Luton began when the Saxons conquered Bedfordshire in the 6th century. They created a farm or settlement called a tun by the river Lea. (Lea may be a Celtic word meaning bright river). By the 10th century the little settlement of Lea tun had grown into a town. Luton would seem very small to us with a population of only several hundred.
Many of the people of Luton lived by farming, at least part time but there was a market in the town and it acted as a focal point for the surrounding villages. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086) 'Loitone' probably had a population of 750-800. Again it would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time Luton was a respectable size. Most villages only had populations of 100 or 150. Later in the Middle Ages the population of Luton probably rose to around 1,500.
LUTON IN THE MIDDLE AGES
In the Middle Ages Luton had 6 watermills. One mill gave its name to Mill Street. In 1137 the Lord of the Manor built a new church. In 1139 he built a castle. This castle was demolished in 1154 but it gave its name to Castle Street.
In the late 12th century a 'hospital' where poor travellers could stay was built in Farley Hill. There was another hospital in Luton, this one for sick people. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.
As well as a market Luton had a fair in the Middle Ages. A fair was like a market but it was held only once a year. Luton's fair was held for 1 week in August and it would attract sellers from as far away as London. After 1338 Luton had a second fair in October.
In 1336 there was a great fire in Luton which destroyed much of the town. Fire was a constant danger in those days because most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. However, if they burned they could be easily rebuilt. Luton soon recovered from the disaster.
For centuries Luton continued to be a quiet market town serving the surrounding countryside. In the 16th century a brick making industry grew up in Luton. Until then most houses were of wood but in the 16th century many people rebuilt their houses in brick. In the 17th century a straw hat making industry began. In the 18th century it came to dominate Luton.
During the civil wars of the 17th century there were 2 skirmishes in Luton. The first occured in 1645 when some royalists entered Luton and demanded money from the townspeople. Parliamentary soldiers came and in the ensuing fight 4 royalists were killed and 22 were captured. A second skirmish occurred in 1648 when a royalist army passed through Luton. A group of stragglers were caught by parliamentary soldiers in an inn on the corner of Bridge Street. Most of the royalists escaped but 9 were killed.
In the 18th century Luton continued to be an agricultural market town serving the local villages. Hatmaking was its only important industry. In Luton there were the same craftsmen you found in any market town such as brewers, bakers, butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths. In the early 18th century a writer said: 'It has a market house and a large Monday market for corn with which this area much abounds'.
Luton Hoo was built in 1757 for the 3rd Earl of Bute. It was designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1791). However it was largely rebuilt after a fire in 1843.
For centuries there had been a ford across the Lea. In 1797 a bridge was built and Bridge Street was created.