TO JUDGE the full significance of Newport Pagnell in the English Civil War many historians advocate going back to the Norman Invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066.
When those occupying Frenchmen insisted on knowing all the most notable places of their newly won kingdom, Neuport (probably meaning a ‘new market’) was one of only three towns in the fabled Doomsday Book of 1087 that were recognised as significant centres of trade in Buckinghamshire.
People were drawn to it because the River Ouse (then as now one of the longest rivers in England) was fordable there and because, with its tributary the Ouzel (aka the Lovat), the confluent waters had created a fertile valley rich with crops and pastures and shady woodlands filled with birds and game.
Fulk Paganell, presumably one of William’s conquering knights, gave his name to the town and founded a priory nearby called Tykeford which he gifted to the abbey of Marmonstier at Tours across the Channel.
Later, when his grandchildren became involved with the place, his grandson Gervase took responsibility for it along with a clutch of other lands in the Midlands, and his granddaughter persuaded her husband’s family the deSomerys to build a castle at the northern end to give the inhabitants protection on a vantage point high on a knoll of Oxford Clay which overlooked the valley.
What also made the town attractive was the proximity of several Roman roads.
Little more than cart tracks or narrow bridleways in those medieval days, they were nevertheless the only semi-paved, all-weather roads and they were then, as now, some of the most important in the country. Watling Street, the Fosse Way and Ermine Street were routes leading from London northwards to the distant principalities of Wales and Scotland and all brought substantial trade and travellers conveniently close to the town of Newport Pagnell.
There was also traffic of a quite different kind passing through Newport laterally along the Akeman Street and Icknield Way combination which offered a viable route from the south-west through Oxford and across Middle England’s green acres to Cambridge and East Anglia.
This Akerman/Icknield route is mostly overgrown and forgotten today, but it was then an historic ‘pilgrims way’ favoured by clergy, academics and theologians travelling between the two university cities – and it was undoubtedly due to some of those who followed this trail that Newport would gain its reputation for independent worship and radicalism which led to its receptiveness for being turned into a stronghold of the Parliament’s Puritan/Protestant army.
Those Reformers included the 14th century, russet-gowned and bare-footed lollards (travelling preachers) of Bishop John Wycliffe, master of Balliol, Oxford; John Harley and Lawrence Humphrey, both apparently born in Newport, who championed the Protestant cause during the 16th century; large numbers of Huguenot and Flemish religious refugees who followed in their tread; and latterly by Rev John Gibbs, the town’s Puritan priest during most of the Cromwellian years.
Not surprisingly, as the centuries passed, Neuport Paganell’s prominence continued to grow.
Well served by the various thoroughfares for travel and trade, the town enjoyed a rising prosperity and reputation. It was one of only a few towns allowed to mint its own money, it became a centre for courts, law and justice, the site of at least two hospitals and a commercial focus with goods and livestock markets.
The population was small by today’s standards, probably fewer than 1,500 in the town itself when the main part of this story begins, and a few more in hamlets in the neighbourhood including Sherington, Olney and Stoke Goldington.
Tykeford with its ancient priory was a separate settlement, as was Marsh End (now Caldecote Street/Willen Road), and Kickles (today’s Kickles Farm beyond Bury Field) where there had been evidence of population since Roman times.
Another outlying village which would come to have a profound effect on the town and its future was Grafton, just six miles or so to the north-west of Paganell and a pleasant couple of hours by horse across the valley of the meandering Ouse and the shadowy paths of Salcey Forest.
Few people outside of the immediate area in the 15th century would have heard of Grafton, but when the secret came out that Edward IV had wooed and married the commoner Elizabeth Woodfield there, it began a remarkable sequence of royal association with the village and vicinity that lasted for two centuries and would surely rank it alongside the royal estates of Balmoral or Sandringham today.
After the detail of their romance and marriage was eventually made public, Edward continued to visit the Grafton estate, which is wedged in the triangle between Hanslope, Stoke Bruerne and Hartwell and straddles the border of Buckinghamshire with Northamptonshire.
Essentially it was to see his wife and her family – but he also enjoyed hunting through the local woodland.
In those days, when hunting was judiciously enjoyed by the nobility as a bloodsport, there was uninterrupted excitement to be had for miles through the Whittlewood and Whaddon forests to the west around Bicester, Buckingham and Towcester, in the ancient Salcey Forest around Grafton and among the oaks and elms of Rockingham to the north.
Known under the general name of Bernwood, these areas of forest and woodland were conjoined in a region of exceptional hunting country which stretched from Oxford to Stamford. Rather like a forerunner to our Areas of Natural Beauty, Bernwood was designated a Royal Hunting Forest with keepers and wardens to look after it and the deer, boar, and wildfowl that lived within its boundaries.
When his turn came, Edward’s grandson Henry VIII continued both the hunting tradition and a love of Grafton. Indeed, he was even more passionate about it than his ancestor.
Henry bought the manor from the Woodville family in 1526 and was soon negotiating with his neighbours to enlarge the estate by 1,000 acres. And that was just the beginning. Next, he called in workmen to extend the house into a virtual palace which doubled up on the one hand as a hunting lodge and on the other as a mansion equally suitable for accommodating meetings of his Privy Council and receptions for visiting foreign ambassadors.
No doubt life with sport and fresh country air must have been a great antidote to the stuffiness of Court, and it wasn’t long before the King was taking an annual pilgrimage to Grafton, arriving every year towards the end of August and staying until early October.
At all events, as a mark of his great affection for the location, he commanded that ‘Regis’ (royal) be added to the village name, an appendage it possesses to this day.
And there was another reason why he liked to be at the Grafton estate. At first in secret, but later very openly, he was able to court Anne Boleyn, the mayor’s daughter from Aylesbury, for whom he made the momentous decision to divorce his first wife Katherine of Aragon and break with the Church of Rome.
That historic choice, made in consultation with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey at Grafton in 1529, was to have consequences that still reverberate today and certainly had a bearing on some of the extraordinary events which would follow in the local area, and indeed across the realm, in the Civil War.
With his enormous entourage (he once it is said, travelled with some 5,000 horses, 1,000 soldiers, most members of his Court and 200 tents and pavilions on a ‘progress’ from London to Grafton via Hatfield and Ampthill in 1540) Henry’s arrival in the area year after year would have brought a huge boost to trade in all the local towns of Towcester, Paganell and Northampton.
There does not appear to be any record of the king himself being seen in Paganell – but we do have an account of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, passing through the town on one of her own ‘progressions’ towards the end of the 16th century and it is also reported that she had been granted possession of Newport Manor and the mill at Little Linford in 1551.1
The fiery Queen, famous for her red hair and quick temper, did not share her father’s great passion for hunting or long visits to Grafton, but she did stay there on three occasions during her reign – in 1564, 1568 and 1575 – and she did share his love for leading her Court, servants and baggage train around the country on frequent hospitality trips to the great houses and families of the day.
Accounts tell of the extraordinary procession snaking slowly through the countryside, stretching for more than a mile and often with more than 1,000 courtiers and followers in her wake.
In some cases, it was said, loyal hosts were bankrupted by the cost of entertaining Queen Bess and her Court when she insisted on extending her stay.
Nevertheless, on this occasion in 1575, it seems probable that something of a smaller party accompanied Elizabeth on her short trip in the horseback procession from Grafton, crossing the Tove at the Castlethorpe Bridge, and then passing the great Manor of Gothurst (Gayhurst) just a couple of miles from Newport on the Northampton road.
Gayhurst’s foremost mansion, then owned by the Nevills, but soon passing into the hands of the Catholic Digby family, was visible to her on the eastern side although, as it happened, she did not plan to stop there that day.
Elizabeth could not then have had the slightest indication of it of course, but within another generation, Gayhurst and its handsome owner Sir Everard Digby would become the cause of a national sensation when he confessed to organising secret meetings of the Gunpowder Plotters there in the unsuccessful plan to blow up Parliament.
Neither could she have forseen that Sir Everard’s son John would fight gallantly, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to fend off a greatly superior force of Parliament’s men at Grafton Manor after a relentless three-day bombardment in the coming Civil War.
The flame-haired Queen, riding at the head of her entourage, would have looked magnificent in all her finery as the column swept on through Newport’s cobbled streets as the people crowded into doorways and hung from windows to watch the pageant pass by.
Perhaps, if it was a Saturday, a colourful market was being held in the main street just as it had been every week for centuries. And perhaps, as she had probably heard from her ladies-in-waiting lately, there would have been much fine lace wear on show, painstakingly created by new Dutch and Flemish settlers from the so-called Low Countries of Europe who had brought new crafts and cultures to the town, new kinds of vegetables and some challenging new Protestant ideologies.
Again, it would not be many years hence when some of those Dutch immigrants showed skills of a different kind – like how to build earthworks and flood protection systems similar to those in Holland, to turn Newport into a viable fortress.
But how would Queen Elizabeth have known that?
That day, after riding out of town on the eastern side she headed her procession towards North Crawley, about three miles away, where her party was eagerly awaited at the Grange, another local mansion of considerable splendour and which was built for Cardinal Wolsey so he could be near his King at Grafton.
So far, three monarchs, Edward, Henry and Elizabeth, had come to know and enjoy the benefits of this unheralded corner of North Buckinghamshire with its royal estate across the adjacent county border.
And there were two more still to come.
Initially it would be James (James I of England and VI of Scotland), Elizabeth’s godson.
James was nearly 40 before Elizabeth’s death took him to the throne of England in 1603 and there is much good evidence to show that he, like his predecessors, also knew the Newport area extremely well.
Within a couple of years he presumably felt deep shock when learning that Everard Digby and the Gunpowder Plotters had been meeting at Gayhurst, just outside the Grafton Regis estate, while making plans to blow up both Parliament and him while he was opening the new session in 1605.
But there are credible records to show that he visited the Grafton estate regularly thereafter (typically every two years) from 1608 to 1616 inclusive, often staying at the house with the Duke of Lennox his cousin, or George Villiers subsequently the Duke of Buckingham, and no doubt enjoying their company and friendship while being far from the public gaze.
And there was another reason why the King could make useful advantage of Grafton’s obscurity. He would be close to the Buckinghamshire home of Henry Atkins, the royal family’s favourite physician.
James had suffered from poor health for most of his life so it would have been singularly fortunate that Dr Atkins should be on hand to treat him locally when the King continued to be dogged by various illnesses and bouts of depression brought on by the nation’s growing crisis of debt and his increasingly hostile conflicts with Parliament.
Records of those ‘house calls’ are naturally confidential, but it is very likely that Dr Atkins, President of the College of Physicians in most years from 1606 to 1625, would have been called on to treat the King at Grafton many times during his periods of convalescence and it is understood that the former Priory building at Tykeford plus its adjacent deer park2 all of which had continued to be held by the Crown estate since Henry VIII’s day – were gifted to him in exchange for his unpaid accounts.
In addition, less than a mile from the priory, there is an engraved beam extant on a property in St Johns Street which records the visit in 1615 of James’s consort, the Queen Anne of Denmark, as a founder of one of the town’s charitable hospitals with which Dr Atkins was associated.
It seems clear that Dr Atkins was not only one of the nation’s foremost authorities on medical matters, but he had also become a trusted friend of the Royal household. He is said to have ‘died rich’ in 1635, owning many properties in Newport3 as well as the Park at Tykeford.
Meanwhile, the money problems that so bedevilled James would now help to bring about the downfall of his son Charles. Dark clouds began to gather almost as soon as Charles had inherited the throne.
The Royal Purse was empty, sacrifices had to be made and as the new King became increasingly desperate he was forced to sell off national assets and personal treasures alike, among them the royal estate at Grafton – bought almost exactly 100 years before by his ancestor Henry VIII and now to be mortgaged for not very much to a family called Crane.4
Charles I, defying the people and sticking fast to his belief in the inalienable right of kings, was now a long way down the path that would lead to a momentous confrontation with Parliament, a war against his own subjects and eventually to his own summary execution.
How extraordinary then, that so many of the names and places which had taken such prominence in his family’s local history… Protestant pilgrims, the green fields of Middle England, Neuport Paganell, the Digby family, Grafton Regis, Tickford, Dr Atkins and Dutch engineers would now become so central to it all.
The beginning of the end for the King after whatever history would decide to call it – a Civil War, class struggle, religious conflict, or perhaps a combination of all three – began at Edgehill in 1642.
( 1 ) History and antiquities of the Newport Hundreds, Ratcliff. p223.
( 2 ) For more detail on the Tickford Deer Park see Bucks Gardens Trust (ref 5826)
( 3 ) Pastures at Newport called Bury Close, South Edge, Oxmead, Honey Lane and Bury Mead; the Manor and Lordship of Tickford, the Rectory of Newport Pagnell as well as the mansion or priory of Tickford – Ratcliff ibid p225
( 4 ) Grafton was bought by the royalist Sir Francis Crane in 1628. Also see The Siege of Grafton House in Chapter 5