17 September 2022
Losing my head with
kings, queens, bankers
and bars in Aylesbury
The King’s Head and the Queen’s Head are neighbours in Aylesbury. Although Aylesbury supported Cromwell during the Civil War, the King’s Head got its name at least 200 years before Charles I lost his head. And so, I must wonder whether the Queen’s Head got its name after Anne Boleyn was beheaded.
These are two of the oldest pubs in this part of England, and my curiosity about their place in local history and tradition was enriched when I heard about links with the Ormond Butlers of Kilkenny Castle and that the Rothschild family once owned the King’s Head and also endowed a nearby literary club that doubles up as a wine bar.
The King’s Head, off Market Square, is one of the oldest coaching inns in the south of England. It is now owned by the National Trust and is a Grade II* Listed Building. It dates back to about 1455, but parts of the building are older, with cellars that may date back to the 13th century, and may have been part of the local friary.
James Butler (1359-1405), 3rd Earl of Ormonde, founded the Franciscan Friary or Greyfriars in Aylesbury in 1386. He also acquired Kilkenny Castle in 1391, and his monument rests in the north transept in Saint Mary’s Church, Aylesbury. The friary is remembered in the name of Friars Square Shopping Centre. The buildings of the King’s Head were adjacent and it is claimed they were used as lodgings for visitors to the friary.
An early royal visitor to the King’s Head is said to have been King Henry VI when he toured England with his new wife Margaret of Anjou in 1445 – a full ten years before the King’s Head boasts its foundation. Five stained-glass panes in the Great Hall commemorate interesting connections:
1, Edmund Beaufort (1406-1455), Duke of Somerset and a supporter of Henry VI in the War of the Roses.
2, King Henry VI (1421-1475).
3, William de la Pole (1396-1450), Duke of Suffolk, who arranged the marriage of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.
4, Margaret of Anjou.
5, James Butler (1390-1452), 4th Earl of Ormond (the ‘White Earl’), son of the founder of Greyfriars and great-great-grandfather of Anne Boleyn.
The first written reference to the King’s Head is ten years after Henry VI’s supposed visit, in 1455, in a conveyance between William Wandeford, a London wool merchant, sold property in Aylesbury to Ralph Verney, a former master of the London Mercers’ Company. The documents, dated 18 December 1455, refer to the newly-built ‘Kyngeshede,’ as well as a cellar and shop, and cottages.
The Great Hall is the oldest standing structure on the site, dating back to the 1470s, and was built as a guest house by the Verney family, who lived at Claydon House.
Henry VIII declared Aylesbury the new county town of Buckinghamshire in 1529. It is thought he did so to curry favour with Thomas Boleyn, the father of Anne Boleyn, who owned Aylesbury Manor. According to local folklore, Henry then wooed Anne in the Solar Room above the Great Hall in the Kings Head in 1533.
Aylesbury played a key role in the Civil War, and the town supported the Parliamentarians against Charles I. It is claimed Oliver Cromwell stayed at the King’s Head in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester and received the thanks of Parliament in Market Square, although there is no evidence for this.
Local lore says the King’s Head was linked to churches in the town through a system of underground tunnels that were used also as escape routes by Royalist troops during the Civil War. However, there is no evidence of these tunnels.
Assize Courts sat in Gatehouse Chamber in the 17th century, and the judges who visited the King’s Head included the ‘hanging judge’ Judge George Jeffreys. From the mid-17th century on, the King’s Head thrived as a coaching inn. The front gateway is smaller than the rear gateway, which was made larger to accommodate the growing size of carriages.
Around 1750, innkeeper William Bell converted the cottages to accommodate stagecoaches, with room upstairs for his servants. The enclosure of the courtyard with additional stables provided stabling for about 30 horses.
The Rothschild family acquired the King’s Head as a hotel in the 19th century and installed the bar. In the snug next to the bar is an example of Victorian era wallpaper that would once have covered the whole room.
The ceiling in the Gatehouse Chamber is the work of the Victorian architect George Devey (1820-1886), a forerunner of the arts and crafts school of design. Devey worked for the Rothschild estates throughout most of his career, and he was commissioned by the Rothschild family in the 1880s to refurbish and redesign the King’s Head, including inserting the oak panels in the dining room.
Devey was responsible for offsetting the front window to retain the view of the Market Square. He remodelled the ceiling in a mock Tudor style using some of the original beams, and moved the large mediaeval hearth from the Great Hall. It is etched with graffiti, possibly by Roundhead troops garrisoned there during the English Civil War.
After many years as a hotel and part of the Rothschild empire, the King’s Head was donated to the National Trust in 1925. The Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site is run by the Chiltern Brewery.
Local stories tell of three ghosts at the King’s Head, including the Grey Lady, a maid who fell to her death, a ghostly nun, and a tall man in a long black coat and top hat.
An alleyway next to the King’s Head took me to the Queen’s Head on Temple Square, which dates from the 1500s. It is a picturesque two-storey, part timber-framed and plastered, part brick building with an old tile roof and retains its original chimney at west end.
The Queen’s Head in Aylesbury claims to be the oldest Queen’s Head in England. At one time a pub sign at the Queen’s Head depicted the head of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. After winning over Thomas Boleyn, a descendant of the Earls of Ormond, and making Aylesbury the country town of Buckinghamshire, Henry and a pregnant Anne were married in 1533.
But when Henry later turned his attention to Jane Seymour, Anne was beheaded. For many years her head served as the image on the sign at the Queen’s Head – though it no longer does.
Further down Temple Street, Aylesbury Literary Club shares its premises at Nos 7-11 with the Temple Street Wine Bar. This interesting building began in 1879 when the Aylesbury Reading Rooms were founded by Sir Nathaniel Meyer de Rothschild (1840-1915), later Lord Rothschild. He owned much land and property in Aylesbury and across Buckinghamshire, including being the proprietor of the King’s Head.
The building was designed by George Devey, the same architect who was commissioned by Rothschild to refurbish and renovate the King’s Head.
The foundation stone of the Aylesbury Reading Rooms was laid by Lady de Rothschild in 1879, and as Lady Rothschild she returned to lay a second stone for the extension of the building in the two bays to the left in 1903.
Above the door an architraved and corniced recess bears the initials ‘NR’ enclosed by wreath bearing the Rothschild family motto, Concordia, Industria, Integrita. This has been a Grade II listed building since 1989.
A decorative window names it as ‘Aylesbury Literary Institution and Club.’ From the beginning, the objects of the club included ‘the promotion of social intercourse and the provision of refreshments.’
The association of the Rothschild family with the Vale of Aylesbury began with the second generation of the family to live in England. Three brothers – Lionel Nathan (1808-1879), Anthony Nathan (1810-1876) and Mayer Amschel (1818-1874) – began to buy up large tracts of land in the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire countryside from the 1840s onwards.
Their extensive land holdings and social standing were such by the end of the 19th century that the Vale of Aylesbury was often referred to as ‘Rothschildshire’.
Sir Nathaniel Meyer de Rothschild, who owned the King’s Head and founded the literary club, was a son of Lionel Nathan Rothschild. He was the Liberal MP for Aylesbury (1865-1885), became a peer in 1885 and was Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire (1889-1915).
He and his wife, Emma Louisa von Rothschild (1844-1935), who laid the literary club’s foundation stones, were double first cousins, sharing both sets of grandparents. They were married in 1867, and it was said to be a true love match. Their son Walter Rothschild was Conservative MP for Aylesbury (1899-1910), and later succeeded as 2nd Lord Rothschild in 1915.
After her husband died, Emma Rothschild continued to live at Tring Park until she died in 1935. One of the foundation stones she laid at the Literary Club bears the Biblical inscription ‘Wise men lay up knowledge’ (Proverbs 10: 14). But I still had a lot more to learn about Aylesbury.