[From Samuel Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England 1831.]
DUNSTABLE is a market town and parish in the hundred of MANSHEAD, county of BEDFORD, 18 miles (S. by W.) from Bedford, and 33¾ (N.W. by N.) from London, containing 1831 inhabitants. The origin of this town may be traced to the time of the ancient Britons, who are supposed to have had a settlement here, which they named Maes Gwyn, or "White Field," as descriptive of the chalky soil of the vicinity: it is thought to have been the Magiovinium of Antoninus, a name of similar import. That it was a place of great importance at this period is evident from its situation at the very point of contact between the Watling and Iknield-streets, as also from immense adjacent ramparts of earth which mark the ancient circular fortifications. Its modern appellation was bestowed after the Danes had desolated the town, and, according to Hearne and Bishop Gibson, was derived from Dunum, or Dun, a hill, and Staple, a commercial mart; by others it is considered to have been taken from Dun, the name of a notorious robber in the time of Henry I., who with his associates became so much an object of terror, that the destruction of the neighbouring forest was resorted to as the only effectual means of their dispersion. This object being accomplished, Henry erected a royal residence at Kingsbury, rebuilt the town of Dunstable, and having invited settlers, constituted it a borough, endowing it with a grant of lands at a trifling nominal rent and investing the inhabitants with various privileges, among which was an exemption from the jurisdiction of justices itinerant at any place throughout the realm, except within their own town and liberty. During this reign markets were held weekly on Sunday and Wednesday, and a fair on St. Peter's day. The priory of Black canons, near the royal palace, founded by Henry, under the authority of Pope Eugenius III., was extensively endowed, and enjoyed many privileges; the priors had a gaol, possessed the power of life and death, and usually sat as judges at Dunstable, with the king's justices itinerant. These circumstances gave occasion to the exercise of great tyranny, and the townsmen became entirely subject to the monks hence arose dissatisfaction and tumults, so that in the reign of Richard II. the inhabitants revolted against the prior, and extorted a charter of liberties from him, which he soon afterwards revoked. In 1204, King John conferred his palace on the prior, on condition that royal visitors should be freely entitled to the hospitality of the priory; and many English sovereigns have been entertained here. In 1290, the corpse of Queen Eleanor, consort of Edward I., rested at the market-place, on being conveyed through the town, and a handsome cross, erected in commemoration of that event, was demolished in the reign of Charles I., as a relic of popery. In the chapel of our Lady, at the priory, the sentence of divorce between Henry VIII. and Catherine of Arragon was pronounced, by Archbishop Cranmer; and Gervase Markham, who was the last prior, having assisted to effect that measure, was in consequence treated with comparative liberality.
The town is pleasantly situated near the Chiltern hills, and consists of four principal streets, which intersect each other at right angles, and correspond exactly with the four cardinal points. They are neither paved nor lighted: the inhabitants were formerly supplied with water from public reservoirs, of which there was one in each street; but it is now obtained from wells, which, from the chalky nature of the sub-stratum are sunk to a great depth. The manufacture of articles in straw, both useful and ornamental, is extensively carried on, particularly in the well known "Dunstable hats;" and there is one of the largest manufactories for whiting in the kingdom, from which most of the manufacturing towns are supplied. This town was also formerly distinguished for the number of its inns, and is still proverbially famed for larks. The market is on Wednesday: fairs are held on Ash-Wednesday, May 22nd, August 12th, and November l2th, the last being the largest fair for sheep in the county. Dunstable was once under the government of a mayor, but it has now only the ordinary parochial authorities. The King is lord of the manor, and the Duke of Bedford, as his lessee, holds courts leet and baron, but at no stated periods.
The living is a rectory not in charge, in the archdeaconry of Bedford, and diocese of Lincoln, endowed with £200 private benefaction, and in the patronage of the Crown. The church, which, with some rooms having vaulted and groined stone roofs, forms the only remains of the ancient priory, is dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, and was originally a magnificent and extensive cruciform structure, with a tower rising from the intersection: Henry VIII. having abandoned his design of making it a cathedral, a considerable part of the edifice was demolished. The remains consist of the west front, nave, and two aisles each of the latter extends from the western doors to the entrance to what was once the choir, being about one hundred and twenty feet long: at the north-west angle is a tower embellished with a double row of niches, which formerly contained statues. The architecture combines some portions in the Norman, with others in the early and later English styles. The windows are of comparatively modern date; the eastern end terminates in a flat wall, the two arches adjoining which form the present choir: the roof is of finely carved oak in the decorated style, the beams being supported by figures representing angels : the western entrance is surmounted by an elegant stone rood-loft of four pointed arches and clustered columns. Over the communion-table is a painting of the Lord's Supper, by Sir James Thornhill. The ancient altar-cloth, (which is now in the possession of John Miller, Esq., of Bedford, or his representatives), is a fabric of the richest crimson and gold brocade, so exquisitely wrought, that it has hitherto been impossible to discover the mode in which it was manufactured; and, though upwards of three hundred years old, it still retains its original freshness and beauty. Amongst the various monuments in the chinch are several to the Chew family, who were great benefactors to the town. On the eastern side of the church, stone coffins and various relics of antiquity have been dug up. There are two places of worship for Baptists, and one for Wesleyan Methodists.
A charity school, founded by the direction of Mr. William Chew, was built in 1727 and is endowed by various benefactors, with land at Caddington, Luton, Houghton-Regis, Hamstidde, Totternhoe, and Whipsnade, producing an annual income of more than £300: forty boys and fifteen girls are clothed, educated, and apprenticed, and the master has a salary of £40 per annum: a donation by Mark Brown, Esq. supplies an additional apprenticeship every third year. The boys are admitted at the age of seven, and apprenticed at fourteen. Adjoining the school are six almshouses, founded and endowed by Mrs. Cart, for the residence and maintenance of as many poor widows: and in West-street are six others, founded and endowed by Mrs. Ashton for a similar purpose. Nearly opposite the church are six houses founded by Mrs. Blandina Marsh, in 1713, and designated "The Maidens' Lodge," for six unmarried gentlewomen, whose income has been increased by a benefaction from another lady, to £120 per annum. A workhouse has existed for many years, in which the poor are employed in the straw-plat manufacture. In 1770, a great quantity of coins of Antoninus and Constantine, with ornaments of bridles and armour, was dug up on an adjacent down. The first dramatic representations in England, called Mysteries, are said to have taken place here under the direction of a priest, or friar. Elkanah Settle, a dramatist and political writer of notoriety in the reign of Charles 114 was a native of this place: he was the opponent of Dryden, and during the violence of party feeling his works were very popular, but have been long since utterly forgotten.
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