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StrongOak/Stevenage local history

Sian ferch Rhianneth
Chief of the Village of Strongoak
In the mundane, the village of StrongOak reside in Stevenage, Herts. "StrongOak" is a translation of the Saxon name for Stevenage, "Stithenace". We found our version a little easier to pronounce! Stevenage is of course famous for being a New Town and concrete jungle, but there was an Old Town here first, and it has History by the ton. Springfield House, our venue for May Revel, is one of the newer buildings in the High Street, dating back only to the early 1800s.


The history of Stevenage starts when the Romans built the Great North Road. They also built at least one camp (the Emperor’s Head pub is named from the coins found when the foundations were being dug), and the famous Six Hills are burial mounds for wealthy Romans. Unfortunately we don’t know any more detail than this, but further buildings, since lost under the modern town, seem likely. A block of flats on the site is visited by the ghost of a centurion and his dog, I'm told. (Otherwise known as "the Towers", where the Silver Fox household used to live).

Later, the Saxon settlement of "Stithenace" or "Strong Oak" was established at the site of the later church of St. Nicholas, on a hill overlooking the Road. Judging by place names, most of the inhabitants of the area around here still spoke Celtic, not Saxon, until well into the eighth century. (This is about when the Strongoak Village fits in!)

In 878 the Treaty of Wedmore set the boundary between the Saxons and the Danes, with Stevenage on the Danish side.

In 1066 (presumably early that year!) King Edward the Confessor granted by charter to the Abbot of St. Peter at Westminster, Stevenage and all that belonged thereto. Twenty years later, the Domesday Book states "The Abbot of Westminster himself owns Stigenace". The manor comprised 8 hides, land for ten ploughs, and included as tenants 16 villeins and 8 bordars. There were also four serfs.

Between 1100 and 1130 the tower of St. Nicholas church was built. (The charter of Strongoak includes a requirement from the Prince-Bishop that we build a church and dedicate it to St. Nick!) The town was still based up on the hill above the Road, organised more for defence than for trade. But at some point in the 1200s the centre moved downhill to the site of the current Old  Town (and Springfield House). The uses of the Road as a source of trade had finally sunk in, and in 1281 King Edward I granted a charter for the holding of an annual three days Fair, on the eve, the day, and the morrow of the Feast of St. John the Baptist (June 23-25), and a weekly market on Mondays. The days have been changed since: but the charter fair has been held every  year without fail. The Market charter was confirmed by Henry VI in 1448.

Various mentions of Stevenage in documents from the next few centuries suggest a small but thriving town: in the early 1300s it had its own school and prison. The names of 140 heads of households are enumerated, suggesting a population of about 1000. Stevenage was on the route through which cattle were driven south to the markets in London, and the High Street contained three ponds at which cattle could be watered, plus several streams running down the street. The Great North Road had deteriorated somewhat since Roman times!

In 1446 we get the first mention of the Fraternity of the Holy Trinity, with its Brotherhood House, who seem to have been one of the major religious powers in the area.

In 1550 the Manor of Stevenage was given by Edward VI to Bishop Ridley of London: it is unknown if the inhabitants noticed much change as a result. But they did notice the Highways Act of 1555, which required parishioners to give four days unpaid service annually to maintain the roads in their parish. Stevenage being on the Great North Road was particularly hard-hit by this.

In 1558 the Brotherhood House was given to Sir George Howarde by Queen Mary, and the Brotherhood ended. Thomas Alleyne, Rector, bequeathed to Trinity College, Cambridge, land and endowment for a free grammar school, which is still one of the best in the town.

Stevenage prospered during Elizabeth's reign, in part due to her frequent visits to the area. Knebworth and Hatfield are close by to the south.

And with that we come to the end of the Society's period. Stevenage then occupied much the same area as the present Old Town High Street. It grew considerably with the advent of the stagecoach, and many of the pubs there now started as coaching inns. Samuel Pepys stayed overnight, and played a game on the Bowling Green.


Written March 2000. Converted to new site format and minor updates Dec 2005.