Before Roman times the area today known as Surrey was very probably occupied by the Atrebates tribe centred at Calleva Atrebatum in the modern county of Hampshire. They are known to have controlled the southern bank of the Thames from Roman texts describing the tribal relations between them and the powerful Catuvellauni on the north bank. In about 42AD King Cunobelinus (Welsh: Cynfelin ap Tegfan) of the Catuvellauni died and war broke out between his sons and King Verica of the Atrebates. The Atrebates were defeated in the conflict, their capital captured and their lands made subject to the Catuvellauni now led by Togodumnus ruling from Camulodunum. Verica fled to Gaul and appealed for Roman aid. The Atrebates were allies with Rome during their invasion of Britain in 43AD. The area of Surrey was traversed by Stane Street and other less well known Roman roads. There were Roman temples on Farley Heath and near Wanborough.

During the 5th and 6th centuries Surrey was conquered and settled by Saxons. The names of a number of Saxon tribes who may have inhabited different parts of Surrey in this period have been conjectured on the basis of place names. These include the Godhelmingas (around Godalming), Tetingas (around Tooting) and Woccingas (between Woking and Wokingham in Berkshire). It has also been speculated that the Nox gaga and the Oht gaga tribes listed in the Mercian Tribal Hidage refer to two distinct groups living in Surrey. They were valued together at 7,000 hides. Surrey may have formed part of a larger Middle Saxon kingdom or confederacy also including areas north of the Thames. The name Surrey is derived from Suthrige, meaning "southern region", and this may originate in its status as the southern half of the Middle Saxon territory.

If it ever existed, the Middle Saxon kingdom had disappeared by the 7th century, and Surrey became a frontier area disputed between the kingdoms of Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex and Mercia, until its permanent absorption by Wessex in 825. Despite this fluctuating situation it retained its identity as a coherent territorial unit. During the 7th century Surrey became Christian and initially formed part of the East Saxon diocese of London, indicating that it was under East Saxon rule at that time, but was later transferred to the West Saxon diocese of Winchester. Its most important religious institution throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond was Chertsey Abbey, founded in 666. At this point Surrey was evidently under Kentish domination, as the abbey was founded under the patronage of King Ecgberht of Kent. However, a few years later at least part of it was subject to Mercia, since in 673-5 further lands were given to Chertsey Abbey by Frithuwald, a local sub-king (subregulus) ruling under the sovereignty of Wulfhere of Mercia. A decade later Surrey passed into the hands of King Caedwalla of Wessex, who also conquered Kent and Sussex and founded a monastery at Farnham in 686, and it remained under the control of Caedwalla's successor Ine in the early 8th century. Its political history for most of the 8th century is unclear, although it may have been under South Saxon control around 722, but by 784-5 it had passed into the hands of King Offa of Mercia. Mercian rule continued until 825, when following his victory over the Mercians at the Battle of Ashdown, King Egbert of Wessex seized control of Surrey, along with Sussex, Kent and Essex. It was incorporated into Wessex as a shire and continued thereafter under the rule of the West Saxon kings, who eventually became kings of all England.

Identified sub-kings of Surrey

  • Frithuwold (c.673 - 675)
  • Frithuric? (675 - c.686)

In the 9th century England was afflicted, along with the rest of north-western Europe, by the attacks of Scandinavian Vikings. Surrey's inland position shielded it from coastal raiding, so that it was not normally troubled except by the largest and most ambitious Scandinavian armies. In 851 an exceptionally large invasion force of Danes arrived in the mouth of the Thames on a fleet of about 350 ships, which would have carried over 15,000 men. Having sacked Canterbury and London and defeated King Beorhtwulf of Mercia in battle, the Danes crossed the Thames into Surrey, but were slaughtered by a West Saxon army led by King Aethelwulf in the Battle of Aclea, perhaps around Ockley, bringing the invasion to an end. In 892 Surrey was the scene of another important battle when a large Danish army, variously reported at 200, 250 and 350 ship-loads, moved west from its encampment in Kent. It was intercepted and defeated at Farnham by an army led by Alfred the Great's son Edward, the future King Edward the Elder, and fled across the Thames towards Essex.

Its location and the growing power of the West Saxon, later English, kingdom kept Surrey safe from attack for over a century thereafter. Kingston was the scene for the coronation of Aethelstan in 924 and Aethelred the Unready in 978, and, according to later tradition, of other tenth century Kings of England as well. The renewed Danish attacks during the disastrous reign of Aethelred led to the devastation of Surrey by the army of Thorkell the Tall, which ravaged all of south-eastern England in 1009-11. The climax of this wave of attacks came in 1016, which saw prolonged fighting between the forces of King Edmund Ironside and the Danish king Cnut, including an English victory over the Danes somewhere in north-eastern Surrey, but ended with the Danish conquest of England and the establishment of Cnut as king.

Cnut's death in 1035 was followed by a period of political uncertainty as the succession was disputed between his sons. In 1036 Alfred, son of Aethelred the Unready, returned from Normandy, where he had been taken for safety as a child at the time of Cnut's conquest of England. It is uncertain what his intentions were, but after landing with a small retinue in Sussex he was met by Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who escorted him in apparently friendly fashion to Guildford. Having taken lodgings there, Alfred's men were attacked as they slept and massacred by Godwin's followers, while the prince himself was blinded and imprisoned, dying shortly afterwards. This butchery must have contributed to the antipathy between Godwin and Alfred's brother Edward the Confessor, who came to the throne in 1042. This hostility was of critical importance in bringing about the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Domesday Book records that the largest landowners in Surrey at the end of Edward's reign were Chertsey Abbey and Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later king, followed by the estates of King Edward himself. Apart from the abbey, most of whose lands were within the shire, Surrey was the not the principal focus of any major landowner's holdings, a tendency which was to persist in later periods. Given the vast and widespread landed interests and the national and international preoccupations of the monarchy and the earldom of Wessex, the Abbot of Chertsey was therefore probably the most important figure in the local elite.

The Anglo-Saxon period saw the emergence of the shire's internal division into 14 hundreds, which continued until Victorian times. These were the hundreds of Blackheath, Brixton, Copthorne, Effingham Half-Hundred, Elmbridge, Farnham, Godalming, Godley, Kingston, Reigate, Tandridge, Wallington, Woking and Wotton.

Identified ealdormen of Surrey

  • Wulfheard (c.823)
  • Huda (? - 853)
  • Æðelweard (late 10th century)
  • Æðelmær (? - 1016)

After the Battle of Hastings, the Norman army advanced through Kent into Surrey, where they defeated an English force which attacked them at Southwark, before proceeding westwards on a circuitous march to reach London from the north-west. As was the case across England, the native ruling class of Surrey was virtually eliminated by Norman seizure of land. Only one significant English landowner, the brother of the last English Abbot of Chertsey, remained by the time the Domesday survey was conducted in 1086. At that time the largest landholding in Surrey, as in many other parts of the country, was the expanded royal estate, while the next largest holding belonged to Richard fitz Gilbert, founder of the de Clare family.

In 1088, King William I  granted William de Warenne the title of Earl of Surrey as a reward for Warenne's loyalty during the rebellion that followed the death of William I. When the male line of the Warennes became extinct in the 14th century the earldom was inherited by the Fitzalan Earls of Arundel. The Fitzalan line of Earls of Surrey became extinct in 1415 but the title was revived in the late 15th century for the Howard family who still hold it. However, Surrey was not the principal focus of any of these families' interests.

Guildford Castle, one of many fortresses originally established by the Normans as part of the process of subjugating the country, was developed as a royal palace in the 12th century. Farnham Castle was built during the 12th century as a residence for the Bishop of Winchester, while other stone castles were constructed in the same period at Bletchingley by the de Clares and at Reigate by the Warennes. During King John's struggle with the barons, Magna Carta was issued in June 1215 at Runnymede. In the following year Surrey was overrun by forces supporting Prince Louis of France, who passed through on their way from London to Winchester and back and occupied Guildford and Reigate castles. Guildford Castle later became one of the favourite residences of King Henry III, who considerably expanded the palace there. In 1264, during the baronial revolt against Henry III, the rebel army of Simon de Montfort passed southwards through Surrey on their way to the Battle of Lewes in Sussex. Although the rebels were victorious, soon after the battle royal forces captured and destroyed Bletchingley Castle, whose owner Gilbert de Clare was one of de Montfort's leading supporters. By the 14th century castles were of dwindling military importance, but continued to be a mark of social prestige, leading to the construction of castles at Betchworth by Lord Cobham and at Starborough near Lingfield by John Fitzalan, whose father had recently inherited the Earldom of Surrey.

Surrey had little political or economic importance in the Middle Ages. It was not the main power-base of any major aristocratic family or the seat of a bishopric, while its agricultural wealth was limited by its generally poor soils. Population pressure in the 12th and 13th centuries led to the beginning of the gradual deforestation and agricultural development of the Weald, an area which had hitherto remained wooded due to the exceptional difficulty of farming its heavy clay soil. Urban development, excepting the London suburb of Southwark, was sapped by the overshadowing predominance of London and the major towns in neighbouring shires, many of which benefited from access to the sea or from political or ecclesiastical eminence. Surrey did however achieve a significant degree of prosperity in the later Middle Ages through its role in the production of woollen cloth, England's main export industry, which in Surrey was centred on Guildford.

One benefit of obscurity was that Surrey largely avoided being seriously fought over in the various rebellions and civil wars of the period, although armies from Kent heading for London passed through what was then north-eastern Surrey during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, Cade's Rebellion in 1450 and one stage of the Wars of the Roses in 1460.

In 1082 a Cluniac abbey was founded at Bermondsey by Alwine, a wealthy English citizen of London. The first Cistercian monastery in England, Waverley Abbey, was founded in 1128. Over the next quarter-century monks spread out from here to found new houses, creating a network of twelve monasteries descended from Waverley across southern and central England. The 12th and early 13th centuries also saw the establishment of Augustinian priories at Merton, Newark, Tandridge, Southwark and Reigate. A Dominican friary was established at Guildford by Henry III's widow Eleanor of Provence, in memory of her grandson who had died at Guildford in 1274. In the 15th century a Carthusian priory was founded by King Henry V at Sheen. These would all perish, along with the still important Benedictine abbey of Chertsey, in the 16th-century Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Although now fallen into disuse, some English counties had nicknames for people from that county, such as a Tyke from Yorkshire and a Yellowbelly from Lincolnshire; the traditional nickname for people from Surrey is 'Surrey Capon', as it was well known in the later Middle Ages as the county where chickens were fattened up for the London meat markets.

Under the early Tudor kings magnificent royal palaces were constructed in northern Surrey, in convenient proximity to London. At Richmond an existing royal residence was rebuilt on a grand scale under King Henry VII, who also founded a Franciscan friary nearby in 1499. The still more spectacular palace of Nonsuch was later built for Henry VIII near Ewell. The palace at Guildford Castle had fallen out of use long before, but a royal hunting lodge existed just outside the town. All these have since been demolished.

During the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 the rebels heading for London briefly occupied Guildford and fought a skirmish with a government detachment on Guildown outside the town, before marching on to Blackheath in Kent where they were crushed by a royal army. The forces of Wyatt's Rebellion in 1554 passed through what was then north-eastern Surrey on their way from Kent to London, briefly occupying Southwark and then crossing the Thames at Kingston after failing to storm London Bridge.

Surrey's cloth industry declined in the 16th century, and effectively collapsed in the 17th. The introduction of new furnace technology in the early 17th century led to an expansion of the iron industry in the Weald, whose rich deposits had been exploited since prehistoric times, but this hastened the extinction of the business as the mines were worked out. However, this period also saw the emergence of important new industries, centred on the valley of the Tillingbourne. The production of brass goods and wire in this area was relatively short-lived, but the manufacture of paper and gunpowder proved more enduring. For a time in the mid-17th century the Surrey mills were the main producers of gunpowder in England. The Wey Navigation, opened in 1653, was one of England's first canal systems.

George Abbot, the son of a Guildford clothworker, served as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1611-33. In 1619 he founded Abbot's Hospital, an almshouse in Guildford, which is still operating. He also made unsuccessful efforts to revitalise the ailing local cloth industry. One of his brothers, Robert, became Bishop of Salisbury and another, Maurice, was a founding shareholder of the East India Company who became the company's governor and later Lord Mayor of London.

Bankside in Southwark, then part of Surrey, was the principal entertainment district of early modern London. This was due to its convenient location outside the jurisdiction of the government of the City of London, since the social control exercised over this London suburb by the local authorities of Surrey was less effectively restrictive. As a result this was where the city's theatres were located and was the setting for the golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, with the work of playwrights including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and John Webster being performed in playhouses along the south bank of the Thames.

Surrey almost entirely escaped the direct impact of fighting during the main phase of the English Civil War. The local Parliamentarian gentry led by Sir Richard Onslow were able to secure the county without difficulty on the outbreak of war. Farnham Castle was briefly occupied by the advancing Royalists in late 1642, but was easily stormed by the Parliamentarians under Sir William Waller. A new Royalist offensive in late 1643 saw skirmishing around Farnham between Waller's forces and Ralph Hopton's Royalists, but these brief incursions into the western fringes of Surrey marked the limits of Royalist advances on the county. During a political crisis in summer 1647 Sir Thomas Fairfax's army passed through Surrey on its way to occupy London, and subsequent billeting of troops in Surrey caused considerable discontent. In the brief Second Civil War of 1648 the Earl of Holland entered Surrey in July hoping to ignite a Royalist revolt. He raised his standard at Kingston and advanced south, but found little support. After confused manoeuvres between Reigate and Dorking as Parliamentary troops closed in, his force of 500 men fled northwards and was overtaken and routed at Kingston.

Surrey had a prominent role in the development of the radical political movements unleashed by the civil war. In October 1647 the first manifesto of what became known as the Leveller movement, The Case of the Army Truly Stated, was drafted at Guildford by the elected representatives of New Model Army regiments and civilian radicals from London. This document combined the presentation of specific grievances with wider demands for constitutional change on the basis of popular sovereignty. It formed the basis for the more systematic and radical Agreement of the People, drafted by the same men later that month, and led to the Putney Debates between its signatories and the army leadership. In 1649 the Diggers led by Gerrard Winstanley established a communal settlement at St. George's Hill to implement their egalitarian ideals of common ownership, but were eventually driven out by the local landowners through violence and litigation. A smaller Digger commune was then established near Cobham, but suffered the same fate in 1650.

Until the late 18th century Surrey, apart from its north-eastern corner, was sparsely populated and somewhat rustic, despite its proximity to the capital. Communications began to improve, and the influence of London to increase, with the development of turnpike roads and a stagecoach system. A far more profound transformation followed with the arrival of the railways, beginning in the late 1830s. The availability of rapid transportation enabled prosperous London workers to travel daily to homes across Surrey. This phenomenon of commuting brought explosive growth to Surrey's population and wealth, and tied its economy and society inextricably to London. Existing towns like Guildford, Farnham and most spectacularly Croydon grew rapidly, while new towns such as Woking and Redhill emerged beside the railway lines.

Meanwhile London itself spread swiftly across north-eastern Surrey. In 1800 it extended only to Vauxhall; a century later the city's growth had reached as far as Putney and Streatham. This expansion was reflected in the creation of the County of London in 1889, detaching the areas subsumed by the city from Surrey. The expansion of London continued in the 20th century, engulfing Croydon, Kingston and many smaller settlements. This led to a further contraction of Surrey in 1965 with the creation of Greater London.

In 1849 Brookwood Cemetery was established near Woking to serve the population of London, connected to the capital by its own railway service. It soon developed into the largest burial ground in the world. Woking was also the site of Britain's first crematorium, which opened in 1878, and its first mosque, founded in 1889. In 1881 Godalming became the first town in the world with a public electricity supply.

The eastern part of Surrey was transferred from the Diocese of Winchester to that of Rochester in 1877. In 1905 this area was detached to form a new Diocese of Southwark. The rest of the county, together with part of eastern Hampshire, was separated from Winchester in 1927 to become the Diocese of Guildford, whose cathedral was consecrated in 1961.

During the later 19th century Surrey became increasingly important in the development of architecture in Britain and the wider world. Its traditional building forms were of key significance in shaping the widespread trend for English vernacular architecture associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its influence was driven in particular by the work of Richard Norman Shaw, and would continue to shape domestic building through the 20th century. The architectural prominence of Surrey peaked in the 1890s, when it was the focus for the early work of Edwin Lutyens and Charles Voysey among others, which was of global importance.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the demise of Surrey's long-standing industries manufacturing paper and gunpowder. Most of the county's paper mills closed around the turn of the century and the last survivor shut in 1928. Gunpowder production fell victim to the First World War, which brought about a huge expansion of the British munitions industry, followed by sharp contraction and consolidation when the war ended, leading to the closure of the Surrey powder mills. New industrial developments included the establishment of the vehicle manufacturers Dennis Brothers in Guildford in 1895. Beginning as a maker of bicycles and then of cars, the firm soon shifted into the production of commercial and utility vehicles, becoming internationally important as a manufacturer of fire engines and buses. Though much reduced in size and despite numerous changes of ownership, this business continues to operate in Guildford.

During the Second World War a section of the GHQ Stop Line, a system of pillboxes, gun emplacements, anti-tank obstacles and other fortifications was constructed along the North Downs. This line, running from Somerset to Yorkshire, was intended as the principal fixed defence of London and the industrial core of England against the threat of invasion. German invasion plans envisaged that the main thrust of their advance inland would cross the North Downs at the gap in the ridge formed by the Wey valley, thus colliding with the defence line around Guildford.

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