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Dunstable, Bedfordshire

Historical Description

Dunstable, a municipal borough and market-town in Beds. The town stands on a chalky eminence in the centre of the Dunstable chalk down, near the foot of the Chiltern Hills, at the junction of Icknield and Watling Streets, 5 miles W from Luton, 7 E from Leighton Buzzard, and 34 from London. There is a branch line of the L. & N.W.R. from Leighton Buzzard to Dunstable, and the G.N.R. has also a branch from Hatfield. It was the Maes-gwyn of the Britons, the Magiovinium, or possibly the Forum Dianas or the Durocobrivse of the Romans, and the Dunestaple of the Saxons, and it is thought by some to have got its Saxon and its present name from dun, "a hill," and staple, "a commercial mart;" by others, to have got them from a bandit chieftain, called Dun or Dunninly, who infested the neighbourhood in the time of Henry I. Remains of a British camp, occupying about 9 acres, called the Maiden Bower, and supposed to have been afterwards the Magintum of the Romans, are about 1½ mile distant, and vestiges of another strong ancient fortalice, called Totternhoe Castle, and comprising keep, mound, and double fosse, are a short way farther off. Many traces of Roman occupation are in the vicinity, and large quantities of copper coins of Antonine and Constantine were found in 1770. The town was overrun, first by the Danes, afterwards by bandits, who secreted themselves in neighbouring woods and thickets; but was resettled or rebuilt by Henry I., who destroyed the woods and thickets, gave great encouragement to peaceable settlers, took the town under his own management, gave it a charter and corporate privileges, founded at it a priory of Black canons, and erected on a neighbouring locality, afterwards known as Kingsbury Farm, a royal palace. Henry subsequently gave the town to the friars of the priory, and invested them with extraordinary powers over it, but he retained the palace entirely in his own possession; yet King John afterwards gave them the palace also, with its gardens, simply on condition that they should accommodate the monarch and his suite within their own walls. King Stephen met his successor Henry II. at Dunstable in 1154. The town was destroyed by fire in 1213, but was soon afterwards rebuilt. A great synod was held at its priory by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1214. King John was at its palace in 1215 on his journey toward the north. Louis, the dauphin of France, with the rebellious English barons, halted here one night in 1217. Henry III. was here in 1223. An insurrection of the townsmen against the friars of the priory occurred in 1229, resisted for a time the interference of the Bishop of Lincoln, and was at length quelled by compromise through the Archdeacon of Bedford. An assemblage of discontented barons and knights took post here in 1244, ostensively for holding a tournament, but really for prosecuting a political design, and sent a peremptory missive to the Pope's nuncio, who was opposed to them, commanding him instantly to leave the kingdom. Henry III. was often at the priory, and when here in 1247 was accompanied by his Queen, Prince Edward, and Princess Margaret, and received the present of a gilt cup. Another royal visit was made hither along with the Pope's legate and the Lord of Leicester in 1276. An affray between the King's retainers and those of the prior occurred in 1276, and was adjusted by the King in person sitting as judge. A tournament was held at the town in 1279. The corpse of Queen Eleanor was deposited one night at the priory in 1290, and her funeral procession passed through the town. A cross in memory of her was afterwards erected in the market-place, and this stood till the time of the Civil War, and was then demolished by some troops of the Lord of Essex. A grand tournament, on occasion of Edward III.'s return from Scotland, and attended by him and by his Queen, was held at the town in 1341. Henry VI. visited Dunstable in 1457 and 1459, Elizabeth in 1572, and James I. in 1605. Some of the earliest English theatricals on record were performed at Dunstable in 1110 under the auspices of the Abbot of St Andrews; several Lollard martyrs were put to death here in the time of Henry V.; and the sentence of divorce between Henry VIII. and Catherine of Arragon was pronounced in the priory church by Archbishop Cranmer in 1533. A house or hospital for lepers was founded in connection with the priory, and a monastery of Black Friars also was established here, and countenanced by the court, much against the will of the priors and canons. The priory was granted after the dissolution to Dr Leonard Chamberlaine, and passed to Colonel Maddison; but its church was designed by Henry VIII. to be a cathedral to Bedford diocese. No part of the church now stands except the nave with the aisles. The architecture is mainly Norman, but includes Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular portions. The nave is Norman and very broad-the arch is lofty, the piers groups of small shafts with some slightly-figured capitals, the clerestory is Perpendicular, the front shows a good Norman arch filled with Perpendicular tracery, and the interior formerly had an altar-piece of the Last Supper by Thornhill. During the last 40 years the edifice has been from time to time restored at a cost of £17,000.

The town consists chiefly of four streets, in cruciform alignment, toward the four cardinal points. Some of the houses have an antiquated appearance, but many are modern and neat. It was re-incorporated in 1864, and is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors, who also constitute the urban sanitary authority. It has a head post office, two banks, a town-hall, plait hall, and corn exchange, two sets of almshouses, an old endowed charity school, also elementary and grammar schools, both endowed under the Ashton Trust, and some very valuable charities. It has a weekly newspaper. A weekly market is held on Wednesday, and fairs on Ash Wednesday, 22 May, 12 Aug., and 12 Nov. The town is famous for the manufacture of straw-plait, straw hats and bonnets, and felt hats. A large quantity of whiting is also manufactured. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Ely; gross yearly value, £440 with residence, in the gift of the Bishop of Ely. There are Baptist, Congregational, Primitive Methodist, and Wesleyan chapels. John of Dunstable and Elkanah Settle were natives. Area, 453 acres; population, 4513.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyBedfordshire 
Ecclesiastical parishDunstable St. Peter and St. Paul 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

The parish register dates from the year 1558.


Church of England

St. Peter (parish church)

Henry I. in or subsequently to the year 1131 established here a priory of Black Canons, dedicated to St. Peter; after its surrender, c. 1534 the greater part of the buildings were pulled down; and the site was granted, 1 May 1553, to Sir Leonard Chamberlayne. The portion still remaining consists of part of the nave and west front of the conventual church, and now forms the parish church of St. Peter, which consists of clerestoried nave and aisles, a length of about 120 feet, and an embattled tower with a bold octagonal turret rising above it at the north-west angle, and containing 8 bells: the exterior is chiefly Norman, and on each side of the nave are arcades of six circular arches: the oak roof it entirely new, and is finely carved with knots of flowers; the beams supported by figures of angels: the south aisle has been restored, with a groined Norman roof: the north aisle is Perpendicular and was restored in 1870: the west end of the interior exhibits a beautiful stone screen of four arches of the Early English period, but the east end is a plain wall, possibly built when the other portions of the priory were demolished, the two eastern-most arches on either side forming the present choir: the west front consists principally of two stages, flanked on the north by the staircase turret of the tower, which is supported by massive buttresses, relieved by Early English niches, once filled with statues, of which there are still some remains: on the south side is a smaller embattled turret, with buttresses of equal size: the lower storey has a very fine Norman arch of four orders, with as many columns on either side, the mouldings being richly carved; the doorway itself if blocked, and filled with a smaller entrance of Perpendicular work, above which are three niches; the lesser or northern entrance, beneath the tower, is an elegant Early English arch, recessed in five orders; between these is another Early English arch enclosing a portion of a Norman arcading; the next portion of the first stage is filled, as far as the great Norman arch, with an Early English arcade, the arches of which retain pedestals: the second stage displays a lofty open arcade of the same period, leading to the tower, two of the openings above the great entrance being larger than the rest and rising to the parapet; the unequal surface thus created is filled with a small blind arcading, and the whole is finished with battlements; the commingling or Norman and Early English work on this front is very remarkable, and the character of the Norman ornament, though much mutilated, almost matchless: in the lady chapel of this church, Archbishop Cranmer, on May 23rd. 1533, publicly pronounced the divorcement of Queen Katherine: the plate and rich pulpit cloth were presented by two sisters in the year 1721: in the south wall of the nave was formerly a flat arched recess, richly feathered, and enclosing the recumbent effigy of an ecclesiastic, fully vested, with the head resting on cushions and the hands together: a large slab in the nave contains brass effigies in shrouds of Henry Fayrey, 1516, and Agnes his wife; below is an inscription and figures of nine children; part of this, as well as the circular brasses at the angles are missing: there were other brasses to Lawrence Pygot, 1450, and Alice his wife; John Peddar, 1463, and his wives, Margaret, Matilda and Agnes; John Blunte, 1502, and his wife Elizabeth and 15 children; Richard Pynfold, 1516, and his wife Margaret and 4 sons; Robert Alee, 1518, and his wife Elizabeth; Nicholas Purvey, 1521, and his wives Elizabeth and Alys, and children; Richard Fynche, 1640; Thomas Fynche, 1586; Elizabeth Fynche, 1607; and others, 1460 and 1520, but these were removed at the time of the restoration: the church was thoroughly restored during the year 1871, under the direction of a committee, at a total cost of £12,000; the south aisle was rebuilt, the whole of the nave walls repaired and a new roof fixed, the interior renovated, and the open arcade of the west front renewed. The west front was again repaired in 1906.

Civil Registration

Dunstable was in Luton Registration District from 1837 to 1964

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Dunstable from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Bedfordshire is available to browse.


Online maps of Dunstable are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Bedfordshire papers online:

Poor Law

Dunstable was in Luton Poor Law Union. For further detailed history of the Luton Union see Peter Higginbotham's excellent resource: Luton Poor Law Union and Workhouse.

Visitations Heraldic

A full transcript of the Visitations of Bedfordshire 1566, 1582, and 1634 is available online.

CountyCentral Bedfordshire
Postal districtLU6
Post TownDunstable