History of Hurst
in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford
H U R S T
The parish is officially St. Nicholas Hurst, but the area was originally known as Whistley. When the local
church was built about 1080, the land surrounding it was described as
Hurst: a wood. This church was a chapel-of-ease to the mother-church at
Sonning, out of which the parish was carved. It was dedicated to St. Nicholas by
In 1222 the Dean of Salisbury made one of his regular visitations to Sonning and insisted on interviewing the curates from the surrounding chapels-of-ease. The credentials of Richard of Hurst were found to be highly suspect when he refused to answer questions about his Scriptural knowledge. He, furthermore, persuaded the other curates to do the same! The church has many treasures, among them the 1636 hour-glass with oak foliated stand and the late 15th century rood screen (the rood being replaced with Royal motifs).
The manor was, for many centuries, owned by Abingdon Abbey but, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the
King gave it to his Sub-Treasurer, Richard Ward (son of the Keeper of
Cranbourne Chase). Ward's Cross remembers him. The Abbot's steward only had a small house in Whistley, but Richard built himself Hurst House, a huge Tudor mansion with large chimneys. Unfortunately, it was totally rebuilt in the nineteenth century. Richard managed to retain office throughout the political changes of the Tudor reigns and his fine family brass (1577) can be seen in the church. Alongside are monuments to many other local dignitaries: his daughter, Alice Harrison, a brass (c.1622) depicting her in child-bed where she died (1558); Lady Savile, the mother-in-law of the former's grandson, Richard Harrison, a huge draped monument with kneeling figures of various family members (1631); a wall monument (1683) to Richard's son (and namesake) and his wife; & Henry Barker of Hurst Lodge, a recumbent effigy with a finely carved figure of skeletal death kneeling at his feet (1651).
The Castle Inn opposite the church was once called the Bunch of
Grapes. The Coffin Room within was where bodies would be laid out while awaiting burial (and possibly autopsies carried out too). This shows the inn's original use as a church-house where the clergy sold ale to raise ecclesiastical funds. It also had the only bread ovens in the village, still to be seen in the lounge bar. The Bowling Green, adjoining it, is the oldest in the county. King
Charles I is said to have played upon it. He may have been visiting his Secretary of State, Sir Francis Windebank at Haines Hill. His high position at Court had been obtained for him through the influence of the King's right-hand man,
Archbishop Laud, who was his greatest friend. His Grace often visited Haines Hill and sometimes preached in Hurst Church. Francis escaped to France during the Civil War. His sons were not so lucky: one was a Royalist soldier executed in Oxford, whilst another had all the Hurst property confiscated from him and given to a leading Parliamentarian.
The Harrisons were also Royalists, and spent most of their fortune raising three troops of horse for the King. However, as they were away fighting most of the time, a small party of parliamentarians was stationed in the village. In 1643, there was an armed skirmish here when some of the Royalist garrison at Reading rode out to attack them. The Roundheads were eventually triumphant.