The municipality is very ancient and still retains some quaint customs. Not that, however, of the medieval fee for admission to the corporation consisting of two greyhounds, two white capons, and a white bull! The last item must have given the aspirant for civic honour much wearisome searching of farmyards before he found the acceptable colour. Like so many of the old towns through which we have wandered, Marlborough has suffered from fire; one in the middle of the seventeenth century was of particular fury, for, with the exception of the beautiful old gabled houses on the higher side of the sloping main street, the town was then practically destroyed. “Two hundred and fifty dwellings and Saint Mary’s church are gone, and over three hundred families forced to crave the hospitality of the neighbouring farmers and gentry, or wander about the fields vainly looking for shelter. Every barn and beast-house filled to overflowing.”
The tradesmen of High Street say that theirs is the widest street in England. This may be so. It is undoubtedly one of the most pleasant and picturesque, and “the great houses supported on pillars,” to which Pepys refers in his Diary, still remain on the north side.
Marlborough had not actually a Roman beginning. The station known as Cunetio was nearly three miles away to the east. But the castle hill antedates this period considerably and is supposed to be an artificial mound of unknown antiquity, perhaps made by the men who reared Silbury Hill. It is said that within lie the bones of Merlin. Quite possibly this idea arose from the resemblance of the ancient form of Marlborough—“Merlebergh” to the name of the half legendary sorcerer. The real origin of the town-name is supposed to be the West Saxon “Maer-leah” or cattle boundary. Here was erected in the earlier years of the Conqueror’s reign a castle that was strengthened and rebuilt in succeeding generations until, somewhere about the rise of the Tudor power, it was allowed to fall into decay. It was probably in the Castle Chapel of St. Nicholas that King John was married to Isabella of Gloucester in 1180, and in the church at Preshute, the parish church of the Castle, is an enormous font of black marble brought from this chapel. A tradition has it that King John was baptized in it. The only real fighting recorded as taking place around the Castle, while it was in existence, was during the time of Fitz Gilbert, who held it for the Empress Maud. Of more importance was the sallying forth, during the Civil War, of the Royalists, who had fortified a mansion which had arisen from the Castle ruins, against the republican town, capturing and partly burning it. The soldiers displayed great savagery, fifty-three houses being destroyed. The garrison of “the most notoriously disaffected town in Wiltshire” was the first taken in the War. The Castle was also famous as the place of meeting for the Parliament of Henry III which passed the “Statutes of Marlborough,” the Charter for which Simon de Montfort had risked and suffered so much.