This is a slightly shortened and edited version of a chapter written by the late Dr Judith Hunter for the WLHG publication Windsor 1000 Years.
1AD – 43AD
Two thousand years ago Thames Valley was sparsely inhabited, and there was no town or village of Windsor. The people who named the original settlement had not yet invaded, nor would they do so for another four hundred years. In 1AD, the people who lived here were Celts, Iron Age people who had migrated from the continent a century or so earlier, and were part of a widespread movement of people from central and northern Europe. In their new homeland they retained some of their old allegiances and so by the middle of the first century BC, Britain was divided into a large number of tribal areas.
The area we now know as Windsor was part of the Belgae Kingdom of the Atrebates, but we have little knowledge of the people who lived here. There have been only a few archaeological finds such as one gold stater from the reign of King Eppilus, found long ago on St Leonard’s Hill. Eppilus was influenced by Roman culture, and on his coins styled himself in Latin as REX CALLE (King of Calleva). The site of Calleva, near Reading, is today occupied by the village of Silchester, but in the Roman period it was an important town with a forum, shops, taverns, and a network of streets. It was the focus of several main Roman roads, one of which to the south of Windsor can still be traced in the landscape.
Roman occupation resulted in inter-tribal feuding. Verica, successor to Eppilus, deposed by the aggressively anti-Roman king of another tribe, fled to Rome in a last ditch attempt to regain his throne. He appealed to Emperor Claudius for help, but Claudius desperately needed an opportunity to gain military glory in order to consolidate his own position. So, the army he sent to Britain was not to help Verica, but to make Britain part of the Roman Empire.
43AD – 410AD
The Roman army landed in Kent in the summer of AD 43, and by August several British tribes, including the Atrebates, had given in to Claudius without a tight. Triumphant, he returned to Rome leaving the army to set about making Britain a new Roman province.
Britain remained part of the Roman Empire for almost 400 years, within which time Calleva developed into an important town. The road from London crossed the Thames at Pontes (Staines), sweeping south of the present Windsor towards Calleva. Almost certainly there were some settlements in the area of modern Windsor, be they villages or isolated farmsteads. As yet, however, there have been few finds from which to build a picture of Roman or Romano-British occupation of the area. Two tile tombs and a pottery kiln were found at Old Windsor, and the base of a Roman urn and ten coins spanning the period early second century to AD 375, at St Leonard’s Hill.
In 407AD, the Roman army left Britain never to return.
410AD – 835AD
Within a generation many Roman towns in Britain had ceased to function as urban centres. Urban life was breaking down and with it Roman society. Local fighting and the neglect of roads and bridges weakened the function of the towns, while plagues and famine added to their downfall. In the countryside, the inhabitants fared only a little better. Hamlets and farmsteads reverted to a subsistence economy, and already another invasion had begun.
Unlike the Roman the Anglo-Saxons did not come to Britain as soldiers in the pay of a mighty empire. They came as small of men intent on taking what they could in riches and land. They were at first raiders or mercenaries hired by a British leader to fight other Saxons. There no one decisive event; it took two hundred years, before Roman Britain could be called Saxon England. By the end of that period, however, the Saxon villages of Clewer, Dedworth, and (Old) Windsor had been founded.
There are no written records to tell us their story, however much can be deduced from their names, and from the sites they chose near the Thames and the wooded area which later became known Windsor Forest. The name Dedworth is thought to mean the enclosure belonging to Dydda (or some such named person). It was on one of several greens on the edge of the forest.
Clewer Green village had a similar location, but the main village of Clewer lay much to the Thames on a patch of slightly higher gravel which kept the houses above the winter floods. In due course the church and manor house were also built in this village. Its name means ‘the dwellers by the cliff’, a reference to the chalk hill which would become the site of a Norman castle. Whether there was ever a settlement belonging to Clewer on the chalk hill will probably never be known.
The settlement of Windsor which was founded in Saxon times lay some two miles further downstream from the present town. Now called Old Windsor, excavations carried out in the 1950s revealed that the village had been established by late sixth or early seventh century. There was at least one substantial hall building which may have been used by Saxon kings from ninth century onwards. By this date the settlement also had a water mill with three water heels. Old must have been a place of some importance to warrant building on such a scale.
835AD – 1000AD
In 835AD Vikings from Denmark over-ran the Isle of Sheppey. Scandinavian had been sporadically raiding coastal settlements for some 50 years, but in the 830s, they became an ever-present and terrifying threat almost everywhere in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of many battles, the ravaged countryside. burnt villages and the uncertain peace brought about by Alfred the Great in 878.
During the next hundred years, hostilities continued intermittently and in 994 the first payment of Dane-geld was made to the Danes to buy a temporary peace. , although we cannot know how much the raids and warfare affected the people living in Old Windsor. Clewer and Dedworth, a little can be imagined from references to places such as Reading and Thorney in Iver. One of Alfred’s defences was built near Cookham, and there are several entries in the Chronicle about the men of Berkshire paying Dane-geld and the county being invaded.
Saxon England was not one country but a conglomeration of rival kingdoms. Rivalries between them led to numerous changes of boundaries, and at different times the Windsor area belonged to the kingdoms of Middlesex, Essex, and Mercia, but from about the mid-ninth century it was part of Wessex, the most important of the kingdoms. It may be that by this date there was already a royal residence at (Old) Windsor, and that Saxon kings were enjoying hunting in Windsor Forest.