Bedford is the county town of Bedfordshire, in the East of England. It lies in the south of the wider Borough of Bedford, of which it is the administrative centre. The Bedford Built-up Area - which includes Kempston, Elstow and Biddenham - forms the 69th largest Urban Area in England and Wales with a population of 106,940. The wider borough, including a rural area, had a population of 157,479.
Bedford was founded at a ford on the River Great Ouse, and is thought to have been the burial place of Offa of Mercia. Bedford Castle was built by Henry I, although it was destroyed in 1224. Bedford was granted borough status in 1165 and has been represented in Parliament since 1265. Bedford is included in the Bedford parliamentary constituency, which includes Kempston and is represented by Richard Fuller. Bedford is well-known for its large population of Italian descent. It also has an increasingly large south Asian population, especially Punjabis, and is home to the largest Sikh Gurdwara in the UK outside London.
The name of the town is thought to derive from the name of a Saxon chief called Beda, and a ford crossing the River Great Ouse. Bedford was a market town for the surrounding agricultural region from the early Middle Ages The Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia was buried in the town in 796. In 886 it became a boundary town separating Wessex and Danelaw. It was the seat of the Barony of Bedford. In 919 Edward the Elder built the town's first known fortress, on the south side of the River Ouse and there received the area's submission. This fortress was destroyed by the Danes. William II gave the barony of Bedford to Paine de Beauchamp who built a new, strong castle. The new Bedford Castle was razed in 1224 and today only a mound remains.
Bedford remained a small agricultural town, with wool being an important industry in the area for much of the Middle Ages. From the 16th century Bedford and much of Bedfordshire became one of the main centres of England's lace industry, and lace continued to be an important industry in Bedford until the early 20th century.
The River Great Ouse became navigable as far as Bedford in 1689. Wool declined in importance with brewing becoming a major industry in the town.
The 19th century saw Bedford transform into an important engineering hub. In 1832 Gas lighting was introduced, and the railway reached Bedford in 1846. The first Corn Exchange was built 1849, and the first drains and sewers were dug in 1864.