History of Great Denham

Although a relatively new community, the location of the parish of Great Denham has a long and interesting history. Situated in a loop created by the Great Ouse river, archaeological evidence indicates evidence of human activity and settlement during the new stone age period, ie some 5,000 years ago. Coins, pottery and other implements found in the area equally confirm a Roman and Saxon presence in middle of the last millennium.

By the seventh century AD, the Great Denham area was in the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. During this period the Vikings, or Danes as they should more correctly be referred to, were making incursions into Saxon territory. By the time Alfred became king of the neighbouring Saxon Kingdom of Wessex in 871, the Danes had already conquered Mercia and by 876 were on the verge of taking Alfred’s fiefdom.

During the following spring Alfred gathered together soldiers from Wiltshire, Somerset and Hampshire and led a surprise attack on the Danish army. After a battle and siege lasting a fortnight the Danes surrendered. Within 10 years Alfred had re-conquered large swathes of lost Saxon territory including London which was retaken in 886. However, the Danes still controlled a large part of eastern England and Alfred decided to conclude a peace treaty with the Danish king Guthrum, which amongst other things decided on the boundary between Saxon and Danish held territory.

According to the treaty, the border would be defined by the rivers Thames, Lea and Ouse. The Great Denham loop of the Ouse was therefore the front line between the two hostile kingdoms. The treaty went on to forbid people to cross from one side of the frontier to the other, except for reasons of trade. All the Danish lands east of the boundary were known as the Danelaw Kingdom and were ruled by Guthrum and his successors.

The present day Parish of Great Denham was therefore on the front line in a situation some historians have equated to a 9th century Berlin Wall. The Danes held all the eastern part of England and established strong garrisons at Bedford, Cambridge, Northampton and Leicester. England was eventually forged into one centrally controlled kingdom by the Norman conquest of 1066. St James Church, close to the Great Denham – Biddenham border has its origin during this late Saxon/early Norman period.

Among the Norman Barons of note was one Falkes de Breaute, referred to in some texts as ‘the most hated man in England’. Holding land in seven counties, much of it seized illegally from former owners, de Breaute controlled the Great Denham loop and other estates around Bedford, including the highly strategic Bedford Castle. As a result of his many illegal forages and seizures, de Breaute was declared an outlaw and fled to France where he was poisoned in 1226. Interestingly, he also held land in Surrey known as Falkes Hall. By the 16th century this name had been transformed into Vauxhall. Ironically, the Vauxhall Engineering Company was founded there in 1857 and eventually moved to Bedfordshire in 1905 where in produced cars, vans and lorries under the Bedford badge.

Much fascinating information has come to light during the archaeological digs which took place before building was allowed to start.  Most interesting of all was the discovery of the remains of a Bronze Age archer complete with the guard which protected his arm from the bow.  A full size model of the archer is on display at The Higgins Museum and Gallery in Bedford.

Model of the Great Denham Archer in The Higgins

The Great Denham loop was part of the Biddenham Parish until April 2007 when the new Parish of Great Denham was created.