The village of Abbots Bromley has a long and interesting history, dating back to the earliest days of the Kingdom of England, and perhaps even earlier than that. It was a part of the region of Mercia – once a kingdom in its own right – whose capital was the nearby Tamworth. Today, Abbots Bromley can be found a short distance north of one of England’s biggest cities, Birmingham, and is in the county of Staffordshire.
The name ‘Bromley’ means ‘the clearing where the broom plants grow’, and there are a lot of English place names with ‘Bromley’ in them. Broom plants are thorny shrubs often with yellow flowers, which grow well in poor soil. And it is true that these plants are the origin of the word ‘broom’ to mean a tool for brushing and sweeping.
The earliest mention of Abbots Bromley is in 942. The King of England was Edmund I, the great-grandson of King Alfred the Great. We have record of three charters made in this year from Edmund to a Mercian nobleman called Wulfsige the Black, and in those charters Wulfsige was granted a lot of land around the Trent Valley including Abbots Bromley.
After that we don’t hear any more about the town until around 1002-04, when the land was in the possession of Wulfric Spot. Now Wulfric was a thegn (pronounced ‘thane’) of Mercia, and may have been a descendant of Wulfsige and his wife Wulfrun though records from the time are hard to interpret. Wulfric’s mother was also called Wulfrun, and the Midlands town of Wolverhampton is named after her.
At Burton-on-Trent there was an abbey which had existed since either the seventh or ninth century. In 1003, Wulfric re-founded the abbey as a Benedictine Monastery. You may remember that the Benedictines were the order the Cistercians broke away from. In his will, Wulfric gave most of his lands to the abbey, though he also gave some land around Tamworth to his daughter. Saxon women did not have the same issues around inheritance and property ownership as Norman women would later have, particularly regarding male control of that land.
In the will Abbots Bromley was given to Burton Abbey, and this seems to have been the time that the village attained the ‘Abbey’ prefix. In those days, however, it was a suffix: “Bromley Abbatis”. Now abbey land, it would not be under any lord’s control, and its history would match the abbey’s until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century.
It will be no surprise, given we have records of Abbots Bromley from before the Norman Invasion, that it is included in the Domesday book. It was a tiny place at the time with only three households: a villager, a smallholder and a priest. Being owned by the abbey, there was no change in ownership when William took over as King.
But Abbots Bromley did gain some freedom from abbey rule in 1222, when Abbot Richard de Lisle founded a borough there. A borough is a self-governing administrative district. A few years later, King Henry III granted a market and fair there. This allowed the village to grow through the trade and visitors this brought them.
The years passed, then in the 1500s the inevitable happened: the dissolution of the monasteries. By 1542, most abbey land had been transferred to a new college at Burton-upon-Trent: the college of Christ and St Mary. This did not include Abbot’s Bromley, which was granted in 1544 to an important figure of Henry VIII’s parliament: William Paget. By 1545 the college had failed, and much of its land was also granted to Paget.
Because of Paget’s ownership of Abbots Bromley, the village also came to be known by an alternative name – Paget’s Bromley.
William Paget had been born in 1506, the son of a moderately-prominent commoner John Paget. He was well-educated, and thanks to financial support from Henry VIII’s future father-in-law Thomas Boleyn was able to attend Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he became friends with Trinity’s master, Stephen Gardiner, who was a Catholic bishop. But he also began to learn about Protestant Christianity, and to respect and believe it.
Gardiner got William into the service of the English crown, where he used his knowledge of French to help in negotiations with the French king Francis I. From here he moved into a more administrative role and also travelled across Europe. As he became more Protestant in his beliefs, he lost his friendship with Gardiner, but gained one with Thomas Cromwell, the architect of the English Reformation. In 1533, William would say that he considered himself more closely bound to Cromwell’s leadership than any other.
Cromwell was very pleased to have William on side, and once he’d helped England break away from the Catholic church he sent William out as an ambassador to forge ties with other Protestant countries: Luneberg, Mecklenburg, Prussia and Poland.
By this time, William had become an MP, probably also due to Cromwell’s influence, and he was made secretary to several of Henry VIII’s wives: Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard. Around the time of Henry’s marriage to Catherine in 1540, Cromwell fell out of favour with Henry and was beheaded, but William’s position at court became stronger.
Soon he became totally relied upon by the King, who was sick and in pain. As a member of the Privy Council he was able to communicate to the country on behalf of the king; Henry held him in confidence, never wanting his secretary far away. This was about the time that William was given the Burton Abbey land.
Henry died in 1547 and William Paget was present for his death. A few days later, he read the king’s will before Parliament, and then brought the parliamentary session to an end. At the time (as we have seen elsewhere) a new session of Parliament had to begin after the death of the monarch, and there would be a new round of elections for the new monarch’s first parliament.
It seems that William was re-elected, but he would soon need to leave the House of Commons thanks to an elevation of rank. The Duke of Somerset, who was leader of Edward VI’s regency council as the boy was too young to rule on his own behalf, made William a Knight of the Garter. Up to this day this is England and the UK’s third-highest honour. William became a member of the House of Lords, continuing to attend Parliament regularly as they reviewed the bills the Commons was hoping to introduce as new laws. In 1549 he was also made the first Baron Paget.
William intervened when Somerset grew too dictatorial in his power, and eventually persuaded him to give up the protectorship to the Earl of Warwick. But his friendship with Somerset would come back to bite him, and in 1552 he would be arrested, stripped of being a Garter Knight, and fined £8,000.
Things eventually got better for William, and he returned to the king’s favour. When Edward VI was dying in 1553, William was one of the witnesses for his will. Once Edward had died, he initially did not support Mary to be queen, but then changed his mind and was the one to tell her that the Privy Council supported her accession. Right after she became queen, he and the 12th Earl of Arundel were basically in charge of the government. But because of some vocal disagreements with Stephen Gardiner over religion Mary became less impressed by him. He was overlooked for becoming the next chancellor, but was made lord privy seal – a senior minister with no specific responsibilities.
When Elizabeth became Queen he lost his position but remained a Privy Councillor to the end of his life, in 1563. Religiously, he was not strongly Protestant or Catholic. He and his wife Anne had four sons and six daughters.
William’s son Henry succeeded him, but he died with his daughter only a few months old and no male heir. Because of this, the next Baron Paget became William’s second son Thomas. Thomas was a staunch Catholic and a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots. He was involved with the plots to get her on the English throne in place of Elizabeth. In 1583 he was convicted of treason and stripped of his titles. He fled to Spain where he would die soon after.
Mary had fled south to England when she was deposed from the Scottish throne, and was kept under Elizabeth’s watchful eye. Mary regularly plotted with her supporters, and tried to have Elizabeth assassinated, but the plot was caught and Mary was arrested in 1586. She was taken to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, a four-day ride away. En-route was Abbots Bromley, where she was kept for one of the nights of the journey. Once they reached the castle, she was tried and then beheaded.
Thomas’s son William smartly stayed a Protestant, and would have his father’s titles restored to him in 1603. William and his descendants would continue to have ownership of Abbots Bromley right up to the 20th Century.
One of the most famous of these descendants was Henry Paget, born in 1768. He became a British Army Officer, showing great skill in leading cavalry regiments. This was the era of the French Revolution, where the French Revolutionary Army was fighting against the British, Austrians and other countries. Henry fought in many battles against the French, initially as a Lieutenant but being promoted up to Major-General within 15 years.
It was during this time that Napoleon emerged as a leader of the revolutionaries, and eventually became Emperor of France. This culminated at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium. Henry and the British military commander Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, did not get on at all. This was because Henry had had an affair with the Duke’s brother’s wife, Charlotte. Charlotte and Henry both divorced their previous spouses and were married. The Duke responded by keeping Henry off the battlefield as long as he could.
But at Waterloo Henry was appointed cavalry commander. During the battle he rallied his troops and managed to thwart Napoleon’s attempts to drive a wedge between the British and their Prussian allies. He rode forward time after time, and nine times his horse was shot out from under him. Each time he went back and got another horse.
As the battle drew to its close, Henry and Wellington were overlooking the scene of the battle when one of the French canons shot at them. It hit Henry and blasted off his leg, which has led to one of the most British conversations ever to take place on a battlefield:
Henry looked down and said “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”
Wellington replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”
Henry’s leg was amputated and buried, with the burial site marked with a plaque that is still a popular tourist destination today. He became one of the first people to get a modern-style prosthetic leg with a hinged knee and ankle, which is on display today at the family home in Plas Newydd, Anglesey, Wales. As a result of his bravery Henry was made 1st Marquess of Anglesey, and his descendants retain that title to this day.
During the 1800s and 1900s the Pagets gradually sold off their estates in the village, with the final ties being broken in 1932 when the last of the land was given to the Parish Council. The village is no longer known as Paget’s Bromley, having returned to the old ‘Abbots Bromley’ name.
One of the most fascinating things about Abbots Bromley is the ancient tradition of the ‘Horn Dance’. One of the earliest records we have of this dance is from 1226. Elsewhere it is called the ‘Hobbyhorse Dance’ and seems to have involved men dressed as deer, a hobby horse and an archer. It is still performed to this day, and the whole village turns out for the festival.
Clarke’s Free Grammar School was founded in the village in the early seventeenth century by Richard Clarke, a local man who’d made his fortune in London. It provided education for the children of Abbots Bromley up until the early Victorian era when the Church of England began a program to provide schooling across the country. The church took over the running of the school, which became known as Richard Clarke’s School and still exists today for primary age students (4-11 years old).
Also in the village is Abbots Bromley School, which is a fee-paying day and boarding school for girls. They take students all the way from when they are four up to eighteen. From the next school year, they are going to be allowing boys to join the school and hope to become fully co-educational by 2020. Notably one of the former headmistresses of the school was Marcia Alice Rice, who was one of the first women to receive BA and MA degrees.
In World War Two Abbots Bromley became home to an RAF airfield, opening in 1940 and closing several years after the war in 1949. It mainly housed training units because of its distance from the front line at the English Channel. After the war it was used to house ammunition. It closed due to difficulties in expanding the airfield due to nearby roads.
Next time we’re going back to the south of England, to Dorset and the village of Abbotsbury.
– Bromley, Abbots (St. Nicholas) ‘Bromeswell – Bromsgrove’, in A Topographical Dictionary of England, ed. Samuel Lewis (London, 1848), pp. 395-400 British History Online
– Colleges: Burton, Christ and St Mary G C Baugh, W L Cowie, J C Dickinson, Duggan A P, A K B Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, D A Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, J L Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Colleges: Burton, Christ and St Mary’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), pp. 297-298. British History Online
– Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Burton G C Baugh, W L Cowie, J C Dickinson, Duggan A P, A K B Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, D A Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, J L Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Burton’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), pp. 199-213. British History Online
– Abbots Bromley Conservation Area Appraisal July 2015 IBI Taylor Young on behalf of East Staffordshire Borough Council
– A survey of Staffordshire, with a description of Beeston-castle in Cheshire. To which are added some Observations upon the possessors of monastery-lands in Staffordshire, by sir S. Degge. Collated with MS. copies, and with additions and corrections, by Wyrley [and others] by T. Harwood Sampson Erdeswicke, Thomas Harwood, 1820
– Staffordshire Places Abbots Bromley Staffordshire Past Track
– The Historic Peerage of England: Exhibiting, Under Alphabetical Arrangement, the Origin, Descent, and Present State of Every Title of Peerage which Has Existed in this Country Since the Conquest ; Being a New Edition of the “Synopsis of the Peerage of England” Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, William Courthope, John Murray, 1857
– PAGET, William (by 1506-63), of Beaudesert Park and Burton-upon-Trent, Staffs., West Drayton, Mdx., and London. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 History of Parliament Online
– A Topographical History of Staffordshire: Including Its Agriculture, Mines and Manufactures. Memoirs of Eminent Natives; Statistical Tables; and Every Species of Information Connected with the Local History of the County. With a Succinct Account of the Rise and Progress of the Staffordshire Potteries William Pitt, J. Smith, 1817
– Place: [Abbots] Bromley, Open Domesday Project
– Abbots Bromley Airfields of Britain
– How Heny Paget’s bravery in the Battle of Waterloo took him from earl to Marquess of Anglesey, Darren Devine, Wales Online, 29 June 2015
– Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Abbots Bromley website