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Is an area south of the upper Thames, which separated the county from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Through the centre of the county run the chalk hills, from Uffington to Streatley—the line of the Icknield Way and the Berkshire Ridgeway. There were therefore two east–west corridors—one north of the downs, one south.

In Roman times, the area was the territory of the Atrebates. From the early days of the Saxon occupation, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex. Mercia gained the upper hand in the mid‐7th cent. and the region was still held by Offa of Mercia in the 770s. It was recaptured by King Egbert for Wessex in the early 9th cent. Wantage was a royal estate and Alfred the Great was born there. It was probably one of the earliest shires to be organized and placed under an ealdorman. Berkshire was first in the diocese of Dorchester, just across the river in Oxfordshire, then in Winchester, and from 909 in Ramsbury in Wiltshire, whence it was finally transferred to the new diocese of Salisbury. This suggests that it was border country, lacking a powerful capital. In 1066 William crossed the Thames at Wallingford and began building the castle at Windsor, soon established as a major royal residence. Its position astride some of the main routes to London gave Berkshire strategic importance. In the civil war between King Stephen and Matilda in the 12th cent., Wallingford castle was held for the latter. During the 17th‐cent. civil wars, the county was on the border between royalist and parliamentarian: Wallingford was held throughout the war for the king, Windsor for his opponents.

Berkshire remained a quiet rural area, the downs feeding the sheep, and Newbury and Abingdon gaining reputations for cloth. Reading's place on the river gave it steady prosperity: in the 1720s, Defoe found it ‘large and wealthy, the inhabitants rich and driving a very great trade’. But the extensive areas of downland and the barren, sandy heathland in the east kept the population down. The Kennet and Avon canal in the south, opened in 1810, gave a modest boost to trade, but the Wiltshire and Berkshire, a canal completed in 1809, had desultory traffic from the beginning. The market towns of the shire remained small, until the great expansion of Reading itself—9,000 in 1801, 60,000 by 1901, 134,000 by 1991: Huntley and Palmer's biscuit partnership dates from 1841. Didcot grew considerably in the 20th cent. as a rail junction, but Wantage, Wallingford, and Faringdon, bypassed by the main lines, stayed small. Berkshire remained essentially a shire to be passed through, from east to west. Brunel's Great Western railway cut a large swathe through the north of the county in the 1830s, and the Taunton to Reading line, through Hungerford and Newbury, opened in 1847. The M4 motorway, completed in 1971, bisected the county from Bray in the east to Membury in the west. By the local government reorganization of 1972, the county gained Slough and Eton from Buckinghamshire, but lost Abingdon, Faringdon, Wantage, and Wallingford to Oxfordshire—Mercia's belated triumph.


Subjects: British History.

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