Guildford is indisputably the county town of Surrey for it is here that the High Sheriff of Surrey proclaims the new monarch. This last happened, of course, in 1952. The name of Guildford probably means 'golden ford' from the colour of the sand in the river bed at this ancient crossing place. It is first recorded in the will of King Alfred the Great in about 880 A.D., but its origins must go back well before that date. There are suggestions that a Roman road passed along the narrow Wey gap cut by the river through the North Downs. Here it met the ancient trackway running along the Downs, which was labelled the 'Pilgrims' Way' by Victorian historians.
Early in the 10th century Guildford was developed as a fortified town or 'burh', replacing the 'burh' at Eashing near Godalming. There is evidence that the town was enlarged and deliberately planned at this time and that land on either side of what became the High Street was laid out in long, narrow strips known as 'burgage plots'. The first Guildford bridge may also have been built in this period. Guildford had already developed as the premier commercial centre in west Surrey and this is confirmed by the fact that a mint was established here during the reign of King Edward the Martyr (975-979). The church of St Mary in Quarry Street was rebuilt in about 1050 and most of the tower of that date survives. In the Domesday Survey of 1086 Guildford is the only place in the present county of Surrey to be given town status.
Soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066 the first castle was constructed at Guildford. The castle became an important royal residence in the 12th and 13th centuries but thereafter was neglected. In 1611 James I sold it to Francis Carter, a Guildford merchant, who initially lived in the keep or 'Great Tower'. It was then unroofed and used for cock fights before eventually being purchased by Guildford Borough Council in 1885 along with the surrounding grounds. The area was then converted into a pleasant public garden. Recently the tower, which dates from the 12th century, has been re-roofed and re-floored and is now a popular tourist attraction. In Castle Hill is a house called 'The Chestnuts' where Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice, died in 1898. He is buried in The Mount Cemetery on the west side of the town.
In the medieval period Guildford became a major centre for the production of woollen cloth but the trade died out in the 16th century. In 1653 the Wey Navigation was opened linking Guildford by water to the Thames near Weybridge and thus on to London. It was a great boost to the town's economy which by this time was based, as it is today, on its markets and commercial retailing.
Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Portsmouth rapidly developed as England's most important naval station. Traffic on the road from London to the port dramatically increased and Guildford found itself conveniently placed nearly halfway along the route. The town was already famous for the quality of its inns which lined the High Street, such as the Red Lion, the White Hart and the Angel, and now these brought even more wealth to the town. Only the Angel survives today as a reminder of the heady days of the coaching age.
In 1927 the Diocese of Guildford was created. Initially, Holy Trinity Church at the top of High Street served as a 'proto-cathedral' but work began in 1936 to construct a new cathedral, designed by Edward Maufe, on Stag Hill just outside the town. Work was interrupted by the Second World War but the cathedral was finally consecrated in the presence of the Queen in 1961.
The railway came to Guildford in 1845 and the town soon entered a new era as a highly regarded residential town for those who worked in London. But Guildford still retains a vibrant commercial centre with a large catchment area that stretches well beyond the county boundaries into Sussex and Hampshire.