Episode 1 – Abberley, Worcestershire

Our journey around Britain begins in the Midlands, in a village called Abberley. If you want to find it on a map, look for Birmingham and follow the M5 south towards Bristol. Stop at Worcester. Abberley is north-west of Worcester, and south-west of Kidderminster.

We can determine from the village’s location that it would have been in the Kingdom of Mercia, and later on remain in Saxon lands when Alfred the Great formed a treaty with the invading Viking chief Guthrum. This split the country in two, and the Viking half was called the Danelaw, because it was under the Danish law codes. The treaty helped to make sure the legal system on either side of the split was considered fair by both parties.

There’s so much I could tell about Abberley, and I can’t fit it all into this one post (which seems incredible for a village of just 900 people), so if you want to find out more, my references are at the end of the article.

We will cover:

  • Domesday Book (1066/86)
  • Female inheritance (1309)
  • The Welsh Rebellion (1405)
  • Imposter Kings (1487)
  • King Henry’s Right-Hand Man (1530)
  • The Civil War (1646)
  • Politics and Poetry (1698-1708)
  • Rebuilding (1840s-present)

Domesday Book

The earliest record of Abberley, like so many places in England, is the Domesday Book [1], the record of every settlement in Britain at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. It gives the name as ‘Edboldelege’ – Edbold’s Ley. Edbold is a Saxon name, and Ley means a settlement or clearing. More recently some historians have misinterpreted the ‘Abber’ bit to have something to do with an Abbey, such as John Noake in his guide to Worcestershire, who thought it was “Abbot’s Ley” [2]. Its location was given as part of the ‘Doddingtree Hundred’ – a Hundred was an administrative district, and the name might have referred to the number of households or the number of men at arms able to be provided.

From the Domesday Book, we can see that a Saxon named Wulfmer held the land in January 1066 when Edward the Confessor died. But by 1086, when the book was written, the land had been given to a Norman called ‘Ralph of Tosny’, although Wulfmer may have held it for the new lord. Tosny is pronounced ‘Toe-Knee’ – it’s a place in France. His name has been spelt in many different ways, as there was no standardised spelling back in the 11th century. The version I will use, for consistency, is ‘Raoul de Tosny’.

So who was Raoul? Well, he was a part of a Norman noble family, who were based at Tosny in northern France. His full title was Raoul II de Tosny et Conches. When Duke William of Normandy crossed the English Channel to take the English throne in 1066, and defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, Raoul fought alongside him. He was originally supposed to be the standard-bearer for William, but in his loyalty to his Duke he insisted instead on fighting instead:

“On the eve of the battle of Hastings, the duke called a serving-man, and ordered him to bring forth the gonfanon which the Pope had sent him; and he who bore it, having unfolded it, the duke took it and reared it, and called to Raol de Conches (this Ralf de Todeni): ‘Bear my gonfanon,’ said he, ‘for I would not but do you right; by right and by ancestry your line are standard-bearers of Normandy, and very good knights have they all been.’ ‘Many thanks to you,’ said Raol, ‘for acknowledging our right; but by my faith, the gonfanon shall not this day be borne by me. To-day I claim quitance of the service, for I would serve you in other guise. I will go with you into the battle, and will fight the English as long as life shall last, and know that my hand will be worth any twenty of such men.’” [3]

Because of this loyalty, William granted Raoul land across England, including Abberley. It’s not the easiest to follow exactly what is going on at this time, but the main seat of Raoul de Tosny’s land appears to have been Flamstead in Hertfordshire. When you look him up, make sure not to confuse him with his relative Robert de Tosny, lord of Stafford.

So one day, the people of Abberley woke up and found out they had a new lord. They can’t have been very happy about this, but there’s not much you can do when you’re a peasant. By 1086, there were 18 villagers (free men who owned their own land), 8 smallholders (who rented the land) and 1 slave. There was also 1 priest, 3 cottagers and ‘1 Frenchman’. These numbers don’t include women and children, so there were probably over 100 people there.

Female Inheritance

The ownership of the land went down through the family until it reached Alice de Toeni (the spelling had changed a bit by this point), who was born in 1284 . Alice and her brother Robert were the only children of Ralph VII de Toeni, and his wife Mary, a Scot. Robert inherited the land but died childless in 1309, which made Alice the heir to the entire de Toeni estate, worth around £500 per year or nearly £0.5 million per year today [4] [5].

Women were generally not landowners at this time, so this was a very unusual and powerful position for Alice. And she also had a very powerful husband – Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick.

Both Guy and Alice had been married previously. Alice was a mere 16 years old when she married Sir Thomas Leybourne, and they had a daughter together, Juliana, born around 1304, who herself was a powerful woman, and we will look at her when we get to Huntingdon. Thomas died in 1307, when Juliana was still a toddler, and she inherited all of his lands. Guy, meanwhile, had been married to Isabel de Clare, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, but they didn’t have any children and Guy got the marriage annulled. Poor Isabel. She later married again but still doesn’t seem to have had children.

Guy and Alice married in 1309 and had plenty of children – two sons, and five daughters. That’s eight children so far for Alice, if you’re counting. After Guy died under suspicious circumstances in 1315, their eldest son Thomas de Beauchamp inherited all of the Warwick lands. He was only around 18 months old at this point. Obviously this was a problem. By law he could only inherit at age 21, so the Crown ended up with possession of the land until Thomas came of age.

Alice, with seven children aged 13 and under (most of them under five) and pregnant with Guy’s final daughter, was left a widow. But not for long. At the end of 1316, Alice married William la Zouche de Mortimer, had two more children (that’s ten) and finally died around 1325. At this point Thomas would also be due to inherit the de Toeni lands, but again he was still too young so the Crown also took possession of these lands for a time.

Welsh Revolt

The next exciting event for Abberley is more legend than fact. In the year 1405, Wales was in the midst of revolt. Owain Glydwr, a Welsh lord, got into a dispute when one of his Norman lord neighbours took over his land. Owain went to Westminster (the seat of the English government) to plead his case before King Henry IV, but he was dismissed in large part because of his nationality. The Welsh were looked down upon by the English, and oppressed under a form of apartheid – they were not allowed to live in the same towns as the English, and inter-marriage was also forbidden.

Very angry, Owain took on the cause of the Welsh peasants, who had been in this state since Edward I conquered the land in the 13th Century. Incredibly, Owain’s peasant forces managed to take over much of Wales, including some well-defended castles. Since the French were at war with the English (something that happened a lot), the Welsh became their natural ally.

The French landed troops in Wales, and legend says that they joined forces with the Welsh and began marching on England. They didn’t just want freedom for Wales now, but to take control of the whole of England too. So they marched as far as Woodbury Hill, just south of Abberley, and faced off against Henry IV’s English army camped on Abberley Hill.

Eventually, after a waiting game and a few skirmishes, the tide turned against the Welsh. Perhaps they ran out of food; they were, after all, a long way from the border and the supply lines would have been stretched thin. So they retreated back to Wales. This was the beginning of the end for Owain, and in the end the Welsh remained under English domination. [6]

Imposter Kings

In 1485, Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The Wars of the Roses, as they came to be known, between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, were effectively over. Richard III to this day provides a useful mnemonic for English children trying to learn the colours of the rainbow: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. Shakespeare also wrote a play about Richard, with the famous line cried by Richard as he died “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

These had been tumultuous times for the whole country, but particularly for the Earls of Warwick. In particular Richard Neville, the 16th Earl, had switched sides from York to Lancaster, and was involved with deposing two kings. But he had no sons, and after his execution for treason in 1478 by Richard III, the inheritance of the Earl title and lands went to Edward Plantagenet, his grandson.

Edward was also Richard III’s nephew, and technically an heir to the throne, although “it’s complicated” is an understatement. When Henry Tudor killed Richard III and became king, he was concerned that the ten-year-old Edward would be used by his opponents to present a rival for the throne. As is standard for the time, he was therefore locked up in the Tower of London. [7]

Despite this, there were still attempts to use Edward and other young men who could pass as him, as pawns in the Yorkist game. One of these was a young boy called Lambert Simnel, about the same age as the Earl. The Yorkists claimed that not only was this actually Edward Plantagenet, but also that Richard III named him as his heir, and so they proclaimed him Edward VI, King of England. Henry VII dealt with the rebellion, and fortunately for poor Lambert he was pardoned and put to work in the kitchens. The ringleaders were not spared so easily. [8]

Meanwhile the real Edward, because of his potential to be set up as a rival to Henry, remained imprisoned in the Tower of London until the end of his life. At the end of 1499, he was executed for treason. It was the end, for now, of the Earls of Warwick. All their lands, including Abberley, returned to the hands of the King, property of the Crown.

King Henry’s Right-Hand Man

The Warwick lands’ history here divides, as Henry VII and his successors decided what to do with it. His son Henry VIII, of ‘six wives’ fame, was the one who parcelled Abberley back out again.

Henry VII had set up a new organisational structure within the palace, and in particular this included the Privy Chamber. The nobles of the privy chamber had incredible access to the king, and power to carry out his commands as if they were the king himself. [9] In Henry VIII’s day, this included two men: the more famous William Compton, Henry’s ‘groom of the stool’ i.e. his right-hand man, and Walter Walshe.

Walter Walshe is the man we want to take a closer look at, as the man who was given Abberley. Historically, we don’t have a lot of references to him, except for on one occasion: the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. Having only given birth to a daughter, Mary, Catherine of Aragon was not in the King’s good graces – he wanted a son. Rather than trying for another child, Henry VIII sought to get an annulment of their marriage, the excuse being that Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s brother Arthur. Henry already had a new wife picked out in Anne Boleyn. Wolsey was supposed to get the Pope to agree to this annulment, but failed. Henry therefore sent Walter Walshe to arrest Wolsey for treason.

Wolsey’s response to Walter’s arrival shows just how powerful the privy chamber was. Initially the Earl of Northumberland showed up, and Wolsey was reluctant to go. But when Walter Walshe showed up, he said, “you are a sufficient commission yourself in as much as ye be one of the king’s privy chamber, for the worst person there is sufficient warrant to arrest the greatest peer of the realm by the king’s only commandment, without any commission.” [10] So the Cardinal went without further protest.

Walter’s wife was Elizabeth Stonor, who had previously been married to William Compton. William’s death was a double-tragedy for Elizabeth: first she was pregnant with his child. Second, he had not updated his will to provide for her, and she had no support. These facts, it seems, were part of the reason Walter and Elizabeth were married and he was granted the land at Abberley and other places. Today we still have a copy of the statue granting the land, which basically details these facts but in long legalese. [11]

Walter and Elizabeth had children, and the lands they’d been granted had an heir again. In the year 1632, William Walshe (the grandson of Walter) sold most of the lands granted by Henry VIII, but retained Abberley. Perhaps this was because he owed a lot of money – his son Joseph Walshe, born in 1619, inherited a huge debt from him. [12] [13]

The Civil War

So in 1625, King Charles I took the thrones of Scotland and England. He was the son of James VI of Scotland, and I of England, and the second Scottish monarch to hold the English throne. At this point, Scotland and England were governed separately. Since 1066, the structure of the government had been changed over time, but the monarch still held a lot of power. However, what he didn’t get to do was raise any taxes. That was Parliament’s job.

Charles I and Parliament didn’t get on at all. He tried for ages not calling a parliament (they only got called when the king needed something, unlike today where being an MP is a permanent job), but with all the wars he was trying to fight in France and against the Covenanters in Scotland he needed the money. He even tried arresting MPs to get his way. In 1642 this led to the start of the English Civil War.

At Abberley, Joseph Walshe was on the side of the King. Worcester in general was quite Royalist. But the Parliamentarians (who wanted to do away with having a king) overcame their opponents. Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and his son Charles went into exile. On 3 September 1651 the final battle of the Civil War took place at Worcester. Joseph, who was present, was amongst those forced to surrender, and the Walshe lands were confiscated. Joseph had to pay a hefty fine, and was put into debtors prison for being unable to pay not only this but also his father’s debts.

For a while, England became a republic – the Commonwealth of England and then the Protectorate – while Scotland was occupied by England and held 30 seats in a united parliament at Westminster. But Oliver Cromwell became more and more like a King, even if he didn’t hold the title, even to his son succeeding him as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell’s son turned out to be a hopeless ruler, so after a period of turmoil Charles returned from exile and became Charles II. The monarchy was restored. Joseph was able to make a petition before the Crown, was forgiven his debts, and had Abberley restored to him, though the family’s fortunes had fallen somewhat. [14]

Politics and Poetry

Joseph had eight chidren, including William his eldest son. The young man was educated locally and later at Oxford, but did not complete the Oxford studies, perhaps for lack of cash. The ‘e’ was dropped from the surname around this time.

But still he found himself among poetic circles. He became friends with several well-known poets, who all thought highly of him: John Dryden, the first poet laureate of England, and Alexander Pope. Interestingly, neither poet commented much on William’s writing, but were very impressed with his discernment. Dryden said he was “the best critic of our nation”, while Pope said he “never refused to any one of merit, of any party, the praise due to him”.

Beyond poetry, William used his family connections to make his way into politics (his uncle George Walsh – one of Joseph’s twelve siblings – was a Whig), and got close to several prominent Whig MPs, including the Earl of Shrewsbury and Sir John Somers. These were among a very influential group of Whigs in parliament called the Junto Whigs, and it was this group to whom William was aligned.

The other main party in parliament were the Tories. The main differences between the parties were to do with religion, and the position on the monarchy. The Tories were much more traditional; Whigs, who were anti-Catholic, wanted the monarch to defer to parliament, while Tories, who were more relaxed about religion, wanted parliament to defer to the monarch.

By the time William became an MP for Worcestershire in 1698 [15], the reigning monarch was William III. Walsh fought elections on several occasions, serving two separate terms in Worcestershire, and once at Richmond. It seems to have been notable that Joseph visited his new constituency at Richmond, especially putting it ahead of a visit to Windsor. In those days, government did not have such a strong role in society, and certainly did not have such involvement with their constituents as today. Perhaps this shows that Joseph was a conscientious MP as well as an ambitious one.

When William III died and Anne became queen, at the start of William’s second term as Worcestershire MP, she appointed him to an office as ‘gentleman of the horse’. I’m not sure if this had any official duties, but I suspect it came with a nice wage and there were other people who actually dealt with the horses.

Sadly, William died in 1708, while about his duties, and was buried in St Michael’s church at Abberley. Even after his death, in 1713, Pope said of him to Jonathan Swift (the author of Gulliver’s Travels) that he would gladly pay to save both Dryden and Walsh from purgatory: the former would cost only £50, but ‘Walsh was not only a socinian, but (what you’ll own is harder to be saved) a Whig. He cannot modestly be rated at less than a hundred.’ [15]

High praise indeed. But unfortunately for Walsh, while his soul might be saved, Abberley would not be kept in his direct line of descent. The late MP hadn’t had any children to inherit Abberley.

His sister Anne therefore inherited the property. She was married to one Francis Bromley, the second son of Sir Henry Bromley, of Holt Castle. The line of descent went down to Robert Bromley, who died without an heir and gave the estate to his relation Colonel Henry Bromley.

Rebuilding

Henry and his wife had no sons but lots of daughters, and no doubt would have related with the Bennett family of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. When Henry died, the executors put the house up for sale, where it was bought by a banker from Geneva, John Lewis Moilliet.

By this point the manor house was in a terrible condition, and John decided to get the house knocked down and a new one built in its place. He hired an architect, Samuel Dawkes, who was also responsible for the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. Plans were drawn up, and the new Abberley Hall was build on the old ruins. Then, tragedy struck. In 1845, not long after the building was completed John died. And then, to add salt to the wound, the house burned down around Christmas.

His wife Amelia got the house rebuilt exactly the same as before, and lived there with her son James until she died twelve years later. Both Amelia and her husband John are buried at St Michael’s church.

There is an interesting symmetry between the manor house and the church at Abberley. St Michael’s church was also in poor condition. Rather than rebuilding the church, the villagers planned a new church on a new site. In 1850 the foundation stone was laid. Two years later, St Mary’s church was consecrated. In January 1873, the organist had lit a stove near the organ, but forgotten to close it properly. St Mary’s church was badly damaged in the resulting fire. When it was rebuilt, it was to the original plans.

James Moilliet, who had been High Sherrif of Worcestershire in 1861, decided to sell the house in 1867, and ownership passed to one Joseph Jones, a cotton merchant from Lancashire [14]. The Jones family decided to contribute their own building efforts to the Abberley Hall estate. In 1882, construction began on a clock tower that still stands today, and can apparently be seen from six counties, with its 161 foot height on top of a 700 foot hill. [16]

In 1916, the Hall was sold once more, but this time the sale was different. The purchaser was a school originally based in Kent, and going by the name Lindesfarne. Because of the ongoing war, they moved into the safety of the Worcestershire countryside. Today, the school can still be found at the site, under the name Abberley Hall School [17]. It is a co-educational prep school, i.e. a fee-paying independent primary school which admits boys and girls.

Normally in England, students will go from about age 4 to 11 in primary school, and from 11 start at secondary school. But at a prep school, it’s more normal to stay until 13. At Abberley there is also a nursery, so it takes students from age 2. While it is possible to board at Abberley, that’s only once you get to age 8.

Abberley village also has a thriving state primary school, and in fact the 2001 census revealed that the village has the youngest population in all of Worcestershire [18]. Looking back over the past millennium at Abberley, sadly there have been too many occasions where women have been unable to have children. The current state of the population feels like a restorative turn of events both at Abberley Hall and the village in general.

Next time – a quick jaunt across the country to Essex, before returning to Worcestershire, as we look at two villages called Abberton.


References

[1] Abberley in the Domesday Book – Open Domesday 

[2] Noake’s Guide to Worcestershire (1868) – Good general link

[3] Master Wace, his Chronicle of the Norman Conquest from the Roman de Rou, translated Edgar Taylor (1837)

[4] Alice de Toeni and Juliana de Leyburne, Edward the Second blog, Kathryn Warner (17 March 2007)

[5] Bank of England inflation calculator 

[6] The Welsh Invasion of England – Halted by a Worcestershire Hill, Black Country Bugle (4 August 2005)

[7] Edward, Earl of Warwick, English Monarchs

[8] The Lambert Simnel Rebellion, History Learning Site (2016)

[9] ‘Minions’: Privy Chamber of Henry VIII, Pre-Elizabethan England blog (1 April 2012)

[10] The Reign of Henry VIII Politics Policy and Piety, Diarmaid McCulloch (1995)

[11] Chapter XIV, The Statutes of the Realm (Originally printed on order of George III)

[12] Parishes: Abberley, A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 4 (1924) – Good general link

[13] Walsh of Worcestershire, RootsWeb, Ancestry.com

[14] Abberley Manor p51, Rev J Lewis Moillet (1905) – Good general link, very detailed)

[15] William Walsh, History of Parliament Online

[16] Abberley Clock Tower – the biggest juke box in the world?, Birmingham Post (25 Oct 2013)

[17] Abberley Hall School History

[18] Village Voice: History Written In Stone, The Telegraph (2011)

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