The town has maintained much of its original charm and character with buildings covering every period in history going back to medieval times.
It is divided into two parishes, Henley-in-Arden and Beaudesert, which for practical purposes form one town.
Even in medieval times the two Manors, although separate, were always associated with one another. Beaudesert, the older of the two, is linked with the history of the powerful De Montfort family who settled here after the Norman Conquest and who gave the manor its name originally "Beldesert", a derivation from the Norman French meaning "Beautiful waste". For many years the name was pronounced "Belser", but is now known locally as Beaudesert pronounced in the English and not the French fashion.
Towards the end of the 11th Century Thurstan de Montfort built the castle which stood on the hill known locally as the Mount. This was a fortified Norman castle of wood and stone and built probably on the site of an ancient British fortified camp. In 1140 the same Thurstan de Montfort was granted a charter by the Empress Matilda - daughter of Henry I - to hold a weekly fair and market in his castle. As a result, the people of Beaudesert prospered and the town of Henley started to grow - no doubt to accommodate the traders and users of the market.
Apart from Thurstan's son Henry granting a mill at Henley to the monks at Wootton Wawen, the first document of importance mentioning Henley was a charter granted in 1220 by Henry III to Peter de Montfort to hold a weekly market and a yearly fair at the Feast of St. Giles and thenceforth the history of the two places - Beaudesert and Henley - is almost identical. Peter de Montfort was one of the most powerful of the Barons siding against the King and in 1265 he was killed with his famous namesake - Simon de Montfort - at the Battle of Evesham. Probably as a reprisal for Peter's part in the Baron's revolt, the town of Henley and the castle were burned down by Royalists after the Battle and no vestige of the castle remains at the present time. However, Henley's fortunes recovered and by 1296 it was styled a borough and with the rise of the burgher class Henley became an important market town, although it still had no Church. Henley was in the ecclesiastical parish of Wootton Wawen and the inhabitants had to worship there. This was a difficult and dangerous journey in those days and so in 1367 the inhabitants were allowed to build a "Chapel at Ease" to the mother church at Wootton Wawen. T his chapel was on the site of the present Church of St. John the Baptist and housed the Chapel of the Guild of St. John. The Guild was founded in 1448 by the then Lord of the Manor, Lord Boteler of Sudeley who was the great benefactor.
In the centre of the town is the old Market Place where stands the remains of the 15th Century Market Cross, one of the few still existing in Warwickshire. It is composed of local stone but only the raised base of 3 steps and the shaft are left. Originally the cross had a four sided head with niches, each bearing in stone relief the Rood, the Trinity, St. Peter with the key and possibly the Virgin and Child. The Cross was saved from destruction during the 17th Century by being covered with a shed - probably attached to the old Market Hall which was pulled down in 1793. The head of the Cross gradually mouldered away, finally falling off and being lost about 1894. Proclamations have been made from the Cross for five centuries, and, in our time declarations of national importance such as the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1952 and her Jubilee in 1977 were made from the Cross.
The one mile of Henley High Street is classified as a Conservation Area and contains many buildings of architectural interest. The Guild Hall is a half-timbered Elizabethan building and stands to the north of the Church and has been extensively restored though many of the original timbers remain. The meetings of the ancient Court Leet and Court Baron, the feudal courts for the administration of justice within the Manor were revived in 1915 and take place in the Guild Hall annually with traditional ceremony, for the appointment of High Bailiff and other officers of the court. In 1976 under a new statute this court is exempt from the Act which abolishes extinct and antiquated courts. Thus annual meetings will still take place to elect officers and administer the Guild Hall Trust, which owns the Guild Hall and other property in the town and also maintains the Riverside Gardens in Beaudesert Lane.
The Guild Hall and Walled Garden can be viewed by application to the Custodian at the Guild Cottage, through the passage to the north of the Guild Hall and on the right hand side. The very beautiful garden is entered through the grille gate in the passageway.
(Source: The Story of St Johns Parish Church Henley-in-Arden and St Nicholas Church Beaudesert)