Henley is known for its variety of historic buildings, some of which date back to medieval times. The High Street of Henley is a conservation area.
It is located in a valley of the River Alne, which separates Henley from the adjacent settlement of Beaudesert. Henley and Beaudesert effectively form a single entity, and share a joint parish council, although Beaudesert is a separate civil parish.
In the 2001 census the population of the civil parish of Henley-in-Arden was 2,011 . Whilst the population of its urban area which includes Beaudesert was 2,797 .
Henley-in-Arden is not listed in the Domesday Book and may not have existed until the 12th century. The first record of the town is in a legal instrument drawn during the reign of Henry II. It was originally a hamlet of Wootton Wawen, on Feldon Street, the original route out of the Forest of Arden.
In the 11th century, Thurstan de Montfort constructed Beaudesert Castle, a motte and bailey castle, on the hill above Beaudesert. In 1140, the Empress Matilda granted the right to hold a market at the castle and Henley became a prosperous market town, conveniently located on the Birmingham-to-Stratford road. In 1220 in the reign of Henry III, the lord of the manor, Peter de Montfort, procured the grant of a weekly market, and an annual fair to last two days, for the town.
The prosperity came to an end however during the Second Barons' War when, in 1265, Peter de Montfort died fighting at the Battle of Evesham. The royalist forces won, and the town and castle were burnt in reprisal. The town and castle recovered however and Henley became a borough in 1296. In 1315 all of the recorded townsfolk were Freeman. The King stayed at the castle for 7 days in January 1324. By 1336 the market was so prosperous that the inhabitants were able to obtain a licence from Edward III to impose a local sales tax on all goods brought to the market, for a period of three years, in order to pay for the cost of paving the streets.
By the 15th century, the lords of the manor were the Boteler family. Sir Ralph Boteler, Lord Sudley obtained a charter from Henry VI in 1449, confirming the grant of the weekly market, and a grant for two annual fairs.
As a non-chartered market town, Henley's administration was based upon a manorial court. Under the lord of the manor were a high bailiff, a low bailiff, a third-borough, a constable, and pairs of ale-tasters, Chamberlains, brooklookers, leathersealers, fieldreeves, and affearers. Officials were chosen annually by a meeting of former bailiffs and constables, and were members of the jury of the biannual court leet. The bailiff, accompanied by his predecessors, would formally open the annual town fair. The town hall was inherited from a medieval guild.
The records of the court leet and the court baron in Henley date from 1592 onwards. The court rolls are largely concerned with (in Dyer's words) modest problems, such as preventing the poor from migrating into the town (which burgers considered would become a burden on the rates and result in the destruction of hedges for fuel), the ringing of loose pigs, and the prevention of horses being parked in the streets. The poor were a significant problem for Henley's court leet. In the early 17th century there was a marked increase in the landless poor, squatting on commons and on wasteland in the Forest of Arden, and such people were generally regarded as violent and criminal by townsfolk. Between 1590 and 1620 there were a disproportionate number of people, relative to the size of the population, presented by the court leet for engaging in violent affray, something which Underdown states to be "surely no coincidence".
In Love's Labours Lost Rosaline says "Better wits have worn plain Statute Caps.". This is believed to be a reference to events in Henley during the writing of that play, before its publication, when the denizens of Henley were prosecuted in the court leet for being in breach of a statute (enacted with the aim of ensuring economic support for the wool industry) that required the wearing of woollen caps on Sundays and other holy days.
By 1814, Henley had a weekly market every Monday, three annual fairs (on Lady Day; on Tuesday in Whitsunday-week, for cattle; and on October 29 for horses, cattle, sheep, and hops), and a population in 1811 (according to returns made to Parliament) of 1,055 (with 242 inhabited houses and 12 uninhabited houses).
Although the castle no longer remains, several other historical buildings and structures still exist in the town, such as the churches of St Nicholas and St John the Baptist, the 15th century Guildhall (which has been restored), the medieval market cross (much of the decoration of whose shaft has been mutilated but which has three ranges of kneeling places and sculptures representing the Holy Trinity, the cruxifiction of Jesus, and, it is believed, St Peter), the 16th century White Swan, and several timbered residences along High Street, the main street of the town.
William James (1771–1837), pioneer railway promoter, was born in Henley.
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