Surrey – A Brief History

Amongst the rolling hills, vast woodlands and beautiful countryside, Surrey has a fascinating heritage dating back thousands of years. There are many historic landmarks and sites remaining today which hold significant historical importance. It is well worth taking a little time to explore and discover these, in order to imagine what life was like for our Surrey ancestors.

During the 5th and 6th centuries, Surrey was conquered and settled by the Saxons. The name ‘Surrey’ originates from the Saxon term ‘Suthridge’ or ‘Southern Kingdom’. Likewise, Godalming (or Godhelmingas) and Woking (or Woccingas) are derived from names of possible Saxon tribes inhabiting the area. The actual area of Surrey has transformed over time as a result of the expanse of London. Up until 1889, the ancient county of Surrey went as far north as the Thames in Wandsworth and as far east as Rotherhithe.

Horsell Common in Woking has an impressive 3 acres of heathland and trees, in addition to being home to one of the best preserved bell barrows dating back to the Bronze Age. Barrows, also known as burial mounds were built during the early to middle Bronze Age around 1500 – 1100BC. The burials were normally cremations thought to be for important members of the community, like village chiefs or elders. The deliberate construction of a mound over a burial was used to signify rank. With less than 250 known examples of barrows, the bell barrow at Horsell survives well despite some evidence of partial excavation. It contains archaeological remains and environmental evidence of the landscape dating back to when it was first constructed. The construction of these barrows indicate to historians that Horsell was potentially an important site for early Bronze Age man.

From Bronze Age to Iron Age, Hascombe Hill is home to one of seven Iron Age hill forts. Hill forts were built on raised hilltops surrounded by huge mounds of soil and ditches which were used as defence against enemy invasion. Steep slopes and scarping at the top protected the many Iron Age inhabitants who lived in the hill forts. If you are feeling adventurous you can also visit other similar hill forts in the area such as St Georges Hill and most dramatic of all, Holmbury Hill. Both Holmbury and Hascombe have spectacular views spanning right across the Surrey Hills, perfect for a sunny spring walk whilst taking a moment to appreciate the fascinating history of these remarkable areas.

After the Norman conquest, William de Warenne was given the grand title Earl of Surrey which prompted the building of some magnificent castles. It is almost certain that Guildford Castle was built around this time, shortly after the invasion of England in 1066. William the Conqueror built castles in all the important towns to prevent rebellion and strengthen his hold on the country. In the 13th century Henry III made many improvements to Guildford, and the castle became known as a palace. Many changes were made to improve the Castle, including Henry buying land to extend the Castle bailey. In 2003 the Great Tower was restored revealing original features which were preserved and can still be admired present day.

In nearby Farnham, Waverley Abbey dates back to almost 900 years ago. Situated by the River Wey and founded in 1128, Waverley Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery in England. A small group of monks settled here which prompted the first Cistercian settlement in Southern England. However unfortunately Waverley Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII dissolution of monasteries in the late 1530s. The dissolution of monasteries was one of the most revolutionary historic events in English history. Initially thought to increase income for the monarchy, many of the former properties were sold off to fund Henry’s military campaigns. The remains of the Abbey can still be enjoyed
today and have appeared in films such as Elizabeth, The Mummy and 28 Days Later.

One of the most significant events in world history, the sealing of the Magna Carta took place at Runnymede in 1215. King John found himself forced in to negotiating this historic peace treaty after a group of rebel barons captured London. The Magna Carta signifies peace, democracy and freedom ensuring everyone (even the monarchy) has the right to a fair trial. It is believed the signing of the agreements took place located close to the Roman river crossing at Staines where

the Magna Carta memorial was erected there in 1957. Runnymede is still used today as a site for significant commemoration with events being held throughout the year. Keep a note in the diary this June when the National Trust are hosting a People’s Pagent to renact a range of contemporary and historic myths and stories.

The Tudor period saw a number of magnificent royal palaces built in Surrey, including Hampton Court (built between 1515 and 1530). One of only two surviving palaces out of the many owned by Henry, this was Henry VIII’s favourite residence. In the meantime, the industry dominating during the Tudor period was the woollen cloth industry, however once the industrial revolution took place, gunpowder production became the main industry. At one point, Surrey mills were the main producers of gunpowder in England. Located around Tillingbourne and within close proximity to London, the Wey Navigation was one of the country’s first canal systems. Opened in 1653 it was used for transporting goods back and forth with coal brought back to power the mills. The first World War brought an end to gunpowder production leading to closure of the Surrey powder mills. Production of bicycles, cars and even buses marked Surrey on the map later on in to the 18th and 19th Century. Surrey remained largely rural and sparsely populated until transport improved during the 19th Century. The arrival of railways was particularly momentous, enabling commuting which saw a dramatic growth in building, population and wealth. New towns formed and the transformation of Surrey continued in to the 20th Century with the creation of the M25 and Gatwick and Heathrow airports welcoming oversea visitors boosting tourism.