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The first record of Henley is from 1179, when it is recorded that King Henry II "had bought land for the making of buildings". King John granted the manor of Benson and the town and manor of Henley to Robert Harcourt in 1199. A church at Henley is first mentioned in 1204. In 1205 the town received a paviage[clarification needed] grant, and in 1234 the bridge is first mentioned. In 1278 Henley is described as a hamlet of Benson with a chapel. The street plan was probably established by the end of the 13th century.
As a demesne of the crown it was granted in 1337 to John de Molyns, whose family held it for about 250 years. It is said that members for Henley sat in parliaments of Edward I and Edward III, but no writs have been found to substantiate this.
The existing Thursday market, it is believed, was granted by a charter of King John. A market was certainly in existence by 1269; however, the jurors of the assize of 1284 said that they did not know by what warrant the earl of Cornwall held a market and fair in the town of Henley. The existing Corpus Christi fair was granted by a charter of Henry VI.
During the Black Death pandemic that swept through England in the 14th century, Henley lost 60% of its population.
A variation on its name can be seen as "Henley up a Tamys" in 1485.
By the beginning of the 16th century the town extended along the west bank of the Thames from Friday Street in the south to the Manor, now Phyllis Court, in the north and took in Hart Street and New Street. To the west it included Bell Street and the Market Place.
Henry VIII granted the use of the titles "mayor" and "burgess", and the town was incorporated in 1568 in the name of the warden, portreeves, burgesses and commonalty. The original charter was issued by Elizabeth I but replaced by one from George I in 1722.
Henley suffered at the hands of both parties in the Civil War. Later, William III rested here on his march to London in 1688, at the nearby recently rebuilt Fawley Court, and received a deputation from the Lords. The town's period of prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries was due to manufactures of glass and malt, and trade in corn and wool. Henley-on-Thames supplied London with timber and grain.
A workhouse to accommodate 150 people was built at West Hill in Henley in 1790, and was later enlarged to accommodate 250 as the Henley Poor Law Union workhouse.
Henley Bridge is a five arched bridge across the river built in 1786. It is a Grade I listed historic structure. During 2011 the bridge underwent a £200,000 repair programme after being hit by the boat Crazy Love in August 2010. About a mile upstream of the bridge is Marsh Lock.
Lloyds Bank's analysis of house price growth in 125 market towns in England over the year to June 2016 (using Land Registry data), found that Henley was the second-most expensive market town in the country with an average property price of £748,001.
Henley-on-Thames from the playground near the railway station
Henley is a world-renowned centre for rowing. Each summer the Henley Royal Regatta is held on Henley Reach, a naturally straight stretch of the river just north of the town. It was extended artificially. The event became "Royal" in 1851, when Prince Albert became patron of the regatta.
Other regattas and rowing races are held on the same reach, including Henley Women's Regatta, the Henley Boat Races for women's and lightweight teams between Oxford and Cambridge University, Henley Town and Visitors Regatta, Henley Veteran Regatta, Upper Thames Small Boats Head, Henley Fours and Eights Head, and Henley Sculls. These "Heads" often attract strong crews that have won medals at National Championships.
Sir Martyn Arbib led the Perpetual fund management company during the late 20th century, unusually based in Henley-on-Thames, rather than London. Arbib was a major benefactor in the establishment of the River and Rowing Museum at Henley, which opened in 1998.
Mary Blandy (1720-1752) lived at Blandy House her family's home in Henley, now a dental surgery. In 1752, she was hanged for the murder, by poisoning, of her father, Francis Blandy who had opposed her engagement to a Scottish man who was already married. She proclaimed on the day of the hanging in Oxford: "Gentlemen, don't hang me high for the sake of decency". Mary is buried with her parents at St Mary The Virgin's Church, despite that being forbidden at the time for a murderer. She is said to haunt the Kenton Theatre, the family house and St Mary's churchyard.
Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), British diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist was born in Henley-on-Thames.
American science fiction writer James Blish (1921-1975) lived in Henley from 1968 until his death.
Esther Deuzeville (1786-1851), as Esther Copley later a writer of children's books and works on domestic economy addressed to the working people, lived here with her parents until her marriage in 1809. There is a plaque to her and her family in the United Reformed Church.
The Freeman family of Fawley Court: Several generations of Freemans lived at Fawley Court on the outskirts of Henley from 1684 to 1852. They contributed significantly to the development of Henley and the surrounding area as well as more generally to architecture and the study of antiquities (John (Cooke) Freeman and Sambrooke Freeman), and veterinary science and equitation (Strickland Freeman).
Musician and former BeatleGeorge Harrison (1943-2001) purchased and restored the buildings and gardens of Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames in 1970, and lived there until his death. His widow, Olivia Harrison, continues to live on the estate. George and Olivia's only child, Dhani Harrison was raised at Friar Park.
Entrepreneur, philanthropist and workplace revolutionary Dame Stephanie Shirley lives in Henley with her husband.
Singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) has a gravesite and marker in the grounds of St Mary the Virgin parish church. Her ashes were scattered in Henley and in Ireland at the Cliffs of Moher. Each year her fans gather in Henley to celebrate "Dusty Day" on the closest Sunday to her birthday (16 April).
Sir Ninian Stephen, Australian judge and Governor-General of Australia (1982-1989) was born in Henley
BBC Radio Berkshire (94.6,95.4,104.1,104.4), Heart Berkshire (97.0, 102.9, 103.4), Reading 107 (107.0), all broadcast from Reading, serve an area including Henley, as does Time 106.6 (106.6) broadcast from Slough. London's radio stations such as Capital FM and Magic 105.4 along with a few others can also be received. Regatta Radio (87.7) is broadcast during Henley Royal Regatta.
As Henley is on an overlap of TV regions, it is possible to receive signals from both BBC London and BBC South transmitters, as well as ITV London and ITV Meridian (West). However, the local relay transmitter for Henley only broadcasts programmes from ITV and BBC London, making Henley the only part of Oxfordshire included within the London television region.