Episode 24 – Abbotsley, Cambridgeshire

The village of Abbotsley is situated in the ancient county of Huntingdonshire, which today is a part of Cambridgeshire. It is situated to the west of Cambridge, and south-east of the town of St Neots. Relative to the English east coast, head south-west from where the bulge of East Anglia heads north again.

Right, enough with the directions. It is a small, picturesque settlement, with whitewashed, thatched-roofed houses, a village green and a pub. Which could probably describe many of the English villages we’ll be visiting on our alphabetical tour.

The name “Abbotsley” sounds like it should have something to do with an abbey, but in fact the name has been twisted from the original Saxon. The earliest records we have, from the twelfth century, give the name as ‘Adboldesle’, meaning Eadbold’s clearing or Eadbold’s woodland. In the thirteenth century, other versions include ‘Abbodesle’ and ‘Abbotesley’.

The Domesday Book does not list Abbotsley as an independent settlement, but it probably existed as part of the lands of Countess Judith of Lens.

The Scottish connection (1086-1561)

Judith, the niece of William the Conqueror, was unusual as a landholding woman. She had only been about eleven or twelve at the time of the Norman Conquest, but in 1070 she married a Saxon noble, Earl Waltheof of Huntingdon and Northumbria. During their short married life they had three children, the eldest of whom was Maud.

But Waltheof did not like William, and plotted rebellion against his new king. Judith betrayed her husband, and William had him beheaded in 1076. Now William wanted to find a new wife for his niece, so had her betrothed to Simon de Senliz, the first Earl of Northampton. But Judith refused to marry him and fled England.

William confiscated her English estates, including those in Huntingdonshire. Later, Maud was married to Simon instead, around 1090. Maud and Simon had three children before Simon died in about 1111.

Maud’s next husband was Dauíd mac Maíl Choluim. David – the anglicised form of his name – was the youngest son of King Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife Margaret of Wessex, and was born some time around 1084. His mother Margaret had been a member of the Wessex royal family – the rulers of England prior to 1066 – but had fled to Scotland following the Norman Conquest.

There was a lot of turmoil in Scotland at the time. King Malcolm and his son Edward were killed in 1093 during an invasion of Northumbria, and Margaret died shortly after. Malcolm’s brother Donald besieged David and two of his two brothers in Edinburgh Castle, and then forced them into exile.

William II – the Conqueror’s son – was now King of England, and he did not like that Donald was now in charge in Scotland. He sent the eldest of Malcolm’s sons to fight back, but he was killed. Malcolm’s next son, Edgar, was more successful and became the next king of Scotland.

David returned to Scotland, and probably stayed there until Henry I – William II’s brother – became king of England and married his sister Matilda. The young man returned to England in 1103, aged nineteen, and became a part of the English court. Ten years later he married Maud.

David now had control of Maud’s lands in Huntingdon and Northumbria, and he also claimed land in southern Scotland including across the modern Borders and up towards Glasgow. He held the title “Prince of the Cumbrians”.

Meanwhile in Scotland Edgar had died in 1107, to be succeeded by another of the brothers, Alexander. Alexander then died in 1124, and Scotland was left without a king. David’s claim to the throne was rather weak, since Donald and Alexander had both had heirs and David was the youngest son, but Henry I backed David. Ultimately it was Henry’s support that counted, and David was crowned king of Scotland in 1124.

David had a weak rule outside of his Cumbrian lands, and shortly after Maud’s death in 1130 the Scots rose up against him. They were led by Alexander’s son Malcolm. David and his men fought back, and were eventually able to take control of much of modern-day Scotland.

It is around this time that Abbotsley becomes its own settlement, and David I granted it to his companion Gervase Ridel. Gervase became a canon of Jedworth Abbey, which would later become Jedburgh Abbey. Jedburgh is in the east of Scotland, in the borders, fairly close to Abbotrule.

We have evidence that Abbotsley church was under the ‘advowson’ of Jedworth Abbey, which means the abbey had the right to recommend who would be appointed the priest. After the Scottish and English alliance was ended, the advowson was forfeited to the English kings, and in 1340 we have record of Edward III giving this to Sir William Felton. William passed on the right to Balliol College, Oxford, which still retained it as of 1932.

The church is an interesting building. Its tower bears four statues, one in each corner, and they are said to represent four kings: William the Conqueror, King Harold, MacBeth, and Malcolm III. Two kings of England, and two of Scotland. The church is named St Margaret’s, possibly after David’s mother.

Meanwhile Gervase’s brother Ralph took ownership of the manor, and Ralph’s descendants held it until 1312 when it passed to Maud, some relation of the family. Maud’s husband was Henry Tilly. Their son John inherited Abbotsley in or around 1334, and later died in 1362 leaving two daughters.

The two girls were given as wards to Mary, Countess of Pembroke. Later, the holdings were split in two – one half to each heir and her husband. So the manor of Abbotsley remained split for several centuries.

On one side of the split, Abbotsley descended to the Earls of Bedford. Alice Sapcote, the heir, was holder of the first half of the manor, and she married three times.

First, John Broughton of Bedfordshire. The couple had four children: John, Katherine, Anne and another daughter. John died in 1518.

Second, Sir Richard Jerningham. They sadly had no children. Richard died in 1525.

Third, John Russell, first Earl of Bedford. They married in 1526, and had one son: Francis. Francis was born in 1527.

Anne and John had a long marriage, and they outlived many of the children from her first marriage, including son and heir John. This meant that Francis became the heir not only to the Earldom of Bedfordshire, but also to Abbotsley.

In 1555 Earl John died, and Francis became Earl. After his mother Anne died, he also inherited her half of Abbotsley. He does not seem to have been interested in the village, however, and sold his half to Nicholas Luke, baron of the exchequer, in 1561.

As for the other half of the manor, this went to one George Turpin, who sold it to Nicholas Luke in 1553. So the two halves of the manor would be reunited.

Let’s go back in time a little bit before we continue the history of the Lukes. In 1230, a second family is recorded as having a holding in Abbotsley – the Scots. The name hints at another Scottish connection, and their residence was Scot’s Manor. They were probably initially feudal tenants of the Earls of Huntingdon.

The Scots also had links to Bedfordshire, since the border was close by. In 1416 the holder, Robert Scot, died. He had a daughter, Elizabeth, but she did not inherit Scot’s Manor and it instead went to one Eustace Valdrian and his wife Rose. After Eustace and Rose died, the manor was split between their three daughters: Alice, Elizabeth and Jane. Elizabeth and her husband John lived at Abbotsley until in 1470 it was granted to Queens’ College, Cambridge. At least as recently as 1927 the college still held land there.

Luke Family to the present (1561 – today)

I sadly don’t have a lot of information on Nicholas Luke, save that he died in 1562 or 1563. As a baron of the exchequer, he was a judge in revenue disputes and cases of ‘equity’ (These were separate from common law cases, often being used where the common law was seen as harsh or inflexible. Equity cases looked at the spirit of the law, rather than the letter.).

Nicholas’s son John died not much later, in 1566, and his property – mainly in Bedfordshire but also including Abbotsley – went to Nicholas Luke II, who was around thirteen years old. The total land value was around £182, or around £80,000 today.

Young Nicholas became ward to Thomas Marbury, serjeant of the pantry to Queen Elizabeth. I’m not certain what the serjeant of the pantry did, but it seems to have been involved with running the royal household.

Nicholas married Margaret, the daughter of the first Baron St John of Bletso. Now Bletso we will get to in its course, but for now let’s just say this was a very good match. They had a number of children together including his heir Oliver, another son Thomas, and daughters Anne, Judith and Katherine.

After a long life, which included representing Bedfordshire in parliament, Nicholas died in 1613, and Oliver became the new head of the Luke family.

Oliver Luke married Elizabeth Knightley in 1599. She was heiress to Sir Valentine Knightley, a wealthy man. They had children together, but she did not live long and left Oliver a widower. Valentine did not forget his son-in-law, and when he died he gave money and lands to his Luke grandchildren.

Oliver had trained as a lawyer at the Middle Temple, which we’ve mentioned before as being one of the only four English institutions able to create barristers. He regularly engaged in litigation on behalf of his relatives which left him in some debt when the Civil War began. For instance he prevented his sister from running off and marrying one of the servants, and charged the man with abducting her. This might have been Katherine, since Nicholas Luke’s will suggests that she was unmarried.

He was also politically minded, and was a Member of Parliament first for Bedford (in 1597), and then for his father’s old constituency Bedfordshire between 1614 and 1640. This was the time of King Charles I, whose relationship with Parliament was notoriously bad. He was constantly trying to get new representatives to support him, and when that didn’t work went over a decade trying to get by without them.

Religion was very important at the time, and Oliver seems to have been a fairly conformist and Puritan man. In Parliament he took a hard-line anti-Catholic stance, drafting a petition to tighten the penal laws in 1621 and 1625. He also was included in a delegation to the king urging the rejection of Armenianism (a form of Christianity in opposition to Calvinism which the Puritans wholeheartedly believed) in 1629.

In 1626 King Charles I was getting desperate for money. Parliament had refused to grant him permission for a tax, again, so he’d written to his subjects to “lovingly” ask them to pay him money from the goodness of their own hearts. Unsurprisingly this failed.

Instead, the king issued a Forced Loan. Anyone who didn’t pay would be subject to the Privy Council, and Charles got £250,000 (about £26 million) in this way. But Oliver and his cousin Beauchamp St John were among seventy six gentlemen and the Earl of Lincoln who refused to pay, and they were imprisoned without charge in 1627.

This was only for a short time, and the men were soon released; Charles didn’t want to bring a court case against them in case the judges decided the Forced Loan was illegal. Five of the gentlemen (though not Oliver or Beauchamp) were not satisfied, and brought a writ of habeas corpus against the king. Habeas corpus basically means you have to have a reason to arrest someone. However, it was accepted back then that the king was allowed to imprison someone without cause, so the judges backed the king, their case failed and they got thrown back into jail.

The people were not happy about this. They saw the situation as not only a waste of the money the king had collected, but also as a misuse of the king’s right to arrest someone without cause. In their opinion it should only be used for cases of conspiracy, not for respectable men who didn’t pay an extraordinary levy. It was one more nail in Charles I’s coffin.

In 1642, the people finally snapped, and rose up in Civil War – Parliament versus Monarchy. Oliver backed Parliament, and called Bedfordshire in favour of his fellow Puritan Oliver Cromwell. He spent most of the war in Westminster, and died in 1651 before it ended. At some point in his life he had been knighted, and the knighthood passed down to his eldest son, Sir Samuel Luke.

I want to be careful not to go too far down the Luke family, as I can’t see much record of them spending time at Abbotsley. At some point, however, there was a new landholder in the Pym’s, and one Frederick W Pym inherited the manor here in 1928.

Today, Abbotsley manor is now a hotel and a series of golf courses. It was bought in 1986 by British Women’s Open champion Vivien Saunders, for use as a national training centre.

Next time, we’re off to Abbots Morton, as we return to Worcestershire.



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