Guildford first appeared in recorded history in 885 AD when it was mentioned in the will of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Settled in the late 5th or early 6th century, Guildford rapidly became an important settlement thanks to the combination of its status as a royal manor, its strategic position and the commercial opportunities – and has continued to flourish for over 1,000 years as the county town of Surrey.
Located at the point where the River Wey breaks through the North Downs and the ancient East-West London Way crosses the river, Gyldeforda, the “golden ford”, became a focus for traffic and trade between London and the south coast and the West Country and the source of the town’s name.
Saxon Guildford was fortified against Viking raiding parties travelling upstream. A royal possession and the site of a mint, the original settlement around St Mary’s Church was enlarged and surrounded by a boundary ditch well before the end of the first millennium.
Norman Conquest – royal castle
Guildford Castle was built in the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066, to control the Saxon population. The Castle dominates the town and was a fortification, prison and, by the reign of Henry III, one of the most luxurious royal palaces in England which accommodated the King and his court when they visited Guildford. The castle fell out of royal favour and into disrepair. At the end of the 19th Century, it was bought by the Town and restored as impressive and picturesque public gardens for the benefit of all.
Middle Ages – town planning and wool
With the main street (now the High Street) running up hill from the river, the land on either side was divided into strips. Houses were built facing the street with gardens or yards to the rear. This early example of town planning defined the footprint of the town centre and the resulting “gates” (mediaeval usage meaning “passageways”) and alleys which run north and south from the High Street contribute to the interesting townscape which endures to this day.
The wool trade and the production of cloth, notably Guildford blue which was sold across mainland Europe, brought prosperity to Guildford in the Middle Ages. The arms of the borough reflect this, featuring a royal castle above the river and two woolpacks.
Seventeenth century – canals and gunpowder
The Wey Navigation, making the river accessible to barges from London to Guildford, opened up wider markets for Guildford after the English Civil War. Grain, timber and gunpowder were sent downstream, and barges returned with a variety of goods and coal.
Fine buildings and coaching inns
Guildford’s life as a prosperous, peaceful provincial town is reflected in many fine and some outstanding buildings. George Abbot became Archbishop of Canterbury but remained attached to the town of his birth. In 1619 he funded the Hospital of the Blessed Holy Trinity which stands at the top of the High Street and continues to fulfil its charitable goals today. Other notable buildings include The Guildhall, whose iconic clock was allegedly given to the town to enable John Aylward to open a business here in 1683. The Angel Hotel is the last survivor of the six coaching inns which stood on the High Street. In the 18th and 19th century heyday of coaching, Guildford was on twenty-eight different routes including fashionable Brighton and Bath. Jane Austen visited on her way to London for “a long and comfortable breakfast” and shopping.
Railways and expansion
The arrival of the railways in the 1840s, making the town accessible for those who worked in London but enjoyed living in the country – the “Daily Breaders” (nowadays called commuters) bought a rapid increase in population and size.
Famous people, especially artists, connected with Guildford over the years include Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll, who came frequently to visit his six sisters and finally died and was buried in the town in 1898. Symbolist painter GF Watts also lived and died in the borough, as did poet and gay activist Edward Carpenter. Writer P G Wodehouse was born there in 1881. In the 20th century, mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing lived for a time in the town.
20th and 21st centuries
Guildford has continued to embrace and create opportunities for growth in business, technology, education, and the arts. It remains one of the most popular places to live in South-East England.