The Past and Present of The Relais Henley
Step into the pages of history
The inn’s historic role at the centre of life in Henley-on-Thames is written into our ancient timber and stone.
From the 1530s when it housed the craftsmen who built St Mary’s Church, later hosting King Charles I, the First Duke of Marlborough and a pageant of personalities, The Relais Henley has been part of the social fabric woven around the River Thames, Oxfordshire and England itself.
Redolent of history, our ancient walls originally housed the craftsmen who built the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in the mid-16th century. The exposed beams in the Quarterdeck Bar date from this era. An earlier, 14th-century Chantry House, home of the chantry priests and later a school, can be seen in the courtyard forming part of the west wing.
According to a historic lease, the property became a hotel in 1732, known from then as The Red Lion. The brick façade was added in Georgian times and in 1889 a central hall was created, where once an archway had led to the courtyard.
A number of our guestrooms are named after notable guests who stayed in these actual rooms. In the days of slow travelling, King Charles I stopped on his way from London to Oxford in 1632, and again in 1642 with Prince Rupert, during the English Civil War. His painted Royal Coat of Arms is preserved over the fireplace in room 108.
The Red Lion was also the regular resting place of the 1st Duke of Marlborough on his way from Blenheim Palace to London. He had room 109 furnished with his own pieces, which remained there until 1849, well over 100 years after his death.
The poet William Shenstone, staying in 1750, is reputed to have carved his famous words into a pane of glass with a diamond, although today only a replica exists:
Who'er has travelled life's dull round,
Wher'er his stage may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome at an Inn.
Boswell and Johnson stayed in 1776 , and on 12 July 1788 King George III took breakfast in the hotel, accompanied by his wife Queen Charlotte, Queen Wilhelmina and Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth. The Prince Regent, later George IV, is also reputed to have visited, on one occasion consuming no fewer than 14 chops – for which the hostess, Mrs Dixon, was widely commended.
At one time, at least 17 coaches were passing through Henley a day, and with the advent of the railway in 1857 the hotel advertised that, ‘An omnibus meets each train, and carriages of all sorts are to be hired.’ The hotel also owned large boathouses where ‘every kind of boat or rivercraft can be hired.’
The first University Boat Race was held at Henley on 10 June 1829, and the Royal Regatta followed, founded in 1839 with the finishing post right opposite The Red Lion. It is now a little further downstream. Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco, visited The Red Lion in 1947 when her brother Jack was competing in the Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta, which he went on to win that year. Room 205 is named in her honour.