylesbury, Benson and Limbury.[2] This area may have coincided with the "Chilternsetna" who comprised 4,000 hides in the Tribal Hidage (compared to 7,000 for Essex).

During the Heptarchy what is now Bedfordshire formed part of Mercia; by the Treaty of Wedmore it became part of the Danelaw.

The Vikings of Bedford were subdued by King Edward the Elder in 915, and he built two burhs at Bedford on each side of the River Ouse. Four hundreds were formed on each side to support each burgh - Willey, Stodden, Buckelow and Barford in the north and Redbornstoke, Wixamtree, Biggleswade and Clifton in the south. The boundary to the north largely coincides with the watershed between the Nene and Ouse rivers, presumed to also be the boundary between the land of the Vikings based at Bedford and Northampton; the western boundary aligns with the Newport Hundreds, similarly laid out to support the new burh at Newport Pagnell, and the eastern boundary with the hundreds of Huntingdon.[4]

The first mention of the county comes in 1016 when King Canute "laid waste to the whole shire".

Norman Bedfordshire

There was no organised resistance to William the Conqueror within Bedfordshire, though the Domesday survey reveals an almost complete substitution of Norman for English landholders.

Bedfordshire suffered severely in the civil war of King Stephen's reign; the great Roll of the Exchequer of 1165 proves the shire receipts had depreciated in value to two-thirds of the assessment for the Danegeld. Again the county was thrown into the First Barons' War when Bedford Castle, seized from the Beauchamps by Falkes de Breauté one of the royal partisans, was the scene of three sieges before being demolished on the king's order in 1224 [1]. The Peasants Revolt (1377–1381) was marked by less violence in Bedfordshire than in neighbouring counties; the Annals of Dunstable make brief mention of a rising in that town and the demand for and granting of a charter.

A large part of the county was subject to forest law as a royal forest, until 1191.[5]

In 1638 ship money was levied on Bedfordshire, and in the English Civil War that followed, the county was one of the foremost in opposing the king. Clarendon observes that here Charles I had no visible party or fixed quarter.

The earliest original parliamentary writ that has been discovered was issued in 1290 when two members were returned for the county. In 1295 in addition to the county members, writs are found for two members to represent Bedford borough. Subsequently, until modern times two county and two borough members were returned regularly.

Sub county level administration

Before 1835

Main article: Hundreds of Bedfordshire

Bedfordshire was divided into nine hundreds, Barford, Biggleswade, Clifton, Flitt, Manshead, Redbornestoke, Stodden, Willey and Wixamtree, and the liberty, half hundred or borough of Bedford. From the Domesday survey it appears that in the 11th century there were three additional half hundreds, viz. Stanburge, Buchelai and Weneslai, which had by the 14th century become parts of the hundreds of Manshead, Willey and Biggleswade respectively.

Until 1574 one sheriff did duty for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the shire court of the former being held at Bedford. The jurisdiction of the hundred courts, excepting Flitt, remained in the king's possession. Flitt was parcel of the manor of Luton, and formed part of the marriage portion of Eleanor, sister of Henry III, and wife of William Marshall. The burgesses of Bedford and the prior of Dunstable claimed jurisdictional freedom in those two boroughs. The hundred Rolls and the Placita de quo warranto show that important jurisdiction had accrued to the great over-lordships, such as those of Beauchamp, Wahull and Caynho, and to several religious houses, the prior of St John of Jerusalem claiming rights in more than fifty places in the county.


Following the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 the county was divided into poor law unions, each consisting of a town and surrounding rural parishes. The poor law unions based in Bedfordshire towns were Ampthill, Bedford, Biggleswade, Leighton Buzzard, Luton, and Woburn. In addition, a handful of parishes near the boundaries of Bedfordshire were included in poor law unions based in towns in other counties, namely Hitchin in Hertfordshire, St Neots in Huntingdonshire and Wellingborough in Northamptonshire.

Urban areas

Bedford was the only ancient borough in the county still operating at the time of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. Dunstable was incorporated as a municipal borough in 1864 and Luton in 1876.

Urban local government in Bedfordshire in this period took one of three forms:

Under the Public Health Acts of 1872 and 1875 these areas also became urban sanitary districts, with their existing council or board acting as urban sanitary authority.[6]

Town Type Formed Area covered Notes
Ampthill Local Government District 18 February 1893 Parish of Ampthill
Bedford Municipal Borough 1 January 1836 Bedford ancient borough
Biggleswade Local Government District 22 February 1892 Parish of Biggleswade
Dunstable Local Government District 19 May 1863 Parish of Dunstable Abolished on creation of Dunstable Municipal Borough.
Dunstable Municipal Borough 8 December 1864 Parish of Dunstable
Leighton Buzzard Local Government District 7 July 1891 Part of parish of Leighton Buzzard
Luton Local Board District 19 June 1850 Part of parish of Luton Abolished on creation of Luton Municipal Borough.
Luton Municipal Borough 25 February 1876 Part of parish of Luton

Rural areas

Until 1872, local government in rural areas was limited to the parish vestries. As well as giving sanitary responsibilities to the urban authorities above, the Public Health Acts of 1872 and 1875 also established rural sanitary districts for the areas of each poor law union outside the urban authorities. These rural sanitary districts were administered by the existing boards of guardians for the poor law unions.

Rural Sanitary District Notes Area covered within Bedfordshire
Hitchin Mostly in Hertfordshire Holwell
Leighton Buzzard Part in Buckinghamshire
Luton Part in Hertfordshire
St Neots Mostly in Huntingdonshire Dean, Eaton Socon, Little Barford, Little Staughton, Pertenhall, Shelton, Tilbrook
Wellingborough Mostly in Northamptonshire Podington, Wymington


The Local Government Act 1894 replaced the system of sanitary districts with urban and rural districts, each with an elected council. The urban districts, rural districts and municipal boroughs were collectively termed county districts and formed the principal subdivisions for local government for the next eighty years. Where sanitary districts had straddled county boundaries they were split or otherwise boundaries were adjusted so that each county district was solely in one county. Some of the adjustments to boundaries took a couple of years to finalise after the 1894 act, so there were some short-lived anomalies where districts initially straddled county boundaries, but these were all resolved for Bedfordshire by 1897.

District From To Formed from Successor Notes
Ampthill Rural District 1894 1974 Ampthill Rural Sanitary District Mid Bedfordshire
Ampthill Urban District 1894 1974 Ampthill Urban Sanitary District Mid Bedfordshire
Bedford Municipal Borough 1894 1974 Bedford Municipal Borough (pre-existing authority continuing) Bedford
Bedford Rural District 1894 1974 Bedford Rural Sanitary District
Wellingborough Rural Sanitary District within Bedfordshire
Biggleswade Rural District 1894 1974 Biggleswade Rural Sanitary District Mid Bedfordshire
Biggleswade Urban District 1894 1974 Biggleswade Urban Sanitary District Mid Bedfordshire
Dunstable Municipal Borough 1894 1974 Dunstable Municipal Borough (pre-existing authority continuing) South Bedfordshire
Eaton Bray Rural District 1894 1933 Leighton Buzzard Rural Sanitary District within Bedfordshire Luton Rural District
Eaton Socon Rural District 1894 1934 St Neots Rural Sanitary District within Bedfordshire Bedford Rural District Included parish of Swineshead which was in Huntingdonshire until transferred to Bedfordshire in 1896.
Hitchin Rural District 1894 1897 Hitchin Rural Sanitary District District in Hertfordshire, except initially included parish of Holwell which was in Bedfordshire until transferred to Hertfordshire in 1897.
Kempston Urban District 1896 1974 Part of Bedford Rural District Bedford
Leighton Buzzard Urban District 1894 1965 Leighton Buzzard Urban Sanitary District Leighton-Linslade Urban District
Leighton-Linslade Urban District 1965 1974 Leighton Buzzard Urban District and Linslade Urban District from Buckinghamshire South Bedfordshire
Luton Municipal Borough 1894 1964 Luton Municipal Borough (pre-existing authority continuing) Luton County Borough
Luton County Borough 1964 1974 Luton Municipal Borough Luton County Borough independent of Bedfordshire County Council although still within the county for ceremonial purposes.
Luton Rural District 1894 1974 Luton Rural Sanitary District South Bedfordshire
Sandy Urban District 1927 1974 Part of Biggleswade Rural District Mid Bedfordshire
St Neots Rural District 1894 1896 St Neots Rural Sanitary District District in Huntingdonshire, except initially included parish of Tilbrook which was in Bedfordshire until transferred to Huntingdonshire in 1896.
Woburn Rural District 1894 1900 Woburn Rural Sanitary District Ampthill Rural District


The Local Government Act 1972 replaced the system of urban and rural district councils with a two-tier system of metropolitan and non-metropolitan county and district councils.

County council (principal authority)

Borough and district councils

In 1997 Luton became a unitary authority, meaning the borough became administratively independent of Bedfordshire County Council. Luton remained part of Bedfordshire for ceremonial purposes.

Since 2009

In 2006 the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) considered reorganising Bedfordshire's administrative structure as part of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England. The four proposals considered were:

On 6 March 2008 the DCLG decided to implement Proposal 2. Bedfordshire County Council initially challenged this decision in the High Court, but on 4 April 2008 it was announced the Judicial Review in the High Court had been unsuccessful, and the County Council declared they would not be appealing the decision.[9][10][11][12]

Unitary authorities

Bedfordshire County Council was formally abolished on 1 April 2009, with its powers transferred to the new unitary authorities. the three authority areas continue to form the ceremonial county of Bedfordshire for functions such as lieutenancy and High Sheriff.[13]

Industry and agriculture

Owing to its favorable agricultural conditions, up until at least the late nineteenth century Bedfordshire was predominantly an agricultural rather than a manufacturing county. From the 13th to the 15th century sheep farming flourished, Bedfordshire wool being in demand and plentiful. Surviving records show that in assessments of wool to the king, Bedfordshire always provided its full quota. Tradition says that the straw-plait industry owes its introduction to James I, who transferred to Luton the colony of Lorraine plaiters whom Mary, Queen of Scots, had settled in Scotland.

Bedfordshire was one of the main centres of the English lace industry from the 16th century to the start of the 20th century, although early records are sparse and assertions of the role of Huguenot refugees in the industry are unsupported by evidence. In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe's A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain refers to the extent and quality of Bedfordshire lace manufacture,[14] and the Northampton Militia Lists of 1777 document the number of lacemakers in different parts of the county at that time.[15]

Prominent landed families

Woburn Abbey, belonging to the Russells since 1547, is the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, the greatest landowner in the county. The Burgoynes of Sutton, whose baronetcy dates from 1641, have been in Bedfordshire since the 15th century, whilst the Osborn family have owned Chicksands Priory since its purchase by Peter Osborn in 1576. Sir Phillip Monoux Payne represents the ancient Morioux family of Wootton. Other county families are the Crawleys of Stockwood near Luton, the Brandreths of Houghton Regis, and the Orlebars of Hinwick.

Ecclesiastical history

On the division of the Mercian diocese in 679 Bedfordshire was allocated to the new see of Dorchester. It formed part of the Diocese of Lincoln from 1075 until 1837, when it was transferred to the Diocese of Ely. In 1914 the Archdeaconry of Bedford, virtually corresponding to the county, was transferred to the Diocese of St Albans.[16] In 1291 Bedfordshire was an archdeaconry including six rural deaneries, which remained practically unaltered until 1880, when they were increased to eleven with a new schedule of parishes.

Antiquities and architecture

The monastic remains in Bedfordshire include the fine fragment of the church of the Augustinian priory at Dunstable, serving as the parish church; Elstow Abbey near Bedford, which belonged to a Benedictine nunnery founded by Judith, niece of William the Conqueror in 1078;[17] and portions of the Gilbertine Chicksands Priory and of a Cistercian foundation at Old Warden. In the parish churches, many of which are of great interest, the predominant styles are Decorated and Perpendicular. Work of pre-Conquest date, however, is found in the massive tower of Clapham church, the tower of St. Peter's Church in Bedford town centre, and in a door of St Mary the Virgin in Stevington. Fine Norman and Early English work is seen at Dunstable and Elstow, and the later style is illustrated by the large cruciform churches at Leighton Buzzard and at Felmersham on the Ouse above Bedford. Among the perpendicular additions to the church last named may be noted a very beautiful oaken rood screen. To illustrate Decorated and Perpendicular the churches of Clifton and of Marston Moretaine, with its massive detached bell tower, may be mentioned; and Cople church is a good specimen of fine Perpendicular work. The church of Cockayne Hatley, near Potton, is fitted with rich Flemish carved wood, mostly from the abbey of Alne near Charleroi, and dating from 1689, but brought here by a former rector early in the 19th century. In medieval domestic architecture the county is not rich. The mansion of Woburn Abbey dates mainly from the middle of the 18th century in its present form.

See also


  1. ^ "Kempston Anglo Saxons". Bedfordshire Libraries. Archived from the original on 2009-01-07. Retrieved 2008-02-12.
  2. ^ a b Edgeworth, Matt (2007). "Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Bedfordshire AD 400-1550". Bedfordshire Archaeology.
  3. ^ "4.20.28 Stratton, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, deserted medieval village". Archaeology Review 1996-97. Archived from the original on 2009-01-06. Retrieved 2008-02-13.
  4. ^ Haslam, Jeremy (2019). "Burhs, burghal territories and 'proto-hundreds' in the English central Midlands in the early tenth century". Academia.
  5. ^ Raymond Grant (1991). The royal forests of England. Wolfeboro Falls, NH: Alan Sutton. ISBN 0-86299-781-X. OL 1878197M. 086299781X. p221
  6. ^ Youngs, Frederic (1979). Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England. I: Southern England. London: Royal Historical Society. ISBN 0-901050-67-9.
  7. ^ Bedfordshire County Council Archived 2008-04-07 at the Wayback Machine - The proposal
  8. ^ Communities and Local Government Archived 2007-08-23 at the Wayback Machine - Proposals for future unitary structures: Stakeholder consultation
  9. ^ Bedfordshire County Council: High Court backs two unitary authorities for Bedfordshire Archived 2008-11-16 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ County Council Fails In Legal Challenge To Unitary Status
  11. ^ Unitary solution confirmed for Bedfordshire - New flagship unitary councils approved for Cheshire - Corporate - Communities and Local Government Archived 2008-11-22 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ County council to be abolished in shake-up - Bedford Today
  13. ^ "The Bedfordshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008 (S.I 2008 No. 907)". Office of Public Sector Information. 27 March 2008. Retrieved 2009-03-27.
  14. ^ "Letter 7, Part 2: East Midlands". University of Portsmouth et al. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  15. ^ "Northamptonshire Militia Lists 1777". Northamptonshire Records Society. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  16. ^ F A Youngs Jr, Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England, Vol. 1: Southern England, London, 1979
  17. ^ "An Historical Sketch". Elstow Abbey. Archived from the original on 2008-03-10. Retrieved 2008-02-12.