A castle, a bridge, and the law

RIVER CROSSINGS HAVE often had great historical significance. The small town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire has been a place for crossing the River Thames since Roman times or maybe even before. According to “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names” by someone with an interesting name: Eilert Ekwall, a fascinating book that I picked up for next to nothing at a local charity shop, the town was known as ‘Waelingaford’ in 821 AD, as ‘Welengaford’ in c893 AD, and ‘Walingeford’ in the Domesday Book. The meaning of the name is ‘The ford of Wealh’s people’, clearly referring to a river crossing place. It is said the William the Conqueror used the ford. Today, a fine bridge with many arches crosses the river.

Wallingford Castle

There has been a bridge at Wallingford since 1141, or before. The construction of the first stone bridge was probably constructed for Richard, the first Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272), a son of King John, who became King of Germany (Holy Roman Empire) in 1256, a title he held until his death. Some of the arches of the bridge may contain stonework from the 13th century structure. Much of the present bridge dates from a rebuilding done between 1810 and 1812 to the designs of John Treacher (1760-1836). During the Civil War (1642-1651), four arches were removed and replaced by a drawbridge to help defend the besieged Wallingford Castle.

The huge castle was built on a hill overlooking the town; the river – an artery for water transport in the past; and, more importantly, the bridge, which was an important crossing place on the road leading from London to Oxford via Henley-on-Thames. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, the castle was used a great deal, being used as a royal residence until Henry VIII abandoned it. During the Civil War, the castle was restored and re-fortified and used as a stronghold by the Royalists. It was of great importance to them as their headquarters were at nearby Oxford. To simplify matters, the Parliamentarians began laying siege to Wallingford Castle in 1645. This initial attempt was unsuccessful because the besiegers had underestimated the strength of the castle’s fortifications. After the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Naseby (14th June 1645), Wallingford was one of only three strongholds in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) still loyal to King Charles I. A second siege of Wallingford commenced on the 14th of May 1646, shortly after the Parliamentarians had laid siege to Oxford. The latter fell on the 24th of June 1646, but Wallingford held out until the 22nd of July 1646 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallingford,_Oxfordshire). The castle was demolished in November 1652.

The castle grounds are open to the public. Here and there, few and far between, there are ruins of what must have once been a spectacular castle. Within the grounds of the former castle, there are several informative notices that give the visitor some idea of which part of the castle used to stand near the signs. From the grassy areas that formed the motte and bailey of the castle, there are fine views of the river below and some of the town.

Although our first visit to Wallingford was brief, I learnt that the judge Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) had presided as the Recorder at Wallingford from 1749 to 1770. “So, what?”, I hear you asking. At first, I hoped that he was something to do with the road, where we lived in Chicago (Illinois) in 1963: South Blackstone Avenue (number 5608). But I think that thoroughfare was more likely named after the American politician and railway entrepreneur Timothy Blackstone (1829-1900). The Wallingford Blackstone, who lived in the 18th century, was most probably a distant cousin of Timothy’s father (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Blackstone). Related or not, Sir William Blackstone had an extremely important influence the legal affairs of the USA.

Having studied at the University of Oxford and the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar, Sir William taught law at Oxford for a few years. Just before resigning his prestigious academic position in 1766, he published the first volume of what was to become a best-seller, a real money-spinner, “Commentaries on the Laws of England”. Eventually, this work was completed in four volumes. They contain:

“… first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law, developed from the Roman law, to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commentaries_on_the_Laws_of_England)

The “Commentaries” are widely regarded as being the definitive sources of common law in America before the American Revolution. Blackstone’s writings were influential in the formulation of the American Constitution. His words embodied his vision of English law as a method of protecting people, their possessions, and their freedom. Blackstone’s ideas are well exemplified by this quotation from the “Commentaries”:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This is known as ‘Blackstone’s Ratio’.

Leaders of the American Revolution recycled the idea with words such as:

“It is of more importance to the community that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…” (John Adams; 1735-1826), and:

“…it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer…” (Benjamin Franklin; 1706-1790)

As already mentioned, Sir William presided in the court in Wallingford from 1749 onwards, three years after being called to the Bar. During his career, he served as a Tory Member of Parliament a couple of times: for Hindon (1761-68) and for Westbury (1768-70). In the House of Commons, he was:

“…an infrequent and ‘an indifferent speaker’: during the seven years 1761-8 only 14 speeches by him are recorded, mostly on subjects of secondary importance. Very learned and original, over-subtle and ingenious, in major debates he showed a lack of political common sense.” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/blackstone-william-1723-80)

The Blackstone family owned a large estate at Wallingford including 120 acres of land by the River Thames. He died in Wallingford and was buried inside St Peter’s Church, which is close to the bridge over the river.  

What little we saw of Wallingford, its castle, its riverside including the Thames towpath, its attractive market square, and streets rich in historic buildings, during our brief visit recently, we saw enough to whet our appetites for a future and lengthier visit.