The Oldest Freehouse in England
Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, HP9 1XT
In Roman Britain, Rome encouraged the Saxon ex-legionaries to settle here in the Chilterns Catuvellauni Kingdom. Families were granted land on which to build and remnants of Iron Age hill forts can be seen near Gerrards Cross and West Wycombe. The Romans started a brick and tile kiln industry in this area, which lasted for around 1400 years. Roman power had ended by 410AD and many more settlers came from Northern Europe - mostly German tribes, Angles, Jutes and Saxons. Taking a walk in the footpaths across the road towards Lude Farm you will see remains of tiles in the soil from an old Roman brick kiln. The heavily wooded Chilterns became an area of resistance by Romano-Celtic Britons tribes that were pushed off their lands by these new settlers. The Saxons were huge ale drinkers coming from lands rich in barley. King Alfred of Wessex had a deer park here and the West Saxons brewed ale here on this site because they had a good supply of water from the old Romano-British well in the garden. The Saxon alewife (the brewer was nearly always a woman) would put a green bush up on a pole to let the locals know the ale was ready. The Brewster’s cottage became the alehouse because it was used as the meeting house for cottagers and tile-makers in the hamlet, who farmed and worked communally by sharing the open fields and woods. Here they could resolve any disputes, barter and make a toast to the goddess of barley. To drink water until 1900’s was to risk your life. Beer was the safest drink -We think it still is!
England consisted of a mix of Anglo-Saxons and Celtic Britons over the next five centuries who eventually united when faced with the threat of Viking invaders. In 1009 and 1010 the last Viking raids took place, they arrived by their longboats along the river Thames at Hedsor Wharf. Here, there was an old Saxon palisade fort where the old Roman bridge crossed the Thames on the Camlet Way. Our Saxon alehouse survived the raids of the Dark Ages because of its secluded location just out of reach of the Thames. The alehouse kept its independence as a Freehouse and avoided being incorporated in the large Lude Estate across the road from the pub, which then belonged to the old Wessex family - the Godwines. Earl Harold Godwine became King Harold II who fell at the Battle of Hastings. The first Royal Standard of England banner was a gold dragon – the same symbol was used as the war banner of the royal house of Wessex. The Norman Conquest was a military expedition without settlers, so life for the alehouse did not change from 1066 (Despite the fact that the Norman rulers thought the Anglo-Saxons drank too much ale!). The alehouse was one of the few places that people could be free of the burden of their new feudal rulers.
In 1067, a year after William the Conqueror became King of England, the neighbouring Saxon Godwine lands were granted to Norman invader Rémi, as he contributed ships to William’s conquest. The alehouse became known after the invasion by the local West Saxons as ”Se Scip” (The Ship) from Remi-se-Scip. Indeed, it was Saxon habit of giving people and places nicknames. When Penn church was dedicated in 1213, The Ship Inn was documented. Lude Farm, just 1000 yards west of the pub is also listed in the Domesday Book in 1086. By being just outside this large estate, our alehouse was able to carry on its trade as usual. It continued to survive with custom from the local Deer Hunt and the tile making trade which made tiles for Windsor Castle and the Palace of Westminster. The Norman Kings would move the whole medieval court between Windsor Castle, Wallingford and Woodstock Palace, using the alehouse as a lodging place on their hunts in the deer park in Knotty Green & Penn. Most of the trade however, came from transporting tiles from Penn and Tyler’s Green, heading down to the Thames at Hedsor wharf and then up to London by barge. The tile merchants and animal drovers provided good trade for the alehouse. The large cattle drives moved stock down the drovers' roads to the rich fattening pastures, on to markets in Beaconsfield and Wycombe, and eventually London. This procession passed by the pub which provided wells for watering the pack animals and ale for the drivers. Using these lanes avoided the fees at the Beaconsfield Turnpike on the Oxford to London road. The roads were also more dangerous to travel due to thieves and robbers. Indeed, a decree was passed in 1304 (during the reign of Edward I) that all brushwood should be cut back to 200 yards either side of the road as a precaution against ambush. The alehouse’s customers were the working and independent folk who would create their own entertainment. Their revelries held at the alehouse avoided the prying eyes of the local officials. In 1485, a troupe of dancing men with blackened faces held a dance at the pub to celebrate Henry Tudor becoming king after The Wars of the Roses.
Before the building of the railways, the drovers' routes were trodden by tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and geese. The lane to Holtspur has been worn by mostly brick pack horses into a “hollow-way” - a deep lane still showing its high banks. Animals were driven at around two miles per hour; some animals would be especially shod to protect them on their long journeys. At the the end of each drive a canny Welsh drover, named Thomas, would sell his valuable droving dog at the great London fairs for a good sum. He would then wait at the pub knowing the dog would find his way back to him at the first opportunity!
At the end of the 17th century the alehouse had been growing in size. From lodging house to inn, it could now offer separate rooms instead of a communal sleeping area. Civil War disrupted the cattle droving trade, as the area around Beaconsfield and Penn was in the moving line of control between the two sides. The pub was used as a mustering place for the Lord Wentworth’s Royalists before the Battle of Wycombe Rye in 1642. King Charles I had raised his personal standard to draw his royalist supporters (The Cavaliers) to fight for his cause against the Parliamentarians (The Roundheads). The pub had connections with the Confederate Irish and catholic swordsmen, coming over to fight for the royal Stuart cause. They were disliked by both sides on religious grounds. In November 1642 they were part of a Cavalier army led by the dashing Prince Rupert who captured Brentford. The following day they were turned back at Turnham Green by the greater Roundhead army. The Roundheads are thought to have camped in the field near Hogsback Wood, along the lane. The area mostly under Parliamentarian control, suffered the brutality of the Roundhead soldiers, as a dozen Irish Confederate cavaliers had their heads raised up on pikes outside the pub’s door. This included a 12 year old Drummer boy. His ghost still haunts the pub today.
In 1643, a troop of the Earl of Essex’s Roundheads discovered an Irish Confederate Royalist captain, sleeping off his lunch in the pub. When captured by the Roundheads and having given his word not to escape, he is purported to have stood up one morning and said “Gentlemen, I give you notice – “I’m off “. He then jumped out of a window to freedom, considering that the ‘notice’ canceled any previous undertakings! With the King in his Oxford headquarters, the pub was on the quieter back route for messengers passing unnoticed through the lines. Cromwell’s New Model army strengthened the power of the Parliamentary side and the King was facing defeat. Royalists used the inn, trusting the loyalty of the landlord. Over time a traditional tale told about the pub, is that the King Charles I (or young Prince Charles) hid up in the priest’s hole in the roof space. After Charles II’s restoration to the throne, the pub was rewarded by the new king in 1663 for giving support to his executed father. He honoured the landlord by agreeing to change the name of the pub from ‘The Ship’ to ‘The Royal Standard of England’, the only pub in the country with the honour of the full title, and echoing back to the royal Wessex dragon. Though the royalists were well served by the landlord during the civil war, a more human reason emerges for the royal gesture for the pub’s name change. King Charles II was obliged to the landlord while he met his mistresses in the rooms above the pub. The shrewd landlord, with business in mind, had perhaps cashed in on his royal guest.
After the Battle of Worcester, a royalist trooper named James Hind, without a king or a cause, took to a life of crime. Hind began to rob the committee representatives appointed by Parliament to govern the counties. To avoid the attention of robbers, one committee member dressed himself with a worn out coat and kitted out an elderly horse in the cheapest gear. When he encountered Hind, the highwayman took him at face value, as the broken down old fellow he appeared to be, and gave him a gold piece. However, once he arrived at the inn, he was stupid enough to boast of his escape, and cursed Hind for a rogue. Our inn is where Hind was often put up. When he arrived later that evening, after the committee man had gone to bed, he was told what the man had said of him. The next day, Hind stopped the man on the road and robbed him of £50. Hind insisted he never robbed the poor and had a habit of handing out magnificent tips to the peasants who supported the king. In order to wide their whereabouts, highwaymen used to reverse their horse shoes. Hind avoided capture by improving this technique with the use of circular horse shoes. However, he was later caught, and taken to Worcester to be hung, drawn and quartered for treason (not robbery!) in 1652. Even King Charles II praised “Swift Nick”, the gentleman rogue, for his ride from London to York in 1676. This was a feat mistakenly attributed to Dick Turpin in popular legend.
Highwayman had many accomplices among people who were outwardly respectable. Some of these were innkeepers. It was usual for guests who stayed at an inn overnight to leave their money in the care of the host. The landlord or his servants would tip off the robber as to which of the day’s travellers would be worthwhile to ambush on the road. After all, he would make much more money from the highwayman than ordinary guests. Inn-keeping was profitable in the early 1700’s in an age when to be a publican was a near admission of corruption, if not criminal tendencies. At the beginning of the 18th Century, the pub as we know it today was a very different place. In the smoky, sweaty candle-lit atmosphere of most alehouses and inns; whoring, drinking and gambling went on all night. The quantity of spirits drunk in these taverns was enormous. Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ was not considered exaggerated by his contemporaries, and the details of the scene were indeed taken from real life. The sign over the doorway bears the well-known legend: “Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for two pennies, Clean straw for nothing.”
The Restoration dramatist Nathaniel Lee drank himself into the ‘Bedlam Hospital for the Insane’ where he declared: “‘They said I was mad; I said they were mad; damn them, they outvoted me”. He was eventually released but on the day of his death he drunk so hard, that he dropped down in the street , and was run over by a coach. The inn’s trade declined in the mid 18th century as the brick trade moved elsewhere. It reverted back into an unlicensed alehouse on Lord Howe’s Holtspur estates. It was restored to health through supplying the rail-workers with illegally strong country ale – Owd Roger. The beer was made of an old recipe, brewed in Victorian times. It was eventyally sold on to the Marstons brewery, in Burton, but can still be bought here today!
In the car park, there is occasionally the sound of a drum beating. The noise beats through the pub sounding the alarm of the young drummer boy, killed by the Roundheads in 1643. Then there is the ghost who walks through walls. There are two interpretations of the ghost in the bar - a shadowy male figure striding across the bar and then disappearing in the wall next to Edmund Burkes old fireplace in the Candle Room. The first is that it is reputed to be one of the executed cavaliers. The second version is that of a traveller accidentally killed by the notorious Earl of Barrymore in 1788. Barrymore belonged to a club called the Four Horse Club whose reckless members would pay unsuspecting coachman to give them the reins and then drive at breakneck speed. The traveler was crushed outside the pub by a speeding coach and four. The bloody corpse was brought into the pub and the landlord was paid hush-money over the incident, and an unknown traveler has been haunting the downstairs ever since. Most recently in 1944, “Tomahawk Warrior”, a US B17 bomber Flying Fortress crashed over the road with the loss of all nine crew members.