1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dunstable

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DUNSTABLE, a municipal borough and market town in the southern parliamentary division of Bedfordshire, England, 37 m. N.W. of London, on branches of the Great Northern and London & North-Western railways. Pop. (1901) 5157. It lies at an elevation of about 500 ft. on the bleak northward slope of the Chiltern Hills. The church of St Peter and St Paul is a fine fragment of the church of the Augustinian priory founded by Henry I. in 1131. The building was cruciform, but only the west front and part of the nave remain. The front has a large late Norman portal of four orders, with rich Early English arcading above; the nave arcade is ornate Norman. The original triforium is transformed into a clerestory, the original clerestory being lost. The north-west tower has a Perpendicular upper portion, but the south-west tower is destroyed. The church contains various monuments of the 18th century. Foundations of a palace of Henry I. are traceable near the church. The main part of the town extends for a mile along the broad straight Roman road, Watling Street; the high road from Luton to Tring, which crosses it in the centre of the town, representing the ancient Icknield Way. The chief industry is straw hat manufacture; there are also printing, stationery and engineering works. The borough is under a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors. Area, 453 acres.

There may have been a Romano-British village on this site on the Watling Street. Dunstable (Dunestaple, Donestaple) first appears as a royal borough in the reign of Henry I., who, according to tradition, on account of the depredations of robbers, cleared the forest where Watling Street and the Icknield Way met, and encouraged his subjects to settle there by various grants of privileges. He endowed the priory by charter with the lordship of the manor and borough, which it retained till its dissolution in 1536–1537. The Dunstable Annals deal exhaustively with the history of the monastery and town in the 13th century. In 1219 the prior secured the right of holding a court there for all crown pleas and of sitting beside the justices itinerant, and this led to serious collision between the monks and burgesses. The body of Queen Eleanor rested here for a night on its journey to Westminster, and a cross, of which there is now no trace, was subsequently erected in the market-place. At Dunstable Cranmer held the court which, in 1533, declared Catherine of Aragon’s marriage invalid. At the dissolution a plan was set on foot for the creation of a new bishopric from the spoils of the religious houses, which was to include Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire with Dunstable as cathedral city. The scheme was never realized, though plans for the cathedral were actually drawn up.

From the earliest time Dunstable has been an agricultural town. The Annals abound with references to the prices and comparative abundance or scarcity of the two staple products, wool and corn. The straw hat manufacture has flourished since the 18th century. Henry I. granted a market held twice a week, and a three days’ fair on the feast of St Peter ad Vincula. John made a further grant of a three days’ fair from the 10th of May. A market is still held weekly, also fairs in May and August correspond to these grants. Dunstable had also a gild merchant and was affiliated to London. In 1864 the town was made a municipal borough by royal charter.