White Swan Hotel in Henley C 1500

Henley in Arden pre 1066

Henley was a small part of the lands held in Wootton Wawen by Robert de Toeni, subsequently known as Robert de Stafford. According to records at Henley-in-Arden’s Heritage Centre, it is probable that The White Swan took its name from the crests of the Staffords. 

Immediately before the Norman Conquest, the land had been held by the Saxon thane Wagen (subsequently corrupted to Wawen). The Norman settlers at Beaudesert gave it its name, meaning “beautiful waste”. Title passed from the Count of Meulan to Henry de Newburgh, Earl of Warwick and subsequently to the latter’s great nephew Thurstan, the first of the de Montforts of Beaudesert. It was he who built the castle on the land known as “the Mount” across the road from The White Swan Hotel.

de Montfort’s Castle of Beaudesert

Henley-in-Arden grew under the protection of the de Montfort’s Castle of Beaudesert which was built towards the end of the 11th century. The exposed bit of wall you can see by table 9 in the bar area today is said to be wall stone taken from the castle.

After Henry III’s victory at the Battle of Evesham (1265) the de Montforts’ castle at Beaudesert was destroyed because of the leading part they played in the revolt against the King.

The village of Henley-in-Arden rose from the ruins. The castle site is marked today only by a large mound which lies near to the Church of St Nicholas, across the road from The White Swan Hotel.

The White Swan – 1352 onwards

An Inn has existed on this site since 1352 and The White Swan was first documented in 1358. The current White Swan was erected between 1550 and 1565.

In August 1608 the tenant was a Mr Tomas Kirby and it was described as “An Inn called the Swan with barns and stables, orchards and courtyards”.

It is also documented in the Heritage Centre, that King Charles II most probably stayed here disguised as a groom as he fled the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester 1651. He was on his way to Bristol.

In 1663 the Hearth Tax returns state that the White Swan had 6 hearths, the largest number in the town at that time.

The poet William Shenstone (1714–1763) was inspired by The White Swan to write his famous lines: “Whoever has travelled life’s dull round, Wherever his stages may have been, May sigh to think he still has found, The warmest welcome at an inn.”

Some time after Shenstone wrote ‘The warmest welcome at an Inn’, the current fireplace was installed and you can still see the inscription of the year 1735 on it today.

During the time of stagecoaches, the White Swan was a well known 30 mile Staging Post on the route from Lichfield to London.

A copy of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary can be seen in the Johnson Suite at the White Swan
A copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary can be seen in the Johnson Suite at the White Swan

The White Swan was in the limelight again in 1776 when it was frequented by Samuel Johnson (born in Lichfield in 1709). He is said to have spent time here working on one of the most influential versions of the English dictionary.

A famous travel diarist John Byng whose diaries were recorded between 1781 and 1794 is thought to have first visited Henley on 5th July 1781. In Jonathan Dovey’s “History of Henley-in-Arden” he says that John Byng made a stop at Henley in July 1792 and that “John Byng stayed at the (White) Swan and had food and drink for 2s 2d”. According to the National Archives in 1790, 2s 2d  would have been worth approximately £8.32 in 2017. Not far off the cost of a main meal on our lunchtime menu today!

For a short time in the 1950’s Cygnets Bar at The White Swan was a Children’s Bar where children went for soft drinks while the grown ups had their much more interesting tipples in the main bar.

Daisy wheel discovery in the 16th century house

Recently found on timbers in the cottage attached to the White Swan, is a carved daisy wheel. Found in the timbers of 16th and 17th century houses – particularly around door frames and fire places – it is a symbol to ward off witches or evil from entering the property and leaving a curse. Usually carved by a child. A girl has been seen regularly in or around the cottage but no one knows who she is. To our knowledge, it works!

Recently found on timbers in the cottage attached to the White Swan, is a carved daisy wheel

The White Swan ghosts

The local Court was held at the Inn from 1845 to 1903. Then, the Courtyard of The White Swan was used for public hangings and a lady ghost was said to linger for some years following her execution for murder.

Another of the Inn’s famous ghosts is that of an 18 year old lady of the night named Virginia Black. She was said to have died after falling down the stairs during a quarrel with a gentleman in 1845. Virginia used to haunt the corridor outside bedroom 17 but guests need not fear as she has not been seen in recent years! However, do let us know if you encounter anything unusual during your stay!!

In 1855 the lawn to the rear of the hotel was a Bowling Green and in 1908 the adjacent walk through to the railway was created.

During Georgian times it was en vogue to cover timbering, but during renovation works in 1935, the plaster was removed to reveal the original middle 16th century beams.

The White Swan on television

In the 1980s the Actor Michael Elphick became landlord of The White Swan. He is best remembered for his role as Ken Boon in the hit series “Boon” (1986). He died tragically at the early age of 55.

During the filming of “I bought a Vampire Motorcycle” in 1990, in which Neil Morrisey played a despatch rider, The White Swan was used for catering and also provided accommodation for the actors and actresses.

The pandemic

In more recent times, The White Swan shut as did many venues during the pandemic of 2020.  We are fortunate to have reopened to continue business as usual.

Nigel and Maria welcome everyone back to the White Swan in Henley

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