Aylesbury is the county town of Buckinghamshire and its name is of Old English origin. Its first recorded name Æglesburgh is thought to mean “Fort of Ægel”, but nobody knows who Ægel was. Since earliest records there have been 57 variations of the name.
Excavations in the town centre in 1985 found an Iron Age hillfort dating from the early 4th century BC. Aylesbury was one of the strongholds of the ancient Britons, from whom it was taken in the year 571 by Cutwulph, brother of Ceawlin, King of the West Saxons; and had a fortress or castle “of some importance.
Aylesbury was a major market town in Anglo-Saxon times, the burial place of Saint Osyth, whose shrine attracted pilgrims. The Early English parish church of St. Mary (which has many later additions) has a crypt beneath. Once thought to be Anglo-Saxon, it is now recognised as being of the same period as the medieval chapel above.
At the Norman Conquest, the king took the manor of Aylesbury for himself, and it is listed as a royal manor in the Domesday Book, 1086. Some lands here were granted by William the Conqueror to citizens upon the extraordinary tenure that the owners should provide straw for the monarch’s bed, sweet herbs for his chamber, and two green geese and three eels for his table, whenever he should visit Aylesbury.
In 1450 a religious institution called the Guild of St Mary was founded in Aylesbury by John Kemp, Archbishop of York. Known popularly as the Guild of Our Lady it became a meeting place for local dignitaries and a hotbed of political intrigue. The Guild was influential in the final outcome of the Wars of the Roses. Its premises at the Chantry in Church Street, Aylesbury, are still there, though today the site is occupied mainly by almshouses.
Aylesbury was declared the new county town of Buckinghamshire in 1529 by King Henry VIII: Aylesbury Manor was among the many properties belonging to Thomas Boleyn, the father of Anne Boleyn, and it is rumoured that the change was made by the King to curry favour with the family.
The town played a large part in the English Civil War when it became a stronghold for the Parliamentarian forces, like many market towns a nursing-ground of Puritan sentiment and in 1642 the Battle of Aylesbury was fought and won by the Parliamentarians. Its proximity to Great Hampden, home of John Hampden has made of Hampden a local hero: his silhouette is on the emblem used by Aylesbury Vale District Council and his statue stands prominently in the town centre. Aylesbury-born composer, Rutland Boughton (1878–1960), possibly inspired by the statue of John Hampden, created a symphony based on Oliver Cromwell.
On 18 March 1664, Robert Bruce, 2nd Earl of Elgin in the Peerage of Scotland was created 1st Earl of Ailesbury.
The grade II* listed Jacobean mansion of Hartwell adjoining the southwest of the town was the residence of Louis XVIII during his exile (1810–1814). Bourbon Street in Aylesbury is named after the king. Louis’s wife, Marie Josephine of Savoy died at Hartwell in 1810 and is buried in the churchyard there, the only French Queen to be buried on English soil.
Aylebury’s heraldic crest is centred on the Aylesbury duck, which has been bred here since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, although only one breeder, Richard Waller, of true Aylesbury ducks remains today
The town also received international publicity in the 1960s when the culprits responsible for the Great Train Robbery were tried at Aylesbury Crown Court. The robbery took place at Bridego Bridge, a railway bridge at Ledburn, about six miles (10 km) from the town.
A notable institution is Aylesbury Grammar School which was founded in 1598. The original building is now part of the County Museum buildings in Church Street and has grade II* architecture; other grammar schools now include Sir Henry Floyd Grammar School and Aylesbury High School. Other notable buildings are the King’s Head Inn, which with the Fleece Inn at Bretforton is one of the few public houses in the country owned by the National Trust still run as a public house, and the Queens Park Centre.
James Henry Govier the British painter and etcher lived at Aylesbury and produced a number of works relating to the town including the church, canal, Walton, Aylesbury Gaol, the King’s Head and views of the town during the 1940s and 1950s, examples of which can be seen in the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury.
Whenever Aylesbury is mentioned, people reply, “Oh, ducks!” In the town itself, the Aylesbury Duck has lent its name to many public houses and locations. It is central to the heritage of the town.
In the early 1800s almost everybody who lived at the “Duck End” – where Mill Way now runs – bred Aylesbury Ducks. This pure breed is characterized by its pale pink beak, white plumage and bright yellow feet. The pale pink colour of the beak developed because of the grit that they were fed which is characteristic of the Aylesbury area.
Sometimes similar ducks with yellow beaks are mistakenly named as Aylesbury ducks but these are in fact a commercial cross between the Aylesbury Duck and the Pekin Duck. Beatrice Potter’s foolish but much loved ‘Jemima Puddleduck’ is based on the breed.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries wealthy people in London provided the main market for the duck trade, and so before the train line was built in 1839 breeders walked their ducks the 40 miles to London. They made overnight stops along the way at inns which had large yards built specifically to house the flocks. In the mornings, once the herders were rested, the ducks would be shoed; that is, walked through a cold tarry solution and then sawdust. These ‘shoes’ protected their feet along the rough road to London.
After a severe outbreak of ‘Duck Fever’, fowl farming locally went into decline. Recently, however, farmers have made a determined effort to re-establish the breed, and several restaurants in Aylesbury and around the Buckinghamshire area now serve Aylesbury Duck.
How to get here
Aylesbury is 55 minutes by train from Marylebone.
Places of interest
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