Shepperdine is a tiny settlement on the east shore of the Severn Estuary, SW of Berkeley, NW of Thornbury, and was once under the rule of the Berkeleys of Berkeley Castle, who hunted the now lost Horwood Forest that covered the area all the way to Bristol. This little part of England has not changed in centuries, but will soon be loomed over by a new nuclear power station, which will dominate everything and banish the past. So I am writing something about Shepperdine as I’ve known about it.
Shepperdine is generally referred to along with the manor of Hill, which is very close by. Hill was included in a grant of the Barony of Berkeley, bestowed upon Robert Fitzharding by Henry II after his accession in 1154. The manor stayed in the Berkeley family until coming into the possession of Robert Poyntz of nearby Iron Acton in 1418, whose family held it until 1609. I do not know much more of its history, except that the present manor house is a 19th-century building that replaced an earlier one.
It is said that Joseph of Arimathea didn’t only come to Glastonbury to strike his staff into the ground so that a holy thorn tree grew. No, indeed. Gloucestershire claims he visited Shepperdine too, and struck the ground with his staff again so that a second holy thorn grew, and, like Glastonbury, supposedly bloomed at Christmas. Unlikely? Well, no more so than Glastonbury’s claim, because Shepperdine is only a short voyage up the coast. I must come clean here, and admit that the story is probably the invention of a solitary priest in a nearby medieval chapel (now known as Chapel House) to boost income and alleviate his boredom.
Part of the flat, marshy, dyke-crossed land between Hill and the estuary is known as the World’s End, and appropriately so. There, right beneath the sea wall, is Shepperdine, lonely, isolated, atmospheric and thought-provoking. It has also been known as Shepherdine and Shipperdine, and takes its name from the Danish vessels that beached here in Anglo-Saxon times, safe between the Severn and Horwood Forest.
Berkeley Vale has always been an area of farms, fields, orchards, sleepy villages and little winding back roads. It is famous for cider, perry, Single and Double Gloucester cheese, and all the other produce that comes from the rich land that lies in the lee of the sea defence. Stand on the levee with your back to the vale, and there is the wild, dangerously tidal Severn estuary, beyond which rise the hills of Wales and the Forest of Dean. From the Severn comes the wonderful harvest of the sea, salmon, eels and elvers, and all manner of other sea life. The vale has always had everything it needs, and had no need to change, which is why it is as unspoilt now as it always has been. As a matter of interest, Horwood Forest was disafforested in 1228, and to be certain of what this meant, I looked it up. Disafforest means to “reduce from the privileges of a forest to the state of ordinary land : exempt from the forest laws”.
A walk along the sea wall (on top of which passes the Severn Way footpath) is to breathe more freely and clear the cobwebs that we all accumulate in our heads. But I feel sorry for that priest on his own in the chapel, because to have such bracing, stimulating air day-in, day-out would be a little overwhelming, especially on a bleak winter’s day, with the incoming tide roaring and the wind howling. Too much fresh air already! Or whatever he would have muttered in mediaeval Latin! To himself, because there was no one there to listen.
For centuries the only way of getting along this coast was by water, or on foot or horse. And sometimes there was no getting along there at all because of floods. Shepperdine would have been engulfed in the Great Flood of 1607 (which is now suggested to have been a tsunami).
The area has been on alert or inundated many times since then, and was in danger again in 2016
The Windbound Inn (closed in 2004 and now about to be/already is demolished) was only 7 metres above sea level, and nestled behind the levee that did not always protect it. The higher Severn tides can pour over the access to the Severn Way along the top of the levee. I read somewhere that water once poured down the inn’s chimneys to flood the place to a depth of four feet! What you see in the picture below is a modern first-floor gable extension, the original inn building is lower. The picture also shows how the inn huddles in the lee of the sea wall. In high tides, the water laps within feet of the building. In the distance in the photograph below you can see the old Severn suspension bridge, and a glimmer of the new crossing beyond it.
Here’s a fascinating anecdote of Shepperdine from 18th September 1954 or 55. Lord Noel Buxtun walked right across the estuary, guided by a local man’s knowledge. The lowest point of the river is between Aylburton and Shepperdine, and is an old Roman ford. A zig-zag course was worked out for Lord Noel to follow. At the deepest point the river came up to his chest, but he made it to the other side.
Rather him than me! Be stuck in the middle of a two-mile wide River Severn, right up to the chest? And stay sane enough to keep walking? To say nothing of trying to remember whether you were on the zig or the zag. Of course, you’d need to be lacking in sanity to make such a crossing in the first place. The Beachley-Aust ferry wasn’t far away to the south, and to the north you could drive around via Gloucester. Much more sensible. But then, I believe his lordship also crossed the Humber like this. And the Thames, which he miscalculated and had to swim part of the way. Say no more, really.
The following passage is taken from Severn Tide by Brian Waters, who also wrote Severn Stream, about the inland reaches of the river.
“The building [the mediaeval chapel] is now known as Chapel Cottages, and stands as a buttress of the sea wall where the land bends into the river, and where the main channel of the Severn curves toward the chapel. Navigational lights stand on the shore beside the building and they remind us that Thomas, Lord Berkeley, who founded the chapel in the fourteenth century, was a practical man. He gave ‘competent lands’ to maintain a priest to sing there, and under his heirs the house became a chantry until the Reformation. It stands exactly opposite the monastic chapel of Woolaston across the river. The chapel served the secular purpose of being a guide to shipping and a landmark to sailors.
“One of its priests wrote this Latin phrase about the parish of Hill: ‘Hieme mala, aestate molesta, nunquam bona’— ‘Evil in winter, grievous in summer, and never good’. But the holy thorn is not the only flower to bloom here in midwinter, in January I have seen the grass of the sea wall studded with daisies, and have even put my foot on five of them, for there is a saying in parts of Gloucestershire that if you can put your foot over five daises then spring is here…”
“…The chapel building has undergone many changes, but the four walls now standing , bleak and angular against the Severn, would appear to be the form of the original house. After the Reformation the chapel became a farmhouse, and only comparatively recently was it converted into cottages.”
What the original chapel looked like I cannot say, except that it would have been simple. Being got-at over the centuries has not improved its appearance!
It was derelict again when I walked there with my husband and daughter when she was a child, but is now a house again. We liked to go to the Windbound Inn and then stroll north along the embankment toward the chapel. Now the Windbound is no more, and soon there will be a new nuclear power station to tower over this amazing coastline. This will be to replace nearby Oldbury, which has been decommissioned.
Like Jane, Rosamund seemed to have received a generally benign treatment from historians and later writers, despite one of her contemporaries, Gerald of Wales, making a cruel pun on her name and calling her ‘The Rose of Unchastity.’ In comparison Edward III’s young mistress Alice Perrers, was often depicted as greedy and grasping, and King John’s mistress, ‘queen’ Clementia, was mocked for giving herself regal airs and graces. Just as writers from Thomas More onwards lauded Jane Shore for her beauty and generosity and overlooked her dubious liaisons with William Hastings and Thomas Grey, Rosamund was generally seen in a wholly favourable manner, with her ‘rival,’ Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, taking the part of the villain, despite being the injured party, so to speak. Henry, a notorious womaniser just like his descendant Edward IV, seemed to get no blame for anything at all.
To my mind, it adds up to two very similar situations that are two centuries apart.
Let us begin in the 12th century. On his deathbed, Henry I of England named as his successor his only surviving child, his daughter, the Empress Matilda. He obliged the nobility to agree. They reneged, of course. A woman as queen in her own right? Cue mass hysteria among the male upper classes and uncontrollable fits of the vapours in the Church. And cue a sharp move by her cousin, Stephen, who promptly had himself crowned before she could even return to England.
To cut a long story short, Matilda fought first for herself, supported by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. When it became clear she would never be accepted because she was a woman, Matilda fought on behalf of her eldest son. He, thanks to her tireless efforts, eventually became Henry II—and yes, he is one of the two Henrys.
There was nothing Matilda would not have done to see her son on the throne, and her aim came to fruition. And when he was crowned, she became the highest woman in the realm. She wasn’t monarch in the own right, but came darned close!
Then came the time when Henry II chose a queen. Not just any queen, but beautiful, spirited Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a powerful, troublesome lady with a mind very much of her own, but was also prepared to scheme and manipulate on behalf of her sons by Henry. Against Henry.
Eleanor’s reputation was not squeaky clean. She had been married to the King of France, only for the marriage to be annulled and custody of their two daughters given to Louis. She had been on a Crusade with her husband, and halted at Antioch, where she encountered her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, who was described by William of Tyre as “a lord of noble descent, of tall and elegant figure, the handsomest of the princes of the earth, a man of charming affability and conversation, open-handed and magnificent beyond measure“. There were whispers because Raymond and Eleanor spent such a great deal of time together and seemed so very intimate. She quite clearly found her uncle preferable to her husband. The whispers increased when she declined to leave Antioch with said husband, who eventually took her away by force. She was a lady to whom scandal seemed drawn, but it is only her ‘acquaintance’ with Raymond that is of interest for this article.
The difficulties between Henry and Eleanor commenced when the latter came up against Matilda, who was not about to surrender the position of First Lady. As far as Matilda was concerned, Eleanor was simply Henry’s wife, with no claim to any power. A baby-making machine, no more or less. Open warfare threatened.
Was Henry caught in the middle? Well, in a way, but he loved his mother because of all she had done to put him on the throne. Then (so the story goes) he fell for one of his many mistresses, a lady known as Fair Rosamund Clifford. It was too much for Eleanor. Already furious about playing second fiddle to Matilda, she now had to endure his immense infatuation for younger woman. Eleanor stormed off to her lands in Europe, there to plot with her sons against their father.
If you have seen the film The Lion in Winter, you will know that Eleanor and Henry were played by Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Oh, how the sparks and flames flew when they were on screen together. Eleanor was indeed very beautiful, but I don’t think Henry resembled O’Toole. According to Gerald of Wales [he had} “a reddish complexion, rather dark, and a large, round head. His eyes were grey, bloodshot, and flashed in anger. He had a fiery countenance, his voice was tremulous, and his neck a little bent forward; but his chest was broad, and his arms were muscular. His body was fleshy, and he had an enormous paunch, rather by the fault of nature than from gross feeding.” Definitely not the gorgeous Peter.
* * *
Now we must fast forward to the fifteenth century, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, yet another mother who would stop at nothing to see her son on the throne. Meet that son, Henry VII, the second Henry concerned in this article. Unlike Henry II, who was a direct blood heir, Henry VII’s forebears descended through a rather convoluted and weak line that included the bastard strain of the Beauforts (illegitimate offspring of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine de Roët.
When Henry, taking for himself the role of legitimate heir of the House of Lancaster, was helped to Richard III’s throne by traitors, his formidable mother became First Lady—she was known as the King’s Lady Mother. Like Matilda, Margaret also had a helpful half-brother, John Welles, Viscount Welles, but he was hardly in the same class as the mighty Robert of Gloucester.
Henry always supported whatever Margaret did. She was, perhaps, the only person he ever trusted completely. His was a suspicious, secretive, paranoid character. He was not a mother’s boy, but came pretty close.
Then he too took a wife. He had to, he’d promised it in order to win the support of discontented supporters of the House of York (to which his defeated predecessor, Richard III, had belonged). If Henry had tried to wriggle out of it, there would have been uproar, because the promise entailed marrying the eldest Yorkist princess, Richard III’s niece, Elizabeth. Henry VII did not like having to do as he was told, but wasn’t given much of a choice.
It is hard to imagine anyone less like Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth of York was reportedly lovely, but was mostly so quiet and apparently inactive that she barely offered a defiant squeak when Henry and his mother belittled her. She must have loathed Margaret, who swanned around almost as if she were the king, not Henry.
However, like Eleanor before her, Elizabeth had also been caught up in a scandal. It too involved an uncle, Richard III. There were strong rumours that something went on between uncle and niece—so strong that Richard was forced to deny it all in public. Whether there was any truth in it all will never be known, although I doubt very much that Richard returned any incestuous affection. That falls into the realm of fiction. He was intent upon arranging a foreign match for her. But the story clings to Elizabeth’s memory. Maybe she did love Richard, who, unlike his Shakespearean namesake, was actually a handsome young widower at the time in question.
Henry VII may have come to feel affection for his queen (perhaps because she was so unlike his domineering mother!) but she always took second place to Margaret. There is no known equivalent of Fair Rosamund in Henry’s life, so Elizabeth was never challenged on that score. Even if she had been, I doubt if she would have flounced off in a fury as Eleanor did. Perhaps Henry’s problem with his marriage was that he could not forget the rumours about Richard.
Maybe Elizabeth was one of those people who work quietly in the background, getting her own way when she wanted, but never openly defying either Henry or Margaret. Well, she did once, and Henry was so startled at the unexpected stamping of her Yorkist foot, that he backed down. I’d love to have been there, just for the joy of seeing his face.
So, there we have it. Two grimly determined mothers-in-law, two daughters-in law touched by rumours of incest and consigned to second place. And two Henrys who were loath to take on their mothers. Two M’s, two E’s and two H’s!
Matilda and Margaret could not have the throne in their own right, but were prepared to fight tooth and nail to put their sons there. Eleanor was another in the same mould, but Elizabeth of York was not. Neither daughter-in-law was afforded proper prominence in the eyes of her husband.
As for the Henrys, well, while their mothers could not rule alone as the true monarch (heaven forfend!) these sons were quite happy to lay claim the throne through the female line. So, a woman’s blood was good enough pass on to a son who would be crowned, but was next to worthless if she tried to assert herself by becoming “king”.
Recently Leicester has revamped one of its hotels to include a Richard III room. If you are on the road in the Midlands, perhaps visiting Nottingham Castle (where Richard spent considerable time during his short reign and which is currently undergoing a rehaul of visitor facilities that should hopefully see more mention of Richard) another interesting place to consider staying is Bestwood Lodge, now a Best Western Hotel, which lies in Arnold, just 4 miles outside Nottingham city centre.
An eerie Gothic Victorian structure, looking for all the world like something straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery novel, Bestwood stands in the middle of parkland with miles of walks radiating out from it. Haunting and atmospheric, with tiled floors, spindly turrets, mock medieval statuary, ornate open fireplaces, and a rising central cupola, it has rooms dedicated to several of the kings who once stayed in the now-vanished royal hunting lodge lying buried deep beneath its foundations.
Richard III is one of the kings who visited Bestwood, and besides having a room named after him, he also is remembered in an ornamental plaque affixed to the wall in the ‘great hall’. It was at Bestwood, where Richard had retired to hunt in the forest, that he received the news that Henry Tudor and his forces had landed at Milford Haven.
A cross in the grounds near to the Lodge recounts the medieval history of Bestwood on its base:
BESTWOOD WAS FORMERLY A ROYAL RESIDENCE MUCH RESORTED TO BY THE EARLY ENGLISH KINGS FOR HUNTING IN SHERWOOD FOREST,/ EDWARD III, BY HIS LETTERS PATENT, DATED AT HIS PARK OF BESTWOOD 1st SEPTEMBER 37.E.3 (1364) PARDONED AND RELEASED CERTAIN/ RENTS ISSUING OUT OF “LINDEBY HAY AND BULLWELL RISE, TO THE PRIORY OF NEWSTEDE.” AND IN THE INQUISITION TAKEN AT St./ JOHN’S HOUSE, NOTTINGHAM.” THE FOURTH OF THE NONES OF JULY IN 35 HENRY III” (1251) BEFORE GEOFFREY LANGLEY, JUSTICE OF/ THE FOREST, IT IS CALLED A “HAY OR PARK OF OUR LORD THE KING WHEREIN NO MAN COMMONS” AND EARLIER STILL, KING HENRY 1st/ GRANTED TO THE PRIORY OF LENTON TO HAVE “TWO CARTS TO FETCH DEAD WOOD AND HEATH OUT OF BESCWOOD”. HENRY II, ABOUT 1160/ GRANTED THE CONVENT TO HAVE EVERY DAY “TWO CARTS OF THREE CARRETTS TO BRING THEM DEAD WOOD OR HEATH, AS MUCH AS THEY/ SHOULD NEED FOR THEIR OWN USE.” IN AUGUST 1485, ACCORDING TO THE “YORK CITY RECORDERS”, RICHARD III WAS AT BESKWOOD/ FOR THE PURPOSE OF HUNTING WHEN HE HEARD OF THE NEAR APPROACH OF HIS RIVAL HENRY TUDOR, AFTERWARDS HENRY VII./ THOROTON, WHO WROTE IN THE YEAR 1677, SAYS, IT, BESKWOOD HATH A VERY FAIR LODGE IN IT, AND IN RESPECT TO THE/ PLEASANT SITUATION OF THE PLACE, AND CONVENIENCY OF HUNTING AND PLEASURE THIS PARK AND LODGE HATH, FOR THESE MANY/ YEARS, BEEN THE DESIRE AND ACHIEVEMENT OF GREAT MEN.
Bestwood is also supposed to be haunted—but not by Richard. Rather, it is the mistress of Charles II, Nell Gwyn, who floats unseen through the hotel leaving behind the scent of fresh orange peel…
The palatial 17thc mansion called Amesbury Abbey (now a private nursing home) stands in beautiful landscaped gardens near the curve of the Avon and on the edge of the Stonehenge World Heritage Landscape.
The original monastic building from which it takes its name, the Fontrevraudine Priory of Amesbury, is long gone, a victim of Henry VIII’s Reformation—not one stone remains visible above ground (although rumours abound that a piece of external wall along the perimeter of the property might be medieval.) However, painted tiles dating between the 12th and 15th C often turn up when the gardeners do the rose-beds, along with fragments of glass and other relevant debris. This has recently led experts to pinpoint the probable position of the vanished priory church, standing slightly north of the present house.
The priory was originally built as a daughter house of Fontrevaud, after the town’s first abbey, founded in Saxon times by Queen Elfrida, was dissolved in 1177. The old Benedictine nuns were sent upon their way (most of them having supposedly lived scandalous lives!) and 21-24 nuns from Fontevraud in France were moved in, along with some English sisters from Worcestershire.
The early Plantagenets, who had a great affinity with Fontevraud, the final resting place of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I, greatly favoured the Amesbury daughter-house. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s foster daughter, Amiria, decided to take the veil there, and when Eleanor herself died in 1203, the prioress paid a rent from the Exchequer to the Abbess of Fontevrault to have a chaplain pray for Eleanor’s soul.
It was not all about religion. King John had rather secular dealings with the priory in 1215 when the barons were in revolt. He hid part of the royal treasury in the vaults for safekeeping.
In the reign of John’s son, Henry III, the priory seemed to come to renewed prominence. The king visited personally on several occasions and granted the priory nuts, firewood, wine, and a communion cup.Henry’s son, Edward I kept a close connection to the priory and sent his daughter, Mary of Woodstock, to join the order as a young girl. Mary seemed to enjoy travelling and playing cards more than she enjoyed being a nun, however; she ran up huge gambling debts to the tune of £200 while attending her father’s court. The 7th Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, also claimed to have had an affair with her. Her burial place is not known but it is very likely in Amesbury.
Mary’s cousin, Eleanor of Brittany also became a nun at Amesbury, but eventually she migrated overseas to the Abbey of Fontrevrault itself, where she rose in the ranks to become the abbess. There were a few conflicts with her cousin over the years, possibly because she disapproved of Mary’s less than nunly behaviour. Eleanor the Abbess of Fontevrault is not to be confused with an earlier Eleanor of Brittany, who willed her body to Amesbury after dying in a convent in Bristol. That Eleanor was the sister of Arthur of Brittany, most likely murdered by King John, and she was a prisoner for most of her adult life due to her closeness to the crown. Her remains might be in the older abbey (now the parish church of St Mary and St Melor) rather than in the lost priory, as it was because of St Melor, whose life story mirrored that of her unfortunate brother, that she wished to be interred at Amesbury.
The most famous resident of Amesbury Priory was Henry III’s widow, Queen Eleanor of Provence, who was Mary and Eleanor’s grandmother. She may never have become a fully professed nun and had her own private quarters built for her use. Eleanor was a strong woman, beautiful but not popular with her English subjects, and had at one time been appointed regent of England in her husband’s absence.
Originally, Eleanor had intended to be buried next to Henry III in Westminster Abbey, when the time came. However, a problem arose. The space had been usurped by the body of Eleanor of Castile, wife to her son Edward I, who had predeceased her; so, when Eleanor died in 1291, the nuns were not quite certain what to do with the body. They waited several months for the king to arrive and decide where she would be buried. When he finally reached Amesbury, he allowed his mother to be interred before the high altar in the priory church, with all due ceremony and many lords attending.
The last great lady of royal blood to reside in Amesbury priory was Isabel of Lancaster, daughter of Henry 3rd Earl of Lancaster. She arrived there in 1327 and ended up as prioress. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Crouchback, hence great granddaughter of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, showing that family connections were still strong.
The priory does not feature overmuch in records after the late 1300’s, although some of the floor tiles are 15th c. It is possible it fell on hard times during this period. After the death of her husband, Margaret, Lady Hungerford, resided at the priory between 1459 and 1463. While she was there her lodgings burnt down, destroying £1000 of her personal possessions. The nuns asked that she restore the damaged buildings; the cost to her was £20. In 1463 she Margaret left the convent when her son, Robert, 3rd Baron Hungerford, was executed at Newcastle after the Battle of Hexham. The Hungerford lands were seized by Edward IV, and divided between Richard of Gloucester and Lord Wenlock.
The priory was, naturally, dissolved in the Reformation. In 1540, it was given to Edward Seymour. A year later, the spire of the church was pulled down and the buildings roofs were torn off to take the lead.
Wind and weather soon took their toll and then later building and landscaping obliterated all that was left of this once-great religious house…which was not only a holy place, but the final resting place of a Queen.
Sources: A History of Wiltshire, Vol 3
TO BE CONTINUED
May 1 has just gone past–a date known in ancient Britain as the Feast of Beltaine, the ‘Fires of Bel (the Shining One)’. Of all the old important pre-Christian dates, this is the one that the Church was never able to Christianise in any obvious way, retainings its traditions of merriment, dancing and bawdiness right down to the present. Even Halloween (All Hallows) had a vague Christian veneer placed over its supernatural and ancestral elements, and Midsummer’s Eve was associated with St John as well as with the summer Solstice several days earlier and the burning hilltop bonfires.
It was of course on May 1 that Edward IV was supposed to have married Elizabeth Woodville, in a secret ceremony attended by her mother, a priest and child. The date is interesting, as May marriages were at one time considered to be unlucky. An old rhyme goes ‘Marry in the month of May and you will surely rue the day.’ The reason for this was that the time of the year was considered to be a frivolous one, connected with faithlessness and a lack of constancy.
May 1 in particular was the time for ‘greenwood weddings’–temporary ‘marriages’ that were of dubious legality. Often these, if they lasted longer than a few nights, went on no longer than the traditional ‘year and a day’ of old-time fairy stories. The couple would then part, if they wished, and go on their seperate ways, no harm done.
Unless you were a king of England, of course, who may well have already pre-contracted a marriage in a similar style and who was expected to marry a foreign princess…
The fact that several sources quote May 1 as the date of Edward’s wedding is interesting. It may quite literally be the case…or it could well be that the writers (or those from whom they had gleaned the information from) were aware of the traditional significance of May 1 in regards to impermanent, irregular marriages.
Indeed, far be it from the idea some traditionalists seem to take, that Edward’s marriage was perfectly acceptable to all before Richard ‘invented’ the idea of a pre-contract, it seems that that many already had doubts of its legality. Mancini, for instance says that Elizabeth Woodville, years before the events of 1483, was reproached with calumnies ‘namely that according to established usage she was not the legitimate wife of the king.’ He seemed to believe this was because she had been married before and hence was not a virgin, but there was no such impediment to marriage within the English royal house–Eleanor of Aquitaine,for instance, had been married and had several children before espousing Henry II. So it had to be something else. Later Mancini mentions Edward being legally contracted to another woman. He mistakes this for Bona of Savoy, who Warwick sought as a bride for Edward, and he does not seem to doubt the veracity of this ‘proxy marriage’, although he has the wrong woman.
Certainly, it seems that many people in late medieval England believed *something* was irregular about Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage, and giving it the traditional May 1st day may well be affirming that fact.
A recent article from History Today on Edward’s marriage and those of his infamous grandson Henry VIII:
When people think of places connected with Richard III, they sometimes think of Northamptonshire due to his birthplace at Fotheringhay…but seldom of the town of Northampton itself.
However, the town, although having lost in grandest medieval structures in two devastating fires, still has features of interest to Ricardians, Wars of the Roses students and medievalists. It was a highly important place in the Middle Ages, though declining in fortunes after the Black Death, due to its strategic location.
The following is a short guide to extant places and to places long gone, which Richard may have seen or passed on his brief but important stay in the town:
St James Abbey: At the foot of the former lift-testing tower known as the Lighthouse, once stood the important Abbey of St James. The scallop was its symbol, denoting an affinity with pilgrims on the way to the shrine of St James de Compostela in Spain. In his will written before his execution at Pontefract Castle, Anthony Rivers mentions this abbey; apparently he had taken some land from the monks and was trying at the last to make amends. The abbey was completely razed in the Reformation; modern day archaeologists could only guess at the plan when excavated. Over 250 burials were discovered, some high status.
Northampton Castle: Now the site of the railway, the castle was once a great royal residence. Several parliaments were held here. Henry II came face to face with Thomas a Becket in the castle and uttered his famous line, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ King John stayed here while buying a pair of boots from the town’s famous cordwainers. By Richard’s time, the castle, like many others across England, was beginning to decline and was being used more and more as a prison. It is unlikely he stayed in the decaying pile when, as Duke of Gloucester, he arrived in Northampton in 1483, expecting to meet Rivers and Edward V.
In 1662 much of the castle was demolished, though some parts remained as a gaol. Some earthworks and masonry survived into the 1860’s but the coming of the railways saw those scant remains razed. All that remains today is the postern gate, no longer in its original position, and earthworks on either side of St Andrew’s Road. One of these mounds does contain chambers that were excavated then refilled for preservation.
St Peter’s Church: Standing near the castle, St Peter’s is a fine medieval church, built around 1130 by Simon de Senlis II, and a happy survivor of the great fire. It is situated near the site of a Saxon royal palace, and inside is a large Saxon coffin lid decorated with a Green Man. Norman arches abound and the capitals of the pillars are heavily decorated with foliage, scrolls, and beasts. One carving shows a man being swallowed by amonster, perhaps representing Jonah and the Whale.
St Gregory’s Church: A little further down Marefair, is Freeschool Street. Here lies a large heap of rubble and brick behind fencing, overgrown and rubbish-strewn. On this site stood St Gregory’s church; at the corners of the pile a small amount of ashlar blocks can be traced and other remains have been found in nearby cellars. In 1980’s digs a charnel house was found nearby, belonging either to St Gregory’s or the chapel of Mary Magdalene. St Gregory’s also had an interesting legend: it housed a relic called The Holy Rood in the Wall, supposedly brought back to England by a pilgrim who found it near the spot where Christ was crucified. An angel appeared to the pilgrim when he reached Northampton, telling him that here in the heart of England a church must be built. The church has a Ricardian association—it was in the patronage of the Hastings family, who founded a Guild in 1473 for the Holy Rood in the Wall, and it may be the church where King Richard appointed a chaplain to ‘pray for him in a chapel before the Holy Rood at Northampton.’
All Saint’s Church: Passing further into the town, medieval street names appear such as Gold and Silver Street and the Drapery. The central church in town is All Saints or All Hallows. The original medieval church was destroyed in the Great Fire of Northampton, leaving just tower and crypt; the present building dates from around 1680. It was the largest church in town and thought to be where the Barons swore oaths to Henry I to support his daughter Matilda as Queen. One lord who swore the oath was Stephen of Blois; he ended up taking the crown for himself, and the country was plunged into civil war. There was also an incident when a thief and murderer was wrongly ascribed saintly miracles at his tomb within the church…a riot ensued over it and swords drawn in church before the St Hugh of Lincoln halted the fracas by leaping on the tomb and waving his crozier.
The Market Square: The churchyard of All Saints was originally used for market trading; this expanded into the present Market Square after Henry III forbade the use of the churchyard. It is one of the largest Market Squares in England and here in 1469 William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and his brother Sir Richard were executed by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, after the battle of Edgcote. It is probable that this area, near the now-vanished 14th c Guildhall was full of hostelries, and it may be in this area where Richard of Gloucester and the Duke of Buckingham met Anthony Woodville and found he had not brought young Edward V with him as agreed. His excuse was that the town might be too crowded with so many men arriving, but this was a poor excuse as Northampton had held parliaments; his words would have aroused immediate suspicion in the two Dukes.
St Katherine: This chapel of ease in College Lane was built for prayers for the souls of plague victims (Northampton was heavily affected by the plague, which sent the town into steep decline…Richard III reduced the town’s fee farm in 1484 due to the hardship still experienced there.) St Katherine’s walls have gone but the churchyard with some flattened graves remains and retains a gloomy atmosphere. The college of All Saints, founded by Henry VI, once stood in this area too; not to be confused with the earlier Northampton College that once rivalled Oxford and Cambridge. Its licence however was revoked in the time of Henry III.
Greyfriars: Largest and most lavish of Northampton’s monastic buildings, Greyfriars stood on the site of Greyfriars bus station, now also demolished. It had a church, two cloisters and a school. Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, grandfather of Henry Stafford, was interred here after his death at the battle of Northampton in 1460. Several burials were discovered in 1972 excavations and occasionally surrounding roads have been known to collapse into hidden underground chambers.
St John’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals: St John’s is a fine medieval building at the bottom of Bridge Street near the site of the old town walls, the only non-religious medieval structure still extant in Northampton. It is said some of the dead from the Battle of Northmpton were brought here. St Thomas’s Hospital, built in 1450 and dedicated to Thomas Becket, also stood nearby in a dilapidated condition till the Victorians destroyed it completely. One window at St John’s contains a male figure and the name Richard Sherd—he was master there in 1474.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Situated on Sheep Street, this church is one of only four round medieval churches in England. It was built by Simon de Senlis I after he went on Crusade and visited Jerusalem. Made in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there, it is roughly half the size of the original.
Other sites: St Giles is another remaining medieval church but has few notable features. At least 6 or 7 other churches and chapels existed, along with the smaller religious houses such as those of the Poor Clares and Friars of the Sack. A leper hospital, St Leonard’s, stood outside the main centre at Cotton End. Another major priory, St Andrews, stood on the far side of the castle near the river, and it was here Becket stayed while awaiting trial. Not one stone remains, although some buildings survived the Dissolution.
Delapre Abbey and the site of the Battle of Northampton: Simon de Senlis built St Mary de la Pre, near Hardingstone, during the reign of King Stephen. It was the only house of Cluniac nuns in England. The body of Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, rested at Delapre for a night and an Eleanor Cross still stands a little up the road, its top broken by lightning. The present building at Delapre is a more modern house but the lower floors follow the line of the nunnery cloisters, and there is at least one medieval door/staircase and a medieval stone lamp.
In 1460 the Battle of Northamptom was fought in the nearby fields, a major battle of the Wars of the Roses. Here Edward Earl of March, along with the Earl of Warwick, faced the forces of Henry VI. Lord Grey of Ruthin betrayed his Lancastrian lords and allowed the Yorkists access to the enemy camp. The Duke of Buckingham, Lord Egremont, Lord Beaumont and the earl of Shrewbury were Lancastrian notables who died protecting the King’s tent. Other Lancastrians were driven back into the river and slain. Henry VI was captured, housed for the night in the abbey, then taken to the Tower of London. Some of the dead from the battle were probably interred in the abbey.
The name Plantagenet came from Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who was reputed to wear a sprig of the yellow ‘planta genista’ (also known as the Broom plant) in his hat. However, the Encyclopedia Britannica has speculated that the Plantagenet name ‘more likely’ arose because Geoffrey supposedly planted broom to improve his hunting covers.
He married Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England and they had three children, including Henry, who succeeded to the English throne, founding the Plantagenet dynasty, as Henry II.
Geoffrey was described as handsome and red headed, jovial and a great warrior. He was born on 24th August 1113 and died after a sudden fever on 7th September 1152, aged 38, in Le Mans, where he was buried.
But what of the plant which gave him his nickname and the dynastic name of the Plantagenets?
There are many species of broom, but the particular one which Geoffrey wore is the Genista scoparius aka the Cytisus scoparius. It is a tough shrub with dense, slender green stems and very small leaves, which are adaptations to dry growing conditions. It still grows in the dry areas around Anjou and is common all over Western Europe. The flowers are small and yellow and bloom in spring and summer, preferring dry, sandy soil. The Genista scoparius is the Common broom and the most hardy, surviving temperatures as low as -25 degrees. It grows to an average of 1 -3 metres, occasionally 4 metres, high.
Its tough branches were ideal to use as a besom broom which is where its common name arises, but it was thought to be unlucky to use them for menial purposes when in full bloom.
Apparently, an old Suffolk tradition states:
‘If you sweep the house with blossomed Broom in May
You are sure to sweep the head of the house away.’
It seems to have been used in a medicinal or herbal way as a decoction or tincture and was thought to cure kidney problems, gout, sciatica and joint and hip pain. If you would like to learn more about its medicinal and other qualities her is a very interesting link to a Modern Herbal:
As the European rugby season enters another phase this week, we can focus on Blanche de Castile (1188-1252), granddaughter of Henry II, wife of Louis VIII, mother of and regent to (St.) Louis IX and great-grandmother of Isabelle, who married Edward II to become Richard III’s great-great-great-grandmother.
In 2008, Stade Francais developed a new third choice shirt, festooned with images of Blanche on their usual blue and pink colours. Those of our readers who are colourblind will wonder what the fuss is about: