Episode 25 – Abbots Morton, Worcestershire

We travel this week to Abbots Morton, in the east of Worcestershire and close to the border with my home county of Warwickshire. The last time we were in Worcestershire we visited Abberton, and Abbots Morton is just a couple of miles north-east of there.

It is a quiet, picturesque, rural location, with a smattering of farms, houses, and a church. The name “Morton” comes from “More” meaning marshy, and “Tone” meaning settlement. And “Abbots” goes all the way back to the earliest records, when in 708 it was granted to the Abbey of Evesham (eve-sham).

Evesham Abbey

Evesham Abbey was a Benedictine Abbey, founded back in 701 about a hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons first began to convert to Christianity. It is said that the Bishop of Worcester had locked shackles round his feet and thrown the key into the River Avon at Evesham. Later, when he came to Rome, the key was found there in the body of a fish. The Bishop returned to Evesham and bought the land, then saw a vision of the Virgin Mary who urged him to found a monastery there.

Evesham was granted a lot of land all around the local area, including at Abbots Morton. In time the village’s manor house would become a country residence for the abbots.

In 1066 the Abbey still held onto the land, and it was home to nine households – a fairly small place – but it was worth quite a lot in tax. Most of the households were free, rather than in servitude to a lord. The name of the abbot then was Ethelwig, who became a counsellor to kings including Edward the Confessor, Harold, and William the Conqueror.

After Ethelwig died, Walter of Cerisy in Bayeux became the new abbot, and it was he who was in charge during the Domesday survey in 1086. The survey also shows that Odo of Bayeux, King William’s half-brother, had seized a lot of land from the abbey for himself during the Conquest.

During the thirteenth century there was a long dispute between the monks of Evesham Abbey and the bishops of Worcester. The bishops claimed jurisdiction over the abbey’s holdings, while the monks claimed that the deans of the area were biased against them. It seems the deans favoured the bishops, and were handing over the regular collections not to the abbey but to the bishops instead.

A resolution was made that the deans would now be subject to the abbey, and the abbey could remove them from office at any time. In addition, bishops and archdeacons of Worcester were now forbidden from all Evesham Abbey property, and could not be allowed in for any reason.

But in 1208 the legal process was halted due to a Papal Interdict over England. This was caused by the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1205. The Canterbury monks had selected a successor from their own ranks, while King John selected someone else. Pope Innocent III disliked both candidates, and he arranged for his own choice, Stephen Langton, to be anointed archbishop in 1207.

John was fuming, and he threw out both the Canterbury monks and Langton. In response Innocent issued the interdict, and in 1212 commissioned the King of France to invade England and remove John from the throne. John was only saved by submitting to papal authority, and in 1214 the Interdict was lifted.

But the long period of Interdict had left the issue of the bishops’ authority over Evesham Abbey’s holdings at the bottom of the pile. It took until 1269 to finally resolve, and eventually the bishops would have authority over just one of Evesham Abbey’s villages – Abbots Morton.

After The Dissolution

The abbey of Evesham was dissolved in 1538, and its land passed into the ownership of the crown. King Henry VIII liberally distributed these lands to his favoured servants, and although it was difficult to trace I have found that Abbots Morton went to Sir Philip Hobby, a knight of Queen Catherine Parr. Catherine was Henry’s sixth wife, and the only one who would outlive him.

Back at our very first tour stop of Abberley we met Sir Walter Walshe, member of the Privy Council and husband of Elizabeth Stonor. Walter and Elizabeth’s children would inherit at Abberley after his death, while she would marry Philip Hobby. This was Elizabeth’s third marriage, and would have given her desperately-needed support since her first husband William Compton had failed to keep his will updated. Philip and Elizabeth did not have any children.

Philip died in 1558, and his heir was his brother Thomas. Thomas and his wife had four children, the two girls dying young but the two boys living long lives. Thomas himself didn’t live very long, and died in 1566 when his eldest son, Edward, was just six years old.

Luckily for Edward his wardship was purchased not by some distant lord but by his own mother. He had plenty of income from his inherited lands, and was well-travelled across Europe. But he ended up getting into some legal issues around his Evesham manor, and sold his land to his uncle Richard (Philip and Thomas’s youngest brother).

In 1597 Richard’s daughter, Elizabeth, would marry Sir Philip Kighley, and they would be granted residence at Abbots Morton amongst various other places her father owned. They were both each others’ second spouses, and had three daughters together.

Philip Kighley became MP for Evesham in 1604, and was involved in a few parliamentary committees. During his life he got into a lot of financial trouble, and when he died in 1605 he owed £6,400 to the crown. He hadn’t made a will, and his personal estates went to his first wife’s brother.

But since Abbots Morton was not in Philip’s estates, Elizabeth still held onto the land there. She went on to marry Charles Ketilby, and the couple sold their manors at Badsey and Abbots Morton to John Ketilby and John Hopkins.

Eventually the manor would become part of the lands of the Throckmorton family, whose principal seat was at Coughton Court nearby. They were large landholders in the area.

Modern Abbots Morton

During World War One, Abbots Morton suffered relatively lightly and only one member of the village failed to return from the conflict. This was Private Philip Collins, who had fought in Mesopotamia.

In World War Two, every man who set out from Abbots Morton returned safely to the village after the conflict ended. In fact, the village gained in population with the arrival of the Land Girls. The Land Girls (more correctly the ‘Womens Land Army’) helped to support British agriculture during the war years when the men were sent out to the front to fight. Women set out from the cities to the countryside to work on the farms. This was even more important since Britain could no longer rely on importing food from other countries.

One of those Land Girls was Dorothy Kennedy, who loved Abbots Morton so much that she stayed on after the war ended and became the village postmistress. Her cat Lucky foiled an attempted burglary on the post office in 1981, which made him a national hero. Lucky was given a bravery award and appeared on legendary children’s television program Blue Peter along with his owner. Sadly he was run over by a car just a few months later. Dorothy herself was an active participant in village life, and lived until the age of 95, in 2008. There is a bench on the village green dedicated to her memory.

The village had been left in a bit of a state during the start of the 20th Century, and it became known as ‘Muddy Morton’. But conservation efforts began in the 1970s with properties becoming owned individually, and now it is known as ‘Worcestershire’s Golden Gem’.

Sadly there is no longer a village shop or post office, but the village hall was recently rebuilt to become one of the two focal points of village life alongside St Peter’s Church.

Next time, we return to Cambridgeshire and take a look at Abbots Ripton, home to some very interesting characters throughout the years.


References

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